Gazette About Books Archives
The Thaddeus Gazette



There's an old joke in the best of tonedeaf families: Q: What instrument do you play? A: I play the heck out of the radio.

Because I am a musician, I prefer production to reproduction. It's a failing, I know. After all, what's more American than giant record companies realizing billions in profits on the backs of exploited artists? Mea culpa.

But because I am an electronic musician, I'm also a big fan of creative, localized reproduction, circuitry attached directly to amplification, controlled by a living breathing auteur of sound. Less preferred but still within the bounds of decency is the reproduction of samples, prerecorded snippets of real sounds played back in real time, again under the direction of an actual person actually.

But stretch this particular thread a wee tad farther and it strums and threatens to snap. People who program recordings — DJs, turntablists, remixers and the like — are conceivably definable as actual musicians, especially the more inventive ones. People who play the radio are consumers.

And this is where the boombox barks its harsh, distorted entry into the conversation.

A key characteristic of the public space is what a cohort decides belongs there. Puritans can't stomach any public festivities, while hedonists rebuke anything but. Introverts crave peace and tranquility, extroverts want it all to go to 11. And while the loud crowd might be discomfited at the curbing of their enthusiasm, it's just not feasible to have a space both loud and quiet, and quiet becomes the default.

Naturally, when different cohorts inhabit the same public space, disagreements arise. To put it gently. Many many people enjoy listening to loud music in public. Many many more do not. But in this case, the default is frequently superseded by what might be termed low-level sonic aggression. Despite one's desire for at least a vote on what level of background noise is permitted in the environment, a loud boombox is both a definitive cultural assertion, whether it's blasting rock, soul, hiphop, country, latin or Vietnamese court music, and damn hard to argue over and be heard.

As a high-functioning introvert (curious for a performer, I know), I fall solidly on the less-is-more side of the big noise spectrum. My soul wears a t-shirt that says "4' 33" is my jam." For me, an innocent boombox grinding out Proud Mary is the moral equivalent of smoking in a restaurant: there's no such thing as a no smoking area anymore than there's a no peeing side of a swimming pool, and the same holds for sound. I've been kept indignantly awake at night by the faint (or not so faint) strains of car radios down the block. Wha help me if a neighbor decides to throw a party.

Which is why it's so much more paradoxical that I've worked the past twelve or so years as an independant contractor for the Seattle City Parks Department Buskers In The Parks program, rocking whatever musical instruments I care to bring thru a Roland Street EX amplifier, essentially a boombox on steroids, specifically to lay claim over space in parks that have been determined to be at risk of being overrun by undesirables, be they drug sellers, drug users or just the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and camp free in the bushes. This isn't just theory or predilection for me, this is my gig, providing low-level sonic aggression in service to the state. Can't say I'm proud or ashamed — we all have to eat, and at least it's a job in my profession. But it puts me smack up against and solidly in opposition to the frazzled busted souls stuck on the street.

Truth to tell, 99% of them are harmless enough, or have the sense Wha gave a goose not to mess with The Man's frivolous minions. For the first several years of the program, we of the busker brigade were sent out bareback, sandwich boards to proclaim our function but no support except an occasional dropby from an actual employee. But the homeless problem, far from abating, only metastasized in that time, and eventually the city started assigning concierges to man info booths and ostensibly watch our butts.

None of us on this unspoken front line have any serious conflict resolution training, and the basic rule is to leave if you don't feel safe. If the crazy person is marching back and forth in front of you screaming at ghosts, say. I've had a few close shaves but nothing that became physical, although having a homeless person vituperate my musical talents at close quarters before a burly park ranger ran him off was more than enough for me, thank you.

Most of the time, the infestations being what they are, the homeless desperados are my best audience. Sometimes, if it's tourist season and the tides are right, some righteous citizen will take an interest in my varied and various melodic tinkerings. But Jesus was right: the poor we will have always with us.

Recently, though, I've seen (and heard) a troubling new development. Boomboxes had their heyday in the 70's and 80's, the Carwash years, portable sound systems providing the party on many an arid urban street corner. But then came the Walkman, and earbuds, and ways to listen to music without being censured for being too loud. Private players took a big bite out of the boom market. Smart phones and internet streaming and headphones as a fashion statement were just afterthoughts. For a decade or more the boombox lay dormant, dreaming in its lair in deep water.

And then there was Bluetooth, and Bluetooth said, Let there be speakers. And behold, there were speakers. Pretty damn loud ones, some of them.

It is no longer an especially rare occurrence for me to be playing in a park when a derelict with a shopping cart trudges by spewing gangsta rap from a two-bit box buried in his crazy kipple.

The Boom Wars are coming. This will not end well.

Gazette | About | Books | Archives |