29 Nov, 16

No Silver Lining

I haven’t taken psychedelic drugs for many years, but for the past several weeks I’ve had the same feeling I would get in the first hour after ingesting mushrooms. If you’ve never had the experience, allow me to explain: the immediate effect is confusion. You’ve poisoned yourself, and no matter how many times you’ve done it before, your body and brain contort as they try to cope with this turbulent, if temporary, new reality. Before any enjoyable aspects kick in, there is a scary state of bewildered sickness that you must accept. Your skin crawls. Your mind races. You feel like you want to vomit. This is all exactly how I have felt since the election. Confused, frightened, and sickened.

In mid-October, The Thermals came out of our self-imposed hiatus to rehearse for a pair of shows in New York, at the newly re-opened Brooklyn Bazaar. We were sifting through our back catalog, opting to play more deep cuts from our older records as opposed to just the hits, most of which are on The Body, The Body, The Machine, our best loved LP. The album confronts themes of war, religious extremism, and the dangers of combining church and state. We had been playing tracks off the record at our shows all year — 2016 was the 10 year anniversary of its release — and I was ready to put it to bed for a while. Like many decent Americans, I was expecting, and looking forward to, a Hillary Clinton victory in this year’s run for the White House. On the eve of the election, The Body’s lyrics of death and destruction no longer felt relevant to me.

Then Trump won, and once again they were all too relevant. Although our President-elect is as godless and amoral as they come, it didn’t stop him from winning millions of votes from so-called Christians all over the country. I say so-called because there are many people who claim to be Christians and preach love, but so often practice hatred and intolerance. If you call yourself a Christian and you voted for Trump, with his unceasing message of bigotry, you are nothing but a hypocrite. What would Jesus do? He sure as hell wouldn’t vote for Trump. Christ would weep for his lost followers, who use his good name to support everything he fought against.

At our last practice before leaving for New York, I spoke with Kathy and Westin about the election and about The Body, The Blood, The Machine. Our fans would be expecting us to play songs from it at the upcoming shows, especially now that our terrifying 10-year-old vision of the future was starting to look less like fiction and more like a heartbreaking reality. I still didn’t want to play the record, but for different reasons. I didn’t want to reward myself, or my fans, for allowing Donald Trump to get elected. I didn’t want to profit off a national tragedy, and I didn’t want to enjoy myself in spite of it. I had the same conversation with my friend Hannah, who understood my point, and summed it up succinctly: There should be no silver lining.

The Thermals landed at JFK Thursday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the election. I had not been looking forward to traveling so soon after the election. I felt more than just defeated; I felt ashamed of my country, and scared for my brothers and sisters, as many good people are now feeling here, and around the world. But we were heading into friendly territory: New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly to elect Clinton. Of course they did! They know Trump better than anyone. They know what a heartless con man he is. The fact that Trump didn’t carry his home state speaks a huge truth to his character and history. New York knows how awful he is, and the entire country will soon know as well.

On Friday afternoon, we took a walk around Brooklyn. It was a crisp, cold day. The sun was shining in the sky, leaves blowing in the wind. I was glad we had traveled to New York, and it felt good to be outside, in the living world. We passed a storefront, where a small group of black women were painting. It appeared they were taking a class, all depicting the same simple skyline. The scene was cozy, and a positive energy was vibrating from the building. They turned to us, smiled and waved. We waved back.

The people in American society who are marginalized, ignored, or outright hated for their color, creed, or sexual orientation — those who have the least — often have the best attitudes. They are more attuned to the harsh realities of the world and know better ways to cope with it. Those who have everything seem to never be satisfied. It’s not enough for Trump to be a billionaire; he needs to be President, too. At 70, he could just be enjoying his family, and his money, in the twilight of his life. He has it all and is still unsatisfied. Trump wears the most expensive, shiniest new boots. But they mean nothing to him if they’re not pressed upon the neck of someone who has nothing.

When we took the stage Saturday night at the Brooklyn Bazaar, there were no songs from The Body, The Blood, The Machine on the setlist. Kathy made a heartfelt speech before we started playing. We had to address the election. If we hadn’t, there would have been an enormous elephant in the room, blocking everyone’s view. Kathy’s voice trembled a little as she conveyed how sad, angry, and scared she was feeling and how she resolved to be more politically active, locally and nationally. I talked about how I’m still waiting for the shrooms to kick in.

We opened the show with “Faces Stay With Me” and “The Howl of the Winds,” two of our songs that are apolitical, but had been gloomily cathartic for us when we were rehearsing. It felt good to play them, but something still didn’t feel right. We huddled for half a minute on stage. I suggested we play “Here’s Your Future”, the first track from The Body, The Blood, The Machine. It’s what our fans wanted, and what they needed. It was why they, and we, were there that night.

Kathy and Westin agreed. We played the entire album, start to finish, unplanned and unrehearsed. Then we did it again the next night. It wasn’t easy. The songs are heavy and draining, physically and emotionally. We worked like we were building a wall of our own — one made of power chords, cymbal smashes and sweat — to keep out bigotry and hatred. Many people in the crowd sang along, and I felt a real kinship with the audience. It was purgative for us, and them. We were all communicating to each other. We all knew how terrible the world was at that moment, and how much worse it may get. But we were there for each other, and music was there for us all. I felt grateful that we were able to provide some small amount of relief to people we love, people who are on our side. Far from a silver lining, it felt more like a Band-Aid on a massive head wound.

That weekend, I was reminded that if there is one thing we still have control over, it is our art. We may have allowed Trump to become President, but that doesn’t mean he gets to write our set list. I was also reminded that songs can be so much more than entertainment. They can evoke the most powerful emotions inside of us, at times when we feel brittle and broken. They can be cleansing, at times when we feel we will never be clean again. Most importantly, songs are absolutely unbreakable. They are powerful tools that we will continue to use in an never-ending battle against fascism.

By Hutch Harris, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

Image by Nathaniel Shannon, distributed under the CC-BY creative commons license.

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