Home in the Middle of the End of the World
Within that forty minute set, bodies and the precarious spaces that contain them function differently, outside of utility-driven purpose, beyond simple economic functionality.
My friends and I are tucked behind Massachusetts Avenue, the short arterial stretch between MIT’s chrome-slicked imaginary and Harvard’s ivied traditions. I and a mass of other bedraggled people slowly pour out of the Cambridge Elks Lodge or Hardcore Stadium as it’s otherwise known. We are dehydrated but ecstatic. The bruises are beginning to take shape, the tissue damaged and the blood coagulating under the layers of skin. We swallow the cold air around us and catch our breath as its own miracle.
We compare aches, popping our loose shoulders and rolling their blades, feeling the strength return to them under the glow of the street lamps. Above us, the cranes overhead are bright and still, frozen against the nearly finished shell of a building. Cambridge is changing in slow motion, and it’s all we talk about sometimes. The building’s insides stick out, looming over us and the other buildings on the street. Light shines through the new facade in concrete, metal, and wood.
Show Me the Body’s set at Hardcore Stadium begins with lilted fingerpicking, the bare preamble of what is to follow. As he stands level with the front of the crowd, the singer, Julian Cashwan Pratt gears up to shout in the face of his closest onlookers. I’m standing with my friends feeling the dull heat of the room, which settles thick in the dipped valleys of the crowd. I press a cold beer against my face for relief. The basement fills with slick anticipation as the crowd lumbers and sways with the building melody. The middle of the floor parts slowly, and we shift with the rising line of guitar. Skinny boyfriends offer protective arms in front of their dates, girls in corset tops, pierced noses, and the like. The room is full and the walls feel as if they also breathe. People stand on couches and alongside pillars, making use of what is available to them. Around me are a familiar crowd, their chewed-up t-shirts, threadbare jorts, long, smudged lines of makeup, popped veins, and crop tops making up their own tapestry. All of these styles have embedded legacies, and they reveal an amalgamation of historically-derived and market-driven subcultures in the dim light. It becomes difficult to tell if the guy standing next to you with a stick and poke etched on his knee just graduated high school or is actually just baby-faced with a Master’s degree in engineering. Regardless, the room begins its sweaty ritual, alchemically driven by a picking bass line.
BOSTON HC STADIUM WAS INSANE pic.twitter.com/sk9w8eENEJ— SHOW ME THE BODY (@showmethebody) May 23, 2019
Scattered among the crowd and working the door are people involved with BRAIN Arts, the booking non-profit I’ve volunteered for since 2016. In a city that fails to adequately support its artists, BRAIN Arts and other organizations like it have become steadfast organizers of shows like this. Show Me the Body is performing their new album, Dog Whistle, tonight, alongside support bands Symbiote and Junta. In the work is a deep agita regarding the gilded injustices of New York City, the band’s hometown, and the joy of its DIY (do-it-yourself) genre-bending scenes. In hip-hop influenced hardcore, the rhythms and shouted noise of Show Me the Body capture a surveilled, over-policed, and homogenizing landscape. By extension, they capture the predicament of so many cities in the U.S. and worldwide, where financiers, corporate landlords, and developers squeeze longtime residents tighter and tighter every day.
As “Camp Orchestra” builds, the crowd shudders, off-beat and eager to find a place to move. I’m pressed against the people around me and their sudden movements knock the air out of my lungs. As Pratt snarls into the microphone, we revel in our immobility - a maelstrom that can’t stop spilling beer all over itself. Pratt’s vocals are rough and muffled, as if he were spitting out phlegm or blood, “You’re like a dog without the teeth.” It’s a reality that’s implicit in the stretched t-shirts and threadbare cutoffs, signifiers of romanticized powerlessness. The crowd finds its step, and everyone moves with urgency, as if to prove his lyrics wrong.
Show Me the Body is a phenomenon, one that evokes images of kids climbing over each other at house shows in grainy cellphone footage. An image posted on their Instagram features three coffins, etched in ink on a bloodied thigh. This same design has been painted around abandoned buildings and dilapidated space; instructions provided by the band advise taggers to display the symbol in well-trafficked areas, “-XTRA POINTS FOR 10 FEET OR TALLER - IF YOU CAN PISS THERE IN THE DAYTIME IT AINT A GOOD SPOT.” In an interview from 2016 when their first album debuted, Pratt said, “If it sounds right I should wanna both fight to it and fuck to it.” Around this time, I was driving down some California freeway with an ex-boyfriend; true to Pratt’s criteria, we were sweat-soaked and screaming at each other while “Body War”, the titular track of that first album, blared in the background.
Though both their new and old records draw from a number of discrete cultural influences, the heart of the appeal is that their work is immediately felt rather than explained. Performance and gathering are manifesto, without the need for ideological hand-wringing, mental gymnastics, or plain declaration. The crowd here sweats and occasionally bleeds together. The affinity of the people in this crowd becomes that of the pulsing chemical. According to Pratt circa 2016, “Music doesn’t live on paper. To throw a good show in a giant city you have to play with your friends and the people you roll with. When you are born you make two pacts, one with the earth you stand on and the other with the humans you share the space with.”
Show Me the Body hosts Corpus, a collective of artists living in New York City, for both performances and collaboration. The artists involved reflect the musical and cultural diversity of the city, spanning the gamut of harsh noise to hip-hop and the genre in-betweens. Tonight’s audience is somewhat atypical of other hardcore or noise shows I’ve been to, as there are more of us with darker skin and faces seeing each other with quiet acknowledgement. I imagine that like me, my anonymous companions have felt both hyper-visible and unseen within a scene that tends to tread awkwardly and artificially around its racial politics. However, Show Me the Body has built an audience and a circle of collaborators unique to New York as it should be: naturally, rather than as a stilted requirement or zealous tokened selection.
I’d forgotten that there were still gold hoops in my ears; one scrapes down the hole in the lobe and tumbles to the floor. A man looming above me bends down and unfurls his arms, gentle and protective for a moment. I look for it between the dirty sneakers. Once I find it, I hold onto it in a sweaty grip, the hook at the back digging into my palm. By the time I am standing upright again my temporary guardian is gone, having thrown himself somewhere else. Once the pit has built itself up I lose my friends in its motion. In the meantime, Pratt spits venom at the actors eating up the city he grew up in. In “Drought,” cavernous development gulps down empty industrial space:
New York's the same / There's no water in LA
Desert to desert / It's dry below the bay
How do we get out from between the highways?
The band honors the city as it drains away, guzzled by forces beyond their control. New York City lost 11 million square feet of industrial space between 2007 and 2016 to make room for new housing and mixed use development. New York, Boston, and cities around the country mourn closed DIY spaces located in former industrial sites, often not fully licensed or formalized because of the financial burden in doing so. After the tragedy of Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire, securing safe and reliable spaces to work and perform in has become a true battle.
In “Forks and Knives” the industrial wail is suggestive of a hyper-modern ritual, in which the youth of this city and others find a clarion call home. The whiplashed turns have the feeling of a spiritual. They’re hardly ecclesiastical or Vedic for that matter, but their fury provokes some kind of collective participation in the crowd. This all reminds me of the Sanskrit chants I grew up praying in, a rising and falling tension on loop, heavy with its own imbued meaning.
Community is a word used carelessly in 2019. It is a rhetorical salve that substitutes for the hurts and embarrassments of twenty-first century life where people are subject to unrelenting material and psychological precarity. Within today’s lexicon, workplaces and adult dorms are passed off as communities, as are Meetup groups, college campuses, coffee shops, brand consumers, and social media platforms. However splintered and self-aggrandizing, quixotic and without clear ideological intent, DIY is a community. Beyond its rhetorical tenets, shows like this one become makeshift places of belonging, where attendees can find temporary communion without sacrifice. Some people at the show tonight will meet friends of friends or catch the eye of someone on the Elks Lodge’s concrete steps. Others will go home to parents, significant others, roommates, hookups, or to no one at all, satisfied with having felt a certain kind of togetherness during the show. Community is a glistening mirage, one made shimmering and immaterial by rising costs of living, a mobile and transient professional class, and the destruction of working class neighborhoods. There is beauty in nights like this, in the jostling bodies and split-second looks of recognition, the kind gestures offered during the show and the lingering hurts that accumulate afterwards.
The late scholar and activist Marshall Berman once described how it feels to look at oneself in the mirror and ask, “What have I got that I can sell?” A grotesque reality rests in these moments, one where body and soul are carved up piece by piece in a market of necessity. Berman was obsessed with the ways people made homes in a world whose rushing traffic, machines, and financial products seem to shape the skylines above and the livelihoods below incomprehensibly. In his own childhood neighborhood, a new expressway tore the Bronx asunder while intentional disinvestment allowed block after block to burn. Berman described the hip-hop of the Bronx’s Black and Latinx youth in the late 1970s and ‘80s as a bulwark.
He writes, “We can be home in the middle of the end of the world.” It is this ethos and legacy that Show Me the Body carries.
In “Madonna Rocket,” the chorus line begins, “When I meet someone that’s good I wanna die with them!” With this, everyone is screaming the lyrics and picturing someone they know. There is no clear utility in wanting to die with your friends after a certain age, nor in kissing strangers nor fighting with them in crowds. The desire to be overwhelmed with sensation and togetherness is a rote but precious ideal. It is a poetry that we, the overgrown children in this pit, cling to. To be moved is one thing, but to be bruised is a subversive and vital desire.
I catch sight of one of my friends who I hadn’t seen in a couple tracks. She is five feet tall and smiling in a split-open way. With her bangs askew, I see her twisting and tangling her small frame with the people around her, beautiful in her disarray. Another friend who looks more like the other members of the pit jostles around, covered in tattoos and over six feet tall. We hug after bumping into each other, as if this were a happenstance encounter on a street corner.
To my friends that do not come to these shows, I often joke that this is the only cardio I do, which isn’t actually true. I’m now 25 years old and my body has become less and less durable in the last year, far less forgiving than the smooth elastic of nineteen or even twenty-two. A boy who may be old enough to buy his own cigarettes or fight a war jumps up to crowdsurf, clinging to the broad shoulders of his friends. He arranges his body around the lifted arms. For him, I imagine this is rapture, in his reptilian sprawl. I’m reminded that while shows like this are warm and familiar for people like me, the younger people in attendance may be discovering their own sensibilities for the first time, stoking creative impulses, making friends, and formulating new ideas in the crowd. He fights for some kind of stability and kicks up, knocking against the light that hangs from the ceiling. It makes a noise that suggests it has broken. The kinetic force moving between the crowd and the band reminds me what bodies can be when they are not serrated by productivity or smoothed over by the sedative language of wellness.
At the end of the set I find my friend who pulls me up onto the couch at the side of the room. I slick the hair back from my face and sink down into the red cushions. My hands are gummy from the foundation I’ve sweated off, smeared black at the fingertips from eyeliner and mascara. I catch sight of people I’d made eye contact with throughout the show. Some of them nod at me in acknowledgement, recognizing me briefly. Though for only a rose-colored moment, it occurs to me that pits are part of what it means to love people in their sweaty and real forms, rather than as static, abstract, constructions.
Some nights later, I’m walking through Kendall Square, as I’ve done many times as a graduate student. This place is the most innovative square mile in all the world. It thrives on narratives, intellectual products, and at times, spin and gory images of the future. I’m full of nervous energy. The kind you get when you see the world's ugly wrought benchmarks inching ahead, while you stay fixed in the same place. It's probably some ungodly hour and the lights of Kendall Square are neon and muted, welcoming but perfectly controlled. The treadmills and ellipticals usually manned by Google employees are empty, bent black shadows against its signage. I feel the looseness of my limbs from the show, the blotchy purple stains against my legs and arms hidden by sleeves and black tights.
In every aching step, I’m reminded of the world as it is, and as it could be.