3 days, 51 Portland bands
Fri-Sat, April 27-30
A few weeks ago, it was freezing. I stood outside the Meow Meow smoking cigarettes with the all-ages club's director, Todd Fadel. An incoherent homeless man wandered up to us, mumbling through his long, grimy beard. He said something like, "I just want somewhere warm to die," and honestly, he looked like he might. I felt uncomfortable, and thought maybe I'd give him some money and send him on his way, but before I could, Fadel took him inside the club. The next thing I knew, the homeless man was sitting near a space heater and Fadel was giving him something warm to drink. Fadel then made a plea to the audience--a sparse group of younger kids that were waiting around to see the rock band Slackjaw--that if anyone had a place for the man to stay for the night, he'd be grateful. Most of the crowd just stared back at him, some chuckling to themselves, and others looking at the ground and shuffling their feet. I was thinking, "Holy shit--you are amazing, Todd," and also, "Holy shit--this kind of thing could be really bad for your business." Later, Fadel told me, "I'm not going to save every homeless person in Portland, but if someone comes to my door, I'm not going to turn him away."
There are a couple points to this story. One is that Todd Fadel's heart is made of the purest ivory. The second is that Todd Fadel is naive. He's complicated. And, as one of the leaders of the supposedly fractured local music scene, Todd has a mission.
This weekend's Meow-A-Thon is an event that marks Meow Meow's first anniversary, and is a testament to the aforementioned Fadel characteristics. The idea of Meow-A-Thon is to bring all different genres of bands from Portland's thriving music landscape and unite them. (Meow-A-Thon's tag line is, "There has been too much talk about the musicians in Portland being clique-ish. It's time to prove that you're not one of them.") Initially, it's an idea that must be met with skepticism. For all the incredibly talented bands in this town, uniting them is like trying to marry the jocks and the greasers. Is it very likely that diehard, cock-rockin' Rick Bain and the Genius Position fans are going to go ga-ga for the bossa nova pop of Blanket Music? Yeah, right. But as Fadel sees it, how do we know that for sure? Maybe they will.
Communities vs. Scenes
For the purpose of this article, we will attempt to reach a universal definition of the idea of a Scene, capital S. A Scene is a clique of people, united by their art, beliefs, or hairdos. A Scene is not all-inclusive, and is often detested by those people who feel disenfranchised from said Scene. It is also a paradox: Often, people involved in Scenes don't actually believe they're involved in a Scene--they don't feel like they're exclusive in any way. Maybe both camps are right.
"I just want to see people--not agree with each other--but really appreciate each other," explains Fadel. "I feel that to a certain degree, in a 'scene,' the only thing that really matters is what you look like to others. Now, in a 'community,' what matters is relationship. What kills communities are scenes. I want to see a pop band looking at a punk band and going, 'I see where you're coming from,' or 'I think that it's important you're here.' Regardless if they relate to each other or not. 'You're a musician and it's important that you're here.' That's it."
Admittedly, the community that Meow-A-Thon would bring about is limited: You won't see an all-encompassing, every-genre-must-unite totalitarianism; you won't see reggae bands playing alongside math rockers. For the most part, Fadel has gathered a sampling of the local acts that have kept Meow Meow alive--a sampling that represents a newer, younger school of Portland musicians. Genres span from punk and hardcore to indiepop to scummy blues. He has, however, brought the old and new schools together--folky songwriters Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan are on the same bill as the ass-ripping, jagged rock of Made for TV Movie; coy crooner Matthew Hattie Hein will play alongside the hardcore of Berzerk and the experimental Mome Raths. Fadel explains, "Never before, I think, have the old and new, the misunderstood, the popular, the raw, the polished people all come together in one place and said, in effect, 'We're all part of the city, and please support everything in this town, not just what you like.'" When asked if he thinks that this places community over the quality of music, Fadel says, "Yeah. 'Cause I think that bands will come and go. But the mindset of the town has to change. Now, a handful of people come out to a handful of shows, and people who are genuinely amazing artists are completely underappreciated in their own town."
Although he touts appreciation over agreement, Fadel feels passionately that the existence of a Scene in Portland is preventing its community from really cultivating itself. He says, "You know how there's kind of a fine line between something that's boring and something that's misunderstood? I don't think people who are in the 'scene' really know the difference. They could come see a band like The Places or Urban Legends and totally write it off, without seeing Hutch and Kathy's [Harris and Foster, from Urban Legends] hearts, not seeing Corrina Repp's heart, not seeing Jeff London's heart. And that's part of the whole thing about not embracing community--they can just write it off from the standpoint of 'It doesn't do anything for me.' It goes back to the 'scene'--it's all about 'me' and what it does for 'me.' Or, 'What does everybody else think of this?' The Scene is about you and what other people think of you. And I'm just not interested in being a part of perpetuating that mentality anymore. It's just stupid."
Meow Sweet Meow
Though in business for only a year, Meow Meow has already helped cultivate the regeneration of the popularity of local music, both by creating a safe place for minors to go (much to the chagrin of liquor lovers), and by making a place where musicians feel secure in the knowledge that they're not going to get shafted. But Fadel wants more. "The whole gist of Meow Meow is that we're offering an alternative to normal clubs where you go in, sit down, see a show and leave," says Fadel. "We're like, 'Look, we want you to be a part of this.' And people are going to opt to do it or not, depending on their comfort level. I just don't think I've ever seen a venue really set out to do that. Except for the X-Ray Café [venerated all-ages venue of the early '90s]. And even with that, I think the community was almost there to begin with, and the X-Ray was just a catalyst, the thing that brought it all together."
Bringing people together was also one of the main tenets of Jesus Christ And did we mention that, during the day, the Meow Meow also doubles as a church space? "I do the music directing for them. It's a church that takes everything that anyone's ever known about Christianity and makes them re-evaluate what's important about it. It's about family and community. The Bridge is very much about saying, 'Let's cut the shit.' It's communicating with God passionately through all kinds of art forms; we have dancers, poets, musicians, from all backgrounds." One of The Bridge's purposes is to help abused and disenfranchised kids get off the streets, and the majority of its congregation is young and hip--many of them pierced, blue- or green-haired, spiky punk rockers. Regardless of Fadel's Christian leanings, don't worry--he won't be trying to convert you anytime soon, nor will he be ousting secular bands. "For me, any artistic expression is valid, even if a band's name is 'Kill All Christians,' or something. The only thing that's not embraced [at Meow Meow] is something that's like, 'Fuck you, I'm going to do whatever I want to you.' For instance, if a band came in and said, 'It's okay to abuse women,' or children, or anybody, that's not allowed." In return, Fadel expects the same respect towards his beliefs. "As far as talking about The Bridge, if the conversation goes that way, I'll talk about it, but I don't have the right to bring it up. But I wouldn't be surprised if somebody out there was just like, 'You're full of shit'--and they have that right."
We Are the World
While Todd Fadel's Grand Plan is beautiful, I still have reservations. I would love for every band to come together and unite as one, skipping through Forest Park and singing "We Are the World," but honestly, I don't think it will happen. First of all, by the nature of Scenes (as defined earlier), no matter how hard we all try to unite as one, there will still be people who feel like outsiders, and see Portland musicians as a bunch of cool hipster fucks. And those very same "cool hipster fucks" will be thinking, "I'm just a dork who sits in my studio apartment all day practicing guitar. I don't even bathe." The Mercury has a filing cabinet full of letters about this very subject; letters from people who think we are a bunch of cooler-than-thou, hipster jerks who have orgasms over our own irony. And in reality, we think of ourselves as a bunch of geeks. I mean, I'm reading Clan of the Cave Bear, for god's sake. Scenes are all about perception and point of view.
I guess that's what Fadel is trying to combat--the idea that anyone would feel excluded. And while I may take it all with a grain of salt, I'm still glad he's doing it. Without people like him--people with a vision, a dream, a never-ending wellspring of hope--art in this town, and art itself, would dry up. Todd Fadel might seem naive, but it's a quality that's easy to appreciate.