About Us

Contact Us


The Renegade Idealist

By Larrybob (larrybob@io.com)


June 6, 2003


Alabama Summer

I'm spending a couple of weeks in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm sure you're jealous. For the record, I'm not from Alabama and I've never lived here -- I grew up in Minnesota. I'm visiting my brother and sister-in-law. Both of them work the swing shift, so I'm left to fend for myself in the evenings. I've been seeking out things to do by looking through the free weeklies, websites, flyers, and online events lists. In terms of electronic listings, the African-American community seems to have it more together, with a website and an email list aimed at "young urban professionals." The listings are fairly inclusive -- among the events listed are a Latin dance party and, should there be any doubt about Birmingham's growing cosmopolitanness, a monthly dance for young Indian-Americans.

The first Tuesday I decided to go to Phat Tuesdays, a weekly spoken word event at the High Note Lounge, a medium-sized bar with clean lines and a tin ceiling; it has various other events, including a goth night. The format of the night's show reminded me of San Francisco's Second Sundays at Storyville, with a DJ who plays parts of songs as transition in between the performers. It turned out that everyone besides me who read was black. There were a couple of whites hanging back by the bar and I'm not sure that they were there because of the event. There were slightly more men than women who read. There was a fair amount of rhymed love poetry. The women tended to read more political writing. Most people had their pieces by memory. Some people had strong country accents, which I have to listen to attentively to understand. There were some shout-outs to Ruben, recent winner of American Idol and hometown hero. There are billboards here with his name on them, and he was on the front page of the paper for days in a row. A display case has "205" area code shirts like Ruben wore on television. I talked some with the guy next to me, whose brother lives in Davis, California, and whom he's planning to visit to go to a reggae festival. When it came my turn to read, I read the part of my "Talking To Strangers" about the old guy on the bus. I got a pretty good response. Afterwards I got some handshakes and talked to people.

I decided to cap off my night with a visit to the Nick, the place in Birmingham where indie and punk bands play. It's basically a double-wide trailer with a concrete porch on the front. The t-shirts they sell call it "Birmingham's dirty little secret." The walls outside and in are covered with posters and staples from past posters. There were less than two dozen people there when I arrived, most white and about my age. There's a two-foot high stage at one end of the long room, pool tables at the other end. A giant American flag was behind the stage -- only five two-foot-wide stripes show. I wondered if I was getting sick or it was just the industrial pollution in Birmingham that was making me cough. After a bit of a wait, during which a few more people came in, the first band, Sukimono, got started. The musical influence most obvious seemed to be Pavement. One of the guitarists played a couple solos with an e-bow (a device the size of a tape dispenser that magnetically elicits guitar sounds.) They didn't have a lot of energy, maybe because of the small and indifferent audience. I didn't detect any hit singles. I decided to head home rather than stay for the other band.

Wednesday's expedition was to a comedy open mic. It was in an upstairs room of a place called Safari Cup Coffee. The comedy room is ordinarily an art gallery featuring art from Africa and the establishment has a sharp decor. Downtown Birmingham shuts down after work, so it's a novelty to have anything going on at night. There was a crowd of people here for the show -- a few sharply dressed blacks, and some post-college t-shirt-wearing white people.

The show was MCed by two white guys in their 20s, Russell and Mike. Both were friendly and funny. There was a portable PA set up with a microphone. Some of the comics didn't have mic technique down -- one guy held it too far from his mouth, resulting in lack of volume, while another held his hand too close to the windscreen, rapper-style, causing feedback.

While some of the performers seemed to be fairly green, there was generally something funny about them, even if it was their bashfulness about getting up in front of a room of people and telling jokes about masturbation. There were of course references to Ruben, with most people using that as an excuse to build up some applause, but one guy said he couldn't care less. The response was tepid.

During the break, I talked to Mike. They had been doing the show for a couple months. They got fed up with waiting for five minutes on stage at the big club in town, the Stardome, which has an open mic in the early evening on Saturdays. Not only is the time small, the owners are Christians and won't stand for blasphemy, which there was plenty of on Wednesday.

All of the comedians were male, and only one that night was black. My ear might have gotten a little more attuned to "country" accents, but I couldn't catch everything he said right away. At the end of his set he gave a pitch for supporting local talent.

Russell had one of the best sets of the night, with extended routines which couldn't fit into the inadequate five-minute time limit at the Stardome. Poor Mike had one of the worst sets of the evening; conscious of not wanting to bore repeat audience members with old material, he was a little sparse on stuff to talk about. He interrupted himself when he saw a comedian who'd already performed talking in the back of the room and dragged the guy back to the front to apologize. The comic played along well and, after Mike removed his belt to threaten a whipping, even improvised a surreal apology poem.

Some topics that are totally hack in San Francisco wouldn't even register here. There's no shortage of parking, and homelessness doesn't seem to be much of a visible issue other than a few panhandlers near the goat-headed man fountain at Five Points. Among the topics in Birmingham are Vulcan, a giant statue of a mythic figure with exposed buttocks that's normally atop a mountain above the town, but is currently dismantled for refurbishment, and the foibles of the local followers of a religion known as Christianity, something with which few San Franciscans are familiar at first hand.

Afterwards I asked about the local scene. Magic City Comedy, which I'd noticed a sign for, is mostly a room for black comedians. I'd seen something indicating that the Phoenix in Fairfield had comedy on Friday nights, but apparently no longer. There are sketch and standup nights at Workplay, a local venue and recording studio which also features live music; I plan on visiting during my trip. Some of the comics Wednesday night have performed in other cities around the region such as Atlanta.

On Thursday I went to another spoken word event, Xchange at the 22nd Street Jazz Club. This was fairly similar to the event on Tuesday, with a DJ setup. Some people I recognized from the High Note, but the crowd this night was larger and a bit older. I was up first. I went out on a limb and read a piece that included a reference to me being queer. When I sat down, the women sitting by me were supportive. One mentioned that her boss was gay. The woman on my other side read also, and we talked about how long we'd been writing and reading. She works nights as a nurse, and had to leave early to go to her job. One of the male performers had a piece about judgmental "church people" and Christians. Buff, who the other night read a raunchy piece which led another reader's mom to threaten to tell his mama on him, tonight recited a political rant which included an anti-race-mixing opinion, which upset the woman with the gay boss; she was of Pakistani and African ancestry. She went over and talked to Buff about it, and he bought her a drink. A tall thin woman read a couple of Christian-tinged pieces including one with a reference to sissies and twists not being around in heaven. I didn't go talk to her. The bar staff was white and I saw a white couple in the audience, but once again I was the only white person who read. The host invited me to come back the next week.

On Friday I decided to check out the world-famous Stardome. It's actually located two suburbs south of town, nestled among malls and office parks. I drove there down suburban highways lined with American flags. I was a few minutes late, and I bypassed the lobby bar and went to one of three ticket windows. The opener was already onstage. I handed over my credit card and claimed my reserved tickets. I waited to be seated. I was looking down steps at a terraced auditorium with tables on each level. The stage was large and had a background of a starburst of circles. The proscenium was a starburst of pastel squares. The place was packed with people around tables chowing down on steak and potatoes. The usher found a seat for me at a table on the main floor which already had four people at it. I squeezed past them to my seat against the terrace wall. I was close to the stage. The opener was a guy named Keith Halberstam. His material was clean. He was white. Most of the audience seemed to be white as well. I could hear chatter from the upper tiers. There wasn't a lot of laughter, possibly because people were busy eating. I ordered pasta and veggies.

The opener finished his set and brought on the headliner. James Gregory is a big white guy, probably around 60. I think he lives in Atlanta. This was the last weekend of a month-long run at the club by him, and he's a major regular here. He wore a lavaliere mic. Once again, clean material -- some bathroom humor though. He started out with stuff about road construction, talked about kids these days and their permissive parents. He impugned the manhood of guys who eat tuna. Picked on an audience member who turned out to be a fitness instructor, and told his fiancée they would have to adopt. Talked about the tradition of bringing covered dishes to funerals. Before his final bit, he pitched his merchandise -- shirts, hats and videotapes, which he noted had a politically incorrect part which might offend some (this warning delivered in a faggy voice), but it wasn't obscene. His closer was an impersonation of his fat aunt and how she acted after overeating.

My advice to James Gregory would be that his set is too predictable. He should figure out some opinions he has that people wouldn't expect a late-middle-aged white southerner to have and talk about them.

Someone had described the Stardome to me as the place where rednecks go on a date. I'm somewhat curious to see what it will be like the next week, when a black comedian will be headlining. There seemed to be a lot of families with adult children and parents there. After the show I wandered into the bar and read the news clippings on the walls about the club and comedians. The old location of the club burned down in a blizzard ten years ago. This building had been built as a dinner theater. Gregory and the opening comedian were at a table in the parking lot selling their stuff, but I didn't want to be armtwisted into buying anything, so I didn't stop to talk.

I drove back into Birmingham and went to Misconceptions. I love gay bar names. They often have such odd connotations, suggestions of secrecy and subterfuge. In the parking lot, I saw only one vehicle with a Human Rights Campaign equals sign sticker, the more discreet cousin of a rainbow emblem. The bar itself has a rainbow flag, though. This was the site of the kickoff barbecue for the Central Alabama Pride week. I had missed the earlier outdoor interfaith religious service, something I doubt you'd find at a Bay Area Pride celebration. The bar was a little sparsely populated, mostly with white people older than me. I struck up a conversation with a lesbian couple -- a butch in a Pride shirt and her younger lover. I explained I was a tourist. We ended up talking about their diabetic cat which takes daily insulin shots. Human insulin. And I talked to another lesbian who works at the University of Alabama hospital and also is a silversmith. I mentioned the now-closed women's bookstore, Lodestone Books, and she said it was important to her coming out and she missed it. Alabama's gay newspaper also has folded. I picked up a copy of the Atlanta gay paper, Southern Voice, which has very little Alabama coverage. There are a couple of local websites covering the gay scene, and the webmaster of one, www.queer-voice.com, hopes to produce a printed paper later this year.

Still to come on my itinerary are visits to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Botanical Gardens, and the gay pride week poetry slam.

I have found plenty to do in Alabama, and have probably gone to see live performance more often here than do a lot of people living in San Francisco. I am curious, though, as to whether I will find myself at an integrated social or nightlife event here. But cultural events in San Francisco could be examined on that basis as well. My obsession with the ethnicity of audiences is perhaps a symptom of a Northerner's sense of superiority. I believe that whether people live in places with earthquakes or with tornadoes, they tend to think that where they are at is the best place on earth. Who am I to say that they're wrong?