So Far Inside We’re Already Dead

By Ben Johnson

The other night I hosted a comedy show booked last minute from a roaming cell phone in the passenger seat of a 1996 Honda Accord with Maryland plates. The venue was an abandoned Polish bar rumored to have previously been used by human traffickers in an area of Chicago more visibly populated by meandering empty trash bags than people. The neighborhood is technically called “Belmont Cragin,” which is at least as funny as anything I could make up as a joke to describe it, such as “Coyoteville” or “Little Manila” or “Tannersbane.”

It is the kind of place where empty city buses rocket by at 50 miles per hour and the only human sound is the distant scream of children in the throes of bloodlust. They are not playing. Today is the day they are going to get Rickey, and they have a plan. Previous playdates for this fictitious group of near-feral childhood friends involve such activities as beating an alley dog to death with a stick, lifting weights while smoking cigars at age nine, and a vigorous workshopping of methods for overcoming the obstacle of rolled razor wire. It’s got that kind of a vibe to it. Fair or unfair.

BUT: strangely enough this abandoned Polish bar in Belmont Cragin is also conjoined to the offices of venerable indie rock record label Drag City. I would imagine they got a pretty good deal for the square footage, seeing as how there’s a whole bar attached they haven’t used in 14 months. Before arriving, I supposed due to its affiliation with Drag City that the location might have been a meeting place for some hidden hive of Belmont Cragin urban primitives carving an ecosystem of bizarrely undirected purposefulness out of the interiors of long dead hat factories. I don’t know where and when and how such things are possible. I barely leave the house these days. And I didn’t book the show.

The evening’s entertainment consisted of myself, local stand up Katie McVay, and the comedy duo of Martin & Lawrence. Martin & Lawrence are Lexie “Mountain” Macchi and Ric Royer, veterans of a Baltimore arts scene where electronic noise music blends with bizarre literary and performance rituals, making it an excellent place to incubate a style of comedy that pushes audiences past mere laughter and into the hysterical euphoria of total brain death. Lexie booked the show. She’s one of those continual –unchecked-enthusiasm-unmitigated-by—the-details-and-constraints-of-reality social motormouth type people who you can’t believe is really like that until they never stop being like that and you realize they’re actually the best human being alive and you’re the piece of shit for being cynical about their motives. Of course she talked her way into having a comedy show at the Drag City offices in Nowheresville, USA (encircled by impromptu drag races of wolf-driven tortilla vans), and then proceeded unblinkingly to spout “this is a real thing I am doing” terms like “cover” and “door” and “how much should we charge for beer.” God I love her. She is right and the world is wrong.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You probably know where this is going. We have all the elements necessary for an ill-attended exploding truckfire of mesmerizingly chaotic surrealism. There is nothing to report there. Anybody who’s ever left their house at the behest of a “friend” who does “art” knows that ill-attended truckfires of mesmerizingly chaotic surrealism are a daily occurrence in any city with enough cultural momentum to sustain an alternative weekly newspaper. I myself have participated in countless dozens of nights which on paper were exactly like this one. The particulars of the show’s content or logistical minutiae are not news of any sort, nor are they especially fertile launchpads for commentary, except in one aspect: the audience. The audience in combination with the show made a fairly typical night into a remarkable one.

Of the six audience members who showed up to witness the event, the following can be said: none arrived to the venue in a group of more than one, and a majority of them own highly regarded record labels which have been in existence for over twenty years. The complete tally was three co-founders of Drag City, one owner of Thrill Jockey, and two dudes from Twitter. This insane clusterfuck on the margins of human existence somehow managed to be a gathering of industry titans, politely refusing free beers while perching on stools in a dead-end former nightclub supposedly designed by international criminals that smells like a near-suffocating layer of Simple Green trying in vain to mask a more prevalent doomstench of neglect.

This was, in the technical jargon of comedy, a pretty hip room. Like about as hip as a room can get until it technically doesn’t even exist and becomes a nothingplace for nobody. And this audience was treated to two fairly traditional comedians struggling gamely to adjust, and a deranged comedy duo act containing not one sequitur, the narrative arc of which derived itself uncomfortably from show is still happening to okay to talk like people again in as slow and as imperceptible a manner given the context for me to doubt whether I am not still involved in it and this is just the “writing an article about the show for Vice” bit. Which is a hilarious portion of the show, by the way. It’s possible that the entire rest of my life will be a continuation of last night’s show, like some mixture of Mr. Show and the Up Series. I’d prefer it that way, in fact. Takes the edge off.

That four label heads also got sucked into this wormhole is the icing on the cake. Without their presence it would have been your typical Wednesday night two-audience-member catastrophe on the art world’s mucky sea floor. But with them, it was an actual occurrence officially sanctioned by professional tastemakers and witnessed by only a lucky chosen few. And as such, it disintegrated the fabric of reality.

The upshot for John and Jane Q. is the next time you pick up a Ty Segall or White Hills album, just know that it is and always will be at least partially a highly obscure joke format because of what happened last night in a dust cave with mirrored ceilings in Belmont Cragin, Chicago. Chosen representatives of Drag City and Thrill Jockey were there, and that means the entire rest of their productive careers will be an extended Martin & Lawrence bit that can’t ever end.

Knowing this as you listen to Eternal Tapestry or Alasdair Roberts may cause you to chuckle a little in a way those artists might not have intended but that also enhances your listening enjoyment by a multiple of YES. By hearing about this, you are joined to us. Congratulations. You are now a part of an inside joke of such magnitude you will henceforth be technically dead as an independent entity and you’ll continue on only as the concept of yourself within the rubric of an extended joke. It’s great. Spread the word. The world’s post-reality phase is underway and it’s spreading like an infection.

If it takes, and I hope it does, I predict one day there will be a tourist economy on the stretch of North Cicero between Diversey and Belmont, and let me tell you, the children of Belmont Cragin could use it.

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