I’m in Brooklyn today writing on my laptop at Verb Cafe. The Bedford Street staple has every box checked. Tape deck slowly churning out the tunes above the wall of casually displayed tape cases, 19th century bronzed ornate ceiling, open wood beams supporting the exposed brick, and good shoes abound.
With the sign limiting itself to hiding on the door in well-spaced Helvetica, my cardigan and glowing apple orb is in good company with the other professionals, as the barista carting in a shipment of coffee states “this is my favourite Cure song.”
We’re playing the Knitting Factory tonight as the start of our Eastern tour. I have been in a van now for the better part of this year, visiting a different city every day and it’s sort of like being at an art exhibit of those comics they used to run in the Free Press where it asks you to find 13 different things in the two photos. At first glance you find all the same things, the cool part of town, the place to go get hipster coffee, the one thing you should really try: Chicago deep dish or Texas crawfish or Yellowknife giant growlers of IPA.
But when you look closer you start to notice the differences, and start to really value certain things over others. You learn a lot, and while you may never stay in any place long enough to earn the right to call bullshit on their stacks of tapes, one thing is certain: you learn that Winnipeg is pretty great.
Cities are like celebrities. They are rich with notable history, have art made with or about them, and their relevance is judged by where they are at in their budding or fading career. New York is Woody Allen, with that specific thing to offer, that thing that never gets old, from Annie Hall to Midnight in Paris.
San Francisco is Allen Ginsberg, young and full of life in the ’60s but grew old doing university tours, a fading poster child for a dying movement. Portland is Justin Bieber, the grassroots beginnings of a talented young singer making videos on his computer. Now you have to pay $15,000 to be his opening band.
Just as fickle as these careers are these cities’ rollercoaster lives, dipping in and out of relevancy in the time it takes your web browser to refresh. The life cycle of a cool city is as follows: first something real must happen there, a movement, where a group of people get really serious about something they believe in. Like Haight-Ashbury’s hippies in the ’60s, or Portland’s haven for artists in the early 2000s.
Then people hear about it.
Word gets around and people flock to see the real thing. First are the true artists, then the less artistic hipsters, then anyone ages 18 to 35 who knows who Arcade Fire is all the way until the invitation is open. This real thing becomes fetishized, and so goes the progression from Harvey Milk to your mom taking a picture of the Amoeba Music sign on Haight by the McDonald’s. Portlandia is my case in point.
So here I am, catching the last vestiges of the caricatured portraits of the past: your Woody Allens, playing bebop jazz at the Carlyly Hotel in Manhattan every Monday. For $135 you can catch a nostalgic glimpse of what at one time might have been a real thing. Or your James Francos playing Ginsberg in major motion pictures, feel that sepia tone Howl from your living room on Netflix.
That said, commodifying real shit is nothing new, and perhaps more than lament its existence it better serves of just how important “real” is to us. Anything real, or even almost real, like Jay-Z taking the subway to his Brooklyn show which was on repeat on the news. He didn’t have to pay the fare, and traveled with many plainclothes police officers, but we’ll take it. It’s close enough.
I feel like that’s where we’re at, content with anything that looks real enough to get by, collectively knowing that the Instagram filter has been applied, but all pretending we took the time in the dark room to get that rounded white border.
Which leads me to why Winnipeg is so great: it’s what everyone is searching for. A bunch of people holed up in their basements during godforsaken cold-as-hell winter making art no-one will ever see or hear. Throwing little art gallery parties that will never be immortalized in film, or have a $135 ticket. Spending your summer biking around with Ben Jones or listening to Smoky Tiger’s incoherent hobby genius.
This is the real shit. It’s a resource you are completely unaware of until you go somewhere else and get a bit of perspective. What’s so great is Winnipeg is too much of a shithole for it to ever be discovered or ironically enjoyed, and it’s all ours.
So go ahead and call bullshit, you have the right — we’ll meet at Cousins to discuss.
Matt Schellenberg plays in Royal Canoe and has Spiderman bedsheets.