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Stupid Little World, Stupid Little Band

James O'Brien

Twenty-five years ago, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones vacuum-screamed, "I'm so bored with the USA, but what can I do?" More recently, St. Paul's House of Mercy Band slowed the tune down to a crawling waltz, and the fiddles and weary Depression-era vocals gave new life to the same idea: that America is a spoiled-brat superpower whose citizens are so doped up on their own version of righteousness and the good life, it leaves the rest of the world cold. For a lot of people right here in the U.S.A., that frustration has congealed into something like a ceiling hanging over thought and creativity, tended by a monolithic triumvirate (government, media, business) that works to preclude anything truly cool or genuinely organic from popping out of the culture.

That ceiling is more firmly in place today than ever. In 2004, everything from presidential candidates to box-office blockbusters and hit records feels cynical and spun (see: Clear Channel), and we all walk around drinking from the same sippy cup of conventional wisdom, which says that all the great cultural movements are in the past (see: preceding Clash reference), that interesting art and ideas are always obliterated by the culture machine's product line of next-big-things (see: reality TV), and that art, therefore, is at a loss to express what people actually feel.

All of which would be totally depressing were it not for the fact that it's only partially true, as evidenced by the fact that I heard a song the other day that could rock our world, if not the world. So 'scuse me while I kiss the ceiling.

The Mammy Nuns are a band from St. Paul, Minnesota. They have played the Turf Club every Tuesday night for something like 50 years. They do punk and country and rock and covers and originals. They jam with friends, they've got more heart than aspirations, and their leader, Rob Rule, is one of the Twin Cities music scene's biggest boosters, tirelessly promoting bands and gigs and happenings at the grassroots. Last week, Rob and his friends went into his basement studio and recorded a new song called "Stupid Little Band." The chorus goes:

We're just a stupid little band
Playing a stupid little stage
To a stupid little crowd
In a stupid little bar
On a stupid little corner
Of a stupid little town
In a stupid little state
In the stupid U.S.A.

It may not be "We Shall Overcome," or "Smells Like Teen Spirit," or even "United States of Whatever," and it's not available for download or purchase (yet). But it says what I feel right now, and, on contact, makes me into something of an honorary Mammy Nun. That is, I feel like Rob Rule all the time these days, standing on that Christmas light-tangled stage, indifferent crowd at his feet, University Avenue blurring out the window in front of him, State Capitol behind him, CNN crawl illuminating the muted TV above the bar next to him. And there I am, strumming my guitar, singing my monotone anthem like thousands of other yowlers all over the country--specks howling in the wilderness, rubber-armed late relievers throwing their snowballs at the world. It has to be done, because sometimes they hit things.

I'm not talking about work that manages some popular currency, like Fahrenheit 9/11 or Supersize Me. I'm talking about hearing an obscure song like "Stupid Little Band" for the first time and getting all a-twitter at the realization that people, God bless 'em, are still expressing themselves in the face of all this nobody-gives-a-shit-so-why-bother-dom. I'm talking about stuff like e-mails exchanged in the dead of the night and the still of the workday, like the one sent by the late Jay McHale a few years ago, which still lives in my files.

McHale was the co-founder of Twin Cities avant-rockers 2i and a fixture of the Cedar Cultural Center staff. At his funeral last October, his friend Randy Hope gave the eulogy, which concluded with a 1997 note McHale wrote to some friends in response to the group e-mail question, "If you could somehow give one of the following intangible gifts to every person living in the world, which one would you choose--hope, joy, love, or peace?"

"I would have to give Hope," Jay wrote to his friends. "I know Corinthians says 'The Greatest of these is Love' but in the modern day I truly believe that the emotional aspect of love is somewhat overrated. Not to be a Humbug Harry, but I know that Love emanates from the Loving Creator and I'm sure as heck not going to get in His way. I do think though that one does the work of Love by a life of giving and caring, and I would never underestimate the power and beauty of Love. Love has its good and bad days though and Hope tells us that we can and will love again and again.

"Joy rocks, as I am reminded every time the Packers win and the Vikings lose (hope I haven't offended anyone), but Hope tells me to look forward to Joy next Sunday. Peace is so amazingly special, but Brother Worry and Sister Stress keep rearing their ugly heads. I refer to the Blue Nile's wondrous song 'Happiness' for my take on Peace: 'Now that I've found peace at last, tell me Jesus, will it last?' Peace will come when we are united with God for all eternity. I look forward to it, and I hope and pray for this. Why is the world still at war? Why are women abused? Why do people still die far too young? Hope gives me the will to persevere, whereas peace seems somehow not of this world. Love is the glue that binds us all together for sure, but I must carry hope to navigate the murky waters."

In the last couple of weeks, I've read several music reviews that conclude, "In a just world, [artist's name] would be [huge/top of the charts/doing great business]." It's an old critical device, but the affirmation that we are living in an unjust world may be more resonant than ever, since songs like "Stupid Little Band" have about as much chance of being heard by the masses as you and I do of changing the unjustness. Then again, I heard it, and you heard about it, and for the moment, anyway, that gives me enough hope to keep humming along with the stupid little crowd:

We're all part of the stupid human race
But that's just it
It's really not a race
The way our leaders lead
Is a disgrace
But what do we know?
We're just a stupid little band
Playing a stupid little stage
To a stupid little crowd
In a stupid little bar...

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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