We ain’t got no place to go
So let’s go to the punk rock show!
Darlin’ take me by the hand
We’re gonna see a punk rock band
There’s no use in TV shows
Radios or rodeos
I wanna get into the crowd
I wanna hear it play real loud!
-MXPX, “Punk Rawk Show”
Of all the artists and all the concert venues in the world, the American punk rock band Against Me! performed at Fonden Voxhall in Aarhus last week. As part of their European tour, this band, which is huge among rockers and punkers in the U.S., stopped by li’l ole Aarhus to play for a crowd of less than 100 people on a weekday night.
The band took the stage when there were still only about two dozen people in the venue. They were met with polite but enthusiastic applause and cheering, before they filled the small venue with deafening guitar riffs and drum beats. My friends and I were right up against the stage – not saying much, as we didn’t even have to shove our way up there – and I was close enough to make eye contact with the bass player, and feel the lead singer’s spit.
Against Me! is a prolific American punk rock band from 1997. Their newest album, released just last January, is called Transgender Dysphoria Blues, undoubtedly to reflect the lead singer coming out as a transgender woman in 2012. Of all the professions in the world to be transgender, being the lead singer in a punk rock band has undoubtedly got to be one of the hardest – not just for being a public figure with a big fan base and a relative lot of media attention, but also for the sheer inconvenience of having to be able to sing all your own songs while dealing with your voice changing. For what it’s worth, I thought Laura Grace (formerly James Thomas) did pretty well. There were some high notes she didn’t quite hit, but I don’t know if that was from hormones or laryngitis.
It was the most laid-back punk show ever. Danes are not exactly known for their rowdy behavior when sober, and I guess people were feeling that 8:00 on a Tuesday night wasn’t a good time to get drunk enough to dance. While several audience members were clearly fans and sang along to the songs, there was no proper dancing to be seen, and barely even any head-bobbing and shoulder-shimmying. There was definitely no pushing, shoving, moshing or screaming. Just people standing there, staring into the bright lights with small half-smiles on their faces, taking it all in. It was a nice experience, but I must say I expected a little more from the crowd.
The best part of smaller venues is getting to talk to the band after the show, which we of course hung around to do. After a few minutes of talking, one of the band members asked, “Anyone want to smoke a joint?” Four enthusiastic heads nodded. “Anyone got any with them?” Four uneasy face exchanged glances, and it was quickly determined that nobody was in possession of the substance in question. We vainly tried to redeem ourselves, asking if the band wanted to go out for a drink after the show, meet up downtown, because we know this great bar and all… but to no avail, the artists went back to their tour bus to change clothes and we didn’t see them again. So that’s how I almost got to hang out and party with Against Me! after a show.
Moral of the story? Always bring drugs to a punk rock show. (Just kidding, mom and dad.)
The anarchists’ kitchen
Although initially planning to go out and make a night of it on Friday, I randomly heard about an acoustic indie concert playing in Trøjborg and decided to go check it out.
The concert was located at the Trøjborg Beboerhus, a sort of clubhouse/community gathering place in a rather gentrified part of the city that for some inexplicable reason is the preferred gathering place for people with dreadlocks, septum piercings, and unconventional political views. I had been there twice before, once for a clothing swap in which you could give or take as much clothing as you like and the People’s Kitchen, a free event in which people gather together to cook various dishes using food that has been donated by farmers or scavenged from trash bins. (I wrote articles about both of these events, if you want to learn more about them, including one that got published in The Local Denmark).
I showed up to the show 45 minutes late, only to find out it hadn’t started yet. In a room full of strangers speaking Danish and stone-cold sober, I did the only socially acceptable thing to do, which was furiously fiddle with my phone. Fortunately the show started soon after, and I soon found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor, sandwiched between the smelly t-shirts and secondhand sneakers, mesmerized by the glittering facial piercings of a backlit Swedish girl I had never heard of before.
From Sweden and now living in Copenhagen, Elona Planman sings only in Swedish. I could understand it just about as well as I understand Danish at this point, which is still not very well at all. For the sake of the English speakers in the crowd, she introduced each song in broken English, giggling over bad jokes and lost trains of thought. Accompanying herself on harmonica and guitar, she sang about deep topics like self-expression, self-acceptance, and periods. All in all, I thought she was nice.
During the break between acts I stepped outside to mingle with people, and eventually worked up the courage to talk to a cute Danish guy with startlingly bright blue eyes. He was a self-identified anarchist, which of course immediately fascinated me, and before long we were buying each other beers and I was getting the 101 on Danish far-left political views. He told me all about the next act, David Rovics, an American indie/folk/anarchist singer I’d never heard of who’s apparently more famous in Denmark than the U.S., and is especially big among left-wing circles in Denmark.
I don’t know what I expected of David Rovics, but whatever it was, I was wrong. Rovics has been called the Bob Dylan of his time. I get the comparison because he’s a guy with his guitar singing catchy tunes with overt political messages, but compared to Bob Dylan, Rovics’ style is much more upbeat and cheery. He’s got that nasally punk rock singing style down to a tee, and he prefers to sing songs about treason and being a pirate and lighting things on fire more so than peace and love. I caught myself singing along with the particularly catchy call-and-response song “Burn it Down.”
After the show Blue Eyes invited me to an after party, which I enthusiastically accepted, although I was mentally rolling my eyes because I didn’t have the energy for a big party. But hey, I always regret the things in life I don’t do more than the things I do, and this was no exception. It turns out the after party was at one of his friends’ apartments in Trigegården, one of Aarhus’s bona fide “ghettos.” (Yes, Aarhus has a “ghetto list.” No, they are not ‘real’ ghettos. Nothing wrong with them, they’re just not as nice as some other parts of the city.) And it turns out both musicians were staying the night there. We stayed up an hour or two, sitting on the couch and sipping on beers. I, thrilled to have another expat in the room, cornered Rovics and we talked about everything from politics to history to what we thought about Portland and Seattle. (Born in NYC, grown up in Connecticut, Rovics now lives in Portland – one of my favorite cities in the U.S.)
We talked about voting, and I told him proudly about the 2012 election in which voted absentee while living in Berlin, and got to vote on marijuana, gay marriage, the state governor, a senator, and a representative all at once. In the same tone you might say, “so your dog – did it die from the cancer?” he delicately asked me if I had voted Democrat. I said, “well, yeah,” followed by an implied “as if there were an alternative.” He raised his eyebrows, nodded politely, and said “That’s interesting.” My cheeks burned with embarrassment at being the only non-anarchist in the room.
And so that’s how I got to have an hour-long conversation with David Rovics after a show.
Right- and left-wing extremism
Denmark in general is a fairly homogenous, liberal, socalist nation, but inerestingly, it has small pockets of both right- and left-wing extremism. As I mentioned earlier, the Trøjborg Beboerhus is something of a magnet for anarchists and counter-cultural types, and there is also a bar downtown that attracts neo-Nazis. There was even a short-lived branch of the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement in Aarhus, which I wrote an article about a while back. While Aarhus is trying very hard to brand itself as a welcoming, international city, and the Danes I’ve met have in general been very nice to foreigners, there are still traces of the xenophobia that come from living in a small, homogenous country. (To be fair, I’m also fair-skinned and American. I suspect I may have had a different experience had I been dark-skinned, African, Middle Eastern or Eastern European). This double identity is very interesting to me. Foreigners who come to Aarhus believing in the “international city of culture” title will be shocked and disillusioned to experience racism for the first time in Denmark, whereas people coming to the country expecting discrimination may be pleasantly surprised at the open-mindedness and integration efforts here.
Those of you who know me well know that I love gardening. There’s something soul-feeding about getting dirt under you fingernails and helping tiny seeds blossom into life. Not to mention it’s rewarding. Saddened by the prospect of leaving Denmark so soon and not being able to have my own garden, I decided to get involved in a community garden.
Adopt-a-Box is a community volunteer project that’s been going on in Aarhus since 2012 at Godsbanen (yeah, I know, I still need to write about that place!). How it works is volunteers prepare boxes full of edible plants and vegetables, and give them to businesses around town. The shop and restaurant owners care for the box during the summer months, giving it water, and in turn are rewarded with the fruits of their harvest. Right now volunteers are cleaning up the old boxes and starting sprouts in a little greenhouse to eventually plant in them, and later this month there will be an event where we give them to the businesses. It’s really fun! (Okay, so it’s not really guerilla, but the alliteration sounds nice, doesn’t it?)
Gardens and planting seem to be a fairly big part of Danish culture. Part of it is the general trend of environmentalism being trendy and urban gardening becoming more popular, but part of it I think is also because the long winter makes people really appreciate spring. In March, hundreds of purple crocuses began poking their heads out from under the grass in various fields, plazas and traffic islands throughout the city, and in April bright yellow daffodils took their places. Although now that it’s May the spring flowers are starting to fade, trees are growing new leaves, bushes and hedges are pushing out buds, and the whole city’s waking up. It’s really nice.
Life updates: I’m moving to Hamburg!
My rental contract in Aarhus ends May 31 and I’m looking to move to Hamburg immediately after. I’ll have to spend a couple of weeks coming back to Aarhus to go to class or do exams until my courses are over, but I have friends I can stay with and it should be fine. I spent last weekend visiting apartments (and visiting the lovely Tommy Flanagan!) and made the decision to move into a two-person apartment in the neighborhood of Dulsberg with a nice German girl named Alena. I’m really looking forward to it all – practicing my German every day, living in a big city with so much going on, having a lower cost of living. The semester needs to hurry up and finish!