Alaska, 1994. I lived in a small port town named Seward. It was basically a tiny stone shelf of land that jutted out below a huge mountain. It’s by far the most beautiful place I’ve lived (even including Hawaii). In the winters it’s so quiet that it takes on an otherworldly quality. Almost everyone is unemployed so the day consists of what we called “coffee time” — meeting friends for coffee and whatever we could think of afterward. (Popular games in Seward included: throwing paper wads into trash cans, spitting contests and drinking.)
The sky turns weird colors in the winter — a kind of purple-gray in the daytime or a pink-orange hazy and at night the northern lights are indescribably spectacular. There are so few people in town during the winter that you’d literally gawk at anyone new and confer with friends “oh that must be Big Nose Fred’s cousin, I heard he was visiting”. And everyone has a name like: Downtown Terri Brown, Drunk Bill or Mary With The Long Hair. I was “Little Michele”.
Reserruction Bay, Seward, Alaska
photo by Marco Giazzi
In the summer, Seward explodes with international travelers. Each cruise ship that docks is roughly the town’s population (2500 when I was there). So the bars where most of us worked boomed with people. I was a bartender at a fine dining place called Rays. Working in Alaska in the summer is kind of like going to camp as a kid — only with alcohol, drugs and profanity instead of day sports and swimming.
One day the owner’s daughter came in to the bar with a CD. “Oh no.” I thought, this is gonna suck. But the first hits of the record came out and grabbed me. I still have a vivid vision of the girl pushing her arms into the air and swinging her hips. The rest of us were sold too. And it wasn’t even to the hook yet. It was at this moment that James Brown’s Funky People, Volume 1 became my top party album of all time.
Not surprisingly, James Brown had exhausted his classic 1960’s group by 1970 and they had all moved on. The only two left were James and Bobby Byrd (singer, piano, songwriter). This record was put out in 1972.
This album is funk-packed from start to end and features such superstar players as Maceo Parker (horns), Fred Wesley (horns — def read his biography on life in the James Brown Band called “Hit Me Fred”), Bootsy Collins (bass) and Lynn Collins (vocals). James Brown is not the featured vocalist on any of the tracks, but he writes every song, sings back-up and plays the organ. He also is famous on all his recordings for handing out fines. He had hand signals and each time he gestures at you – you’d lose 5-10 bucks for missing a beat or bar. He fined Lynn Collins once for having a wrinkle in her dress. Before each show he would quiz members of the band on the whole set list — the player would have to recite every intro, bridge and hook and was fined for any mistake. You would also be fined for not looking at James. If he caught you looking anywhere else while on stage you’d be in BIG trouble. This was a band of funk warriors. Here’s Lynn Collins lip-syncing one of the best tracks from the album on Soul Train. Love the gold suit!
Fast-forward to 2004, Nevada. I went to Burning Man with my dad. My dad is my favorite person. He is more friend than parent at this point. And after listening to my friend Kim go on about it for years, we decided to hop in the Winnebago and make the trek to Black Rock City — a two-week music and art festival in the middle of the Nevada desert.
I don’t know why, but everyone seems to think Burning Man is only about naked people. Yes, there are some naked people. But most folks just wear silly costumes or pajamas or whatever they feel like. And I personally spent most of my time there biking in the sun — looking at the world’s most incredible art. A Spanish Galleon ship on wheels would roll by, a giant wedding cake, a speedboat on wheels sporting people in beach gear and blasting the Beach Boys.
I think my favorite is the “Animal Control” car, these deputies of disaster capture anyone dressed in an animal costume and someone has to come and get you out or they keep you in their cages (you get free beverages I hear). The funniest thing is to be dancing in a group somewhere. Someone yells “ANIMAL CONTROL” and all the people dressed as bunnies and squirrels and even mermaids run like crazy. Hilarious.
photo by Ionan Lumis
No museum, no gallery, no place in the world outshines these dedicated few who truck tons of supplies into the desert to Burning Man each year (although I’ve heard the country of India runs a close second). There is no money (almost, you can only buy water, coffee and ice) so you can ride for free on a rolling “magic carpet” or the “duck car” to the clubs on the edge of the city (you can choose, the giant velvet “womb room”, the reproduction of “Thunderdome” or the glowing “pair of dice”). It is like another planet.
My dad and I named our camp “The Lounge of False Hope”. We had one of those cheesy sunset pictures and we sharpied a logo. The idea was — you come in and ask for anything you want. We say “No, you’re not getting that, but would you like a drink?”
Dad had got a new boombox at Costco (he returned it, to my horror, after the festival, it was completely destroyed with playa dust!) and we had James Brown Funky People, Volume One playing. We had passed out bloody marys to all our new friends and a huge dust storm came up. This dust is very fine and it can make you choke. We all put on our goggles (which you keep around your neck), pulled on our face masks (ditto), covered our bloody marys with our hands and TURNED UP THE JAMES BROWN and started dancing.
photo by Dana Robinson
Michele Myers hosts Nite Life Fridays at 9pm on KEXP. She does this Midnight Album Spotlight every Friday night at the witching hour. The rest of her time at KEXP she makes KEXP Documentaries — short radio features on KEXP-type musical subjects. Recent series include: Punk Evolution, Masters of Turntablism, The Heart of Soul, and Music Revolutionaries.