Fandom: Generation Kill
Characters: Brad/Nate, Ray, Walt,
Disclaimer: Totally fictitious...vaguely based on the characters portrayed in the miniseries; epigraph by WH Auden. Remember the last time I wrote for the GK meme? This is longer.
[I was looking at the ceiling, and then I saw the sky]
The Sun newspaper that arrives on the first Sunday in November is thick with advertisements for Thanksgiving sales. Nate is about to drop it, whole and unread, into the recycling bin, when he sees the cello in the sketch accompanying the front page article. The sketch is a free-form line drawing: musical notes blending in with musical instruments and faceless musicians. He reads the article standing in the front vestibule.
Decimated by budget cuts, mismanagement, and the flight of its writing talent to HBO, the Baltimore Sun is half the paper it once was (literally: the evening edition stopped printing in 1995), but they have turned all their limited resources on this story, which they bill as “a blend of Robin Hood and Pablo Cassals for the social media age.” Apparently, for the past four months, videos have been popping up on the internet featuring masked musicians called Bravo, playing what the Sun music critic calls ‘ghetto-baroque’: newly written chamber music that blends seventeenth-century orchestration with video game themes, riffs from 80s hair bands, and found-object percussion. The music has gone viral—everyone from classical music lovers to teenager gangbangers have been trying to identify the composers, the performers, with no success. The group had thousands of Facebook friends and their randomly sent tweets (“Music is the motherfucking answer!”) had become part of the zeitgeist. Their first YouTube video had been posted about two weeks before Nate left New York and lost touch with the world of professional music: he’s never heard of them.
The Sun reporter had received an email invitation to the first of Bravo’s ‘holiday concert series’. The e-vite, according to the article, was expertly designed to mimic the holiday begging letters from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The mimicry was so perfect that the reporter had almost deleted it until he’d realized what he was reading. It listed a date, a time, and an address on the drug-ridden west side, along with the instructions expressly forbidding any recording devices. Arriving at the specified location, the reporter had been met by a guy who introduced himself as Manimal and who had led him up and down a few deserted streets and in and out of alleys until the journalist had no idea where he actually was before depositing him in an abandoned house.
“Jesus Christ,” Nate mutters, shaking his head at the naiveté: strolling around abandoned rowhouses with a complete stranger? Named Manimal? Doesn’t this reporter have any idea how dangerous that could be? Doesn’t he—doesn't he watch HBO? Nate doesn’t realize that he’s spoken out loud until he hears his own words in the empty house. He saves the front section of the paper, dumps the rest into recycling, and goes to the kitchen to sit and read with a cup of coffee. That’s normal, right? Just reading the paper over coffee. Talking to himself is not normal; not a good sign at all.
The reporter—Nate didn’t even check the byline to see who he was—hears Bravo perform live in the front room of what was once a lovely four-story rowhouse. Reporter later looks up the property records (whoever the hell this journalist is, Nate has to admit he’s thorough), and finds the place has been uninhabited since 1981, which explains why its lost its roof and any metal fixtures to scavengers. In addition to moonlight, the concert venue is lit, barely, by acetylene flares: artificial light sources in spillproof containers that are commonly available from army surplus stores. There are no chairs—“Fuck that shit,” Manimal says, when Reporter asks about that, “you come here to sit, or you come here to listen to music, dog?” (Most of Manimal’s pronouncements are heavily edited for publication in a family newspaper). It is, the reporter writes, like attending a concert in a warzone.
The audience consists of eight people, and the reporter quickly polls them: college students, a homeless guy, two retired steelworkers, a Johns Hopkins professor. Each had received different directions to the rowhouse via Twitter or word-of-mouth. They stand in the November cold for about five minutes, wondering if coming was a really big mistake. Then, with no apparent signal, a group of musicians troop silently in through the missing back door and, standing in what used to be a kitchen before the copper pipes were stolen, they begin to play the most extraordinary music . Reporter describes one movement alternately as a minuet re-imagined by Sting and the Beatles, or as “Thunder Road” if it were written by Bach for a jazz ensemble. Nate doesn’t know what either of those comparisons are supposed to mean.
The musicians wear black and, from their height and build, the reporter suspects that they are all men. He can’t be sure, though, because even those who don’t wear ski masks are rendered unrecognizable by the shadows created by the burning acetylene against the old walls and collapsed ceilings. They play with no music and no conductor, communicating across the ensemble by glances and nods. A plaster dividing wall, partially dissolved after years of exposure to the elements, means that the audience can only see part of the group. After about an hour, Reporter realizes that one of the violinists is gone. Fifteen minutes later, during a duet for clarinet and viola, two musicians silently move the portable keyboard out of view. The remaining violinist picks up after the duet, taking over the viola line. The clarinetist plays for a little while longer and then, as casually as though he were in a rehearsal room by himself, he undoes the ligature and wanders out the back door, sucking on the reed to keep it from drying out. The violinist plays alone, pacing through the empty kitchen, throwing crazy shadows across the audience. He strolls through the kitchen door into the overgrown backyard and back again. Finally, he walks into the backyard, music growing fainter and fainter until it disappears. The audience sits silently for about two minutes before they realize that the performance is over—and then they start applauding so that the musicians will come out for a bow and, with any luck, an encore.
No one comes. The reporter turns around to ask Manimal…only to realize that the man is gone. Eventually, he and two of the college kids, hands burning from clapping so hard, risk going through the kitchen and into the yard. It was empty except for overgrown weeds hemmed in by a six foot concrete wall with a rusted gate.
The reporter tries to open the gate, but door and frame had long ago fused into a solid piece of rusted iron.
“Don’t tell me they climbed over that wall,” said one of the college kids. Before erstwhile owners of the house had given in and moved to the suburbs, they had edged the top of the wall with shards of glass.
“Carrying a keyboard?!” the other student remarked. “Jesus. Are they musicians or are they ninjas?”
[New World Symphony]
The article ends on that rhetorical question but the Sun, whose editors know a good thing when they see it, mention that the reporter will be taking questions during an online forum. Nate has booted up the computer and typed baltimoresun.com into the search bar before he realizes that he is, for the first time since his mother’s death, standing in her study.
There is, literally and figuratively, a huge empty space in this room. The furniture is still pushed against the walls to make room for a hospital bed that is no longer there. The plants on the windowsill are brown and ignored. Stacked on the shelves behind the computer are the unbound proofs his mother was reviewing when she got sick. Tacked to the corkboard are two recipes she never got around to trying and a curling picture of Nate and his sisters playing in autumn leaves that fell about twenty years ago.
Slowly, the Sun page loads. The “Ask a Reporter!” link has been disabled: already there have been so many questions that the journalist can’t answer any more.
Someone asks about the abandoned house. The reporter cites a white paper about the astronomical number of abandoned properties in Baltimore and a link to Bravo’s facebook page, which indicates that locations will be selected at random for future concerts. The reporter says that, when leaving after the concert, he had noted the house number and the street. He’d gone back in the daylight to find…an old house, long empty. At some point someone had come to retrieve the flares. It was no different from the other destroyed houses on the block. The mayor has since announced a new initiative to rehab the block for low-income residents.
Another reader has logged in to suggest that fans should stake out the location of the next concert: “if u’d found out who took the flares, u could have followed him to find the others 2!” Nate wonders if that reader had been watching too much HBO.
The reporter replied that Bravo clearly did not want to be found out: attempts to trace their Twitter accounts or the email associated with their YouTube postings had led to firewalled accounts routed through various false fronts by someone who really knew what he or she was doing. There was probably a good reason for this; the Baltimore City police were considering charges of illegal trespass and property damage—if they could ever find anyone to charge. (This led to a brief, off-topic flamewar about whether the BPD was doing enough about ‘real crime’ and whether a charge of disturbing the peace could stick if the only neighbors disturbed by the concert were mice and feral cats).
A troll suggested that people who received information about future concerts via Twitter or Facebook should publicize the information so everyone could come. There were—Nate counted—forty seven responses to that suggestion in the space of five minutes. No one, Reporter included, really wanted Bravo to come to light, much less wanted them to be prosecuted. People were captivated with the music and the anti-consumer ethic of the shaking, self-produced streaming video versions. In a city that was famous for its murder rate, citizens were charmed by the idea that somewhere in the dark winter nights, abandoned houses were becoming concert halls for the motley groups selected at random. More than one commenter compared it to a fairy tale.
When his older sister had been taking piano lessons for two years, Nate’s parents finally decided to get their old Steinway professionally tuned. They had delayed because Katie couldn’t decide if she wanted to be a piano prodigy or an astronaut and because Nate, normally the most biddable of four-year-olds, would throw truly epic tantrums the moment the piano teacher rang the doorbell. The day the piano was tuned was the day the tantrums stopped, and the day Nate’s parents realized their only son had perfect pitch. As an adult, slightly out-of-tune instruments are less like nails on a chalkboard and more like buzzing fluorescent lights—annoying, but tolerable—though Nate still remembers the frisson of total, calming rightness that occurred when the piano notes finally matched his own inner sense of harmony. That day is the standard against which he measured his own years of piano lessons, his stint in the National Children’s Choir, his transition to the violin and finally to the cello, the instrument whose register most closely matches the human voice. Music is a discipline of nuance and interpretation, in which two people can play the same piece in totally different styles and both can be right, so he has not had too many other instances of perfect certainty. But here, now, and for no reason that he will ever be able to explain, he experiences it again. He knows that the stranger in the park, the blond guy with the musician’s hands, has something to do with these bizarre punk-fairytale ghetto concerts. And that means he knows something about Bravo that only its members know—namely, that their next original composition will have a part for cello.