Guilt and Music in Flint, Michigan
Posted on December 12, 2014
December 12, 2014
by Jonathan Diener
Home is where the heart is, but when your heart is in your chest you can take it anywhere. I’ve been telling myself that a lot lately as my life comes to yet another crossroads. My band, The Swellers, is coming to an end after being together for over twelve years. Although we never became a mainstream success, I like to think we made a bit of a ripple in some people’s lives. The biggest accomplishment in my mind was the fact that some kids got out of the Flint, Michigan music scene and got to travel the world. A lot of people describe this city as a black hole. I’m sure most of you are thinking that about your city right now. You’re stuck. That’s just how it is. But, it doesn’t have to be.
Flint was rated “The Most Dangerous City In America” for several years. What used to be the home of a once thriving General Motors is now the home to a high rate of crimes per capita, poverty, Michael Moore documentaries, Semi-Pro and a lot of proud (and sometimes stubborn) people hoping for something to change. Hell, I’ve been right there with them crossing my fingers and waiting for things to get better here. Downtown used to be blocks of boarded up buildings and if you saw people walking around they were most likely trouble. These days we have some new flourishing bars and restaurants, even a crepe company residing on Saginaw St. There are very slow and steady signs of progress. The problem materializes when you realize these new, thriving businesses fall into the five block stretch protected by Police SUVs creating this oasis of false security. Literally two blocks away from that, my friend’s house was broken into twice in six months and the police did absolutely nothing to help. What triggered me writing this was the fact that someone smashed my girlfriend’s rear windshield in the parking lot of her place of employment. I’d be content and carefree living in my apartment 10 minutes outside of the city, but then I’d go back into work and see the vicious cycle of inner city families being screwed over by the system. Maybe things aren’t getting better, they just threw a sheet over it.
When we’d be traveling to big cities across the U.S. I would be in euphoric bliss. There was blossoming culture, amazing restaurants and opportunity. We’d see foreign cars driving around, which would be sacrilege in Michigan. The more we would tour, the more friends we’d make and the more I’d want to do while I was in town. I would get home and settle back into how things were with hopes of knowing I’d get to leave again. I love my friends here and I love being familiar with everything back home, but over time i had to come to terms that I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to live somewhere else. No one should. I have a lot of history here and I do love it, but I don’t think it’s for me anymore. We would make fun of our friends in New York City and L.A. about their extensive knowledge of neighborhoods and streets and secretly wish we had that. To be blunt, these places seemed too good to be true and we were only passing through. I always had my band as an anchor to hang around and keep extending my stay in the mitten state. Now with that coming to an end, I have to make some big decisions.
A musician in a small city does not have the privilege of a built in scene. You have to make your own. For a while our band was one of the only fast melodic punk rock bands in our state. We didn’t have bands to play with so we would jump on any show we could. We made friends and awesome allies from different genres to help build a music scene for our town. It was an eclectic mix of bands and that made it exciting and different and cool. When our local venue closed we had no other choice but to move onward and upward. To make it in a small music scene, states away from any industry people, you have to leave it. If you want to join another band, be a studio or touring musician, you have to go where the music is made. NYC, LA and Nashville are the Meccas of music. You’re able to network by walking out of your front door. Living in a town like mine, you have to rely heavily on the internet to help you out.
Despite the obvious signs that have been telling me to make the transition into a new life, I still have a major connection to this area. I have this stubborn dream of putting together a new band and doing something with it, staying here and flipping the bird to the world. My new band BRAIDEDVEINS is almost the opposite of The Swellers. Our songs are usually less than two minutes. Some of the band members are in their late thirties. Who knows what will come of it. I want to say I proved everyone wrong. It’s counterintuitive and a pretty self-destructive mentality to have a goal in mind for art. The business side of me wants to just put music aside, make money and focus on the things I enjoy simply as a hobby. The other side wants to not limit myself to what I’m “supposed to do.” I want to be creative, whether it be physically playing music, or working in the entertainment world somehow. I want to use my weird brain and do something useful with it. Everyone wants that and the second you say it out loud someone will tell you that jobs are never fun. They’ll tell you to stop dreaming and grow up. That’s just how life is supposed to be. I think that’s the worst advice. I’m treading that middle line and have a feeling I’ll be staying here for a little bit longer. I want a better life, but I don’t know how to get it. Do I make one here or do I start over somewhere else? Either way, I think I’ll have some great stories to tell.
The singer of BRAIDEDVEINS was in a band called Empty Orchestra and I feel their song, “No Such Place” sums up my situation perfectly.
“All my friends have got one eye on the door
Seems like there’s nothing but southbound tire tracks in Michigan anymore
They wanna go somewhere warm that isn’t made out of rust
Where people think for a living
And it doesn’t snow so damn much
And the world wasn’t made
For people like us
It’s for those more forgetful and industrious
We all need somewhere to call home that’ll always be safe
No such thing
There’s never been
No such place”
Jonathan Diener plays drums in BRAIDEDVEINS and The Swellers. He’s on twitter: @jonodiener