Interview With an American by Adam Gnade Jamey Bainer is a patriotic American, but not the kind you might expect. If you've heard any of my records you may know him already (under his own name in "Dance to the War" off Run Hide Retreat Surrender and in "We're in the Crosshairs" from the Honey Slides EP I did with Youthmovies.) He's also a character from my book Hymn California, but in that case you might know him as "Jeremy Willis." I wanted Jamey to tell you what it's like to be an American in June 2009. I think he did a great job. Keep your eyes open for the book he's currently writing, Angels All Cry the Same (which references a great Jana Hunter song.) From the bits of it that I've read it's pure brutality. Q: What's it like to be an American in June 2009? It's a schizophrenic experience. From second to second it feels like the world is either going to end or we're suddenly going to turn it all around and make it rain milk & honey again. Not to hang it all on one thing, but I think the last 8 years under the Bush administration just beat a lot of people down. Now we have a new political leadership that managed to inspire a great deal of hope in an otherwise jaded society, but that leadership has come into power at a time when nearly every institution that provided the foundation for America as a global superpower is crumbling into dust. At the same time, most of those institutions were mired in a state of decay and dysfunction for years, so maybe we're just going through one of those "hard rain" moments where something infinitely better will rise from the train wreck we've locked ourselves into. All the same, no one who lost their job recently, and that's a hell of a lot of people, is going to put much stock in that idea. I don't know, for the last 8 years it felt like we were moving directly towards the worst kind of Orwellian horror show, and now it feels more like we're headed towards something akin to Huxley's "Brave New World." But hey, at this point, I'll take that. Government-sanctioned, consequence- free drug use, emotionless sex, mindlessly entertaining distractions and happy pills to numb yourself to your mundane worker bee routine? Where do I sign? Q: What's America to you? What stories, books, songs, paintings, places, etc, make up your version of America? That's tough because there's just so much, but the thing that comes immediately to mind, and that is dearest to my heart, is the time I've spent living in New York City. To me, New York, the place J. P. Donleavy termed "this cathedral of a city," is not only the greatest city in America, but one of the greatest cities of all time. It is far and away the most diverse and cosmopolitan city in this country, but it so quintessentially represents the dream behind the concept of a nation like America. I'm not talking about what some people term "The American Dream," but an older dream, the human dream of every individual to strike out amidst an antagonizing world and impose his or her unique vision upon the larger whole. New York is like the greatest proving ground in the world for a dreamer, because that city is a beast and if you let up or relent for even a second it can bring your whole world crashing down. And we all come there the same: We're all immigrants when we come to New York; some may be removed by a few generations, but we all start the same...anonymous, usually penniless, one hand pointed upward to shake a fist at God and the other one shielding our eyes as we scan the townhouses along Central Park, looking for the one with the easiest walls to scale. You can walk down any street in that town and see America's greatest accomplishments and her greatest failures vividly on display: the wealth, the beauty, the artistic and creative genius, the meeting of so many different cultures, languages, people and ideas in one small stretch of land; and then the greed, the violence, the poverty, the coldness, all the intolerance and ennui and desolation. New York is on a smaller scale what America is as a whole: this super-charged dynamo, alternately lurching between terrifying destruction and mesmerizing grace. I guess it's no stretch that a lot of the books, songs, films etc. that make up my version of America are associated with New York or were created by people that spent a good chunk of their formative years there. Writers like J.P. Donleavy, Henry Miller, Fitzgerald, Hunter Thompson; filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Martin Scorcese, and Woody Allen; and so many songs spanning all kinds of time periods: Gershwin's "Summertime," The Velvet Underground's "Run Run Run" or "Waiting for the Man," anything by Billie Holiday, all the punk and new-wave stuff from the late 70s...Talking Heads, Television, Patti Smith etc. All these things keep my patriotism strong during trying times in this mighty land. Oh and I forgot to mention the food. The food in New York, which is not so much "New York" food as much as a greatest-hits list of culinary treats from all over the world, is absolutely gangbusters. I've done some travelling in my time, but I never have as much fun going out to eat anywhere as I do in New York. Q: How does New York compare to Riverside, the city you grew up in? They're worlds apart, to be sure. But it's funny because I was so restless when I left Riverside at age 18; at the time it seemed like another dull Southern California suburb, this kind of not-quite-next-to-the beach limbo between Los Angeles and San Diego. But over the years it became a joy to go back and revisit it. I'm a sucker for nostalgia and ghosts anyway, and Riverside has that kind of nameless, haunted quality that you find throughout Southern California, something that resides within the palm trees, in the light of the sunsets that turn the foul, brown, polluted daytime air into these fiery symphonies of colour. The friends that I made there, most of whom are still my closest comrades, which is rare in this world, all the adventures we had, that's what I think of when I'm there now. The older I get the more I look upon Riverside as a very unique, even strange and exotic place to grow up in. One of the city's busiest streets cuts right through the middle of its largest cemetery. It's very funny, you know? Everyday, you're driving right through these rows and rows of gravestones, and nobody else really seems to pay it any mind. It's a weird town. As much as I love New York, I'm thankful I didn't grow up there. For one thing, I just had so much space to play with in Riverside. They have a bit of an urban sprawl problem there now, but when I was a kid my friends and I played in backyards that opened up into what seemed like miles and miles of wild fields that we could explore. You don't have that in the city. The other thing is that kids just grow up way too fast in New York. They get hit with too much, too soon, and it just ages them prematurely. You can see it in their eyes, their movements, the way they talk; you're sitting there on the subway and you feel like you're surrounded by these legions of cherub-faced 50 year-olds. It's terrifying. New York City kids scare the hell out of me. Q: Would you say you're proud to be from America? Honestly, yes I am. Very much so. I did some travelling recently, and while my experiences with the local people in the various countries I visited were overwhelmingly positive, I'm all too aware that much of the world stills views America as a nation of lazy, brain-dead idiots at best, or a junta of violent, power-hungry, heavily armed lunatics at worst. For some time the actions of our political leaders and the inaction and general malaise amongst our citizens have only fed this image, but that's not the America I see. I'm not blinding myself to the problems of this nation: Bad decisions have been made, and people have died, people are dying, because of them, both abroad and within our own borders. But when I put the times we're living through, all of us, not just Americans but all people in all regions of the world today, in the context of history, I don't see America as this all-consuming Death, destroyer of worlds-type of place that some critics make it out to be. I see my country as another chapter in the larger story of human beings trying to make their way, the best they can, with limited knowledge and resources, in a harsh and unrelenting world. I don't think the story of America will be the greatest chapter in that larger story, because I'm hoping that's still to come. But I think that the story of my nation, this beautiful experiment full of gaping flaws that somewhat doomed it from the start, and the story of this country's ongoing struggle to correct those flaws and move forward on the track of contributing towards the building of a better world for all people, will remain one of the most fascinating and inspiring chapters in human history. I'm proud of the good my country has done, and I'm proud of the people who had the courage to stand up to the status quo when evil was being done in this country's name, even in the face of overwhelming odds and with little or no hope of winning the battle. And that's the thing: the shame I feel towards despicable acts in my nation's history is outweighed by the pride I feel for the glorious cast of rebels these acts produced. Anytime this nation starts to go off the rails morally, some crazy bastard stands up and shakes their fist, and kicks off a protest or crafts some grand and revelatory piece of art or song or book or political movement that, sometimes with a slow burn, sometimes with bang, gets us back on track. I can't possibly list all the writers, artists, musicians, teachers, scientists, filmmakers, activists, and outlaws who have provided this service to their country, but their actions are all united by an art of rebelling that is uniquely American. Oftentimes Americans are stereotyped as hopelessly naive: the image of the goofy, we-can-do-anything-we-put-our-minds-to-idealist. But to me, that's an act of rebellion. To look at the world and realize everything in it is aligned against you, that you have pretty much no hope of accomplishing your dream, and then, to not give up hope, but to plunge straight into it and fight, and keep fighting for that dream until you're hamburger, that's beyond punk. Beyond outlaw. That's the spirit of true rebellion, and I think it's a spirit that is still alive and well in America today, and one that we will see manifesting more and more in these interesting times we're living through. Q: Who is the greatest American who ever lived? I'm not sure who I'd peg as the greatest American who ever lived, but my two favorite Americans are Randy Newman and Gena Rowlands.