music friday: pour out a little liquor for tupac

(I wrote this in 1996 for the journal Bad Subjects. I am reprinting it here, slightly edited, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This feels very 1996 to me.)

Pour Out a Little Liquor for Tupac

Four or five years ago, my daughter Sara went down to Berkeley Square with a friend to see Raw Fusion, one of the many spin-offs from Digital Underground. Sara was 13 or 14, and she was kinda sweet on DU's Money B, so when the group hit the stage, she went straight to the front. Late in the show, a couple of assholes started some shit, someone sprayed mace, and Sara and her friend snuck backstage to get away from the crap. She was totally enthralled, as well she should have been. Among the folks hanging out at that show was Tupac Shakur, who was another one of the Digital Undergrounders back in the day. Sara remembers him with a beer in each hand, very down-to-earth, just chillin'. Berkeley Square is very small, and it says something about the easy feeling of community that can emerge around local music acts that there was room in the tiny club for rapstars-to-be and young teenage fans. 

I've been thinking about a recent thread on the Bad Subjects mailing list about generational stereotypes. And I've been reading Todd Gitlin's book on culture wars. And there's been a long-lasting and very fruitful discussion going on at our house lately between me and Sara and her brother Neal, about an upcoming album track by Vallejo rapper B-Legit that features Daryl Hall from Hall and Oates. And all of these thoughts come together in my mind when I think about Tupac's stupid death (as if death was ever anything but stupid). 

Gitlin argues that the left has become fragmented partly because we have lost our ability to think in terms of commonalities. He attacks identity politics for many of the reasons Bad Subjects does, noting that while the left emphasizes difference, the right latches onto a fake-but-effective commonality, best represented by the image of President Ronald Reagan. Gitlin draws a line back through the 60s (as he always does) and beyond, to show why he thinks the left fell victim to this fragmentation, in effect celebrating the fragmentation under the multicultural umbrella. 

Some folks on the Bad List have noted that the 60s generation was different from the 70s, or the 80s, or the 90s, while others have said "hogwash." Meanwhile I am thinking about the notion of community, both narrowly defined as it can be when identity politics hold the upper hand (I am a Spaniard), and more broadly defined as it can be when commonalities hold us (I am one with all oppressed peoples). The Me Decade, Gen X, and other derogatory stereotypes are attached to various post-60s generations, but Gitlin seems to be saying that the memory of the 60s as a time of great community is false, that the roots of 90s fragmentation can be found in those 60s. 

And my kids are 18 and 21, and they have their own notions of community. They are not children of the 60s, for sure. Not even children of the 70s: when I used to go to Berkeley Square in the 70s, it was to see punk, not rap, but times change. 

And now B-Legit, one of the many hot Vallejo rappers currently making some great music, has gotten Daryl Hall to do a reworking of the old "Sara Smile" song. My kids and their friends are all totally excited about this. They don't much remember Hall and Oates, but they love that B-Legit has gotten Daryl Hall on his new album. I've talked to them about this a few times in the last couple of weeks. I don't understand why they'd want a hot, current artist to go back and drag up some leftover from another time. B-Legit should be making his own music, not dragging Daryl Hall into the mix. But Neal and Sara tell me that they'll be happy if even one Hall and Oates fan takes a listen to the new song and decides that B-Legit is good. I try to insist on a generation-gap reading of this stuff, but then my kids tell me "our music doesn't always have to be about rebellion, that's YOUR thing." It would have crushed me to think my parents liked my music, but my kids are happy if I like their tunes. They love B-Legit and the whole V-Town music scene, they want to share it with everyone, and if Daryl Hall can get more people to hear the V-Town sound, then, as Neal is always saying, "It's all good." 

That is to say, my kids are part of a community based in part on their love of particular styles of music, but that isn't enough. They want the whole world to be a part of that community. In their way, they are rejecting the notion that we must be fragmented in the 1990s, and are instead grasping for a larger community where "It's all good." 

As soon as the news of Tupac's death hit the wires, the two main "urban contemporary" radio stations in the area started into Tupac mode, playing his music, playing interviews with him, playing Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday," which may be the standard song for such situations now. The DJs stepped out of their usual act to talk about what had happened, even making tiny and perhaps soon to be forgotten steps towards connecting the music they play on their stations, the music that Tupac made, with what happened to Tupac when the gunmen opened fire. And they took calls from the folks in the community. Community, there's that word again. 

Of course, Tupac, through his music, through his art, through his public persona, is not blameless in the events that led to his death. And gangsta rap culture is not blameless in the events that magnify the fragmentation of our culture. Too much of gangsta rap culture is based on the narrow version of community, not a reaching out for recognition of the common ground of all oppressed people as much as an exaggeration of the Us versus Them mentality that too often drives identity politics. East Coast vs. West Coast, revolting sexism and homophobia, sometimes so awful you understand people throwing up their hands in disgust and joining in with the Tipper Gores and Delores Tuckers. But as I type this I'm listening to the radio and they're talking about Tupac, and I'm thinking about my kids, who are not happy right now, and I'm thinking about Sara going to see Money B back in the day, and I'm thinking about how my own kids understand the importance of Daryl Hall in 1996 better than I do, and I think there is still a chance that community can recover its broader definitions, can defeat the self-marginalized, I-got-mine-I-hope-you-got-yours "community" that can't see beyond its own self-interest. But it's still hard. When I was growing up, I didn't have any rituals surrounding death. No one ever died, it sometimes seemed. But my kids, they're fucking 21 and 18 years old, and they have death rituals, people dying ain't an abstraction to them. They're out somewhere right now, pouring some beer on the ground for their dead homies. And on the radio, Tupac is singing: 

How many brothas fell victim to tha streets

 Rest in peace, young nigga, there's a heaven for a G

 Be a lie if I told ya that I never thought of death

 My niggas, we tha last ones left

 But life goes on

 

I wrote the above words a few weeks ago, the night Tupac died. I've had a chance to think about those words, revise them a bit, and I've also had a chance to read the tens of thousands of words others have written about Tupac and his death. I'm not sure how many people realize what an impact Tupac has had and is having, not only on hip-hop culture but among all the regular folks who might not have explicitly identified themselves with that culture but who loved his art nonetheless. Comparisons to Kurt Cobain are appropriate, including a note of the different ways members of various subcultures respond. My guess is that at least some readers of Bad Subjects were deeply affected by Kurt's death, and that most readers would understand that Kurt Cobain was "important." I also guess that Tupac Shakur would not seem as "important" to many Bad Readers, and that fewer of them are deeply affected by his death, although I could be wrong. In both cases, we have a recognition that the fragmentation of daily life during the reign of Taste Cultures makes different people important to different peoples, that Kurt Cobain is important to particular subcultures but that nothing universal is to be learned from him. There is another recognition, that there is a hierarchy among subcultures, that while Kurt Cobain can not speak to anything universal, what he does speak to is more "important" than what Tupac Shakur spoke to. There is an easier recognition of Kurt Cobain as Artist than there is for 2Pac. 

Most commentary on Tupac in the aftermath of his death continues the simplistic "analysis" of his art that existed prior to his shooting. People latch onto what is easy, no matter from what perspective you approach the situation. Tupac is good or he is bad, he is a saint or he is evil. Everyone has evidence to support their opinion, and everyone who takes this simplistic, easy approach is required to ignore all contradictory evidence. So Tupac's fans cite his touching, realistic ode to his "Dear Mama" while his detractors point to his jail term for sexual assault, and no one bothers to investigate the possibility that Tupac Shakur, like all human beings, was a complex individual who lived among other complex individuals in complex times. If we can reduce Tupac to a single element, if we can turn him into a symbol, our own lives are easier. Tupac will not force us to re-evaluate our own lives. We will file him under whatever narrow label matches our preconceptions, and we will forget about his life and his art. 

And this would be an insult to Tupac's art, which asks that we do not take the simple and easy way out, which gets in our faces and demands that we actually think about the deep implications of his work. Too much of what has arisen in the past weeks insults Tupac by drowning in simplicity. He was not a saint, he is not the devil, he was not one single thing at all. 

Tupac sang, "Only God can judge me, nobody else, all you other muthafuckas get out of my business." We answer to no one but ourselves and "god"; I am not responsible for you, you are not responsible for me. It's a 90s rap replay of Fritz Perls in the 60s: 

 I do my thing, and you do your thing.

 I am not in this world to live up to your expectations

 And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

 You are you, and I am I,

 And if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.

 If not, it can't be helped.

It's a celebration of fragmentation. 

But Tupac's art is not that simple. He may claim that only God can judge him, but he must have known the power of his own music to affect others. We who listened were being connected to him in a larger way than is possible when we owe nothing to no one. And because Tupac's art is not simple, we see this in his own songs, as when he describes being shot five times in an earlier shooting:

 How did it come to this?

 I wish they didn't miss

 Somebody help me

 Tell me where to go from here

 Cuz even thugs cry

 But do the Lord care?

Tupac is commonly vilified for his misogyny, for which there is indeed little if any excuse. Dave Marsh, in an intelligent and heartfelt defense of Tupac in Addicted To Noise, might note that "Tupac was sent to prison for a crime that white rock stars have committed, and continue to commit, with absolute impunity," but that doesn't justify Tupac, it only explains what happens to the Tupacs of the world in comparison to other more privileged artists. Nevertheless, as Marsh and other Tupac champions point out, Tupac's work could be far more respectful of women than his image would imply, most famously in "Keep Ya Head Up":

 And when he tells you

 You ain't nothin', don't believe him

 And if he can't learn to love you

 You should leave him ...

 I know you're fed up ladies,

 But keep your head up

Ultimately, the misogyny or lack of same in Tupac's work mainly serves those who would think simplistically, misogyny being so prevalent in gangsta rap that it becomes far too easy to merely add Tupac's name to the list of sexist rappers to be condemned. The bigger problem, I think, comes not from the attitudes of either "Keep Ya Head Up" or its opposite, but in the combination of machismo and individualism that informs "Only God Can Judge Me." It is, again, too easy to merely say that Tupac's art is "what killed him" (a notion expressed by fans and detractors alike, with one side sadly but with admiration crying "live by the sword die by the sword" while the other side screams the same, but without admiration, and at some level are glad that he "got what he deserved"). However, it is safe to say that whatever elements of Tupac's life and art that contributed to the situation which ended in his death, he was not killed because of his attitudes towards women. Valerie Solanas was not in the car with the shooters.

 Each and every black male's trapped

 And they wonder why we suicidal

 Runnin' around strapped

 Mr. Police

 Please try to see

 That there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me

Tupac, one of the "black males trapped," demands respect, in the absence of anything better to live for. "I'd rather die like a man than live like a coward." Because he insists on his existence as an isolated individual that only God can judge, because Tupac accepts on one level an ideology of the power of American individualism, he sees every attack on his life in personal terms. He wants other muthafuckas out of his business; if they interfere, it's personal, it needs to be addressed on a personal level. This seems true even though Tupac expresses great love for his homies (a love that gets artistic expression via the interaction of various friends on each other's albums). It appears that while one should always be there for your partners, ultimately, it comes down to "my" business. What begins as a cartoonish version of two tough guys blowing ass at each other on a playground escalates into something far more horrific, as if the very escalation itself is the meaning of life, as if the demand for respect overrides any other considerations. And, of course, the refusal and removal of respect for one's enemies becomes a way of getting respect for yourself, with this "playa hatin" then becoming an excuse for a hatin' response. 

And so Tupac put a song called "Hit `Em Up" on a release of a single from his latest album. Tupac had always blamed Biggie Smalls for being behind his earlier shooting, and in this song, Tupac offers his reply. As a song, it's terrific, led by the bass line to Dennis Edwards and Siedah Garrett's "Don't Look Any Further" that had already been effectively sampled by Eric B & Rakim in "Paid in Full", and propelled by a dynamic vocal performance from Tupac. In the right frame of mind, one might even laugh at some of the razzing Tupac sends Biggie's way. After announcing up front that "you claim to be a playa, but I fucked your wife," Tupac gives the mic to his friends, saying that Biggie and his crew are so far beneath Tupac's level that he doesn't even know why he bothers to appear on the song. He disses the shooters ("five shots couldn't drop me"), but gradually, the bile increases: "Fuck you and your muthafuckin' mama, we gonna kill all you muthafuckas." And then Tupac lays it down, sounding less and less like Joey Ramone singing about beating on the brat and more and more like Johnny Rotten scrabbling at the Berlin Wall. Tupac means it, maaan. He chants a mantra of hate at his enemies. "Fuck Mobb Deep! Fuck Biggie! Fuck Bad Boy!" ... the list goes on to include any who would side with the wrong ones: "Fuck You Too!" And finally: 

 All y'all muthafuckas

 FUCK YOU

 DIE SLOW MUTHAFUCKA

 My .44 make sure

 ALL your kids don't grow!

As Tupac sings in "Only God Can Judge Me," "They say it's the white man I should fear, but it's my own kind doin' all the killin' here." 

We're a long way from community, here, but as with all of Tupac's art, it isn't that simple. For he tells us, "Please try to see that there's a million muthafuckas stressin' just like me." What killed Tupac is the denial of those million muthafuckas in the face of rampant individualism, the insistence on the personal, the rejection of everything outside one's self. Tupac gets respect, he's thug `til he dies, but "now ya gone, and all I got left are stinkin' memories." If those million muthafuckas came together, what then? If we refused the simple answer, refused to accept as inevitable the ideology of the individual, overcame fragmentation and our own personal demons, and banded together as a community of muthafuckas, what then? Who would we fight? Who are the real enemies? 

"If love truly is going out of fashion forever, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak to your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing: we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying good-bye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you." 

-- Lester Bangs, August 29, 1977 

 

Copyright © 1996, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.

 


oh bondage up yours!

(I wrote this in 1993 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. I have added a video at the end.)

Oh Bondage Up Yours!: Thoughts on the Rhino Punk Anthology 

'Thus, as soon as the original innovations which signify 'subculture' are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become 'frozen.' Once removed from their private contexts by small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.'
---Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style

1977: While I'm browsing in Rather Ripped Records of Berkeley, the in-store stereo begins playing one of the most powerful pieces of rock and roll I have ever heard. I stand transfixed until the song is over; when it ends, I go up to the counter and ask the clerk, 'What WAS that?' He sneers at me with know-it-all superiority and says, 'The Sex Pistols.'

January 14, 1978: I am at Winterland, the aging ex-home of ice shows, turned into a rock emporium by Bill Graham (and soon to be torn down forever, though the name lives on in the souvenir company that sells rock and roll tee-shirts). The Sex Pistols take the stage for what will turn out to be their last concert ever (so far), and the crowd begins the most awesome display of audience participation I have ever witnessed. The Pistols are used to playing clubs; Winterland holds 5,000. It is the biggest crowd in Sex Pistols history, and Johnny Rotten, at least, hates it. People begin throwing things at the band, not just the usual wadded-up paper cups, but money, toilet paper rolls and dead flowers. Rotten hangs on the mike stand, dodging the missiles, and though I am perhaps halfway back of the old auditorium, I can see the piercing intelligence of his demonic eyes as he badgers the audience and sings our favorites: 'Anarchy for the USA' indeed. He paces the stage, pocketing the most useful debris, asking 'Cameras? Anyone got any cameras?' (and sure enough, what looks like a camera flies through the air and lands at his feet). Greil Marcus described his own reactions to the show in Lipstick Traces

Walking the aisles of Winterland as the Sex Pistols played, I felt a confidence and a lust that were altogether new. Thirty-two years had not taught me what I learned that night: when you're pushed, push back; when a shove negates your existence, negate the shove. I felt distant from nothing, superior to nothing. I also felt a crazy malevolence, a wish to smash people to the ground, and my eyes went to the ground, where I saw small children (what sort of parents would bring little kids to a place like this, I wondered, thinking of my own at home), and thought of smashing them. 

My own reactions were odd variations of those Marcus was experiencing. Surrounded by the largest display of public nihilism I had ever participated in ('real' or 'fake' seemed unimportant at the time), my thoughts kept going back to MY children, not only my two-and-a-half year old son, but the daughter who it turned out was born the very next afternoon. Perhaps it was the thoughts of my daughter-to-be, but in the midst of all that spectacular malevolence, I was happy. To be a part of 5,000 people singing 'NO FUTURE!' in unison seemed somehow both the most negative and most positive statement possible. Camus once pointed out that to refuse suicide is to accept life; in refusing the future we had been offered, we were accepting something more unknown, more frightening, more wonderful.

Winter 1993: Amidst rumors of a Sex Pistols reunion tour, Rhino Records, anthologizer to the Boomer generation, releases a series of volumes called DiY ('Do it Yourself') that encapsulate the punk moment as it appeared on record. I snap up a few of the volumes right away, and find myself one night driving my now-teenaged son's car down the freeway, listening to Anarchy In the UK: UK Punk I. An old favorite comes on, 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' by X-Ray Spex. This single, and their one great album, Germfree Adolescents, had been very hard to come by in America; I can remember listening to 'Oh Bondage' on the radio many times, but I never actually saw a copy of it, and I never even heard Germfree until a friend made me a copy of his import version. But now, here was that classic song, easy to find in the CD era of endless anthologizing, and I was happy.

Poly Styrene, the lead singer with braces, led off with her wonderful British accent, calmly speaking without accompaniment: 'Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think ...' and then she upped the stakes, screaming into the void, 'OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS! ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!' And the band kicked in, led by Lora Logic's amazing amateurish sax playing, and I drove down the road, bouncing like Wayne and Garth in Wayne's World, alone with my music and my memories, singing along as best I could: 'Nyah nyah nyah nyah chain me to the wall, I wanna be a slave nyah nyah, Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More! Oh Bondage! Up Yours! Oh Bondage! No More!' At that moment, I loved Rhino Records.

 

It probably isn't a question of whether or not punk rock died that night in Winterland. The Sex Pistols died, maybe; but punk and Sex Pistols were never completely interchangeable terms. Much terrific punk rock music has been made in the fifteen years since the Sex Pistols broke up, not only by Pistols contemporaries like The Clash but by the many children of punk: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements in Minnesota, X in Los Angeles, the Seattle grunge bands of today. No, punk rock didn't necessarily die at Winterland, but what about rock and roll itself, the music which 'defined a generation'? Did the Sex Pistols really bring on the end of rock and roll, as Johnny Rotten, now using his 'real' name of John Lydon, claimed in the post-Pistols years?

Many of us who believed in the notion that rock and roll represented liberation welcomed punk with open arms in the late 70s. Our music had gotten too cautious, too worried about the bottom line; punk rock was for us a return to the rebellious roots of rock and roll, filtered through Iggy and the Dolls and stamped with intentional ugliness. Many of our contemporaries took one listen to the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones or Flipper or whichever band first interrupted their contemplations, and decided in a seeming instant that it was time to grow up. They changed the buttons on their car radio from 'underground' stations to oldies, classic rock, and Tom Petty; they might tolerate the so-called New Wave, but they weren't about to listen to a group called the Dead Kennedys. Those of us who embraced punk adopted the sneer of the Rather Ripped clerk: we had seen the future of rock and roll, and it was playing on college radio, not KFOG. In distancing ourselves from the oldies fans, we thought we were placing ourselves in the forefront of the elder statesperson wing of the New Rock and Roll. We perhaps never noticed that punk wasn't the beginning of a new era, but the end of an old one.

For an era must have passed before it becomes grist for the nostalgia mill. And nostalgia is partly what I was experiencing as I sang along with Poly Styrene: 'This is what it used to be like' fueled my joy just as much as did Lora Logic's saxophone. The incongruities involved in listening to 'Oh Bondage' on my son's car stereo were unimportant as long as the song was playing. In 1977 'Oh Bondage! Up Yours!' was a call to end the bondage; in 1993, it was a call to remember a time when our bondage was different than it is now. The cultural force of 'Oh Bondage!' in 1977 was empowering; the stagnation of the mid-70s, economic, artistic, psychic and social, was confronted with a NO so emphatic it became an affirmation, an insistence that things did not have to remain as they were. But in 1993, 'Oh Bondage!' in part represents a trip back to the good old days. We love Rhino Records, because we get one last chance to stare down bondage, but as long as we are dealing with remembered bondage, we are powerless. Only by using Poly Styrene's cry as a weapon against our current, ongoing, bondage, can we be true to the spirit of 1977.

If we accept 'Oh Bondage Up Yours!' solely on the terms of the Rhino reissue, as a formerly-rare artifact now offered to CD owners who want to complete their collections, then we are acquiescing in the process described by Dick Hebdige at the top of this essay: subcultural innovation becomes 'codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise.' Hebdige is not the only cultural studies scholar who believes there is a potential for dissent within the complex processes in which commodities and consumers interact, but if such against-the-grain reading of texts is difficult even at the moment when sub-cultural innovation first presents itself, how much harder is it when it must be performed in an atmosphere of nostalgia, which is ultimately only memories served up to us by others for their own purposes? Rhino Records is not interested in reproducing the social and artistic milieu that spawns an X- Ray Spex; they are only interested in creating a nostalgia for that milieu, for the purpose of selling albums. 

Of course, record companies have always been interested in selling albums; this was no different in 1977. But the tensions of 1977, in the period between the initial sub-cultural innovation and its inevitable commodification, lay partly in the desire of the exploiters to encourage a continuation of the then-current social malaise (which would create more artifacts to be exploited) and partly in the desire of the innovators to resist exploitation. With the later onset of nostalgia, our memories are exploited, the innovators are long busy elsewhere, and the tensions have disappeared. Those who 'remember when' have their memories stripped of the tension that provided a foundation for thought and action; those who are hearing this music for the first time are hearing it stripped of the social context that was equally important in making this music 'matter.' In both cases it is possible to make X-Ray Spex matter once again, this essay itself being one attempt to get beyond cheap nostalgia. But the disappearance of the social context makes listening to X-Ray Spex in 1993 a personal, individual experience; contrast my singing alone in a car with the communal nihilism of the last Sex Pistols concert.

Once there was a punk moment, when 'We mean it, maaaaan!' was not ironic, when you could, for a second or a minute or a lifetime, throw off bondage. This moment was quickly codified; the pathetic Sid Vicious, not the more dangerous Johnny Rotten, became the primary icon of the early punks, and New Wave (hello, Talking Heads) was the recording industry's money-making response to Punk (goodbye, X-Ray Spex). It is possible, even likely, that those who once heard a great and awful roar in 1977 are willing to settle for a Rhino reissue in 1993. But such a nostalgic settlement does not connect us with our past, but instead denies it.

Copyright © 1993, 2019 by Steven Rubio . All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.


smells like jobs

I wrote this in 1994 for the journal Bad Subjects. It was anthologized in a book in 1997. I am reprinting it here, because the Bad Subjects website has been down for what feels like years. This is slightly edited ... I never liked the ending, so I've removed the final sentence, which isn't a very good fix, since now it just seems truncated.

Smells Like Jobs

Geography made me what I am today.

I was fourteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I lived about thirty-five miles from San Francisco. I listened to the emerging hippie counterculture on something called the FM dial, where 'underground radio' was being born before my ears. My geographical proximity to San Francisco allowed me to experience this new phenomenon without leaving my house. Which was just as well, since when I left my house and entered the world of my hometown, Antioch, I couldn't have been further from the Summer of Love, Antioch's geographical proximity to San Francisco notwithstanding.

Antioch was at that time a mostly blue-collar town of around 15,000. My father's parents had moved to Antioch from Spain in the late 1910s; my father was born and raised in Antioch; when my mother was pregnant with me, the family moved into a new tract home in Antioch, where I was born and raised along with two brothers and two sisters. There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected, despite the obligatory complaining when the town reeked of rotten ketchup.

My father was a white-collar worker. After trying his hand at various enterprises he had finally found some success as a real-estate agent, working hard in his own business, becoming probably the second-largest realtor in town. We were only thirty-five miles from San Francisco; my mother, who grew up in Berkeley, I suspect had occasional visions of a life beyond Antioch; both of my parents were excellent bridge players. And so they spent many a weekend in San Francisco, staying in nice hotels, playing and sometimes winning bridge tournaments. Over the years I've had many opportunities to talk with my parents' peers about those years, and a congenial envy always enters into the reminiscing. To someone living in Antioch, my parents' lives had a touch of glamour. Nothing exciting ever happened in Antioch; our most famous residents were football Hall-of-Famer Gino Marchetti and the Mitchell Brothers, purveyors of porn. At least my parents got to visit San Francisco.

I was raised a good suburban white boy, interesting in itself since Antioch was far from suburban in those days (it has since fallen victim to suburban sprawl, simultaneously losing many of its factories and gaining tens of thousands of white-collar suburban residents). It was all geographic, of course, with various elements of the landscape conspiring to isolate Antioch from the big city. San Francisco Bay separated The City itself from the East Bay cities of Oakland and Berkeley, which had their own urban character, connected to San Francisco and yet unique. The Berkeley Hills separated these urban environments from the suburbs proper. To get to these suburbs, you drove through the Caldecott Tunnel; you could mark the relative affluence of a community on this side by simply noting how far it was from the tunnel. The richest places were the closest, and every resident of East Contra Costa County clearly understood this. People from Moraga and Orinda were richer than people from Lafayette, who were richer than the people in Walnut Creek, who were better-off than the residents of Concord. Concord was very low-rent compared to Moraga; it existed at the margins of suburbia. Then came more hills, geography once again intruding. If you were on the wrong side of those hills, you weren't suburban, no matter how close you were to San Francisco. You were blue-collar. Closer to the hills, in Pittsburg and Antioch, you lived in a mill town. Farther away from the hills, in Oakley and Brentwood and Knightsen, you lived in a rural town. Wherever you lived on the wrong side of the hills, you knew you were not suburban, which didn't stop many families from trying their best to be suburban anyway. If your father was a successful realtor and you had a newfangled FM radio, you could pretend that you had somehow risen above your station, but the smell of jobs always worked as a corrective.

More geography: attached to Pittsburg, between that town and the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, was a little place called West Pittsburg. Whatever bad might have been said about Pittsburg, you always assumed it wasn't as bad as West Pittsburg. West in this case meant Worst, Worst meaning lower-class. West Pittsburg was not immune to the spread of suburbia, though, and one morning its new residents woke up and realized when they told locals that they lived in West Pittsburg, those locals assumed the Worst. And so the town changed its name; next time you're in the area, don't forget to check out Bay Point, where the Worst hides behind the Point.

Still more geography: Pittsburg and Antioch were adjacent to each other, with a hazily-defined no man's land between. Teenagers marked this quasi-neutral zone by Hazel's Drive-In, where kids from Antioch could get a burger and maybe meet up with some of the enemies from Pittsburg. (Hazel's was on a long road called the Pittsburg-Antioch Highway, the dumpiest highway I've ever seen.) Pittsburg had a few more people than Antioch in those days, and since factory work ranked higher on the upward-mobility scale than farm labor, and since Pittsburg was almost entirely factory-oriented while Antioch was in the middle of the factories and the farms, Pittsburg was also a bit more prestigious than Antioch, although in reality those two ranges of hills separating us from San Francisco effectively eliminated any chance in those days of true prestige. (Thirty years later, the needs of suburban sprawl have finally broken down these barriers, of course.) In any event, there was little to distinguish the two small towns from each other in the 1960s, with the exception of one factor which again had a kind of geographical locus, in that it helped establish beyond a shadow of a doubt exactly where was the border between the two: there were no black people in Antioch.

Geography is everything and nothing. Antioch was less than an hour's drive from liberal, diverse cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, yet we were as segregated as Selma, Alabama. More segregated, in fact, or rather, we weren't segregated at all; there was no need for a separate but equal rule in Antioch, because there were no black people to keep separate. Black people lived in Pittsburg, but not a single one lived in Antioch. The radio again: Pittsburg had a radio station, and late at night I could listen to broadcasts emanating from only half a dozen miles away, presenting a culture I could never hope to participate in. Pittsburg was on the chitlin circuit, and I would hear advertisements for James Brown and His Famous Flames or Little Junior Parker. The Hardest Working Man In Show Business would perform a stone's throw from my own house, and I knew I couldn't, wouldn't go, and not just because I was only twelve years old. It was simply a different world.

Antioch had Mexicans; they were 'our' minority. But we had no black people. My parents were very concerned about this, and I owe them an unpayable debt for their efforts to raise a family that wasn't inflamed with prejudice. We had black housekeepers, which wasn't that odd. Most white families in Antioch would hire a black housekeeper if they had the money. (We did, presumably because my father was a successful realtor. Eventually he was arrested for real-estate fraud and we learned where the money had come from all those years. We also lost the housekeepers.) But we also had black babysitters, and that was odd. You didn't let those people care for your children, after all. And our church had a black family as members, and they became good friends with my family, and they came to our house, and this all seems pitifully inadequate now, but at the time, it was important and necessary, and for the most part my parents did not act out of simple guilt. They lived without grandstanding (the positive morals we learned from this were interestingly contrasted to the ethics we pondered when our father went to jail).

We had no blacks, but we had Mexicans. My own place in this world was problematic, however, because while I wasn't Mexican, and while I was being raised 'white,' I was in fact half-Spanish. The meaning of being Spanish mostly eluded me as I grew up. My mother was in many ways a typical middle-class housewife of her era, and my father was most certainly traditional-minded about how a home was managed, and so it was my mother who composed and cooked the meals, and my mother was far from Spanish. She was an adventurous cook, and we ate everything from Chinese to Mexican to Italian, but we never ate Spanish food unless my grandmother sent some over. My father never spoke Spanish in the home, so there was no way to identify our heritage with the language. Outside of my grandmother's thick accent when she spoke English, and the occasional batch of Spanish rice she would cook for us, I lived the life of a whiteboy, albeit a whiteboy with 'yellow' skin (I hadn't learned the meaning of the phrase 'olive-skinned' and so spent years of my childhood comparing my color to that of the white and Mexican kids and concluding I had a life-long case of jaundice).

Except, again, there was a geographical angle. My grandmother lived in the same house her husband had built for her when they came to Antioch in the 1910s, the same house my father and all of his brothers and sisters were born in. This house was in the 'old' section of Antioch, and it was the oddest thing: while there were times when I thought the only Spanish people in the world were the Rubio family and perhaps a few flamenco artists who showed up on the Ed Sullivan Show, when I would visit my grandmother I couldn't help noticing that her next-door neighbor, and the old folks just around the corner, and maybe three-fourths of all the older people in a two-block radius around my grandmother's house, all of these people were Spanish. There was, in this lily-white town which used Chicanos for their local color, a tiny enclave of Spanish expatriates who watched the Spanish-language television station and hung velvet paintings of bullfighters on their walls. These people all looked like my grandmother, they all talked like my grandmother ... although it wasn't nearly as obvious as the invisible geographic marker separating white Antioch from the mixture that was Pittsburg, nonetheless the geographic lines were there. Antioch had a 'Little Spain!'

I never identified with that Little Spain. I wasn't embarrassed by my Spanish heritage, although I can't take much credit for this attitude. I don't think it occurred to me that other families didn't have grandmothers who spoke with accents. But I never really associated myself with the Spanish part of me. Not that I didn't absorb things subconsciously. In an introductory Spanish class I took at Berkeley when I was in my thirties, my teacher told me early in the semester that my family was from Andalusia, an accurate conclusion he came to because it turned out I spoke Spanish with an Andalusian accent, although my father never spoke the language in our home. Geography made me, indeed.

But I didn't identify myself as Spanish when I was growing up. I was from Antioch. This, more than my ethnic background, more than my father's occupation, more than anything else about me, was what identified me to the outside world. Geography made me who I was: someone from Antioch. And I was most definitely embarrassed by this. To be from Antioch was to be from nowhere. Even worse, to be from Antioch, in the context of the San Francisco Bay Area, was to be from the wrong side of the hills. In the Summer of Love, you could go to San Francisco and smell incense in the air; 35 miles away in Antioch, all we could smell was jobs. (And later, after I married, when I went to work in a local factory, I, too, began smelling like jobs.)

A year after I married my sweetheart from Antioch High School, we moved to Berkeley, where we have lived happily for the past twenty years, with the exception of a two-year period around 1980 when a few bad breaks brought us back to Antioch, where we lived in a newish suburban enclave and smelled what was left of the jobs. It was the worst two years of our marriage, and I can't help but think it was once again a matter of geography messing with my self-esteem: for 18 of the last 20 years, I have been proud to say 'I am from Berkeley,' but for two years, I had to admit I was from Antioch, and I couldn't bear the thought, and I ended up one night standing in the middle of the street in our calm suburban enclave, screaming and crying at nothing until my wife came to take me to the hospital.

A few years later, I visited Spain for the first time. I stood on the balcony of the hostel where we spent our first night. It was dark; I couldn't see anything. But I could smell the Mediterranean Sea. And though we were in Catalonia, on the opposite end of the country from Andalusia where the Rubios once lived, I loved that smell, it didn't smell at all of jobs, it smelled of Spain, and I felt like I had come home.

A month or so after we returned from our vacation in Spain, I quit my job at the factory and returned to school. Once in awhile, my wife will get a whiff of some cleanser, and she'll say 'that's what you used to smell like. When you came home from working in the factory, you smelled like hand-cleaner.' I smelled like jobs. I haven't smelled like a job in years.

When I visit Antioch now, I feel like a tourist. I don't recall, as I type, if it still smells like jobs. I used to be from Antioch. Now I am from Berkeley. This feels too easy, somehow, as if I could wipe all traces of Antioch from my existence by merely moving away. We are, ultimately, more than our geography, which isn't to negate all I have said in this essay: geography makes me part of what I am today, all of my geographies, past, present and future.

Copyright © 1994, 2019 by Steven Rubio. All rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.