Believing in Magic – Life and Death in a Red State

I don’t remember, for sure, if it was the first time I had been to Vaudeville Mews. I don’t think it was, but if it wasn’t, those other times weren’t memorable and those experiences are lost like so many others from my early twenties. Maybe I went to see a friend’s band or maybe it was a night after too much Samuel Smith at The Royal Mile next door and I wandered in on a whim. Who can even say?

The first show I remember making an impact on me, though, was a band called Awesome Car Funmaker in 2006. I was 25-years old and lost in a world that expected me to know what I wanted at my now advanced age. Except, at 25, I was only really starting to find myself and understand who I was, what I liked and what drove me. My musical tastes were changing and my desire to hear more was growing and that’s when I saw this write-up:

I’m still not sure what grabbed me about this particular show, but I just knew I had to be there. I talked to my friend and convinced him to go along (by lying about their style and saying they were like my friend’s favorite artist Dave Matthews Band, incidentally) and we made a rare sojourn into a still not quite ready for prime time Court Avenue District.

We walked into the darkened bar, with its low ceiling and dim lights and ordered a couple of beers. We spotted an empty table on the balcony overlooking the small stage and grabbed a seat.

It sounds like hyperbole or a bullshit allusion to “Garden State”-esque hipster angst, but my life literally changed that night. It’s not like seeing ACF were akin to watching Bob Dylan in 1961 Greenwich Village or stumbling into a piss-soaked DIY venue in Aberdeen to see Nirvana in 1989, but what it was was a door opening into a whole new world of entertainment, art and life.

Here, in my town, the place of my birth, the place they called Dead Moines, was a shitty little bar on the corner of a graffitied alley that somehow was packed with real, actual magic. I knew right then that I needed to keep being part of it.

••••••

A coming of age tale is a story about the transition from childhood to adulthood. It’s a simple concept in those terms; you come of age when the trappings and wants of adolescence fade and the responsibilities of maturity begin to come into focus.

The truth about adulthood, though, is that the responsibilities never truly unblur. I mean, sure, bills become a thing and for some (like me) you start a family and are tasked with making sure your children are fed and clothed and aren’t irredeemable psychopaths.

Responsibilities are a fuzzy gray area. What are you responsible for? Are we responsible for our neighbors? Our town? Our state, country or world? Are we responsible to create and maintain a community? If yes, to what extent?

But the main question I need answered is how do you come of age as a teenager if you really don’t know what you believe?

••••••

Indianola, IA is known as the “hot air balloon capital of the world.” I don’t know if it’s actually true, but I don’t know another city that can match such a weird distinction. On the northern edge of town is a uniquely designed building housing the National Hot Air Balloon Hall of Fane and Museum. How one gets into a hot air balloon hall of fame, I have no idea. I suppose being an exceptional pilot. Or are they called gondoliers? I honestly have no clue.

On the southeastern edge of town, just outside the city limits is the balloon field. Every summer, Indianola hosts the National Hot Air Balloon Classic. For approximately a week the sky above Warren County is littered with all manner of dirigible of all shapes and colors.

I lived in Indianola for a decade and never once went to the Balloon Classic. I always thought it was neat as you crested Highway 65/69 to see them blotting out the blue sky, but my interest pretty much ended there.

In fact, the only two times I ever went to the balloon field period was to see Bill Clinton.

The first time was in 1992. I had just turned 12 and Clinton was just a candidate at this point. As we walked in, we were directed by campaign staff to grab a pre-made poster board with a piece of campaign rhetoric like “no new taxes” or whatever.

However, this was 1992 and Vice President Dan Quayle had just picked a fight with a fictional newscaster/single mom named Murphy Brown. There, in the pile of signs was one emblazoned with a simple phrase that my mom, sister and I could immediately grasp on to: NO MORE MURPHY BASHING.

I went again in 1996, this time President Bill Clinton was campaigning for re-election. I was also older and understood more of the world and what was being presented to me. I mean, I was still only 16, but it felt like eons past being a little boy holding up a sign in defense of his last name.

And I stood in that field and I listened to the man talk and I realized he was saying things that I truly believed: that health care should be available to everyone, that we should take care of the sick and the old, that war wasn’t the answer. I realized at 16 that if this is what Democrats believed, then I was a Democrat.

••••••

By 2012, I was a Vaudeville Mews regular. I had a toddler and an understanding wife, but this scene was exploding and I was going to explode with it. There were dozens of bands all on the cusp of a breakout. Artists and writers and photographers were starting to get recognition. Our city leaders were starting to get behind the idea that Dead Moines was no longer the case. We were alive, baby, and ready to take on the world.

I documented weekly shows for a popular entertainment blog, I had a side gig for the Register’s entertainment magazine and this very blog was seeing real traffic, too. Hell, I won an award! For writing! About music!

For years, I had spent so much time and energy wondering who I was. Sure, I still made my money in retail, but it was honestly to just fund the things I actually enjoyed. If I met someone or made new friends, I wasn’t introduced as Dave Murphy, Merchandise Manager at Sports Authority. I was Dave Murphy, Writer.

And the music! The music was so good. Heavyweights like Poison Control Center and Envy Corps were at their zenith. Cashes Rivers and Christopher the Conquered were ready to burst out as singer/songwriters. The Ames/Fairfield pipeline brought in Trouble Lights, Little Ruckus and Mumford’s. Annalibera and Tires were just starting to make waves. It seemed like every night, there was something to check out.

Beyond the city, though, our country was starting to progress. Seemingly gone were the GW Bush era wars for no reason, dead economy and lack of healthcare. In its place was a charismatic and caring man named Barack Obama and an administration that wanted everyone to have healthcare, that wanted rights for the LGBTQ community and that wanted our country to succeed.

I saw Obama as the man to finally usher in the things this country needed to truly be great. He was going to fix our healthcare and protect the poor and needy and end our insatiable need for warfare. I believed in him so much that I had no time for differing opinions. I believed what I believed, and you believed what you believed and we’d let bygones be bygones because ultimately, my guy was going to come through and help everyone, no matter who they supported or voted for.

We were almost there. We were so close…

••••••

2020 was and is a catastrophe. We went from a president we thought cared for us to a game show host/businessman/dipshit who 100% did not. Literally the only thing that saved us from Donald Trump’s malevolence was his and his staff’s incompetence. It still didn’t save us from being decimated by a pandemic. It didn’t save families trying to escape violence in Central America from having their children stolen from them for the apparent unforgivable crime of searching for amnesty. It didn’t keep our judicial branch being turned into a fundamentalist haven. It didn’t stop our protected natural spaces from being opened up to pillage by industries already destroying the planet.

It also made a lot of us look in hindsight to the politicians we once revered. Some sought strength but others, others like me, saw failures that lead to this moment. I was forced to think about the presidents I revered and realized that they didn’t come through. We were still at war, still had people dying or going bankrupt by illness or injury when it wasn’t necessary, still had billionaires with exorbitant net worths while people toiled for less than $8 an hour.

Meanwhile, here in Iowa the state got more and more conservative. State funding trended away from arts and away from education. Even worse, I was forced to look straight ahead at the bygones and realize that they were people I could no longer trust or accept.

••••••

2020 was also the year Vaudeville Mews died. It wasn’t much of a money maker as it was, but being forced to close for several months because of a global pandemic was too much to handle.

Thing is, this whole Iowa music thing kinda sputtered out, anyway. By 2020, so many of the promising artists either skipped town or gave up. Sure, there’s some great music still out there, and some great artists still working really hard, and labels and other venues still doing their best but the magic just doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

I’ll freely admit, though, that maybe I just aged out of this. I’m old now with two kids and a constantly dwindling bank account. Maybe there is still a scene (or would be one if there wasn’t a pandemic). It’s also possible that I’m personally bitter that I’m not Dave Murphy, Writer anymore and am instead Dave Murphy, 5 Times Laid Off in a Decade Loser.

Maybe we didn’t miss out on something. Maybe I did.

•••••

I am 40-years old now. Unemployed and restless. I am so focused on the loss and the negativity that I’m beginning to feel a physical toll. My face and teeth hurt from how clenched I keep my jaw. My stomach is constantly churning. My shoulders are tight and my lower back aches. My hypochondria is out of control. But through this negativity comes clarity.

I understand my responsibilities now. It’s to take care of my family and myself, sure, but that’s not all. It is also to make sure my neighbors are safe and fed and clothed. It’s to make sure people don’t die unjustly. It’s to make sure there’s room for art in an increasingly demanding capitalistic hellscape. We need to ignore the insurance companies whose large buildings shadow our downtown streets and organizations like the Greater Des Moines Partnership who only care if you’re a warm body that can fill a cube for said insurers until such time they find you expendable. We need to embrace the artists for who they are. I don’t have the ability to do that on my own, sadly, but if the right people run for the offices, we can turn this around.

Sure, Iowa is darker red than it was even in 2016, but that shouldn’t discourage us. Borders are irrelevant in the long run. I’ll stick to my city for guidance, if i must grasp for a silver lining, but if we follow those simple things in the above paragraph and really commit, I think that dark hue starts to turn more and more blue. Ousting Donald Trump is a good first step, but we need to have a government that provides for the people in our communities instead of one that enriches big business and hope that everything else comes out in the wash. Wealth should be the result of investing in our community but instead we’re investing in wealth with the hope community is the result and it just doesn’t work that way.

Vaudeville Mews didn’t have to die. This scene didn’t have to suffer. Art can be made for art’s sake. You can come of age at 40, you just have to know what you believe in.

I believe in people. I believe in community. I believe in art. I believe in magic. Because, by god, it sure seems like magic is what it’s going to take.

We were almost there once. We can still get there.

I was almost there once. I can still get there.

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