Ye Olde Archives » OPINION: Peter Eichenberger

Breaking the noise barrier

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Summer. Time for soft breezes blowin' through open windows, music in the night, lawn parties by the grill. Ain't but June, and all I got to do is write.

I'm under strict editor's orders to take a break from the larger world, so don't look for me whuppin' up on the manipulatin' Fascist swine in D.C. this week, nosiree, unh, unh. No big picture stuff. Fine with me. Now that the lethargic dawgs at the corporate press have finally raised a sleepy ear to the Bush Co. bandits' lyin' ways, shoot, all I have to do this summer is sit back and watch the fun.

"Local" is the word for the week and the word for the day is "noise." You know:

noise n [ME, fr. OF, strife, quarrel, noise, fr. L nausea nausea] 1. :loud, confused or senseless shouting or outcry 2. a sound or sound of any sort: esp: one that lacks agreeable musical quality or is noticeably loud, harsh or discordant.

The very definition makes it clear that noise is in the ear of the beholder and when the beholding is in the hands of the posse that runs this town, fugetaboutit. Raleigh has one jumbled up mess of policies, ordinances and, more than anything else, patterns of enforcing noise issues that seem to please property owners, and simultaneously dampen city life and creativity, especially music.

Don't get me wrong, the city trots out and tolerates all sorts of pre-packaged, sanitized-for-your-protection musical events, many of which where noise rules seem to be oddly exempted and ignored. Sometimes a simple noise matter can give a hint of what those who hold the reins find worthy.

In Raleigh, you can legally operate a vehicle whose exhaust can damage hearing any old time, or run a leaf blower at 7:30 on a Saturday morning, but if your car stereo gets to the point where a police officer hears it 50 feet from the vehicle, he can, if for some reason he doesn't like you, issue a ticket (an actual city ordinance I have seen contested in District Court).

Another curiosity would be why, on a night when amplified music was blaring all over, was it that Sadlack's, "the li'l dive with the big heart," was the one that managed to conjure the visit from the Guardians of Hillsborough street.

It was a benefit--the good cause to raise money to help this beautiful autistic boy's parents pay for a treatment program. Great weather, a fabulous lineup of bands, a cook-out, kids, the whole bit. Nice ... until the show ended and up jumped Da Fuzz from the shadows with a decibel meter and a big ol' multi-charge ticket for an employee who had merely stepped up to the mike to thank everyone for supporting the cause.

Vibe now effectively killed, I trudged down Hillsborough back to the house--and soon heard another source of music--and buddy, they were blowing it out. Cranked-up-to-11-loud: a band parked safely behind the stout gates and walls of Saint Mary's School. I lay in bed and listened until sleep.

Same thing with Alive at Five, or the canned crap pouring any given night out of Jillian's, or the street shows at Foster's in Cameron Village, where from my porch on Boylan, a mile or so, I can hear the entertainment with remarkable clarity.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not grousing about the volume or the music (aside from smarmy cover tunes). What bugs me is this: elitism. This good. That bad. The regular joes get the tickets and the city on the hill gets a pass. I can only imagine what the reaction would be if somehow a punk or a reggae or, Lord help us, a hip-hop show somehow sneaked into Cameron Village --white folks would bustin' out the torches and the pitchforks.

Raleigh has never had a great deal of patience for coloring outside the lines when it comes to fun. If you've been around a while, you know what I'm talking about, for you newbies a little refresher of what things used to be like--and could be again, if Raleigh would just loosen up a little.

For all the evidence of the negative effects of city policies one could ever hope for, one could not do better than to return to the example of Hillsborough Street, which, for a couple of decades, has been on a sad, downward spiral. The neighborhood busybodies lobbied the city about the Hillsborough "problem" (drinking and such), which in turn dutifully went to work taking care of the "problem" until they sucked the life out of the street, reducing it to the current bland, tattered husk of what it was--and then folks wring their hands about-what-a-shame-it-is-about-Hillsborough-Street-and-lets-spend-a-zillion-dollars-we-don't-have-to-fix-what-didn't-used-to-need-fixing. Y'all don't like airplanes? Don't buy a house next to an airport. My sympathy is at a flatline.

(To others, sorry you missed the party. To be fair, Hillsborough probably didn't need three strip clubs interspersed by labyrinthine warrens of beer-soused students--Theta Chi meets Dante--but realistically , Chapel Hill still has a massage parlor on Franklin Street and the world hasn't stopped turning.)

And then the Raleigh city leaders actually spend money to take junkets to wherever to try to conjure a reason why no one visits, returning head a'scratched, oblivious to the entertainment liabilities sure to spring from the same old, dreary top-down agenda--all the thrills of a new Crock Pot. And yet amid the desert, there's always an ember of creativity, a small fire of creative vision and talent sputtering and popping, forever straddled by a colossus in a suit: The fool on the Boy Scout camping trip pissing out the fire.

See, in Raleigh, all entertainment venues can be (and are) targeted arbitrarily, harassed and driven out of business if the people behind the curtains decide to make an imperial decree. Boom. Gone.

If the chirpy breeder-types who run this place really wanted to up the city's out-of-town cachet, forget the big-box convention center route--a proven money-pit, aka downtown-killer. Take the lead of town like Austin, Texas, where instead of making music illegal, the city embraces it with 70-some clubs and bars where on any given night one can go out and see a legend.

I realize Raleigh would have a lengthy path, from justifying scarce funds to support a full-time noise-suppression officer, to encouraging the energy that makes Austin's Sixth Street work, but we've got a great foundation. It wouldn't take much to get a scene going, just a little nurturing of some of the abundant raw talent instead of spending money to crush it at every turn. We have more than enough local talent--but somehow while people drive from Raleigh all the time to go to shows in Chapel Hill, rarely do they come the other way--and the national reputations reflect this. There are all sorts of acts who are and have been associated with Chapel Hill. I can think of just a couple who proudly claim Raleigh as home base. Why?

Forget about boat show and sports extravaganzas. The real energy is in a vibrant day-to-day scene, a supportive habitat that encourages experimentation and practice. Artists get better by doing what they do and, for musicians, that includes small, locally owned venues and house parties.

If you want to see examples of what happens when people don't feel welcome, look at former Raleigh darlings, author David Sedaris, or musician Ryan Adams (who has stated that he will never play a gig here ever again because he wasn't supported) or any number of other talents who have fled to more challenging climes. Then compare them with the places that have been hassled out of business or are being scrutinized for every little infraction. Sad's, The Comet, The Hideaway (who had a show pissed out for lack of an up-to-date notions license, for cryin' out loud--a notion license) all the way back to the old Cameron Village Subway.

I realize there are bigger deals in a city than a music scene. But this is a perfect cultural canary. There has to be a balance between property rights and expression/lifestyle. Without that critical mix of ideas and experiences, cities and people get boring and stupid. Raleigh must finally accept differences, otherwise she runs the risk of staying what she always has been--predictable, "safe," and as surprising as ice milk, with all the planning and ideas and charettes doing no more than filling a jar that has no bottom. EndBlock

Contact Peter Eichenberger at petrblt@hotmail.com.

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