Lost in the Flood

Does it really matter if a few Miami rock bands volunteer to play live shows in an effort to help water-weary Iowans?

"You would cry, too/If it happened to you"
-- from "It's My Party," by Lesley Gore
I felt like apologizing for what I said before I finished the sentence: "What these rock bands are doing here in Miami," I was saying on the phone, "isn't it just a drop in the bucket?" My poor choice of words didn't even faze Frank Bataillon, the mayor of Hamburg, Iowa. "Everything helps," he said. "And of course we appreciate it."

All of a sudden my cynical research into the making of a benefit concert didn't matter. Bataillon, a retired postal supervisor, has been mayor for nearly two years. He says he never meant to get into politics. "This is just a little town [population 1248] that needed a mayor," he says. "So I agreed to do it." For the past several weeks Bataillon has been riding shotgun on a roller coaster through hell.

"The water's about all gone," Bataillon explained to me last week. "We have two streets with water still on them. Now we're starting to clean up -- tearing trash out and putting it in Dumpsters, ripping up floorboards, tearing walls out, then redoing them. It's a big, big job."

Bataillon is, perhaps, too polite to deliver the most repulsive details: hundreds of dead fish rotting in your yard, maggots noodling the carrion, the stench knocking you to your knees. Except you can't smell it for all the raw sewage coursing through your mildew-ridden living room.

The shit and piss and unattended death is, of course, only the aftermath. "Right now we've just shut our pumps off," Mayor Bataillon said last week. "We ran them 24 hours a day for 33 days -- five pumps at $30 an hour." (That's nearly $120,000 just to pump out some of the water.) "FEMA will pay for part of it, and the state part of it. But, yeah, we're still gonna be in debt."

Beginning tonight at Stephen Talkhouse and continuing over the weekend at two other clubs, nineteen local rock bands will perform without payment to raise money for the people of Hamburg. For the three clubs involved -- the Talkhouse, Washington Square, and Squeeze in Fort Lauderdale -- the benefits are, in large part, pure business. They don't get any of the cover charge (a minimum five-dollar donation is suggested), but they also don't have to pay the entertainment. More people in their clubs means more booze sales. But the club spokesmen say more is at stake.

"It's to help flood victims," says Loren Gallo of the Talkhouse. "The people in the Midwest were very supportive of the victims of Andrew, so it makes sense for us to help them. We're providing the room at no charge. We'll provide a soundman and someone at the door, as well. The club benefits on the bar, but if I don't think the cause is right, I won't do a benefit no matter how much money there is to be made. We're not doing this one just because it might be lucrative. We've done some benefits where no one showed up."

Benefits have their own peculiar economic appeal to the music community. Let's say a local rock band is normally paid $500 for performing. The bar charges five dollars at the door. If 100 people turn out, the club is in the black plus drink sales. So why is it unreasonable for a band to play such a show and then write a check for $500 to the city of Hamburg? "Because what if 100 people don't turn out?" Gallo responds. "With a benefit where the bands play for free, there are no losers. That's what's good about doing it this way." That works out for the players, too. Black Janet's Jim Wurster points out, "For musicians, this is the best way to help. We generally don't have the money to begin with. A lot of us are just trying to meet our bills. So playing for free is really the only way we can help." Even those groups prosperous enough to turn over funds from paying gigs prefer the benefit route. Jose Tillan of Forget the Name admits that his extremely popular band could have opted to play a paying gig and donate their fee to the people of Hamburg. "But then it would be Forget the Name doing it, not the people of Miami doing it. This shows the union. You forget who doesn't like who and all that. You just do it."

The question I posed to local bands: Why are they really playing this benefit? "We're playing it because it's for a good cause," says Jim Wurster. "That's foremost. And I enjoy playing the Talkhouse. Plus we get to play with some of my favorite bands. I think there'll be a really good vibe -- like a festive type thing. It helps us break into Miami, where we're not nearly as popular as we are here in Broward." Wurster is candid when presented with the Bob Geldof Dilemma -- is this a matter of helping people in a hurting situation or a chance to boost the band's career? "It's a little of both," he says.

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