"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.
"You've really put me on the spot here," says Jim Camacho, taking a break from rehearsal with the Goods. "Why are we playing this benefit? I don't know. We want to do good?" He pauses to ask the other members of the band. And then he recalls his small-town past. "John [Camacho, his brother and bandmate] and I used to live near Cumberland, Kentucky. We even had a gang called the Harlan County River Rats. Every so often the river would rise. We've seen it firsthand."
Paige, the colorful frontperson of Livid Kittens, has a blunt answer to the question of why a South Florida rock band would be giving its performance fee to a bunch of strangers in some hick town in Iowa: "Because we want to. We like to do things for people."
If only it were so simple. As Michael Kennedy of Rooster Head points out, Miami -- and plenty of other places -- endures chronic problems: homelessness, AIDS, poverty, crime. When hurricanes and floods spring up, there's something immediate and tangible. "It becomes a sort of damage control," he says. You could pour money into solving crime forever and there'd still be crime. Help someone in Homestead rebuild his house, and you have a house to show for it.
This series of concerts was sparked by local scene maven Lydia Ojeda, who recruited other powerbrokers to co-organize. One of those, Robin Simon, who also helps organize the annual South Florida Rock Awards, says, "We all put our egos aside." Band manager Michael Eiseman took it upon himself to work out the logistics. "The reason I said yes," Eiseman explains, "is because the money's not going to the Red Cross or some other big organization. All of the money paid at the door is going directly to people in Hamburg."
Eiseman conducted research and isolated four towns hardest hit by the flood. Media and officials in the flooded areas were more than helpful, he says, sending him photographs and information. "I found out that some people in Scranton, Pennsylvania, were doing a huge benefit with national acts like Joni Mitchell for the town of Colfax [Iowa]. I liked the idea of a town picking a town, so we chose a town that wasn't being helped. I got in touch with Frank Bataillon. He was so happy about this idea. I think some people around the country don't feel like this is a great cause, but that's only because it's not happening to them. The people in Hamburg need bleach, mattresses to sleep on.... A few thousand dollars is not impactive to something like the Red Cross. But we'll send it right to the mayor, and maybe he knows two people who need to drain their basement or whatever. It maybe goes to people who really need it the most."
Eiseman adds that efforts to enlist help from the City of Miami were fruitless, although one city official promised to mention the series of concerts in his department's newsletter. So it's not Miami helping Hamburg, it's Miami's local rock community helping Hamburg, a city composed mostly of elderly citizens who might not be big fans of rock and roll. (Mayor Bataillon says his favorite music is classical and the pop of the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.)
Ojeda says a couple of local bands that were asked to participate declined, citing previous commitments. Nonetheless she and her co-organizers were able to recruit a line-up of the best bands in South Florida.
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The past year has more than once revealed the devastation nature can unleash on innocent victims. No one in South Florida should ever forget all those out-of-state license plates on the Turnpike. Friends of mine from West Palm Beach -- the Nash family -- showed up at our house with food, money, water. The crew that cut branches away from our power lines was from Alabama. And so on. The citizens of Hamburg are experiencing the same sort of national compassion and assistance. "We had 32 people come from Ohio and 60 from Omaha [Nebraska] to help us clean up," says Mayor Bataillon. "There was another outfit out of Atlantic, Iowa, and from Lincoln, Nebraska. Now we're trying to get building materials. We need carpenters to help rebuild. Our older population is fairly sizable and they can't rebuild themselves."
All of us in South Florida know plenty about rebuilding, so there's a special empathy at work. Jose Tillan says the decision to participate was an easy one to make. "I went down to Homestead after the hurricane hit," he explains, "and I saw how every little bit of help counted. So every bit of help these people in the flood receive helps." Keith Schantz, the manager of Natural Causes, a band that can command a gig at virtually any venue they choose, says, "We're in it because all of us here were affected by the hurricane. We know what it's like. The Causes have always maintained a stance of giving back to the community, time and time again, and we'll continue to do that. Rock and roll is about caring, giving, and rocking."
The sticky point remains: Why help a bunch of strangers in the Midwest when so many others everywhere are starving, living with AIDS, surviving on the streets, recovering from Andrew? "I think the people in Hamburg need the help more immediately than we do," Lydia Ojeda says. "What we get out of it is the satisfaction of helping. What about all the people with AIDS? I'd like to help them, too. I'd like to help everybody. Yes, some of these bands are helping themselves by helping others. So what? I'll get the money, I'll make sure it's going there, and I think it will help."
Singer-songwriter Mary Karlzen agrees that help is needed everywhere, but one does what one can. "When things happen, I'd like to send money or help people in some way," she says. "Since I don't have money, I do benefits. That's the way I can help. Sure, there are people with AIDS, people who are homeless. I'm ready to do benefits for them, too.