The following was submitted anonymously to Elephant Talk.
Elephant Talk 2012
Why are you here? You didn’t see it in The AC Press. You didn’t see it in At the Shore. It’s not on an AC Expressway billboard next to Tony Bennett or some Elvis tribute show. Let me tell you what it is like to be at the Elephant Talk Music Festival. First, you should understand that it is not a festival. There are no tents. There is barely any food, and there are few hippies. There also isn’t much space to move around, because it is hosted at two back-to-back bars in north Atlantic City – the Boneyard and Le Grand Fromage. There are, however, a hundred unsigned bands playing this thing over the course of three days. There is a schedule posted on a Facebook page (and, maybe, never really in writing) of when and where everyone is playing, but where is the crowd?
If you are pulling up for the first time, you’re leery of the situation: there is a parking lot in front of Le Grand Fromage on Pennsylvania Avenue some blocks back from the Taj Mahal, as the actual bar is separated from the lot by Gordon’s Alley – a narrow cobblestone street lined with some vintage AC duplexes. Those crowded in the alley outside the Fromage are a strange mix of townies, the musicians themselves, and a few gamblers who ventured a little too far from Trump Plaza looking for a good time. The occasional pimp, prostitute, or junkie passes through and maybe you start to wonder: where is the crowd?
You hear music – you can’t put your finger on what sort of music. It’s loud, this is distinguishable, but now that you listen a little closer, you think you hear two or three bands. Yes, one is upstairs, as you can see through the window that faces the alley. One is actually outside, at the Boneyard’s fenced-in outdoor “patio,” and there is another one downstairs at the Fromage, as you can see silhouettes thrashing around. You ask someone who’s playing and he doesn’t know. He says he is in the next band, and that you should stay to watch him. Where, though, is the crowd?
You walk past a singer-songwriter on the patio behind the Boneyard, which is next to a small vacant lot and a few apartments. Maybe twenty people are out there having a drink at the picnic tables. The sound guy is texting someone and even though there are indeed some people here, you’re not really sure why as some are talking and others are tuning guitars. Some musicians are in the vacant lot standing next to piles of gear. The Boneyard kitchen opens up here, and you can smell clams or mussels. Past the dumpsters, you come to Virginia Avenue and the front door of the Boneyard, where you’re greeted by a cloud of cigarette smoke, and a guy asking you if you have a dollar.
There is a bartender inside, but she isn’t bartending. She is sitting by herself eating some clams. There is a punk band playing as if they are closing out the Garden, and the three fans in front of the stage – a platform raised maybe eight inches – are seated on the dirty, red-tiled floor nodding their heads. Above your head you see surfboards, graffitied and tagged with bands’ stickers, and to your left, seated along the bar are three people that either come here every day or never saw the place before this afternoon. It’s 1PM, and it’s a beautiful beach day. Those at the bar are not speaking to anyone and they’re definitely not listening. They look like they just saw something awful. They’re watching the Phillies and drinking Bud Light from a plastic cup.
Seated behind you is a tall guy with long hair at one of the tables. He has a beer and a camera. He’s filming a little bit of the set, and you make eye contact. He yells over the noise to hold his camera, or that is what you think he says, but he gives you his camera and walks to the bathroom that is missing a door. The band stops, tells you that they have free stuff in the back of the bar, that they will be playing a bar you have never heard of in a town you have never heard of, and that you should check out their website, which was much too long for you to remember. The tall man walks back.
“Hey, I’m Jerry,” he says. He is the guy who organized this thing, though the term “organized” is used in its loosest sense. Hang around long enough and you’ll be doing sound or working the door. It doesn’t matter that you have no idea as to who this guy is or the cost of admission. Things will work out. This is Elephant Talk.
The band walks out to smoke after their set. They think it went well.
“The bartender seemed to really like it,” one says without a hint of irony or sarcasm.
“Yeah, do you know when _________ is playing tonight?” says the other.
“Not sure, but I want to stay for them. I think I’m playing with some members of this other band at midnight, too.”
Midnight means 2AM. Saturday might mean Sunday. The Boneyard might mean the Fromage. 20 bucks might mean nothing. Where is the crowd?
You are the crowd. There are a hundred bands here for you. Just for you.
You should understand a little bit about the area. To use the word “festival” both in the context of Elephant Talk, and, say, Coachella is a little ridiculous. The word “festival” gives off “vibes,” and the word “vibes” gives off the feeling of a “festival.” Both of these words are in short supply here in Atlantic City. I grew up near AC here in South Jersey. It’s not Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey, it certainly isn’t Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, and it damn sure isn’t Chris Christie’s New Jersey. South Jersey is not sentimental. It openly despises the northern portion of the state, but it isn’t because it’s better. In fact, South Jersey hates itself. In spite of this, South Jersey is not self-deprecating; it’s self-destructive. The Boneyard doesn’t promote “Thirsty Thursdays.” It promotes “Fuck My Liver Thursdays.” It’s not ironic. Seriously. Fuck your liver. Seriously, do it. You won’t. Being cool isn’t cool. No one wants to be accused of “trying to be sweet,” (you might hear this phrase a few times while you attend) because, well, that just sucks. The “vibe” at this “festival” is one of waiting. Waiting for the people to come. Waiting for the crowd.
This was my third year attending Elephant Talk. A lot of the same faces were there. Jerry, of course, manages somehow to be both omnipresent and never there. Justin is networking. Bill or John G. are doing the sound. John A. is working on getting someone some equipment because something else broke. Rick is trying to get a band to jam together at 2AM. Willie and Blythe from Galt Line killed their sets, so did Lenorable and The Mahlors. Bands share members, someone crashes on someone else’s floor for the weekend, but something was different this time.
The music, overall, was lacking this year if you ask me, but I saw something different when I realized the Mahlors were a really good band, and I hate reggae. I saw it when I watched Zebras and Bulls Fight Tonight! play to a silent bar crowd that, one by one, inched closer to the stage to try to listen and look with that look. The perplexed, but genuinely interested one: the one with the eyes that look with nervous energy to the side to see, to make sure: is everybody else as is into this as I am? It’s not just you.
It’s not a music festival in that everyone is trying to attend with music as the backdrop for their druggy weekend in the hills with incense and glowsticks or whatever. Unfortunately, some people come with that mentality, but they spend most of Friday in the parking lot and then head home when they realize it’s not going to be that kind of weekend. No one here cares about you. There is no coming together and all that. All anyone asks of anyone else (aside from working the door or doing sound or soliciting donations…did I mention most of the proceeds go to Jerry’s charity that benefits elementary school music students with autism?) is to come watch their set. Come stand, front and center, and listen.
Don’t do anything else.
Don’t sit back at the bar and bide your time ’til your band plays.
Don’t step outside to smoke a cig. Don’t check Facebook or Twitter.
No one cares about that.
Maybe, if we can get enough people to start doing that, there will be a crowd.
Until then, we are the crowd. We are playing to empty rooms and we are asking the bartenders what they thought of our set. We are happy when they say “good,” and we don’t question if they were actually listening. We are asking, begging people to download our free songs and albums, to give us ten bucks for the t-shirts we silk screened ourselves. The money will go in the tank for the ride home. We are filling in on bass or drums for the one who has to work his or her day job this weekend. We are bumming and giving cigarettes. We are walking to the parking lot to tell everyone to get the hell inside and support the next band because they came from Tennessee. We are applauding our friends and cheering on those we have yet to befriend. No, we don’t care about you, but we don’t hate you. We love you. If you made it here, you must be one of us.
You are the crowd.