Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Week 49: "Light Rail Coyote" by Sleater-Kinney

Some people just like things for reasons that are inexplicable. For example, I dislike horror movies with the exception of Zombie movies, which I adore. I could try to analyze why this is, but I’d prefer to leave it an unexamined mystery. I’m terribly fond of the color orange. And, I like coyotes. (Check out entry #15 in my 2008 reading journal and entries #16 and 17 in my 2009 reading journal.)

With only four songs remaining in my 52 songs in 52 weeks essay project, I’ve selected a song that combines two things I like (coyotes and great public transportation systems) with a place that I absolutely love (Portland, Oregon.)

Coyotes are adaptable animals that aren’t afraid to venture into urban surroundings. On an unusually warm spring day a couple of years ago, a coyote wandered into a Quizno’s in downtown Chicago and chilled out in the store’s drink cooler. That story has nothing on the one about a coyote who hopped aboard the Portland light rail system in 2002.

The latter story is the thematic inspiration for Sleater-Kinney’s ode to the city of Portland included on their 2002 album One Beat. The song, which is musically jerky and dissonant, is about a clash of cultures. The song's focus is actually not out by the PDX airport where the coyote got onboard, but on Burnside which is the name of the street that divides Portland’s North from its South. The Burnside Bridge also spans the Willamette River which separates the Portland’s West from its East. So, if you stand at the center of the Burnside Bridge, you are in the very center of the city.

In “Light Rail Coyote,” Burnside is sung about as the place "where the kids and the hookers meet." Before the Pearl District development cleaned the area up, the ten blocks on Burnside on either side of the river were a pretty mixed-up place. On the East side, there was La Luna, a since-closed music venue where I saw dozens of bands play while living in Portland from 1995 to 1999. There were also greasy all-night diners and a variety of adult-oriented businesses. On the West side there was a sketchy downtown park where one of my college friends claims to have been offered crack cocaine and was also a popular place for prostitutes to gather. And this was only a couple of blocks from Powell’s Books, one of the best bookstores in the universe as well as a number of other stores that were very attractive to college students. Sleater-Kinney sing, “And Burnside will be our street / where the kids and the hookers meet / diners and strip club junk / bookstores and punk rock clubs.”

Portland is very much this way, a once sleepy, blue-collar city that lived off the logging industry and has, for the last 20 or so years, been home to trend-setting youth culture, the DIY hipster movement, some of the best music to come from anywhere, and tons of experimentation with alternative lifestyles and grassroots activism. The “light rail coyote” is more than just a piece of news filler that aired on the local news stations. It is a symbol of the rugged West (loggers, coyotes, a part of our country sealed off by gray skies) bumping up against trendy culture (the environmentalist sensibilities of a light rail system, microbreweries, Evergreen State College educated feminists playing aggressive punk rock.)

Sleater-Kinney, by the way, was a critically acclaimed women’s punk rock trio that was active from 1994 to 2006. They derived their band name from a highway exit between Portland and Seattle. In their 12 years as a band they released 7 albums. Although commercial success eluded them for the most part, they were the darlings of serious rock critics. Their songs music often featured dual (or dueling) vocals by Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, who each played electric guitar while Janet Weiss backed them up on the drums. Brownstein is now a writer and correspondent for NPR.

You can listen to them play “Light Rail Coyote” at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom (located on Burnside across from Powell’s Books) in this video from one of their very last shows. Just don’t stop there, whatever you do. Listen to more of their music.