Hello again, dear reader.
Oh, how I’ve missed you. But I’m back to talk about something I really don’t feel like writing about, but I gotsta.
Gotsta, because if I’m going to tell you all about the State College Music scene (and I will,) I have to get a huge elephant out of the way. That elephant’s name is Sandusky.
For those of you who have somehow avoided seeing any news about this scandal, you can read up on the basics here. Long story short, a respected member of the Penn State community, former assistant football coach and guy who had an ice cream flavor named after him is accused of sexually assaulting at least 10 children, and possibly more. The scandal (and alleged cover-up by Penn State) cost the university’s president and coach their jobs, and heads are still rolling. Of course, the coach just happened to be Joe Paterno, winningest coach in college football history. Some of you may have heard of him.
Before the scandal, he was thought of as a person with very high integrity, a coach focused on old-fashioned values who always made sure his players were in the top percentage of student athletes graduating college. He was instrumental in Pennsylvania State University’s growth, building a five-story wing onto an already huge library, and annually donating large sums of money to the university (even after he was fired). Now, after the scandal, there’s a great deal of debate about what he knew, and his legacy has been irreparably tarnished. To what degree, the jury is still out.
For most of the world, this is all just another awful story about abuse of power, cover-ups, and innocent children harmed by a monster. The story has traveled the world, made fun of on the Daily show and South Park, and turned into a crazy computer animation. (I was lucky to escape the Shame Tornado.)
But for me, and everyone else who actually lives here in State College, it’s been a nightmare. When the story broke, everything in town got flip-turned upside down. News vans blanketed the streets: An entire town in complete shock. Joe Pa, coach of the PSU football team (which is the the most important thing in the world to 80% of the students and alumni) was fired, and passed away just three months after his record setting 409th victory. All this was so intense; State College rioted not once, but twice, even overturning a news van on College Avenue, the main street in town.
As you can imagine, living in this town since the scandal broke has been somewhat less than fun. Seeing throngs of sad psu students, their hoodies and “juicy” sweatpants slung low, some mourning for the molested kids, many more for Joe Pa being fired. Everyone weighing in with their own crazy theories about what happened, and what’s going to happen. Having all your friends from out of town calling you and asking “What the fuck is going on there?”
No one is happy about any of this in “Happy Valley.”
And yet, life goes on. This past weekend THON went on as usual. Since the start of THON, the dance marathon has raised over $78 million dollars for kids with cancer (This year, they broke the ten million dollar mark). Many hope that this year’s THON will help erase the negative cloud floating over State College these past few months. Indeed, THON is a point of pride for PSU, its students, and it’s fraternities/sororities (who make up a large part of THON’s dancers and fundraisers). Whenever anyone has anything bad to say about Penn State, alumni point to THON as an example of the best of PSU and its students.
To see the worst of PSU’s students, one only has to wait for this weekend’s student-created holiday known as State Patty’s Day. On Feb 25, many of the same students who spent 48 hours dancing for kids with cancer will be out in the streets, wearing green and puking all over town. The contrast hasn’t escaped notice. Along with the students will be scores of out-of-towners who converge on the town because of our wild party reputation, many of whom will get too drunk for anyone’s good.
All this is key to understanding what’s going on here in State College, and why the music scene here is so awful. For as long as I’ve lived, worked, and went to school here, State College has been a town in denial.
The Townies get upset at the students’ wild partying, drunken stupidity, and the general apathy of the students. For as much as they complain about the rowdy kids (and yes, they can be pretty ridiculous), there wouldn’t be much of a town at all without them. Student money keeps everyone afloat. Businesses flounder during the summer when the students are gone. PSU is the biggest employer in the region, and without it, State College would shrivel up like an old raisin left in the sun on a windowsill on a hot day.
The University wants to believe it upholds the highest standards of integrity, above and beyond other, “lesser” universities. Yet the university has been involved in numerous cover-ups and scandals, from lesbian-hating basketball coaches to basketball players doing inappropriate things in the library, to stifling of free speech and support for environmentally dangerous natural gas drilling. Beloved Joe Pa had a history of protecting his players, and the town always looked the other way. Some residents I talked to are glad–not about the Sandusky scandal, but that the University is finally forced to acknowledge that its shit does, in fact, stink. It went from being one of the few universities never involved in a “major scandal” to the university where the biggest, most awful scandal in recent memory is being uncovered. Everyone who lives here, student, faculty, and townie alike, is forever changed by these events.
Maybe now we can start recognizing the real State College. This is a Drinking town with a Football problem. The #1 pasttime here is drinking. Students, alumni, families. Almost everyone here drinks, and often. Even after what is probably the biggest sex scandal in collegiate history, nothing will stop this town from drinking. And this ties into the problem with the local music scene. No one wants to admit that there’s a problem (much like an alcoholic).
In truth, there are many reasons for the sad state of the local music scene: Emerging local bands have no place to play. Bars book cover bands instead of “original bands” because their clientele are there to drink as much as they can and try to get laid, and don’t really want to be challenged by hearing something new.
Students and locals who aren’t playing music claim there isn’t much of a scene here because “there just aren’t any bands in town” (a statement I’ll prove false in the coming weeks, as I introduce you to the people who ARE playing great music here).
The police and university have cracked down hard on drinking and parties, which in turn has taken away one of the few venues local bands can play, parties and frats. A party with a band is sure to get busted quickly.
The demand for original music isn’t perceived to be great, since everyone is more concerned with the drink specials than with what band is playing.
Students come here, graduate and leave. Locals grow up here, then head for greener pastures. People have tried to get music scenes going here many times, with varying degrees of success. But at some point they leave, and the hole they leave doesn’t get filled. It takes a lot of work to book shows, make fliers, and grow a scene. With such a transient population, a scene slowly built up over time can wither and die in a semester as the people who were the primary forces in building it up graduate and move away.
The factor that never changes, however, is the emphasis on drinking above all else. For many of us, the idea of “having fun” encompasses a wide variety of things. Seeing a great band, going to the movies, playing games with friends, going to parties, taking random road trips. Here in State College, having fun usually means drinking. Every PSU home game, Beaver stadium is surrounded by thousands of families, students and alumni, many of whom are drunk by noon. When the team wins, they drink to celebrate. When the team loses, they drink to forget, and start fights. Long lines stretch out of the most popular bars in town from Wednesday to Saturday night. Puke on the street is a daily sight on morning walks into work. Girls openly talk about getting “schwasted” to the point where they black out as a goal for the night. When St. Patrick’s day fell on a day during spring break, the students made their own holiday, State Patty’s Day. At any given moment, a sizable portion of the town is either drinking, or drunk already. If you’ve ever been in a room full of drunks singing along to something terrible, you can imagine what a town full of people like this will tolerate musically.
So where does the answer lie? Clearly, the town is not going to change overnight from drunken wild partiers to thoughtful, discriminating music fans filling their iPods instead of downing Natty Light. However, I see a great opportunity in the shadow of this scandal. The whole Sandusky situation has forced everyone here to re-evaluate what is important to them. Many of these kids who love to party also love their university, and to a lesser extent the town. They want to feel pride in PSU again. THON has already helped in that respect. A strong music scene with nationally recognized acts would be a source of pride not tied specifically to the university,but shared by the entire community. Why not use this this tragedy to create something good and lasting for PSU? maybe, just maybe, we can grow a lasting scene in this little town, so people will say “State College? Oh, that’s the town with PSU, a recession-proof economy, and a great music scene…”
At one point in time, we had a decent reputation for music. And it’s not like there haven’t been bands here that were, and are, quality. Here’s a sampling of bands that came from State College: Ethel Meserve, Atlas Soundtrack, The Wilcox Hotel, Audio Imagery, Peacefeather, Rob Walmart, Kettle, Jason Likes Science, Eric Carbonara, Dutch Nuns, Cootie Brown, Katsu,The Warmingtons, and Hopes High.
(A small archive of music from some of these bands can be found here.)
And here’s a taste of Ethel Meserve:
Obviously, music is being made here. A lot more then one might imagine. So why not start sharing it with the world? Well, dear reader, that’s what I plan to do. I’ll be bringing you songs, MP3s and interviews from some of the best musicians in State College, past and present. Once everyone gets to hear all the great music being made behind closed doors, in garages and basements, and on home computers here, maybe the world will take notice of this sleepy little town for something other than a sex scandal.
Ok, that’s all I got, dead reader. I’m spent. Can’t wait to talk about happier subjects. In the next few weeks, I’ll take you with me on a typical Friday night here in State College. I’ll share music and interviews from local acts Dutch Nuns, Full Roaming Vapor, Eric W, Ben Wentz, Kihap, the Fiddlercrabs, Atlas Soundtrack, and many others. I’ll give you my opinion on new albums by Cloud Nothings, Sleigh Bells, and whatever else tickles my rather handsome fancy. I’ll tell you about some of the venues for original music in town, like Chronic Town Hookah lounge, the Co-Op, and Toast. And of course, I’ll keep sharing awesome music with you. Let me leave you with a few bonus videos from bands that started around here. Till next time, don’t ever stop turning yourself on to new everything.
The Wilcox Hotel