Budget Rock the Non-Vote 

Wash down election-day ipecac with some beer-drenched garage rock.

Election fatigue sets in quickly on this warm Tuesday night at the house of Chris Owen, co-organizer of Budget Rock V, Oakland's election-week-timed, garage-rock micro-convention.

The thirty-year-old Yahoo salesman has invited me over to listen to headliners the Original Sins, talk obscure music, and show off what $2,000 a month can rent you in the East Bay. "I upgraded," says the former San Franciscan, indicating his roller-rink-size living room, kitchen, bar, office, and two bedrooms with space for a collection of more than two thousand records.

Since we both vote absentee and Owen is having trouble doing his civic duty (he missed the June primary), I suggest we dive into our fat ballots over pizza, beer, and punk music. Owen agrees, but just as we wade into the ridiculously long list of ballot measures, his housemate appears at the front door, jangling keys.

"I just got the Dart back from the shop! Wanna go for a ride?" the dude asks.

Owen jumps out of his seat. "Yeah!"

This confirms my cynicism. Voter turnout among 18-to-24-year-olds was an abysmal 17.2 percent for 2002's midterm elections, and I hereby predict that it will drop to 16 percent in next week's balloting. Budget Rock V's co-organizer is my Exhibit A.

First of all, he's more a grown boy than those topping the 25-44 demographic. Example: "I don't budget," Owen says. "I'm very much in debt. I still spend my money on records and beer, and I have no savings or prospects." Sounds pretty all-American to me.

Like many of the thousand or so people he expects to show up at the three-day Stork Club event, Owen feels knowledgeable about what's wrong in America, but says he's exhausted by the constant bad news in Iraq, and frustrated by his inability to produce real change at the ballot box. "I almost never see my viewpoint represented," says the garage promoter, who majored in American studies at Notre Dame. His own top three issues: the war, immigration, and drug-law reform.

More fundamentally, the cheap thrill and suspension of disbelief in voting is over. Between Gen Y's formative frauds of 2000 and 2004, and the current Diebold debacle, "I feel 100 percent disenfranchised," he says. "I have no faith whatsoever that my vote affects the outcome."

In Owen's world, voting has so little value that it now officially ranks below driving a 1963 Dodge Dart GT to a dive bar on an Indian summer night. And such cheap thrills define this year's Budget Rock V, where a three-day, 28-band pass costs just $25 — that's 89 cents per band, or about 22 cents per musician.

Owen got into garage rock as a vinyl-head growing up in Oceanside. "I thought the album covers were crazy, just from another world," he says. "This is sort of purposely obscure bands playing in a basement and not giving a shit." Garage rock emerged from R&B and blues as early as the '50s and '60s, and usually consisted of four dudes playing distorted guitar, drums, bass, and maybe keyboards. No one got famous, and that was the point.

By the '80s, pasty-skinned record collectors treated the genre as a genuine ethnomusicological subject, and garage-rock revivals that began in the era of Reagan and Clinton continue today. Fifteen bands from Oakland will play Budget Rock V, making it an easy way to catch a sizable slice of that city's immortal scene.

To ballpark it for newbies: Listening to garage rock sounds a lot like hearing the Strokes play at the bottom of a manhole. It's all treble and distortion and drums. There are no green rooms, no soundchecks, no paychecks, and maybe there'll be a six-inch stage, Owen says. Low barriers to entry mean anyone can start a garage band. Yet impossible marketability defines the genre. To get involved in a garage-rock band is to fail on purpose while having more fun than anyone else along the way, Owen says.

I mull over the idea of failure as integrity while we descend the hills north of Lake Merritt to the flats of Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street. Sitting on the Stork's fenced-in alley patio, Owen describes how the skanky slit between the buildings will be converted to a swap-meet area, where long-defunct garage bands from all over the country will mingle. There'll be hot-dog-eating contests, lots of cheap booze, and no pretension.

Sipping a beer and talking about the difference between today and the '60s neither of us experienced, Owen says he'll eventually get around to voting. He wants to assist the school-bond measure that'll help his teacher mom. He'll also cast a protest vote for a libertarian governor, although he doesn't yet know who's on the ballot. "Maybe they can get more money for next time around," he says, without hope.

Still, with no sponsors and his biggest lineup ever, Owen has a lot of extracurricular work in the next two weeks. There's a good chance he'll miss his absentee window again, and I wouldn't blame him.

In the long view, not voting is a very budget-rock thing to do. "There's a certain integrity in just saying, 'Fuck it. We tried. We're done and we're not going to keep going through the motions,'" he says of the music genre.

Call it: "The Integrity of Apathy" campaign. Back your disbelief in the system next week by finally, truly having the guts to do nothing at all. Budget Rock the Vote, boys and girls.


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