Saturday, September 19, 2015

Untouchable Face

The blonde chick on the stoop drags on her cigarette and nods towards the over-sized orange tour bus parked on Queen street West.

“Who’s playing tonight?” she quips and lights the cigarette of the wrinkled, disheveled gray-haired man who’s leaning against her shoulder. It's a warm September evening and she’s wearing her pj’s and his tattered shopping bags are next to his feet.

“Ani Difranco” I reply. Her eyes bug out and she repeats the name but pronounces it “Annie”.

“Holy. Fuck. Untouchable Face is the best breakup song of all time” she claims.

“Oh, I know Ani Difranco” the old man chimes in. “But she’s not really my taste. But that’s because I’m into hardcore death metal”.

I enter the concert venue and settle in the empty balcony because the plus-thirty crowd have taken up the folding chairs on the main floor. A guy called Scarekrow is the opening act and he’s a rocking old geezer with Neil Young, Pete Seeger and Tom Waits traits. He’s replacing Garnet Rogers who at the last minute got hit by a car. He’s alright, but apparently he broke something.

A father and son shift in and sit one row below me with a buffer seat in between them. The son folds his arms across his chest and looks bored, his floppy brown hair falls in his eyes. The father doesn’t even bother trying to get him to give a shit. I assume this is his cruel and unusual punishment for some petty teenage crime.

Ani finally saunters on stage, her D-tuned guitar is hugged close to her body, she’s wearing a classic white tight tank top, khaki pants with pockets all over the legs and a thick belt. The mature crowd goes wild; including the teenage boy’s father, the straight and queer gentlefolk on the folding chairs, and the married couples gripping hands with nostalgia for the 90’s.

The teenage boy puts his head in his hands. His groans are muffled by Ani’s guitar.

She opens with Napoleon (from the 1996 album Dilate); her mission statement-fueled rock anthem about navigating between being heard as an artist and selling out. The lyrics are a call-out to a female contemporary (rumoured to be Suzanne Vega) who signed decorative and deceiving music deals that she, herself turned down.

Ani flubs the lyrics leading up to the chorus and starts the verse again.

“Agh….Welcome to the Ani Difranco Show” she laughs into the microphone.

Ani has a reputation for being “angry” - a basic way of summing up a person’s right to express themselves through art during a time when they feel threatened, attacked, mistreated or disappointed. But sigh, Ani is and has always been so misunderstood.

Ani is at the core a brilliant poet: Her lyrics often include alliterations, metaphors, and symbols that are gentle and provocative. Her writing is revered and praised for its sophistication, which doesn’t even put her in the same league as her contemporaries; Suzanne Vega, Indigo Girls and Jewel. She’s of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen caliber.

She transitions nicely into Angry Anymore (Up Up Up Up Up Up, 1999). A song that expresses a new-found empathy for her parents and past lovers. If Ani had been performing with her band, there would have been a banjo, harmonica, saxophone, piano, clarinet, stand-up bass, accordion, drums, cello, distorted electric guitars and Ani would have played the water cooler. DiFranco's guitar playing has a signature staccato style, quick and agile fingerpicking and many unique guitar tunings. She has a powerful set of pipes, and many of her lines are delivered with vibrato and angst.

Her prose can be vulgar at times which has taught me well: she talks about fucking and pissing and spitting and blood and broken bones. She also write about abortions, rape, violence, patriarchy, crime, gender inequality, racism, classism, consumerism, poverty, sexuality, cruelty, environmental pollution, depression, grief and isolation.

She switches guitars, tuned up most-likely to DADF#GD because her sound has changed. She plays a handful of songs off her new album Allergic to Water (2014): the title track, a poem, a song about her daughter, a ditty about the depressive state of TV and grocery aisles, Careless Words, and then Genie, a folk song which could be the theme tune to my very own sitcom. She’s been retreating from politics and instead focuses on long-term relationships, motherhood, and spirituality. Topics I grasp well -- yet, I’ve never felt more disconnected to her new music. Sadly, it used to be that 10 out of 12 songs on every album were solid gold; now I’m lucky if I can appreciate two.

She admits that people say “Put the down-trodden Ani back in the bag and bring back that bitch with all the rage.”

But Ani doesn’t give a fuck what you or I think. She’s the high priestess of feminist folk and she’s making the kind of music that suits her now. She laments political with the wisdom of a mama, no longer with the rebellion of youth. So I gotta let her grow.

Ani starts taking requests from the audience:

I’m No Heroine!” some guy shouts
Back Back Back!” a young woman screams
Independence Day!”, “Pick Yer Nose!”, “Letter to a John!”, “Outta Range!”, “Dilate!”
Grey!” I yell from the balcony. The teenage boy gives me side-eye and shrugs his shoulders to his ears.

She deflects them all, giggling:
“Oh good one!”
“Wow, must re-learn that one”
“Haven’t played that one for ages”

So instead she picks up her guitar and belts out Two Little Girls (Little Plastic Castle, 1998). It’s a ditty about being in love with a girl who is in love with another girl who is no damn good. Ani laments: “Love is a piano dropped from a four-story window and you were in the wrong place at the wrong time”. 

Ani identifies as bisexual. As a feminist, and as a queer performing music in America Ani has spent the majority of her career (which began when she was 18) fighting off harsh criticism, death threats, unjust labels, and basically being told to shut the fuck up. The reaction to her opinions particularly from men, (considering people like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan were protest singers too), exemplifies the inequality of genders in the music industry. Those death threats most likely just proved Ani’s point, and so she kept fighting.

Ani tells us she’s soon to be "best man" at a gay wedding and so she visited the Eaton Centre looking for a nice suit. The audience jokingly shames her on her choice of shopping venue. Even from up on the balcony I could see she’s embarrassed. Or perhaps annoyed.

The teenage boy perks up and grins.

“Sheesh. Well go ahead and put it on the Internet that I shop at the fucking Eaton Centre” she teases and tells us it’s time to get fucking serious. It’s time for To the Teeth (To the Teeth, 1999).

It’s a post-Columbine Shooting anti-gun, anti-Republican ballad, one I puzzled over line-by-line as a teenager, working out the metaphors in the verses only to be told the moral message at the end of the song: And if I hear one more time about a fool’s right to his tools of rage, I’m gonna take all my friends and we’re gonna move to Canada, and we’re gonna die of old age.

She’s got us right where she wants us now and so she tells us about “Spoons”.

Stanley “Spoons” Jackson is a California man, from the city of Barstow, serving life without parole for a murder conviction in the late 1970s. He was jailed at 19 and has since become an award-winning poet and playwright in prison. He’s part of the album that Canadian Zoe Boekbinder and Ani Difranco are making from songs from inmates: a mix of folk, rock, blues, and hip hop. So Ani sings one of Spoon’s memoirs that she’s turned into a song: Nowhere But Barstow and Prison plus a few other others.

Ani’s point of view is clear: America is the #1 incarcerated country in the world and the human beings who are locked up behind these bars are experiencing more torture than the crimes they were convicted of. Every beaten down woman and every broken down man deserves mercy. We all suffer at the hands of institutional disease.

Ani rounds out her concert with a string of crowd-pleasing classics: You Had Time (Out of Range, 1994) an epic ballad about the lover who waits for her while she’s on the road. Her next ballad Everest (Up Up Up Up Up Up, 1999) is a slow and beautiful love story with subtle hints of an interracial relationship. She was white, he was black, he showed her his life and she showed him hers, while everybody stared.

At a Prince concert recently (he sang backup on her track Providence) she tells us she danced the night away.

She invites us to get off our balconies and folding chairs and do the same.

The end is clearly drawing near and if Ani tells me to get closer to her, dammit I will get closer than anyone. I ditch my spot near the teenage boy and his dad and flee down the steps towards the stage. 

The crowd is a mass of old, accommodating, well-behaved white people. One guy makes way for me to get closer to the stage. When I reach the stage a young lady moves her bag so I can stand next to her. And there she is. Ani Difranco, one meter away from me. I can see every line on her face and what color of laces she’s got on her shoes. In the 15 times I have seen her perform I have never been this close. I sway and scream and take shitty photos with my phone.

She’s playing her trademark rock-out song: Shameless (Dilate,1996) an angst rant about refusing to stop fucking her married female lover and they're about to be caught. She moves on to my favourite breakup song: Gravel (Little Plastic Castle, 1998) a man comes back to apologize, and she's torn. S
he's angry as hell at what he's put her through - but she adores him.

Ani ends with a bang and thanks the crowd. She exits but our claps, screams and palm-banging on the stage bring her back. She gracefully returns and breaks out into Untouchable Face (Dilate, 1996), the crowd shouts along to the chorus:

Fuck you, and your untouchable face
and Fuck you, for existing in the first place.

I remember the blonde on the steps who didn’t say Ani’s name right who has it all wrong. Untouchable Face isn’t about breaking up; it’s about the pain of never having that person to begin with. It’s about unrequited love. It’s about feeling invisible. But alas, Ani has a way of writing the theme tunes to our love lives we can all share.

The teenage boy and his dad have squeezed their way near the stage too and are standing behind me. The teen stands stoic but holds up his phone towards the stage. He snaps a few pics of Ani as she makes her final bow and jogs off stage.

I have to ask:
“Do you like Ani Difranco?” I shout up to his ear.
He turns to me, his mouth is tight lipped, curled slightly up. His floppy hair is covering his face.
“No, not really -” He says shaking his head “ - But my mom did."
“I think Untouchable Face was her favourite song” he tells me, his dad is listening and he smiles at us.
“That’s pretty bad-ass” I say.
“She was pretty bad-ass” the father and son tell me in unison.


Additional resources:
These California Maximum Security Prisoners are Making an Album

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