One of my favorite stops on tour is the monthlong Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s been going for decades.
I’m here now, having just finished the first of four shows. From my small hotel room, I can hear music and people yelling outside. There are a lot of people in town, even more so than in past years; apparently the drop in the British pound has made travel here affordable.
This will be my sixth time at the Fringe. The literally thousands of shows that go on here are, for the most part, comedy. All around the city center, there are posters for all kinds of acts, from teams to solo artists. Unsurprisingly, there is at least one Trump impersonator. America is a comedian’s massive tree, with a relentless supply of low-hanging fruit.
You can get a much different read on the United States when you’re abroad, observing from a great geographical distance. We Americans read about a gun homicide on our soil and feel everything from sadness and disgust to perhaps a melancholic apathy. From here, it all seems crazy.
For the last several days here, it’s been some Olympic triumph at the top of the front page, along with yet another picture of Donald Trump and some I’m-trying-to-incinerate-my-campaign gaffe. I am fully aware of the hatred that millions of Americans have for Hillary Clinton, but her detractors are not doing themselves any favors by sticking it out with Trump. They might very well be handing her the election. All I’m saying is, from here, it all seems like a disturbing reality television show.
I am willing to bet that a lot of Americans do not care what other people in the world think of the United States. To a certain degree, I don’t, either. Not because I think the country is beyond reproach from international scrutiny but because I know without a doubt that I can’t do anything about what ails America.
When I am home, I read the news of protests, murder and unrest on news sites where articles that warn of graphic content are jammed up against articles about the travails of famous people pushing the edge of some corny envelope by wearing even less clothing at a premiere and “leaving little to the imagination.” What imagination?
This model of carnage next to cleavage is nothing new — the British are masters at it — but there is something far more engrossing and riveting about the American version. I think it’s our body count and real-life, murderous lifestyle that makes it like a gut punch.
I think that the full
Days ago, I was in the gym of a hotel in Göteborg, Sweden, and there was a young Tarzan type working out with songs playing loudly from a boom box. It was rap music with liberal use of the N-word. I hoped my small earphones would be enough to neutralize the din. He asked me if I minded the music. I wanted to ask him why he didn’t mind it. I wanted to know what the music meant to him, what that word meant to him, and if he’d ever used it. But life is too short for these intellectual excavations, and I am keen not to waste time, now that I have far less of it ahead of me than behind, so I just said, “No problem” and did my workout as I thought about what America exports to the world and wondered what he thought about the USA.
I think that the full, awesome power of America can only be appreciated from a great distance. From a different continent, it becomes easy to understand why America is envied, imitated, feared and hated all over the world. There is no shortage of countries that have brutal regimes with appalling human-rights records, corruption from top to bottom and truckloads of violence. But they don’t juxtapose their deeds so crassly against the freedom-and-equality rhetoric that America relies upon to exert its influence all over the world.
Meanwhile, I am in the dreamscape of the Fringe. The streets are packed with people night and day. Hard to tell how many of them have cellphones, but those who want to talk to me always seem to have them, and a picture is required.
Post-show I was slipping out the back, making toward the main drag to hopefully find some food, when I was stopped by a young woman. She told me she didn’t know what I did, but since there were so many people who wanted to meet me, she wanted a picture with me, in order to frustrate them. After we did the photo, I asked her if that was all I was good for. She smiled and said, “I guess.” After that, a young man came up to me and asked to do a photo. I asked him what this interaction would be like if he had no phone. He said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” Hey, it’s just content, no need to get uptight.
Hours from now, I will be back on the streets, amongst all the loud, happy celebrants. The Fringe is a reminder of how humans can be when conditions are optimum. Of course this isn’t the real world. It is an agreed-upon, obviously temporary environment, and in two weeks much of the surroundings will be pulled down and stored for 11 months. I wish I was a really funny person in demand, so I could be at Fringe for the entire run, every year. But I’ll take what I can get.
Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the playlist for his Sunday KCRW broadcast.