October 26th, 2010 | by Nick Jaina Music | Posted In: Columns, Tour Diary, Tour Diary

Nick Jaina: I Finally Broke Into the Prison (Umatilla, OR)

Nick JainaEditors note: As of this morning, Nick Jaina is still short of reaching his Kickstarter goal of $5,000 to fund his new album with less than three days to go. Please visit the page and contribute something if you can.

The freedom that most of us work for and defend is ultimately the freedom to waste things. If we feel that we are constrained in our ability to throw away resources, whether those are energy or time or food, we start to feel that we are in prison. People who are literally in prison are limited in their resources because those resources are rationed out to them by authority figures who keep the prisoner confined. If a prisoner behaves, he is given more resources, and he is free to waste them. And when he has been good for long enough he gets to go outside into the world where he can waste whatever he wants.

Sacrifice and restraint used to be seen as paths to freedom, but somewhere in our past—maybe it was after the Second World War—freedom became synonymous with accruing assets and keeping them and using them all you want. And keeping those things has become the reason behind doing so many insane things: mostly killing and causing suffering. At some point someone should ask whether our freedom to have freedom is more important than anything else in the world.

But, when you visit a prison—an actual prison, with concrete walls and razor-wire fences—you start to think about how much freedom you actually have. Because freedom should make you happy, if it's worth anything. As David Cross says, when pointing out another useless innovation, "George Bush says 'Terrorists hate our freedom'... I HATE OUR FREEDOM! This is all we're doing with it?"

The first show on my fall tour was at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon. When you play there you have to load all your instruments onto a cart in the rain (it's probably not always raining there, but it seemed appropriate that it was on our visit) and make a checklist of every single piece of equipment you're bringing in, so that the guards can check you on your way out to make sure you didn't leave anything. You realize how serious it is when the warden tells you ahead of time, "Make sure the lady in your band dresses modestly... no tank tops." Right. A prison. Full of men.

We walked in through the doors and I instantly felt like I had seen this type of place before. And not in movies like Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile. Instead, it reminded me of high school. It was a modern government institution, and those buildings are always going to be built by people who are trying to make everything make economic and organizational sense. The lighting, the floors, the chairs... It all felt like high school. The prisoners don't wear stripes or handcuffs, there are no bars on the doors, and the guards don't walk down concrete halls with their footsteps echoing as they whistle ominously and run their batons across the cell doors. I could see being in that prison for just a short time and forgetting that I was actually in prison. Except for the fact that you can't leave. But there are lots of places that you can't leave whenever you want: Cruise ships, White House tours, accounting seminars, your job. The most striking thing for me about visiting prison was that from the inside it was just another place to hang out.

The largest room in this prison is the visiting area, so that's where we set up to play. A few inmates came to set up the PA and put out chairs. They put up a big cloth to cover up the booths with the heavy glass where you can talk on a little phone with your loved one. This prison holds over a thousand men, but we knew exactly what the turnout for our show would be. It was only open to inmates who had 18 months of good behavior. 18 months of being good gets you into a show. I thought about all the shows I've been to where I just dropped in because I could get on the list, stuck around for a few songs, said hi to a few people and then left. The freedom to sample. The freedom to dabble.

An MC introduced us, with a little notecard where he had scribbled down some information. I stepped up to the microphone and addressed the 40 men slouching in their seats. "I don't know what kind of music you guys like—" I started, and instantly someone interrupted by saying, "We like everything, we're just happy you're here."

We played a set of music and everyone listened closely and applauded warmly. It turned out to be the most civilized, dignified gig I've ever played. You could see on everyone's face how much it meant to them that they got to hear live music. Most adventures in playing live music are tests of your willingness to debase yourself. Ironically, there was none of that here.

I started to notice how many times I mention prison in my songs. Of course, I always mean it as a metaphor because I had never been to prison before this. But using prison metaphors in front of actual prisoners makes you scrutinize the motives behind your metaphors. I ended the first set with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "The Old Revolution," a song I learned especially for the prison. Every line in that song is a revelation, but putting them all together into something that I can put my finger on has always been hard for me, even though it's a song I've listened to hundreds of times. It's like a particularly ornery Rubik's Cube, where you can get one or two sides to line up but the rest is still just a jumble. The song starts out with the line, "I finally broke into the prison," but that wasn't really why I wanted to play it for the prisoners. The song to me is ultimately about inviting anyone who will listen to enter into a dangerous battle, something Cohen refers to in the song as "this furnace." It's the kind of danger you get into when you've chosen to eschew all the comforts that you're used to, so that you can just be yourself and have freedom in your life. Cohen calls this fight "The Old Revolution" because, I think, it has been a battle that has been going on since the start of civilization, and you can choose to enter into it or not. The invitation is open to everyone, especially if, he says, "You who are broken by power, you who are absent all day, and you who are kings for the sake of your children's stories..."

It's that last line that really strikes me every time. How many people are living a life that they don't believe in so that somewhere down the road they can live the life they really want? For me as a musician, I've often wondered how many bands that are playing gigs and touring around would be willing to keep making music if you were to take them aside and tell them, "This is as good as it gets. You're not going to be on Letterman, you're not going to be signed to Sub Pop. You will always be at this level." And I don't know if I would be okay with that proposition. It's a hard thing to swallow. How much of our enjoyment of what we're doing, how much of our perceived freedom is based on how free we think we'll be when we finally work out all the details? When we finally get our debts paid off? What kind of freedom is that?

For me, this tour is laid before me as a reckoning on whether I can continue to do this in the future. Whether I can even afford it, or whether I'll come home in debt and have to find some way to make money. And that's not to say that I'm complaining or feel that anything is unjust. But there is a point where you have to look honestly at what you're doing and ask yourself if it's good enough to make you happy. Not good enough a year from now, or if things change, or if this one thing breaks through. But good enough right now. Or is the option to go to Europe, or Australia, or put together a solo act? Or to become an engineer and build prisons. Because if you're still defining your freedom as an ability to throw things away, then you're probably not free at all.

And that's something I had to go to prison to find out.

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Photo by Thomas Patterson
 
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