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Journey Through Trump’s America

On April 3, 2017 Journey performed at the iWireless Center in downtown Moline, Illinois, a venue named after a local cellphone provider notorious for its spotty coverage.  The concert was once again a sellout as loyal Journey followers made their annual perigrination to worship their favorite band.

Of the original Journey members—Neal Schon, Gregg Rolie, Ross Valory and George Tickner—who formed the band back in 1973, Rolie and Tickner had long ago parted company with the band before its current incarnation—which also includes Jonathan Cain, Steve Smith and Arnel Pineda—took the stage in Moline.  Pineda, a native of the Philipines, joined the band in 2007 after a clip of him performing Journey songs appeared on YouTube.

Journey has sold 48 million albums in the US and 90 million worldwide.  Their biggest selling album was Escape, released in 1981.  Dave Marsh of Rolling Stone called Escape one of the worst top-selling albums ever.  Their biggest hit on the album was “Don’t Stop Believing”, a song played three or four times daily on local “classic rock” stations, along with “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, “Bad Company” by Bad Company, “More Than A Feeling” by Boston, “Carry On My Wayward Son” by Kansas and “Life in the Fast Lane” by Joe Walsh.  (I recently witnessed a woman at a local tavern who, on seeing the place had a jukebox, declared “I can play my music!”  She played “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd and “Hotel California” by the Eagles.)

Journey’s 2017 tour takes them to large cities such as Las Vegas and Dallas, but their meat-and-potatoes is small town America: Durant, Oklahoma, Tupelo, Mississippi, Greenville, South Carolina, Uncasville, Connecticut, Rochester, New York, Mount Pleasant, Michigan, Souix City, Iowa, Welch, Minnesota, Noblesville, Indiana, and so forth.

Their fan base in the Upper Midwest is large and intensely loyal.  During each performance the band scales their songlist through crowd pleasers such as “Anyway You Want It” and “Faithfully” before reaching the promised land: “Don’t Stop Believin”.  The song’s lyrics (some will win/some will lose) are brutally, numbingly hackneyed and are set against overwrought chords of empty profundity.

This overproduced reification of “arena rock” served brilliantly as background music for the roller skating sequence in Patty Jenkins’s Monster (2003), wherein Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wuornos declares it the best song of all time.  Jenkins’s masterpiece is an unflinching look at the economically strip-mined terrain occupied by those whose souls have been desicated from the emptiness of their lives and whose dreams have been bartered for crack, heroin and crystal meth.  “Don’t Stop Believing” acts as yet another corporate narcotic designed to cushion lives of unrelenting harshness.

Journey rolls triumphantly through Trump Country, harvesting cash (prices—depending on location—range from $40-$60 to $140-$160) and nourishing shopworn fantasies for those with little else to claim as their own, and at each stop the band encounters a landscape of increasing despair and decrepitude as the middle class slowly expires.  That Journey still packs arenas across the country by playing songs that can readily be accessed by tuning into any radio station or listened to when waiting in line at any Subway sandwich shop points to a devastating and broad-scale failure of the imagination.

Journey’s appearance in Moline was rewarded with a full-color photo of band mid-performance on an inside page of the local paper.  One concert goer told me Pineda—the band’s lead vocalist—only sang a few opening lines of “Don’t Stop Believing” before holding out his microphone to catch the voices of the crowd, who knew each lyric by heart.  This was the climax of the performance; what they’d all been waiting for.  The iWireless Center seats 9,200 and—once again—there was standing room only.  Those who made it inside considered themselves lucky.  They ranged from those approaching middle age to those on the cusp of senescence.  They’d scraped together enough to cover usurous ticket prices, endured endless delays in the parking lot and long lines at the gates of the venue itself, and now the moment had arrived when they could all collectively belt out Don’t Stop Believin” as if completing the final solemn steps of some ancient ritual promising spiritual fulfillment and lasting joy—until the lights came up and the audience streamed out into the cold night air.

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Chris Welzenbach is a playwright (“Downsize”) who for many years was a member of Walkabout Theater in Chicago. He can be reached at incoming@chriswelzenbach.com

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