Among the Natives
Huffing Fumes at the Matt Court Monster Jam
By Rick Levin
Not to gloat but, on paper, my cultural resume is fairly sophisticated. I have eaten escargot. Every year I loyally re-up my New Yorker subscription. Within a few bars I can identify Beethovens symphonies, one through nine, and Im not averse to watching movies with subtitles. I am conversant in the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, the post-structuralist critiques of Roland Barthes, the scorched-earth feminism of Luce Irigaray and the transcendental idealism of Gilles Deleuze. My bookshelves are home to such worthies as Woolf, Whitman, Stendahl, Dostoyevski, Hamsun, Nietzsche, Malamud, Munro and Melville. I can explain the Monroe Doctrine.
That said, I would now like to offer some different bone fides which, say what you will, I do not consider contradictory: Whenever I have to blow my nose, I plug one nostril with my index finger and fire a string of snot into the street. My favorite place to piss is off the end of a porch. I eat pork rinds. Growing up in a small rural town on the Olympic Peninsula, I was reared among an extended family of Croatian immigrants who fished and logged for a living, who drank Rainier out of cans and drove Ford pickups that were bashed in from sideswiping trees. My jobs have included running skiff on a purse-seiner, pumping gas, shoveling shit, picking gypsum in Omak and butchering salmon in Dutch Harbor. I lost my virginity by walking a wooded trail behind my house to visit a sweet girl who lived in a propped doublewide and whose mother drove my school bus. My favorite smell is turpentine, and I think farting is hilarious.
So when I hit the floor of the Advance Auto Parts© Monster Jam truck show on Saturday morning, March 26, at Matthew Knight Arena, and beheld the collected crowd of mullet-heads, shit-kickers, tough mamas, grizzled yahoos, grease-monkeys, cud chewers, bikers, long haulers, cholesterol cowboys and tow-headed kids with tight crew cuts, I thought ã without an iota of irony ã these are my people. I grew up on this shit. The euphoric masochistic auditory pleasure of having your eardrums blown by the unmuffled roar of eight cylinders revving is not lost on me.
If youve never been to a monster truck jam, youve likely made fun of a monster truck jam. Its understandable. Cars have colonized our once-beautiful planet, and bounteous nature is losing the asphalt battle, eaten to shreds by the exigencies of highways, byways and parking lots. Addiction to oil has cost us gazillions of dollars and an immeasurable sacrifice in human blood ã not to mention our spiritual integrity. Why in the name of all that is holy would anyone want to spend his money and leisure time watching other people drive around for entertainment?
Why? For the same complex reasons arsonists start fires and nymphos seek sex and cutters cut themselves and commuters rubberneck at head-on collisions. The thrill of watching a jacked-up truck with 62-inch tires ($2,500 per tire) drive willy-nilly over the top of four cars is all that, and more: excessive, explosive, sensual, deliciously painful and extravagantly, compulsively pointless.
Sue me ã Im white trash and Im proud.
The big star at the Advance Auto Parts© Monster Jam was Rod Schmidt, driver of the legendary Grave Digger, a green behemoth that is all wheels, suspension and shocks. Schmidt, a native of Charles City, Iowa, is the Elvis of monster trucks, a man driven to drive. "I was born and bred to rip and shred,” he explains to me. "You either have it or you dont.”
Matt Court hosted two shows on Saturday, one on Sunday. We went to the Saturday matinee, which was preceded by a "pit party” ã long lines of slightly surly looking parents with kids waiting to get photos and autographs of the drivers standing beside their mammoth vehicles, while carny vendors carted around slushees, bags of blue cotton candy and hats shaped like Grave Digger. The show itself is an almost surreal combination of ceaseless advertising, choreographed auto-ballet and junkyard spectacle. A metal circus for the masses, a thunderdome car concert of honest-to-god garage rock.
The featured event at the Advance Auto Parts© Monster Jam was a series of timed heats in a round-robin format that involved two gargantuan trucks racing over the tops of four cars parked side by side. The drivers would position their rigs at the starting line, shut their engines down, start their engines up again with an ear-piercing growl and, on the green light, burst off the line like unleashed rhinos, hitting the first car, pitching almost vertical, and then bobbling and bouncing over the whole heap, sending a shrapnel of doors and hoods and side panels flying and basically just generally crushing the hoopties into pancakes of color-coded scrap metal. The races are over in a blink.
In the final race, the Oregon-based El Matador ã a gorgeous machine with an intricately airbrushed tailgate dedicated to the memory of 9/11, the motto "We Will Never Forget” ã defeated Grave Digger by a hair. Seeing as Grave Digger is the New York Yankees of monster truck jams, this was a major upset, along the lines of Arizona knocking Duke out of the NCAA tourney.
Other events, such as the four-wheeler races, were a sort of packing material wedged between the marquis event of the monster truck races ã something to keep the kids busy. Despite the occasional repositioning of smashed cars, which had to remain on plywood so as not to damage the floor, things moved at a pretty good clip. Advertisements for Advance Auto Parts ran perpetually on the big, overhead screen, and the emcee kept up a rote ringside chatter to pump up the crowd ã though, truth be told, the guy was about as enthusiastic as a carnival barker coked to the gills on lithium and horse tranquilizers.
The highlight of the afternoon, at least for me, was the appearance of Megasaurus, a combination tank/demolition unit on wheels that, altogether, resembled a very angular Tyrannosaurus Rex suffering from Tourette and irritable bowel syndromes. This beasts entrance was a high-drama affair, complete with ominous John Williams-esque music, dimmed lights, and much gnashing of teeth and breathing of fire. Perhaps most impressive ã and disconcerting ã was the bizarrely elaborate fable of the Megasaurus, which was broadcast in dread tones over the arenas sound system. Narrated by a voice custom-built for movie trailers, the monsters story was a collision of creation myth and apocalyptic parable ã the Garden of Eden meets The Island of Doctor Moreau meets H.P. Lovecraft, with elements of King Kong, Mad Max and The Terminator thrown in for good measure.
Apparently, "not so long ago on a peaceful island lived a colony of people whose lives were disrupted by animal mutations in the form of gigantic man-eating creatures.” The story, which goes on and on, makes reference to such arcana as a sunken Navy transport ship, the testing of the atom bomb, radioactive fallout, genetic mutation and "1,000 feet of veins and arteriesÄ pumping at 50 gallons per minute, his blood pressure exceeding 2,500 pounds per square inchĔ
Fortunately, the Megasaurus eventually was discovered by a passing freighter and hauled back to the United States, where it was enlisted to crushÄ Honda Civics. In four or five slow, deliberate bites, the lumbering monster had that poor rice burner torn in half. It lay in jagged chunks on the ground, looking small and pathetic and definitely dead. During the Megasauruss victory lap, it burped.
What would Barthes or Foucault make of such a spectacle? A cathartic discharge of surplus sexual energy? Destructive excess indicating misdirected political angst? An emblematic display of the wasteful extravagance of late-capitalist culture?
Fuck if I know. It was pretty cool, though.
You know, that crowd at the Monster Jam ã they werent just my people. Theyre your people too, Eugene. Own it. I got a lot of laughs and raised eyebrows when I told my friends I was going to the Advance Auto Parts© Monster Jam. Yeah, I get it. It is sorta stupid. But so is Wicked, and Cold Mountain, and NPRs Car Talk, and pretending you like something just because you want to appear cultured or liberal or classy. A mullet and motorsports no more turn a person dumb and Republican than a Berkeley diploma automatically makes you smart and open-minded. Whether you cut me off in a Pontiac or a Prius, you're still an asshole.
I cant tell you how many well-heeled season ticket holders Ive watched fall asleep at symphonies. One thing I know for sure about the Advance Auto Parts© Monster Jam: Aint nobody falling asleep.