Worst of Missoula 2003 

From bad air to bad news to bad attitudes, the bitching is back

Worst of Missoula? To paraphrase the often worst-worthy Bill Clinton, it’s the fires, stupid. No way around it, not this year. Tourists and transplants willing to brave the winter and lured with the promise of sparkling summers find themselves sucker-punched with impunity, their faces held to the furnace like human marshmallows, breathing deeply of the sort of air that we could just as well find in Los Angeles or Mexico City, fer cripe’s sake.

But of course it’s not just the fires. It’s never just the fires. From the spiraling statewide debacle of deregulation to an economy that gives toilets a bad name, from an entrenched (and growing) social conservatism to a media culture on the skids, from bad news to bad air to bad attitudes, there’s plenty to bitch about here in Montana’s Paradise Bowl.

And with this issue, to paraphrase the always worst-worthy Elton John, the bitch(ing) is back.

Pet peeve #1: Bad air
Even when the snow sucks, Snowbowl skiers return to the valley sporting shit-eating grins. Why? Well, it ain’t the powder folks. They’ve been gazing gaily down on the suckers stuck in the socked-in, inversion-prone Missoula valley. The topography of our home effectively stops Easterly-moving air masses—and their suspended particulates—when they bump into the dead-end blockade of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel. In the winter, pollutants from cars, wood burning stoves and industry are trapped directly above the unfortunately located city center. In drought-riddled fire years, the same thing happens, but to escape the haze you need an airplane, not just a chairlift.

Pet peeve #2: Water wasters
OK: Montana grass is supposed to be brown in the summertime. If you want summertime green, go to Ireland. Sprinklers are stupid. They waste water (which, in case you’ve had your head in the sand, is predicted to replace oil as the world’s most valuable resource by the end of the 21st century) for the sake of vanity. To make matters worse, many of you are watering the sidewalks, too. Cripes, people, use a hose.

Pet peeve #3: Loud pipes
Listen up, pipeheads. You know who you are: you Mopar morons gunning your glasspacks up and down the street, amplifying the decibels of your own gearheaded flatulence for all to appreciate. I’m not talking about the ill-maintained mufflers of the poor. I’m talking to you, dipstick, double-barreling your mortgaged $40,000 rig to the corner store for a half-gallon of lo-fat and a chew and maybe around the block once again just for chuckles, imposing your own impotent rage on the neighborhood in which you’re impotently trapped, never to escape, never to use all those pent-up horses, never—try as you might—to rev up a rumble loud enough to drown the pathetic squealing sound of your own spinning wheels.

Pet peeve #4: Fishy mystics
There’s a fine line between spirituality and self-righteousness, a line that’s crossed on a regular basis by famous athletes, born-again whomevers, and pompous fly fishermen. Our concern is mostly with the latter, the sort of fly-flingers carrying any combination of the following attributes: a propensity to measure success in number of fish per day; a scowling disapproval of those who would actually kill and eat trout; a haughty standard of appropriate fly selection, generally eschewing imitations of, gasp, bait. Knock it off, dammit. Us mere humans like to fish, too.

Pet peeve #5: Can you hear us now?
When calling information or an airline, you tell the automated operator (who assures you his mechanical ear will understand your human voice) that you are in Miss-ooo-la, only to be told that they have no listings for phone numbers in Manila, and that your plane will be be departing from Milan. Listen up, chip-for-brains. It’s not that small a town.

Pet peeve #6: Qwest for choice
In a town with $2 parking tickets, beers you can pay for with the change in your couch and $2.95 burritos the size of your head, this customer service nightmare manages to get away with charging you $48 a month just to have a local phone line (complete with that ding-dong doorbell voicemail tone) in your home. We’d rather have mail.

The death of rock?
by Andy Smetanka
With two local venues announcing retirement the same week in July, much has been made in the last month about the imminent “death” of live music in Missoula. There’s been lots of hand-wringing, lots of meaningful sighing and, among the slightly older crowd (by which I mean older than your average Jay’s Upstairs patron or dreadlocked Blue Heron jam-band dervish girl), a dire prediction or two that Missoula is headed right back to the ’80s.

Ah, yes, Missoula in the ’80s—an era described in Dark Age language by folks who remember few bands, local or otherwise, and even fewer places for them to play. At least the looming spectre of ’80s-era stagnation provides a counterpoint to what you usually hear about the Missoula of 20 years ago from jaded longtime residents, which is how much nicer it was before you got here.

So are we done crying yet? Sure it’s a drag that two music venues will be closing soon, but does that really mean that live music in Missoula is going to roll over and die? Hardly—unless everyone really wants it to. What all this “death of rock” hokum says louder than anything is that most people are usually content to mumble somber pieties while waiting for someone else to think up solutions. But even that’s just a variation on how live music and “local culture” generally really works: It’s always a few people working together really hard to provide the majority with something to do that they probably won’t do because they all have to stay home and wash their hair or something.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Rock will out, people, and having some givens removed from (and variables added to) the equation might actually have a tonic effect on local music. It will at least make things exciting. Setting aside, for just a moment, the obvious silver-bullet hope of someone opening up a club that’s magically going to appeal to everybody all the time forevermore, let’s look at some other good things that could eventually come out of this upheaval.

In the first place, Missoula has some things now that it didn’t have in the ’80s, like a healthy number of established bands suddenly faced with a dwindling number of venues, not to mention touring bands coming through town nearly every night of the week who will soon have the same problem. We also have savvy, energetic indie promoters who arrange shows for fun at least as much as for profit. In short, we still have plenty of human capital to make rock work in Missoula.

The standard DIY rock tour, with everyone stuffed into a van and heading for shows booked through connections passed from band to band, is a relatively new development. For every one band blazing that DIY trail in the mid-’80s, a hundred are now following in their footsteps. In other words, the bands are still out there looking for a way in: Missoula can either drop off the map or local rockers can learn to adapt, finding new venues and coming up with better strategies for putting on shows than just signing them into the Jay’s book. Bars can also adapt—the outside demand for places to play in Missoula is still there, if anyone wants to capitalize on it. They might well decide to be a little bit choosier than Jay’s ever was, but if they’re willing to branch out a little they might just find there’s some money in it.

Silver lining: If there’s been a downside to the Jay’s monopoly on indie music, it’s that the clubhouse vibe of the place has bred a generation of bands and showgoers who don’t feel comfortable at a show unless they’ve got a drink in one hand. Attendance at all-ages shows is dismal compared to what it was before Jay’s got rolling in 1993, back when a punk rock show was an exciting event that might only happen once a month or less. Fewer bars might actually encourage healthier rock lifestyles and get the Kids™ involved again.

Still no same-sex partner benefits
by Jed Gottlieb
In last year’s Worst of Missoula issue, the Indy took aim at the Montana University System for failing to offer employees’ same-sex partners the same benefits that heterosexual partners enjoy. Well, guess what? The lack of same-sex partner benefits is still one of the worst things about Missoula.

For those of you who don’t recall, the ball got rolling after the Montana Board of Regents decided to turn down an inclusive benefits package proposed by UM faculty members almost two years ago. In response, a lawsuit was filed in District Court in Helena in February of 2002 by lead plaintiffs Nancy Siegel, Carol Snetsinger, Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff, along with the Montana American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The District Court granted the University System’s motion to dismiss the case, finding that the University System’s policy was not discriminatory. Currently, the case is on appeal to the Montana Supreme Court. The ACLU has filed its initial brief, and the University System has filed its response. The ACLU has yet another brief to file before the Supreme Court decides whether to rule on the case or hear oral arguments. The ACLU plans to file that second and final brief next week.

“This could still take a number of months,” says ACLU lawyer Beth Brenneman. “They are kind of backlogged right now. They have a tremendous number of cases still in front of them.”

Not wanting to be left behind by university faculty and staff, City Council member Jim McGrath jumped on the same-sex benefits bandwagon in February 2002. McGrath referred to council the idea that the city undertake an investigation into extending same-sex partner benefits to city employees. At the time, McGrath said that he would spearhead the campaign whether or not the lawsuit was victorious. But more than a year after the referral, the city still hasn’t gotten around to discussing it.

McGrath says that currently the city is making changes to its employee health plan, and that no one wants to think about the issue until the new plan is hammered out. Right now, all signs point to this one being back on the bitch list in 2004.

Silver lining: With speed of the puma, Missoula County quietly beat the University System and the city to the finish line on this issue. In July, Missoula County extended its insurance plan to unmarried domestic partners. Despite critics who said the move would unduly burden the county, only a handful of employees have taken advantage of the policy change.

Local TV “McNews”
by Mike Keefe-Feldman
Missoula’s local TV news is not particularly local. Based on a recent two-night sample and a stopwatch, the three local affiliates, CBS’ KPAX, ABC’s KTMF and NBC’s KECI average between seven and a half and 11 minutes of local news coverage (not including weather) per half-hour program. To put that number into perspective, the same broadcasts average approximately eight minutes of commercials. The most blatantly de-localized of the three networks is KTMF, which advertises itself as “Montana’s Own” Big Sky News. However, the program’s weatherman, sports guy and two anchors are actually recorded in a studio in Davenport, Iowa.

“I think that some viewers know” that several of Big Sky News’ personalities are based in Iowa, says Max Media President Linda Gray. “Do I think that viewers care? Not really. It’s not something that viewers switch on and go, ‘God, I’m not going to watch this because I know that those anchors aren’t here.’”

It’s unlikely that many viewers do know that most of the program comes from Iowa, because while Big Sky News informs its viewers where local reporters such as Justin Ware are “coming to you from” with graphics at the bottom of the screen, the station neglects to identify the whereabouts of its anchors, weatherman and sports guy with a “Davenport, Iowa” tag.

“I’m not going to apologize for the fact that our anchors are not based in Missoula, Mont.,” says Gray. “I don’t think it affects the quality of the product.”

When Big Sky News hit the airwaves in October 2002, it was the result of a deal between Montana’s Max Media and the Independent News Network (INN). Thus, Big Sky News anchor Greg Wilson is not solely an Iowa anchor for Montana. He works for stations affiliated with INN in other states as well. The result of this arrangement is anchors who may or may not have an idea of Montana’s people, culture and socio-political situation, as well as weathermen talking about blazing fires or harsh snowstorms of which they have no first-hand experience.

Yet Big Sky News is far from the only “local” station flattening the bell curve of local news coverage. KPAX news, for instance, takes the cake for local sensationalism. One glaring example was the station’s coverage of the National Forest Protection Alliance’s (NFPA) “Endangered Forests, Endangered Freedoms” action camp, which began with the line, “Some people call them eco-terrorists.” KPAX didn’t offer an interview with anyone who could source the inflammatory statement—raising the question: “Just who are these some people?”–but it did run the entire story under a banner reading “Eco-terrorists?” thereby fanning the flames of the “loggers vs. environmentalists” debate.

ur biggest beef with local TV news, though, is lack of depth. The average local news story on any of the three network affiliates runs about a minute. How much can any viewer truly learn about anything in one minute?

Silver lining: Missoula is a small market, so having three even marginally local TV news stations could be seen as better than the alternative, which is no local TV news. Also, though she won’t speculate on when or if it will actually happen, Max Media’s Linda Gray says that she hopes that her station’s fledgling news program will someday be complete with local anchors, weather and sports people.

The loss of just about every damn job in Montana
by Jed Gottlieb
“Montana’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 1973,” said Gov. Judy Martz in an August 13 speech touting her accomplishments, while announcing that she wouldn’t seek a second term in office. “It is one of the lowest in the nation, and it is well below the national average.”

Martz got her facts straight—Montana’s unemployment rate for the month of June was 4.6, compared to the 6.4 national rate. But as Homer Simpson says: “You can prove anything with statistics, four out of five people will tell you that.”

In June, the state Department of Labor and Industry reported a decline of 300 jobs over the past year—indicating the first decrease in jobs in Montana since October 1987. As bad as that sounds, the report failed to capture the whole picture. Not tallied in the report was the elimination of 467 jobs from the closure of the Louisiana-Pacific sawmill in Belgrade and the latest rounds of layoffs at Stream International in Kalispell, Cross-Media in Missoula and the beleaguered Touch America statewide.

“That stuff hasn’t hit the fan yet,” says Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research Director Paul Polzin. “That’s my reason for concern. We had a negative figure for June already, and hadn’t taken into account these other items…We know three things still aren’t in the data. We know that Louisiana-Pacific isn’t in the data, we know that Stream isn’t in the data and then there’s Touch America. The big question is, after those things are factored in at the end of August, will there be enough positives in the economy to bounce back to some sort of positive growth rate?”

Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation President Dick King also sees the demise of these large corporations as troublesome.

“There was a big impact in Montana from the demise, or implosion, or whatever you want to call it, from Montana Power,” says King. “That’s a real concern. Those were all good paying jobs. We’ve seen that have a real effect, but Missoula has had enough growth and enough diversification that it has weathered those setbacks better than the rest of Montana.”

King adds that while Missoula still has a low unemployment rate, the county lags way behind the rest of the country in high-paying jobs. The average yearly income for a Missoulian is around $26,000, compared to the national average of $36,000.

Silver lining: “There are always successes and failures, companies growing and companies declining,” says King. “But from an economic standpoint, you have to look at the encouraging trends. One of the encouraging trends in Missoula is a healthy increase in the number of jobs and a strong diversification.”

Polzin agrees that things aren’t as bad as they could be. Certainly, he’s seen worse.

“I was here in the ’80s when things got really serious,” says Polzin. “By ’80s standards, this could be just a blip.”

And as always, another state’s bad luck can spell Montana’s good fortune. Great Falls Development Authority President John Kramer has announced that his organization is courting California-based companies to relocate to Montana, where the climate’s not quite so politically unstable.

Home, impossible home
by Nick Davis
It’s the first oozing sinkhole in which starry-eyed new residents of Missoula find themselves mired, the first hint that the road to Garden City paradise is paved with more than just gorgeous hippie chicks, microbrewed beer and outdoor bliss. Before you suffer the crap-ass wages, grind out an inversion-topped winter, stand beneath a rain of forest ash, or even succumb to social forces and Hannibal-Lecterize a bovine at the Ox, you run headlong into the stinking quagmire of procuring shelter for your sorry self.

The favorable environment created by Missoula’s microscopic vacancy rate (between 1 and 2 percent, by most counts) has put into the hands of local landlords a sledgehammer that many use to mercilessly bludgeon would-be renters. And though there may be signs that the rental stranglehold could loosen in years ahead (see “Numbers game,” by Mike Keefe-Feldman, July 24, 2003), anecdotal evidence indicates that the current rental dynamic is largely unchanged since the last time I leased a house here, in the summer of 2000.

Our desperation growing with every ramshackle hut and two-bit trailer house that comprised our price range, my wife and I stumbled upon a just-vacant domicile that, despite a severe case of shingle-shedding and an overall history of slapdash maintenance, was in a great location, would allow our dog to live with us, and would leave us with a food and entertainment budget slightly above the Ramen-noodle-and-Ranier level. As the first hopefuls to arrive on the morning we toured the place, we hurriedly scribbled the landlord a fat check, triumph lighting our faces in equal proportion to the gloom hanging over the five other parties who arrived just minutes too late.

Three years later, we’re fighting to get any of our considerable deposit returned, even though we spent countless hours improving the place. And though we feel our righteousness is well-earned, our rush to rent—and subsequent inattention to the check-in list—may cost us dearly.

Ah, but life is better now that we bought a house, if you put aside the fact that we paid a price that 10 years ago would have netted a large, newer house in good condition—and that our house is small, ancient and project-worthy. Still, we count our lucky stars that we were able to conquer even a humble chunk of the real estate market in an environment that regularly sees initial offers of 5 to 10 percent above asking price, at a time when the median price for a house has jumped nearly $40,000 in three years.

So even as we bitch about the latest affront to our Montana nirvana—this one an irregular, cyclical one involving the cosmic injustice of a prime-time summer turned on its head by the wrath of fire—we know that we, at the least, will no longer grovel at the feet of those who make a living on the backs of those who seek shelter.

And yes, we realize that life isn’t supposed to be a cakewalk. But for an elemental necessity ranking behind only air, water and food, you’d think even a dirty paradise would be a bit more providing.

Silver lining: At least we’re not living under the bridge. Yet.

Invasion, USA!
by Andy Smetanka
Mister Clark, What I’m about to tell you will shake the very foundations of your plastic world. The honorable Mister Jefferson has parlayed a grand scheme in which your presence is regrettably required. Had he been given better counsel on the matter, perhaps he would have made the prudent decision of designating me as commander of this monumental expedition. Instead, for reasons beyond my comprehension, he has appointed a scurrilous drunkard to the position. That drunkard, Mister Clark, is none other than you. May the fires of hell consume your inebriated existence.
—Admiral Newtoncloof [?],
April 4, 1803

The insulting letter transcribed above is not an actual historical document. It is the solemnly intoned preamble to “Pride of America,” a sprawling (eight and a half minutes!), satirical ode to the Corps of Discovery penned three years ago by Missoula band Mike and Rick. The heavy metal ballad mixes heroically empurpled lyrics with similar spoken-word passages, all couched as fictional journal entries and sundry correspondence, and any number of irreverent jabs at the Lewis and Clark expedition and its participants. William Clark is repeatedly described as a bumbling alcoholic (“Though he was smashed when the ship set sail, Clark swore he’d return some day”) and Meriwether Lewis his calculating nemesis. Sacajawea is memorialized primarily for her sexual unavailability (“though they begged and groveled and grunted, none of [them] did she lay”), and once the expedition begins to founder from low morale and the incompetence of its leadership, an increasingly unstable Clark introduces an abrupt change of plans: “There is no ocean. Thus I have taken it upon myself to use this mission for my own ends: gold!”

Why is this obscure bit of Missoula music important right now? For at least three reasons: (1) It’s funny as hell. (2) Though written relatively recently, it was nonetheless years ahead of the looming national Lewis and Clark craze. And (3) though it plays fast and loose with the facts, “Pride of America” offers at least a cursory introduction to topics that will soon be discussed at great length, e.g. the consequences of imperialism and Manifest Destiny for the sovereign nations that had been living within the arbitrary boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase for hundreds or thousands of years:

They loaded up with trinkets and other shit
And robbed the Indians blind…

The tourist invasion will not be fully underway until 2004, the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery’s departure from St. Louis, and it won’t completely overrun Montana until 2005. But the forces of crass commercialism are already mobilizing to capitalize on the bicentennial craze, turning what should be a time of serious national reflection into a merchandising free-for-all. There’s already a commemorative jerky on the market, for crying out loud, and let’s not even talk about proposed plans to reenact the expedition on “personal watercraft,” i.e. Jet Skis. Even with serious intellectual content, the bicentennial inundation will no doubt leave a lot of us ruing the day Lewis and Clark set foot in Montana and thirsting for a refreshing drink of un-PC irreverence.

Silver lining: On the bright side, we’ve already gotten a good song out of it:

Left, right, left, marching forth,
Lewis and Clark were the pride of America;
Left, right, left, marching forth,
Lewis and Clark were men.

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