"Did you see that tumbleweed?" coohs the chanteuse to my left, marking our unchallenged approach to the near-empty Central Florida Fairgrounds.
"Yeah," I mouth silently. "I blew it."
Orlando's rock & roll heyday is but a distant memory these days, with most of the throaty soul-searching and grassroots ambition of the mid '90s going either the way of label failure or, in the case of Creed, a more stadium-friendly Rock Jesus. Orlando music has become "Cumbersome."
Appropriately, scene survivors Seven Mary Three are set to headline this particular event, painfully titled "Annual Motorcycle and Tattoo Experience" in a nod to midway populism concocted by the folks at O-Rock radio.
Me, I caught up with head-Mary Three Jason Ross a couple of days earlier, and it's clear that we are very much the same person. We talked about love, life and media darling Ryan Adams. You know, the things that everyone talks about.
"He played with us a long time ago," remembered Ross. "I think we were opening for like, Jewel, or something. He doesn't brush his teeth."
Now he's swimming with Elton John ... although still carefully unkempt. Likewise still emotionally unkempt, Ross, now residing in Chapel Hill, N.C., continues to bleed his heart into song. He promised me that his newest compositions would require a noose for proper listening, which probably shouldn't excite me so much. Anyway, ol' Jason keeps in touch with what's truly important in Orlando.
"I still read your column occasionally, thank God," he said, somewhat confusingly.
"Thank God 'only occasionally?'" I blithered back.
"Thank god it's still fucking hilarious!"
I love him. Pass the noose.
Today, though, it'll take more than a stylish neck rope to make this sort of event relevant. Never mind the respectable musical lineup of your grumbly Seven Mary Threes, your shiny Blue Meridians and your twangy Hindu Cowboys; the folks at O-Rock have undermined it all by adding skin stains and sweathogs to the roster, creating a countercultural assault on the low brow. Tattoos and motorcycles, indeed. Like, if you're lucky, you'll get marked for life, and then get run over.
Predictably, what is in effect a grungier X-Games, spring-break scenario comes off more as a World's Fair exhibit of what Orlando used to be, say, five years ago. Piercings between pimples and the requisite half-shirts of teen flirtation barely stand out among the more well-adjusted girls who nonetheless all look the same, or at least look like different versions of the same person: Sheryl Crow in '94, '98 and '02.
Anyway, depressing subculture exhibition aside, it's mildly interesting to note the glue that holds it all together. Besides recreational drug use (more than one vendor is peddling water pipes for tobacco usage, and one is selling them along with swords. Yikes!), there's always sex. Only, it shouldn't be like this.
A passing bike vendor in something resembling a Norse warrior hat with raccoon tails flopping over the ears bumps into view. He's rather unashamedly carrying two 5-foot inflatable penises under his hairy, hairy arms, and I'm almost afraid to approach him.
Insert size queen joke here.
"Billy Manes, Orlando Weekly," I officiate. ... with a humility pause. "Quick question: Why?"
"Because I'm a big prick!" he beams, if one can beam with that much hair on their body.
Diffused and confused, I turn my more modest size around and start to walk away, only to be followed by Thor and his magnificent members, each apparently wanting to explain itself.
"You should hang around and see what we do with them," he grunts to my horror. "We're going to put them in the audience. Those are my condoms!" he motions in the direction of nowhere, where presumably some super-large sheaths await.
"Oh, so it's like a safe-sex message?" I mumble as two giant penises wave in my face. God save the queen.
Women, duly, have their own sexual projectiles. And here, as everywhere, the Hooters girls are pretending to be celebrities, signing calendars and posing for pictures with ugly men.
Surely they have some wisdom to impart. Or giggles.
"I just want to ask some questions," I holler at one.
"Questions. Journalist!" I announce.
"You want to take pictures?" the Head Hooter screams back, staring blankly at my tape recorder.
"No! Interview!" I crack.
"Oh, suuuurrre," concedes Mrs. Big, who leans into her pawns and commands them through her teeth to "talk Hooters!"
"So what's your position on exploitation?" I attempt to quiz.
"OK, what's your favorite part of this gig?" I downsize.
Seems the girls are having trouble talking and autographing at the same time. First they struggle to find the proper page, next it's a grapple over how to spell Daniel, and then the obvious artistic conundrum of just what to sign across a crotch.
"Breast Wishes, Daniel!" eventually oozes the Sharpie.
Cumbersome. Cumbersome at best.