On Song Leaders, and Pasta Salad, and Dogs Named Earnie
(Editor's note: Since I bailed on work yesterday to recover from a grievous illness, I'm gonna go ahead and post my leftover entry from Sunday's D.C. United game. I swear, I'll stop focusing on this team and their fans at some point. Maybe 2009.)
The thing I really wanted to know about the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles was this: how do they decide when, in the middle of a game, to switch their chants and songs?
From conversations and listening, it would appear that there are about seven or eight standards that are used repeatedly throughout the typical match and halftime drum circle. Sometimes, there are a few seconds of peace between numbers, and sometimes the end of one song sort of smoothly transitions into another chant. And sometimes, everyone stops singing and just yells "[Bleep] you ref" for a while.
Still, I figured that, as a trained reporter, I'd be able to figure out who were the conductors: who decided when it was time for a new song, and who decided what that new song would be.
I started by asking Bill Stevenson, tattoo artist to MLS stars (or at least, to Santino Quaranta).
"It's the consensus of the noisiest," he said. "That's the beauty of the Barra."
But Bill pointed me toward The Grillmaster, who has among the biggest drums. The Grillmaster denied responsibility for song choice, saying songs organically crop up in different sections of the crowd, and that others then join in, until consensus is reached. Which sounds good, but still, someone has to be the first to start cropping the song up, right?
(The Grillmaster, who was drinking from a bottle of Knob Creek bourbon as he cooked, did admit to being the author of one of the newest chants, "Dale Dale," which is apparently set to a Portuguese melody, and loosely translates to "C'mon, c'mon; C'mon my Heart [United]; We're gonna win, we're gonna win; We will be the champions." Since this is a new song, and since most of the Barra are Gringos at this point, someone holds up a big poster with the lyrics when they sing "Dale Dale." It felt like watching Sesame Street or something.)
(The Grillmaster was trying to get me to eat some of the flesh he was charring, but others pointed me toward two massive trays of vegetarian pasta salad that had been provided by Jaime Moreno's wife. It was excellent. Next weekend, I hope to taste Mark Brunell's wife's tailgate cooking. Although, word is, she never shows up until the fourth quarter.)
Anyhow, per my request, The Grillmaster advised I speak with some guy named Jay, but before I found Jay I met Paul Planzer, known as Captain, whom I had seen at previous games in the middle of the chanting mayhem. So I asked Captain if he was The Conductor, and he sort of took partial credit. When it starts getting quiet, he and two or three lead Barras will start "getting into it, and then everyone just goes with the flow," he said as a guy stumbled up and asked where he could get a beer.
Next came Jay, a lawyer wearing a tasteful-in-so-many-ways t-shirt that said "[Bleep] Red Bull, Ride the White Pony," who is famous for his "shrill banshee" voice, which forces others to agree to his song choices in an attempt to drown him out.
"I'm the guy," Jay admitted, when I asked who was responsible for choosing the songs. "Quote this: I'm white, I'm Jewish, I have no rhythm, but I'm loud."
Jay then launched into his Theories of Soccer Chant Leadership, which a colleague pointed out could also apply nicely to wedding band leadership.
"Leading cheers is very hard," Jay said. "Like, you run out of breath and you can't go 100 percent all the time. The way I do it, when everyone's going crazy for like five minutes, then they need something slower, something to catch their breath. It's all about pacing."
Jay, though, wanted me to talk to Srdan Bastaic, one of the Barra's elders, a Croatian with unimpeachable soccer-chanting credentials.
"He's old-school European," Jay explained. "He's, like, our legitimacy."
But Srdan and I instead wound up talking about how to purchase massive European-style soccer flags, which it turns out is a lot more difficult than you might imagine. Anyhow, soon the game started, and I watched the mayhem from right outside Barraland. ("Cheer, [very bad word]," some Barra lady kept screaming at me, not understanding the concept of strict journalistic impartiality.) Srdan and Big Rob and a few others were standing at the very front of the Barra section, backs to the field, literally acting as conductors, with the flapping arms and the expressive eyes and total command of their choir. Interestingly, their responsibilities meant that they didn't technically watch the game. Srdan later told me he had recorded the game at home and would watch it later that night, since he only experienced the action via brief glances at the jumbotron. The sacrifices one must make for art.
(After the game I also met Paul Johnson, a DCU fan and farm underwriter from Lansing, Mich. who had never before been to a United game at RFK, and who flew in for this game, and who was staying with Big Rob, and who was flying back to Michigan on Monday morning to inspect five farms. "Like nothing else I've ever seen in American soccer," he said of the fan experience. "Just amazing.")
(And I also met Earnie, Big Rob's Jack Russell terrier, named after Earnie Stewart.)
(Big Rob also gave some of the credit for song choice to the Screaming Eagles, which theoretically could mean that I need to go back to next Sunday's game and interview all the Eagles about who picks their songs.)
(After last call, some of the beer venders wandered down to Barraland to watch the rest of the game. When United scored, lots of the beer ended up leaving people's cups and landing, among other places, on our heads. "All this beer flying around," one of the venders said, sadly. "I wish I was still selling.)
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