Sunday, January 29, 2006

American Handstand

All across the tri-state area, people were flipping the channels on their televisions and finding that the world had turned upside-down:

A man in a gray Stetson hat was pounding a piano like a thing possessed. Other instruments were being subjected to abuse from individuals who seemed dramatically untutored in their use. And people in general were wandering around the television studio as if they’d gotten separated from the walking tour.

Some would be moved to phone the television studio and, in fact, did. Others would pour out their barely controlled vitriol in letters. Still others opted to call the pianist at home by dialing up his personal home phone number.

How could they do this?

Because he had put his personal home phone number and address on large cards that were then held up on camera.

In those days there was no Internet, no such thing as instant feedback. So I somehow thought it would be a good idea to offer a way for the audience to get in touch with us.

It hadn’t occurred to me just what the audience might want to get in touch with us for.

The fallout from the show was immediate.

Even before it had officially concluded, the phone had begun to ring non-stop. Some calls were from friends and relatives. Others were from complete strangers who mostly seemed curious about whether the number was real or not. Some were prank calls and hang-ups. One particularly insistent person thought it was the height of hilarity to call, say “Quack, quack!” and then hang up.

He would continue to do this for years to come at all hours of the day and night, long after we’d forgotten why. We just accepted it.

The letters ran the gamut, from one memorably nasty one that I can still recall that told us in no uncertain terms that he’d disliked the program and that the fault for this lay squarely on the shoulders of “the faggot with the hat,” which I assumed was me, to one strangely polite one written in an awkward syntax that said that “It marveled me funny, the peanut gallery and the music…” It made mention of illness and I still wonder to this day what circumstances that letter came out of. I liked to think that we had brightened someone’s day.

Eventually all the excitement died down and life returned to normal.

Vox Populi! returned to their usual sort of guests who would go on about how their organization had been founded by the great-grandson of James Madison and how their meetings were open to the public on the third Wednesday of every month, rain or shine. The program limped along for a few more months and was finally cancelled.

About a year later, I decided to celebrate the anniversary of the broadcast by inviting everyone who had written to us to a party. The only one of these invitees to actually show up was a burly biker who had misinterpreted what I’d meant by “party.” He was a good sport, though, and he laughed continuously. I can remember my mother walking through the kitchen and not batting an eyelash at this Hell’s Angel sitting at the kitchen table along with the usual kids she knew.

“Oh, hello,” she said, nodding, as she went upstairs to fold the laundry. By this time there was very little I could do to surprise her.

Eventually the public television station closed up shop and moved into a much more roomy and elegant building, silencing the ghosts of the Bandstand forever. Now they’re just down the street from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall behind an expensive looking and glamorous façade.

It doesn’t look like the sort of place you could turn anything upside-down in without an appointment.

The holes in the fence where you could sneak in have long since been locked down or closed up.

Sometimes I wonder, though.

When I’m watching one of their local fundraisers, you know, one of those things where they show the same Grateful Dead concert for the hundredth time, I wonder if they ever get a phone call from someone who at first seems hesitant to talk. Then when they ask how much he’d like to pledge, he finds his tongue at last and, in a voice now matured with age, says:

“Quack, quack!”

That would please me very much indeed.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

That Old Quack Magic

The week our show was scheduled to air, I opened the weekly TV listings and read the following:

Vox Populi! 7 pm

The Ballets Rude, a musical group, play songs they’ve created in “music-for-fun” sessions.

“Music for fun”? What did that mean? Was that what we did?

It was an early lesson in how the media are always ill-equipped to explain art to the public.

In point of fact, from the moment the last few chords of the taping had died away, there was considerable doubt as to whether or not the show would actually air.

The producer explained to me later over the phone that there’d been some debate in the office as to the seriousness of our intent and whether the time spent airing it couldn’t be spent on something more constructive.

I did, and do, resent this. Part of our intent had been precisely to punch a few holes in the popular notions of what could and could not be allowed on television and what did and did not constitute music. To that extent, we had been as serious as a heart attack.

Had these philistines never heard of Cage’s 4’33” ? Or Duchamp’s Fountain ? Were we doomed to remain unappreciated in our own time?

In fact, had we been more po-faced and solemn about it, I doubt there would have been any trouble about it at all. But there was probably something about a guy screaming into a microphone about a duck that made them question our intent.

In the end, they decided the fair thing to do was to air it. After all, the show was called Vox Populi! And we were some of the populi.

What fascinated me about the whole “music-for-fun” business was that in order to air the show, they had to create a description in order to justify showing it. They needed to have an explanation at the ready should someone question the purpose of it. It simply wouldn’t do to say we let these maniacs run around the studio for half an hour.

I’ve since learned that people get very nervous about something when they can’t compare it to something they already know. So whoever came up with “music-for-fun” probably made the difference between the show seeing the light of day or the inside of a trash can.

The night of the scheduled broadcast we gathered around the tube and carefully set up a tape recorder to capture the show. This was, of course, before the invention of the VCR, so the only tape of it that exists is on an ancient audio cassette.

We could scarcely believe our eyes as the title card I’d drawn came up, multi-colored by their technicians, and I launched into that opening instrumental. This was going into people’s homes, not just here in Pennsylvania, but New Jersey and Delaware. Would they ever make a contribution to public television again?

As the Master of Ceremonies for the evening, I introduced the rest of the ensemble and talked a little about what we did. I had my ubiquitous gray Stetson on (it would be years before I managed to jettison that security blanket) and I wore a t-shirt that read simply Ballets Rude. There was some good-natured banter, the peanut gallery held up signs, and we went into another number whose name escapes me.

Well, this all seems to be going pretty well, I thought.

About halfway through the proceedings came the acid test, though. I introduced A Little Duck Quacked At The People, a vocal number with no instruments to fall back on which started out slow and got progressively faster.

The laughter of the cameramen was audible. My mother stared at me as if I had two heads. Miles away, my father was watching it on a mini-TV as he rang up customers at a local supermarket.

I hadn’t noticed it during the taping, but at some point somebody snuck around to the piano and kazoos were broken out to accompany me with quacking sounds.

It all sounded better than I’d remembered.

Some time ago, Philadelphians like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Rydell had probably stood where I was standing, crooning about the moon, the stars, and true love. Now here was I, making strange percussive sounds with my tongue meant to approximate an orchestral crescendo, while people quacked behind me.

Surely this was progress.

Conclusion: American Handstand

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Day The Music Fried

The cameraman was giggling.

I was in the middle of performing an acapella version of a number entitled A Little Duck Quacked At the People. That was the whole lyric.

I don’t suppose it was every day he was asked to capture something like that for posterity.

In their ongoing march to conquer the world, The Ballets Rude eventually decided it was time to bring their talents to the attention of the media, as the media didn’t seem particularly interested in pursuing them.

It came to my attention that the local public television station had just introduced a program called Vox Populi!, a 30-minute show that allowed local organizations to mount their respective soapboxes and explain something about themselves. After tuning it in for a few nights, I got the idea. It was something like those programs that traditionally aired at 3 in the morning, generally consisting of a great many longueurs connected together by periods of tremendous boredom.

Only this one aired at 7 in the evening.

After giving the producer a call, during the course of which I assiduously avoided any mention of what it was we did, I set about collecting the participants for the performance.

As I mentioned previously, it sometimes required a little friendly persuasion to convince my friends to lend a hand in these situations. Like some nascent Andy Warhol, I saw all of them as stars that simply hadn’t been discovered yet, even if they didn’t think they were particularly talented. I explained that I’d never let that stop me and I always wore them down eventually.

It was decided that, as a television program, a “peanut gallery” would be necessary, in the style of a children’s TV show. So anyone who didn’t want to play an instrument was assigned duty here. Others who were on the fence about the level of their participation were given the Hobson’s choice of picking an instrument or delivering an impromptu speech on the subject of their choice.

We soon had all the musicians we needed.

Before the actual taping, I had to go down to the studio and meet with the producer to explain what we’d need and how the show should go. What I hadn’t realized fully at the time was that this studio was the very one where Dick Clark had broadcast the American Bandstand program back in the days when it had been based in Philadelphia.

That’s right. New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, Got A Good Beat You Can Dance To It Dick Clark.

Had I been more fully cognizant of this at the time, I would have taken advantage of the historical moment and had two people come up after every song and rate them.

The producer seemed an affable type, although a little puzzled by what we were attempting to do. He seemed to be content with my explanations, however, and we confirmed a date for the taping. I’d told him that we’d need a piano, but otherwise we’d be able to provide everything else.

I drew up a rough itinerary of the order in which we wanted to present things and, after a final pep talk to the troops, we were ready.

Emotions ran high as we took the elevated train to 46th and Market and when we entered at last into the studio, with its piano brilliantly lit in the center of the space, the adrenalin began to pump in earnest.

We were given some time to find our places and I tried to calm any last-minute cases of jitters. When everyone was finally in place, we watched as they set up the title card I had specially prepared for the opening and, when they gave the signal, I opened with a solo piano instrumental.

We were off. But would we ever be allowed on?

Next: That Old Quack Magic

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Songs Of Reticence And Delirium

At some point or other in my adolescent development, I decided I had to have a musical group.

It would be a conceptual group, one that would consist of whoever was around at the time, thus being more of a celebration of the playing than the players.

I dubbed them The Ballets Rude and long before the cassette revolution of outsider musicians evolved, we were busy with our portable Sears machines recording our strange and unearthly output.

For me, it was a whole aesthetic. The name itself suggested a balance between highbrow and lowbrow or composition and improvisation, much, I imagined proudly, like the human experience.

I was constantly trying to persuade my friends to participate in these projects. Lacking the hambone that I was born with, they were often hesitant, musicians and non-musicians alike. My friend George, who played guitar, could always be relied on to join in. Another friend’s sister who played the flute allowed her arm to be twisted once in a while. As the years rolled by, The Ballets Rude featured all kinds of instruments in all sorts of contexts.

For instance, there was the time we played a local park festival with a poet named Sid The Soul Sound Kid. Sid usually improvised his poems quickly and we backed him up the best we could. Afterwards he told us, “That was almost like music!” which caused our flute player to respond indignantly, “What do you mean? That was music!”

This exchange often seemed to occur at our shows.

Or the time we played a downtown ice cream parlor, serenading the brave audience of two with my finely shaded saxophone stylings, a just-learning bass player with a defective amp, and a set of African drums played by hand.

At one point I recall using a set of chattering teeth for percussion.

The headliner, a local folk act well known around town, showed up just as we finished and he fixed us with a puzzled stare.

One night at a local university my girlfriend was attending, I talked a group of musicians involved with other bands on the evening’s bill to become The Ballets Rude for a night. The results startled me. Their willingness to create the music from scratch was entirely successful and I don’t think anyone could tell we’d never played together before. The high point for me was a piano and drum duet I played with a very talented drummer who anticipated where I was going every step of the way. I listened to that tape for years afterward.

But perhaps the most exposure we ever got was due to a half-hour television special we did in 1974.

You might well ask how such a thing was possible.

Well, the next time public television asks you for money, you may want to consider what happened the time they gave carte blanche to a strange sideshow of art damaged youngsters, an event we’ll refer to as…

Next: The Day The Music Fried

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Blues For My Mother

I got stones in my passway and my road seem dark as night.
- Robert Johnson

The sleeping has been bad lately.

When it happens, it’s brief and fretful. It’s easier to just stay awake. Especially when the dreams are almost uniformly disturbing.

I mentioned these dreams once before and they haven’t improved much. I’ve been assuming it’s due to one pill or another.

Now, of course, they seem to fit right in with my general disposition.

I wish I could describe them to you, but it would be impossible. I could tell you about the strange, washed-out, sepia-toned color of them or the way they seem soaked in an incredibly potent kind of despair, regardless of what’s actually happening. I wake up profoundly grateful that they’re over.

It’s the part that I can’t describe that’s the worst part of them.

They’re stark as well. Sad, empty landscapes with few people around. The ones you do meet you want to get away from as soon as possible.

In this most recent one, my late mother was greatly upset. The few things left in our now empty and darkened house were being gone through by strangers who just took what they liked.

I peered down at them over the rail of the staircase. My mother seemed in terrible emotional distress. It all felt worse than death, like being buried alive in a coffin.

Things got worse from there.

It’s a funny thing about my dreams. Very often I seem to revisit places that have been exclusive to my sleeping life. Places I’ve never seen, except in other dreams. Stores, homes, even libraries.

It’s not just déjà vu, either. I know for a fact that I’ve dreamt these places up before.

It always makes me wonder how the brain works. What does it mean that there’s some interior world lodged deep inside my head, and that it’s actually got landmarks that I visit more than once as if they were familiar destinations?

It worries me. What happens if you get stuck there?

I wouldn’t want to get stuck in these recent sand-blasted horrors.

Or maybe I already am and they’re telling me that I need to find a way out.

Once in a while I’m reminded of how beautiful the world can be.

Last week the weather turned unseasonably warm and we had a few days where you didn’t even need to wear a jacket. In January!

I drove with the windows down and enjoyed the smell of the fresh air. It was glorious.

And there was this brief moment when I caught a hint – just a hint – of green, of Spring. It was this subtle fragrance that cut like a knife and disappeared.

God, there it is, I thought. Life! I remember what it smells like!

Now I’m back in the tomb again.

Except now I remember that smell and I want to dig my way back if I can, the way that a plant or a flower does.

It just feels like I’m doing it with a spoon and it’s bent.

I can’t stay here in the dirt with you, Mom.

I love you, but I can’t.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Radio Silence, or: America, I Wish I Could Quit You!

I’ve gotten so many wonderful letters and notes from people who have been concerned about some of the recent events mentioned here.

Wise and perceptive comments from folks who felt it was worth a moment of their time to check in, see how I was doing, and offer words of encouragement and helpful suggestions.

It sobers you up a bit to see beyond your little hole and be reminded that you’re not the only one who’s taken a few knocks or who’s suffered in similar circumstances.

Most of them don’t feel the need to whine about it in public, however.

It surprises you a little to see how many people are pulling for you.

I’m going to try and not let them down.

So to all of them, to all of you:

Thank you. I won’t soon forget a single one of you, or the kindness you extended to me during a very difficult time.

It’s funny. I was thinking the other day that there was someone else who recently quit a 20-year job and has had to start from scratch.

Howard Stern.

Now, granted, Howard’s got $500 million dollars of compensation to help him through the rough patches. But still, it’s got to be a little strange to go from 18 million listeners to about a sixth of that, even if you have gained the creative freedom to do what you want to do.

Like I said, $500 million. It’s hard to feel sorry for him, exactly.

I’d rather he get the money than some of the folks getting hired in broadcasting these days, though.

CNN, which seems bent on making their initials stand for “Conservative News Network,” just announced the hiring of right-wing nut Glenn Beck, who will host his own one-hour talk show on Headline News.

Beck is a syndicated radio show host whose show originates from (you guessed it) Philadelphia and who is fond of doing things like calling Cindy Sheehan “a pretty big prostitute” and musing aloud about how he’s “thinking about killing Michael Moore,” all while he’s waving the flag and shooting fireworks out of his ass.

It’s no mystery why these guys seem to be the only ones getting work during a period when wrestling has become so popular.

Right-wing radio hosts are basically doing old wrestling shtick. Remember when they’d interview the wrestlers between bouts and they’d talk about how they’re gonna tear so-and-so apart so he better watch out? It was hilarious. It was the only reason you’d watch, really.

Only now people take the wrestlers, and the talk-show hosts, seriously.

They all put the asses in the seats, as the saying goes, by acting outrageously and saying stupid and outrageous things.

And that is the only thing that is important any more. There are no longer any such concepts as embarrassment, originality, or integrity in commercial broadcasting any longer.

And the biggest rewards go to those that lie about it the best.

Beck is “cordial,” says CNN, and his show will not be “confrontational.”

Which I think is what they said right before Michael Savage told a caller on MSNBC that he was a “pig,” a "sodomite," and "a piece of garbage" who should “get AIDS and die.”

It’s getting hard to hold your head up in this country.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lose Your Job Now! Ask Me How!

The woman at the DMV was staring at my new Driver’s License.

“You’ve lost some weight,” she said, comparing the old and new pictures.

“Really? You think so?” I asked, as I signed a sheet that confirmed I was receiving the new license.

“Oh, sure,” she said. “You can see it in the face.”

Now I compared them. I had to admit there was a difference.

“Well, it’s not a huge change, but I guess you’re right,” I said. “Thanks for noticing.”

“Have a nice day,” she said.

Now that older picture was taken four years ago, when I was admittedly on the high end of the scale. Not to mention the fact that it also immortalized one of the worst haircuts I’ve ever received. It looks like somebody hacked away at it with a dull set of pinking shears.

I am thinner now, but the astonishing thing is how much further I’ve got to go to fit into the parameters of a healthy lifestyle.

How did it get this bad?

Well, of course the metabolism changed along the way and the cheesesteaks began to register as love handles, as well as numerous other convenient ways to grab and carry me.

The job, a sedentary one that encouraged sitting and eating, worked hand-in-glove with the new metabolism to help set me on the wonderful road to Weebledom.

It never occurred to me to do anything about it. The thinking was that whatever I needed to eat or drink to get through the horrible day was forgivable. And so I drank however many sodas and ate however many cakes were necessary.

Yes, I threw myself on that frosted grenade.

And that’s when I found myself beginning to develop any number of problems: acid reflux, sleep apnea, back trouble, and high blood pressure.

All things I could have helped reduce by losing some weight. Instead, I’d slog through the workday, walk a short distance to the car, drive home, and deposit myself in the comfy chair for the evening.

Some exercise regimen.

I once again rationalized this lifestyle by telling myself that I had suffered enough during the horrible day and was now entitled to relax in any way I chose.

Of course, I only made things worse.

Now the wife has lost a tremendous amount of weight over the last year or so, merely by eating better and exercising.

Imagine that.

No shakes, no special meals, just better food and physical activity.

Just didn’t make sense to me, as I bit into another cheeseburger.

Well, here’s the interesting thing.

In the short time that I’ve been unemployed, which is to say away from the easy access to sodas and so-called “breakfast sandwiches,” I have managed to lose around ten pounds.

Part of this is due to the fact that the emotional upset of losing my job simply destroyed the appetite for the first few days following my termination. I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, eat.

In the past week, though, I’ve tried borrowing the wife’s walking route and try to get in 2 to 4 miles a day. And left to my own devices at home, I don’t eat all that often or as much.

How ironic it would be if their firing me actually saved my life.

Because, I have to tell you, that was the furthest thing from their minds.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Joyce And Sorrows

It was published in 2003, but I’m only now catching up to Carol Shloss’s biography of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia, To Dance In The Wake.

One could be forgiven, perhaps, for wanting to skip it after biographies of Joyce’s father and wife have appeared. What more could there be to say? And isn’t it common knowledge that Lucia was a hopeless schizophrenic who lived out her life in asylums?

The remarkable and radical thing about Shloss’s book is that it refuses to accept the critical commonplaces of Joyce scholarship and asks, “What if Lucia was not mentally ill?” Indeed, Shloss provides testimony from what seems like an endless line of witnesses who all agree that Lucia was, in fact, a lively and vivacious girl who seemed to have an artistic gift she’d inherited from her father.

It was a gift she channeled into modern dance and she received her first lessons from Isadora Duncan’s brother Raymond. Those who witnessed her performances saw great promise in her and an interviewer in 1928 remarked that “when she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”

Of course, part of the problem was the exact opposite: Joyce’s overwhelming fame and the amount of time he spent on Finnegans Wake conspired to make his children feel as if they were engaged in a sort of “sibling rivalry,” in Shloss’s words, with a book. His son Giorgio went on to lead a sad and dissipated life. Lucia was involved with a crowd of Parisian bohemians that seemed to inspire her creativity. Eventually, however, she seemed to become overwhelmed by a series of bad love affairs and other disappointments that sometimes left her catatonic or violent.

Was it the kind of behavior that merited confinement or observation? The well-meaning people that surrounded Joyce and his family were intent on protecting him from anything that might interfere with his writing, and so the view that Lucia was in need of medical care was heavily recommended. It was the dawn of the age of Psychiatry, a heavily patriarchal science in the beginning and Lucia, in retrospect, appears to have been sacrificed on the altar of it. “She was the price that had been paid for a book,” Shloss writes.

No two doctors could seem to agree on a diagnosis, though many felt she was merely “neurotic.” But the picture presented by Richard Ellmann’s bedrock biography of Joyce made it clear we were to think of her as damaged. Perhaps the most illuminating part of Shloss’s book is the opening section in which she follows the history of what did and didn’t find its way into Ellmann’s book and why. It's a sobering history that reminds you that scholarship sometimes compromises itself in order to keep its sources happy.

But if the idea that someone could be shuffled like paperwork into an asylum for being the daughter of a genius is too depressing to contemplate, it is tempered by the fact that her father never stopped trying to find the key that would unlock her mystery. Both seemed to sense that they shared a symbiotic relationship and it was Joyce who seemed to understand that Lucia’s confinement was only making her worse instead of better. When Shloss glosses the end of Finnegans Wake as a meditation on his relationship with the daughter he so dearly loved, it reads even more affectingly than we’d imagined.

It’s a necessary book and I have to say that, although she occasionally seems to try too hard to draw parallels that don’t seem to be there, I’m largely in sympathy with this portrait of an artist who struggled desperately beneath her father’s shadow. That Shloss was able to produce a biography at all is an achievement. So much of the record has been destroyed or expunged that there is very little to go on.

To Dance In The Wake does something that few works of Joycean scholarship do for me. It makes me see Joyce and his final masterwork differently and, my instinct says, more clearly than before. By serving the truth, surely it serves Joyce himself.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Long Goodbye

I have lived my life on the edge of nothing.
- Raymond Chandler

That's not a line from one of the novels. That's from a letter, talking about himself.

I always identified with that line. I felt as if I knew exactly what he meant. The sense that your life has no firm foundation, that everything in it rests precariously on a sheet of tissue paper and as soon as a drop of rain appears...

It all falls down.

Why would a sane person arrange their life in such a way? Perhaps a sane one wouldn't.

Maybe it's a sense of fatalism, a feeling that it's never going to last, that you weren't meant to last, that's responsible. Why do some recognize that life requires a bit of effort if you want what you've built to stand? Why are others satisfied to drift, allowing their lives to happen around them?

It's hard for me to answer for myself. Part of it was disinterest, part of it laziness, part of it sadness. I had no idea, no plan, no great ambition.

I had a vague sense of an artist's vocation, but refused to do the work required.

I do know that whatever life I ever had always rested on very shaky ground. I'd look back occasionally and marvel that I had made it as far as I had.

But remove one support...

And I knew that. But I bluffed my way through.

The job was that one support. And the loss of it has ruined every part of my life.

Of course, losing the job didn't do that per se, but it exacerbated pre-existing problems.

Now I have, quite literally, lost everything.

I think I may have mentioned earlier that my future always felt to me like it was a toss-up between a couple of choices. One was living as a homeless person. This never seemed practical, though. I'm a private type and the homeless thing seemed like it required a lot of social interaction.

I never saw myself living happily ever after, or even living in a house. My disdain for what I knew would be required to do so made it seem logical to me that I'd find no home in the world. Maybe that makes no sense, but it made an emotional sense to me.

Perhaps it's just a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. It's what I expected, so I willed it on myself.

The other choice, which folks like me always keep buried in the back of their minds, is...

Well, you know what it is.

It stops the suffering. But I don't have the nerve, you know. I don't even like to get needles.

Right now, though, those are the two most realistic options I have to choose from.

It's no one's fault but my own. I made this bed.

At one point tonight, though, I started thinking, how long can I have to go, realistically? 20, 25 years, if I'm lucky?

I imagine it'll be less.

But I thought, that's not that long, is it? I managed to work at Endless Bore and Tedium that long.

Don't I owe life that much? Shouldn't I fight just a little longer?

How long can I last? Surely not that long. And it would be a nice gesture, you know, like a belated thank you for a gift.

Bukowski wouldn't have given up, right?

Then again, his life didn't go down the toilet at 50, it took off.

I keep waiting to be rescued. I always get rescued.

I have looked into black pits before and always survived. But then I never dreamed they could be as vast and as dark as this one.

But it's the one that I knew was waiting for me all my life. I put myself neatly on the path to it years ago, ages ago.

Now I can see it, smell it, taste it. That makes all the difference in the world.

What a horrible thing it is, worse beyond anything I have ever imagined.

What do I do now?

For the first time ever, I am being forced to make a choice.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Come On In!

The new year brings with it yet another volume of new poems by the late Charles Bukowski.

Come On In! is the ninth posthumous collection of his work to appear, and the fourth to come from HarperCollins’s Ecco imprint since they acquired the rights to his work from Black Sparrow Press. And as nice as it is to still have his voice with us, it’s hard not to miss the old Black Sparrow production values that made each book seem like a modest work of art, something that was always partly due to the unique graphic design of publisher John Martin’s wife Barbara.

Coincidentally or not, the publication date also marks the 36th anniversary of the day Bukowski left his job at the post office at the age of 50, give or take a day. As everyone knows, he proceeded to let those years spill onto the page and become his first novel Post Office, which set both Bukowski and Black Sparrow on the road to popular success. John Martin had promised to pay Bukowski a monthly stipend if he would quit his job and devote himself to his writing full time. It was a gamble that paid off hugely for both of them.

I had an opportunity about a year ago to visit Los Angeles and I tried to take a Bukowski walking tour while I was there. Armed with a handful of addresses, I did my best to scare up some ghosts but his L.A. is long gone now. The sex shop is still there at the corner of Hollywood and Western, but there’s a Starbucks across the street from it.

You’d think they could have at least made it a “Starbukowski’s” or something and put some of his poems on the cups.

Still, the pilgrimage felt worth the effort as I walked the streets he walked so many times. I even got a couple of kids to take a picture of me outside the place where Post Office had been written so long ago. As I wrote to someone at the time, it all felt more intimate somehow than a visit to the gravesite would have.

But all we’ve got now are the poems, which is exactly the way Bukowski would have wanted it. Come On In! won’t hold many surprises for anyone familiar with the usual Bukowski mise-en-scene. There are the usual complaints, about poets, poetry, the dangers of success, and the general human condition:

you might as well be the only
person left on earth.
sometimes you feel as if you
and maybe you are.

But more importantly, there are the lyrical poems that sing the praises of silent courage and everyday endurance:

it’s stupid, I know, but I have an
ability to feel happy for little or no reason,
it’s not a great elation, it’s
more like a steady
warmth -
something like a warm heater on a cold

It ends, as most of these recent compilations have, with those poems written around the time of his final illnesses. These usually inspire him to speak with a sort of mentor’s voice as he tries to find a way to summarize a lifetime lived:

invent yourself and then reinvent yourself,
change your tone and shape so often that they can
categorize you.

Or, as this particular collection ends:

cry not for me.

grieve not for me.

what I’ve written
forget it

drink from the well
of your self
and begin

And here I am at 50, having just lost my job of 20 years. It’s hard to get past.

Mockingbird…wish me luck.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sunshine Of Your Huh?

We’re slow with the new technology up here in the hills.

Recently, though, the wife got herself a digital camera in preparation for the trip to the UK, and she upgraded her cell phone to one of those jobs that can take pictures and such.

The digital camera’s just great and opens up all kinds of possibilities, especially in tandem with the new computer we finally bought to replace the one we got for free back in 1999. That’s a story in itself, though.

That poor machine did the best it could attempting to keep up with the latest improvements on the internet, but it gradually became more and more obsolete with each passing month until it finally required a reboot every half an hour or so. It was the computer equivalent of two tin cans and a string.

Using the new one feels like being kicked into another century. It’s probably nothing special to those in the know, but to us it’s a magic box that had us hurrying to put the old machine deep in the basement where no one will know we ever used it.

The only disappointment, and it’s a small one, has to do with the new cell phone.

It offered a number of interesting new ring tones, for a fee, and the wife decided on Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love. Which, in and of itself, was, you know, fine.

The problem is that they either haven’t gotten all the bugs out of transferring actual recordings into these phone speakers, or this particular song has trouble confining itself to the cell phone format, because every time it rings, it sounds like a hundred blenders all being turned on at once.

All of a sudden there’s this electronic clamor from her coat pocket that, when withdrawn and exposed to the air, turns into the sound of electric razors battling for world supremacy.



All of a sudden Cream sounds like they were the inspiration for a thousand industrial bands.

I much prefer her old ring tone, which imitated the sound of an upcoming news bulletin and didn’t make me jump 5 feet in the air.

It did make me think about how some people listen to music at volumes that, to my mind, eliminate any musical qualities that might have once existed there.

One ends up next to cars that do this all the time, of course, but the most extreme example I ever experienced was in 1977, when I was hitchhiking to Rhode Island from NYC after an Ornette Coleman show at Lincoln Center.

At some point, I was picked up by a guy in a tiny sports car that had seen better days. As soon as we took off, he hit his tape player and a sheet of white noise poured forth.

I had absolutely no way of knowing what or who was being played, as his insistence of listening to it at the highest possible volume had reduced it to a series of buzzing sounds that refused to vary, they just ran at you over and over again until you wanted to throw your head out the window.

Or his.

I couldn’t fathom how he possibly could have been enjoying this. What was he hearing? Could he, indeed, hear anything at all anymore?

It was a ride, though, so I gritted my teeth and when he finally dropped me off near Providence, my ears were ringing. I could just see the city in the distance and as I started towards it, the musical tumult of ’77 just around the corner, I wondered if it wasn’t time to pay more attention to popular music.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year (An Improvisation)

There’s only an hour and a half left in 2005 and I’ve only just learned that Derek Bailey died on Christmas Day.

To anyone familiar with the history of free improvised music, I don’t have to tell you who Bailey was. If you haven’t heard of him, suffice it to say that free improv has lost its Washington, Edison, and Einstein in one fell swoop.

What really shocks me is that the death of someone like Bailey, whose accomplishments were acknowledged universally, can go virtually unremarked upon, at least here in the United States.

I can find sympathetic and intelligent obituaries of him that appeared in England’s Independent and Guardian (and Bailey was English, granted), but can’t seem to Google up much U.S. interest in his passing, save for an article in the L.A. Weekly.

Now I’m not arguing that my fellow Americans are a bunch of uneducated philistines because they weren’t aware of Derek Bailey. His music was difficult and cerebral and we live in a culture where the noise level is so deafening that most folks don’t know how to turn it down anymore, let alone tune in to something that’s quiet and nuanced.

Sometimes I wonder about our country and the arts, though. What is it about us that makes us measure everything out in money?

It often seems as if other countries are able to see that money is a means to an end, rather than that end itself.

It seems as if other countries understand that life, art, and love is more valuable than money, that life is measured by the living, the daring, the accomplishments, the heart, the sun, the sky, the air.

They understand that there is value in things that you can’t necessarily see or hold in your hand.

It’s funny, because it also seems to me that America holds in its great beating heart a mighty willingness to explore freedom in an artistic sense, an urge to forge a wild and untamed ecstatic beauty out of itself.

And yet…

I don’t know what it is. How do these seemingly contradictory notions manage to live side by side here?

Why can’t we seem to bring them closer together?

A tiny wish for the heart of America in 2006, then.

Don’t give up.

Just…don’t give up.