Brad Zellar



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  Friday, March 28, 2003

Moving Day

Sorry for the inconvenience, folks, but for reasons that are entirely unclear to me, City Pages is moving its weblogs to an offshore site where we can more easily protect the boatloads of cash that we're generating from this revenue-producing juggernaut. From this point on you'll find my usual incoherent spew here. Be warned, however: my best work (sic) is behind me. Also be sure and check out the virtuous and decidedly more lucid work of my colleagues. The advantages of this new system, as I understand it, is that it will allow us to blog from home, which essentially means that if my employers thought I was wasting a lot of their time on this enterprise, they --and you-- are going to be unpleasantly surprised to discover how much of my own time I'm willing to waste. Please adjust your bookmarks accordingly.

9:48:24 AM    

  Thursday, March 27, 2003

The Best Website On The Planet

Every once in a great while you stumble across something on the Internet that reminds you how much your world has been transformed by this medium. As a lifetime library rat whose idea of Paradise is a place crammed to the ceiling with boxes of books and sounds and images and curiosities, there is nothing so satisfying as bumping into someone in cyberspace who is obsessively working away at a crazed and impossible blueprint for my personal Elysian Fields. Whoever is behind Speckled Paint is building --has built-- a wondrous Babel bazaar full of art, photography, advertising, medical curiosities, weird science, and all manner of splendid anomaly and exotica. It's the most visually stimulating and exhausting website I've ever come across, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The writing is damn curious and entertaining as well, even if it necessarily takes a backseat to the incredible archive of images. Here's a characteristic example (and you'll have to go to the site to find out the second thing alluded to in this entry):

I overheard two things on the radio that I would like to note for further thought at another time. Firstly—though not necessarily in an organized sequence—a BBC reporter acknowledged in an almost wistful way that: "It is easy to be blinded by the gee-whizery of it all."

11:27:41 AM    

War Is Just A Racket

War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.

     --Major General Smedley Butler, USMC. Speech on Interventionism, 1933.

10:54:00 AM    

You Never Hear About All The Good Things He's Done

Saddam Hussein: He always was a friend to the Motor City.

9:26:20 AM    

  Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Fool Me Once

From today's CNN war coverage:

The residents of Basra, an important center of Iraq's Shiite population and Iraq's second-largest city, staged an uprising after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. But without backup from coalition forces that had driven Saddam Hussein's regime out of Kuwait, hundreds of thousands were killed.


The New Gods: An E.M. Cioran Sampler

Since things continue to get worse from generation to generation, to predict catastrophes is a normal activity, a duty of the mind....In history, we are always on the threshold of the worse....That is what makes history interesting, what makes us hate it, and be unable to detach ourselves from it.

We may be sure that the twenty-first century, more advanced than ours, will regard Hitler and Stalin as choirboys.

There is no point in being a monster if you are not also a theoretician of the monstrous.

Man, that exterminator, has designs on everything that lives, everything that moves: soon we shall be talking about the last louse.

I dream of a language whose words, like fists, would fracture jaws.

Cow's urine was the only medicine monks were authorized to use in the first Buddhist communities. One cannot imagine a more judicious restriction. If we pursue peace, we shall reach it only by rejecting whatever is a factor in disturbance, whatever man has grafted onto simplicity, onto his original health. Nothing exposes our failure better than the spectacle of a pharmacy: all the remedies desirable for each of our ills, but none for our essential ill, for the disease of which no human invention can cure us.

Disgusted by nations, I turn to Mongolia, where it must be good to live, where there are more horses than men, where the Yahoo has not yet triumphed.

          --E.M. Cioran, The New Gods. 1969.

5:10:42 PM    

  Monday, March 24, 2003

Here Are Some Nights, Here's A Dream

Almost a dream, anyway. The best I can offer: It's the middle of the night and I'm driving through the completely empty streets of the city and I come to a red light at this intersection. There's a cop car right there on the opposite side of the intersection, parked along the curb, facing the green light. I sit there at that red light for what seems like fifteen minutes, and during this time I don't see another vehicle pass through the intersection. I sit there for a few more minutes until I figure there must be something wrong; the stop light must be broken. It's three o'clock in the morning and I have no intention of sitting there until the sun comes up. I finally just run the red light, and the cops immediately pull me over and stomp my fucking ass.


I've been living in a crouch for weeks. Sitting alone one night I listened to Skip James followed immediately by Mahler's Ninth Symphony, and I wondered if perhaps this was the first time in the history of the planet that anyone anywhere had played these two recordings back to back. It certainly seemed to be in the realm of possibility, and if I got even more specific I increased the odds: Skip James' 1931 Paramount sides on Biograph, followed by Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's recording (for Deutsche Grammophone) of Mahler's Ninth. Yes, surely I had made some kind of gloomy history. There could be little doubt. Sitting there on the floor of my cluttered room I had, in fact, become a sort of obscure pioneer. How was this any different from the exploits of those lunatics who plodded across the ice at the top or bottom of the world just so they could say they'd seen some nothing that nobody else had ever seen? Who's to say? You plant your flags, I'll plant mine.


I've got nothing. I've got fifteen minutes of nothing. Eight hours of nothing. No, not that unspeakable Budweiser lamp, not that plastic pineapple drink glass, not that Hair Bear Bunch lunch box, not that bleached out Colt 45 tee-shirt, not those gawdy three dollar sandals, not that Army Surplus store Desert Hat with the chin strap, not those truck stop sunglasses, not that gesture where you put your index finger and your thumb to your lips, squint your eyes, and pretend to inhale. Not that belt buckle that folds into a pot pipe, not that big leather wallet that's connected to your belt loop with a big chain, not that fake Mexican accent, not that CB lingo routine, not those barbecued pork rinds, not that big can of Foster's Lager, not that big, ironic peace sign necklace. No, no, please, no, anything but that.


And please don't cry "BINGO!" when you have nothing but "I-N-G." Don't sit there mulling over those sad days when you were forced to gag down wax-paper cartons of warm milk that had been sitting there for hours unrefrigerated in the coat room of your old kindergarten class. Come down from there right this instant. Turn down that stereo. Tie your shoes. Blow your nose. Straighten up and fly right. Wake up and smell the coffee. Don't talk with your mouth full. Look at me when I talk to you. Wipe that smile off your face. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Show your grandmother your new braces. Apologize to your sister. I will not have you talk that way in this house. You are not going anywhere until you take off that ridiculous hat. What do you have to say for yourself? I'm not going to ask you again. Put down that Submarine gun and come out with your hands in the air.

That should be Submachine gun.


My wife told me that I have some work to do, and I don't exactly understand what she means, even as I recognize the apparent general truth in her words. I spend an inordinate amount of time splayed on the floor, the position in which I am most comfortable, my head rocking at the margins of sleep. I have spent years becoming this man. Slowly becoming this man splayed on the floor, staring at the dim, dusty astronomy of my skull. I fully understand that one small half-turn of something in my head and I could be lost forever.


At least it's not like the old days, when I had wee beasties in the floorboards, full-throated bastards, every one of them, belting the old tunes long into the night. With nary a pound of flesh to spare, and nothing on what you might call the gainful side, alone I'd sit with tears welling in my eyes, bare- and slight-chested as a rubber chicken, staring into a fire that was there only in my dreams, rocking myself like a porcelain doll. When the whiskey ran away with my tongue I'd join the wee beasties; I've a lovely tenor, or so I've been told a time or two, but my old landlady had little tolerance for popular song, particularly in the small hours, and she wasn't bashful about going after the ceiling with a broomstick.


A Letter Found In An Old Biology Textbook


Listen, Leonard, it's true what you've probably heard by now. It's one of those things that happens around here that you can't believe. You remember what happened some years ago with Neil and the compost pile, well this was a worse deal all around. Mickey had the .22 and the hog came at him and somehow got him off his feet and the rifle discharged and Mickey got it right in the ear. We haven't figured it out yet, and I don't suppose we will. Dwight's running for mayor, and he was on the television last night giving a speech and waving his arms around and shouting like a madman about the fact that we've given the Indians such a hard time in this country. Tom Keck, who Dwight's running against, pointed out that to the best of his knowledge we don't have a single Indian in this town, and Dwight shouted, "I rest my case!" It's always something with our people, Leonard, but you know that better than anyone. How's Oslo? Thanks for the postcard of the statue. Never heard of the fella. Ma wishes you'd write her a letter now and again so she'd have some idea what you're up to.


Eternal Lacrimation Is A Sorry Occupation


The whisper of the old crone had been crawling in the King's ears for weeks. By now, he figured, the madwoman's words were burrowing in his brain. A sneeze carried to him from a distant chamber --the Queen had a cold. A moment later he heard clapping, a snatch of a cheerful tune. The odd bird he had married would dance and sing alone to her heart's content. Bodies stacked like cordwood outside the walls, and the daft Queen remained the picture of happy oblivion. The woman never seemed to sleep. The King heard her solitary revels long into the night. She was getting wine from somewhere, he was sure of that.

He had a headache. The smoke from the pyres had fouled his lungs. There was nothing to do around the damned place but walk; he'd had it with horses. All of his old chess partners were either dead or in exile. What a dreadful life, he thought. So boring, even with all the dying. His lunatic son served no one but God, and had burned every book in the castle. Not that any of them had been worth a damn. God Almighty, how he hated writers.

If he could keep any of his enemies straight, if he could pinpoint which of the scoundrels had planted so many crazy ideas in his wife's head, he'd have the guilty party flayed and strung up from a tree. At the risk of offending God he had already banished his son --he'd heard stories for weeks that the wrong-headed fool was wandering in a sack cloth and living in the surrounding woods. By God, the King felt pinched and set upon from all sides. There wasn't a damn thing left to eat in the place but roasted meat and stale bread. His one daughter had run off to Brussels with a rock and roll musician.

The King didn't have a single hobby that could sustain him. He'd been an obsessive counter for years, but he was even tired of counting. He'd saddle a horse and ride right out from under his miserable life if he wasn't such a poor horseman and so damnably overweight; what a mess he was --he wouldn't doubt he was carrying 20 stone on his tortured frame.

Listen to that: now the foolish woman was laughing herself sick. He went to the door of his chamber and listened. Oh, something was entertaining enough, by God, in this dark and baleful world. Not another sound beyond the lunatic raving of his wife. If he could find anyone left to do the job he intended to have the Queen's head cut off first thing in the morning and her body dragged deep into the dark woods by oxen. He would have her buried; it was the one concession he would make: he would not have her body flung upon the stinking piles of the common dead.

The King made his way to the North tower and gazed out at the wreckage time had made of his kingdom. He could see the bobbing torches borne by the roving bands of marauders. A stinking, sickening cloud hung low over the wretched scene. The loud guitars and absurdly booming bass of anarchy blasted from the portable stereos in the impromptu trailer encampments that were scattered throughout the dark woods, each of them, it seemed, more squalid and libertine than the next. The King was weary beyond words. There was no end to his misery. His campaigns of righteous vengeance had bequeathed him a kingdom of resentful refugees. He needed a new line of work.

There was no one left to talk to, no one he could trust. Even the ghosts had stopped talking to him; they now avoided the area around his chambers altogether, having apparently grown tired of his labored breathing, his ceaseless monologues, and the sorry spectacle of his rambles in the wee hours. He wished like hell he had joined his old friend Ruckert, who had bought himself an Airstream Trailer and was now armed to the teeth and living in the desert somewhere. While the King sat there in his dark and drafty castle, surrounded by death and complete anarchy on all sides, Ruckert was probably watching his Wolfhounds couple and drinking a cold Budweiser. Ruckert had been the smart one. The rest of the old gang had either hung or gone to the chopping block.

The King lit a candle and took a piss from the small window next to his bed. He could hear his feeble offering rattling in the leaves below. The fires were still blazing in the woods, and the music was raging louder than ever. The fleeing servants, he imagined, had already stripped the place of everything of value, and he imagined that the marauders would come for him soon enough, their murderous rage now driven by little but habitual stupor and boredom. They were welcome to what was left of him. He would content himself with the knowledge that he had been a King, and that was surely something. That for damn sure still counted for something in this world.

4:40:59 PM    

Persecuted And Punished By The Pen: Life During Wartime

Iron Writing Styles Or Boys' Pens, --What They Are, And To What Purposes They Were Turned

This was an instrument of brass, wherewith writing was executed in Ancient times on a white ground, that is on wax tablets, just as our merchants are used to write nowadays on wooden memorandum books or billets....

Accordingly with these writing styles, as a very painful form of death, those condemned to die were often stabbed. This is attested by many authors, and these the most trustworthy, as by Suetonius, Life of the Emperor Caius in these words: "Wishing the Senator's destruction, he suborned men to assail him as he left the Senate House, and suddenly inveighing against him as a public enemy, to stab him with their writing pens and pass him on to others to be yet further mangled."  Also Seneca, "Erixio, a Roman Knight, was within our own memory stabbed to death by the populace in the Forum with their writing pens, because he had killed his son by flogging.The same likewise is witnessed by the Acts of St. Mark of Arethusa, where we read, "From one crowd of boys to another was Mark tossed, swinging to and fro, as they caught that noble body on their sharp pens or styles"; likewise the Acts of St. Cassian the Martyr, "Hereupon the holy man was questioned by the persecutor and asked what knowledge or special skill he had that he must teach the boys their letters....Then stripped of his clothes, and with hands tied behind him, he is made to stand up in the midst; and the lads being called in by teaching whom he had become odious, they were given leave to do him to death. So they, learning what injury they had received, and burning to revenge themselves accordingly, proceeded some to batter him with their tablets, others to strike him with their writing styles. And in this scene of martyrdom the weaker the hands engaged, the heavier was the pain of the vicim, as death was the more protracted.

          --Rev. Antonio Gallonio, Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs


Most wretched and foresaken among men were those unfortunates who were condemned to merciless flaggelation with rods and diverse instruments of injury being either smooth or prickly. Thus scourged to within an inch of death's portal these athletes of Christ were encumbered with spades and compelled to dig each his own grave trench, even whilst being buffeted and boxed about the head by the assembled heathen. Nor did this indignity conclude the suffering of these wretches, for the Devil Worshipers had yet further torments in minde for these mangled Christians, namely that their skins be torn and rent by pottery fragments and iron claws, and their bodies stretched to the fourth or fifth hole of the stocks. At which they would suffer to have scrawled upon the tablets of their lacerated  flesh with writing instruments all manner of lewd blasphemy and scurrilous profanity, until such time as their debased bodies resembled a catalogue of affronts to the Glory of God. Even death, alas, could not bring an end to the debasement of these piteous souls. Their tortured spade-work notwithstanding, they would be dragged through the streets and cast into the sea.

          --Fr. Anatole Foeder, A Briefe Catalogue of the Divverse Wayes in Which the Soldiers of Christ Have Suffered at the Hands of Unbelievers. 1591

2:23:09 PM    

  Thursday, March 20, 2003


I feel safer already.

8:22:20 PM    

  Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Double Dee and Steinski, The Payoff Mix, The Lost Lesson: James Brown Meets the Academy of International Poets


Help me, somebody.

Listen while I talk on against time.

There is something,

something urgent

I have to say to you.

In this head the all-baffling brain.

Surely some revelation is at hand.


Nobody is asleep on earth,

as all the Heavens are a bell.

Let the boys bring flowers in

last month's newspapers.

History has to live with

what was here. The things which I have

seen I now can see no more.


I have seen the best minds of my generation,

starving, hysterical, naked. Somebody

loses whenever somebody wins. 

Life, friends, is boring.

We must not say so.

Let us go then, you and I.

Excuse me while I kiss the sky.


Watch me rise and go.

Watch me work.

The season's ill. And nothing

happened: day was all but done.

It was winter. There was a certain

slant of light. It got dark early.

Not to be born is, past all yearning, best.


Death is waiting, dressed like an admiral.

I have wasted my life.

4:40:39 PM    

  Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Emperor of the Son, Empire of the Senseless, and Manifest Density


Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war.

          --Shakespeare, Julius Caesar


Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy

On the poor souls for whom this hungry war

Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head

Turning the widows' tears, the orphans' cries,

The dead men's blood, the privy maidens' groans,

For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers,

That shall be swallowed in this controversy.

          --Shakespeare, Henry V


Now the onely way to avoyde this shipwracke and to provide for our posterity is to followe the Counsell of Micah, to doe Justly, to love mercy, to walke humbly with our God, for this end, wee must be knitt together in this worke as one man, wee must entertaine each other in brotherly Affeccion, wee must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others necessities, wee must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekenes, gentlenes, patience and liberallity, wee must delight in eache other, make others Condicions our owne, rejoyce together, mourne together, labour, and suffer together, allwayes haveing before our eyes our Commission and Community in the worke, our Community as members of the same body, soe shall wee keepe the unitie of the spirit in the bond of peace, the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome power goodnes and truthe then formerly wee have beene acquainted with, wee shall finde that the God of Israell is among us, when tenn of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies, when hee shall make us a prayse and glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantacions: the lord make it like that of New England: for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee have undertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a byword through the world, wee shall open the mouthes of enemies to speake evill of the wayes of god and all professours for Gods sake; wee shall shame the faces of many of gods worthy servants, and cause theire prayers to be turned into Cursses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whether wee are going: And to shutt upp this discourse with that exhortacion of Moses that faithfull servant of the Lord in his last farewell to Israell Deut. 30. Beloved there is now sett before us life, and good, deathe and evill in that wee are Commaunded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another to walke in his wayes and to keepe his Commaundements and his Ordinance, and his lawes, and the Articles of our Covenant with him that wee may live and be multiplyed, and that the Lord our God may blesse us in the land whether wee goe to possesse it: But if our heartes shall turne away soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced and worshipp other Gods our pleasures, and proffitts, and serve them, it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good Land whether wee passe over this vast Sea to possesse it;

Therefore lett us choose life,

that wee, and our Seede,

may live; by obeyeing his

voyce, and cleaveing to him,

for hee is our life, and

                                                    our prosperity.

          --John Winthrop (17th Century American Puritan), City Upon A Hill


The American people having derived their origin from many other nations, and the Declaration of National Independence being entirely based on the great principle of human equality, these facts demonstrate at once our disconnected position as regards any other nation; that we have, in reality, but little connection with the past history of any of them, and still less with all antiquity, its glories, or its crimes. On the contrary, our national birth was the beginning of a new history, the formation and progress of an untried political system, which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only; and so far as regards the entire development of the natural rights of man, in moral, political, and national life, we may confidently assume that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity.

What friend of human liberty, civilization, and refinement, can cast his view over the past history of the monarchies and aristocracies of antiquity, and not deplore that they ever existed? What philanthropist can contemplate the oppressions, the cruelties, and injustice inflicted by them on the masses of mankind, and not turn with moral horror from the retrospect?

America is destined for better deeds. It is our unparalleled glory that we have no reminiscences of battle fields, but in defence of humanity, of the oppressed of all nations, of the rights of conscience, the rights of personal enfranchisement. Our annals describe no scenes of horrid carnage, where men were led on by hundreds of thousands to slay one another, dupes and victims to emperors, kings, nobles, demons in the human form called heroes. We have had patriots to defend our homes, our liberties, but no aspirants to crowns or thrones; nor have the American people ever suffered themselves to be led on by wicked ambition to depopulate the land, to spread desolation far and wide, that a human being might be placed on a seat of supremacy.

We have no interest in the scenes of antiquity, only as lessons of avoidance of nearly all their examples. The expansive future is our arena, and for our history. We are entering on its untrodden space, with the truths of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can. We point to the everlasting truth on the first page of our national declaration, and we proclaim to the millions of other lands, that "the gates of hell" -- the powers of aristocracy and monarchy -- "shall not prevail against it."

The far-reaching, the boundless future will be the era of American greatness. In its magnificent domain of space and time, the nation of many nations is destined to manifest to mankind the excellence of divine principles; to establish on earth the noblest temple ever dedicated to the worship of the Most High -- the Sacred and the True. Its floor shall be a hemisphere -- its roof the firmament of the star-studded heavens, and its congregation an Union of many Republics, comprising hundreds of happy millions, calling, owning no man master, but governed by God's natural and moral law of equality, the law of brotherhood -- of "peace and good will amongst men."

Yes, we are the nation of progress, of individual freedom, of universal enfranchisement. Equality of rights is the cynosure of our union of States, the grand exemplar of the correlative equality of individuals; and while truth sheds its effulgence, we cannot retrograde, without dissolving the one and subverting the other. We must onward to the fulfilment of our mission -- to the entire development of the principle of our organization -- freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. This is our high destiny, and in nature's eternal, inevitable decree of cause and effect we must accomplish it. All this will be our future history, to establish on earth the moral dignity and salvation of man -- the immutable truth and beneficence of God. For this blessed mission to the nations of the world, which are shut out from the life-giving light of truth, has America been chosen; and her high example shall smite unto death the tyranny of kings, hierarchs, and oligarchs, and carry the glad tidings of peace and good will where myriads now endure an existence scarcely more enviable than that of beasts of the field. Who, then, can doubt that our country is destined to be the great nation of futurity?

          --John L. O'Sullivan, On Manifest Destiny, 1839


The United States is no longer preparing for war; it is prepared for war, and has been prepared for war for a long time now. Denial may have been a possibility at some point in the last six months, but it doesn't serve any purpose now. Some time in the next week we'll all be hunkered down on our couches watching the bombs fall on Iraq, but America's transformation from John Winthrop's "City Upon a Hill" to Hank Williams' "Mansion on the Hill" was completed years ago, and anyone who doesn't believe that is living in a cave that is more inpenetrable than any Al-Qaeda hideout.

If this thing stays on predictable schedule, come Saturday legions of fat potato patriots and flat-faced flagutantes will be gathered around their pre-game buffets, spooning Swedish meatballs and cocktail wieners onto their Party Warehouse-clearance Desert Storm paper plates. Blenders will be whirring with non-stop daiquiri action, and everyone will be waving their little party-favor flags and roaring like it was the "Miracle on Ice" all over again.

"Do we even have a name for this war yet?" someone will inquire.

"Operation Enduring Fuck You!" someone else will shout, to a raucous round of laughter.

"If Operation Desert Storm was the Mother of All Battles, what does that make this war?" a guest will wonder.

"Slutty, Meth-Scag Daughter Of All Battles!"

I'm not quite sure what the soundtrack to these parties will be, but if you put a gun to my head (an increasingly likely scenario) I'd guess maybe Shania Twain or Hotel California.

At the end of the party the flags will be heaped on the table next to the fondue forks and crumpled napkins. On Sunday everyone will go to church and then stop off at the car wash on the way home, and by Monday morning every fly-by-night tee-shirt entrepreneur in the country will be doing a bang-up business.

This war is a pure methamphetamine-television spectacle for millions of dead ass couch potatoes who are bored with reality tv, and many of these people wouldn't recognize reality if it said hello to them in the street.

Come on, you might ask, Do you really think that poorly of America?

Yes, I do.





6:22:04 PM    

  Monday, March 17, 2003

Things Coming Up Missing

A familiar theme in the life of a beleaguered man. He couldn't even tell you how much time he had spent digging through cupboards and boxes and closets, running his finger along his crowded book shelves or racks of records and CDs, thumbing through his file cabinets or rooting around under furniture in search of some missing item or another. Something, generally, without which he was unable to proceed as a normal human being --assuming, of course, that even under ideal organizational circumstances he would ever be able to function as a normal man. It got worse, though; it was definitely getting worse as he got older. The hunt for an obscure pamphlet on Egyptian urology or an early manual on hearing aids, for instance, might consume an entire Saturday afternoon, and if fruitless could stretch into the wee hours of Sunday morning. These wild goose chases were, of course, increasingly fruitless --were, in fact, by their very nature fruitless-- and often as not he would find himself after a number of hours wondering what had prompted the search in the first place.

It was unhealthy, he knew that, unhealthy to have so much stuff and absolutely no system of order or organization. One year he spent almost an entire week tearing up his house in search of an old Kodachrome snapshot of a G.I. in full combat uniform with a Santa Claus ventriloquist dummy on his lap. He wanted to use the photo on the annual Christmas card he would never get around to sending, but in the end he gave up the search, and could no longer be certain that the photo in question was not simply another figment of his imagination.

1:41:44 PM    

Back From The Dead

Or at least back in the Blog Saddle after a week spent climbing silos and water towers. Spring is the shittiest season, I don't care what any of the addled old poets and song writers say. It's a synonym for mess in my book, and a prescription for fucked up blood chemistry. When the temperature hits 60 degrees I have to essentially rewire my brain and peel myself off the floor to flip "Astral Weeks" on the turntable. Any kind of excursion from the house involves navigating a disgusting obstacle course of moldering dog shit. The bottom line is that the transition from winter to spring sets off all these brush fires in the circuitry of my brain and makes actual consciousness all but impossible. But, hey, I'm a blog warrier, and I know I'm being counted on to blaze a meandering trail of bread crumbs for my colleagues here at City Pages. Which brings me back to the place I started from on this hobbled journey, back to Samuel Beckett's blogger's credo:

Not to want to say, not to know what you want to say, not to be able to say what you think you want to say, and never to stop saying, or hardly ever, that is the thing to keep in mind...

And back to Walt Whitman:

Where is what I started for so long ago, and why is it yet unfound?

Rest assured, of my nonsense there is no end. I may fall off the blog wagon from time to time, but I'll always climb back on, and I'm going to be here babbling in my dark and obscure little closet in cyberspace, whether you --the fiercely imagined you-- give a rat's ass or ever even bother to come knocking on my door. Whether you even exist I'll continue to muddle on. I blog, therefore I am.

So: Hi ho, Hi Ho, It's Off To Work We Go. Eenie Meenie Minie Moe. Fe Fi Fo Fum. Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle of Rum. Tra-la-la Boom-dee-ay. Ollie Ollie Umph Phum Phree. Hickory Dickory Dock. Cockle Doodle Doo. Duck Duck Gray Duck. Ba Ba Black Sheep. Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie. Hip Hip Hooray. Ki Yi Yippee Yi Yay. Abra Cadabra. Yabba Dabba Do. Gabba Gabba Hey. Hey Bo Diddley. Hey Diddle Diddle. Diddy Wa Widdy. Da Do Run Run.Yodel Lay Hee Hoo. Rock A Bye Baby. Be Bop A Loo La. Rinky Dinky Doo. Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra. Abba Zabba. Razzle Dazzle. Fiddle Faddle. Shazzam. Supercalifragilicious. Rin Tin Tin. Ping Pong. Ding dong. Sing song. Hop-A-Long. Humpty Dumpty. Higglety Pigglety. Piggly Wiggly. Boo Hoo. Bow Wow. Wowee Zowee. Hubba Hubba. Zippety Doo Da. Snap, Crackle, Pop. Talley Ho. Tee Hee. Ho Ho. Ha Ha. Hula Hoop. Pitter Patter. Chit Chat. Kit Kat. Augie Doggie. Steeple People. Bible Bangers. Bouncing Babies. Bubble Bath. Freedom Fries. Good, better, best, never let it rest, until your good is better and your better is best. Now I lay me down to sleep. Don't take any wooden nickels. Don't let the bed bugs bite. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

10:50:54 AM    

  Sunday, March 09, 2003

Funk Is The Thing

A groove is never the same thing as a rut, no matter what the dictionary might tell you. It can never be, not in my world. A groove is funky, a step just far enough outside the ordinary to feel good, to feel both outside yourself and outside the rest of the world in the best possible way. Rolling alone, your body making music. In a rut you sink down far enough that you can barely hear the music anymore, and you start to lose the sense that you're even a part of, or visible to, the rest of the world. Apart, rather than a part. A groove is funky. A rut is a funk. Funk's only negative connotation is when it's preceded by that "a," and followed by a period, or, in unusual cases, I suppose, by some other punctuation mark. Virtually any other way that "funk" could be used or permuted, at least by me, would be a positive indicator regarding the topic or topics under discussion.

My notions of "funk" or "funky" are ridiculously broad. To this day I've never heard a definition of "funk" as I understand it that gives me any kind of pleasure. It's not just James Brown, but where James Brown comes from. It's the music of my bones, and my understanding of it stems from the discovery of a thread, a connection, a common bond between all sorts of otherwise seemingly unrelated music. And that common bond is something intangible, something about the way the music stirred things up in my head and sent mysteries and unexpected directives roaring through my blood. Other music gave --and gives-- me pleasure. Other music could make me dance. But no other music gives me funk pleasure. You can talk about "the one," the churning rhythms, the scratch guitar, whatever, but funk is one of those things I know on a purely sub-head level. So, sure, James Brown is funk, and he may well have virtually invented the music that most people consider "funk." But he didn't happen in a vacuum, and funk was out there before "Out of Sight" or "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." Sun Ra at his skankiest is decidedly funky, and much of his best music I would characterize as straight funk. The Minutemen were a funk band in ways that the Red Hot Chili Peppers could never dream of. Pere Ubu was a funky band. Much of the African music I love, and most Afro-Pop is straight funk. Art Ensemble of Chicago? Funky. Funk. Ditto for a lot of the jazz I love: Ornette Coleman and Prime Time, late-period Miles, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Horace Silver, Larry Young, and Herbie Hancock. Grant Green was funky. Wes Montgomery, much as I love him, did not have a funky bone in his body. The Meters, of course, were a funk band. Gang of Four were funky. The Roots can be a funk band whenever they want; they know funk. Some of the old Harry Smith mountain loonies were plenty funky. So is Marion Williams, and so is Boz Fucking Scaggs.

I've spent more time than I really care to admit trying to find the ultimate source of funk music, the well that James Brown drank from, and in the process I have accumulated literally hundreds of regional funk 45s. But discographical information is hard to come by for a lot of these records, including such basic information as dates and personnel. I've determined that I'm never going to find the Holy Grail, and in the process my own definition has only gotten broader all the time. I do know, though, that there is a clear distinction between funk and soul, and funk and disco, and funk and lots of other things that I know in my gut are not funk. And I also feel pretty strongly that a lot of the stuff that gets marketed as products of the golden age of funk doesn't personally do anything to get the juices jangling in me the way the real deal does. I'm thinking here of anything much from the late '70s on. Synthesized keyboards ruined funk just as surely as they ruined African pop. That's just my opinion, but after a certain point --when you get to later P-Funk, the Brothers Johnson, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Commodores, etc.-- you have a bunch of guys who are doing their damnedest to dress the part while essentially ploughing a field that somebody else planted. The music became all groove-trance and bottom, and paved the way for all sorts of great stuff that came later. But it still wasn't funk, at least not in my book. For the real deal you have to dig deeper; you have to be willing to go beyond "Star Time" and George Clinton, to the mostly anonymous bands who were churning out funk all over the country, usually without the benefits of major labels or national distribution. Here's a brief primer:

The Unknown, Pad Out. O A Records, Dallas.

Louis Chachere, The Hen.  MJC Records.

Herb Johnson Settlement, Damph F'Ain't.  Tox San Records.

LeRoy and The Drivers, The Sad Chicken. Duo Records.

Frank Penn, Gimme Some Skin. Penn's Records.

Tommy Bush, Skin It Back. Cal State Records.

Brother Soul, Cookies. Leo Mini Records.

The Illusions, Funky Donkey. Showtime.

Eugene Blacknell, Gettin' Down. Seaside Records.

The Mohawks, The Champ. Sir J.J. Records.

James Polk and the Brothers, Just Plain Funk. Twink.

Prepositions, Funky Disposition. Movement Records.

Salt, Hung Up. Choctaw Records.

Uncle Sam, The Big Apple. Le Cam.

Robert Lowe, Put Your Legs Up High. Eastbound.

Spittin' Image, J.B.'s Latin. Masai Record Company.

Granby Street Development, Jelly Roll. New Faces '69.

Reggie Sadler Revue, Raggedy Bag. Aquarius.

Bad Medicine, Trespasser, Pt. 2, Enyx Records.

Thunder and Lightning, Bumpin' Bus Stop. Private Stock.

Brother Byron, Booty Whip. Alma Lee.

The Stereos Combo, Stereo Freeze, Pt. 1. Hyde Records.

Soul Vibrations, The Dump. Vibrant.

Arthur Jackson, Philosophy of Chopp Funk. A.J.'s Records.

Fabulous Caprices, Groovy World. Camaro.

Soul Tornadoes, Hot Pants Breakdown. Magic City.

Lunar Funk, Slip the Drummer One. Flashback.

Al Brown, The Whip, Pt. 1. BM Records.

6:50:07 PM    

  Friday, March 07, 2003

Listening to Roscoe Mitchell's Sound

From a street riot at high noon to a prowler with the tiniest pen light in a dark house at midnight. A few little squeaks and tremors and footfalls, then a moment of silence that precedes eruption, shelves coming down, pots and pans tumbling down the stairs. A fiddle sawing in the furnace room, rising in the floor vents. The rattle of collar tags on a stray dog going down the back alley in the fog. Whatever the day's ingredients, jazz always seems to come out of the oven at the end. A blessing after a day of nothing but words, rolling at me like fastballs pumped out of a pitching machine, one right after the other, blowing right over me, my head roaring like a garbage disposal, just shredding these words and pushing them down into the darkness of forever gone.

4:11:25 PM    

I Like My Words In A Crowd, But...

what happens if you give each word                                 a      little      more

privacy,                                                   its                                                         



3:49:55 PM    

  Thursday, March 06, 2003

So You Want To Be A Beauty Queen

The Talent Competition:

You do not have to stick to the traditional talents such as singing, piano playing, and dancing. Alecia Rae Masalkoski, Miss Michigan 1986, made national news and caught the judges' attention with a karate kata (martial ballet) number that included stomping through 100 pounds of broken Pepsi and Coca-Cola bottles and putting her foot through four inches of concrete --certainly a less than traditional talent presentation for a Miss America contestant.

Miss Montana 1949 galloped onto the stage at the Miss America Pageant and caused quite a stir when her horse charged off the stage into the orchestra pit (the use of animals in the live talent presentations is no longer allowed).

Polly [Peterson Bowles] judged a teen pageant in which the theme from Ice Castles was sung by a dozen contestants, some of them back to back. It was also played by two pianists. Hearing the same song repeated fourteen times in one night is a bit taxing on the judges' nerves....In addition to the theme from Ice Castles, avoid selections from Kismet, Cabaret, and Showboat, and do not use "When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "For Once in My Life," or "You Light Up My Life."

Another stereotyped talent is baton twirling. There is a myth that all pageant contestants are baton twirlers. Actually this talent is somewhat rare. To win as a baton twirler, again you must soar above the anti-twirler bias.

Calorie-Cutting Tips:

Beware of beer, the diet destroyer.

Ignore candy vending machines that beckon to you.

Eat a dill pickle to squelch your appetite.

Concentrate on Your Leg Muscles:

Bob Barker says that it is the legs that determine the winner....Inner thighs that jiggle are point stealers. Heavy, untoned legs are especially noticeable is you are standing next to another contestant with long, shapely legs.

You Must, You Must, You Must Increase Your Bust?

Michael Grade of the British Broadcasting System asked a panel of Miss America representatives on the Phil Donahue Show, "When was the last flat-chested queen?" The fact is that there have been beauty queens in recent years who have had very little in the bust area.

Love Your Audience:

Remember that the audience is part of your pageant experience. Love that audience. Keep telling yourself how much you love them. Tell them how much you love them by your smile. This applies during the pageant, while riding in a parade as a titleholder, or walking down the street as a private citizen. Love people and your smile will sincerely show it. Show people that you love them, and they will love you back.

          From Becoming A Beauty Queen, The Complete Guide, Barbara Peterson Burwell and Polly Peterson Bowles. Prentice Hall Press, 1987.

3:39:24 PM    

  Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Not Sleeping

Some nights you'd sit there tracking moonlight across the floor, or studying the garage roof next door as if it was a radar screen. Your mind on a very low flame, a few tired words alternately see-sawing in the silence or surfacing through the waves of static. You'd sit there barely conscious, but the moment you'd try to climb into bed and close your eyes the whole chorus would convene again with a vengeance. The variety show of hypnagogia. Channel surfing long before the advent of cable television and remote control. So random, stuttering, and relentless was your consciousness in those hours that you would make an exercise of trying to isolate a particular fragment, and then attempt to concentrate your mind on the fragment's origin, trying to trace it back, if possible, to its original source. Sometimes it would be a line from a book or a television commercial, other times it might be something you'd overheard in school, or a snippet from a song or a random conversation. You would find yourself obsessing about an outrageous pair of shoes you had seen on a complete stranger in a grocery store, weeks earlier.

Ultimately, towards dawn, you were always left with nothing but the barely-beating heart of the sleeping world. The under-hum and throb of its basic operating systems. The furnace. The ticking of the clock. The world on the back burner, as close as the modern world comes to stasis: You were left with only you and what was left of the night, the retreating darkness, shadows receding on the walls, the cruel pinch of exhaustion, the terrible reality that you were going to have to sleepwalk through another lost day. What was that they were saying about what?

Eventually, every night you would reach a point where you could not fall asleep but you could nonetheless not be truly awake. You were reduced to fumbling around, grasping, in a dense and hazy subterrannean no man's land, lost in the gauzy, impressionistic foothills of sleep. You would take a walk to try to resuscitate your sanity, to get clear thoughts moving again in your head. You moved in slow motion through a woozy, muslin-filtered border country, imagination and hallucination bleeding into reality. You heard what sounded like chanting. You heard the clanking of a cowbell. You heard the distant tolling of a clock, and a burst of faint music sucked from a car window somewhere out in the town. You heard a baby crying, then someone laughing, wretching, congested laughter. You heard a radio playing in a junkyard. You heard what sounded like a piano. You heard windchimes twisting in a backyard somewhere. You heard the barking of a dog, answered by another, in the next block. You thought of the men across town, in the slaughterhouse, exhausted on their feet in the slippery dead mess, blood bubbled everywhere, the tangy reek of animals being broken down into meat. You would go there from time to time to stand at the mouth of the tunnel that took the tired men to and from the slaughterhouse. You would stand there in the last of the darkness with a little collection can for UNICEF, and you would shake your can at the blood-soaked, broken-knuckled zombies as they plodded past blank-faced, clutching their empty lunchboxes, moving almost unconscious into the bruised light that was just then creeping into the eastern sky.

5:10:27 PM    

My Wasted Years In Lawrence

It took me a long time to find myself. That's the official family version, at any rate. And, sure, there was a period where I really had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I married a sea bass. My dog dreamed of climbing trees and did nothing but mope around the house all day. My neighbor kept coming over to the fence for what he called "little private one-on-ones, man-to-man stuff," which basically boiled down to when the hell was I going to mow my fucking lawn. I was in the Red Owl parking lot one day and some nut threw a can of beef stew at me and hit me right in the chin. I drove to the hospital for 16 stitches and the wound left a nasty scar. My wife grew too big for her dirty little tank and basically spent all of her time swishing around in the colored gravel at the bottom, a fish's version of running in place, I guess. I'd turn off all the lights and sit there on the couch staring at her as she trance-swam in the eerie blue-lit water of the aquarium.

The dog seemed so depressed and lazy that one day I finally called this woman who I had seen on television who claimed she could communicate with animals. She didn't come cheap, I'll tell you that much; I had to fly her in from Santa Fe. And then she comes in and sits right down on the couch and says, "The poor fellow just wants to climb trees."

"You didn't even speak to him," I said.

"That was the first thing he said to me," she claimed, and then for like 45 minutes she just kept insisting that the dog wanted to climb trees.

"I heard you the first time," I said. "That's it? That's all you can get out of him?"

"That's all he'll say to me," she shrugged. "I'm sorry. Your dog has a one-track mind."

Before she left she went over and exchanged hushed words with my wife, but I was pissed by this time, and since I insisted I wasn't paying her to talk with the fish she refused to disclose what she called the "private nature" of their conversation.

4:23:33 PM    

My Old Barber Turns His Back On the 21st Century

There's not much you'll see on a head anymore that I'm willing to do. An old barber is dependent on his regular customers, and for the last 15 years or so my customers have been dying like flies. I guess if you really want to ride the thing all the way out you'll make an effort to stay on top of the new hairstyles, but I'm one of those guys who doesn't like to cut what I don't like, and I haven't seen much that I like in the last ten years. So much of this shit is just beneath me. It's ridiculous. I'm not carving pumpkins and I'm not grooming poodles and I'm not fucking around with pony tails or braids.

I get these catalogs anymore that have literally hundreds of different goops and gels and other such bullshit that will literally wreck the shit out of your hair. I don't intend to dye any man's hair any color other than the one God gave him, and if you want someone to play with your hair you can talk to your mother or your girlfriend. I'm a barber, not a hairstylist. I cut hair --I remove hair-- and if you want more than 20 minutes in my chair you're wasting my time. Some of these guys today are as bad as old women. They'll come in here and hand me a photograph of some actor or rock star, and I just look at 'em like they're fucking off their rocker. A barber's just another plastic surgeon, you know? Like I could make you look like fucking Montgomery Clift. Give me a break. It's all I can do not to crack some of these fruit loops with the damn clipper.

If I could figure out what the hell is wrong with people I'd for damn sure be in a different racket, and maybe I'd actually have something to show for the last 40 years of my life. I've had people sit in that chair and spill their fucking guts --I'm talking stories that would make me blush if I told them to the bathroom mirror. You pick any old barbershop in this city, and if you had a videotape of every hair cut these guys ever gave you'd have a movie that would make people ashamed to be human beings. Honest to God, you wouldn't believe the garbage I've had to stand here and listen to every day. I've been saying this for years, but one of these days I'm just gonna pack up my shit and go fishing.

2:46:50 PM    

My Brief History Of Magic (Continued)

Oh, you can be sure, I've seen some dandy cigarette acts in my time. Make no mistake. That sort of thing is, of course, taboo these days, what with attitudes about smoking being what they are. But I still remember a fat redhead --for some damn reason I can't recall the fellow's name to save my soul-- who did a masterful bit he eventually marketed to the trade with the high-falutin' title, "Ireland Simplex Cigarette Production." And then there was Ed Marlo's brilliant "Cigars, Cigarettes, and Pipes" routine, which I saw a half dozen times in the early '70s. That guy did things with a cigarette I still can't believe are possible. As I was saying, I've always admired a man who can work without fancy props, stooges, or floozies.

And despite what some of the Bible-bangers might think, magic doesn't have to be at odds with the teachings of the Good Book. I have fond memories of a fellow by the name of Joseph White, a magician who called himself "The Gospel Magical Midget," and did an entire act built around Bible stories and religious lessons. A very effective little production all around, a dynamite show, and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not exactly a holy man. Guys who could learn to perform basic routines with a Biblical theme or religious patter were guaranteed steady work at chuch funtions, socials, and Bible schools.

I still remember when "Industrial Magic" was a new concept, and guys were learning that they could use magic presentations to sell product. In the mid-'60s it seemed like every trade show, convention, sales meeting, and grand opening featured a magic act. It was damn good business all around until the bottom pretty much fell out of the whole thing. These days they hire motivational speakers or they get half-dressed broads to stand around their booths to hand out promotional materials.

I have a precise memory of the very moment magic first got me in its clutches. I was at a little carnival somewhere with my grandparents, and there was an aging illusionist who broke a slab of granite over the body of a catalepsed subject who was suspended from the backs of two chairs.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Human Bridge!" the old magician shouted, and then he swung his sledge hammer.

12:05:09 PM    

  Monday, March 03, 2003

More Nonsense: Pocket Fragments, Part II

Sometimes, in a despairing effort to make contact with some living thing, I'd dig up the worms from the borders and lay them in a line on the lawn and kiss them one by one.

          --Diana Petre, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley

South Dakota town slogans: "We'll Do!" And: "A little bit of Nothing in the middle of Nowhere."

Eastern Montana: landscape's frozen version of the panic attack.

The crow gets wise to the scarecrow: Eventually I figured out it wasn't a man.

Yeah, that's a great idea, let's put a motherfucking tank out in front of the high school.

Oklahoma: cattle gulag, hell's anteroom.

Graffiti on the side of a burned out house: "Stay out, Tammi!"

Chester Grinwiddy, the Blind River hypnotist. "Stop Smoking!"

Town name: Black's Madness.

Urinals in the Land of Giants: the fucking American Standards are mounted four feet up the wall. I'm not an unusually short fellow, but the only way I could piss in these things was by pointing upwards and hopping a bit.

East Texas church sign: "Dr. Lyndale Truss, Sr. Pastor. Sunday: Conversations With A Lawn Mower."

The motel tampon "nap sack": first cousin to a doggy bag.

Rest stop bathroom graffiti, scrawled with extreme aggression into a stainless steel tile above the urinal: "That casino up the road is a gyp! Fixed! Rigged!"

UP motel room: everything about the place was essentially fraudulent, and yet there was something about that very fact that cemented its credentials as genuine Americana, the real (charming) deal --tricked-out rusticity; corny, over-the-top, archetypal American motifs: heavily varnished pine, shag carpeting, regional wildlife art, plastic curtains, gift-shop knick knacks. A place where Native American art peacefully coexists with Hummel figurines.

Overnight it seemed like everyone in my world got sober and became vegetarians. Liquor and meat, unfortunately, were two of the only things I believed in passionately at the time.


Estragon: I can't go on like this.

Vladimir: That's what you think.

          --Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot


I was 40 miles from the nearest microwave burrito.

The world never once threw that poor bastard batting practice. Day after day nothing but gas and hard sliders.

I wish some psychologist would provide a convincing explanation of why murder is commoner among cooks than among the members of any other profession.

          --W.H. Auden, The Kitchen of Life

Scared shitless that one day I would wake up a realtor.

Sitting around, painting the town, with a paintbrush I hold in my toes.

All that liberal parenting monkey business is for the birds. It'll get you nothing but a kick in the teeth every time.

He had wanted to become a criminal for a long time. He read detective novels by the dozens and watched anything on TV or at the movies with shooting in it. There was little he loved more than the feel of a gun in his hands....

          --William Allen, Charles Starkweather

The Dark Ages: Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives on the stereo. Two a.m. Hitting Grain Belt long-neck beer bottles off a sixth-floor balcony with a Boog Powell Louisville Slugger.


Few persons appreciate the fact that the voluntary curtailment of sleep for an hour every night for a year is equivalent to the loss of forty-four nights' sleep of eight hours' duration....

When sleep has been limited unduly, inability to sleep ensues and becomes the bane of existence. Exhaustion of the cerebral structures leads to still graver symptoms, such as insanity....Indeed, insomnia precludes or enters to a greater or lesser extent into the causation of almost every form or mental alienation....Many of the tragedies of life are due solely to the prolonged want of sleep.

          --Chambers Encyclopedia, 1879


During my insomnia I tell myself, as a kind of consolation, that these hours I am so conscious of I am wresting from nothingness, and that if I were asleep they would never have belonged to me, they would never have even existed.

          --E.M. Cioran, The New Gods

5:12:54 PM    

  Saturday, March 01, 2003


I'd like to apologize for one of my last entries, "My Brief History of Magic," which I swear on my mother's life I have absolutely no recollection of having written. This sort of thing happens to me more often than it should (you could, I suppose, argue that it should never happen, and I would be in no position to argue with you); I have a name for the growing collection of words I have somehow produced without retaining any memory whatsoever of having done so: blackout pieces. "My Brief History of Magic," however, would be easily the most personally disturbing of my blackout pieces to date, in that I not only do not remember writing it, but that I can not even conceive of having written it. I am virtually certain, in fact, that it is not my work at all.

I'm really not kidding. I received an email from a friend that said, "That was a sort of strange bit of nonsense. I didn't know you had any interest in magic, or is this another of your reinventions (and by that, of course, I mean lies)?" This message seriously confused me. What the hell was he talking about? It bothered me for a couple hours, so much so that I finally called him and asked for an explanation. "I was talking about that thing you wrote today about magic," he said.

"Where?" I asked.

"On the damn thing you do," he said. "Don't make me use that ridiculous name. You know, the website?"

I still had no idea what he was referring to, and I was starting to suspect that he was somehow trying to pull something over on me. I finally went downstairs and took a look, and what I saw seriously disturbed me. I am almost prepared to swear that "My Brief History of Magic" is not my work. I know nothing whatsoever about magic, and I have almost as little interest in the subject as entertainment. To the best of my recollection I have never read a single book about magic, and though I own literally tens of thousands of books on all sorts of strange and obscure topics, I'm virtually certain I do not have even one title on the subject. I don't drink anymore --I haven't, in fact, had a drink in almost 15 years-- but I certainly remember that terrible feeling of waking up on the morning after a terrible bender and being both frightened and appalled to discover that you can't recall what you did the night before or how you made it home. Reading "My Brief History of Magic" brought back those unpleasant and queasy mornings in rather too graphic detail.

I was particularly shocked by the weird accumulation of arcana and inexplicable details in "My Brief History of Magic." I have never in my life heard of any of the people, places, tricks, or titles mentioned in the piece, and was understandably curious to know whether these things were all purely fictional or whether they perhaps had some basis in reality, even if it happened to be someone else's reality.

I did a Google search for the first half dozen or so names and book titles that appear in "Brief History of Magic," and was disturbed to learn that all of them were in fact "real," in a manner of speaking. I have to admit that I was even more disturbed than I would have been had I discovered they were purely fictional creations. It would be one thing if I had made up all of this information in a hypnagogic stupor, but the apparent grounding of the piece in historical fact, however ridiculous, implied that there had been some kind of research; a text or texts had to have been consulted, and I refuse to believe that my habitual oblivion has become so close to complete that not only could I have written some words that I do not recall having written, but also could have read some text or texts that I do not recall having read (or even having had in my possession), and that all of this could have happened at some time in the last several days, and left absolutely no traces of memory in my admittedly miserable, exhausted, Etch-A-Sketch of a skull.

I refuse to believe that. And I'm forced to conclude that somehow, while I was at lunch or away from my desk at some other point in the day, some one of my colleagues --or, even more likely, a group of them-- sat down at my desk and posted "Brief History of Magic" to my web log. I can't live with any other conclusion. I wish I could say I have a fairly solid hunch as to who, specifically, was behind this mind-fuck, but unfortunately every one of my co-workers is a possible suspect. It's that kind of place, and I now recognize that I need to get in the habit of logging off of my computer every single time I move away from my desk for even a few minutes.

In the meantime, I apologize for the inexcusable breach, as well as for that wholly inexplicable and wildly digressive --not to mention preposterous--entry on magic.


7:21:51 PM    

  Friday, February 28, 2003

Waste of Time: Rock And Roll Hypothesis, Number 377

Lou Reed has built a long career as one of the greatest rock and roll myths. I've always been a fan, or at least had a modest curiosity about what he's up to. The unavoidable truth, though, is that the guy is and always has been something of an idiot savant, with the idiot part of the equation growing more predominant by the record. And, like I say, I point this out as someone who has bought into the myth off and on (and off) (and on) over the years. But at this point, and having spent a little bit of time reading through his Selected Lyrics with growing shame, I need to acknowledge that Lou's pretty much an out-and-out laughing stock as a lyricist --as his career has plodded along, pure, pretentious gas has moved in to take the place that attitude and decadence once occupied (front and center) in his work.

Post-Velvet Underground what really is there? Some modestly interesting stuff (and equally dated embarrassments) from the junkie androgyne early period, but no one great album. One tremendous but wholly uncharacteristic live record (Rock and Roll Animal). A fascinating and consistently satisfying stretch mid-career, marked by a new direction (and, more notably, by the bass playing of Fernando Saunders and Robert Quine's guitar): The Blue Mask (my favorite of the post-V.U. records), Legendary Hearts, and New Sensations. Followed by a bin full of spotty records and absolute flops. By the late '80s Lou's earnestness had become fatal, and he had become even more insufferably pompous and shrill, alternately --or not-- just another New York jackhammer and jackass. And this, as I should mention, is the opinion of someone who has actually bought damn near every one of his records. Still, The Raven is possibly the last straw, and leads me to finally publicly pronounce the heresy I have long harbored in my heart: John Cale has had a far more satisfying, adventurous, and consistent solo career than his old bandmate, Lou's dark legion of crippled highbrow neanderthal motherfuckers be damned.


My Brief History of Magic

Elmer Gylleck was a Chicago architect who did a bumbling comedy-magic act built around a character he called 'Dr. Clutterhouse.' Dr. Clutterhouse would come on stage clutching a briefcase and carrying an umbrella. The briefcase was possessed, full of odd spirits; ghosts would fly from it, and gunshots would ring out whenever Clutterhouse opened the thing. When the briefcase wasn't bedeviling him, the Doctor would be having table problems (he invented a wonderful collapsing table prop) or any of a number of other slapstick scenarios that were reliable crowd pleasers. Gylleck had a nice, clean act, with solid magic chops and plenty of laughs. Very influential --I've seen I don't know how many third-rate Clutterhouse knock-offs over the years.

In the '60s there was a shift, and the Clutterhouse thing sort of disappeared. There were all of a sudden these balloon workers all over town. A guy named Jim Davis was working Old Town, making thousands of balloon animals a week and drawing crowds and making lots of money. This fella was actually pretty good. He'd make giraffes, elephants, all sorts of interesting stuff. He actually wrote a useful little book on the subject --One Balloon Zoo, I think it was called. And there was another guy, Jack Dennerlein, an ad-man who also did good balloon work --tremendous birds-- and he did a book, New Twists For Balloon Workers. Don Allen was one more Chicago magician who cashed in on the whole balloon thing. He'd gotten his start, I seem to remember, as a bartender who did magic tricks for the customers, which is something I don't believe you see much anymore. Which is really a shame, because little pocket and card tricks are things that can help a bartender pick up a few extra tips, not to mention the occasional private party or corporate gig on the side. Anyway, I think Don Allen did a book on balloon tricks as well, Don Allen's Balloon Work, or, no, it was Don Allen's Rubber Circus. That's right. That's exactly what it was.

For a long time I was kicking around the idea of doing a little book of my own, something more like a history of balloon work, maybe even a historical overview of balloons in general, but to be honest with you it just seemed like too much fucking work. Steve Martin, of course, had some wild early success with balloon work. Everybody knows Steve Martin, but guys like Jim Davis and Jack Dennerlein are pretty much forgotten.

When I graduated from college I used to hang out at magic shops, great old places like Magic, Inc. in Chicago, or Eagle Magic in Minneapolis. I was never really much of a magician myself; I didn't really have the discipline to get much beyond the hobbyist stage. But I always loved the history of magic, and for a number of years I saw as many magicians as I could, and for a time I got steady, small-paying work writing patter lines for a number of magicians around the Midwest. I also did a short-lived newsletter that spot-lighted regional magicians, ran historical profiles, a patter column, and a lot of advertisements for mail order gags and pocket tricks. We had quite an impressive roster of subscribers and the thing made money on a shoestring, but it just got to be too much work for me, and I'll be the first guy to admit that work has never been my strong suit.

When it comes to magic buffs I'm kind of an oddball in that I'm happy as a fucking clam if I have no idea how a guy did what he just did, if you see what I'm saying. I don't want to know. I still like to be fooled. That's the appeal of it for me. I want to be one of the slack-jawed yokels in the crowd, shaking my head in dumb amazement. I like the history more than the how-to; the history of magic is full of tremendous characters, genuine oddballs, and, frankly, a number of guys who were as crazy as shithouse rats. I like a magician who has a spooky little something in his eyes; the very look of the guy should raise a few questions in the mind of the audience. If the guy's already got you wondering before he's even done a single trick, well, hey boys, he's got you right where he wants you.

Magic's an amazing thing. The same basic repertoire of tricks has been baffling and entertaining people for generations, and precisely because the majority of the audience feels exactly like I do --they don't want to know how all those old tricks are done. Which is why you'll still see these characters in tuxedos doing tricks with scarves and pigeons, and sawing women in half and pulling rabbits out of hats. If Joe Blow really wanted to he could figure out how every one of these tricks is accomplished with one visit to a library, but he doesn't want to. And that's a beautiful thing. That's the real magic of magic.

The other thing I like to tell people is that magic is a whole lot more than just the usual big smoke and mirrors productions you see so often these days. A great magician can still blow your mind with nothing but a quarter or a deck of cards. I remember Max Holden, a hand shadow artist who could hold an audience and mesmerize them every bit as effectively as these guys who move Winnebagos or make elephants disappear. I never did figure out how Holden did his famous "Monkey in the bellfry" number. And for my money there's still nothing better than a real professional close-up man like Milton Kort, a cups and balls fella who was adept with coins and a deck of cards. A man like that could fool and entertain an audience in even the most casual and intimate of settings.

Before I forget about it I should mention another terrific old balloon performer who just came to mind: Jim Sommers, who used to do a routine with balloon animals at the Pickle Barrel North in Chicago, and also, I seem to recall, did his own little book on balloon magic, Blow By Blow.

8:37:29 PM    

  Sunday, February 23, 2003

Blood On The Tracks

Time and the grindstone and the knife of God

          --Robert Lowell, New Year's Day

Every day when I wake up, every morning when I stumble into work, every time I get in the car, I expect to hear some terrible, terrifying news --not the usual terrible and terrifying news that I can mutter over in the daily paper, but the bigger, more sinister and inescapable news that we're being promised by the hour. The media is zealously promoting paranoia and certain, looming calamity as if whatever it is that's on its way is going to be the Olympics of suffering, and when the hammer falls that's exactly how they'll cover it. You know damn well they've already had war logo and attack logo meetings, and they've probably already made their choices. Fox News may as well prop Jim McKay up in the studio to give the thing the proper treatment. 

I can't stand it, any of it, it being everything at the moment. Is there anything more heartbreaking than finding your wife's catastrophe stash hidden away under the basement stairs --the cases of water and canned goods, the rolls of duct tape and packages of batteries, the whole sorry works? It tore the guts right out of me, and as I stood there staring at the sad spectacle I knew right then that this really is a lousy world.

I'll get over it, believe me. I'm a pretty optimistic guy as a rule, or at least a master of repression. But, Jesus, every day any more seems to bring another visit from the Teeth Kicker. I found out this morning that Gordon Grace, one of the formative influences on my early life, had died of some kind of meat-borne illness in a detox center in Iowa. Or something like that. The details were pretty murky, and the friend who called me with the news was likely roaring on methamphetamine. I can't doubt, however, that Gordie is dead; I've expected this news for years, ever since the day in the mid '90s when he donated his entire record collection to some church for a rummage sale. And this was an unbelievable record collection, a lifetime project and labor of obsessive love. I'll bet there were more than 10,000 records and CDs, and if I'd known Gordie was even contemplating such a move I would have killed him or had him committed. And then, a month or so later --it was Easter, I remember that much-- my mom calls me and says she saw Gordie on the local news. The church rummage sale business, it turns out, was no weird coincidence; my old mentor had found religion, and was apparently going to rollerskate from Mason City to Rochester with a cross on his back. He was at the time 57 years old, and in absolutely no condition to rollerskate period, let alone with a cross on his back. This news was disturbing, but also nonetheless amusing. My mom called me again a couple days later and said she read in the paper that poor Gordie hadn't even made it to the Minnesota border. He made it only 18 miles in fact. His skates broke, my mom said. It was just such a classic thing for Gordie to do, and the relgious kick wasn't really terribly surprising; Gordie was a guy who took things farther than the average guy. Everything. I remember he called me up one time in the middle of the night and said that he had started scratching in his sleep and had injured himself. "I'm fucking bleeding all over the place," he told me. "And I think I've seriously damaged one of my eyes." Thing was, I didn't doubt him. I never doubted Gordie Grace. He was crazy, but he was never a liar. He was also endlessly entertaining.

When I first met him Gordie was a lot older than me. He was an old hippie, for lack of a better term. He hated that word, and would take serious issue with the characterization, but it was the truth. This was the late 1970s, and we were both living in a small town, and Gordie was this dirty freak with long hair. A hippie. There was no other term for it, not at the time, anyway. I can think of other terms that would work now --fucked up, for instance. My mother called him different, which, believe me, was no kind of compliment. One thing you for double damn sure didn't want to be in that town was different. This was a rough little place where everyone busted their nuts for a living and folks around there didn't have a whole lot of patience for anybody who didn't have a work ethic and didn't like to cut their hair, which meant that Gordie was screwed. But he didn't care, and he hung around there regardless, and that was part of what was so beautiful about the guy. For about two months he tried to open a head shop downtown --The Soviet Embassy, he called it, and he put all sorts of his old mother's money into the place. He had a big, ridiculously bright sign painted, with a peace sign and a hammer and sickle, and he had all this funky thrift store furniture around the place, and stuff like Bobby Sherman (he was fiercely ironic well before his time) and Captain Beefheart and Moby Grape posters on the walls. He sold incense, of course --in that, as well as much else, I believe, he was something of a pioneer around there-- along with the usual weed paraphenalia: power hitters, rolling papers, screens, bongs. There were also tee-shirts, I seem to remember, and I think I might actually still have an old Evil Knievel shirt I bought at the Soviet Embassy. Gordie was essentially shut down almost from the beginning; turned out he didn't have any of the necessary permits or licenses or whatever it was he didn't have. He ended up taking all his inventory out on the road to county fairs and flea markets and setting up a little pirate shop on a blanket. They'd run him out of every town, but he eventually managed to unload all of his inventory.

At any rate, Gordie's real claim to fame --at least in my book-- was that he was a local music legend. He was really it, in fact, so far as a local music scene went. For as long as I could remember Gordie Grace had fronted one band or another in my old hometown, and he gigged pretty relentlessly, playing local bars, bowling alleys, weddings, high school dances, and VFW halls. He'd venture pretty far afield as well, and had a regular orbit around southern Minnesota and northern Iowa and maybe even over into Wisconsin. He was actually a pretty good guitar player, and an interesting enough song writer, but his real mark of distinction was the fact that he played anything and everything, and constantly changed line-ups, styles, and, especially, names.

I once did an interview with Gordie for a little zine, and I remember he told me that he was petitioning the Guinness Book of World's Records for recognition as "like, the guy who's been in the most bands."

"There's no way anybody out there has me beat," he said. "Nobody's even close. I can't even really keep track, but I'm pretty sure I could document at least 200."

This claim was, of course, specious on many levels. Gordie really had played in only one band --his-- but it is true that that band had a number of different line-ups over the years. And incarnations, shall we say. The thing was that Gordie had gotten in the habit of changing the name of his band for virtually every gig; eventually, in fact, he did change the name for every gig. It became his trademark. He always managed to attract young local musicians who were just learning to play, and he was incredibly demanding of their time, and equally tight with his money. I played with him for awhile, and I think he'd pay me maybe five dollars for a show. I didn't really care, of course, and nobody else much did either. We were all just happy to be playing in a band. It wasn't so great, though, to have to constantly rehearse and learn entirely new sets of songs --in often enough entirely different styles-- from week to week. Over the years Gordie's bands were often wildly experimental, to the extent that he was always losing whatever local following he had managed to build up. He would inevitably respond to these wholesale betrayals by reconfiguring his band once more and playing nothing but popular top 40, country, and classic rock fare for a few months. Gordie really did have an amazingly deep pool of songs to draw from --thousands of covers as well as a ridiculous number of originals that were all over the map in terms of style.

To his credit, Gordie was an incredibly knowledgeable and passionate music fan, and he always did his homework and kept abreast of new stuff that was coming along. He was also quick to embrace new styles; "Not because they were fads," he claimed in that old interview, "but because I considered them authentic."

"I have played punk rock," he said, "and I don't suppose there are many guys my age who could make that claim [Gordie was at the time, I think, 55]. And I don't mean that I've just played punk rock songs, but that I've played punk rock. There's a difference there, right? I have been a punk rocker."

I really think he was telling the truth. He could be genuinely original, even at his shittiest. I remember one time he enlisted this fat kid who couldn't have been more than 15 to play saxophone with his band. The kid seriously couldn't play, and I remember when I pointed this out to Gordie he said, "That's exactly what I want him to do. I want a guy who seriously can't play." During this mercifully brief phase, the band would all just pound away while this kid blew serious noise through his horn. I once had an old board tape of this particular incarnation absolutely destroying "King of the Road," and in the quiet sections --Gordie at the time said "this band's gonna have a lot of space, and then we're just gonna keep blasting rockets off into it and blowing them up"-- you could hear the drunks at the bar bellowing at the band. Another time, with an entirely different line-up, Gordie spent a couple months playing some particular Rush album in its entirety, which actually, I believe, went over just fine with the locals.

The business with changing the band's name, though, was, as I said, Gordie's real stroke of genius. I was too young to really appreciate the brilliance of it at the time, and nobody down there ever seemd to pay much attention to it, but when I sat down and did my interview with Gordie I was amazed at how much thought he had put into the whole thing.

"I always did that on purpose, to a certain extent," he told me. "There are just so many good names, and it's always been a hobby of mine to sit around and make 'em up. When I first started a band I was like 16 years old and I had this list of something like 100 names, and I could never quite make up my mind. So for a long time we would just go down the list and try a different one once in awhile. They were all such great names, and I kept coming up with more, until eventually we started changing it with every gig. We were always just playing around here, so it really didn't make much of a difference. The locals didn't seem to care, and sometimes it may even have benefitted us to a certain extent; it kept people guessing, and when we played out of town we might actually draw people who didn't realize they'd seen us before."

I told Gordie that someone had told me that he had recently played a gig as "Kool and the Gang."

"Yeah, that's true," he said. "Except we used the correct spelling; we were 'Cool and the Gang.' I actually thought of the name before I'd ever heard of 'Kool and the Gang.' It was on my first list. We were 'Flock of Seagulls' one night as well."

Somewhere I have a long list of some of the band names Gordie has used over the years, but after I got the phone call this morning telling me he was dead I spent a couple hours digging around in my basement but couldn't find the damn thing. Off the top of my head, though, here are some of them:

Mamster. Gunilla Hutton. Sneaky Beano. Fudge Riprock. Mammy. Shitsicle. The Dog Creek Deacons. Kennesaw Mountain Plowboys. Will Diddley. Butt Cheek Hickey. The Dayglo Dickey. Pardon Me. Rubber Gal. Champion Pig. Pardon My French. Pardon Me, Amy. Spatula. Count Spatula and the Spooks. Dad Says. Bluto Rangen. Nestor and the Barbecue Gods. The Devil Randy. Orestes. Rump Roast. Party Barge. Keg Tramp. Shrook. Dick Eagle and the Apes. Sergeant Who? Poseidon Adventure. Blind, Crippled, and Crazy. Ed Asner. Slime Trumpet. Schleimtrompeten. Fantasy Island. Hollywood Squares. Pumphouse. Blood Sausage. Divining Rod and the Rack-Em-Ups. Petticoat Munchkin. Step On It. Ouch, That Smarts. The Barrow Show. Don't. Won't. Can't.

I asked Gordie if there was ever any thought about settling on one name, and he said, "I can't say that there was." When I wondered if there was one name out of all the names he had used that was a personal favorite, he allowed that such a question would be impossible to answer. I also asked him if he really believed that simply changing the name of his band made it a different band.

"Oh, no question," he said. "Of course it does. Let's say you're in a band called 'Rush Creek,' and you change it to something like 'Shitsicle.' Do you honestly think for one minute that that band is going to think, act, or play the same? Sometimes from one night to the next just changing the name of the band would take things in a completely different direction. There was one time --this was before I started changing the name for every gig-- where we were calling ourselves 'Garden Variety,' or some damn thing like that, and it was strictly a moldy-oldies deal, a complete snooze; we could literally sleep walk through the sets, but the money was good and we were getting lots of gigs. But I got bored one day and changed the name to 'Muffalo' and we totally caught fire and became an entirely different beast. That was probably my all-time favorite band."

For the last couple years every time I'd go back down to visit my parents I'd check the local paper to see if maybe Gordie was playing someplace, but he pretty much disappeared after he got religion and sold all his records. I'm told that he lost touch with God a short time after his rollerskating debacle with the cross, but he apparently never found his way all the way back. I don't know how this sort of thing happens to people, but it seems to happen to a lot of people I know. I heard some years ago that Gordie had moved to Mason City permanently. He had a sister who lived there, I know, who sold real estate, and his mother had moved down there as well before she died.

I didn't do a very good job of keeping in touch with Gordie after I left town, and I've always felt sort of bad about that. I certainly never properly conveyed to him my gratitude for all the ways he helped to point me in new directions, and he really was instrumental in shoving me out of town. There was no way, he always said, that he was going to let me stay there and become one of those people. Not more than a few months ago I was going through some books and I found an old dog-eared copy of Naked Lunch that Gordie had given me back in high school. I never really did make much of the book, but I always liked to page through it to see Gordie's enthusiastic notes in the margins; on virtually every page he had scrawled stuff like, "Wow!" and "Far out!" and sometimes just a string of sloppy exclamation points. I pulled that book out this morning and sat down on the couch and turned its pages once again. On the bottom of one page Gordie had written, "Too far is never far enough!" Fuck, that made me happy, even as it was breaking my heart.



2:40:04 AM    

  Wednesday, February 19, 2003


Once upon a time, when there were only a dozen lakes in Minnesota and Paul Bunyan was still nothing but a gleam in God's eye, there lived in the north country twin brothers, Esau and Jacob, sons of a local priestess and a legendary slaughterer of beasts. The slaughterer of beasts spent great stretches of time away from his family, wandering in the wilderness of the north and slaying animals from morning until night, until he was insensate from the iron-rich reek of gore and his entire body was stained with the blood of horribly debased creatures. Over time he became a stranger to his wife and twin sons, as well as becoming a feral curiosity and, eventually, a mangled and dubious regional myth. As the brothers grew to be young men they developed contrary attitudes toward their no-account father; Esau was swarthy and red-headed and had inherited his father's wanderlust and zeal for slaughter. Jacob was a more mild-mannered lad, and was regarded by the local folk as a something of a mama's boy and a dandy. He was interested in homeopathy, and spent his days foraging for medicinal herbs and dreaming of a career as a midwife. Jacob nurtured a festering resentment towards his father, and vowed to avenge the deadbeat's abandonment of his wife and children. The brothers eventually became bitterly estranged over this issue, and there was an ugly incident in late adolescence in which Esau conspired to flay his brother and feed his fat to the fire. The mother of the boys got wind of this plan through a blind local seer who lived along the banks of a dirty river, and banished the brothers to a kingdom in the south, where they were each given a territory on opposite sides of a great river. There the brothers lived into old age, and there they each built around them sprawling, wholly undistinguished cities of equally dim vision, governed by petty concerns and a burgeoning sense of civic pride that was as ridiculous as it was unjustified. Esau made a great fortune in the slaughter of beasts, and assembled around him a coterie of cigar-smoking cronies who built railroads to carry the meat from the slaughterhouses out into the world beyond. Jacob devoted himself to more gentle and genteel pursuits; he smoked a pipe, and fancied himself an art collector and a wine connoisseur. He spent his late years attempting to write a novel of self discovery, which was a miserable failure. After his death his sons devoted themselves to ruining the city of his dreams.

          --From Francis Xavier Hodgson's Legends and Lore of Our Great Cities. Dotson and Struther Publishers. Chicago. 1927.


4:19:15 PM    

  Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Zen Master Neil Young

Asked 'What is Zen?' a master replied, 'Walk on!'

          --Christmas Humphries, Zen


The Insomniac Falls Afoul Of God

I don't like the man who doesn't sleep, says God.

Sleep is a friend of man.

Sleep is a friend of God.

Sleep is perhaps the most beautiful thing I have created.

And I myself rested on the seventh day.

He whose heart is pure, sleeps. And he who sleeps has a pure heart....

He who doesn't sleep is unfaithful to hope.

And it is the greatest infidelity.

Because it is infidelity to the greatest faith....

And I say Blessed, Blessed is the man who puts off what he has to do until tomorrow.

Blessed is he who puts off. That is to say Blessed is he who hopes. And who sleeps.

          --Charles Peguy, God Speaks


Spinoza And Schopenhauer Argue About Dogs

I don't read philosophy for answers to the meaning of life or any of the other ridiculous questions that have caused lunatics to bang their heads against the wall for as long as humans have been able to babble. What attracts me again and again to books of philosophy is the marginalia, the odd biographical details and digressions and just plain absurd minutiae that these old fools cough up on such a regular basis. The best biographies --hands down-- are of the philosophers. The unhappy little hunchbacks who waddled around the streets of their towns and endured the taunts of rock-throwing children (Kierkegaard). The closet gnomes, martyrs, and maniacs. Empedocles wrote, "Wretches! Utter wretches! Keep your hands from beans!" Three of Ludwig Wittgenstein's eight siblings commited suicide. Kant wrote a treatise on rainbows. And the great master of gloom Schopenhauer took issue with Spinoza's Ethics over what he perceived to be their disregard for the virtues and dignity of dogs.

I was reading Schopenhauer's History of Philosophy last night when I discovered the old crank railing against Spinoza for "his as unworthy as false deliverances about animals."  From assertions in the Ethics Schopenhauer concludes, "Dogs [Spinoza] seems not to have known at all. To the monstrous proposition with which the 26th appendix [of the Ethics] opens...the best answer is given by a Spanish literateur of our day (Larra, psuedonym Figaro), 'He who has never kept a dog does not know what it is to love and be loved.'"

I went and dug around in my basement for a copy of Spinoza's Ethics to locate the passage that so offended Schopenhauer. Here it is: "Besides men, we know of no particular thing in nature in whose mind we may rejoice, and whom we can associate with ourselves in friendship or any sort of fellowship; therefore, whatsoever there be in nature besides man, a regard for our advantage does not call on us to preserve, but to preserve or destroy according to its various capabilities, and to adapt to our use as best we can."

I'm officially on the side of Schopenhauer on this important argument, by the way, and was pleased to later run across this additional tribute to dogs (in his own Ethics): "Hence comes the four-legged friendships of so many of the better kind of men, for on what indeed should one refresh oneself from the endless deceit, falseness, and cunning of men if it were not for the dogs into whose faithful countenance one may look without distrust?"

8:34:09 PM    

  Monday, February 17, 2003

Some Notes For My Proposed History of Boredom

In mucking around in 19th century case studies of insomniacs and madmen I've been thrilled to discover that what we now routinely diagnose as depression the old doctors just as frequently referred to as boredom, plain and simple. It certainly seems to be overlooked as an exacerbating factor or root cause in many of the more modern psychological maladies. I'm absolutely willing to admit that I'm bored out of my mind half the time (or maybe even more than that), and it occurs to me that boredom is one of the great and prevailing themes of literature, music, and film, either overtly, or through the sheer, unconscious muddle of much of the stuff. Boredom's really a lot like irony these days; a lot of those who are most infected with it or steeped in it don't even realize it. It's just the muddy stream they're swimming in, and all they've ever known. Crash and burn some time and end up in a treatment center somewhere and you'll quickly figure out that most addictions can be followed back to a couple basic launching pads: Love sucks. And: I am/was bored half to death.

In Saul Bellow's Humboldt's Gift, the protagonist, Charlie Citrine, sets out to write a history of boredom, but gets sidetracked. Not, however, before he offers up what still stands as a near perfect definition of the word: A kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents.

Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, provides a handy enough thumbnail history: The Gods were bored, and so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone and so Eve was created. Thus boredom entered the world and increased in proportion to the increase of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then the population of the world increased, and the people were bored en masse. To divert themselves they conceived the idea of constructing a tower high enough to reach the heavens. This idea is itself as boring as the tower was high, and constitutes a terrible proof of how boredom gained the upper hand.

Yankelovich Partners, a marketing research firm, recently did some sort of a survey on boredom that concluded, Just as a drug user develops a tolerance and needs larger doses to achieve the same effect, so too have we developed a tolerance to amazing events.

Michael Raposa, in Boredom and the Religious Imagination, is also hardly reassuring: Even love cannot bannish boredom altogether.

Some years ago the University of Chicago Press did publish a book on the subject, Patricia Meyer Spacks' Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind, but I haven't yet managed to round up a copy. It sounds boring, but I'll let you know when I get a chance to actually read it.

Here are a couple links to stories that I've cribbed from (liberally).

And, finally, there's this Reuters story that was making the rounds some months ago: Boring, Passive Work May Hasten Death: Study. Nothing terribly surprising really, but, still, it's something to think about when you're bored.


4:33:59 PM    

An Eye Witness Account Of How I Spent My Saturday Afternoon

I was just sitting here reading the paper and having a cup of coffee when I saw Mr. Zellar from next door out in his backyard in his pajamas and slippers. What he'd done was, he'd loaded a bunch of stuff --some boxes and piles of magazines and miscellaneous other items-- onto a blanket, and he was struggling to drag this blanket through the snow to the back alley. You could see plainly that this was no way to go about it, but he kept at it for quite some time. Every once in a while he'd get the blanket to budge a bit, but then things would start to topple off into the snow and he'd have to start all over again. It couldn't have been more than 20 or 30 feet to the alley, and I have no idea why he didn't just pick these items up individually and carry them to the garbage. Not to mention that it was the dead of winter and it was cold out there, and Zellar wasn't wearing a hat or gloves, and it was also clear that he was standing out there in bedroom slippers without any socks. I contemplated offering him a hand, or at the least asking for some explanation for his strange behavior, but the spectacle was so uncomfortable that I felt intervention would have added insult to injury. I watched him for quite some time, and near as I could tell he made absolutely no progress. I left the window for a moment to refill my coffee cup, and when I returned he was on his back in the yard, from the looks of things making snow angels.


What I Always Wanted To Be

I always wanted to be the gun on the table in the first act. I always wanted to be the mysterious stranger arriving in an unfamiliar town with a sack full of magic corn. I always wanted to be the troll who lived under the bridge and the wise old man on the mountain. I always wanted to be the gingerbread castle that gets stepped on by a giant and eaten by the boy who was raised by wolves. I always wanted to be the voice in the croaking bog who sings the furthest into the damp morning. I always wanted to be the old woman who swallowed a fly. I always wanted to be the goat who spoke the plain, hard truth. I always wanted to be the key to the city that gets shoved in a box in the garage by the movie star the minute he gets home to Hollywood. I always wanted to be the road to riches or the road to ruin, depending on who was traveling along me. I always wanted to be the frosting on the cake and the writing on the wall and the message in the bottle and the goose who laid the golden egg. I always wanted to be the wind beneath your wings and the fish who saved Pittsburgh and the pot who called the kettle black. I always wanted to be the pen that carried you gamely down the page on a night when you had no words of your own.


The Things I Love

The things I love remain ostensibly the same from year to year, objects of steady and enduring adoration and amusement, even as their number continues to expand incrementally: the woman I married, my dog, dogs in general, music in general --or, no, very particular music, occasionally peculiar music, but lots of it: Ornette Coleman, the Kinks, Thomas Tallis, Eddie Bo, James Brown, Henri Salvador, the Minutemen, the Five Royales, Buddy DeFranco, Sonny Clark, Hank Snow, Missy Elliot, Charley Patton, Schubert, Kid Ory, Don Cherry, James Luther Dickinson, Mildred Bailey, Atmosphere, Run DMC, Neil Young, Sam Cooke, Bobby Bland, etc.; Icelandic outlaw sagas, Walter Benjamin, Eudora Welty, Britt Robson, Robert Burton, random tales of gods and monsters, baseball statistics, baseball mitts, abstracted detritus, Kodachrome, Night of the Hunter, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, red licorice, Dots, suede Pumas, Mountain Dew, thrift stores, turntables, Touch of Evil, The Telephone Booth Indian, Ball Four, Beneath the Underdog, Stax records, Montana, old photographs, the diaries and letters of strangers, early funk, L'Atalante, road trips, Joseph Cornell, Flannery O'Connor, The Wind in the Willows, Levi Stubbs, Blue Note records, the Oxford unabridged dictionary, the Rolling Stones before they were old men with an unseemly willingness to remove their shirts, black pens, manual typewriters, the Middle Ages, Hardcore Dave, Jimmy Gaines, Dave Swirnoff, Tom Sullivan, MC Turtledove, 24-hour restaurants....

3:50:11 PM    

  Friday, February 14, 2003

Happy Valentine's Day To You, And To My Beautiful Reward: A Mix Tape

Bob Dylan, You Angel You

Johnny Cash, The One Rose That's Left in My Heart

Jorma Kaukonen, Genesis

Chocolate Genius, Love

Sam Cooke, I Belong to Your Heart

Tom Waits, Take It With Me

Hank Williams, Baby, We're Really In Love

Nick Lowe, You Inspire Me

Joni Mitchell, You Turn Me On I'm a Radio

Waterboys, How Long Will I Love You

Ronettes, Do I Love You

Terry Callier and Beth Orton, Lean On Me

Wilbert Harrison, Let's Work Together

Warren Zevon, Searching For A Heart

Marvelows, I Do

Neil Young, Razor Love

Four Tops, Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worthwhile)

Pretenders, 2000 Miles

English Beat, I Confess

Jerry Butler and the Impressions, For Your Precious Love

Johnny Hartman, My One and Only Love

Five Keys, Glory of Love

Tim Hardin, Reason to Believe

Randy Newman, Same Girl

Bruce Springsteen, My Beautiful Reward

Van Morrison, The Garden

Baby Washington, Only Those In Love

Marvin Gaye, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)

Jimmy Scott, P.S. I Love You

Otis Redding, That's How Strong My Love Is

Blossom Dearie, You For Me

Lewis Lymon and the Teen Chords, I'm So Happy (Tra-La-La-La-La)

John Lennon, Grow Old With Me


12:12:31 PM    

  Thursday, February 13, 2003

There's An Old Saying In Tennessee

Are you actually buying any of this paranoid nonsense of the last week? Can't anyone but me see what's going on here? Seriously, people, how much more transparent could any of this monkey business be? A week ago the Bush administration faced trouble on all sides: mounting and willful oblivion on the part of huge segments of the populace. Through-the-roof television ratings for American Idol and a British interview with a whack job who shares his bed with children. Intransigent resistance both domestically and abroad to the idea of a preemptive war with Iraq. Unanswered questions about Saddam Hussein's ties with Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. A floundering economy.

Damn if those crafty bastards haven't attempted to knock every one of those softballs out of the park with a few feeble swings. First they stage another of their Vigilance Rallies in the name of Homeland Security, raising the national level of alertness to orange or red or whatever the hell the color is that means be afraid, be very afraid. Like all of these announcements, vagueness was the hallmark of this latest call to arms, and blanket insecurity and rampant paranoia were the only truly essential components of the called-for vigilance.

Next: you're wondering what Iraq has to do with Al-Qaeda? Ok, we'll tell you what Iraq has to do with Al-Qaeda. Or, better yet, we'll have Rich Little --er, Osama bin Laden-- tell you. If you're willing to believe that the voice on that tape is bin Laden's, well, shit, are you ever a dumb ass. You don't have even the slightest nagging question regarding the timing of this tape's coming to light? You don't think it's even vaguely suspicious that this time around we get an audio tape rather than the usual video footage of the hirsute hunk-pappa terrorist hunkered down on a rug with his glowering toadies sprawled around him? Believe me, video has simply become too dangerous for the propaganda army of the Bush administration, too subject to the sort of expert scrutiny that can detect even the most accomplished dubbing, let alone the hastily arranged Hong Kong cinema-quality dub jobs of so many of the previous bin Laden tapes. Make no mistake, if Rich Little put his mind to it he could be Osama; no problem at all. Little's a marvel, and I realize it's entirely likely that many youngsters might be unfamiliar with the master impersonator's work. But take my word for it, when this man --who has been cozy with administrations going back to Woodrow Wilson's-- channels Richard Nixon you'd swear to God you were right there in the room with Tricky Dick himself. I've listened to that tape several times, and I've pored over the transcripts. It's a masterful job, but I'm absolutely convinced the voice on that tape is Rich Little's, and a friend of mine says he read somewhere on the Internet that Little was in fact seen emerging from a limousine outside a Baltimore radio station at three o'clock in the morning a couple weeks ago. A Pakistani cab driver saw him and called a local talk radio station, where he was ridiculed. I'm also pretty damn sure the script was penned by Mark Helprin. I've scrupulously compared many of the passages with examples from Helprin's stories and novels, and I've uncovered some eerie similarities that, if not Helprin's work, border on plagiarism.

And, finally, this business of a "Terrorism Attack Safety Kit," or whatever the hell the addled goofballs who thought the thing up are calling it? Do you honestly think that calling for Americans to stockpile all of these items is anything but a thinly-veiled economic stimulus program? They want to reduce every American home to a bunker straight out of the most paranoid fantasies of B movies. Plastic wrap and duct tape? This is the sort of thing late-stage paranoid schizophrenics come up with when they've become convinced they're under assault from menacing, invisible forces. What are they going to ask us to do next? Smear mayonaise on the plastic sheeting over our windows to deflect gamma rays, like poor Joe Lewis did as he descended into punch-drunk madness? Wallpaper our homes with tinfoil?

For chrissakes, do the math. How many homes are there in America? There's what, 280 million people in this country? Let's say even a third or a fourth of those folks go out and stock up for America Under Seige. Twelve-pack of Duracell AA batteries: $6.44. Duct tape: $4.99 a roll. 10 X 25 roll of polyethylene sheeting: $5.97. Super Heavy Duty flashlight combo: $5.91. General purpose first aid kit: $16.97. Chicken of the Sea tuna, six ounce can: $1.49. Northern Glacier water, quart bottle: $1.19. E-T-C, as the Minutemen would say. This sort of paranoia could put a lot of money into the American economy in a hurry. We're talking billions and billions of dollars. Sorry, suckers, but this guy wasn't born yesterday. I'm not falling for any of it. I'll admit that I did invest in one of those nifty new battery-powered turntables, but even then I chastised myself for being a coward. All the same, it is a small comfort to know that if the end of the world does, in fact, come creeping down the dark streets of our town I'll still be able to listen to my Otis Redding records.

4:24:46 PM    

Are You Talking To Me?

So many people are so small, so fragile, so insecure. Everywhere you turn you have all these little tyrants with everything bottled up inside, afraid that even the tiniest decent gesture is going to tip their hand somehow or deprive them of some imagined position of leverage or strength, as if every single relationship and human interaction has to played like a poker hand or a chess move. No, don't give anything away, mother fuckers, don't you dare spare even one kind word. Save all your feeble passion and all your diminished vigor for some distant maybe and the preoccupying malaise of right now. Spend your spleen on the most insignificant grievances and narcissistic brush fires while the bigger world burns and collapses into invisibility all around you. Go ahead and feel yourself the beleaguered molehill Job, oppressed by everything and everyone from the slow cashier at Target to the idiot adversaries on the freeway to the assholes at work. Fucking foreigners, can't they just shut up? Can't these morons quit calling you trying to sell shit? Could these nimrod weather buffoons get a forecast right just once? Couldn't they even fucking come close? These people I'm talking about, give them an opportunity --or what passes for an opportunity in their small world-- let them get just the slightest suggestion of a foot in the door, and it's off to the races. They'll tell you all about it, it being whatever fat globule of personal grievance or self absorption is obscuring the world outside their heads at this very moment.


More Ghosts, Parading

Them poor sick creatures going up the street at two in the mornin', dancing with bells on they shoes, wailin' and barin' they teeth at the moon, just throwin' them heads back and shakin' them devil sticks. It's a racket, I can't deny that, but I ain't gonna go so far as some of the others and say there's somethin' menacin' about the spectacle --the woman across the street, so dramatic, she tells the news man, "It makes the hair stand up on my arms."

No, them ghosts or whatever they is don't scare me. They's all so skinny and bat-shit loony that they don't look as if they could hurt a fly. I wish they'd keep more reasonable hours if they's gonna be makin' a public fuss every other week or so, but that's not the nature of they business, I guess. They's late-nighters. They say drugs took most of 'em down, or guns fired in the wicked grip of drugs. We see a lot of that around here, been seeing a lot of that for quite some time. They turn themselves into animals, then poor, helpless children, then savages, and then finally ghosts. Up at Our Lady they do they best. They bury the poor creatures in the poor yard, but trouble is they can't keep 'em buried. They crawl they way back out and go haintin', jinglin' and devil stickin' all up and down the streets where they was children.


3:00:52 PM    

  Wednesday, February 12, 2003

The Lion Who Swallowed The Sun

When the beast first got the sun in its mouth the animal's cheeks were eerily illuminated, just as when a child closes his or her mouth around a flashlight in a dark room. Then, as the lion swallowed the sun, there was a great rolling protrusion that made its way down its throat, much as you may see when a snake swallows an egg or some unfortunate creature. The lion gulped one last time, belched a tremendous blast of fire, and then began to glow brightly from within. In short order the animal became such a bright, burning thing that it was no longer even recognizable as a lion; so fierce was the the glare emanating from the beast that onlookers had to avert their gaze for fear of going blind. Eventually the lion began to float free of the earth, and it was carried high up into the sky, where it was doomed to spend the remainder of forever in the sun's customary place.

Wasn't it dark in the world after the lion swallowed the sun?

Yes, there was, in fact, a very brief moment of total darkness in the world, but then, as I mentioned, the lion began to glow brightly and it rose like a burning balloon through the darkness and gave the world back its light.

Is there a moral to this story?

Yes, I would suppose there is. One musn't, of course, swallow the sun.

3:36:12 PM    


Another Singer For Peace


For those of you who have missed Jim Walsh as much as I have (Jim's taking a leave from the St. Paul paper to spend the year on a Knight fellowship at Stanford University), here's a dispatch from the San Francisco peace rally of a few weeks back. This is what Jim does and this is who he is and that's why I love him like family:


The first time I sang on a stage was in the auditorium of Annunciation Grade School in South Minneapolis. I was in the choir. I stood at attention on the second riser as Timmy O'Rourke, one of the hundreds of kids from our baby-boomed neighborhood, stood center stage and lent his amber voice to an acapella version of "Where Is Love?" from "Oliver!"

The spotlight shone on him, his gentle schoolboy voice quieted even our rowdiest classmates, and it was there, standing behind him that spring evening, looking at his silhouette and having his voice drip into me like honey through an IV, that I suspected for the first time that I might be a better listener than a singer.

Keith Richards once said that the best way to learn how to sing is to be a back-up singer, the way he did. And even though I can still hear the sound of Timmy O'Rourke's falsetto rising full-moonish over that evening, I couldn't tell you what songs I sang, but I can tell you that I wanted to sing forever, and it had nothing to do with him or anyone else. It had everything to do with me, which is how it has been with every one of the many great singers I've heard.

When my band started in 1979, I was inspired by a lot of people. Marty Marrin, for one. We grew up together. One night when we were juniors in high school, before a dance, a bunch of us got drunk for the first time-on Southern Comfort and large orange pops from the Lake Street Burger King.

We went to De La Salle High School, behind Nicollet Island, which sits by the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. It was the epitome of '70s Catholic liberal education, rife with brains and burn-outs and jocks and classes like "World Religions" and "Jesus" and, thank Allah, "Math Minimum Essentials." It was run by good people, including some good Catholic priests and brothers and nuns who cared about kids, families, books, art, writing, music, God, and looking out for each other.

The night of our Southern Comfort adventure, I started yelling at everyone, stupidly-loudly suggesting that we jump the train as it roared over the tracks behind the island. There was Marty, with his high-pitched cartoon yelp, squealing as we ran in the dark towards these flying sparking boxcars, "No, you crazy fuckers, no!!" We didn't do it, but whenever we get together we still laugh about it, in part because we now know that we could all easily be dead right now and that we aren't because Marty was looking out for us. He went to St. John's in Collegeville after high school, moved away to Seattle for a while and taught. A few years ago, he moved back to Minneapolis with his wife and daughter, to be closer to home and to teach at De La Salle. Smart guy.

Which is what he was one night in 1978 at Duffy's, the great unrecorded, unlamented rock club of the early Minneapolis rock scene. One year out of high school, he and I stood at stage left, watching Flamingo--one of the least-appreciated rock bands that Minneapolis or any other town has ever produced. They were on their third set of the night, and everybody talks about what a great live band the Replacements were, which is  true, but almost every night I saw Flamingo, they believed.  They wanted it.

Robert Wilkinson was scissors-kicking, Johnny Rey was searing, Jody Ray was thumping, Bob Meide was shimmering, and the late, great Joseph Behrend was doing his best marionette-leg dance behind the keyboards. The place was wild; I was in total awe. So was Marty, who yelled in my ear: "Wouldn't it be a hard-on to be in a band?!"

Ouch, yes. No one had ever said it before. My whole body blushed, and I was happy to be in the dark so he couldn't see me. But he was right: What else could a kid do in the late '70s, when all that revolution was coming out of  places like New York and London and Minneapolis and Los Angeles,  'cept to sing in a rock 'n' roll band? That is what young men and women do when they're desperate, when they've come to a crossroads in their lives and find that they can't express themselves in any other way, because everything else feels obsolete.

Not long after Marty nudged me at Duffy's that night, I dropped out of college and sang in a band for seven years. Then I stopped singing and married my rock-scene sweetheart Jean and started writing for newspapers and went back to college. Then we had two kids and I wrote non-stop for newspapers and then I stopped writing and went back to college and started singing again.

Which is where I find myself tonight. Yesterday, I and the kids delivered to some friends a few copies of a love song I wrote for/about said friends, who come from Korea, Israel, Michigan, California, China, Africa, Iowa, India, Pakistan, North Carolina, Italy, Texas, New York, Paraguay, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Chicago, and Mexico. I hope they like it as much as I do.

Today, my wife and kids and I attended what some are calling the biggest anti-war rally in San Francisco since the '60s. We drove there, had no trouble parking, and walked up 10th Street towards City Hall, the gilded doors of which are imprinted on me forever, from the scene in "The Times Of Harvey Milk," where the rioters storm the building screaming, "We want justice! We want justice!"

As we walked towards the rally, Henry, who sang "We Shall Overcome" at a school program yesterday and who encourages me to sing and who is also the most critical music critic in the family, heard the far-off sound of a shrill speaker coming from the podium.

"Dad?" he said, holding my hand.


"Is this supposed to be about peace?"


"It doesn't sound like it."

We followed a guy carrying an "Imagine" sign into the mix. We read more signs. "Buddhists For Peace." "Remember When Presidents Were Smart and Bombs Were Dumb?" "No War!" "More Books Less Guns." "Hybrid Owners For Peace." "Burn Pot Not Oil." "Go Solar Not Ballistic." "Republicans For Peace." "I'm 84 and Against The War." My favorite was "Stop Buying Shit." One woman wore a devil's mask and held a sign that said, "War Is Hell." One girl wore a black armband with the word "Bush" that had a swastika in place of the "S."

We took pictures. We had our family portrait taken in front of City Hall. I hummed Soul Asylum's "Black Gold" and wondered if I might run into some of the other students from my Noam Chomsky class. We grinned at some people who had painted themselves green. We couldn't really hear Joan Baez. I clapped after Martin Sheen said something I don't remember but it was inspirational. And it felt good to be with everyone, but also pretty toothless, like Armageddon is inevitable, and all 100,000 of us were riding a castrated bull into the tar pit of history, and we were meeting at the town square one more time to do the hippie do-re-mi.

As we left, I gravitated over to a group of young punk rockers with fluorescent mohawks and freshly skinned heads. Some had masks over their faces, Sandanista-like, and were holding a banner that said, "No War But A Class War." I guess some SUVs got spray-painted as the rally wound down, and from what I saw, these guys were more than up to the task. One was wearing some Anti-Flag garb. He almost ran into Helen, who loves singing along to her dad's new song, and when he did, this polite punk said, "Excuse me."

I nodded and made deliberate eye contact with him through my sunglasses. His eyes trailed down to the front of my black T-shirt, which says, in circular military typeface, "Old Skool Punk-Walk It Like You Talk It." In the center of the circle is a picture of the late, great Joe Strummer, with "Uncle Joe" scrawled underneath it. The kid's eyes lit up, though I don't think out of recognition, which made me want to stop and give him a history lesson on the Clash. I didn't, because the kids were tired and punk rockers don't take music tips from anyone, much less somebody's dad. But I could feel the kid's eyes following me as we walked down the street, reading the back of my T-shirt, which says, "Billy Bragg O.S.P." 

All of which is a long-winded, California-dreaming way of saying that Paul Wellstone is dead. Joe Strummer is dead. Joseph Behrend is dead. T.C. Punk is dead. But you and me and the Internet and Timmy O'Rourke and Marty Marrin and Billy Bragg and Anti-Flag and their fans and my wife and brothers and sisters and our kids and all their teachers and coaches and spiritual guides are not. Yet.

When I started singing, one of my old girlfriends' college friends asked me, very innocently, "How long are you going to do this band thing for, Jim?" I'd been waiting for this. My first interview. We were in the lobby at Perkins. I remember exactly what I said. I remember looking at my shoes, and thinking about Chuck Berry.

"I want," I said, "to change the world."



 Shalom already, motherfuckers.


More Mencken

Let [the American] bear in mind that, whatever its neglect of the humanities and their monks, the Republic has never got half enough quack doctors, ward leaders, phrenologists, circus clowns, magicians, soldiers, farmers, popular song writers, detectives, spies and agents provacateurs.

         --H.L. Mencken, "On Being An American"


The mob-man cannot grasp ideas in their native nakedness. They must be dramatized and personalized for him, and provided with either white wings or forked tails.


3:13:34 PM    

Speaking In Tongues

As i found myself running out of words, I began to supply my own words, or what I initially thought were my own words. As I went on I suddenly realized that the words I was singing or saying were not English, neither were they quite like some of the other words I had heard...others speak. As I continued I realized to my mounting joy and wonder that the more I opened my mouth and spoke, the more fluently and easily the words came out. I easily realized that I was not jabbering, nor was I uttering repetitious garble-de-gook, I was speaking an unknown tongue that I could turn on or off at will, and that did not need reinforcement of emotionalism to be again called into use.

          --from Tongue Speaking, Morton T. Kelsey


Exorcism of the Possessed

The signs by which a person possessed can be distinguished from one who is suffering from melancholy or some other illness. Signs of possession are the following: ability to speak with some facility in a strange tongue or to understand it when spoken by another; the faculty of divulging future or hidden events; display of powers which are beyond the subject's age and natural condition; and various other indications which, when taken together as a whole, pile up the evidence.

          --from the Rituale Romanum, the official Catholic book of public services

11:17:24 AM    

From Some Photographs By Larry Burrows

Imagine that is your life. You are walking away from everything, a suitcase in your hand. You are standing in a dirty river up to your neck clutching something tiny and still breathing in your arms and it is raining and growing darker. A boat passes slowly in the darkness, carrying gray bundles that only yesterday were playing cards.

10:32:01 AM    

  Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Some Factors In My Lingering Doubts About The Theory Of Evolution

Phonograph records, the cowboy hat, language, filmmaking, batteries, the electric guitar, hot air balloons, arsonists, beer can collectors, pogo sticks, pronto pups, the Maine accent, barbecue ribs, Cecil Taylor, the litter box, pancakes, paper clips, the dune buggy, basketball uniforms, the lobster trap, neckties, Pop Tarts, the coonskin cap, the switchblade, Silly Putty, antique dealers, lunch boxes, the merry-go-round, marching bands, the electric chair, boiled eggs, the banjo, hightop sneakers.

If I'm at all interested in evolution it's in the ways that human ingenuity has applied it to everything. The fine tuning that has made this world possible. Think of all the crazy, gutsy experimentation that went into something so basic as figuring out how an egg works. Let's see what happens if we boil it in water. Or, no, let's break it open and fry it in some grease and eat it. It boggles the mind. The people who performed the early experiments with food were the astronauts of their time. The discovery of cheese, for crying out loud. Bacon. Corned beef hash. Holy shit, cotton candy. Dill pickles. Think about anything hard enough and it becomes a miracle. The history of exploration --its rich and extensive literature-- is nonetheless limited, its definition of discovery far too narrow.

11:40:50 AM    

Dion McGregor Dreams Again

Between 1960 and 1967, the roommate of Dion McGregor, a man who talked incessantly in his sleep, managed to record a series of McGregor's dream monologues. In 1964 Decca issued a record of some of this material, under the title The Dream World Of Dion McGregor (He Talks In His Sleep). A few years ago John Zorn's Tzadik records issued an unexpurgated and expanded collection of McGregor's somniloquies, from which I present the following example (and I highly recommend that you seek out the actual recordings; the guy's voice and delivery are incomparable):

Now a swine herd herds swine, the shepherd herds sheep, the chicken plucker plucks chickens, the beaver hunter hunts beaver, the worm picker picks worms, a cat stalker stalks cats. What does a motherfucker do? Yes? Well, that's my riddle for the day, kids.

10:36:12 AM    

All The Assurance Any Reasonable Being Should Need

Rickey Medlocke, guitarist and founding member of both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blackfoot, has made up his mind about American military action in Iraq. Let's roll!

9:58:03 AM    

  Monday, February 10, 2003

'Hip, Contemporary People'

Does anyone else remember when John Lennon and Yoko Ono co-hosted the Mike Douglass show for several days in the early 70s? I have a tape of it somewhere, and just stumbled across some notes about the programs I scribbled on some old deposit slips that were tucked in a paperback copy of Gangs of New York that I had been tearing apart my house for weeks trying to find. I don't watch much television, but those shows were easily the most surreal thing I've ever seen on tv. "I know that you both have some very sincere thoughts on life and people," Douglass said to John and Yoko. At one point John said, "Touch a stranger, it's great!" And Yoko added, "This whole world will be connected if we just touch each other." At which point, if my notes are to be believed, Douglass observed that his guest hosts were "hip, contemporary people."

"We think the world is too fast," John said.

"You think the world is too fast?" Douglass asked. "Really? Interesting."

Yoko prounced avant-garde, "Avant-God."

Among the other guests during Lennon and Oko's stint on the show were Ralph Nader, Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, the Chambers Brothers, and Elephant's Memory.


5:29:22 PM    

I Would Love For Someone To Explain To Me...

How it is that I...or, rather, why it is that I, that I seem to keep...or, really, that I do keep, that I keep ending up...that every single night I look at the clock, I look at the clock and it's two o'clock in the morning, it's three o'clock in the morning and I...I keep ending up at two or three in the morning, I keep ending up sitting here with...I don't know, I keep ending up sitting here with all this shit, surrounded by all this shit, night after night I'm sitting here, I'm sitting here night after night on the floor with my back against these racks of records, surrounded by these shelves full of shit, shelves full of anthropomorphized potatoes and carrots and hamburgers even, all of them with hats on their heads and pipes in their mouths, shelves full of dead baseball players and plastic astronauts in baby bottles and coconut-headed pirates. I'm sitting here with my legs crossed and my back up against all this shit...I'm sitting here in this ridiculous and uncomfortable position, night after night, and what the fuck is this I'm listening to? Honest to God, explain to me if you can why I am sitting here like this, trying to read about the Donner party and poor Lewis Keseberg, who was driven by madness and the most desperate of circumstances to eat a woman named Mrs. Murphy --"The flesh of starved beings contains little nutriment," the cannibal Keseberg assures me. "It is like feeding straw to horses. I can not describe the unutterable repugnance with which I tasted the first mouthful of flesh. There is an instinct in our nature that revolts at the thought of touching, much less eating, a corpse...It has been told that I boasted of my shame --said that I enjoyed this horrid food, and that I remarked that human flesh was more palatable than California beef. This is a falsehood. It is a horrible, revolting falsehood. This food was never otherwise than loathsome, insipid, and disgusting." Explain to me why I would continue to read as this poor man was asked by his interrogator, Did you boil the flesh? And as he responded, "Yes! But to go into the details --to relate the minutiae-- is too agonizing! I can not do it! Imagination can supply these. The necessary mutilation of the bodies of those who had been my friends rendered the ghastliness of my situation more frightful." I mean, seriously, holy shit, every fucking night, what is this? Why am I sitting here listening to...George Crumb? What the hell is this? Listening to Morton Feldman? Listening to Lou Reed, the idiot prince of rock and roll, listening to that jackass Lou Reed, listening to this lunatic Lou Reed reduce Edgar Allan Poe to the most wrenching and painful sort of comedy. Are there even one thousand other misguided people on the planet who have paid to be thusly abused? What in God's name is wrong with me that I would drive through the icy streets at eight o'clock at night and pay good money for a CD on which Lou Reed makes a muddled mockery of "The Raven"? This is almost certainly the sort of severe judgment error that should rightfully cost me both my job and my marriage.

5:00:41 PM    

  Friday, February 07, 2003

What The World Needs Now

I've heard people say that too much of anything is no good for you, baby. But I don't know what I think. There's many times that we've loved and we've shared love and made love. It doesn't seem to me like it's enough. There's just not enough of it. There's just not enough.

Oh, oh, babe.

          --Barry White, Can't Get Enough of Your Love, Babe from I Can't Fight This Feeling --Timeless Poems for Lovers from the Pop Hits of the '70s and '80s. Quirk Books, 2002.


Blog Reel

Check out these short little films from my pal Jimmy Gaines. A couple slices of life from an auteur of Minnesota malaise.


A Great Academic Career, Tragically Nipped In The Bud

It turns out that this Phil Spector character was not only a genius, but a pretty bright guy to boot.

6:40:26 PM    

The Summer of Stars on 45

It seemed like every single night the moon went through its whole bag of tricks, and there was a fine dust over everything, radiant, the color of new tennis balls in the moonlight. Bacterial, almost, the way some awful thing will bloom all dusty and green under a black light. The dog plowed through the dust, oblivious to the swelling moon, although what the hell did I know about a dog's oblivion? The rattling that was reported across the region was the jostling of skeltons in the trees, twisting from their ropes and plinking --marimba-like, some said, or at the least vaguely Latin, an unforgetable sound. Part of the climate. Bone chimes, the old timers called them. Really something to hear when a storm was riding in. Some of the skeletons still had names, the occasion of their having come to hang in those trees still memory to some of the older residents. Law forbade their removal.

There was an old church on the corner, a ruin, really, a place apparently devoid of congregation, although some ancient and shabby cleric might still be occasionally sighted puttering around in the graveyard out back. I had long assumed that the church served as some sort of lonely last call or even perhaps place of banishment for the poor old fellows who found themselves stranded there at the bottom of their obviously undistinguished careers. Nothing otherwise of note had gone on there for many years, and I'd pretty much ceased to pay the place any attention. A few years back one deranged reverend had attracted some small notice by climbing up into the belfry one evening and beating upon the old bell with a hammer. That had been moderately interesting and not entirely explicable, but the recent business was a whole new and unexpected thing. For several days there had been seen a steady stream of violin players headed up the broken path to the church, and this was followed by long nights of feverish music.

One night in the midst of this activity I made my way down to the corner with my dog, and there encountered a distinguished looking older fellow who was staring across at the dark church. This man acknowledged my presence with a nod and handed me a business card bearing the contact information for some sort of insurance agent. "When I give the word," he said, "another Stars on 45 lp will hit the streets." At which point he turned away and strolled off down the sidewalk in the direction of the abandoned Holiday station.

6:19:18 PM    

  Thursday, February 06, 2003

Okey Dokey

I'll get right to the point. We've got a little problem here and it's not going to go away if we just turn our backs for a few minutes. And the truth is, friend, it's not actually a little problem; it's a big fucking problem, is what it is. Now the way I see it you can do two things here that might give that bolt in your ass a couple turns on the loose side: you can go straight down to Riverside Memorial, take the elevator to the seventh floor, walk down to room 715, and get down on your hands and knees and beg Edson Sandall to take pity on your sorry ass while he's still got a handful of breaths left rattling in his lungs. Or: you can pick up the phone and call Lou Martin and ask her to drive you down to Redondo Beach --tell her to bring a video camera and an attorney-- and you can empty out the contents of that YMCA locker and turn over its contents to Ms. Martin, with the attorney and the video camera as witnesses. And then you can buy a one-way bus ticket back to Sioux City, and when you get there you better put down some serious fucking roots and get involved in a church and pray very hard that we never see your face west of the Rockies again. How do you like those apples, Tiger? Either of those options sound like a plan you can live with?

4:25:56 PM    

The Day I Discovered Another Planet

For me Sun Ra is now almost officially a lifetime project that I can never hope to get either through or to the bottom of. I can't even think how long he's been dead, but there's no getting around the fact that his music literally changed me and, as foolish as it sounds to say it, changed the direction of my life. Or, perhaps more importantly, it showed me that I wanted to be changed, wanted to spend my life exploring and cultivating difference. My discovery of his music was one of those happy accidents that works like a chain reaction and sets off additional fortuitous collisions far into the future. I honestly don't know anymore what I think of Sun Ra's actual music, or at least how to articulate what I think about it and what it makes me think. It's so wrapped up at this point with my life and what I've made of it (whatever that might be), and all the different interesting side roads it's helped to steer me down. It's also always been almost exclusively a private pleasure; I haven't met many other people who have much stomach or patience for either the records or the schtick (and in a strange way I completely understand that reaction), but his music still makes its way to my stereo on a regular basis, and more than just about anything I can think of has become the ongoing soundtrack to my nights.

I was really just a kid looking for exotica when I bought my first Sun Ra record. The Osco Drug store at the little mall in my hometown had bins of cutout records, and there was a period during my early adolescence when I used to go out there and rifle through the cheap stuff looking for things that seemed merely foreign to everything else that I saw and heard around me at the time. I found a lot of great stuff in those bins, records I bought with absolutely no prior knowledge of what the music sounded like or who the people were who made it. It's weird how clearly I can remember those 99-cent and $1.99 records: the Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," Dr. John's "Gumbo," a Freddie King record, and a batch of Sun Ra's Saturn albums reissued by ABC/Impulse in the 70s. The first time I saw a photo of Sun Ra on an album cover I somehow knew that music was for me, or at least that it was strange and alarming enough to frighten my mother even more than a Black Sabbath record. Ra was probably already over 50 by then, fiercely obscure and stubbornly original, a convincing eccentric, at least to a kid from a white little Midwest slaughterhouse town. I can remember the first time I put one of those records on my cheap Radio Shack stereo. It was brutal, impossible at the time; I don't think I made it all the way through the record. I have no idea why, but I kept putting those albums on the stereo, kept trying to listen to them; you had to listen a long time to find your way into the stuff, to discover the composition beneath and beyond the racket. My ears had to slowly evolve to the music, but now it all just sounds like part of my life, and only when someone else reacts to it with obvious displeasure do I realize how foreign it once sounded to me, and what a huge role it played in driving my ears into places they would have otherwise never gone. Either I gradually learned to hear the world the way Sun Ra heard it, or he was hearing it the way I do, but I love the way his best music clanks and stumbles along, the weird and realistic way it meanders between grace and gracelessness; the way it mimicked the stutter-stepping, bursts of noise and silence, and general caterwauling of my consciousness. It was herky-jerky, and threw off bright sparks and colors. I thought it was funny and beautiful and aggravating and mysterious, and for years I knew absolutely nothing about Sun Ra, other than the information I could glean from the generally sketchy liner notes. When I saw him with the Arkestra for the first time I was stunned, validated, and hugely entertained. I was also hugely grateful to him, and still am; he was the first strange flyer I ever took, the first punch on my ticket out of town.

4:03:51 PM    

Some Notes On the Practice Of Sneezing

...the rabbins, who have a story for everything, say, that before Jacob men never sneezed but once, and then immediately died: they assure us that the patriarch was the first who died by natural disease; before him all men died by sneezing.

An amusing account of the ceremonies which attend the sneezing of a king of Monomotapa, shows what a national concern may be the sneeze of despotism --Those who are near his person, when this happens, salute him in so loud a tone, that persons in the ante-chamber hear it, and join in the acclamation; in the adjoining apartments they do the same, till the noise reaches the street, and becomes propagated throughout the city; so that, at each sneeze of his majesty, results a most horrid cry from the salutations of many thousands of his vassals.

          --from Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature, volume one, 1881 edition. London. Frederick Warne and Co.


A Story Regarding The Rabbins Detestation of Titus, Their Conqueror

They tell us that on sea Titus tauntingly observed, in a great storm, that the God of the Jews was only powerful on water, and that, therefore, he had succeeded in drowning Pharaoh and Sisera. 'Had he been strong, he would have waged war with me in Jerusalem.' On uttering this blasphemy a voice from heaven said, 'Wicked man! I have a little creature which shall wage war with thee!' When Titus landed, a gnat entered his nostrils, and for seven years together made holes in his brains. When his skull was opened, the gnat was found to be as large as a pigeon: the mouth of the gnat was of copper, and the claws of iron.


2:26:38 PM    

  Wednesday, February 05, 2003

These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins

          --T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

How could you live with the knowledge that your mother was out there somewhere, zig-zagging up and down a beach with a metal detector?

An announcer at a dog track: how'd you like to grow up to be something like that?

One thing he really needed was a goddamn toaster.

Barely is my head sitting on my spine.

So crippled, full of beef and potatoes.

The old man was William Burroughs if William Burroughs had had to bone hogs for a living. I'd watch him stir Metamucil into a glass of beer, chase a shot of whiskey with a slug of Mylanta. His philosophy boiled down to this: Always throw the first punch, and It ain't the business of nothing to make sense.

She had learned to believe that her words were the hamster that turns the wheel that is this world.

I'd like to know, please, just what you think you're doing?

All we wanted was someone to teach the kids about bicycle safety and here comes this fellow wearing one of those big curly rainbow wigs and the rags of a clown, riding a tiny little bike and honking a horn.

His aunt claimed that she was once driving a rental car in California when she got into a fender bender with Monte Hall. He offered her two tickets to "Let's Make a Deal," but she was in town on business and didn't have a costume. So she found a Salvation Army near her hotel, bought a baggy old man's suit, a corncob pipe, and a floppy fedora, stuck some room service coffee grounds on her face with Vaseline and took a cab over to the television studio. That fucker Monte Hall proceeded to ignore her through the entire taping, never once looked her way. Sure, everybody else was screaming and hollering and jumping up and down like idiots, but for shit's sake, they were in a car accident together, would it be too much for him to pull her out of the crowd and give her a shot at a refrigerator or a billy goat, anything at all, just so everyone back home could see her on television?

Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. --H.L. Mencken, "A Good Man Gone Wrong."

I don't care if I never eat another whaffle as long as I live.

Don't you ever feel like you should, you know, take things further?

She said: The man is clearly dying, give him ten francs.

So ain't we all inanimate, George? --Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280.

You call that a Christmas party? Get the fuck out of here.

The guy who taught music appreciation was an ancient and slouched no-account who played us records by the Enoch Light Orchestra, Glenn Miller, The Roger Wagner Chorale, and Stan Kenton. His great accomplishment in life was that he had learned to survive boredom.

All day I thought about my failure as a shopper.

Those of you who know who Tom Dowd is come to the head of the class.

I'd hate like hell to see most of these white men naked. God Almighty, Dick Cheney and some of these flabby others? Can you honestly imagine?

For crying out loud: that's a beautiful expression.

Close shavers: always a red flag.

Is Max Roach driving or navigating?

Watching silverfish splash through the shag like dolphins in the rolling sea.

Every once in awhile a decent idea gallops across my skull from ear to ear, but these days I let them go more often than not.

Mal Waldron: here at last, at four o'clock in the morning, a beautiful moment.

The jazz takes me right out into the night, into the mewling cities, through dark streets, across catwalks, down fire escapes, past other dreaming houses lit by insomnia, along the lapping harbor humming with idling industry; the great under-throb of the city at three a.m., sprawling shadows, litter and moonlight and longing and the great hold-out behind and beneath every heartbreak, the always leaking silence and compromised darkness, the way light sneaks around even while a city sleeps, all the creeping sleepless things, a saxophone a prayer somewhere in the jumble, a wish at least, a promise, an apology, monologue, beautiful loose thing traveling like a breathing kite from a small puddle of light cradling a park bench. 

If you were handed a bullhorn in a large public place and allowed to shout one sentence, what would you yell?

I thought it improbable that the sound I heard outside my window at two a.m. was the braying of a donkey.

It makes me so fucking happy to know that if I can just get to the floor at the bottom of the day the music is waiting.

As a young man he had wanted to be a puzzle, and on that count it looked like his life was a smashing success.

People ask me, they'll say, "why'd you do that terrible thing to your hair?" And I'll be damned if I have any idea what they're talking about.

I saw you spinning that greeting card rack at the truck stop. The look in your eyes. You eventually moved to the next rack and bought a cheap pair of sunglasses instead. You're tempted, aren't you, always tempted to write something in the bathroom stall? Remember the first time you pulled off the road and vomited blood in the gravel of the shoulder? Remember the pawn shop, the old woman who said, "I'm not here to listen to stories, son. They don't pay me enough." The first time you walked out that door all those years ago there wasn't a doubt in your heart that you were going absolutely no where. No problem, you said. Where else was there to go?




6:00:33 PM    

Remembering Raymond, Still

How much more can fall off this planet before it just can't float anymore? Any major dude would have the heart surely to tell you, my friend. An early morning phone call can reduce your life to nothing but a fat band of static, all desire falling through your body and leaking out the bottoms of your feet. This crippled world keeps pushing us further and further into our hiding places.

It's hard to love breathing things. We stood out there in the yard, up to our ankles in mud, burying that dog who had found his lucky place in the world, and who was every day a reminder of how much one little beating heart can add to the complicated equation that is living. The collar on the kitchen table. The photos on the refrigerator. The rumpled blankets in the corner. That hole in the ground. I have had days and nights when a dog was the only lamp by which I could make my way through this world, when the adoring eyes of that one serious responsibility were the only solid indicator that I had any business being alive and provided the only certainty that I belonged. Every single day that you are tangled up and bound with gravity on this planet and can feel yourself beloved, necessary for even one creature's happiness, is a gift. Still, you never stop being afraid of the gray takeaway boys. They're always out there in the night, sleepless, leaning on their shovels.

The music doesn't work, even as a distraction, can't stop all the feelings your head keeps forcing down your throat like a bowling ball. But, come on, listen to Eric Dolphy and tell me what you have against this world? What choice do you really have? Open the blinds on another bruised morning and live.


The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one's love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.

          --George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi"

4:15:05 PM    

  Tuesday, February 04, 2003

'I have devils inside that fight me'

'I have not been well,' says Phil Spector, choosing his words carefully. 'I was crippled inside, emotionally. Insane is a hard word. I wasn't insane, but I wasn't well enough to function as a regular part of society, so I didn't. I chose not to.He pauses. 'I have devils inside that fight me.'

          --from 'Pop's Lost Genius,' by Mick Brown in the London Telegraph, February 4, 2003


As an obsessive Phil Spector fan I've read pretty much everything that's ever been written about the legendary producer over the years. It didn't come as a big surprise, then, to hear that Spector had been arrested for murder in Los Angeles yesterday. I mean, it was sad and I was certainly stunned, but I can't say the news came as a shock. The guy is --or was-- a genius, but he's also a complete fucking nut, as the above interview in the Telegraph (the reclusive Spector's first in 25 years) makes pretty clear. I don't know enough about what supposedly transpired in Spector's replica of a Pryenean chateau in LA, but I don't have much hope that the poor little wretch will be exonerated.

All the same, I'd never part with my collection of Wall of Sound masters or a single one of my Phillies 45s. And if I ever get around to nailing down a list of my favorite singles of all time, I know for damn sure that a handful of Phil Spector productions will be jockeying for position in the top 20 --hell, maybe the top ten. I love most of the stuff from the prime years, but there are a batch of Spector records that I seriously can't imagine living without: The Crystals' "Uptown," The Ronettes' "Walking in the Rain" and "I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine," Ike and Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High," and Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)."

4:49:04 PM    

Night Stand

For the last week I've been mucking around in this little magazine I picked up in a junk shop somewhere. The thing is called Reason, and it's subtitled "A Monthly Journal Devoted to Psychic Science, Education, Healing, Success and Social Reform." Come now let us reason, it says on the masthead. The issue I have is from March 1915, and it's a grab bag of the usual whack metaphysics of the time, including articles on auras, astrology, spiritualism, guardian angels, and the power of positive thinking. It's also full of wonderful advertisements for such indispensable products as "spiritualist's aluminum trumpets," "schemes in dirt" ('Tells how YOU can make a good living in your own yard'), "Eager Colon Cleanser," and "Dr. Hector McLain's Astral Ozone Inhalent."

As odd and anachronistic as Reason seems on first glance, and despite its amusing quirks and obvious quackery, actually reading the magazine's contents serves as a sometimes startling reminder of how little the obsessions of the middlebrow American fringe have changed in 90 years. In the pages of this odd little journal --published out of California-- we find, to paraphrase Lou Reed, the beginning of a new age. Or, rather, the new age. Reason's contributors and advertisers are the clear forebears of today's bowel obsessed and endlessly questing Chicken Soup for the Codependent Inner Children of the Women Who Run With the Wolves crowd. There are also obvious connections to the sorts of offerings you're likely to encounter on the magazine rack at your local coop or spiritual boutique.

In Orison Swett Marde's "The Life Attitude Furnishes the Life Pattern," the author tells us that what we think, we must become. "Your mind becomes impressed with your self-estimate," Swett Marde writes, "and your convictions govern your actions. Your small estimate of yourself will make a pygmy's impress upon your conviction, and you will be barred from doing the work of a giant. You must think yourself a giant before you can do a giant's work." God knows, I know full well the discomfiting --not to mention discomforting-- feeling of having a pygmy's impress upon my conviction, and I'm willing to admit the sound logic of the rest of the author's assertion, and thus am willing to follow him or her the rest of the way: "If your life is ever transformed, it must be by your own mental effort, your own glory --the glory that comes from within, not from without."

I also appreciate the advice W.T. Stead offers in a meditation entitled "After Death":

But Sometimes is it best kindness to punish?

Yes, I know you are quite right in thinking that there are times when it is necessary to punish evil-doers; but as you punish, love! And remember that punishment without love is not of God. Have, then, a list, long or short, of the people you dislike, and run over them lovingly.

Can do!

In the marvelously titled "The Persisting Thought of the New Thought," Dr. J.M. Peebles wisely counsels that there are prudent limits to the sort of seize-the-day bliss that is so often the sole goal of new agers and Grateful Dead fans. "A New Thought leader, and an esteemed friend said to us not long since: 'I live, I think and enjoy the now, the eternal now, and that is enough!'" writes Dr. Peebles. "A lazy old ox, lying under a shade tree in a hot June day chewing his cud, could have said as much, but if there were infused with his front and top brain some moral intelligence and aspiration, he would naturally reach out beyond the now towards a well-filled manger, when the ice and the snow of the northlands mantled the fields in zero weather."

Elsewhere in the pages of Reason Ella Wheeler Wilcox poses the million dollar question: What Are We Living For In This World? Ms. Wilcox, of course, has an answer at the ready: All of our political and industrial systems, all our straining after financial and social honors and successes, all our educational institutions, are for one purpose: To enable us mortals to find happiness with those we love; to give happiness to those we love, and enjoy their association.

If only people could truly learn to live with this higher purpose in mind, Wilcox believes, "not one in one thousand would descend to the plane of the grafter, the robber and the sensualist." She's absolutely right about that, of course. She couldn't possibly be righter, the poor woman.

2:01:49 PM    

  Monday, February 03, 2003

I Must Say

Don't you love that expression? The suggestion of compulsion, of being forced, or helpless, to say, even when, as now, the million dollar question is say what? Something, certainly. What was I going to say? That's another good one, and the story of my days of late, all day, every day and long into the night. There always seems to be something lurking in the peripheries, moving in and out of the shadows, the hide-and-seek of an exhausted consciousness. Earlier today I felt certain that there were two lines, or two strands of thought, almost ideas, that at some point I felt should be recorded, or at the very least preserved somehow, committed for some purpose to memory. But they're gone now. I've been sitting here for an hour with a pen in my hand, trying to find them again, but they appear to be gone. They've slipped back into the brush and headed for the river. They're drinking beer under the bridge even now, avoiding the moonlight that's making a moving screen of the water. I can just barely hear the distant murmur of their voices carrying back up the river. By tomorrow they'll have forgotten themselves. They will have wholly disappeared. I can't keep track of all the fugitives. They go right from bright-eyed babies to fugitives to just plain gone.

4:53:44 PM    

A Question About Kukla, Fran And Ollie:

Was that puppet with the teeth an alligator or a dragon?

4:29:21 PM    

My Nascar Days

I've had my fill of motor sports, make no mistake. The noise of it, the bare breasts, the urinating in campfires, the sheer incomprehensibility of the spectacle itself. I couldn't even begin to tell you how many nights I spent naked in a tent, so drunk I couldn't even speak my own name, tossing there in the swirling dark listening to the roar of several hundred radios and boom boxes, every one of them blasting some different racket. Lord knows, I needed to sober up. I knew that much.

The other optometrists at my clinic were younger than I was, and didn't know the meaning of the word 'moderation.'  They were the ones who dragged me into the ruinous lifestyle; it was they who encouraged me to go out tomcatting with them every night. And they were the ones who introduced me to Nascar racing. I'd be ashamed to sit down and tally up all the money I spent flying off to those races every weekend, running off to live in a refugee camp with thousands of other inebriates. I don't need to tell you that it cost me my marriage.

The owner of the clinic came in one day and was appalled to see all the Nascar posters on the walls. The entire staff got written warnings, but things were too far gone at that point. Our client list had been declining for six months, and we were all eventually dismissed. The clinic was sold, and I consider myself lucky to have landed a temp job unloading tour charter luggage at the airport. It's a tough economy for an out-of-work optometrist with a spotty resume. Even now, as I lay in my bed at night, I can still hear the roar of those engines and the braying of my drunken companions. Believe me when I say that I'm trying hard to convince myself that I don't miss it.

4:16:53 PM    

The Perils of Child Rearing

My son recently brought home this little booklet the kids in his class had put together where they each drew a picture representing themselves as what they wanted to be when they grow up, along with a brief caption. Let me go on the record right now and say that I think that's a terrible question to ask a kid. Face it, they don't have any idea, and most kids at that age are little fascists and wide-eyed dreamers. I have some vague memories from when I was in third grade, or whatever the hell it is; everybody wanted to be cops or astronauts or scientists. A couple of the little hippie kids wanted to be artists. That said, there are kids in my son's class who have some extraordinary ambition. No less than three of the little bastards wanted to grow up to be president, and there were a few others who were dreaming of film careers or pop slutdom. And then there was my son, who had drawn a stickman standing in front of a house with what I guess was supposed to be a pizza box. "I want to be a Domino's man," he wrote. "I like pizza. I think it would be cool."

4:00:15 PM    

All Hail The W(indie) City

My musical taste has always been disproportionately influenced by independent labels. Some of that is by design --I have a longstanding aversion to the whole sick culture of major labels-- but another factor has been the sway those labels have long had in the undergound community of record stores, clubs, and 'zine culture that was such an important part of my early days as a music fan. Since I routinely spend way too much money on CDs (and records), I make every attempt to target the bulk of my spending on indie label product. I wish I could say I was more consistent and principled about this sort of thing, but I can't. I haven't, unfortunately, had much luck over the years in applying the same discretionary restraint to my book buying. It's not, I fully realize, that independent publishers aren't producing great, neglected stuff, but for some reason the small press literary scene has never had much luck building and sustaining the kind of grass roots, word-of-mouth community that has allowed hundreds of bands and labels to survive --sometimes just barely-- the incursion of major label culture (in every sense of the term).

The world of indie labels is by and large the province of the true believer, and one of the many virtues of these outfits is the extent to which their catalogs generally reflect the passion and taste of the people who run them. Such compact and relatively small rosters makes it easier for music fans to get a quick handle on the sort of music these labels produce, and to ascertain whether there's anything in the list that's up their alley.

A tour of my record collection reveals the extent to which I have been a hostage to indie music trends and the labels that helped define them. I have, of course, a large sampling from the Twin Tone catalog of the 80s, as well as decent caches from SST, Dischord, Radioactive, Bar-None, Alternative Tentacles, Muse and Rough Trade. Moving into the 90s there are loads of records from small alternatives ranging from Am Rep and Matador to Alias, Merge, and Kill Rock Stars. Most of these labels have managed to survive, and newer indies have continued to pop up all over the place, invigorated by even greater musical diversity, the passion of a younger generation of fans, and a marketing savvy that was often missing in many of their pioneering forbears.

Chicago has always been a leader in all things independent, but the city's recent music history has been largely overshadowed by its storied past as an incubator of jazz and blues innovation. Some of the great indepent labels of all time are Chicago institutions --think of Chess, Saturn, Delmark, and Nessa-- but these days the hog butcher to the world is also producing more terrific and interesting records than at just about any time in its history. It's only occurred to me recently that so many of the indie labels I now love are based in Chicago. It's a long list, and virtually every label on it is producing distinctive, defining music. There's Bloodshot, of course, the alt-country No Depression standard bearers. And Drag City, Thrill Jockey, and Minty Fresh. And then there are two of my current faves, Kranky and Atavistic. Kranky is a marvel, a niche label that continues to push the parameters of its niche in cool new directions. For sheer sonics and badland atmospherics the Kranky catalog can't be beat. I'm not a huge Low fan --the band's trademark sound is rapidly becoming a schtick-- but I love LaBradford, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Stars of the Lid, Pan American, Jessica Bailiff, and, especially, the new Out Hud record, S.T.R.E.E.T. D.A.D.

John Corbett's Atavistic is an even stranger labor of love, and is exploring a largely neglected fringe of a larger largely neglected fringe. Atavistic's Unheard Music series, a batch of reissues or unissued records mostly from the deepest scruff of the free jazz underground, is full of funked up noise and ecstatic workouts from such almost completely unknown or willfully obscure characters as Joe McPhee, Peter Brotzmann, Clifford Thornton, Luther Thomas, Fred Anderson, and Sun Ra. I haven't heard anything from the series yet that didn't push my ears around and get me jumping all over the room.  

3:45:00 PM    

  Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Consider This

My brethren, by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink that you may be mistaken.

          --Oliver Cromwell

4:24:46 PM    

Desert Storm II: The Pre-Game Show

Minutemen, Cheerleaders

Jim Dickinson (Bob Dylan), John Brown

Metallica, One

Sex Pistols, Bodies

Gang of Four, 5:45

L7, Wargasm

Phil Ochs, Outside of a Small Circle of Friends

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fortunate Son

Sleater Kinney, Combat Rock

Funkadelic, Maggot Brain

Mekons, Empire of the Senseless

Richard and Linda Thompson, Shoot Out The Lights

Clash, Hate and War

4:04:52 PM    

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