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.