Showing posts with label artifacts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label artifacts. Show all posts

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thirteen Most

One night in the 1980s, a low period for me, as I slumped on my regular stool at Farrell's, in Brooklyn, staring into my fourth or fifth of their enormous beers, the gentleman to my left struck up a conversation. Like nearly everyone in the bar but me, he was a cop, a retired cop to be exact, and unlike most of them he looked like a churchwarden, lean and grave and puckered, definitely on the farther shore of 80. He had much to say; his proudest accomplishments had gone unrecognized. It seemed he had been the first to put together a numbered list of the most-sought reprobates from justice. He'd gotten the idea sometime in the late '40s, he recalled. He had been listening to Symphony Sid, his favorite radio disk jockey. It was the week that "Twisted" by Wardell Gray moved into the pole position on the chart. The idea of a Top Ten was itself new.

There were some good cases on tap that week, too. Someone had stolen all the sacramental vessels, worth many thousands, from the sacristy at St. Patrick's; someone else had apparently scaled the sheer face of a skyscraper to murder a diplomat in his heavily-guarded 35th-story bedroom; a gang of miscreants in fright masks had walked off with the gate receipts during the seventh inning of a game at the Polo Grounds. My friend deplored these crimes, naturally, but still felt they deserved something more than the usual tabloid-headline form of appreciation. He imagined a Top Ten of crimes--the Most Audacious Felonies. He saw himself announcing the list on the radio, becoming a personality, a sensation. There would be a spin-off comic book with his name and face at upper left, "presenting" the felonies to an eager public. In the meantime he got himself some sheets of oaktag and posted a list in the squad room.

His superiors were not amused. He was informed that as a property clerk his job was to keep track of evidence and exhibits and not go inserting his nose in places where it did not belong, and he was furthermore forcibly reminded why at age 45 he was still nothing more than a property clerk--my new friend did not enlighten me on that particular score. Not a week later, however, a list appeared on every bulletin board of every precinct house in the city. Nicely typed and roneographed, it was headed "The Ten Most Wanted Men." Immediately my friend knew just which ambitious, sniveling lieutenant it was who had stolen his idea, but there was nothing he could do about it. Adding insult to injury, the FBI caught wind of the list and called the plagiarist down to D. C. to advise on the creation of a nationwide Top Ten. By the end of the month the rat was heading up his own Special Squad.

Right away the list entered popular culture. It was just as my friend imagined it, down to the comic book, although J. Edgar Hoover was the personality charged with "presenting" it. The FBI list--the Ten Most Wanted Fugitives--garnered the lion's share of publicity, but the New York City version, which evolved into the Thirteen Most Wanted, more than held its own. My friend, who was not short of contacts on the other side of the law, had any number of stories about crooks vying for a position, gunning for the number-one man in order to take his place, becoming depressed and allowing themselves to be arrested when they were bumped down to number fourteen, and so on. The public, for their part, were intoxicated--the number of wanton misidentifications and groundless accusations of bosses and neighbors and rivals in love more than quintupled, and so correspondingly did the number of false arrests. Even more than during the "public enemy" craze of the 1930s, law enforcement had become a spectacle.


At some point in the late 1950s, my friend made the acquaintance of a boy, a "bohunk" from Pittsburgh, who had come to town to become an artist. He didn't say how they met, but they seem to have become rather close, although he didn't think much of the boy's attempts at art. The boy liked to draw "fruity" things, like women's shoes, and serenely ignored my friend's attempts to steer him toward something more substantial, such as true-crime comics. Still, they had some good times before the boy started becoming a success, designing greeting cards and wallpaper and shopping bags, and began thinking himself "too good" for my friend. As the boy became ever busier attending fancy cocktail parties on Fifth Avenue, their acquaintance languished. My friend was sad, but moved on, and had put the boy well out of his mind by 1962 or so, when like the rest of America he was made aware of a huckster who was making a fortune painting pictures of soup cans. He laughed when he read the story in the Daily News, but the laughter caught in his throat when he saw the picture next to it. It was the boy.

My friend had drifted through a couple of decades as a property clerk and, despite his early dreams of derring-do, had come to rather enjoy it. The job was steady, undemanding, and allowed him plenty of time to do the Jumble. He was a department fixture, almost synonymous with his job. That same year, though, his longtime nemesis, the plagiarist, became chief. And it could only have been his decision, made out of pure malice, to kick my friend down to patrol duty--my friend was nearing retirement, had been a model employee, had fallen arches. Anyway, it so happened that my friend was on the street in uniform on an unseasonably cold autumn evening, guarding a movie premiere, of all stupid things, when he saw the boy again. The boy now looked like an apprentice hoodlum: leather jacket, sunglasses, need of haircut. He was walking with that old movie star--what was her name? The boy spotted my friend, said nothing, but the two locked eyes for a second. Even through the sunglasses, my friend could tell.

Cut to Spring, 1964. My friend, inches from retirement, had been patrolling the World's Fair. One day he was called to the New York State pavilion. There might be trouble, he was told. As he approached he kept looking up at the piston-shaped towers, imagining a jumper. Only when he got close did he notice the lower building. It was covered with a row of enormous portraits of men. To his astonishment, he recognized them: the Thirteen Most Wanted. He stared at the faces in disbelief. But the instant he recognized the face of Salvatore Vitale, workers began obliterating it with white paint. One by one the faces disappeared. It was his dream--both realized and short-circuited--all over again. Somehow he found out, eventually: it was the boy! He did that! But was it an act of love, or an attempt to kill him?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Détournement

One day very soon it will happen that our heroes, having searched and studied ancient property maps on file at the bureau of records, having rented a basement storage space on the opposite side of the block, having pretended to be a punk band and carted in instruments and actually played them very loud before switching to recordings of the same stuff played just as loud, having under cover of the loudness drilled a series of guide holes in the rear wall and then chiseled out the space between those holes, having collected the rubble in small cloth sacks and carried them out to the car and dropped them off a bridge under cover of night, having at last located the rear wall of the bank vault, having clipped all wires leading from the vault, having set off a series of fire alarms to distract the authorities and blown up a succession of metal trash cans with M-80s a block or two away to further confuse interested parties, having under that combined cover blown a hole in the rear of the vault with Semtex, having made their way into the vault, will find it as empty as Mother Hubbard's refrigerator. No cash, just an assortment of worthless securities, a few blackmail-potential photographs, an A-Rod rookie card, and somebody's collection of Beanie Babies.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Poetry of Ellery Queen

Above, a poem drawn from the depths of The American Gun Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen (joint pseudonym of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee). The extraction was the work of an anonymous member or members of the Resurrectionists, a shadowy group devoted to finding the poetry hidden in the works of the most prosaic authors. The members never made their identities public, although rumors flew during their heyday, from the late 1950s to the mid-'70s. This anonymity, which seems to have begun as a whimsical cloak-and-dagger affectation, was before long cemented by threats of lawsuits from touchy authors. In one of their manifestos the Resurrectionists noted that they had derived their initial inspiration from Blaise Cendrars's Kodak (1924), every word of which was taken from the novels of Gustave Le Rouge, and which was threatened with a lawsuit--although the plaintiff was Eastman Kodak, and the complaint was over the title (which Cendrars changed to Documentaire, and the suit was dropped).

The Resurrectionists, who enjoyed waxing militant, calling for the abolition of "simple load-bearing literature, which trucks ideas from the factory and dumps them at your door" and the exposure of "functionaries who pretend to be writers," were actually menaced by a few of their famous victims. In 1965, Green Berets author Robin Moore was apparently set to take them to court in Florida on grounds of plagiarism and libel, although at the eleventh hour the court balked at a case directed at an undetermined number of John Does. Even earlier, Ayn Rand was said to have hired detectives to flush out the poets' identities in advance of a harassment campaign; evidently she failed. It may be hard at this late date to understand how wealthy best-selling authors could become so exercised by a marginal avant-garde prank, but the Resurrectionists seem to have had a way of exposing raw nerves, "psychoanalyzing" the books they selected and uncovering unconscious residue the authors would rather had not been noticed. Their takedown of Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (1969) was so devastating he allegedly confessed to friends that he was done with writing altogether.

The Ellery Queen poem illustrated was one of their first published pieces (in The Creedmoor Review, 1956) and shows them at their most lyrical and even affectionate. In the following decade, in the climate of rebellion of the time, their work grew more pointed and aggressive. Their victims included many of the biggest names of the day: Allen Drury, Fulton Sheen, Taylor Caldwell, Leon Uris, James Michener, Bob Hope, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum. That most of them have sunk into obscurity today was predicted by the Resurrectionists again and again. "By 1980 it will be as if [James Gould] Cozzens had never been born!" they crowed in a 1957 press release. In their valedictory manifesto, issued in 1976, they foresaw the eventual end of bad writing. "Best-sellers are the preliminary step for those who are forgetting how to read," they wrote. "Soon those followers will drop the pretense and give themselves over to television and thumb-wrestling. Of course, they may take the publishing industry down with them. But that is a risk we must face. After all, almost anybody can afford a mimeograph machine."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Hooliganism

Just about as rare as if it had never been published at all, this may be the only extant copy of Dave Carluccio's only book--typed, photocopied, folded, and stapled by its author in 1980 in an edition of fewer than a hundred, maybe fewer than twenty. The title and the cover image both refer to Aleksei Kruchenykh's Against Hooliganism in Literature (1926), cover by Gustav Klutsis. That work in turn, which has never been translated, is to the best of my knowledge a polemic by the veteran cubo-futurist directed against some rival Soviet avant-garde gang. But that didn't matter much to Carluccio, who most likely just saw the cover reproduced in some book and ran with it. "Hooliganism"--a word strangely omnipresent in Russian and ultimately derived from a slur against the Irish--was to him something desirable, especially in literature, which he persisted in seeing in early-modernist terms, as a genteel tea party much in need of being forcibly invaded and broken up.

I knew Carluccio's brother slightly in high school. We weren't friends, and I didn't even know of Dave's existence until half a decade later, when he showed up at my apartment one day with a group of people who were looking for a party. I wasn't giving a party and wasn't in a hospitable mood, which is probably what impelled them to hang out somewhat longer than necessary, opening the beers they had brought, lighting joints, and putting records on the turntable. While most of the five or six of them were having a high old time and I was calling around trying to find the party, or any party, to get them out of my hair, Carluccio was looking through my books. Finally, when their beers were drained and before they could go for seconds, I pretended someone had given me an address on the other side of town and sent them on their way. A week later I received an envelope from Carluccio containing a sheaf of tiny stories typed on the backs of pink "While You Were Out" notes. It was the first of more than a dozen such envelopes.

As it turned out, I was to meet Carluccio only twice more. The first time was about a year later. I was coming out of a party in Tribeca, one of those huge, brawling things where maybe ten percent of the guests had actually been invited. I had no idea who the hosts were and didn't know anybody there, but on my way down the stairs some guy I didn't recognize rushed to catch up and immediately started talking at me. He had sent me the stories because I had Bataille and Artaud and Mayakovsky on my shelves and he knew I'd understand. He talked from Franklin Street up to Canal, east to the Bowery, north to St. Mark's Place, and would have talked me all the way home if I hadn't suddenly ducked into a tenement behind somebody who had just been buzzed in. His talk was all very much checklist literature--you know, the kind of thing young guys do, like throwing names of bands at each other in lieu of conversation. He was very excited about Lautréamont and Cendrars and Traven and Burroughs and Ballard and Iceberg Slim. He wanted to celebrate murder and burn down churches and throw up barricades and liberate the zoos. He wanted to invent a new language, a new literature, make the future happen today. He was talking as fast as a sports announcer in a foreign language, sweating even though it was February. But I already knew the song by heart. I had been there.

His writings were not the unpunctuated breathless screedlike verses you might expect, but on the other hand they weren't much better. He had apparently decided that the crime novel was the essential building block of literature, the constituent unit of its DNA, and he had set about reducing and recombining it--I could just about see the wheels turning in his head--much the way punk rockers had cloned and distilled and chopped up the standard Chuck Berry guitar riff. Each story, if that's what those things could be called, was a paragraph long, titled and signed, and each resembled a page of a crime novel if you were trying to read it while it whipped by on a conveyor belt.

It wasn't much, I thought. Oh, he had a good ear and all--maybe he should have been writing song lyrics. And maybe the French would appreciate it. But it hardly amounted to any kind of revolution, literary or otherwise. I can't say that I was really disappointed. What more could you expect from the typical punk-rock overgrown juvenile, too hopped up to sit still long enough to write more than 150 words? On the other hand, he was writing something, which was considerably more than I was doing at the time, for all my knowingness and jadedness and the seniority of my 25 years. Maybe Dave Carluccio was onto something, however long it would take him to get there.

As the envelopes kept coming, their contents changed. The stories grew in length, formed series, were incorporated into collages. And Carluccio, who always wrote in the first person, became a character of his own devising, the hero of his stories, addressed by name by the other characters. One envelope consisted entirely of a sheaf of author's bios: he was variously a rogue CIA agent, a Vietnam War deserter, a drug trafficker operating out of the Golden Triangle, a con artist masquerading as a movie producer, a public-relations expert simultaneously working for and working to undermine every unsavory public figure in the world, a chameleonic and indiscriminate traitor to all sides.

I published some of Carluccio's work in an occasional zine I put out then, but I never managed to run into him again. My friends, who never met him at all, became convinced that I had invented him and was using the name as a pseudonym. I laughed along at first--if I had wanted a pen name, wouldn't I have come up with something more clever? But it started to grate a bit. I wouldn't have admitted it then, but my condescension toward Carluccio began shading into a feeling of rivalry, gradually deepening into jealousy. Meanwhile, the envelopes, which at first had all been posted in Manhattan, started appearing with more far-flung and even unlikely postmarks: Lincoln, Nebraska; Guelph, Ontario; Truckee, California; Guadalajara, Jalisco; Merida, Yucatan; Punta Gorda, Belize; Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Was he attempting to enact the character he wrote about? Or was it that his writing in some way reflected what his life had become?

1980 was an insane time, at least for me: drugs were spiraling up, romance was spiraling down, and melodrama was abundant. I had gotten a job in the mailroom of a prominent literary journal, a job that permitted me to arrive at noon--since my co-worker had to leave early to attend music lessons--and then not return after taking the mailbag to the post office, which I usually contrived to do before four o'clock. I was not serious. I was fucking around heavily, not writing, pretending to be a musician but not managing to practice. I walked around in a daze of self-kidding. Late one night in early summer I was perhaps on my way to or from a party, probably high, when I happened to pass the 24-hour copy shop on Mercer Street just south of Eighth. I glanced in briefly--it was the place where I had put together my zine, and I knew most of the employees. A few doors south I felt a hand on my shoulder. Once again I didn't recognize him. I've never been good with faces, but this time there was an additional reason. Carluccio had grown, broadened, darkened--he was very nearly a different person altogether. He led me back to the copy shop, where he was collating and folding stacks of sheets laid out in a row. He finished assembling one, stapled it, signed it, and handed it to me. We must have made some sort of conversation, but I remember none of it. I didn't even remember the chapbook until days later, when I picked my jacket up off the floor next to the bed and discovered it sticking out of the side pocket.

The book collects all the contents of all those envelopes, along with a sampling of other matter--letters, pronouncements, manifestos, poems, all of it strung together apparently in chronological order. It is hasty, confused, random, jejune--and it is bursting with every kind of world-beating youthful energy. It would have made a fine first effort for anybody, the sort of thing that sits unsold on the consignment shelves of bookstores for months and even years, and then suddenly is changing hands for four figures, and eventually cannot be obtained at all unless some major collector dies. But Carluccio's slim volume is both exceedingly rare and exceedingly obscure. For all intents and purposes it doesn't exist. He will never produce a follow-up. It was my friend G., then working for the AP, who spotted the item on the teletype in 1983. I've managed to lose the printout he sent me, but the gist was that a corpse of foreign appearance, found at a border station near Antombran, Guatemala, just across from El Salvador, had been indentified as a certain David Carluccio, 24 years old, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He had been killed with a machete. Local police were investigating the matter.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Grasshopper and the Ant

Like the ant, the teenage stoner labors ceaselessly and uncomplaining, pursuing an arduous task that casual onlookers would dismiss as pointless, yet which is essential to the little creature's survival. Like the ant, the stoner lacks an animating concept, but sets to work at one corner and emerges, hours or days later, at the opposite corner. Like the insane who express themselves visually, the stoner is drawn to symmetry, to altars and monuments, to murky quasi-spiritual allusions, and like them, too, the stoner abhors a vacuum. Like Manny Farber's termite, the stoner "leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity," although unlike the termite the stoner is unlikely to be rediscovered by the French. Like the ant, the stoner can carry many times his or her weight, often traveling through dense undergrowth or over endless arid terrain, and appears to enjoy using outmoded or simply impractical tools--in this case a Hunt's Crow Quill pen, hence the blots. Like the ant, the stoner endures the contempt of family and friends in stoic if sullen silence. Unlike the ant, the stoner will require eyeglasses--if not now, then soon. Unlike the ant, the stoner works to the accompaniment of music, typically some carpetlike stream of psychedelic monotony. Like the ant, the stoner is as yet innocent of carnal pleasure. Like the grasshopper, the stoner--as the name would indicate--is on drugs.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 6)

“Sally Go Round the Roses” is a strange song that can seem as though it is following you around. A writer somewhere called it an ovoid, and that seems apt. The instrumental backing is functionally a loop, a brief syncopated phrase led by piano and followed by bass fiddle and drums, that repeats as often as a rhythm sample. It makes the song float, hover like a cloud. Sitting on top of the cloud are girls, a lot of girls, at least eight of them in multitracked call-and-response, at once ethereal and obsessive. The chorus tells Sally to go round the roses, that the roses can’t hurt her, that they won’t tell her secret. It tells her not to go downtown. It tells her to cry, to let her hair hang down. It tells her that the saddest thing in the whole wide world is to see your baby with another girl.

The record is credited to the Jaynetts, although that seems to have been a label applied by the producers to various aggregations assembled in studios on various dates with varying results. There were other songs with that attribution; they left no mark on the world, nor did they deserve to. This one made it to number two on the charts in 1963. Even the first time you hear it, it sounds as if you’ve always known it. It comes over you like a glow or a chill. It comes over the couple as they sit, shivering, on the rooftop of an old building in Chinatown. It is August, but that does not prevent the air from feeling glacial. They’ve been talking all night, at cross-purposes. Each feels that only a personal failure of rhetorical skill prevents the other from embracing the correct view. But every clarifying or corrective word widens the gulf.

How many Jaynetts were there? Did they ever appear before an audience? What did they look like? Did they wear bouffantes and long gold lamé dresses, or kerchiefs and sweatshirts and three-quarter-length pants? How was the song heard by its first listeners? How is it heard today? Did everybody but us mistake it for an ordinary anodyne pop song? Where did the song really come from? Was the song actually written by someone who sat down at the piano one day? Was it sung to the pretended author in a bar by a stranger who thereupon dropped dead? Did it just somehow materialize, in the form we know today, on a reel-to-reel tape with no indication of origin? Why does it seem to resist the grubby quotidian context from which all things come, particularly pop songs aimed at a nebulously conceived teenage audience? Is it simply a brilliant void like those that periodically inflame the popular imagination, which allow their consumers to project any amount of emotional intensity upon them and merely send it back in slightly rearranged form, so that it can seem to anticipate their wishes and embody their desires and populate their loneliness and hold out a comforting hand, when it is in reality nothing but a doll with mirrored eyes?

Now they’ve stopped talking, from fatigue and futility. They’re drained, and that in concert with the cold air makes them feel as if they’re drifting, carried by breezes far from their rooftop and away over the city, over its skyscrapers and bridges, flung this way and that, speeding up and slowing down, weightless as a couple of feathers. There are trucks moving below them, and pigeons at eye level, and up above is the contrail of a jet. There are few lights on in windows, no visible humans anywhere. They sit, or float, atop a dead city, enmired in a darkness that does not even manage to be satisfyingly black. Just then the sun’s first rays point up over the horizon and begin to describe a fan, each separate ray distinct, almost solid. It is the dawn as represented in nineteenth-century anarchist engravings: the advent of the new world. Silently they regard this phenomenon. It seems cruelly and pointlessly ill-timed, purely gratuitous and designed to mock them. It is the earth’s epic ritual enactment of beginning, and they are at an end. They become aware once again of the song, hovering over the rooftops, emanating from some unseen radio. Sally goes round the roses and keeps going around them: it is a circle. It has no point of entry or exit. They have no purchase over it, no more than they have power over the sun. It, whatever it might be, will continue beginning and ending, over and over and over again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 4)

Let me play you "Arleen," by General Echo, a seven-inch 45 on the Techniques label, produced by Winston Riley, a number one hit in Jamaica in the autumn of 1979. "Arleen" is in the Stalag 17 riddim, a slow, heavy, insinuating track that is nearly all bass--the drums do little more than bracket and punctuate, and the original's brass-section color has been entirely omitted in this version. I'm not really sure what Echo is saying. It sounds like "Arleen wants to dream with a dream." A dream within a dream. Whether or not those are his actual words, it is the immediate sense. The riddim is at once liquid and halting, as if it were moving through a dark room filled with hanging draperies, incense and ganja smoke, sluggish and nearly impenetrable air--the bass walks and hurtles. Echo's delivery is mostly talkover, with just a bit of sing-song at the end of the verse. It is suggestive, seductive, hypnotic, light-footed, veiling questionable designs under a scrim of innocence, or else addled, talking shit in a daze as a result of an injury: "My gal Arleen, she love whipped cream/ Everytime I check her she cook sardine...."

General Echo, whose real name was Errol Robinson, was prominent in the rise of "slackness," the sexually explicit reggae style that began to eclipse the Rastafarian "cultural" style in the late 1970s; his songs include "Bathroom Sex" and "I Love to Set Young Crutches on Fire" ("crotches," that is), as well as "Drunken Master" and "International Year of the Child." He had his first hit in 1977, put out three albums and a substantial number of singles--an indeterminate number because of the chaos and profusion of Jamaican releases, then as now. Along with two other members of his sound system, he was shot dead on the street by Kingston police in 1980; no one seems to know why.

I bought the record at the time it was on the Jamaican charts, from some punk store in downtown Manhattan. I first heard it at Isaiah's, a dance club that materialized every Thursday night in a fourth-floor loft on Broadway between Bleecker and Bond. This was a few years before the enormous wave of Jamaican immigration to the United States, which was mainly a phenomenon of the later '80s and a result of the kind of violence that killed General Echo. Nevertheless the club regulars were more than half Jamaican transplants, nearly all of them men. The walls were lined with impassive types wearing three-piece suits in shades of cream and tan, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats that looked at once Navaho and Hasidic, with their locks gathered up inside. They danced as if they didn't want to dance but couldn't entirely contain themselves--the merest suggestion of movement: a shoulder here, a hip there. It was hard not to feel judged by this lineup; I kept ratcheting down the enthusiasm level of my dancing. But they didn't even see me. Whatever else might have been going on in their lives they were, in immemorial fashion, bachelors at a dance, and this gave the club a taste of the grange hall. Sometimes I went there with a girlfriend, sometimes with a group of people. We smoked weed and drank Red Stripe and sometimes inhaled poppers, which would lend you huge brief bursts of euphoric energy and then foreclose, leaving you in a puddle. I hardly ever made it to the 4 AM closing because the next day I had to work, and four hours' sleep made me feel sick. As a result I missed all the incidents involving guns, which invariably occurred at the end of the night. The club would have to shut down, for weeks or months at a time--it was anyway unclear what went on in the loft the other six nights and seven days; maybe people lived there. Eventually the owners installed a metal detector, the first one I ever encountered, little suspecting they would one day be ubiquitous.

We went there for the bass, and the trance state resulting from hours of dancing to riddim that stretched forever, the groove a fabric of stacked beats fractally splitting into halves of halves of halves of halves, a tree that spread its branches through the body, setting the governor beat in the torso and shaking its tributaries outward and down through shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, feet so that you couldn't stop except when you collapsed. Most often I went there with E., who danced like a whip, and who could keep on well past my exhaustion limit, and because I needed her I did so, too. Dancing was our chief mode of communication, an intimacy like two people sleeping together in different dreams, our bodies carrying on a conversation while our minds were in eidetic twilight. Neither of us really trusted language with each other, so we found this medium of exchange that trumped it, precluding silence and misunderstanding. She had a small body whose axis was set on powerful hips with an engine's torque, while above the waist she was all moues and flutters, a belle minus a carnet de bal, so that the sum of her was exactly like the music: the massive horsepower of the bass below and the delicate broken crystal guitar and plaintive childlike melodica above.

We lived in that place called youth where everything is terribly, punishingly final day by day, and at the same time tentative and approximate and subject to preemptive revision. We broke up and got back together, again and again, we lived together or we lived at opposite ends of the island, then she moved west and didn't come back, and I went out there but elected not to stay. Then her body betrayed her. She became allergic first to television, then to television when it was turned off, then to inactive televisions downstairs or next door, then to recently manufactured objects, then to so many various and apparently random stimuli she became her own book of Leviticus. Then her muscles gave way and she couldn't dance, then couldn't walk, then couldn't speak, and in the end became just a head attached by a string to a useless doll's body before she stopped being able to swallow and soon after to breathe.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Not Fade Away (part 1)

(As long as this blog is sitting on its hands, we might as well assign it some make-work, in this case as a slap-up reprint house. For the next six days we'll be serializing a story that was published in the spring of 2007 in Conjunctions, and has appeared online only in French translation.)

Very late that night, riding home on the train as it shoots past the graffiti-washed vacant stations on the local track, they stare straight ahead, unable to explain or articulate the sense of dread that fills them both except by reference to the lateness of the hour, or the ebbing of the drugs, or the onset of a cold. The nearly empty train is going too fast, and it leans around curves as if the wheels on one side have lost contact with the track, and the lights periodically wink off for as much as a minute at a time. They sit slumped in a double seat next to a door. Whenever the train stops at a station the doors open and nothing comes in, an almost palpable nothing. Neither bothers to look because they can feel it slide in and take its place among the already assembled nothing. The air is heavy with the weight of an earlier week, when it was still summer in the streets above. The light breaks up into particles. Down here the night could last forever. The song is "Florence," by the Paragons.

Mind if I play it for you? Here it is, on The Best of "Winley" Records, volume seven of "The Golden Groups" on the Relic label, an ancient copy with varicolored stains on the back of the sleeve and a skip in the middle of the cut in question. The skip is annoying, but it also feels like a part of the fabric, along with the hollow-centered production, the dogged piano like the labor of the accompanist at a grade-school assembly, the groans of the four supporting Paragons, and the agony of Julius McMichael's falsetto lead. It's a daredevil performance, a miracle of endurance--he sounds as if he will dissolve into coughing and retching or perhaps even drop dead before the end of the track. The song wants to be a ballad but keeps turning into a dirge. It's so ghostly you can't imagine it ever sounding new. But then doo-wop is a spectral genre. It actually happened on street corners; what transpired in the recording studio, afterward, might sound posthumous.

"Florence" happened below street level. It happened in a cave, in an abandoned warehouse, in an unknown room eight stories under Grand Central Station at five o'clock in the morning. Probably it took place in an impersonal studio off Times Square panelled with that white pasteboard stuff gridded with holes, with folding chairs and ashtrays and demitasse-size paper cups of water and a battered upright piano. Probably the Paragons got a twenty-dollar advance apiece, if that, and then they took the subway home to East Tremont or wherever it was they came from. "Florence" has reached our couple two decades after its release through the medium of oldies radio--a medium of chattering middle-aged men, audibly overweight, short-sleeved even in the dead of winter, who are capable of putting on the spookiest sides without seeming to notice the weirdness as they jabber on about trivia before and after. Doo-wop became "oldies" in 1959, when it was still kicking, a premature burial but a phenomenon that allowed records that had sold a hundred copies in the Bronx when new to suddenly go nationwide and become phantom hits a couple of years later. But "Florence" cuts through the format with its breathtaking weirdness. The piano, the groans, the keening falsetto--it comes on as Martian. "Oh, Florence, you're an angel, from a world up above," raves the singer in a dog-whistle register that symbolically indicates the purity and intensity of his passion, while an Arctic wind blows through any room where the song is played.

Naturally our couple don't know that each has "Florence" playing on the internal soundtrack, not that either would be surprised. The hour, the chill, the sticky yellow light, the vertical plunge from a high--all call down "Florence." The moment could feel merely depressed, small-time, pathetic, but "Florence" in its strangeness lends it magnificence. They feel heroically tragic in their stupor. "Florence" places the moment in the corridor of history, makes it an episode, emphasizes its romance and fragility and proximity to heartbreak, suggests that a contrasting scene will follow directly.

Now they have emerged into the weak pre-dawn light of the street. The place is empty except for garbage trucks. The traffic light runs through its repertory of colors to no effect. They still haven't spoken, not in an hour or more. Words feel too huge to shovel onto their tongues. The lack of traffic is convenient, since their reflexes are too slow to negotiate any. They walk, side by side, down the street of shuttered stores, each plodding step a small conquest of space. The apartment seems impossibly distant, their progress the retreat from Moscow. At this hour time doesn't exist, actually. The hour just before dawn looks like night, but with all of night's glamour stripped away, and although habit assumes that dawn will soon arrive and peel back the sky, there is no real evidence of this. Darkness clutches the world and will not give it up. The calendar year is an even flimsier proposition; only the 24-hour newsstands maintain it, here and there shouting it into the void like street-corner proselytizers. The year is a random set of four digits that may or may not coincide with the information imparted by the posters wheat-pasted on the windows of empty storefronts. In all probability, "Florence" has not yet been composed or recorded. Our couple has imagined it. When they awaken the following afternoon, they won't remember how it visited them.

Friday, September 5, 2008

That's When Your Heartaches Begin

"Cats," I said, "Let's get real, real gone"--and the rest is history. Or it should have been. Because no one outside my immediate family has ever heard this legendary performance, recorded in a rickety booth on the Rockaway midway on August 16, 1952. My sidemen, Carl Jr. and Bip, were sadly caught in the eye of a multi-vehicle pileup on Cross Bay Boulevard on their way home, and their talents were claimed for the choir eternal. And neither my family nor myself have heard the recording since the evening of that fateful day. The minute the tone arm came down on its grooves we trembled, realizing its revolutionary significance. We knew that if anyone were to release its contents, the course of history would be altered and the youth of America--nay, the planet--would never be the same again.

Aghast at what I had wrought, I immediately arranged to meet with an agent, a fancy man from one of the Sixth Avenue talent farms. He summoned me to his office steam room, where he smoked a panatella while one sleek beauty buffed his toenails as another marcelled what was left of his hair. He didn't want to hear the recording; he wanted to hear my pipes. I tried to explain; he waved away my concerns. He wanted me to sing "Silver Threads Among the Gold," there and then. And I could have, you know. I could have capitulated, and warbled right there in the steam room, and signed a lucrative contract, and endured a career as the next Danny Kaye or Mario Lanza. But I gagged at the prospect. He was not a man with a vision. I left, dejected, and went to sit in a booth at Jack Dempsey's, barely able to choke down my double order of banana cheesecake.

Oh, I tried other agents, with similar results. I called record companies cold and was offered a typing test. I called radio stations and was taken for a subversive and visited by government agents and compelled to sign a loyalty oath. I called a legendary all-night disk jockey whom I will not name, and he was amenable to meeting me and hearing my recording. He even sounded enthusiastic at the prospect, and arranged for me to come to his table at the Hotcha Room, in the Hotel Murray on 44th Street. When I presented myself, though, his face fell. Perhaps it was because I was over forty and a slight bit out of shape. He abruptly gave me the gate, with no apology or even a drink. And so it went, a veritable calvary, a trail of tears. I could not get anyone in a position of power and influence to so much as listen to my recording. Eventually I gave up. I faithfully went to work each day in the mail-sorting facility in Woodmere and tried to forget. My family was sympathetic, and plied me with baked goods to assuage my sorrows.

Now, however, I am at peace, living here in quiet comfort, gently swaying in the sea breezes not very far from the beach in Palm Shallows, Florida. I've been traveling every day to my self-storage facility nearby and sorting through eighty years of precious memories. I've found many, many irreplaceable relics from a life rich in love and laughter and have systematically sold them on eBay, gradually assuring further monthly payments on my trailer lot. Then, just yesterday, I turned up my history-making record. I had actually managed to forget it; for a few minutes I wasn't sure what it was. Then the memories came flooding back. Reconstructing the events of that day, I could hear its unprecedented sound in my mind's ear. I instantly knew that even today, after so many rotations of the earth and so many changes in fashion, my recording would still sound like nothing else. And so I will be listing it on eBay, with a modest opening bid 0f $10,000, with free shipping, insurance included. The buyer should beware, though. Should it be released to the wider world, thrones will topple, beliefs will be scrambled and the very conduct of life will be upended. I will retain copyright. And if you leave me positive feedback, I will do the same for you.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Vile Smut

Reminiscing about my early days in the used-paper trade, I find that I can become tender if not actually moist-eyed at the thought of the publications that were both produced and purchased by the raincoat brigade. You young people today, saturated in smut, are so jaded and jaundiced and all that you may not immediately appreciate the pathos of the many approaches to porn in the time before the soi-disant sexual revolution. Consider the many shadings of the word "art," especially as applied to privately printed portfolios and editions of "exquisite" and "piquant" and sometimes "frank" character, intended exclusively for an audience of "discerning connoisseurs." Think of slim paperback novels, published in Hollywood in awkwardly boxy typefaces and dirt-colored wrappers, armed with introductions by persons able to append a Ph.D. to their names. Imagine a bookstore of the bygone sort, as discreet as a boudoir, with a curtained doorway in the rear leading to locked glass-fronted bookcases housing a category known as "curiosa."

These musings were occasioned by the rediscovery on my shelves of Sadism in the Movies, by one George [sic] de Coulteray, published in 1965, in a translation worthy of Babelfish, by the important-sounding Medical Press of New York City. "The book that shocked a nation," screams the dust jacket, an unlikely encomium coming from a starchy scientific publishing house. To read the book I find that I have to reverse-translate in my head, since many sentences make no sense whatever in English but are convincing in the presumed original as St.-Germain des Prés table talk:

"But one must admit that since the end of the 19th century one is in the presence of a rise so brutal that in our times the spanking has become the privileged form of what may be called minor sadism, a harmonious mixture of pain, slight in itself, and a ceremony which by making ridiculous, emphasizes its humiliating character, followed by the double arousal, active and passive."

But nobody ever read it, anyway. They bought the book for the pictures, half of which derive from the original and look as though they were photocopied with a machine of the era--they're so murky you can barely make them out. All the pictures are stills, all are unidentified, some show garden-variety brawls and others get into skulls-and-chains territory. Nearly all are so smudgy and hasty and low-rent they seem much smuttier than the movies themselves (or even a decent print of any given still) ever could. The one shown above is in its own right a terrific example of the power of film stills--you just can't imagine that the rest of the movie, whatever it is, could possibly measure up to the sheer sordidness of the image.

But to go back to the French, the adjacent book on the shelf is Lo Duca's L'Érotisme au Cinéma (J.-J. Pauvert, 1957) which is both serious and sumptuous in exactly the ways its neighbor isn't. Just flipping through it is guaranteed to inspire indulgent fondness for the French at their most nominally insufferable. Take this chart, for example, which is worthy of Edward Tufte's books:

The movies are (1) The Blue Angel, (2) Ecstasy, (3) Tabu, (4) The Lady from Shanghai, (5) Notorious, (6) Bitter Rice, (7) Manon, (8) Los Olvidados, (9) Miss Julie, and (10) One Summer of Happiness. No, I'd never heard of that last one, either. Don't you wish you could nonchalantly illustrate your humid reveries with charts so rigorously white-smocked? I certainly do.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Amoenitates Belgicae

Early yesterday a friend across the Atlantic emailed me: "Tonight in Parliament the fuse was lit for the implosion of Belgium in sixty days." I've heard much doomsaying of this kind over the years, but this was a trifle more specific. The crux seems to be that the Flemish will claim a certain number of the ring towns around Brussels and make them Flemish by fiat, which means that residents (who may, depending on the town, be largely or even overwhelmingly francophone) will get electoral ballots naming only Flemish candidates, have access only to Flemish schools, face public officials who will refuse to speak or reply to French, etc. This in a roundabout way addresses the issue that has prevented Belgium from splitting into two parts thus far: that Brussels is both overwhelmingly francophone and at same same time the capital of Flanders. The Flemish militants appear to be on their way to making Brussels a Flemish city whether it likes it or not, a task which may also involve the purging of the--largely francophone--immigrant populations.

If Belgium splits into two, Flanders will vie with Norway for the top of the European Union food chain, while Wallonia will scramble with Portugal for the bottom. How is all this possible, you ask, in a stable, prosperous First World nation? The matter may or may not go back to the Battle of the Golden Spurs in 1302, as Flemish mythology would claim. It definitely goes back to the nineteenth century, when the country's post-independence ruling class spoke French and marginalized the Flemish, who could, for example, be arrested, tried, and sentenced without understanding the charges against them. My worker and peasant ancestors didn't speak French, either, and were marginalized themselves, but as Walloon speakers they could at least catch the rudiments of another Romance language.

The matter heated up after World War I, when the fact that Flemish militants had sided with the Germans occasioned public rancor. A similar set of issues caused unrest after the second World War, but it wasn't until the 1960s that the subject came to dominate the daily life of the nation. The heavy industries of Wallonia--steel, textiles, coal, glass--were dead or moribund, and Flanders, once largely rural and backward, had taken the economic lead. The Flemish separatists achieved a new credibility by stressing their unwillingness to carry the ailing South financially. I happened to be in Belgium in 1969, when the formerly state-mandated and universal bilingualism ended under pressure, with the other language being painted out on road signs, disappearing from menus and train schedules, the University of Louvain/Leuven splitting into two parts, and so on. Ever since, it has been a slow motion dissolve.

You can compare the situation to that of the former Yugoslavia: minor differences between neighboring populations with much interbreeding are exacerbated after the formerly overrun, colonized, and exploited area--as the future Belgium was for centuries before 1830--recovers its autonomy. Even so, I don't expect the situation to make much sense to outsiders. It hardly makes much sense to me, but then even though I carry a Belgian passport I've spent most of my life abroad. Belgium is a sick country. Flanders--in which I have quite a few friends--is disturbingly under the sway of far-right elements, while Wallonia--home to whatever remains of my family--is a swamp of corruption and institutionalized incompetence. I still carry a Belgian passport because, ironically enough, I have no belief in nations and no sense of any kind of national identity. (I am, ethnically, nearly one hundred percent Walloon, for whatever that's worth.) Will my ancestral home plunge to Second World status? Will it be propped up like a corpse in a chair by the European Union? Will it be adopted by France if it wags its tail hard enough? Will anyone not immediately affected even notice?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Pinacotecata

"I have painted thought." --Nicolas Poussin

"The magnificent light in Courbet's paintings is for me the same as that of the Place Vendôme, at the time the Column fell." --André Breton, Nadja

It's just occurred to me that I have less than a month to see shows at the Met by two of my favorite painters. For someone who runs a blog carrying a name that means "picture gallery," I've gotten very much out of the habit of visiting museums and galleries. And yet they were crucial to me once. If I had a single Damascus-road experience in my life, it was seeing Géricault’s "Raft of the Medusa" and Delacroix's "Massacre at Chios" at the Louvre when I was not quite nine years old. I went to high school a few blocks from the Met, when it was still free, and used to wander through at random, haunting it as if I were its ghost. When I was 20 and very earnest it seemed to me the whole point of traveling, to go see pictures in remote churches and unlikely state-run cultural complexes out in the middle of fuck-all.

Then, a few years later, I stopped. Why? Maybe it was the Met's Book of Kells show circa 1976, which as far as I'm aware began the era of massively hyped traveling exhibits with their advance ticketing and crowd control. Maybe it was the awkwardness of accompanying nice young ladies to museums on Sundays and shifting my weight from one foot to the other as they drank in the Monets. Maybe it was the increasing authority of the must-see dictates issued by the cultural commissars of the media in New York City. Maybe it was the time ten years ago when I visited the museum of fine arts in Lille, France, a vast train station of a museum laid out in an ellipse and stuffed with mediocrities, and I realized the best way to take in its holdings would be by bicycle or possibly roller skates. Maybe it was when I discovered that I derived more enjoyment and illumination from sifting through big piles of trash. But I figure I owe some discomfiture, at least, to Poussin and Courbet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Case Study

The subject, a recent immigrant approximately nine years of age, was asked to depict his mother. It was specified that he should present her in a particular context of his choosing: a setting or activity. The resulting picture is of considerable interest. The woman is only marginably noticeable, and then only because her coat presents the largest single expanse of white space in the composition. Clearly, the subject entirely subordinates maternal affection to the far greater stimulus of commercial consumption. For that matter, the nature of the consumer products themselves is of secondary interest; the subject is enthralled by packaging, and above all by names.

Because the composition is so crowded and frenetic, it is worthwhile to break down its constituent parts. The woman is pushing a shopping cart overloaded with products down a supermarket aisle. It would seem to be aisle six: coffee, tea, juice, soda. The items heaped in the cart seem at least partly stereotypical: the protruding head of celery in particular is a trope familiar from myriad cartoons and illustrations. It might likewise be doubted whether she purchases toothbrushes on a regular basis, and ditto for "wax"--presumably floor wax. Other items seem more likely to be true to his actual experience of grocery shopping: that the sack of potatoes has been placed in the cart's bottom tray, for instance, or the exact replication of the Fritos logo, or the prominence of the detergent Beads O' Bleach.

But even the groceries in the cart are overwhelmed by the serried ranks of products on the shelves, which are depicted in disproportionate scale. The boxes of Lipton tea bags are nearly the size of the cart itself. (The curious symbol on the boxes represents the subject's attempt to come to terms with the concept of the tea bag. Coming from a coffee-drinking culture, he had only ever experienced tea bags as pictures on boxes, and averred he thought they looked like "pants on a hanger.") It is fascinating to observe the rigor with which the subject records brand names, even the ones that make no sense to him, resulting in solecisms: "Early' Morn" for "Early Morn'" and "Chock O' Full Nuts" for "Chock Full O' Nuts."

A strong reaction to American consumer abundance is typical of recent immigrants. It can take various forms: hysterical blindness, catatonic undifferentiation, at least eighteen catalogued types of aphasia. The delirium on view here, in conjunction with the subject's powers of observation, leads us to predict that he will become a highly achieving adult, one who will subordinate all other drives and desires to the acquisition of brand-name goods. He will work three jobs, if necessary, to purchase the latest model automobile, equipped with all the premium features--such a goal, in any event, will encouragingly overshadow romance or idealism. If the subject is properly steered, he will actually work three jobs to achieve his goals. The danger remains that he may choose to rob service stations instead. The subject should therefore be closely and carefully tracked, but for now we do not recommend deportation.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Passport

"Where are you from?"
"Wherever I can get a passport from."
"You sound Russian. Is that your country?"
"I have no country, and the more I see of countries, the better I like the idea."
--dialogue between Poppy Smith (Gene Tierney) and bartender (Michael Delmatoff) in The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941)

Wishing a slightly belated happy 49th to my green card!

Monday, March 3, 2008

Iron Men




In Italy, in 1966 and again between 1974 and 1977, there was a shortage of coins. As a consequence, all sorts of things became legal tender: slugs, buttons, chiclets, chocolate squares, various sorts of quasi-official scrip, potatoes. Somehow, the economy did not collapse--or at least it fell no farther than it already had. Money, after all, is an imaginary substance with real effects. It has been established that if you pretend with sufficient conviction that you have money, people will treat you as if you actually do. Perhaps if you pretend with sufficient conviction that a given substance qualifies as money, it actually does.

It has also been proven that it you attach a dollar bill to a fishing line and drag it along the sidewalk from a height, people will injure themselves and each other trying to grab hold of it. The ephemera shown above illustrate a corollary principle. The pseudo-clams--one promoted a crank running for president and the other two were phone-sex come-ons--were scattered around the streets, tucked in phone booths, left on subway benches, in full confidence that suckers would pick them up. This would not have worked had they been disguised as pork chops or mash notes.

Or coins, for that matter, since money comes in two classes, which have been pulling in opposite directions for some time now. Coins might as well be chiclets, as far as the average American is concerned. You might try an experiment: place a dollar bill on one side of the pavement and a quantity of change totalling, say, $1.50 on the other. I'll wager that every passing citizen without exception will aim straight for the green and totally overlook the corn. Does this imply that someday a fortune in nickels will be worth less than a thin sheaf of Washingtons?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Post No Bills

Pinakothek is enjoying a brief hiatus while its archives are moved to a more secure location. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Apology

Because M. Marcel Duchamp is currently in America, I am unable to meet today's deadline. Because M. Duchamp is currently indisposed, I am unable to give the matter my complete attention. Because I am indisposed, M. Duchamp will be the one handling your account. Because M. Duchamp has been promoted sideways, I will not be able to answer my emails. Because I am indisposed, your request did not cross my desk. Because M. Dominguez has taken over my email account, I cannot hear you. I'm very sorry. Please call back after the dust settles.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Coffin Nails


I quit smoking ten years ago, but before that I smoked for thirty years, starting at age 13. Like junkies and alcoholics, I'm a lifer. I quit because I was afraid of dying, but that's about the only thing that could have made me quit, and I continue to have a deep and convoluted relationship with nicotine and the forms and guises under which it travels.

I first heard Picayunes mentioned in Frank O'Hara's 1964 poem "The Day Lady Died." It's July 1959 and he's preparing to go to Easthampton for the weekend, back when the Hamptons contained more poets and painters than rich people. He's buying supplies and hostess gifts here and there in midtown Manhattan--recording everything in his seemingly casual diaristic way that's really as meticulously arranged as a collage by Braque, down to the all-caps names that are after a fashion glued in--and then he sees the NEW YORK POST with her face on it. The pleasantly hectic course of the day, ticking away like a taxi meter for 25 lines, is abruptly flicked off and he's thrown into memory. Billie Holiday has died.

He buys the Post from the tobacconist at the Ziegfeld Theater along with a carton of Gauloises and a carton of Picayunes. For years I had no idea what Picayunes were. By the time I was a teenage poet reading that poem again and again, wishing I could write like that and for that matter live like that, the New York of the poem seemed like a vision of glamour from the deep past, even though it was little more than a decade gone. I did smoke Gauloises when I could afford them, but there was no more tobacconist at the Ziegfeld and nobody I knew had ever heard of Picayunes.

Then, years later, I met George Montgomery, who had been O'Hara's roommate at Harvard. I learned many things from him--he was a fount of every kind of lore and custom and means of appreciation. One of them was that the perfect way to end a meal was with a cup of black coffee, a piece or two of crystallized ginger, and a Picayune. He bought his at Village Cigars, at the head of Christopher Street. They were made in New Orleans, where they shared a name with the local newspaper, and they were the only American cigarette still at that time made, like Gauloises and Gitanes, from black caporal tobacco.

I didn't visit New Orleans until many years after that, and even though I had by then quit smoking, I went off in search of Picayunes, but they were no longer manufactured. Their absence was conspicuous, because they went along with the city and its Afro-Franco-Hispano-Italo- Caribbean style, with the chicory coffee and the lagniappes and all the rest of it. It made sense that the most culturally distinct city in the lower 48 would boast a distinct local cigarette. Picayunes in their day were another symbol of the elegant separateness that would eventually provide the federal government with its excuse for sacrificing New Orleans. Anyway, nowadays local pride is reserved for team sports.

Thanks to Joshua Clover for reminding me.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Disjecta
















Maybe someone can tell me the proper Greek-derived word, by analogy with "philately," for the collecting of rejection slips. As you can see, there are some rare ones here--half of these publications no longer exist, and the other two have changed almost beyond recognition from what they were then. The collection, of which these represent maybe a quarter, was assembled between 1969 and 1971. The collector, a budding writer in his mid-teens, was too timid to submit his work to magazines until one day he saw, in some underground newspaper, a full-page montage composed of rejection slips. The writer who received them was terribly disillusioned and certain he was being silenced by the establishment.

Our teenage writer paid this no mind, concentrating instead on how cool the slips were as objects. He proceeded to send work out hither and yon, irrespective of quality or suitability, and collected rejection slips like baseball cards. Some were as perfunctory as errata slips, some as exquisite as bookplates, some handwritten in purple ink and some scrawled in pencil. What did him in after a time wasn't rejection but near-acceptance--on four separate occasions Rolling Stone informed him they were publishing something, only to then reject it by the next post, after the boy had already thrown himself a little party in his head. Well...people did smoke pot at their desks in those days, so editorial decisions may have been a bit aleatory. In any event, he stopped making cold submissions thereafter, and when his writing career finally got going, over a decade later, he was determined to work strictly on assignment. He still likes rejection slips as objects, however. But without a name to apply to the hobby of collecting them, how can he locate the swap meets and conventions?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jesus Punk

About ten years ago I found myself in a large antique store in Berea, Kentucky. As readers of this blog might suppose, I'm a veteran ragpicker, but antiques tend to leave me frosty. I made my way through three floors of the usual glass, china, old toys, rugs, without much interest and without seeing much that would indicate the store was not in, say, Litchfield County, Connecticut. Then, in a corner of the basement, on the floor, sticking out from under a bookcase, I found this sign. "How much?" I asked the guy at the counter. He looked me in the eye and said, "Just get that thing out of my sight."

It so happens that I knew the thing to be at least approximately local--the text is the first line of "Shine on Me," by Ernest Phipps and his Holiness Singers, ca. 1928, collected in The Music of Kentucky, volume one, on the Yazoo label. I recognized that by conventional standards the sign exudes a deep and rebarbative ugliness--its fifth-grade draftsmanship, its clubfooted asymmetry, its witless line breaks and lack of question mark, its ink mixed with glitter, its ancient clots of tape and the places where the tape was torn off--and that as a printed sign it doesn't even carry the aura of a singular work of folk art. I also recognized the world of guilt and fear it represents, curdling something inside even me, and I haven't been a Christian since I started wearing long pants.

I could understand how some combination of those three factors--familiarity breeding contempt, aesthetic revulsion, the clammy hand of holy writ--could have led the Kentucky shopkeeper to want the thing erased from his consciousness. He might have been a snob, but he might also have been driven out of his evangelical family on account of being gay, for example. In any case, whether or not I was influenced by his reaction, I found that at first the sign made my flesh crawl. I took it home and stowed it away in an envelope. Then I found it again a few years later, thought it was more interesting than I'd allowed, and propped it in an empty recess in a bookcase in my office. Then I thought others should see it, so I hung it in the outhouse. Admittedly it made a striking addition to the rough-hewn interior.

Now that I no longer possess an outhouse, it has migrated to the indoor bathroom. I'm set to move again, though, and I'm beginning to think the sign belongs in the kitchen. I've grown to love the sign. Although the whole subject is just lousy with ironies of various sizes, I don't think my appreciation is a matter of mere contemptible irony. But I do love it, in large part, for its very awkwardness and ungainliness. Does that mean I value it for its authenticity? But while it is easy enough to appreciate anything unprofessional, amateurish, and even slipshod these days--in reaction to a time in which clever design always means a direct threat to your wallet--not everything made by artists whose enthusiasm outran their skill and patience manages any panache. Most homespun framed homilies are just dull. This sign, by contrast, looks combustible. It is so crazy that it looks as if it will eventually consume the wall it hangs upon. Everything that is seemingly wrong about it adds up to a massive--if small-scale--imposition of will. I love the sign because it insists on squaring off with me every time I look at it. It probably wishes me ill.