Monday, July 28, 2014

Bad Blood, Good Blood

Bad Blood, Good Blood cover art

Although the Secret Beach has lapsed into a state of well-earned dormancy, I thought I'd pop in briefly for a bit of musical proselytizing; not a lot has moved me lately, musically speaking, and when something does I want to Tell the World. The last time I was on my soapbox hyping Spenking (Spencer Kingman to his mother), a self-released CD-R titled Free Doom had recently been pirated my way, carrying an aura of mystery and intrigue. The one-time Chicagoan, occasional indie-rock sideman (I'd been lucky enough to see him tear the stage to pieces with a young Dirty Projectors) and quietly brilliant singer-songwriter was, reportedly, newly married and living in Utah. I confess to having fed the rumor-mill, speculating here on the Secret Beach that he'd gone Mormon, that he'd had to smuggle this collection of dark, dense songs out of Utah as if on golden tablets.

Half a decade has transpired since then, and much of the mystery has been dispelled concerning Spencer Kingman the man. He's been living on the outskirts of Pittsburgh for several years, is the father of two young children, and teaches high school math; none of which begins to diminish the ongoing mystery of Spenking the artist, whose latest offering is his most public to date, released this spring on Ethereal Sequence, distributed by Drag City and sure to blow some minds. Much of the material on Bad Blood, Good Blood is culled from the aformentioned Free Doom--finally those golden tablets have found the light of day, comprising all of side one and a bit of side two. But the four new songs, radiant and otherworldly, are the real revelation here, and well worth the wait; while he might not have much time for touring or recording these days, these few transmissions make clear that suburban family life has done nothing to tame Spencer's febrile imagination.

Spare, haunting and unusual for Spenking in its use of electronics, Soda Spill lurches through the shopping-center landscape of middle America. Concrete islands, monumental signage, big flourescent words--it's a place we all know well. But soon the familiar images begin to melt; suddenly we ooze out of our sense of self  and are frying on the blacktop. What to make of the shapeshifting grass, inside-out apartments and soda-spill machines? More alarmingly, where are all the shoppers? Nowhere any people, Spenking concludes, sounding a bit like Laurie Anderson, stripped of her ironic pose, facing down the void. The remaining songs are less of a departure, more classically Spenking--graceful guitar-plucking, effortlessly acrobatic melodies and profoundly disorienting lyrics. I cut my eyes on a brand new magazine, Spencer announces on Hot Omen, channeling Buñuel; the lilting Gravel Scrabble finds our hero swimming in a shallow orbit / floating magnets spin around the room at full zoom/Gamma rays pass right through, full moon--all reeled off so prettily that the dizzying language sinks in only as an afterthought. Here We Are seems to ease us back toward earth with its easy, pastoral melody, but the eerie portents remain, evoking weird, nocturnal worlds behind the domestic scrim. Ball of ice divides the house, Spencer sings. The fires around the couch.  

The last time I wrote about Spenking, he was so unknown, and I was such an ardent booster, that I promised to mail any reader who asked a bootleg CD-R free of charge. With this long-overdue release I can finally rescind that offer, and instead direct discerning music-lovers here, here and here--and hope that, with a sufficient groundswell of interest, Spencer might cough up another round before the decade's through. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Goodbye Posso

While I've posted several over the years, for friends, neighbors and the odd public figure, let it be known that I don't especially enjoy writing eulogies. There's something highly discomfiting about aestheticizing death. Nevertheless, I wanted to share a few clumsy thoughts on the passing (a stupid euphemism; he shot himself last week, in the middle of the day, in a downtown Minneapolis office building) of my friend Nate, commonly known by his surname Posso and loved by many.

The requisite disclaimer: I didn't "know" Posso very well, nor can I cast much biographical light on his life; but he was my friend. For the last two Octobers, I worked and lived with him at the sugar beet harvest in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Along with six or seven other itinerant punks, Posso and I shared quarters in a cold, spartan outbuilding, built for the annual county fair and known affectionately as the Chateau. This past year Posso and I were next-door neighbors, I in my pathetic little pup-tent, and Posso, tentless, in a sleeping bag just north of my feet; on more than one chilly night he crawled inside my tent and suggested, half-mockingly, that we cuddle

How can I describe Posso without making him a caricature? Especially when he seemed, at times, intent on making a caricature of himself? I confess that I always thought of him as a bit gnomish; small, slightly hunched, with a thick, sculptural beard and manic, soulful eyes. He'd lost much of an arm in a freight-train accident, a disability which he managed somehow to downplay to the extent that I often forgot it completely, though he frequently asked me to roll him cigarettes. To be honest, I'm not sure how he carried out his taretaker duties, which in my experience required two good arms; I can only conjecture that his considerable (if twisted) charms and caustic humor were enough to endear him to his crew. Posso was hands-down one of the funniest people I have ever met. Not just his back-catalog of dark and offensive jokes--none of which, curses on my porous memory, are coming to me at the moment--but his round-the-clock attitude, the scathing way in which he confronted the world. 

I could say, euphemistically, that Posso 'lived on the margins;' more to the point, and I don't mean it disparagingly, he was a fuck-up--that was the basis for his profound sense of humor. Liquor, drugs, stints in jail, perpetual poverty. He was the only punk in Wahpeton without a tent; he never had his own smokes or booze, and was always cajoling lengthy swigs out of my half-gallon of bottom-shelf vodka. I could rarely refuse him; this last year especially, when I was suffering insane toothaches and headaches and was in a black mood throughout the harvest, Posso's humor was one of the few things that kept me afloat, and sharing my stash seemed the least I could do.

He was an avid, obsessive dice-player, a game which I found incredibly stupid, while acknowledging its value as a time-killer; at any rate, Posso somehow made it fun. I suppose I assumed that Posso, too, was having fun--I certainly wouldn't have thought him suicidally unhappy. I still want to assume that he was having fun; that the bullet he put through himself doesn't negate that fun. He did, it's true, jump ship fairly early on in the harvest; things weren't going well, there was a fight about one of the dogs pissing on his sleeping bag or something, and a few hours later he was gone, back to Minneapolis. His abrupt departure depressed the hell out of me, actually. The Chateau seemed more grim than ever after he left; a day or two later I too bailed. 

Why? is the first question suicide often begs. Why--when he had so much to live for? Somehow, I don't feel very troubled by Posso's wherefores. A friend described Posso to the Minneapolis City Pages as "sad, lost and tired." "He lived in his shoes for the past 15 years," added another. Literally, perhaps--at the beet harvest he seemed to always be sleeping with his shoes on. I can't imagine that sort of life being anything but exhausting, and his decision to end it doesn't seem far-fetched or incomprehensible. Nor, despite all the hearts that are broken over his death, does it strike me as a selfish act. He'd had enough; the kid wanted out. On the other hand, I do wonder why he chose the second floor of a shitty skyscraper as his last vista, or a Thursday morning in January as his final hour; it all seems so arbitrary. 

Posso's numerous friends in Minneapolis have been raising money in his honor--more than $10,000, most of which is being donated to a homeless youth center. Which is wonderful, though I can't help but wonder what Posso might have done with that kind of money while he was alive--some serious partying, at the very least. And while donating money feels like a slightly tacky way to grieve for a friend, the many heartfelt comments on the memorial fund's website do attest to the impact of his life in Minneapolis and beyond. I'm lucky to have met you, Posso. You owe me a drink on the flipside. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weirder Homes and Gardens

I wanted to share a bit of this delightful and curious book on flower arranging, published in 1942, which I got for a song at the always-overwhelming Newberry Library book sale. I was attracted initially to the often-striking, occasionally gorgeous photographs--heavily-saturated compositions that are almost painterly in their effect--

--and I planned to plunder it for collage material. But a closer look has revealed some surprising dimensions to this otherwise-unassuming volume. The book, to begin with, beautiful as it is, turns out to be an 80-page advertisement for Coca-Cola. Bottles of ice-cold Coke are featured prominently in many of the arrangements, and the reader is frequently reminded of the soft drink's many virtues. Not only is Coca-Cola the perfect centerpiece for a Wistaria-covered balcony-for-two--
 --it's also the refreshment of choice, the author notes, for everyone from defense workers to badminton players. Her 'Coke Party for the Teen-age,' complete with ice-sculptures and shrimp cocktail--
 --promises 'social success' for the young hostess. At any rate, the product placement is anything but subtle. Then came the real surprise. The author's name was eerily familiar, and something about her expression in this frontispiece portrait also nagged at me:
 An internet search confirmed my creeping suspicion: this Coke-shilling society dame was none other than William S. Burroughs' mother! And hang me if there's not a remarkable resemblance:

Now, I'd gathered that Laura Lee Burroughs was something of a square, but this is on a whole 'nuther level. 'There has never been a time when our homes were as dear to us as they are now,' she writes in her sappy introduction. We have become sentimental about them! Later, she presents an elaborate 'Sweet Land of Liberty' display ('For the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, Washington's Birthday, or just any day when you feel particularly patriotic, which is practically all the time...') Still, despite the book's inherent WASPishness, and the ickiness of its corporate sponsorship, it's clear that Burroughs' mother had a creative streak, as well as some moxie. William Burroughs was, in 1942, a decade away from completing his first novel, Junky, but he was already a 'troubled young man,' as must have been evident to his mother Laura Lee; he'd severed half a finger over a gay hustler named Jack Anderson, been discharged from the Army due to mental instability, and was working as an exterminator in Chicago. With what grace, then, she is able to pull off this performance of normalcy, standing, as she does in the book, for those great American pillars of Home and Family (not to mention our national beverage, Coca-Cola.) There are so few cracks in her facade. For years, she admits at one point, my flower decorations were a source of annoyance to my family. One can only imagine! But it's there in her photograph, clear as day--that taunting, Burroughs sneer. 

This, volume three, was to be the last; the series had sold in the millions, apparently (it went for a paltry ten cents; one wonders what Burroughs made of his mother's literary success), but wartime concerns and impending modernity were pushing such quaint pastimes as floral arranging aside. I still want to cut the book to pieces, but I'm torn; it's such an odd and loaded artifact that I hesitate to destroy it. 

Note: there's a lengthy article on Laura Lee Burroughs and her 'Homes and Flowers' series here, for the curious.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Season in (Gay) Hell

--"Gay Hell" being a coinage of famous gay-person Rufus Wainright, used to describe his one-time descent into substance abuse and sexual profligacy. Now, my misadventures have got to be pretty damn tame in the grand schema, but after several consecutive nights of Going Out, drinking and dancing and kissing and heavy petting with some very pretty boys, I wake up with an ominously sore throat that can only turn into something worse, and indeed by late in the afternoon I'm curled up in my bed at the Hotel Princess (so gay!) with a very high temperature, boiling sweat and freezing clammily by turns, drifting in + out of a succession of maximum-strength fever dreams--in short, very sick. In my delirium, I am at first convinced that the only explanation can be mononucleosis: the dreaded Kissing Disease! I kissed one too many boys and now I am being severely punished! And how desperate and odious does my filthy little pink-whitewashed hotel room begin to feel: mosquitoes lunging mockingly at any inch of exposed skin, the sickly stupor of the air, and the ambient hotel-sounds which vary from grating to inexplicable--one tenant has some DJ mix on repeat which plays only the two-or-three-second hooks from today's Top Songs, like an insta-vomit version of being at the Gay Club; some other lost soul is standing out in the hallway for over an hour, piteously repeating Lucia... Lucia... Lucia, until Lucia miraculously opens her door and tells him to get bent. Wait, mononucleosis lasts for like a month, right? I can barely muster the strength to walk the five feet over to the toilet. Am I going to be bedridden here in this awful Hotel Princess for weeks on end, paying for my piddling little sins? The only thing that's able to cool my overheated mind is watching the movie Mall Cop, dubbed into spanish on local TV. Even in my dilapidated state, I'm able to comprehend nearly all of the dialogue.

The next day I'm able to consider my situation a bit more lucidly. Who says it has to be mononucleosis--could be anything! I leaf through the Health section of my Mexico guidebook, probably a bad idea; with a painful sore throat and spiking fever, I'm just as easily a candidate for malaria, or the exotic-sounding dengue fever, which is transmitted through mosquito bites--yes, those fuckers have been chomping on me for weeks now, leaving monstrous welts all up my arms and neck. Or, it comes on like a lightbulb, maybe just yr. everyday flu! With the help of some horsepills of aspirin I'm able to sleep through most of the day and night, still too weak to change habitations though the cruelly-named Hotel Princess is becoming ever-more repugnant to me. And then today, the third full day of my mystery illness, I still feel awful but find the strength to pack my bag and change hotels--a few blocks eastward to the Hotel Tuxpan. And just as I get to my new fourth-story room and begin killing bugs, the room about me begins to slide about like a madman. For the first minute I think my fever hallucinations have returned; then the screaming of people out in the street suddenly wakes me up to EARTHQUAKE! The second minute or so I'm just spacing out, like, whoa, dude, an earthquake; and finally I have the presence of mind to evacuate the premises, as everyone else is doing. Out on the street, earth no longer trembling, it's a great chance to meet my new neighbors--this guy named Cholo introduces himself, says he lives in the same hotel, moved down here from SoCal ten years ago to avoid life imprisonment. Says if I need anything, weed, whatever, just holler Cholo. Normally I would, I say. Really. But I'm pretty sick right now. I think I just need to get some more rest. Hopefully I'll be feeling better soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Mexico City, Second Impressions

Which, I wonder as I wander, might be considered the Worst Job in Mexico City? Oh, there are miserable occupations anywhere you go, but there seem to be some true bummers here. Pity, por ejemplo, the poor organ-grinder in the streets of El Centro--not just the grinding, which must be hell on the arm, but to have to listen to the same insipid jingle day-in-and-day-out, like driving an ice cream truck but without even any ice cream to sell. Nor, it seems, do they exactly rake it in. Perhaps more profitable is the position of bathroom attendant--some of the busier WCs probably make out quite well at four or five pesos a head--but then there's the fact of having to work in a bathroom all day, not that easy on the soul, I imagine. Or, the young mothers selling marzipan candies in the Metro, so profoundly zoned-out from intoning marzipan-marzipan-marzipan for hours on end that they don't notice their little children playing in rivers of subway-filth? Or maybe, the dozens of poor sacks passing out leaflets for eye exams in the optical sector of downtown, whose leaflets no one wants and whose voices are run-ragged from repeating Examen Gratis to the point of total meaninglessness? I understand feeding your family or putting yourself through school, but I can't imagine there aren't days when these unsung martyrs of the megalopolis wake up and just can't possibly face another ten hours of organ-grinding or marzipan-hawking.
It turns out that the Teatro Coliseo, across the street from my rat's-ass hotel, is not a derelict porno theater as I had assumed, but is in fact one of D.F.'s two lucha libre arenas, with fights every Sunday at five, and with balcony seats going at a mere thirty pesos apiece, attending was a no-thinker. And how excited was I? Very! But the truth is, friends, from my balcony-vantage at least, that lucha libre is a teensy bit boring--just regular "wrestling," with predictable good guys-bad guys scenarios, laboriously-choreographed fight sequences and marginally-sillier costumes than the American breed. Really, the most interesting part was the crowd commentary--I doubt I'll ever hear such colorful variations on the word puta as long as I live, and the fat, shoeless man down the row from me who kept up a persistent chinga-tu-madre whistle throughout the show was the very model of obstinate, brainless raunch. Not even the female wrestlers were spared--in fact the heckling intensified during their segment. But, for all that, I'll probably be back next weekend.