Monday, December 28, 2009

On Morocco

A rather outrageous hour of the night/early morning, but I can't sleep and am thinking, for some reason, about Morocco. I visited Morocco in March of 2008 with my friend Dewayne; we tramped about the country for two and a half weeks or so, staying in $10 rooms or camping in municipal campgrounds, walking ourselves ragged and bickering more than I probably care to remember. Upon our return to the States I was tired and penniless, and fell rapidly into a deep depression. I never spent much time reflecting on my visit to Morocco, and I certainly never did much writing about it.

Which, I now realize, may be for the best. So much of the writing I've ever come across about Morocco has an exoticising, colonialist bent to it, sometimes subtle and sometimes not at all. I think of a particularly egregious example which I encountered the other day while flipping through the library's picture files on Morocco. "When we first saw the pale motleys of yellow sand and green meadow which marked the vague little coastline of Africa...I saw the white roofs of the little port of Tangiers sitting right there in the elbow of the land, on the water. This dream of white robed Africa on the blue afternoon Sea, wow, who dreamed it? Rimbaud! Magellan! Delacroix! Napoleon!"--this from Jack Kerouac's Desolation Angels. Never mind the astonishing clumsiness of the prose (what in the world is a pale motley?)--I find the idea that Morocco, a nation of millions with a long and vibrant history, is something merely "dreamed up" by white artists and colonialists patently offensive.

The germ of my own interest in Morocco originated, it's true, in the writing of the Beats, with whom I had a teenage literary fling. But I find that Beat Morocco has held up very poorly. Even Burroughs, who I still admire, remained seemingly oblivious and indifferent to Morocco's singular culture, despite having resided there for some four years. Preoccupied with drugs, boys and what would become Naked Lunch, he mostly hid in his squalid little hotel room, emerging only to score dope or haunt the English-speaking bars. When his son Billy Burroughs Jr.came to visit at the age of 16, he was not particularly enthralled by his father's pederastic bohemia--"a bunch of goddamn hashheads," Billy later described. Burroughs Sr.'s visiting friends would steal Billy's food, and proposition him sexually. "I was too young and found it difficult to get involved," he wrote of his time in Tangier. Burroughs senior responded, characterizing his son's dispassion thusly: "When I was sixteen years old, the idea of going to Tangier would have been the most romantic thing. I would have been entranced. Nirvana. I'd get to smoke hashish, see all these things"--ah, exotic Arabia!--"But he didn't seem to give a shit." He goes on, his tone increasingly hysterical, as if Billy had slept through the party to end all. "No enthusiasm whatsoever. I think it's typical of young people today. God, Tangier! Or even Paris!" Free from any real interaction with the country or its people, the Beats and their friends seemed to view Morocco primarily as a romantic scene-piece for their bohemian passion-plays.

One can't entirely blame them. A virtually lawless International Zone, Tangier would have been irresistible to the tortured American artistes of the 1950s--for outlandish pleasures, it certainly beat St. Louis, Missouri or Paterson, New Jersey. I don't know if times have changed or what; my three weeks in Morocco were intense and otherworldly, oftentimes beautiful, but not what I would probably describe as romantic. Beggar-children would swarm the cross-country buses, staring you sadly in the eyes until you forked over a few dirham. In a Casablanca food-stall we saw a 12 year-old kid get thrown to the ground and kicked in the ribs for trying to swipe an abandoned crust of bread. The slums, which stretched for miles, consisted of the most rudimentary sheds imaginable, but each seemed to possess a satellite dish--postmodern poverty that more baffled than enchanted.

My stepmother, who may or may not read this blog, has a particular fascination with Morocco. She's been able to visit the country only once, for a day, but has a whole library on it, featuring the complete works of Paul Bowles and similar tomes. I certainly don't fault her passion--as fantasies go, it's an entirely healthy one--but I wish that she could have another, lengthier visit, and get a sense of the place's complexities. The abstracted romanticizing of an impoverished country like Morocco makes me uncomfortable. I think of Crosby, Stills & Nash's insipid Marrakesh Express, or the running theme in Almost Famous, where California groupie Penny Lane is intent on escaping to Morocco, as if Morocco were one extended vacation. The country relies on tourist dollars, to be sure, but it's a far more complex place than all that. And yet, for all my three weeks spent backpacking around there, I was as much a white interloper as anyone else. I smoked my share of hash, and saw my share of sights. I even, mortified though I was, took photographs.

It's about to be a New Year, here in plain, midwestern Chicago. I may not post terribly often in January; I've resolved to take the month off drugs and alcohol, to exercise daily and try to shake the general indolence which has possessed me in these winter months--which means sitting in front of a computer screen as little as possible. I'll post the second part of my millenial retrospective when I get the chance; until then, a happy New Year to everyone, and best wishes for the human race!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

To the Rails!

Spent the evening watching Riding the Rails, a 2005 documentary about the quarter-million teenagers who took to freight trains in the Great Depression, the film's themes of hard times, hard work and hard traveling now reverberating into the night. There was a time in my teens--and beyond then, even--when what I longed for more than just about anything else was for another Great Depression to come along. Whether it was a book of Walker Evans photographs or the exuberant lilt in Jimmie Rogers' voice that did it, I developed almost a fetish for the Depression era. The people in the pictures had honest faces, even the poorest were so smartly dressed, and there always seemed to be at least a pot of beef stew boiling in the background. I found this peasant life infinitely more attractive than the hypercolor cyberdream which modern life had become.

My ignorance, in retrospect, seems striking. Not only my misreading of Depression-era struggle--the kids in Riding the Rails were perhaps, as they later recalled, hopping freights partly for the adventure of it, but quickly came to know real hunger, loneliness and suffering--but also my misconception of the modern age; times had changed, and economic hardship would not bestow noble virtue upon the nation any more than it would change out our ugly made-in-Taiwan sweatshirts for a rugged American tweed. This lesson did not really sink in until the fall of 2008, when the Economic Crisis came barreling along. Now that I have my very own modern-age Depression to observe--to say nothing of struggling through--I can begin to sense how profoundly different our world now is, and any pretensions as to the romanticism of economic collapse have been pretty well stripped away.

Suffice it to say, first of all, that teenagers are not flocking to the railyards en masse. I do have some friends who have worked as itinerant harvesters, working the beet harvest in Minnesota or the weed harvest in California, but these jobs were applied for months in advance, acquired through networking or good references. No, I think the modern work-for-food set has a different MO entirely, the down-on-their-luckers more likely to be found trolling the dregs of craigslist, working bizarre one-day gigs much more perplexing than picking peaches. I know because I'm one of them. To keep a roof above my head and food on the table, I sign up for "street teams," promoting shadow lobbyists or going to suburban shopping malls to pass out gift cards in the cold for $80 a day; I join market-research panels, evaluating products I'd never use; I hop aboard fly-by-night telemarketing operations, scamming money from clueless old people.

It's here that I've most recently landed, working a telephone bank deep in the bowels of the Harris Theater. On paper, I'm soliciting donations for a nonprofit arts organization, but in reality it's a shameless con game. To milk donations from the tightfisted theatergoers, we've concocted an utterly fantastical narrative, wherein the donations are spent bringing "disadvantaged children"--I can see them now, starving and sniveling in some cold back alley with nary a penny to their their names or a crumb to nibble on--to the theater for their very first encounter with High Art, that great ennobling feat of civilized man. "Aw shucks, mister, thanks for takin' me to that concert of baroque music," they squeak, a single tear of gratitude crawling down their grimy little cheeks. "I'm gonna get me a newspaper route, and work real hard, and save up some money to buy me a violin!" Our boss even referred to a theoretical patient at Children's Memorial Hospital--he's been in the cancer ward for almost a year, that brave li'l guy, and all he wants is to see a program of Steven Sondheim songs--as "Timmy"; I couldn't refrain from asking if this was the same Timmy who fell down the well last summer.

Qualitatively, if not quantitatively, my work feels on a par with the Great Depression farmers who, in an effort to keep prices stable, destroyed their crops while people starved. It's keeping the economy moving along, in a very superficial sense--money, at least, is changing hands--but more fundamentally it's futile, counterproductive; we lowly telemarketers are not providing any real service, we're certainly not bettering humankind, we're merely low cogs in the money-exchanging apparatus. There's one kid I work with that cracks me up endlessly. He's supposedly a guitar-playing college graduate from Kansas, but in his appearance and behavior he reminds me of nothing so much as the rail-riding wastrels of the 1930s. He stumbles in late, in dingy and wrinkled business-casual attire and proceeds to stare dumbly at the wall for the duration of our 4-hour shift, as if he were teleported here from a dust-bowl cotton patch and doesn't know the first thing to do with all these button-telephones and fancy papers. He goes out for a zillion cigarette breaks, sometimes disappearing for hours on end. The funniest thing is that no one seems to notice his long absences or comatose behavior, not even the boss whose desk is mere feet from his. The boss is struggling with serious medical problems, without the benefit of health insurance, and is busy being grateful that she has a job; she can hardly be bothered by the comings and goings of her ragtag minimum-wage-earners.

This is the Great Depression of 2009, not nearly as picturesque or maudlin as the dust bowl but just as poignant and pathetic, in its own way. The apparatus has changed greatly, but the spirit has perhaps not; at the end of the day, we're all just trying to keep food on the table. In the midst of a craigslist-fueled day-labor binge circa 2008, I noted in my journal that "the difference between moderism and postmodernism is the difference between working in an auto-parts factory and passing out samples for a yogurt company". As has become increasingly clear, the days of auto-parts factories are very much numbered; one can't help but wonder whether the world of yogurt promotions faces eventual extinction as well--discontinued, as the population explodes and real human issues bubble to the surface, in favor of more vital and pressing business. Should the apparatus fail completely, as it often seems liable to, I'm more than ready to grab a shovel and start digging in the dirt, performing actual labor in an unfabricated landscape. If this is what economic collapse ultimately leads to, then I still, as I did a decade ago, embrace it.

One last thought on the subject. Watching the film I was struck by one thing that hasn't changed considerably, and that's the trains themselves. Crisscrossing the country in greater numbers than ever, freight trains offer the same thrills, perils and outlaw adventures as in our grandparents' days; the same cold nights, the same majestic vistas, the same hunger and thirst and sense of grandeur. If teenagers haven't flocked to the railyards en masse, it's to their own detriment. I'd hate to see a whole generation of good young people go to waste, chained in dark rooms to their telemarketing jobs, or browsing craigslist for a buck. There's still a whole world out there, begging for fresh eyes and a sense of adventure. To the rails, young people!

Friday, December 11, 2009

21st Street Gazette

Ah, winter has descended on 21st Street. In great, gusty gales the sloppy, slushy snow sweeps down upon us, enveloping one and all its icy embrace. Through the cruel tundra you spy a lone, hooded figure trudging desperately ahead--it's me, heading to the liqour store for my nightly ration of strong spirits. The street is otherwise deserted; everyone is in hiding, cowering in their warm little nests, growing thick layers of fat that that will protect them from the cold.

But that does not mean all is stagnant on proud 21st Street. No, even in the deadest of winter my street is a hotbed of commerce and activity. The Textile Discount Outlet, for instance, which dominates the south side of the block, has seen bustling business:
And it's no surprise--in these cold times, people need all the textiles they can get. They wrap themselves in veritable mountains of textiles. The Textile Discount Outlet is a treasured specimen of Old Chicago, now considered a highly endangered species. Everyone who works there has an accent of some kind, be it Maxwell Street Jewish, Bridgeport Irish or inexplicably French, and there’s virtually nothing in the building in the way of modern technology—just vast canyons of rolled-up satin and chiffon. It’s run in much the way our great-grandfathers might have run a fabric warehouse. My roommate April tried to apply for a job there—when she told them she lived across the street the boss asked in his ancient Southside accent, sniffing an air of modernity about her, What, you live in the commune?
Speaking of ancient, I came across this photograph recently, perched atop the soda cooler at El Valle liquors:
This is the corner of 21st and Leavitt, some time in the first half of the 1900s, and I’m delighted to note that there’s a streetcar line running right down 21st Street. This was the first I’d ever heard of it, and some cursory internet research has yielded nothing to back it up, but here is solid photographic evidence. The idea of a streetcar running down my block is indescribably appealing. In summer months I’d hop aboard, clutching my sweaty 5 cent fare, and ride on out to the Secret Beach! The photograph also illustrates that under the pothole-addled asphalt of 21st Street there lies a charming expanse of cobblestone. Calling all neighbors! Let’s rip up 21st Street and restore it to its former glory!
In other news, more white people continue to flock to 21st Street. Though the white mecca at 21st and Damen, the bizarre and overpriced Café Aorta, went out of business several months ago, a new venture at 21st and Western promises to accommodate Caucasian tastes—the soon-to-open Casa Café nods to the area Latinos in its offerings of tamales and guisados, but displays its true colors in advertising 100% natural juices. I’m no longer surprised when a white acquaintance tells me they’re moving to 21st Street. Just these last few weeks we’ve seen a flurry of white activity on my block. A seemingly wealthy but well-intentioned young white woman is now living at the corner of 21st and Hoyne, and has offered up her swank storefront home—the “Turning Fork Supper Club”— as a venue for the occasional film screening or acoustic show. One can’t fault her for her impeccable taste and generosity—she serves concertgoers hors d’ouvres of sage-toasted almonds, and complimentary mulled wine—but one can wonder how many hungry immigrants might comfortably live in her palatial abode.
In a similar vein, I offer this building:
Which is located several addresses to the west of me. It’s more compelling than it might appear from the outside. I spent several years scratching my head over this building. Taped to the front doors I’d see flyers for upcoming events—healing drum circles, and esoteric potlucks. Foolishly, I never pursued the matter—I lazily wrote the residents off as pseudo-spiritualists, New Age twats with whom I’d rather not associate. It turns out—and I should have known this all along—that the building was the home of the Chicago Cannabis Growers Association. That a world-class weed farm had taken root mere steps from my home without my ever knowing it is utterly astonishing to me. The years I’ve wasted!
The landlord, apparently, didn’t “agree with what they were doing” and eventually gave the cannabis crew the boot. In a bidding war which included my former house- and bandmates in Cool Memories, the right to rent this zillion square-foot palace for a paltry $1400/month fell to a redheaded art-school student named Miranda. She recently gave me a tour of the building, and it filled me with seething jealousy: three spacious floors full of architectural oddities, rooftop access, a master bedroom with video-equipped intercom and a sprawling backyard—the sort of building where one could have thunderous rock shows, host a cinematheque, hold séances, create a vast lending library, building a roller-skating rink, live in the lap of luxury and do just about anything short of growing cannabis. Miranda and her roommates don’t seem to have any such grand ideas. When pressed about her plans for the space, she offered, vaguely, that she hoped to do some “art stuff” on the ground floor. Indeed, if the gringos have their way, west Pilsen will soon be a regular Soho, a year-round art opening crowded with weird young women and sallow boys, their storefronts-cum-galleries featuring the latest in inscrutable fabric art—the Textile Discount Outlet, at least, will thrive, and there will be free wine on Fridays.
Signs of the times:
The venerable junk shop across from El Valle seems to have finally closed, after interminable months of dire “Going Out of Business” warnings. In was as if the junk shop operated in some alternate temporal reality, where time passed as slow as molasses. Their going out of business sale reached a comedic climax this November, when they put up a big sign proclaiming Final Days: 14 Days Left, Everything $1.00. There were 14 days left for about three weeks—then, suddenly, there were only 10 days left. Then, eventually the sale price dropped to 25 cents. Monday is the Last Day!, the sign read:
It’s been a very dramatic coda for a store which seemed to stock nothing besides soiled lampshades, board games no one would ever want to play, and a box full of sticky old pornographic magazines. Besides my fluorescent crocheted blanket, the only thing I ever wanted to buy from S.Z. Sales was a strobe light, which they refused to sell me—an odd echo of a short story I wrote years ago.
Much as junk shops may give way to art galleries, though, 21st Street is still a hardscrabble enough place. “Shade” reminded me of this when he wrote his name on our front door the other day:
I was a little flattered, actually—I took it as a cheeky way of saying hello to the neighbors. I don’t much know my neighbors here on 21st Street, even after three years of residence. There’s Norberto and his wife, and their spectacularly alcoholic son Junior; there’s Nidia, whose son Ray committed suicide this fall; there’s Waldo, the chubby boy down the block, and the family that runs Late Liquors, where they charge something like a 25% sales tax. I can’t pretend that the dynamic between Latinos and whites in Pilsen is much more than an uneasy peace. The culture gap sometimes seems more like a chasm.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Escape from the Aughts, pt. 1

The first, tense decade of our new millennium is coming to a rapid close, and in weeks to come the media landscape is sure to be crowded with Top 10 lists and authoritative retrospectives. Time Magazine has already jumped into the ring with its cover story on the “Decade from Hell”, proclaiming the era that never even earned a proper name (the Aughts is charmingly old-fashioned, but never quite caught on) our most demoralizing to date. I’ll refrain from such sweeping proclamations, but thought I’d offer my own humble, early-entry retrospective—2000-2009 as I experienced it. It’s a wonder I’m still alive, I’ll say that much!

As an exercise in autobiography, this will be necessarily self-indulgent; you’ll either bear with me or you won’t, I don’t have much say in the matter. That said, there may be some commonalities to be found herein. Though not all of us spent the early 2000s getting drunk and wandering the streets as I did, I imagine most of us at least felt pangs of rootlessness and alienation. Whether or not we’ve learned anything along the way is very much open to debate. I’m posting the first, lengthy installment now, and will follow up shortly with the second part of the decade. May the ‘teens bring peace and prosperity to us all!


I don’t exactly remember ringing in the new millennium—it may well have been the New Year’s Eve that I passed out on the floor of the subway, and awoke to a parade of snarling commuters. The trains were running; the mainframe had not crashed, life on Earth would proceed.

I was a 20 year-old miscreant. Having dropped out of college, I basked in prolonged adolescence. I looked, and dressed, like a teen extra from Over the Edge—jean jackets, headbands, a single fingerless glove. My friend Peter and I would bring snowballs to the roof of the downtown Evanston parking garage, in the middle of summer, and throw them at the shoppers below; not that we were exactly carefree, but the burdens of adult life had not yet begun to pile up so mercilessly. I made a fake college ID, and found a liquor store in Rogers Park that would sell to me, endless bottles of Cisco and Boone’s Farm, the sweetness of which I can still taste on my lips.

I moved into my first real apartment, a two-bedroom roach motel a half-block from the lake which I shared with as many as five roommates—we imagined it to be a punkhouse, filling it with stolen and dumpstered loot, adopting a pet raccoon, smoking pot and leaving a trail of garbage in our wake. I was hopelessly sentimental, having already read too many books, and many ends of many nights found me crying on the back porch, crying over the overwhelming sadness and tenderness of it all, crying sweet tears the flavor of Boone’s Farm.

Meanwhile, world affairs were beginning to really heat up. It was an election year, if you’ll recall, the first time I’d vote. It was neck-and-neck between a God-fearing Texas cowboy and a stoic, Harvard-bred environmentalist –but wait, what’s this! Out of left field came a starry-eyed dreamer named Ralph Nader, who was lean and hungry and anti-corporation; I attended his rally at the UIC Pavilion, where Michael Moore spoke, and Eddie Vedder sang, and Studs Terkel received a standing ovation when he hobbled out onto the stage and began: “I’m 88 years old, and I still take the bus.” I was one of Nader’s proud 2.74 percent.

My friends and I made the front page of the Tribune for our repeated vandalism of the soon-to-open neighborhood Starbucks—there was a significant cash reward on our heads. I was terribly proud, though chagrined that the article didn’t detail our impassioned exploits—I’d gone so far as to shit in a paper bag, which I lobbed through the shattered plate-glass door.

Ah, but the world was young. I was frequently miserable, as youth are wont to be. I had my first real love affair. I worked for two whole months at the White Hen pantry, where, while working the meat slicer one morning, a piece of roast beef landed in my eye. I somehow felt I was meant for greater things.


Beware, the terrible pride and conceit of a 21 year-old punk brat! Not that I was the most insufferable 21 year-old ever to walk the earth, but with what inflated self-importance I comported myself! My drinking jags came to seem heroic, my every artistic and literary effort a triumph of spirit—I felt, in short, like hot shit. My friend Gen and I were presumptuous enough to publish a “book”, entitled Muckbound—an incoherent pile of punked-out pontificating literally held together by duct tape. We bought a $500 minivan, decorated it somewhat inexplicably with stencils of the late symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, and took off on a “book tour” up and down the eastern seaboard. Between spare-changing for beer in New York, washing windows for gas money in South Carolina and eating several consecutive soup-kitchen Thanksgiving dinners in Savannah, Georgia, the tour was an extended exercise in desperation—we didn’t, needless to say, sell very many books.

But looming largest over 2001 were the violent explosions of September 11, which would refuse to stop reverberating for years and years to come. Naïve contrarian that I was, I failed to comprehend either the human scope of the attacks or the further atrocities which were sure to follow in the wake of that momentous morning; instead I felt a sort of childish glee that at least something was happening— that my countrymen, shaken to the core, might finally rise from their consumerist stupor and do something interesting for once; that it might serve as a sort of national coming of age, a chance to put aside our adolescent playthings and find true peace, love and understanding, or whatever—actually, I haven’t the faintest idea what was going through my head, but I did sense that public life in America would never be the same, for better or worse. I remember listening to Bush’s address on the night of September 11—it came on as I was shopping at the Mexican grocery near my house, and I wandered the aisles in a daze, my shopping cart empty.


As the world plunged once again into a state of perpetual warfare, I hunkered down in my room and recorded my first album, Refusing to Get Dressed, a gushing collection of maudlin country-folk songs, my youthful torments laid bare in the proto-emo style of Bright Eyes or the Mountain Goats—embarrassing stuff, in retrospect, but a fellow has to pass his time somehow, and getting a job was certainly not an option.

Like many friends I’ve had before and since, I was quick to blame the city for my own crushing malaise, stone and steel being poor housing for a human soul; I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, a town about which I knew nothing but which I liked the sound of. My first night in town, Thanksgiving again, I drank wine coolers and passed out reading the Bible in a dingy motel room, which pretty much set the tenor for my next few weeks. It was my time in the wilderness, my belated walkabout. Renting a two-room apartment on Iron Street, I furnished it in monkish, bohemian fashion, using my oversized suitcase as a writing table and reading by candlelight until the electricity was finally turned on. I picked up a graveyard shift at the cafeteria-style Frontier Restaurant, where, ill-slept and monstrously lonely, I searched desperately for redemption; I’d stumble home at dawn, clutching a six-pack of malt liquor, and work on my epic poem, The Order of the Paper Hats, in which teenage fast-food employees poured down from the hills and waged a holy war against modern life.


Restless, I moved on to San Francisco, settling into my friend’s makeshift room in the back of a punk record store. My tenure there was eye-opening; the punks I’d known thus far had been mere hobbyists, but the Mission Records punks were grizzled lifers. I was borderline homeless, spending nights in the park when I couldn’t get into the record store. I spent my days at a drop-in art center called Hospitality House, where, surrounded by the actual homeless, I churned out little watercolor paintings of professional boxers and fast-food employees; these I’d sell on the street, for ten or five or two dollars, whatever I could get my hands on, enough for dinner and some drinks, or drugs. I wandered the streets looking and feeling increasingly ragged, blowing endlessly on a crappy harmonica, slipping down some sort of rabbit hole.

I joined an ad-hoc group called Punks Against War, one of the few political organizations ever to hold its planning meetings at a 24-hour donut shop. Iraq had not yet officially begun, but despite the massive anti-war marches (some 200,000 people in San Francisco alone) it was looking more and more inevitable, and PAW began focusing on what to do not if but when the invasion began—we’d occupy a three-story abandoned building on a prominent stretch of Market Street, turning it into a sort of war resisters’ clubhouse, a little island of autonomy in the swelling ocean of repression and violence. In the days leading up to the invasion, the action of the streets grew increasingly gnarly—you’d see riot cops on horseback, swinging their batons around like fascist cowherds. On March 18, I skipped town with some friends heading to Chicago; on March 19 I listened helplessly to the radio from a truckstop in Nebraska as the war orders came down, and on March 20 I was back home. That night, 20,000 Chicagoans swarmed Lake Shore Drive in protest. I escaped just before the mass arrests began. It was my little sister’s birthday. She was turning 13.

Emboldened by my pseudo-homeless stint in San Francisco, I took up residence under a bridge. It was not nearly as grim as you might think; the Bridgehouse, as it was known, had several thousand square feet of space, electricity and unique views of the Chicago River. A bridge control building in decades past, it had long been a secret hideout for graffiti artists and teenage punks, but was virtually inaccessible to unwanted intruders—to gain entry, one had to slide down a hill, tiptoe precariously around a barbed-wire fence and scramble up a series of steel girders. Outfitting the little loft area with blankets, books, a writing desk and a radio, I lived a lonely but rent-free life, eating out of the grocery store dumpster and enacting bizarre rituals in the Bridgehouse’s main room when the boredom grew overwhelming. I even managed to find employment, working the concession stand at Lakeview’s 1920s movie palace, the Music Box Theater. As autumn progressed and the Bridgehouse grew cold, I’d return home from work and roll myself up in an old oriental carpet, drinking wine to stay warm until sleep came.


Were the bombs really still falling? Or had we moved on already to the next stage of the War, the looting and pillaging, the pitting of brother against brother? And had election season already come again so soon? And who was this John Kerry? He reminded me, in both his appearance and his mannerisms, of a spent cigar-butt. The protesting had slowed to a trickle, I know that much—even as the war escalated, as the Fallujahs and Abu Ghraibs stubbornly multiplied. People could hardly be expected to spend all their time marching in the street, after all.

As for me, I persisted in my bohemian ways, into my 24th year. I went traveling again, to Santa Cruz, to Portland. In Portland I set up residence in an old, abandoned passenger-train car, out in the industrial flats. I bought some emergency lamps, and tacked up a poster of the Milky Way—now this was swank living, and when night came there was no one around to bother me at all. Coyotes would howl, but they didn’t seem to mean any harm. Yes, but the solitude was crushing. I spent my afternoons at Powell’s Bookstore, trying in vain to decipher the texts of Guy Debord and his Situationist coterie, and my nights scanning the AM radio for signs of life. They seemed few and far between.

Back in Chicago, I reclaimed the Bridgehouse, moving in along with several friends. We were a real bunch of cave-rats—catacomb-dwellers—emerging, blinking, into the bright sun only when we needed food, or strong drink. This lasted for several glorious weeks until the Bridgehouse was raided by bridge authorities. We moped around the city looking for places to sleep, followed everywhere by swarms of angry mosquitoes. Matt and I moved, for a time, into our artist friend Paul’s studio above an abandoned Bollywood movie theater in Rogers Park. The building’s management had an office on the ground floor—how they managed to ignore the mayhem transpiring above them is beyond me. Bands played night and day; there was a pirate radio station running out of the unused projection room; we befriended an illegal immigrant named Ernesto who was squatting a broom-closet down the hall, and the three of us would spend balmy evenings out on the fire escape, smoking pot and keeping tabs on the thriving prostitution ring which operated on the opposite corner. We slept in a storage room, or on the roof.

I had perpetual ants in my pants, in those days, so soon I was off to Manassas, Virginia, where my friends Becky and Andrew lived in an old log cabin overlooking a pristine little lake. How carefree we were! Mornings I slipped into the water, scrubbing off the city grime that had long been caking on my skin. Afternoons we spent painting, or reading, or napping on the veranda, and when night fell we drank and caroused. Andrew and I decided one day we’d embark on a canoe trip to the ocean. Following Lake Jackson down to the Occoquan River, past Bull Run to the Potomac and out to the Chesapeake Bay, we’d get to the ocean within days—and who knew, maybe we’d press on to France. Loading up the boat with cigarettes and booze and flashlights, we felt like true pioneers, the whole lush expanse of the Chesapeake watershed ours for the taking.

We never, in truth, made it to the ocean; a long portage around the Occoquan dam delayed us significantly, as did a three-day rest on the long-abandoned Chopawamsic Island, where in 1896 would-be aviator Samuel Langley conducted his first nearly-successful manned flights, and which John Lennon purportedly considered purchasing for his home:
What lovely, dog-day adventuring! As far as I was concerned, the rest of the world could just as well rot away, content as I was in that little boat.

At length it was time to return again to Chicago, that broad-shouldered beast of a city which I could never quite escape. Try as I might, I couldn’t just canoe off the edge of the world—I had family and friends waiting for me, and debts and obligations. The millennium’s virgin decade was nearing its halfway mark—what fresh perils and daring escapades lay ahead? Tune in for tomorrow's installment!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The 2012 Doctrine

Just got back from the movies, where Yony and I took advantage of $6 Tuesday night tickets to watch 2012, the latest end-days fantasy from CGI king Roland Emmerich. Having already brought the human race to the verge of extinction via monsters (Godzilla), alien invasion (Independence Day) and environmental disaster (The Day After Tomorrow), Emmerich was a natural to helm this expensive 158-minute epic, very loosely based on supposed ancient Mayan prophecy. The film--in which a giant sun-flare causes the earth's crust to destabilize, leading to the sweeping destruction of everything and everyone on earth except for John Cusack and a few thousand rich people--was, Yony said, the worst he'd seen in years.

Two and a half hours of watching John Cusack scramble to save his family from digital animation did, it's true, become rather tedious; even Cusack looked downright bored. And even the relentless disaster-porn grew wearisome--it's great fun watching, say, the city of Pasadena get wiped off the map, but by the time the Washington Monument topples to the ground one's patience for explosions and fireballs is exhausted. But the movie did resonate, for me, on some deeper level, one which I couldn't quite put my finger on until I was on my way home.

It had to do, I realized, with the book I've been reading, Naomi Klein's excellent Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Released in 2007, the book traces the origins and ascent of Milton Friedman's "C
hicago School" of economics. Developed at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, the Chicago School calls for a sort of pure capitalism, in which the free market reigns and government is reduced to a minor, clerical role--a radical transformation accomplished through unfettered trade, sweeping privatization of public assets, and the gutting of social services. The implementation of these radical policies in countries around the world, Klein argues, has required tumultuous upheaval--whether in the form of economic crises, military coups or natural disasters--the resulting shock and confusion creating a sort of blank canvas on which to build the Friedmanite hyper-capitalist utopia.
This "shock doctrine", akin to the shock-induced blanking of psychiatric patients popular in the mid-1900s, was first applied, Klein says, in 1970s Chile, when General Pinochet led a US-backed, Chicago School-bred military junta in overthrowing the democratic governent of Salvador Allende. Pinochet's regime relied heavily on torture and intimidation to enforce their highly unpopular economic policies of mass privatization and welfare-slashing, which created a bonanza for an upper-class minority but left the poor majority very much in the dust. Bolstered by their "success" in Chile, the Chicago Schoolers went on to establish similarly violent free-market economies in much of South America.
Later, working from high-level posts in the World Bank and the IMF, the Friedmanites would exploit the chaotic collapse of socialism (Poland, Russia), the 1997 economic crisis in Southeast Asia and other violent upheavals throughout the world to push through their free-market agenda. In recent years, the shock doctrine has been employed in many guises: the trauma of September 11, which allowed the Bush administration to quietly privatize and outsource huge swaths of the military complex under the guise of "Homeland Security"; the appropratiely-named Shock-and-Awe campaigns at the outset of the Iraq War, which sought to stun the Iraqis into free-market compliance, and which provided enormously lucrative contracts to companies like Halliburton and Blackwater, hired to remake Iraq along Chicago School principles; the devastation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, which led to privatized rebuilding efforts and the widespread closures of schools, hospitals and public housing; and numerous other examples, the sum of which Klein labels the "Disaster Capitalism Complex." It is a system designed to profit from human suffering, and doesn't make for very cheerful reading.
Without drawing any overwrought analogies, 2012 was fascinating to watch because it illustrated, I think, the logical conclusion of Klein's Shock Doctrine. As the earth's crust begins to destabilize, foreboding massive earthquakes, enormous tidal waves and global flooding, the world's leaders embark on a secret plan to build a fleet of huge high-tech arks, high in the Himalayas, which will carry some 400,000 of the world's elite to safety. With seats on the arks selling for 1 billion euros apiece, the future of the human race is largely comprised of oil barons, corrput politicians and cartoonishly evil Russian oligarchs; John Cusack's middle-class family is able to sneak onto the ships only through grit, luck and awesome special effects.
The film is surprisingly honest, and suprisingly political, in its assessment of the current scene. Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning black president, his fair-minded science advisor and the Dalai Lama--all of whom are washed away--in the end, it's the greed of private industry which prevails. "Without billions of dollars from the private sector, this whole project would never have been built," explains sinister White House Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser in the film's finale, explaining why survival is the priviledge of the wealthy and well-connected. Weeks after the cataclysm, as the arks drift upon a boundless ocean, the ship's decks are opened and the passengers get a first glimpse at their brave new world--brilliant sunlight and a vast expanse of nothingness, the ultimate blank canvas on which these free-market pilgrims will remake human civilization. There may not be much to the film's pseudo-scientific bastardizing of Mayan prophesy, but as a political signpost I found it wildly successful, a perfect counterpart to Klein's chilling book. Watch and be warned!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

When good trips go bad

It's a bit late in the year for psychedelic carousing, but we had a bag of mushrooms and the November day was a mild one. So after consulting some maps and deciding which patch of nature to revel in--I voted for the lush grounds of Fermilab, but my companions somehow didn't like the idea of tripping adjacent to the world's largest particle accelerator--Yony, Dewayne and I got on the Metra train and headed for the Morton Arboretum, in suburban Lisle. Ah, the Arboretum! Such an evocative name! I could picture it already: mynah birds gliding through the mangroves, the air thick with enchanted puffballs, a family of woodland sprites bathing in the reflecting pool, and in the center of the park some sort of stately pleasure-dome.

Dewayne and Yony were already tripping by the time we got on the train; my transformation would not begin for another half-hour hour or so. On arriving in Lisle, I proclaimed myself Chief of the expedition, being at present the soundest of mind and steadiest on my feet. It was a bit of a hike to the Arboretum, longer than we expected--the mangroves must not be far now, but what was with all these strip-malls and gas stations, these superhighway overpasses? At length we spotted a swath of wilderness; it must be the Arboretum, we concluded, though I privately felt the place looked somewhat dumpy--just a bunch of trees, and they didn't even have any leaves on them!

We entered through some sort of back gate--the "servant's entrance", Dewayne joked. Well, this was not so bad after all. The roar of the highway quickly receding, we found ourselves in a dense and silent wood. I've always found a leafless forest rather depressing, but everything was now painted with psilocybin's magic brush, and the trees swayed with melancholy tenderness. We walked for some time, and came across a little meadow, where the last rays of afternoon sun were spilling across pillows of tall grass. Though I didn't see any pleasure dome, it seemed a pretty enough spot to rest, meditate, smoke some weed.

In one part of the meadow, the earth was a blanket of charred, tangled grasses, the result of some sort of controlled burn. It had an eerie, postapocalyptic beauty, and I took out my camera and began shooting away. Yony and Dewayne were on the other side of the meadow, reclining in a sunny thicket of grass, looking much like wild beasts at rest, and I began shooting them as well, fancying myself a celebrated nature photographer, on assignment in some African savannah.

You've taken mushrooms, no? They're a splendid drug--not so much wrapping the world in gauze, as pot or opiates do, as providing sweet, transcendent clarity. The psychedelic vision is rarely delusion at all; it is truth amplified. The trees and grasses seem miraculously alive and breathing--as indeed they actually are. At length, each of arose and wandered off according to his own whims; Yony took off running, I sat by a brook and contemplated Eternity, and Dewayne sat on a log examining fallen leaves:Poke fun all you want at the drug-taker's childish stupor, but there is in fact great beauty in a fallen leaf, and each one is so utterly unique.

Soon it was twilight, and we began to head in the presumed direction of an exit. The underbrush had quite recently been burned--some of it was still smoking!--but it had been burned with great precision, and a winding border demarcated the burn zone. We followed the smell of fire until we came across the firemen themselves, dressed in bright haz-mat suits, resting by the side of the road. Sadly, they could offer only dry, technical answers to our fevered questions about the burns and how they worked; there was little for the metaphorically-inclined mushroom-eater to walk away with.

Further down the trail, we came across a banner reading, Animal Houses: A Whimsical Adventure! A Wild, Woodland Romp! Not the types to pass up a whimsical romp, we excitedly followed the signs to what was ultimately a glorified playground, where kindergartners were goofing around in oversize squirrel dreys and fallen logs. One of the animal houses did capture our collective fancy--an artfully-constructed, 20-foot raccoon den:
But the sun was now truly setting, the air growing chilly, the mushrooms beginning to wear off, and it was time for us to head home.

A short ways on, we encountered a woman standing by the side of the road, next to her car. She was short and plump, draped rather gothically in expensive black scarves, and was, as we approached, visibly upset. "Have you seen boy about this big?," she implored us, in a thick Slavic accent. We had not. "My boy, my eight year-old son, he is autistic," she explained. "He does not talk. He wandered into the woods, I don't know, somehow, and I cannot find him." Our trip was taking a sudden, heavy turn, but we kept our heads cool. Yony offered to call the rangers. "I already tell somebody, they are looking for him," she protested.

We offered to go off looking for the boy ourselves, and she pointed us in the general direction of his disappearance. There seemed to be little we could accomplish--it was late-dusk and we had no flashlight--but what choice did we have? An autistic child was lost in the woods, probably scared to death. "There's something fishy about all of this," Yony interjected. The woman's story, it was true, did not quite add up; how could she have let her autistic son just wander away? Why did she bring him to the woods at dusk in the first place? Why was she dressed like a Bulgarian noblewoman in mourning? And why was she so relatively nonchalant, when most other mothers would have been screaming and wailing? "I think she murdered him," Yony speculated, his imagination racing.

We gave up our aimless wandering and returned to the woman, who was now busy speaking with a ranger on a truck. A police car had arrived, the sure signal for users and possessors of drugs to beat a quiet retreat. So we headed once again for the exit, a mile or two down the road, walking in the dark and cracking jokes to dispel the creeping horror which the boy's disappearance had invoked. The child's position, were he in fact lost in the woods, was bad enough, but we ourselves were in a bit of a pretty pickle; as we neared the exit, more police cars and sheriff's vehicles were streaming in, searchlights blaring, and three unwashed young hoodlums walking down the side of the road, disoriented and with heads full of drugs, seemed sure to arouse suspicion. "This," Dewayne commented ominously, "Is like a bad novel."

It got worse. The entrance/exit was a brightly-lit archway; beyond this was a four-lane highway with no sidewalk or shoulder to walk on. We had no idea how to get back to the train station, and no means to get there if we did. Panic began to set in; a helicopter had arrived. Needless to say, this was precisely the sort of situation that the psilocybin-user wants to avoid--stranded and lost in a suburban forest preserve, surrounded by police helicopters and fully-armed paramilitary personnel. They'd drag us into the station; FBI agents would arrive within hours, demanding to know where we'd hid the boy's body. Our guilt would be assumed. We'd be tried in a kangaroo court, and sentenced to death by hanging. I tried, in vain, to get Yony to at least ditch his remaining drugs.

It was Dewayne's brilliant idea to call a taxi. I have never in my life called a taxi--the idea is utterly foreign to me. But after a quick call, we were told our salvation would be arriving in about 20 minutes. If we could fend off the slavering dogs of the Law for 20 minutes, we'd be whisked off to safety. These would prove to be 20 of the longest minutes of our young lives. Each passing sheriff stared us down with the eye of death. Yony scrambled into the bushes to bury his mushroom residue. I called my dear friend John Bellows, to get some sober advice and hear a reassuring voice. "I don't want to freak you out," I began. "But we're in a bit of a weird situation. We took some mushrooms today, and..."

Our taxi arrived, and its trunk was searched by the police. Satisfied that it contained no bound-and-gagged autistic child, we were free to climb in and make our escape. What an overwhelming feeling of relief and liberation! Back in Lisle, we dropped into some shitty bar-and-grill for a sorely-needed beer. Word of the fiasco over at the arboretum had not yet spread to Main Street. Drinks were on special for $1.50 apiece, and our train back to the city would be arriving in half an hour. We took a collective deep breath.

The missing child didn't make it onto the 10 o'clock news, nor was he in this morning's paper. At this point we can only hope and speculate--perhaps he was merely playing hide-and-go-seek in the raccoon den, and enjoyed a tearful reunion with his family. As for me, the next time I take hallucinogenic drugs, I'll do so in the cozy pastures of my own backyard, which offers its own sort of mystical pleasures.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

They win again

I've done, in my time, some pretty embarrassing and morally-questionable things for a fistful of dollars, from donating plasma to selling stolen books, from being a chewing gum tester for the Wrigley company to posing as a fortune teller. Many of the stranger or more unsavory rackets I've pulled have come from craigslist, that rowdy town square of the online world, and it was here that I came across a posting offering an enticing $150 to participate in a one-day marketing campaign. The marketers, a New York agency called GoGorilla, were recruiting a fun and outgoing street-team--not exactly my usual self-referents, but I could pretend for a day--to fan out across downtown Chicago, costumed as "homeless" Uncle Sams, and "beg" for 12 trillion dollars to pay off the national debt. GoGorilla's client, a website called, was launching this promotion in several cities to spread its message and gain publicity.

The whole thing reeked, right off the bat, of
Teaparty Patriot-style right-wing propaganda, but it didn't seem any more offensive than dressing up as a chicken, say, and passing out menus. And I very much needed the money; your blogger's finances are paltry at best. So I sent along a photograph and a little biographical resume, and promptly received a call back from the marketing agency; as a sentient being capable of holding a cardboard sign for several hours straight, I apparently met their qualifications--though I suspect they could have found far more experienced panhandlers without great effort. There are a lot of guys hanging out near the public library that could really use the $150.

The job entailed arriving at a Gold Coast hotel at the profane hour of 5:30 am to dress up and get some coaching. There was already a group of guys huddled outside the hotel when I arrived, drinking coffee and smoking. They more-or-less resembled any
pre-dawn crew of day laborers, though better-dressed and more Caucasian; this was day labor for the nouveau-poor, guys that went to college but still can't pay the rent.

We made our way up to a 4
th floor conference room, the sort of bleakly-lit room where one hopes in vain to find at least a box of donuts awaiting. Here we met our "team leaders" from Unreasonably chipper, they glowed with the grotesque health and optimism of Young Republicans. The Defeat the Debt campaign, one of these twats proceeded to explain, was actually a non-partisan and fairly uncontroversial one, a public awareness project run by a group called the Employment Policies Institute, which he memorably described as a "sleepy little thinktank in Washington"--y'know, your old fashioned, mom-n-pop type thinktank, where everybody knows your name.

Having done a bit of research the evening prior, I knew this to be fallacy. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, the
EPI is a front group for Washington, DC public affairs firm Berman & Company, which is largely funded by the fast-food and tobacco industries and which lobbies against the minimum wage and organized labor. In short, enemies of humankind. While the political logic behind their Defeat the Debt campaign was beyond the scope of my layman's understanding, I knew that coming from these scumbags it couldn't be good. Still, we were assured, we didn't need to actually know anything about the national debt--"Just tell people to go to," our leader advised. "Oh, and don't talk to reporters."

That said, we were ready to get suited up. As Uncle Sam costumes go, these were good-quality--our blue coats had actual tails, and we were outfitted with both beards
and sideburns--but the costumes had been meticulously distressed according to some intern's idea of homelessness: painted-on grease marks, fingerless gloves. The money expended on our homeless costumes would have gone a long way, needless to say, toward clothing some actual homeless people. No matter, we were on our way.

Any location would have been mortifying in its own way, but my post was an especially gnarly one--I'd be spending the next four hours standing, with my cardboard sign reading
Spent it All--Can You Spare $12 Trillion?, outside of the Chicago Board of Trade, the financial district's heart of darkness. Though it was only 7:00, the parade of commuters was already in full swing. Cranky and bleary-eyed, the throngs of day-traders paid me little notice beyond the occasional smirk or sneer--although, a few clueless passers-by offered me their spare change, and several people told me, mistakenly, that they'd seen my picture in this morning's Red Eye (Defeat the Debt had taken out a full-page ad). I'd done some seedy gigs in the past, but I'd certainly never been mistaken for someone in the Red Eye--surely this was a new low.

But as the morning wore on, and the day-traders wandered out for their cigarette breaks, several of them insisted on engaging me in conversations on economic policy. The mood in the financial district was decidedly bitter on this grey and windy morning, and the sight of a panhandling Uncle Sam can't have helped. "You know what you
do?," one particularly feisty trader suggested, pointing to the grand edifice across the street. "Burn down the Federal Reserve Bank." I laughed nervously.

The guys panhandling outside of McDonald's weren't very amused, though. I was obviously infringing on their turf--and mocking their predicament, no less! There was a certain bitter irony in the fact that I was being paid $150 to fake-panhandle, while the real panhandlers just down the block were struggling to get enough for a cheeseburger, or a bottle of Night Train. They were gracious enough, to their credit, to not whoop my ass.

But most pathetic of all is that the whole campaign seemed not only stupid and wrongheaded, it also seemed to be a dismal failure. The organizers made it seem as if we'd be mobbed by reporters and television cameras, as if this troupe of fake Uncle Sams would make some sort of tremendous splash downtown, but in fact people were downright apathetic. There was a basic miscalculation at work in the offices of the Employment Policies Institute. Hiring a large, New York marketing firm to subcontract out a shitty, sad-looking street-team for four hours on a Tuesday morning is not novel or newsworthy. People, in fact, have grown quite bored with marketing agencies and their shitty spectacles. For all it will affect economic policy, we may have been passing out sample-packs of breath mints.

On the other hand, the $150 is very significant, on a micro-economic scale. I'll pump that money straight back into the economy, even throwing a few bones to the very tobacco companies which are bankrolling this whole project in the first place. They win again!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Free Doom

My official function here is not music critic, but I'd like to try on the mantle for an evening, and tell you about the unequivocal Album of 2009: the new 9-song record from onetime Chicagoan Spencer Kingman, on loan from my upstairs neighbor, John Bellows.

Full disclosure, I'm a rabid partisan. John gave me Spencer's first album several years ago. I'd met Spencer in a kitchen once, when he lived in Chicago, and we had a conversation I barely remembered, about the desert. I listened to the album while painting a mural in my bedroom, in a dilapidated Wicker Park two-flat, and it had this alarming effect: on my first lazy listen, it was effete folky garbage, not at all the wild stuff I generally preferred, but on second listen a radiant otherworldliness began to emerge, and I was completely mesmerized. Singing in an angelic surfer-soprano, Kingman and his nylon-string guitar married devastating melodies with the lushest and most obtuse lyrics, rendered in a sort of Dada collage of transcendent imagery, tossing off delightful non-sequitors like, "Ooh, with a amazing grace/paint your face for the empire/Oh, and I can't remember what I just said on my deathbed." Like a young and hungry Beck Hansen, or even an acid-era Leonard Cohen, he romped around in wild pastures of language, plucking spiky little word-flowers with total abandon. I wore the record out.

The next time I heard from Spencer Kingman, his musical career had taken a surprising turn. I saw him playing at the Hideout with the not-yet-hyped Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors; he and bandleader Dave Longstreth were a brilliant pair of guitar foils, like Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, egging each other on to ever-greater heights of Afro-Martian rhapsodising. The cherubic Kingman was, it turned out, a fully-fledged guitar hero. The Dirty Projectors would go on, after Kingman's departure, to re-interpret Black Flag's Rise Above, the album earning them a pile of Pitchfork-induced hype.

From there, my knowledge of Kingman's musical biography is quite sketchy, based on rumor and speculation. Friends said, though they didn't sound quite sure, that he'd moved back to his native Utah, married a young Mormon woman and settled down to a life of religious domesticity. I even heard the somewhat far-fetched claim that his wife wouldn't allow him to play music, for religious reasons; I liked to imagine that while his wife was off at the Women's Bible Study class, or out running errands, Spencer would sneak down to the basement, fetch his guitar out of hiding, and dash off a few tunes. Whether there was any truth in any of this I haven't the faintest idea.

Then this album appeared. Apparently titled Free Doom--the words are scrawled on my CD-R--it doesn't seem to have been properly released, but is traveling via elicit dubs; it doesn't feel like an album so much as a hallucinogenic treatise, smuggled out of Provo on golden tablets. It's clear from the opening lyrics that Kingman's been doing some heavy musing. I was in the brotherhood of man, he sighs. Don't remind me. Interspersed with existential sloganeering--I'm out of glory, could you smoke me out?--are weird thickets of imagery that resist untangling but are sonically mesmerizing: But then she was alive/to swing her surgery around/and wave it like a partisan for the Lord. The songs, while steeped in this sort of religious idiom, radiate doubt and confusion--a sort of queasy rapture, as if someone had dosed the sacramental wine. Who brought the bad blood?, Kingman ponders cryptically. I want some good blood.

And if you're not in a mood to puzzle out the dense symbolism, there's the simple gorgeousness of the music, which lilts along with all the youthful melodicism of Belle and Sebastian but none of the twee. A lazy musicologist might slander Kingman's music, spartanly arranged with just guitar and voice, as folk--or worse yet, 'freak-folk' --but it is in fact nothing of the kind. Defying reduction, the music is pure emanation from whatever weird, luminous corner of the spiritual map Spencer has been holing up in, a world entirely his own.

I don't imagine I've sold the record particularly well; I'd beg you to simply take my word for it, but I'll go one better and offer to mail any reader of this site a burned copy of the album--a rudimentary form of music-sharing in this bit-torrent age, but all I'm technologically equipped for. I'll send it free-just let me know. Set aside a late-night hour, dim the lights, and go voyaging with young Spencer Kingman. As an authority on modern music, I insist upon it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Friday night pity party

Permit me a self-indulgent post, and feel free to browse elsewhere if my troubles don’t interest you. They don’t interest me particularly, so I’ll understand.

My roommates are out ghosting and ghouling on this Halloween eve; I’ve elected to stay home and ponder my poor existence in quiet solitude. I’m four days into a month of alleged sobriety, a wrong-headed scheme cooked up by Yony to see if it helps with my medical condition. Since June of 2008 I’ve suffered crushing headaches on a daily basis, without reprieve. Not of a migraine type—those occur on one side of the head, and cause sensitivity to light and sound—these pains are concentrated in the front of my head, and are heavy and lumpy, as if a wet sock were balled up where my frontal lobe ought to be. 

My friends are mightily sick of hearing me complain by now, I’m sure; but they’re not as sick as I am of being in pain every waking moment, I’ll assure you of that.
Already the sobriety is out the window. Pot and drink are the only things which actually help me, not so much alleviating the pain as distracting me from it, in the style of my mother’s Russo-folkloric ‘grandfather’s cure’ (Toothache? Drop a brick on your foot, you’ll forget all about the tooth). I’ve smoked a pile of weed and am knocking back vodka-Squirts, and I already feel more human. It’s good medicine, the sweetleaf, and if it continues to be illegal it’s only because the pharmaceutical companies don’t profit from it.

I’ve tried nearly everything, in what feels like a tragicomic film montage: I’ve been to the ophthalmologist, had teeth removed, tried the whole spectrum of painkillers, quit painkillers and taken them up again, sampled an array of anti-depressants, consumed heroic amounts of water and leafy greens, tried nasal decongestants and antihistamines and myriad vitamins, gone to Chinatown in search of ancient remedies and made attempts at cutting caffeine and sugar from my diet; I’ve only barely stopped short of yoga, meditation and ‘clinical’ hypnosis, which seem about as curative as sprinkling flowers on a pile of hogshit. In my more self-pitying moments, I convince myself that I have a brain tumor—it would at least be a compelling narrative twist, and would lend your blogger-hero a bit more gravitas, my inebriated rambling reinterpreted as near-death prophesying—but having researched the subject it seems highly unlikely.

The only thing I haven’t tried is going to an actual doctor. Unemployed bloggers on foodstamps don’t enjoy luxuries like trips to the doctor. Until recently I considered this par for the course—the American Way, even; health care being a socialist construct, I’d overcome my medical problems through rugged individualism, quixotic trips to Chinatown, a pinch of internet savvy. I compounded this folly with a generous helping of guilt and self-flagellation: these headaches were punishment for my illegal and immoral lifestyle; if I wanted badly enough to feel healthy I’d bite the bullet and get a job, sign up for health insurance, quit smoking, join a gym and think happy thoughts.

My feelings have changed, and I’m beginning to drift toward the mad as hell and not going to take it anymore camp. CJ’s illness and death, first of all, have proven powerful fodder. Because she was broke, CJ did not seek medical attention for her brutal aches and pains until she’d already developed an advanced and rapidly-spreading cancer. Had she been able to afford it, she could have been diagnosed and treated far sooner, and would probably be alive now; she was essentially murdered by the greed and inequity of the American system. I don’t hesitate, trembling with rage, to point fingers.

I also made a point recently, while cooped up with a cold, of watching Michael Moore’s recent polemic on American health care, Sicko. It was gratifying to see my half-formed misgivings about our health care system writ large and legible, and it codified the fundamental contradiction of for-profit medicine, which is inherently invested in keeping people sick. This country of ours, which would sooner bomb Arabs than provide basic care for its own citizens, is a treacherous snakepit which I condemn with every fiber of my being, and I sometimes wonder if the painful lump in the front of my head isn’t just a malignant mass of American poison and confusion, a psycho-social tumor that might never be excised. For all these crimes and many more, I condemn it all to Hell.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Caroline Jaffe, 1942-2009

I had to get that last post out of my system before tackling the real subject at hand. I'm not exactly looking forward to it. My friend, the legendary CJ, died yesterday, after a fight with cancer. Those that know CJ, or have ever seen her play at the Gallery Cabaret, will be devastated; those that don't have lost the chance to see one of the greatest performers of modern times. Her residency at the Gallery was on a par with Hugo Ball at the Cabaret Voltaire, the Marx Brothers in their early vaudeville days, Lenny Bruce at the Hungry i, Bob Dylan at the Gaslight, the Ramones at CBGB's, Chicago's unheralded Nightwatch at the relentlessly seedy Lakeview Lounge. CJ was also, in a thousand ways, a divine comedian, a fountain of light, a cosmic hummingbird, a prophet of the sublime, a staunch naturist, the equine spirit incarnate. I feel pity and remorse for those of you that might never have met her.

In full disclosure: as CJ would have suggested, I think, I've been spending the evening smoking piles of marijuana. What you've got here, then, is drug writing--if you've got a problem with it, you're prowling around on the wrong blog. CJ was a also a heroic user of drugs, getting high to the very end. I'm proud to have snuck her pot brownies when she was in the hospital undergoing radiation treatment. Marijuana is, I think, a basically introspective drug, and those that fear or dislike themselves are usually averse to it. CJ certainly didn't fear or dislike her Self. Her inner world was an epic expanse of love, freedom, music and wildlife that I can't even begin to imagine. Marijuana was her simple sacrament in praise of the Divine.

I don't know how much I have in me tonight. I'm drinking vodka, getting high, chasing oblivion. My relationship with CJ was strangely, inexplicably intense. I met her only in July. In September, talking on the telephone, CJ said, "I love you." We began saying it regularly. As she got sicker, I began feeling a sort of phantom sickness, which I struggled to describe to Yony. "It's kind of like," I said, "The end of E.T., where Elliot and E.T. are pyscho-physically linked, and one feels the suffering of the other." Yony laughed. "I think what you mean is that you actually care about someone," he teased. "Maybe not a feeling you're accustomed to." A good point, but something seemed to run deeper than that. She told me, the last time I saw her at the hospital, that she wished I was her son. She had a son, in fact, at the age of 15, who she put up for adoption and never saw again. I told her, meaning no offense to my own dear mother, that I sincerely wished the same.

Strange, also, that I seemed to be the only person so immoderately invested in her success. Her friends and adopted family, I think, for all their undying love, consider her "our CJ." When she is, in fact, everyone's CJ, brought here to enlighten us, and give us hope and harmony. The world will not be robbed of her formidable music. I'll run myself ragged to ensure it.

Damn all this eulogizing and fancy talk. It does nothing. The beautiful woman, see, in the photograph above? Just yesterday she was breathing and laughing and singing. Now they've removed her glasses and put her in a horrible little box and she'll never get to sing again. Philosophize all you want, this is a piece of shit world where everything dies. I put the whole apparatus up on trial. I want CJ back.

Crying over spilt milk

The fusion of rock ‘n roll with High Art has produced some great successes; I think of Captain Beefheart’s deconstructionist concrete poetry, the Velvet Underground ‘s pop-art primitivism, even the Sex Pistols’ juvenile-delinquent brand of Dadaism. But this hybrid has also engendered many embarrassing flops, from Yoko Ono’s experiments in atonal scream therapy to the baroque wanking of high-concept prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis. Art and Rock have always been uneasy bedfellows, especially when the one is deliberately grafted upon the other.

It was into this treacherous arena that my band, provisionally titled Harsh Realm, was foolish enough to venture for last night’s engagement at the Plaines Project. We’re barely a band to begin with. My dear friend John Bellows, with whom I’ve palled around musically for years, enlisted Billy Joyce and myself to serve as his band for a concert back in June. Calling ourselves L.B.J.F.K.F.C., we decided to treat the audience to the grandest and most ingratiating spectacle possible; dressed in golden robes, we plied the crowd with candy, tequila and ice-cream cones, employed a fog machine, and littered our set with lowest-common-denominator crowd pleasers, closing the night with a rousing cover of Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places. The drunken and raucous audience went wild, and we were able to masquerade, somewhat convincingly, as Rock Gods. It was a transcendent night. Then Billy left town for the summer.

When John reconvened the band two weeks ago, we felt strongly that in addition to learning some new songs, we’d have to cook up an even more ambitious spectacle, to outdo our prior effort. It was my brilliant idea to put on a Happening. For the modern reader, unschooled in history: Happenings were a type of high-concept sex party devised in the mid-60s—LSD was still legal!—to freak out the Establishment and indulge in Dionysian weirdness. Young waifs wandered around dressed in tin-foil; “You’re a cow,” they’d mutter provocatively, slipping a pill between your lips. “Give us some milk or go home.” High art—surrealist romps for the young and hip.

It seemed like a workable plan; never mind that we’d be performing not in Andy Warhol’s decadent Factory but in the cramped and dingy basement of the Plaines Project. If we succeeded in detonating enough high-octane freakiness, I calculated, the place would practically levitate. It would be a Happening. I’d seen it succeed this summer, at the Bitchpork Festival: Club Sashet closed out the night with a profoundly psychedelic performance, an epic riot of color and noise that culminated in the crowd of 50+ writhing around in an orgasmic stew of food, slime and glitter. For an exhilarating half-hour, all referents to usual reality were totally annihilated.

We’d attempt something like this, then, but also poke a bit of fun at the whole idea—performance art seemed ripe for satirizing. No one would no where the joke ended and the Art began, and a solid rock ‘n roll soundtrack would provide the momentum. What could go wrong? Best of all, we’d enlist our talented and uninhibited friends for the orgy-inducing absurdist performance-pieces. To add some gravitas to the endeavor, we adopted the Fluxus moniker—wearing the badge of a decades-old art movement would take care of our credentials. I made up programs, announcing the premiere of Harsh Realms: an International Rock & Roll Fluxus Happening. Included was the phone number for our Fluxus Hotline—the unsuspecting Patron of the Arts would reach, after several rings, the Lincoln Park branch of Chuck-E-Cheese. Where, y’know, a kid can be a kid.

Within this framework, the ideas came fast and furious. How about a sexy crucifixion? An army drill sergeant, leading the crowd in childish taunts? We were not setting the bar high for sophisticated artistic discourse—this was a rock show, after all—but were confident we’d at least set a tone of breathless bewilderment. And so we loaded Billy’s trunk up with gory props and Fluxus doo-dads, and headed for the show.

Signs of trouble came early in the evening; several of our performers seemed reluctant to participate, we were not well-organized, and Billy himself developed cold feet. “We didn’t plan this well,” he balked. I would hear none of it, so focused was my vision. “What could possibly go wrong?” I insisted—an ominous provocation, it would turn out. I could understand stage fright, but we were here for a greater purpose. Art would reign.

But, as soon as our set began, red flags began appearing that even I could not ignore. After our first song—direly out of tune, I’m afraid— Billy fired the first salvo, nailing a big, bulbous slab of raw chicken to the wall behind his drumset. It was meant, I suppose, as a sort of declaration, our Fluxus version of Luther’s 95 Theses. In this harsh realm, we demand: raw meat! That was the idea. But the crowd just stared dumbly, and indeed it did look kind of stupid—just a piece of chicken nailed to the wall. What’s so great about that? And a waste of chicken, no less. But we pressed on to our second number. The next performer was our friend Molly, a last-minute understudy for the part. She’d recently been banned from the Plaines Project, but we thought that in the forthcoming psychedelic love-in it this would be water under the bridge. Her role was a cosmic one: she’d sail through the crowd, wearing a long white gown and chugging a gallon of cold milk, shrieking all the while. A statement about femininity or something. “Do whatever you want with it,” I encouraged.

So Molly sailed into the room, only a minute or so off cue, and proceeded to stumble around the crowd, in a sort of hideous parody of voluptuousness, pouring the entire gallon of milk all over herself, her neighbors and the floor. Ripping her gown off, she writhed in mock-ecstasy, smearing herself with milk. I, for one, thought it was an admirably executed performance, but the audience seemed to recoil—with disgust? Boredom? Or simply wanting to keep their clothing milk-free? Regardless, the mood was not where we wanted it to be.

Another rock ‘n roll song, another “performance”. Chip was supposed to be draped in an American flag, reading the preamble to the Constitution—before he has a chance to finish, John shoots him in the head with a glitter gun. But, unable to find an American flag, we were forced at the last minute to dress him in a dollar-store Indian headdress. As he stood there, reading these hallowed words in his worst Sitting Bull accent, I began to wonder what sort of message we were sending, and realized I hadn’t the faintest idea. A bad sign. The crowd seemed ambivalent, or possibly hostile.

More music. The tone of our “art” would only grow crasser. For the next piece, we’d enlisted our friend Brett to re-enact the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke; with the exuberant support of the crowd, he’d attempt to eat a dozen hardboiled eggs. Only, just as Brett was beginning, Carter, a resident of the Plaines Project, stormed through the crowd, swiped the carton of eggs, and stormed back out of the crowd. Apparently furious over the spilt milk—the basement might stink for weeks—he was determined to prevent any further food-related messes. Brett, playing the clock, attempted a rather leaden stand-up routine. Then, during the next song (a George Jones cover, of all things), the power went out repeatedly. Nobody knew what was happening, what was Fluxus and what was just shit going wrong. The performance continued to deteriorate. Our Christ, dressed as a city worker and wearing a false beard, was having trouble holding onto her cross. Another Plaines Project resident burst into the room, screaming and flailing around in drunken fury. People began to leave.

Our last number was supposed to be a cover of John Lennon’s harrowing Mother, during which the grim reaper would emerge and smash a pair of giant pumpkins. We had the church-bell intro on Lennon’s CD all cued up, for full dramatic effect, but our friend running the CD player didn’t cut the intro on time and the recorded song pre-empted our entry. At this point the performance had become such a thorough embarrassment that Billy kicked over the drum kit and declared the show over. There was milk everywhere. “That was… weird,” I heard someone comment.

The Plaines Project residents were livid. None of our friends would look at or talk to us. Billy and John were mortified. I was mortified too, but also, strangely, exhilarated. Finally, some action! Not, maybe, the most constructive type of action, but something had happened, and people were angry and confused. Surely that was good for something! It wasn’t by any stretch of imagination good art, but I figured the “good art” end of things was already well-covered—there are always some great exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they even have a weekly free day, sponsored by corporate giant Target. We really just wanted to have some fun. It turns out that milk-fights and mock-crucifixions aren’t everyone’s idea of fun. Now we know. We’ve apologized profusely to everyone involved, and have sworn never to dabble in Art again.