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.