Thursday, December 25, 2008

Steve Connolly, guitar guy, Colored Girl, Messenger. R.I.P. I remember. I remember. I remember everything.

I don't know why, but here, in Paris, on Christmas Day, such as it is, I'm inclined to write about Steve Connolly, my friend and comrade and compatriot and well, whatever the hell he was. And isn't any more. And yet may still be, somehow, someway. Maybe, mayhap.

Steve was a guy I got to know first through coming across and upon and around Paul Kelly, the Australian singer-songwriter. Greatest songwriter in the English language, maybe, if it's a horse-race. And it may well be.  I've known a few of the very best, obviously, and listened to most of the rest. And Steve was Paul's guitar-player in what was called Paul Kelly And The Coloured Girls, until they got picked up by a major label in the US. After that, for radio reasons, they were Paul Kelly And The Messengers. Absolutely one of the greatest bands I've ever been near. Beyond that.

[So far beyond that, in fact, that as someone who toured with, oh, I don't know, what was left of The Band when Danko was sober, no less, and singing like a bird, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and Uncle Tupelo, and who heard Little Feat in the glorious days and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band too, and Graham Parker and the Rumour, and the Clash, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and the Plugz, and X, and Los Lobos, and so on and so forth, and in their time, more nights than not, the Messengers were the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.]

A lot of water and beer and piss and vinegar and tears and sweat and moisture went under a good number of bridges amongst us over the years. It got a tad incestuous over time, certainly. I toured with Paul and the Messengers a wee little bit in the States; I remember an amazing evening at my place in Los Angeles where I introduced the great Texas singer-songwriter crowd of Joe Ely and Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to their Antipodean equivalents over gumbo and Tecate and tequila; there was a time when my ex colonized the Messengers as her Australian touring band; there were a lot of times. There was that time in Tasmania when we took a mid-show break at a big Saturday night concert at the Uni just so the Messengers, Essendon Bombers barrackers one and all, could catch up backstage on a crucial match (against, I'd like to think, Collingwood), and it was late that same Tassie night that the American tour manager got so psychedelically drunk that he actually sang the Bombers fight song word-for-word, never having heard it before, never having seen a bit of a footie match in his life. It was magic. It was epic. Steve was, I reckon, the secret instigator. Had to have been.

Steve was intense. Steve was quiet, except when he wasn't. I've definitely known greater guitar players, but I don't know if I've ever known any who shoved down any harder on the strings. He played dead-simple lines, lines he struggled with, lines that he struggled to bring true, fiercely simple Spaghetti Western blues lines. Never busy, never crowded, never ever. And intensely critical of his own playing, never much satisfied with it. We all wish we could play the way he couldn't stand that he played.

(I haven't said enough here about Steve's guitar playing, but to say too much would be to be false, to be untrue to how he sounded. It was so empty, so full. He said so much, and played so little. He played those big fat simple things, those dumb things, those great things. Every dog can have his day, Paul would be singing; any dog can win, and Steve would sing that melody back at him so simply. Hardly any dog can do that.)

I remember where I was when Paul called. I was in New Orleans, at home, under the banana trees, summertime, sweaty, out in the courtyard. It was night, early night, so I suppose it was late in Melbourne, or early, maybe. There were mosquitos. The cats were chasing each other wildly. Paul was calling. The air was thick but it always is in New Orleans in the summer. Steve was dead. Junkie. He taught me so much, footie and cricket and politics, Australian and American and Irish politics; he'd been amazed that I was there, standing there like a dumb tourist in Dublin, just outside the GPO on the Saturday when the Birmingham Six were paraded free down O'Connell Street -- what he would have given to be there! What luck or misfortune it was that I was the one instead. He was dead.

Six, seven months ago, as my life turned upside down once again, I woke up of a Sunday, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I mourned Steve as I hadn't before. Why? I don't know why. Maybe I was feeling once again, maybe I was alive and he wasn't, and maybe now I felt it. Hot wet tears on his behalf, then and now. R.I.P. So many gifts given, so many received, and so much belated gratitude.

(Oh, and this: Paul's one of those who keeps it moving, keeps it living, and keeps the arrangements fresh. But no matter how fresh the arrangement, no matter how hot the guitar-jock who's playing it, those old songs that he must necessarily do, well, if Steve played 'em first, his parts were so sculpted and scooped free of anything but the essential, that they still end up, inevitably, always, playing Steve's solos his way. It's not aping, it's not even a tribute, it's just a fact.)


Hey ya'll to Michael, Jon, Peter, Paul and all. Go Bombers!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Jimmy Stewart – A Wonderful Life

"What was most heroic about Jimmy Stewart was he never tried to be a hero."

In a career spanning half a century, Jimmy Stewart has drawn an indelible portrait of the American man, and proven that regular guys can be heroes, too. He talked to Bart Bull about his long and wonderful life.
(
published in Vogue)

The milkman is making his delivery – eggs and butter and quarts of milk stacked neatly in his wire basket. There was a time when salty jokes were made about milkmen and their midday deliveries, back in the days when wives stayed home alone and lonely while husbands marched off to work, but those days are gone, long gone, like the milkmen themselves. Gone and nearly forgotten, except here at Jimmy Stewart's house, where the milkman's white truck is parked in the driveway.

It’s a beautiful day, a wonderful day. “A great day for sightseeing buses too,” says Mrs. Stewart. A pair of tour vans has stopped in the middle of the street in hopes that Jimmy Stewart will come out to greet them in person. “He’s the friendliest, most accommodating star in Beverly Hills,” say the Hollywood star maps, telling how often he steps outside to chat with his fans. “You can hardly get your car up the street,” growls Gloria Stewart. At the moment Jimmy Stewart is in his backyard, trying to get his dog to cooperate while their picture is taken. Baron is looking at everything but the camera, cheerily wagging his tail all the while. “Never seen him act like this,” Stewart says, genuinely baffled, truly perplexed. “He’s a terrible ham,” Gloria cracks. “The dog, I mean.” Her timing is as good as Jimmy’s.

He gets up from his chair in the shade of an orange tree, stooping low, bending nearly in half to keep from scraping his head, legs every bit as long as you’d guess, maybe even a little longer. Half a century’s press clippings have ritualized the litany of words to describe him as he walks Baron back inside to look for a leash—”gawky,” “gangling,” “lean,” “lanky,” “awkward”—and for the way he folds himself into the family den when the photos are finished and it’s time to talk. It’s a comfortable room, crowded with books and photos and flowered cotton couches, not much different from most family rooms as long as you don’t notice who the people in the photos are or that those gold statuettes on the shelf are Academy Awards. Presented with an honorary Oscar in 1985 for fifty years of distinguished work in over eighty films, he was nominated five times in the best-actor category, winning in 1940 for The Philadelphia Story.

"My dad called me the night I got the Academy Award, called me at four-thirty. He never got the idea that our time out here was so much earlier than it was back there. It was usually when he got to work that he called me.” Stewart folds one full- length leg over the other slowly, purposefully, with deliberation, a man with all the time in the world, who’s never heard that life is a rat race, a man who learned his ways in Indiana, Pennsylvania. “He got there at seven-thirty.

“He said, ‘I heard on the radio you got some kind of prize—what was it, a plaque or what?’

“‘No,’ I said, ‘It’s a gold statue.’

“‘Well,’ he says, ‘why don’t you send it back, and I’ll put it in the window of the hardware store.’ So I packed it up and it was there in the window for twenty years.”

To trace Jimmy Stewart’s life from Indiana, Pennsylvania, to Beverly Hills is to risk all our hard-won skepticism about movie stars. The most fully realized personality in film history, he has played the widest range of roles of any American actor, roles so central to the times that to examine Stewart is to consider the American man. He’s played senators and lunatics, cowboys and test pilots, regular Joes and G-men, all of them different, each a lot like Jimmy Stewart.

What set him apart from the rest of Hollywood’s leading men was that in decade after decade of larger-than-life screen stars, he was invariably just the size of Jimmy Stewart—tall perhaps, but far too slender to punch his way through the plot. He was usually just a little too sensible for the grand gesture, and when he lost his senses, he was still too skinny to push anybody around. Besides, that wouldn’t be fair, and he was always very fair. A man left the movies feeling less capable than Clark Gable, less of a lady-killer than Cary Grant, but you never left a Jimmy Stewart movie feeling diminished. Nobody was less capable or, apparently, less of a ladies’ man. Instead, you reckoned that you or any other regular guy endowed with enough all-American virtues would have handled things just about the way Jimmy Stewart had. What was most heroic about Stewart was that he never tried to be a hero.

It’s a quality that extends into his own life, his offscreen life. At eighty-one, with an old man’s bushy eyebrows and age’s ruddy complexion, he stammers as he always has, and remembers everything. Son of the owner of the oldest hardware store in town—"I was born in 1908; it had been going since 1870, or 1860, something like that" —he had just about the most average of American boyhoods. He collected stamps, built model airplanes, practiced the accordion. A Boy Scout — ‘The most steadfast boy I’ve ever known,” declared Mrs. Addie Rose, his next-door neighbor — he ran the movie projector in the town theater, cranking the reels by hand. “I remember they did 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—very popular movie—and with the box of film came a green lens, there was a thing up on the reel that said ‘Green,’ and as you saw this, you put up the green lens. This meant they were going underwater. I suppose I was doing colorization even then.” He had a job one summer painting white lines on the highway.

Prepared at prep school for nothing much in general, he went to Princeton and lackadaisically acquired a degree in architecture. The day he graduated Josh Logan invited him to join Henry Fonda and a few others in a summer acting troupe, offering to let him paint sets and play accordion for tips in the tearoom. With little chance of practicing architecture at the height of the Depression, he opted for acting. Acting troupes led to brief walk-on roles on Broadway, and after a few years, New York led to Hollywood. Within four years, he’d made twenty-five movies; in six of those twenty-five, he played a newspaperman, then as now a sort of movie shorthand for brash, footloose young man. Already a Jimmy Stewart type was evolving: stammering, sincere, optimistic, perhaps a touch naive, but willing and honest and true. A voice that quavered, that couldn’t decide between high and low.

“You worked all the time. And you learned your craft. You worked all the time, in all sorts of parts.” He walks, hands hanging straight down at his sides, over to pull a picture of himself from off the wall, a black-and-white photo in a battered red frame. “I always show this. All sorts of parts.” Somebody who looks a little like young Stewart is looming, tall, bald, pigtailed, oddly slant-eyed. “The Good Earth. A very good picture. I think in ‘36, ‘37. They didn’t ask you, ‘Would you be interested in doing a Chinese part?’ They said, ‘Report to us on Stage Such-and-Such for a test with Paul Muni.’ And Muni looked at me and said, ‘He’s awful tall for a Chinaman.’” A pause. “So they dug a trench.” Another pause. “Didn’t get the part. They gave it to a Chinaman.”

All the same, he misses the old contract system, the way the studios used to make movies. “It was like a big family. When you’d go to work at the studio, you knew everybody, and everybody knew you. It was wonderful. You went to work, got there at eight o’clock in the morning, left at six, and you did that six days a week. Not five—six. That’s why Saturday night was such a big night, and everybody collected down at the Trocadero on Sunset Boulevard. It’s not there, hasn’t been there for years, but there’s a big empty spot where it was.’’

And while it may require a leap of imagination for younger generations used to thinking of him in milder terms, Jimmy Stewart was known for more than a decade as “Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor.” “Well,” he drawls, “if you’re not married, you’re an eligible bachelor. It’s that simple.” Maybe.

Kim Novak remembers him even now as “the sexiest man who played opposite me in thirty years.” But he was romantically linked, as the gossip columnists put it back in those semi-delicate days, to a long list of notable beauties, including Olivia De Havilland, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Loretta Young, and Rita Hayworth. He and Cary Grant once threw what the papers called a “boisterous, midget-ridden super stag party,” sipping champagne from the slippers of the glamorous women in attendance, some of whom secured admission on the basis of their impressive measurements. And in a very well-documented story from the set of Destry Rides Again, Marlene Dietrich simply got fed up with waiting for what she wanted and locked them both into his dressing room. “I was too busy,” Stewart rumbles.

Bachelorhood may have kept him busy, but as soon as he hit Hollywood, he got his pilot’s license and bought himself a Stinson airplane. “First thing I did when I got my first check.” Always an aviation buff, he went on to work for his commercial pilot’s license, despite the fact that the war was imminent and commercial pilots were among the first to be drafted. Thirty-two and already a major star, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, and The Philadelphia Story among his credits as a leading man, he entered the service in March 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He failed his first draft physical—too skinny—but he force- fed himself to make the minimum weight. His income plummeted from nearly three thousand dollars a week to twenty- one dollars a month. He sent his agent a check for $2. 10.

Among the very few movie stars to serve in World War II, he flew twenty combat missions over Germany—”Nine Yanks and a Jerk” was painted on the cockpit of a B-24 bomber he flew—entering the Army Air Corps as a private and leaving five years later a full colonel. He avidly avoided publicity throughout the war, but when it was over, he feared his career was finished, too. “It was a very insecure time. My contract had run out during the war. And nobody. . . nobody remembers you. That’s why I thank Frank Capra in prayers every day. ‘Cause he just out of the blue called me up and said, ‘I got an idea for a story, and why don’t you come down to the house?’ And he started with this story, and I was so wrapped up I didn’t pay too much attention. He said, ’You’re gonna commit suicide and an angel named Clarence who hasn’t won his wings yet, he comes down and saves you, and you say you wish—I’m not tellin’ this very well. . . '

“And I said, ‘Frank, when do we start—I love the picture.’ It’s a Wonderful Life was the first production of a new film company Capra and a few other directors had established. “Frank and I and so many of us had such great faith in the picture. Our hearts were all in it, the crew and everybody so. . . so overcome with the meaning of the picture. And the picture was a failure, and caused the failure of the company.” His long reflective pauses are even longer at times, long enough to gather words that will say enough, that won’t say too much. “Looking, looking back over it, I can just see that the picture meant more to me than any other.”

Still single, still a Hollywood heartthrob (“What. . . gives Jimmy Stewart the power to tie the American woman into emotional knots?” Woman’s Home Companion wondered, vastly underestimating the power of innocence), he married for the first and final time at the age of forty-one; slow-going deliberation is more than just the way he speaks. “The first few times I went out with Gloria, we went golfing. Finally she said to me, ‘I eat too, you know,’ so l took her to Chasen’s.” One of his perfect-timing pauses. “We’re still going to Chasen’s.”

In the bargain, he acquired two sons; soon after, he became the father of twin daughters. He became precisely the family man the movies had shown us all along. But having taken his familiar Joe Average character to the brink of suicidal despair in It’s a Wonderful Life, he began to unveil more complex emotions in his characters. Although Harvey had a pre-war sweetness to it, the story of a madman whose hallucinations overpower everyone around him has a particularly postwar feel. In three Alfred Hitchcock films, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, Stewart’s affable all- American male is wound much too tight, traveling far past the breaking point. And in a long series of Westerns, first with director Anthony Mann and then with John Ford, we saw both a new West and a new James Stewart, angry and edgy, dogged and bent on bitter revenge. If all this seemed a shock at first coming from sweet-natured Jimmy Stewart, it would have seemed more shocking as time went by if he had stood still in a harsh world of change, ever the fresh-faced idealist.

Some things remained in place as the times changed. As a good luck charm he wore the same hat in almost every one of his Westerns. “I have that thing. I had a big argument with John Ford first time we worked. He said, ‘That’s a terrible hat.’ We were shooting it down in Texas somewhere—Two Rode Together, I think it was called. Next picture we did, he wouldn’t let me wear a hat at all.”

On the wall nearby is a precisely rendered watercolor of a red-brown horse, a little swaybacked with age, standing alone outside a weathered stable. He stands up to gaze at Henry Fonda’s painting of Pie, the horse Stewart rode in movie after movie. “This is when he was—he had to be, had to be twenty-eight years old. Half quarter horse, half Arabian. I rode him for twenty years. Hank Fonda did this on his days off, and I didn’t know anything about it. That was Pie.” They were making Cheyenne Autumn in Santa Fe, and the air was too thin for the old horse, the altitude too high. “He couldn’t make it. He couldn’t make it.”

Staring at a friend’s portrait of another friend, he can’t help but admire it once more. Fonda and Stewart were practically the last of their generation, and now there’s just one of them left. But there’s more to it than that. “This friendship with Fonda over the years was tremendous. I valued it so much. Tremendous friendship, tremendous admiration for him. He was good at his job if anybody ever was good at his job. It was a terrible thing to lose him. Which happens so much, you know. I think about it every once in a while—I try not to think about it. I’ve lost so many—I’ve lost so many people. You think of somebody and then you think, ‘When did she die?’

The rims of his eyes go moist, nearly wet, not quite. Not quite. He won’t cry, not here, to be observed and written about in a magazine. Instead, he speaks, quickly now, to distract himself. “But Fonda was a wonderful, close friend.”

Now he is the last one left, the last star of his era. He doesn’t know why it’s worked out that way, and clearly it bothers him, confuses him just a little. When he was headed off to England during the war, his father slipped the Ninety- first Psalm into his hand—”For He shall give His angels charge over thee.. . . “—and maybe that helps explain it some, but it’s hard not to wonder. His last movie was made half a decade ago, but even as the unseen voice on the current Campbell’s soup ads, he moves miles past the typical too- sweet lemonade commercial grandfather, lulling us with that querulous voice and then always adding more edge than we expect. If he were sent the right script, something he could sink his teeth into, would he be ready to do another picture?

“Sure,” he answers. Not a moment’s hesitation, none of his legendary pauses. “Sure.” No stammer, no stutter. “Sure. Sure.”

He considers a moment. “Can’t play cowboys anymore.”






Saturday, December 20, 2008

Aphorism Twenty-six; (One of a series; collect the whole set!)

Not every horse can win; nearly all can lose.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Aphorism (or nearly) Number 25; One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set

Q. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
A. The nest.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Watch Your Step; or All About Me; Gatemouth Brown, Ted Hawkins, and uh, Me

I'm pondering pensively, I'm considering meditatively, I'm thinkin' 'bout thankin' 'bout . . . about. . . about maybe possibly kinda considering doing something, a sketchy but sketched-in work-in-progress, a la the ongoing Ian Dury thing below here somewhere down there, about either:
A. Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown
or
B. Ted Hawkins.
but not, definitely
C: Both of 'em
though maybe
D: Pops Staples (and a smidge of Mavis and Yvonne and Cleotha and Purvis...)

I'm thinking about this in my artistically ruthless way (damn, Ruth isn't even answering the phone), which means that I'm waiting for clarity to arrive. Or serendipity. Or synchronicity. Or spontaneous combustion. Any one will do, and they always show up as long as I stand clear. So let's see what happens next.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Aphorism Twenty-Four & A Half (One & A Half of a Series; Collect the Whole Set)

Ok, so girl-genius Kate can apparently hurl pearls like this at will:
"Takest thou a job in haste; enjoy thy redundancy at leisure."

Dang! I wish I'd said that! Though in fact, as intellectual property law is generally applied (which is to say until somebody actually bothers to drag you into court), and certainly in the context of slack and slipshod Euro-copyright, well, I basically consider that I did say it.

The other one, at least as genius-esque, began, as best I remember:
"'Tis better not to hunger for applause, lest...." and there was a "redundant" in there too. (But that would be redundant, wouldn't it?) Anyway, when I eventually remember it, and I will, I'll likely claim that one too.

Aphorism 23 (One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set)

Another Patrick-isme, (perhaps made even more profound by last night, when he didn't actually show up for his grand return).
"Sanity is learning to live with your madness."

Monday, December 1, 2008

Aphorisms 21 y 22; (Part of a Series; Collect the Whole Set)

Two in one lunch!
from Mohammed: (No, not THAT Mohammed, the other one....)

"To be rich is to have knowledge."

And a Kabylian dicho:

"A little goat smells another little goat."

Friday, November 28, 2008

Aphorism Number 20; (One Of A Series; Collect The Whole Set)

A little truth goes a long way, but a little lie goes farther.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

L.A. International

In Los Angeles, a new, multi-ethnic generation is redefining young American style.
By Bart Bull
(published in Vogue)

I'm looking -- staring actually -- at a handkerchief.
It's more than a handkerchief, though; it's an epiphany.
It is, without a doubt, the single most perfect isosceles triangle in all of Los Angeles tonight. It droops, languid in its linen perfection, from the breast picket of a navy blue blazer worn over a white boat-neck sweater, white linen pants, white silk shirt, and a firmly knotted navy silk tie. The handkerchief itself is a brave ocher-gold, a grand gesture against all that blue and white. But it's the droop that counts, that studied droop, much like one of Dali's soft watches oozing down from the pocket, a profound counterpoint to those precise angles. Frankly, I'm proud to be in the same room with a handkerchief so eloquent.

It's worn by Jose, who is nineteen and standing in the lobby of the Ukrainian Culture Center with his left hand resting lightly -- just so -- in the pocket of his high-waisted baggy trousers, acessorized by his fully achieved air of distraction. Jose is anything but distracted, of course. His attention is no less perfectly ponted than the cheese-slicing edge of his isosceles ocher-gold linen handkerchief. This is war, style war. The Ukrainian is tonight's central stop of the Fashion Crowd circuit and no one is anywhere near as distracted as the poses they're striking would suggest. Reputations will be reupholstered tonight, egos will suffer shattering defeats, and when the smoke clears, style will reign supreme.

What I noticed about the Fashion Crowd was that no one else in Los Angeles seemed to be noticing them -- and how could you miss them? They dress. They wear clothes as if their lives depend upon them. Grammar and syntax and vocabulary skills take time, but clothes are something you can shop for next Saturday morning.

The boys are especially devoted to staying in front of the pack. Ever alert to shifts in style, they are, like Jose of the isosceles droop, master of delicate nuance. These are guys who would rather die than be seen wearing drab socks, who can quite literally identify the designer of a tie at twenty paces. These are teenage boys who can walk around wearing their double-breasted jackets unbuttoned and still manage to look polished.

A great number of them live at home in order to avoid wasting money best spent on clothes. At lunch, they haunt the very best sections of the very best department stores. Their bedrooms are stacked with fashion magazines, and their phones stay busy with updated comparisons of last weekend's triumphs and disasters. Although the open-air alleys and wholesale showrooms of downtown LA's garment district are thick with them every weekend, only the most daringly secure would ever admit to buying anything other than their most playful shoes there. It's not true, of course, but they truly with it were.

The truth is that for many of the Hispanic members of the Fashion Crowd, their peers are still living in an old world of low riders and gangs, of fierce barrio territorialism that leads nowhere more glamorous than jail or a janitor job. There are gangs among the Asians too, as well as the equally terrifying Old World option of fulfilling the role of scrupulously dutiful son or daughter. But the more limiting those older possibilities seem, the more important the distinction becomes between the Fashion Crowd and their less fashionable peers.

The best-dressed guys -- known as "GQs" -- put considerable distance between their looks and anything that smacks of gangster style. Since low riders and gangbangers have been dressing for more than a decade in revisisionist variations on on the '40s zoot suit, the GQs are rapdily moving away from the formality of suits and ties, and on toward something more fanciful, more freewheeling. Last summer's GQ cliche was the omnipresent varsity look, crew sweaters over ties with the hair buzzed almost comically short on the sides in apparent emulation of the Princeton sculling crew of 1926. Currently, though, the GQs prefer long hair tied back or flying free, and the most daring are adopting entire looks built around rough suede cowboy boots or white turtlenecks worn tunic style. "I'm tired of ties," one of the GQ trendsetters told me. "I work at a law firm downtown -- all I see all day long is ties."

The Vogues are evry bit as intent on widening the gap between themselves and their counterparts, who are referred to, in the deepest tones of derision that a teenager can muster, as "Cha-Chas." While the Vogues are inclined toward hats and gloves and Chanel-inspired ensembles, the Cha-Chas (though no one will ever admit to being a Cha-Cha) settle for miniskirts, high heels, and dramatic makeup that is only a small evolutionary step away from the girl-gangsters' "loca" look. The Cha-Chas, less willing to abandon traditional Latin styles, will typically have longer hair, often teased into the high-crowned look the Vogues call "lionhead." Vogues, ever inclined to emphasize the distance from everyting the Cha-Cha represents, are currently acquiring Louise Brooks bobs or dramatically brief pageboys. No cocktail parties exist in thier lives, but should an invitation appear, they're dressed for the occasion.

Given the social mobility available in California, in the West, in this truly New World, it's entirely possible that the elegant cocktail party will be their next accomplishment. Young as they are, these kids dress with more verve and wit and can actually be seen at any contemporary evening affair, and the clubs and dances they attend on the party circuit exist, everyone agrees, essentially for display. They even dance together in large groups, in circles rather than couples, the better to admire each other, and the better to remind the outsider of the supreme uniqueness of their clique. At a time when the ouside world seems fixated on archaic fantasies of hot-blooded Latin style, no one here takes particular pride in their dancing. It's the look, the style, the leaps and flourishes of fashion that count. And for tonight, in their remarkably polyglot beauty and taste, they looke even more stylish than they have ever looked before. Tomorrow night is just an evening in the future, a fashionable instant yet to be invented.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Tale of One City: Or, Once Upon A Time In The Southwest; Or, Not A Metaphor for Phoenix, Arizona, That's For Dang Sure!

(written for The Arizona Republic; not particularly published there, though)

Once upon a time there was a city, a big city.

It was so big it was a giant. It wasn’t a particularly smart giant, or an especially graceful one, but it sure was big, even for a giant. And it was still growing.

Well, kids, this giant city wanted to be admired and respected and appreciated. Like all of us, it wanted to be loved. And not just for being so damn -- oops, sorry, kids --so darn big. This city wanted to be admired for its beauty, its taste, its artistic sensibilities, its wisdom. It wanted to be what some people call "a world class city."

It wanted to be in the big leagues.

And it was, in certain ways. It sure was big.

And still growing too. It had a lot of golf courses. And some of them were world class ones. And they were all real big, awful big. It had a bunch of parks, including the absolute very biggest park in the whole wide world. And the fact that being the site of the biggest darn park in the world didn’t make anybody feel any better about anything only made the city feel bigger and dumber and more awful than ever.

Because the city really did feel kind of big and dumb and awful. There were a lot of other big things in the city -- big fountains and big freeways and big malls with big fountains and big houses with big yards in big gated communities with big fountains of their own but it didn’t make the city feel any more lovable. Just more awful.

Every once in a while -- not that often but every once in a while -- the giant city got an idea, a big idea, a really big idea. Other cities had giant-sized convention centers -- maybe it should get a really gigantic convention center and stick it right in the middle of downtown, right where the stores and people used to go, and then everybody would really love it.

And yet , oddly, nobody loved it. Nobody came.

Oh, sure, conventions came to the convention center, but they took one quick look at downtown and went straight back to their hotel and had the concierge book them a tee-time at a big world-class golf course. And then they went home again. As soon as possible. So the giant city decided maybe its convention center wasn’t big enough.

And maybe it needed some other stuff downtown too, like gigantic arts centers and massive major megalithic sports stadiums. Stuff like that.

The big giant ever-growing city had heard rumors. Frankly, it didn’t get around much but it had heard talk of other cities and how they had downtowns and other districts that were something called “vibrant.”

The giant city didn’t know very much about what “vibrant” was but it figured it wanted to buy some quick. So it paid through the nose -- the giant-sized nose.

World class cities all had mass transit, so the giant city figured it better send out for some of that too, even though it didn’t quite understand why. Because the giant city had a lot of giant freeways that went all over the place. It had even turned the little two-way streets that used to go in and out of downtown into big giant one-way streets that worked just like freeways. But it went ahead and bought a big hunk of mass transit anyway. It really wanted very badly to be loved, after all.

But even if it was guilty of looking for love in all the wrong places, it couldn’t seem to help from making the same mistakes over and over again. It kept shopping for expensive new outfits that would make it more attractive. It went on a lot of dates with a lot of new suitors but once they’d had their way, well, it always woke up feeling lonely and even emptier.

Well, you can guess what happened, can’t you, kids?

The big giant unlovable city kept making big giant unlovable grand gestures, and they didn’t make it any more lovable, only more laughable. And it wasn’t like it wasn’t trying, for God’s sake. It was paying big therapy bills, going to experts and university presidents and PR firms, and getting no relief whatsoever. The only friends it seemed to have were big developers and people on the payroll, and sometimes it wondered if they were just pretending to love the giant city in order to use for their own purposes.

But you’re worried that this tale of one city might not have a happy ending, aren’t you? Well, it does.

Because one day, completely out of the blue, a wonderful wizard magically appeared, waved his mighty wand, said an astonishing secret incantation, and all of the giant city’s great dreams and grand gestures came true! Yes! It really happened. Just like that! Really! You bet. Now go to bed, kids, pull those covers over your head, and go back to sleep.

Nighty-night.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Aphorism Nineteen (One of a Series; Collect 'em All!)

Purgatory; Roman Catholicism’s metaphysical DMV.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Leadbelly and Ironhead

"If you would learn from Leadbelly, you should look deeper to find his greatest qualities. In other words, don't just imitate his Southern accent: Learn his straightforward honesty, vigor, and strength."
—Pete Seeger, from "The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instruction Manual by Julius Lester and Pete Seeger"; published by Oak Publications

"It is impossible to separate Huddie Ledbetter and his songs from the Negro South."
—Julius Lester

"Leadbelly Huddie Ledbetterwas a man of depth who did not mask his contrasting moods... To me he was a guide and a teacher in country life, in politics, in Jim Crow."
—Moses Asch, Folkways Records owner and entrepreneur

"Because don't forget Because there is a a book riting about my Life and I don't think nothing about that Book . . . Because Lomax did not rite nothing like i told Him."
—Huddie Ledbetter (aka Leadbelly, aka Lead Belly, aka Walter Boyd)

"To which we must still add: if it hadn't been for old John Lomax, we would never have known Leadbelly, his genius, and his songs."
—Pete Seeger and Julius Lester

"Lead Belly drives the Lomax car
And he is never tired;
He's a better man, John Lomax vows,
Than any he ever hired.
He sings at prisons to convict throngs
And helps John Lomax gather songs."
—from a poem by William Rose Benet, The New Yorker, January 19, 1935

He was big, Benet declaimed (of Leadbelly, not Lomax) and he was black, and wondrous were his wrongs (we're still talking Leadbelly here, not Lomax). He was what scholars of the blues would call "a songster," by which they mean any old black guy who sang stuff other than just blues. It was a definition enforced by people perfectly capable of turning their own rectums into telescopes; there may never have been a black guy who only did blues, but ever since white folks first heard the phrase "the blues," they've been damn sure there ought to be.

For all the literary reams on Robert Johnson and his abbreviated recording career, for all the Lucky Strike-wreathed romance of hellhounds and crossroads, Johnson's hokum tunes like "They're Red Hot" ("Hot tamales and they're red hot/Yeah, got 'em for sale..." and pop attempts like "Malted Milk" manage to never much get mentioned. They're an embarassment, an offense against high romance, usually blamed against the insensitivity and/or commercial venalityof a previous generation's white blues entrepreneurs. Almost entirely unrecognized is the fact that the "bluesmen" were dance musicians and street performers who lived and survived and thrived by throwing all manner of change-up pitches. Almost entirely unremarked is the degree to which The Blues were demanded by generation after generation of white people -- first by the early record men who attached the magic word "blues" to anything and everything black folks did, and then generation after generation of field-recording "folk researchers" whose demand for blues has powerfully and effectively distorted what little is understood about the music of rural black Americans. For our purposes here, we can divide these people into two categories: obnoxious pirates and damn fools; curiously, as in the case of the preponderance of "bluesmen" over "songsters," there seem to be far more of the former than the latter.

Songsters were originally books, books full of songs from the minstrel stage, and big-lipped blackface pictures usually too. To be a black American musician has been to be insistently spanked into place, to be hectored by critics whenever you failed to be a "bluesman" or a "songster," when you veered too far from whatever definition of "jazz" somebody was wielding warily in the direction of "rhythm & blues" or in the direction of "strings" with their suggestion of symphonic sensibilities. The initial reviews the Fisk Jubilee Singers received when they went north from Nashville in 1871 were lousy, rotten, stink-o. The rock critics of the day didn't dig 'em, saw stoic black college students in suits and dignified dresses singing concert-style "Negro spirituals," and missed the minstrel man flash, the jigaboo jazz jive, the niggerisms. Once they got hepped, however, to the authenticity of it all (in part, at least by Mark Twain, who was so deeply Southern he pretty much never went home again), the reviews straightened out. When it comes to white critics and black music, they buy "Authentic" every time.

"Along with these in point of service I must place that group of Negro 'boys' who this summer, cheerfully and with such manifest friendliness, gave up for the time their crap and card games, their prayer meetings, their much needed Sunday and evening rest to sing for Alan and me -- that group whose real names we omit for no other reason than to print the substituted picturesque nicknames."
—John Lomax, from "Acknowledgment" in "American Ballads and Folk Songs"

"A folk song belongs to no one in particular - it belongs to everyone. Even though we may know the writer of a song which later became a folksong, we can say that without the people who went before him - to give him the rich background against which to create his song - he could never have written that song."
—Peggy Seeger, from her entirely non-ironically titled "Folksongs of Peggy Seeger," Oak Publications. (Peggy Seeger's husband Ewan MacColl wr0te "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," and she receives international publishing royalties on that song, which Billboard magazine declared both Song of the Year and Record of the Year in 1972, as well as on numerous compositions of her own and of others.)

Huddie Ledbetter was not poverty's child. His parents owned the land they worked near Caddo Lake at the border between East Texas and Louisiana, a land where white folks were often sharecroppers. He was strong and smart and loud and sexy, all of which have historically been problems for a black man in our country, all of which surely were blessings and a curse for him. He attacked a woman and killed a man, maybe two, maybe more, and did prison time for murder. The legends say he sang his way out, and the legends seem to be right. Between prison terms, he did five years on the street, which, in my experience with ex-cons, ain't bad. He went back to the joint on "assault with intent to murder." These things happen.

"The singer found it difficult to shed the habit of quick anger he had acquired during his years as a roustabout," the New York Times said in his obituary. He did jail time in New York too, for stabbing a man. That part was disturbing to the folk who needed him to be St. Belly of Lead, patron saint of patronization. He had failed to understand how truly, truly different things were up North, here in New York City, where Folkways Records were recorded. "Perhaps he wondered at my earnestness," says Pete Seeger, "trying to learn folkmusic." Perhaps.

Perhaps John Lomax had helped him get loose from prison during his second stretch, but whether he actually did or not, once Ledbetter was free, Lomax found a lot of handy uses for him. "Honorary Consultant in American Folk Song and Curator of the Folk Song Archives of the Library of Congress," Lomax was cobbling a career out of "collecting" other folks' music, and he knew where Negro folks were at their purest: "In the prison camps . . . the conditions were practically ideal." For collectors, anyway. Once Ledbetter was loose, Lomax took him on as chauffeur, as valet, as live bait to be dangled before other prisoners in hope of softening their suspicions. Payment was to be negotiated later, another folk music tradition. They left Marshall Texas, and set off straight Northeast. First stop: Little Rock.

Roustabout
(1964)
Paramount Pictures; starring Elvis Presley, with Barbara Stanwyck, Leif Erickson, and Pat Buttram.
Dynamic singer-guitarist Charlie Rodgers (Elvis Presley) is fired from his gig at a teahouse, wrecks his motorcycle, and has a run-in with the law, so he takes a job with the carnival. With Jack Albertson, Billy Barty, Teri Garr, Raquel Welch, and Sue Ann Langdon as the gypsy fortune teller.

Lomax was a pioneering arts-grant racketeer, an Aggie prof who went on to Harvard—no denser brick can be compressed out of red kiln-fired clay. His first book, a collection of cowboy songs, borrowed liberally from a little-known collection by another less scholarly-inclined author, Jack Thorp. Carrying a transcription machine around with him, he established the archetypal field-recording folklorist, more to be feared than wondered at, more to be fled from than sung at. Equipped with all the urges toward authenticity that have always driven white men to blackface, he was doing his pseudo-academic best to establish minstrelsy by machine. Further along, some field-recorders might change his methods—most would not—but the ethical standards he set have remained remarkably consistent.

Once he had his hands on Ledbetter, he knew he'd collected hisself a live one. He dressed Ledbetter in prison stripes, coon stripes, the stripes of minstrelsy, the not far from faux-nigger stripes of what would become Dixieland and of barbershop quartets, and brought him before East Coast audiences. Not much of a liberal himself, he knew how to work bleeding-heart Northerners like a pinball machine. A minstrel show was still a hot ticket up North, even if the white man was no longer weraring blackface, even if he was wearing an entire black man instead.

Huddie Ledbetter learned quick how politically-correct bread was buttered, and on which side. He learned to knock off singing about Brownskin Women and Yaller Gals, to hold back on all the Pigmeat Papa stuff. Prissy young Pete Seeger and his permanently PC Weavers would change the words of "Good Night, Irene" to "I'll see you in my dreams..." from the darker, dirtier, more dangerous "I'll get you in my dreams." Nothing like a fool, Leadbelly learned to fake the party line and commenced singing something he called "The Bourgeois Blues." It was a title that cut on every edge, more edges than the Folkways folk have ever understood.

John Lomax lost all semblance of scholarly objectivity when Leadbelly insisted on doing some collecting of his own: he wanted to collect his pay. More, he wanted out of the jailbird stripes and into a pin-striped suit. John's folk-collecting son Alan Lomax describes the clash: "Two such strong temperaments can seldom collaborate," he wrote. It was a rare and historic instance of a folklorist using the word "collaborate"— even if it was a hilarious malaprop—and should be cherished for its scarcity, then stuffed and placed in a museum, properly labeled, enclosed in a glass case, for public display and the annotated attentions of appropriately-accredited academics. In the Lomax's 1941 book, "Our Singing Country," they laundry-list a blind singer from the Ozarks, dispossessed Texas sharecroppers, a retired cowpuncher, a "Georgy cracker," farmer's wives (if not their daughters), a tomato-canning factory worker, a New England scissors griner, a miner's wife who became a union organizer, a Vermont lumberjack now a car salesman, and that undisguisable dustbowl (and thus dispossessed -- and gritty!) balladmaker, Woody the G. It's practically the entire Popular Front, front and back. It's pathetic and bathetic, Jim. Woe is Us, We The People. Finally, way, way, way down the line, Lomax Pere et Junior get around to naming, folk anonymity or no, ".....the singers who have moved us beyond all others that we have heard between Maine and New Mexico"—and no explanation of why they skipped Arizona and California which I admit pisses me right off —"the Negroes who in our opinion have made the most important and original contributions to American folksong." They name Aunt Harriet McClintock, they name the deadly deathly dull spiritual singers Vera Hall and Dock Read, they name "Dobie Red." They name "Iron Head," but they don't, do not, can not, will not say the cursed name of Lead Belly. They say "Iron Head" instead.

"Iron Head," see, was quite a character—quite a character. By 1947, Lomax had a lot of stories about "Iron Head" for his latest bring-'em-back-alive book, "Adventures of a Ballad Hunter." Lomax had personally gotten "Iron Head" temporarily paroled, see: "Thus, I picked this Negro singer of English ballads, of Ol Hannah, Little John Henry, The Gray Goose, Black Betty, Shorty George, Pick A Bale of Cotton, The Ol' Lady' -- yet this is Leadbelly's repertoire, oddly enough -- and other 'sinful songs,' to be my chauffeur and companion..." Best of all, this time, if 'Iron Head' got biggity, why, right back to prison he goes! But 'Iron Head' is a far more cooperative Negro than that doggone old Lead Belly ever was -- why, he admits that he was guilty of his crimes, for one thing, and when Lomax returns to New York, the place where Lead Belly was corrupted, "Iron Head' "...held on to me in terror." Even so, despite all that Mister Lomax tried to do for him, "Iron Head" eventually lands back in prison, incorrigible, unredeemable. "I should have left him in Sugarland..." to weave horse collars, Cap'n Lomax says, sadder, but much, much wiser.
There may have been, sort of, an "Iron Head." There is a furlough slip, nothing like a pardon, leaving a prisoner named Iron Head in the hands of John Lomax. A man, once upon a time named James Baker, was imprisoned in Texas, and identified only as Ironhead, he recorded some work songs for the Lomax machine. (Those recordings have a half-life that we are only beginning to suspect, by the way, but of course, as a prisoner, as a black man in prison, as a folk artifact, as an object and subject and reject and abject and construct of culture and Folk and of the frighteningly oxymoronic term "field-recording" with its creepy sub-harmonic resonances that reach beyond the slave labor that built the Pharoahs' echo-chamber tombs, well, we can only begin to speculate. Unless, of course, we care to look at the collection of publishing royalties, where reverberations transform themselves mysteriously into revenues.)

But if there was an Iron Head, his identity was swallowed, eaten alive, by Lomax's hunger, by his need to fix Huddie Ledbetter, who was succeeding in surviving in New York City, while he, John Lomax, a once-and-former-Texas banker, a fully graduated Aggie educator, an honored lecturer at Modern Language Association conventions, a guy who could pull out greasy dog-eared letters showing him to be an Honorary Consultant to some goofy governmental boondoggle with a damn official-looking letterhead, was flopping around looking for ways to scrape a living together still. Lomax was doing his dim Aggie damndest to write Leadbelly right out of history. He fucked up, mostly because he'd done to thorough a public relations job folk-pimping him in the first place. All the same, it was a less painful failure than it would have been had he and Alan and Folkways not ended up with their names on Huddie Ledbetter's publishing. That way, songs like "Goodnight, Irene," (the biggest pop music hit of 1950, with it's astonishing resulting effect, and its near-eternal flood of royalty revenues), and "In the Pines," and "House of the Rising Sun," and "Midnight Special," and "Boll Weevil," and "Rock Island Line" would be distinguished by the Lomax name, which in turn would make certain that publishing royalty revenues that might have been squandered on liquor and flashy clothes and such by an ungrateful Negro might go to a better, larger, more important cause.

"So here's to John A. Lomax
And to Orpheus his peer,
With a voice that makes brown ladies swoon,
And a scar from ear to ear..."
—William Rose Benet

"As the half century came to a close Huddie Ledbetter ended his walk through the valley of the shadow and sat down at that welcome table specifically prepared for Scott Joplin, and Dan Emmett, for Black Patti and John Henry, for Buddy Bolden and Blind Lemon. Like the rest of that happy company of American singers, Leadbelly had opened a road for the others who would come after."

—Alan Lomax, from "The Leadbelly Song Book," Oak Publications. (Nearly all copyrights would include either Alan or John Lomax's name or both; only some would include Huddie Ledbetter.)
[Among the happy company Alan Lomax has assembled to greet Leadbelly in that Upper Room's upper balcony, what Carl Van Vechten's novel called "Nigger Heaven," are: Scott Joplin, ragtime composer who died impoverished of syphyllis; the early white blackface minstrel Dan Emmett; the unprecedented "Black Patti," properly named Sissieretta Jones, who triumphed worldwide at the turn of the 20th Century as among the greatest opera singers in all history, though unable to break through the minstrelsy barriers, and who died thieved and penniless; John Henry, the mythic, fantastic, fictional folkloric figure who died with a hammer in his hand; Buddy Bolden, the emblematic New Orleans trumpeter who languished and died in an insane asylum; and Blind Lemon Jefferson, the master blues singer and guitarist and recording artist and street performer whom the young Huddie Ledbetter served journeyman duties alongside, and who died of exposure on a frozen Chicago street.]


"To ballad-makers, long dead and nameless; to the jokey boys whose smiles are dust; to the singers of the lumberwoods, the cattle trail, the chain gang, the kitchen ... and to the horny-handed, hospitable, generous, honest, and inspired folk-artists who carved thse songs out of the rock of their lives, we dedicate this, their own book.
—Dedication of "Folk Song U.S.A.", collected, adapted, and arranged by John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax; Alan Lomax, Editor; Charles Seeger and Ruth Crawford Seeger, Music Editors (piano arrangements by Charles and Ruth Seeger); copyright 1947 by John A. and Alan Lomax.All rights reserved. Permission to reprint material from this book must be obtained in writing, except that brief selections may be quoted in connection with a newspers magazine or radio review. All requests for permission should be addressed to the publishers.

The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly; Pete Seeger (2 cassette set)
Pete Seeger Sings Leadbelly
Ballads of Black America; Pete Seeger and Revernd Frederick Douglas Kirkpatrick
Washboard Band Country Dance Music; Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee
Pete Seeger and Sonny Terry; Recorded at Their Carnegie Hall Concert
Bantu Choral Fok Songs; Pete Seeger and the Song Swappers
Songs to Grow On; Pete Seeger and Leadbelly
How I Hunted the Little Fellows; by Zhitzov as recited by Pete Seeger
Folksongs of Four Continents; Pete Seeger
The Story of the Nativity; Pete Seeger
Pete Seeger Sings and Answers Questions

—from the Folkways Records catalog, which features 53 Pete Seeger albums and 11 collections including Pete Seeger; 8 Peggy Seeger albums and 10 by Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl; 4 by Mike Seeger and 16 by his New Lost City Ramblers. Under SEEGER, PETE: see American Fok, American Folk Collections, African-American Traditions, African-American Traditions Spoken Collections, Blues/R&B, Blues/R&B Collections, Soundtracks-Musicals-Radio, Children's Recordings, Christmas and Holiday, Historical Collections, Music Instruction

"Administered by the Smithsonians's Office of Folklife Programs, Folkways Records is one of the ways the Office supports culture conservations and continuity, integrity, and equity for traditional artists and cultures."
—from "Folkways Recordings; The Asch Legacy" by Anthony Seeger, Curator, The Folkways Collection, April 1991

Currently, the BMI catalog contains 890 compositions with Alan Lomax listed as songwriter or composer; John A. Lomax is listed as the author of 694 titles; in both cases, based on legal issues or royalty revenue stream preferences, other songs are listed with ASCAP, PRS, or other international collection societies.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Aphorism Number 18; (Collect The Whole Series!)

(This one, Number 18, was stated aphoristically and sagely by Patrick last night in Le Dixhuiteme, which I suppose would technically make it en aphorisme.)

"There's no school for losing."

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Seventy-Six Inches of Bazoomas - The Chesty Morgan Story

by Bart Bull
"Just minutes away from showtime!
” the deejay at Fantasy World announces. “We’re only minutes away from Miss Chesty Morgan and her monstrous 76-inch mountains."

We’ve been just minutes away from Miss Chesty Morgan for about two hours now, but this time the deejay happens to be telling the truth. In the meantime, he’s got a question he wants to ask. “Is thisapartyheretonightorwhat?”
Her first appearance is from the floor by the side of the stage. She’s wearing a green-and-silver-spangled gown and an immense matching sunhat, and she strolls the audience slowly, silently, her face set in ethereal abstraction. “Tits!” screams a fan. “Show us your tits!” She strolls on, silent all the while, then goes to the stage. Stepping lightly forward, stepping lightly back, stepping stage left to stage right and back again, she walks with the concentration of someone balancing a beer bottle on her head. When she takes off a piece of her gown and reveals an even more generous portion of herself, the nightclub crowd goes wild.

“Can you believe those bazoomas?”asks the deejay. “TITS!” screams a fan.

She steps forward, she steps back. She holds a beer bottle between them and shakes, then does the same with a pitcher. She squeezes them together between her forearms, releases, then squeezes them again. She steps forward and back, steps back and forward. She says nothing, nothing at all, not a thing.

When it’s over, the emcee brings her back to speak with the audience. “Hi, everybody,” she says. Her accent is broad and surprisingly thick. “It’s so difficult for me chust to carry my boobs, I dun’t have time really to do anyt’ink else.”

“You know, fel-lows, do we have any leg men in the audience? No leg men?”

“Pussy!” yells a fan.

“I kind off like dose leg men to get to see more,” she says, bending a knee, “because I usual get the wat-er-mel-on men come up to see my show, I would say so. Fel-lows, I feel my boobs belong to the public, they’re only ehtteched-uh to me. If I could, I would like for you to touched them but it’s ehgainst the law to touch et, really — that’s the Ar-izona law, you know.

“By the way, you know, fel-lows, I just got a divorce. The reason was we could not get to-gether because of my big boobs. Thet’s why I gotta divorce, huh. My husbend did try to drown me but no chence-uh. I took cold shower lest night, you know, but my feet still kept warm, believe it or no. Yes. I stay at the Hilton Hotel.  Goink into the olovator, believe it or no, I kept the olovator from closink. Yes.”

The crowd is restless. They’re here for tits, not talk. “I can’t understand a fuckin’ word she’s saying,” complains a fan. Somebody is hollering at her from the back of the room.

“Who is dot big mout’ — do you heve any question, you big mout’? Chust a minute, honey, get you hands out of you pockets — no self-entertainment. Thenk you. Appreciate. Yes. What is you question, honey?”

The deejay holds the microphone for the fan. “Does anybody ever give you a hard time about the size of your chest when you go anywhere?”

“What, what?! I din’t hear you?”

“Does anybody ever give you, you know, a rough time about the size of your tits — in other words, do people get freaked out about the size of your tits when you go out in public?”

“Honey, I chust knock them down.” She gets a laugh from the crowd. “Sweetheart, I chust knock them down.”

“You just kind of take those boogers and slap ‘em in their head, huh?" says the deejay.

“Thet’s right, honey. If I fall down, I bounce op wit’ no prob-lem.”

Another question from the audience. “Can you see your feet?”

“No honey. I don’t wanna see my feet-uh — I let the men see et, honey. I love my legs, and I love men and therefore I want them to see my legs. It’s so difficult for me just to car-ry my boobs, I don’t have time really to do anyt’ink else. That’s heavy weight really, you know. Very very difficult, you know. Appreciate you very much, very much. I would love for you to touch them, honey, but it’s ehgainst the law. I wish fellows that you could see it that they’re real. Thenk you very much for comink tonight — do appreciate you comink tonight, thank you very much.”

“The lovely Miss Chesty Morgan, ladies and gentlemen. Miss Chesty Morgan. Let’s put your hands together for seventy-six inches of incredible, amazing bazoomas! Insured by Lloyds of London! For one million dollars! Put your hands together for the lovely Chesty Morgan! Two more shows tonight, ladies and gentlemen, he sure to stick around! We are going to party!”

Thursday, October 23, 2008

As You Do

As you do, I'd forgotten this. As you do.

Until the other day. I got a call from my brother and friend, V, from County Meath.
(I'm tempted, sore and sorely tempted, to say "a ring-jingle from my pal Val...")

And since he's wont to rhyme at you and inclined to recite and declaim, say, much more than merely speak small and sensibly (many another friend of his will attest and affirm to this fact, and that's why we're all his friends, so don't dismiss this as a dis, dear Miss... ) well, now, anyway, as you do, I'd forgotten that of an afternoon this last midsummer, in Paris, in le Jardin Communite', unable to do my Proper Work for some damn reason, after days and nights and nights and days and middays and midnights and dawns meeting me rolling and strolling around in Eire for the first time in donkey's ears' years, after gladly receiving the gift of sight and sleep and sense and salmon from Donla, and the full Irish in the morning as well, after, as ever, being received by Onrai in his own sacred home as the very incarnation of the burr under his saddle that starts and stirs the itch that forces him to stay up scratching late into the night (he needs an excuse akin to myself, does Onrai, as we all know) after being ushered into tents in Kilkenny that resembled tents in Tibet, and into other tents in Kilkenny that resembled Boy Scout outings in Glastonbury, and into still other tents where wine glasses and glasses of stout were urged upon me, and other tents, tents from Japan, perhaps, or Thailand, paper flying sky tents, were lit and sent glowing, squadrons of light, into the sky... whilst a session of serious saints piped and fiddled and accordionated, and I changed reeds like a harried hurried Hessian sent to Pennsylvania on extra-curricular musical reconnaissance....and I think it was it that point that The Grey Guy came tumbling down the hillside and down the stairs and through the door and if I'd only been quicker of mind and intent, I could have swung the front door open and let him roll off toward the millpond or the monastery...


Well after this, this long but short weekend wedding au Kilkenny, and days of Dublin, and County Meath, it was my intention and my duty and my concern that I get right straight back to work on That Dumb Book that all and sundry, those that know me well, and those strangers et etrangers who repeatedly encountered me muttering along the green-broomed gutters of Paris uniformly all advised: Shut up for once and take the damn money, and, above all, quit calling it a stupid book. Or, as the Sufis and the saints and the sensible and the sane and the seanos singers and all the visiting Irish lasses and those in shouting distance of sanity, and several other sage counselors said, in short, and repeatedly, like a dang mantra:
Be Grateful
Accept.
Oh, and shut the fuck up, ok?

Ok, so anyway, I was supposed to get back to work on what I was ungrateful for, and of, and about, and because of, and besides, and, well, I wasn't working and I wasn't grateful. I may, you'll be surprised to know, have been grumpy.

Instead, though, to my credit, I went to the garden, le jardin, the community garden in Le Dixhuiteme, and played steel guitar or accordion or something. I smelled that the artichokes were still early yet and unripe, and the rose-colored roses weren't quite ready, even though we'd had a better, warmer, sunnier, artichoke-ier summer this summer, than last summer's nearly- rose-free grey-nosity. I could hear the bees, tending to business better, far better, than, say, moi. They had deadlines to meet.

V, a Meath man set loose among the bulls he was meant to herd, had turned me on to John Boyle Reilly, yet another astonishing man of Meath, a man among men, a man among men in a large and ever-growing world of ever-lesser men, a poet, a journalist, a Fenien, a transport, a trouble-maker, an adventurer, a prisoner, an escapee, an Irishman and an Australian and an American, a man who dared dig deep and then deeper, and reading him, I got given, "out the blue," as we'd say in New Orleans, this one, lo these many years away from having written poetry, and lo these many centuries away from lyric rhyme.

I'd be inclined to call it doggerel and be done, but I know that the ladder I was climbing was far too sturdy and too special to be dismissed so. And thus it wasn't mine that I climbed.


Val, I never ever write poetry any more, and certainly never lyric poetry.
That's for damn sure. Yet the day I got back, with lots of
work to do and deadlines to meet, life kept
interferring with my
life.

I went down the street to the community garden, which lies alongside some
deceased train tracks in what might as well be a riverbed.

I had the book on John Boyle O'Reilly there, and lo
and behold, I scratched this one out.

Life is long
And far too short
A game played loose
On a shifting court
A pitch, a swing
A bell, a ring
An echo, a cry
We wake, we die.

Life is short
And far too long
The graveyards fill
With the names of songs
We sing, we cry
We laugh and sigh
We cannot see
The other eye.

Life is quick
Yet life lives long
We lose ourselves
Amidst the throng
We dream, we wake
We wake, we dream
We cannot see
Our own clear scheme.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Aphorism Number 17; (Collect the Whole Series!)

Always a parade, rarely the rodeo.

I actually reviewed The Breakfast Club! Swear to God! It sucked too, boy....probably still does...

(Ok, for almost an exact year, I worked -- well, they gave me a paycheck, anyway -- as the movie critic for the Arizona Republic's City Life section. It almost pretty much entirely ruined my ability to sit still in a movie theater for, gee, at least a decade. Or two. Three, maybe. I'm still counting.)

As I believe I’ve already mentioned, movie reviewing is exactly the easiest job in the world. But just like everybody else, movie reviewers like to think they got it rough otherwise how could they come home and bitch about work?

The really, really tough part about being a movie reviewer, the really rotten, awful, painful, muscle-creaking,
undignified part about being a reviewer of movies is that you’ve got to go see lots and lots and lots of movies that are, at least ostensibly, “geared for younger audiences.” Which is way, way, way below your dignity. You’re an intellectual, a critic, a big drinker of espresso. You’ve got a whole wardrobe’s worth of grey sweaters, some of them with leather elbow patches.

But now a movie like The Breakfast Club, hey, we’re talking a whole different thing here. You bet! this is bonafide intellectual fare this time, boy. Here’s one teen movie without an eye-stabbing maniac, without rude sex, without car crashes, with literary quotes (or David Bowie song lyric quotes, anyway) and only one tiny video-style dance routine. And not even any nudity or crudity in that... A movie about real teen life today, with lots of touching real teen life traumas and everything. If only all those darned other unruly teen movies would just behave like this!

So maybe you can’t blame all the movie reviewing whores for matching their copy to precisely fit the film’s publicity, but it doesn’t mean you're obligated to buy in on the project. The Breakfast Club is a stagey little movie, five high school characters sentenced to a Saturday in library detention and thus spending most of the movie in one room. There’s such a thing as a good stagey movie but the immutable laws of drama are a lot tougher to evade when you can’t crash the General Lee though the library window for to rescue Bo 'n' Luke Duke. In other words, if it’s a weak play, it s going to be a crummy movie. The Breakfast Club is a crummy movie.

All the acting in the movie is uniformly just fine, and the little ensemble group of young talents is uniformly young and talented. Director producer writer John Hughes, who’s currently being lionized as “the kind of adult who understands the way kids are today” has provided all the uniform young talented actors and actresses with what is uniformly the sloppiest, dopiest material imaginable

If Hughes is the kind of adult who understands the way kids are today, then kids today are: poor-but-intelligent teen hardguys who play air-guitar to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida; student-council socialites who eat sushi from lacquered enamel lunchboxes but nonetheless are really caring individuals underneath; muscle-bound lunkhead jocks who are deeply disturbed by their own brutal treatment of smaller classmates; near-catatonic manic-depressive punk bag-girls who need only brush the hair from their eyes to bloom into a glowing teen normalcy; skinny little straight-A dorks who break up fights between guys who are twice their size.

Kids today, according to Hughes, are also in trouble because they have bad mean parents and bad mean teachers, and because all those bad mean adults keep forcing them to see one another as stereotypes stereotypes like student socialites and lunkhead jocks and skinny little straight-A dorks. (Not Hughes, however; Hughes only has them be lunkhead and socialite and hardguy stereotypes in the beginning so that we’ll eventually be able to see that deep inside they’re all just one big warm sensitive soulful stereotype.)

And if you take five typical stereotypically untypical kids of today and make them all do detention in the school library together, well, they nearly bust a gut racing to bare their souls to one another, and falling into deeply traumatic psycho-dramatic states, and offering one another deeply revelatory personal thoughts on life and sex and then leaping up to dance on their desk. You know, real contemporary teen life stuff.

Now it’s entirely likely that some teen-agers are going to fall for this puerile garbage (nobody but nobody can feel as sorry for themselves as a teen-ager, and there’s no better balm than the Clearasil-creamy concept of bad, bad adults being to blame for everything) but I’d bet that most high school kids will recognize The Breakfast Club for the transparent shuck that it is. Teen-agers know just exactly how sensitive the student council socialites are, which is why they pack the theaters for the teen-slasher movies, and why they cheer uproariously when the bitchy glamour queen and the muscle-bound lunkhead and creepy gothy punk-rocker and all the rest of the stereotypes who make high school miserable finally get their bloody just desserts.

On the other hand, if The Breakfast Club does pay off, just wait until the plague of imitators begins later this year. We’ll have any number of knock-offs featuring sensitive young teens spreading their traumas across library tables before leaping up to dance all over them, beginning the movie as potential ax murderers and ending as tearful-but-reformed healthy and adjusted and productive teen members of society. We’ll be bombarded with the teen sensitivity formula as a substitute for the slash-a-teen violence formula and the horny teen virginity formula, and it will be twice as phony as Halloween At Porky’s VII, but you can’t say that movie reviewers won’t deserve it, even if you don’t.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aphorism Sixteen: (One of a Series; Collect The Whole Set!)

Grammar and syntax and vocabulary skills take time, but clothes are something you can shop for next Saturday morning.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Ian Dury Encounters the Blazing All-American Sun, And As He Experiences Nearly All the Delights of Arizona, It Tans His Wee Li'l Gimpy-Ass Hide

I believe, if I remember correctly, that I arranged to interview Ian Dury just ever so slightly before I'd bailed on the music magazine I'd been running for what was—


(Dang! Damn! At that age, at 22 or 23 or so, it was like a quarter or a fifth of my life, or something similar. Because I'd been doing it since I was like nineteen or something. Jesus! I mean, I dropped out of high school, so probably you better do the math.)

But all the same, I was inclined to go ahead on, to go ahead and interview Ian Dury because . . . well, because he was Ian Dury. And because I actually kinda got what he was up to, sort of, somewhat. And because it was possible or likely or probably way beyond probable that I might well be the only currently subscribing human species member within like two or three hundred miles of Phoenix F. Arizona who had the faintest fuckin' clue.

Me, I had the faintest fuckin' clue. Maybe only just faintly, maybe. But still it was a clue, Sherlock.

Because what he was doin' was in English, much of it. A whole lot of it, actually. And having been raised in Arizona, English was not my natural ouevre, mon metier, my language, my thang. But his work was, however, in a spectacularly gloriously fucked-up English, in Cockney rhyming slang and vernacular vulgate vulgarisms, and some sheerly poetic rudeness, and this, this cant I could and can do, in many a language, chingadero. I can call you inappropriate names in Dutch, dude, and I can certainly speak to you in Arizona-isms, in an argot d'Arizona that will make you feel like a Dutch, uh, Balzac.

(And plus, hey, I'd attended the occasional English class and everything before I dropped out. Some of which where they read Shakespeare at you, or at least had your fellow classmates stutter through it, and others where you were played records of some English-accented English ac-tor reciting "Paradise Lost," as written by some English guy. So it wasn't like I couldn't talk the stuff if necessary. Although I lived in fuckin' Arizona, dude, so English, let's face it, wasn't ever necessary.)

So I did what you did in those days, and still do today. I went to the desk and called the tour manager. (Though in those days, the tour manager was called the road manager, and it wasn’t until long years later that I truly understood the distinctions.) The road manager was named Kosmo. Kosmo Vinyl. It was early days still for punk rock names, but I’d been immersed from the earliest, so I was less off-balanced than I might have been, but still . . . it’s a tad bit of a challenge to go to the sparkly turquoise formica desk of the tasteful tan TraveLodge of Tempe, Arizona in 1978 and then get them to follow through on ringing Mr. Vinyl’s room, Mr. Kosmo Vinyl. Could you please spell that last name for me again?

Mr. Vinyl appeared after not too many minutes, the ceremonial three-beat delay, hand-operating the tour protocol that involved showing up, saying hello, then disappearing to go appropriately gather the Rock Star. It was, and is, The Way. You wouldn't, for example, have the front desk-tender of the Tempe TraveLodge pick up his tan-toned telephone and ring directly to the room of, say, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth, now would you? No. First, you'd ring Mr. Vinyl's room. De rigeur, dude.

Mr. Vinyl had an almost nearly perfect – no, it wasn’t almost, nor nearly; it was entirely, utterly, precisely perfectly Perfect – punk rock brush-cut hedgehog hairdo, short on the sides, spikey-bushy on the top, but his bush spikes were trimmed as symmetrically as the finest Midlands suburban hedge. It was red, his hair, flame red, fiery red, hot coal red, but Red, RED, a Red not found in nature but mostly in crayon boxes. (Marked "Red.") And this was years and years before this kind of hair-coloration could be located in all the finer hepster hair salons. Certainly in Arizona, that's for certain.

Anyway, Mr. Vinyl was a sight to cause sore eyes, quite likely black ones. In addition to his Woody Woodpecker plumage, he sported one of those sleeveless limey t-shirts, the kind that were known, upon their rare and infrequent sightings in Arizona, as "ladies' blouses," and suggested — no, demanded— a severe and serious ass-whipping when worn on a street by a man. I'd been interviewing the touring musical English for years by then, and invarably somewhere in their entourage, since at least about '75 or so, was a guy, a bloke, a geezer, wearing a t-shirt with no damn sleeves, and he invariably wanted to come with us to the bar where we were going to sit and talk, and when he did, a big ol' Arizona-style whup-ass fight was gonna break out, on account of him shamelessly wearing a ladies' blouse while talking in an English accent like a damn faggot, and thus absolutely enraging the dudes with the elaborately-detailed feathered-plumed cockades arranged precisely just above and across and around the brim of their cowboy hats. Some things is manly, some ain't.

Oh, and Mr. Vinyl's t-shirt-blouse thing was pink.

Meantime, as I did the ritualized heel-cooling in what the Tempe TraveLodge had in place of a lobby, which was a couch and a coffee table and a two chairs and a Coke machine, with candy and cigarettes vending available just down the hall for discretion, two sleepy tousled Blockheads wandered by, confused, as musicians usually are, and as great ones ever are, by their surroundings. The Blockheads, by the way, were Ian Dury's band, his assemblage of astonishingly ass-kicking musos. My memory tells me it was Mickey Gallagher and Norman Watt-Roy, but I've learned, in all the years since, that if you associate with the muddled musician mind of a morning (which for them, fairly enough, is post-noon-ish or better, much later) then your own razor-sharp organ of ratiocination begins to tilt gyroscopically. Soon, should you not be on your guardiest of guards, you'll be helping them find McDonald's in Pisa, or Boomer bass strings (but only the flat-wound ones, not the round-wound ones, the ones that are widely available) in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Sunday, around 6:15 in the evening, when the shops have been closed for 32 hours already.

In this case, I was handily able to help the poor sun-blinded dears learn the arcane ways and names and means and brands and shapes and filters of the cigarette machine, and all its knobby bits, and then as lagniappe, to help them sort through the candy machine nuances as well. All in a day's work, anything for a chum, though perhaps more than my job'sworth, mate. (This is me practicing up, don't you know, for the British-ism and witticism to come, once Herr Dury finally makes his appearance in this thang. And soon come!


(TO BE CONTINUED!!! Hold on to the edge of your seats, kids!)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

In The Ring: Muhammed Ali Meets Leon Spinks y Tony y Ernesto

Maybe it was all because we couldn't hear Howard Cosell. The bar was packed -- jam-packed to the point that getting a place meant you'd better have friends already there who were willing to shove aside, packed to the point that everyone was making queer jokes. In a Chicano bar, when someone gets off a good one, an appreciative audience gives a grito, a special sort of falsetto yelp --- the pachuco equivalent of a redneck holler. Anyway, the place was so full it made getting in and getting out of your seat a real challenge and the air was full of yips and yelps and gritos and laughter and the roaring boast of a bar on a championship fight Friday night.

So you couldn't hear Cosell for shit. And maybe that's why everyone I talked to for the next day or two told me what a joke fight it was, what a bore it was, how it was never really in doubt. Maybe that's what comes of hearing that stork of a voice intone its opinions at you for fifteen rounds. Maybe it damages your ability to get excitede to react the way you would react without it.

Then again, maybe it was the alcohol. Both screens were set over the bar, after all, and it was undoubtedly one of the barmaid's biggest nights ever The screen directly in front of most of us was a big fuzzy large-screen number; off to the side was another, a small and bright standard-sized model. When you wanted the grand picture, wanted to feel the force, it was the big one you watched. . . but when you wanted detail, when you wanted to know precisely where the punches were landing, you watched the little one.

Tony was just about the only one in Leon Spinks' corner. Tony's a truck driver where I used to be a truck driver. He doesn't speak English particularly well, but neither does Leon. Tony's pretty young still, fifteen or twenty years younger than Julian, and I think there must have been something about the idea of this young and illiterate guy climbing into the ring with Muhammed Ali and winning . . .winning! He's the new champion now! . . . that attracted him. Julian and Ernesto, the guys we started arguing and laughing with, they were both 45 or so, thereabouts. They both had those smooth black sweep-from-the-sideburns Big Daddy beards that so many Mexican guys their age have and they both had a firm and considerable but not really oversized gut. Jusian works in the production department of the same factory where Tony works; Ernesto, like Tony, had blue pachuco tattoos on his knuckles.

Ernesto was an Ali man all the way. About the only time the place ever quieted down was weh, just before the final bout, they showed the chronological clips of Ali's fight. Ernesto knew them all. The place was near-silent and you could hear Cosell's voice now but even before he could announce who Ali had been fighting, Ernesto would be telling you who it was and what round it ended. "Brian London" he chanted. "Down in three. Henry Cooper, stopped in five, TKO...." The man knew his fighter. Half the time, he remembered what punch it had been. "The day after the Spinks fight, my wife says to me, "I know what your trouble is -- Ali lost that fight." He laughed. "I saw this one in a dream. Spinks will go down in nine. Man, I saw it. It's a right in the ninth."

Only that historical film clip that led to the fight shook something loose in me. There was the young and clean-cut Negro boy of the post-Olympic press conferences, talking mildly and politely to reporters, trying to be a responsible citizen in a white on white world. And then, just before the first Liston fight, he appeared. Big ol' moon-wide eyes, howlin' and jowlin' and telling a moderately amused world that he was gonna take that big ugly bear of a man OUT! And then doing it. He was like the wild yuoung soul of the people nobody knew ever existed standing over the canvassed boy of Liston at the second match and demanding that he get up and get it on. There were howls of delight all over the bar as they showed those scenes, like memories of the best moments of your childhood coming back fresh and clean.

And for the first few rounds it looked like Ali was in trouble, or at least potential trouble. Many not to Howard it but it looked that way to us.. Tony scored the first three rounds for his boy Leon on his napkin and I think Ernesto remained calm only because he knew for certain that Spinks must go down in the ninth. I found myself concentrating on the little screen and not the big one.

I think it was the fourth round, though, or maybe the fifth, that really shook us up. Ali looked like he hade used himself upalready and was gong to be haning on weakly for the rest of the way, while Spinks looked like he was beginning to figure out how he was gong to win this thing. Ernie looked over at me and said, "I don'k know, sometimes when you think about things all day, you dream about them at night. You know?"

And then there was relief. You could feel it lift the entire bar. Ali started making it clear that the situation was easily in hand, that it always had been. He was not about to lose this fight, even if Tony's napkin had it scored 6-1-3 in favor of Spinks. "Gimme that piece of paper!" yelled Julian and Tony had to laugh as he snatched it away. He had wanted to see Spinks take it away for good, but he'd been smart enough not to put any money on it.

Ali didn't take Spinks out with a right in the ninth -- I'd told Ernesto I'd start going to Mass again if his dream came true, so I was especially relieved about that -- but no one lost interest in the fight at all, even as the closing rounds came along to make it clear. Maybe in homes across the country, people switched off the set, convinced it was just another boring fight . . . but when the official decision was announced, the place went silent again and then, when it was final, men jumped around and hugged each other and there were no thoughts of queer jokes I even saw a couple of guys cry. Maybe it was the alcohol.

(for Pat Murphy)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Joe Ely; Lubbock Calling

The West Texas plains have produced a lot of honkytonk heroes. Joe Ely fits in just fine.
(published in SPIN)

Sitting around of a late Sunday afternoon at Joe Ely’s place, the talk turns back to Lubbock one more time. Maybe it always will. The creek has settled down after this last week’s rain flooded it out against the field, the road between Austin and the ranch is open again, and Jimmie Gilmore’s here to bring back the microphones he borrowed for his show last night at the Broken Spoke. Butch Hancock came along for the ride and they’re both sitting over close by the fire where it’s good and warm.

Another reason they’re here is this theater guy from San Francisco wants the whole bunch of them, all the notorious Lubbock expatriates –– Joe and Sharon Ely, Butch and Jimmie and Jo Carol Pierce, Terry and Jo Harvey Allen and all –– to write and act in this play he’s planning on producing if he can come up with some funding. Which is an interesting concept and everything –– maybe a little loose in the joints, but that’s about right too. It sounds like maybe he’s figuring on getting his funding by busting into some art council’s secret hidden vault–– something about "accurate determinations of currently outstanding grant-in-aid-assessments" –– but that’s okay. If it happens to fall together, that’s just fine. If it doesn’t, nobody’ll hold it against him. They’ve already gone back to telling Lubbock stories again anyway, starting with the Lubbock Lights.

Now the Lubbock Lights were famous UFOs that swung low over the Hub City back in 1957, back when flying saucer fever was pitched way up high. “I have kind of like a little theory, you know? Sharon Ely says. “One of the things that was happenign during that time was there was a lot of of honkytonks up in West Texas, and country music on the weekends, and everybody up there dances in a circle. I mean, I danced in a circle at the Cotton Club, and it causes a frenzy of heat and energy, and I think these Lubbock Light things that were flying over West Texas have this way of detecting heat energy, you know? And ‘cause it’s so fun, they probably went down and saw all these circles of heat rising from all these honkytonks and they probably wondered ‘What the hell is goin’ on?’”

Good question. If it was country music and Texas two-stepping that put Lubbock on the interstellar roadmap, it must have been the Cotton Club that kept the saucers hovering overhead in a low circle. The Cotton Club had been the last stop in West Texas for the big touring Western Swing bands like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys before they headed out for the coast, and it served the likes of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams too. The original club burned down in what unquestionably was a burst of heat energy, but it was resurrected with futurific slumpblock architecture just in time for Elvis Presley and the flying saucer jockeys to show up. And through it all, spaceships or not, the Lubbock locals kept up their West Texas waltz, their enduring shuffle around the dance floor, counter-clockwise.

“Joe and I was talking about that particular time,” says Sharon. “The cotton was doin’ great, there was gamblers, there was railroads runnin’ –– there was a lot of energy coming though Lubbock. I mean, farmers were drivin’ Cadillacs! There were more Cadillacs sold in West Texas than in any place in the whole United States. It was a high-energy place.”

And that’s not even to mention Buddy Holly, Lubbocks’ most notable export besides Phillips 66 gasoline. And higher octane too. Holly had him a Cadillac of his own, pink with blue Naugahyde upholstery, and Joe Ely used to own one just exactly like it until the guy who was repainting it went crazy from too many paint fumes and wound up in a mental hospital and the Caddy just plain disappeared. Now Joe’s got a Honda station wagon he’s thinking of getting rid of. And a three-year-old daughter Marie Elena, named after Buddy Holly’s wife. Seems like there’s a trade-off for everything in life.

The San Francisco fellow has a theory abut the Lubbock Lights that dovetails neatly with Sharon’s. Oddly, maybe, but neatly. He reckons that it had a lot to do with the circular mounds the Plains Indians buil, and the fact that they too danced in a circle.

“And Stonehenge was a dance hall,” Butch adds helpfully. Butch has been showing his notebook around, cartoons and photographs and words all woven together into one lumpy life. Butch writes songs too; a lot of them have made real fine appearances on Joe Ely records, and he also has a real nicely evolved theory of his own about the wild winds that blow all the way down from the North Pole with no interruption at all until they hit Yellow House Canyon and dump raw unadulterated oddball energy right over top of Lubbock –– the wind’s own dominion, home of the dusty hurricane, the original wide open space. “Plus, it was Tornado Alley, so there was already this elemental cirucular thing going on.”

“Counter-clockwise,” Jimmy Gilmore notes. He can afford to be quiet. He sang at the Broken Spoke last night. The Broken Spoke is probably the closest thing to the Cotton Club that’s left in Austin and, well, let’s put it this way: if heaven looks a lot like Texas, the saints will spend Saturday night dancing at the Broken Spoke. In a circle, counter-clockwise. Jimmie’s songs have showed up on Joe Ely’s records too, including one that starts out “Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?,” a line that cansing itself. He can afford to be quiet. “Counter-clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.”

“Like drains,” says Butch. “Dervishes dance counter-clockwise too.” So do West Texans. Always.

“I remember watching toilets before I went to Australia,” Joe says, stretching back, “made sure and flushed ‘em and remembered which way they went. And I got to Australia and the first thing I did was flush a commode. But their holes are square....”

Somebody or other starts speculating about the Lubbock Lights again, and how maybe what they were up to was they were out scouting around for Buddy Holly and maybe he didn’t actually die in that plane crash but got picked up by space folks. Of course that would mean that the outer space fellas got Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper as pure gravy. Anyway, somehow or other, this reminds Joe of a a little story about this cousin of his back in Lubbock who grew onions one year.

He didn’t know anything about onions, never grew any before this, but he went on ahead and planted onions. Got so all you could smell was onions. Since he hadn’t ever raised any onions before, he didn’t know where to sell ‘em when it came harvest time, so he picked and loaded ‘em all up and went to a Furr’s Supermarket in Lubbock. Maybe it was garlic and not onions –– anyway, he went to the manager, and the manager said, Sure, we’ll take a gallon or two. Well, he had a whole truckload of these garlics or onions, whichever, and after he’d drove around to supermarkets all over town and they each one took a gallon or two, he could see he wasn’t getting nowhere. Finally, he got so mad he just took it all home and dumped the whole load out in the middle of his field. They just set there and rotted and his neighbors got mad because it smelled so bad and he had to hire someone to come out and dig a hole to bury all these onions. Cost him five hundred bucks.

“Needless to say, there were no werewolves in Lubbock County that year,” Butch adds.

Fin de Seccion Numero Uno

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Space Is His Place; or, The Toga Party of the Spheres

It's easy to be weird when you're an ancient Egyptian from Saturn but nobody's ever accused Sun Ra of not giving it his absolute best shot. A lot of your Afro-Saturnians take a somewhat low-profile approach to life on this dull orb, dressing as the rest of us dress (more or less), speaking as we speak, sticking mostly to the sidewalk, crossing on the green. After all, when in Rome, join the toga party. Not Sun Ra, though; never a believer in shining his light 'neath a bushel basket, for at least the last 25 years he's let his Supra-CosmoPsychic origins speak for themselves. Say it now and say it loud: I am heliocentric ectoplanetary form made flesh, and I AM PROUD!

As you can well imagine, keeping an Intergalactic Arkestra together for two and a half decades is no small task. Consider the difficulties of assembling such an outfit in the '50s, when the big bands were withering away and the roster of those bands playing Basie-derived sub-atomic squonk was even smaller than it is today; when the majority of Afro-Saturnians were still passing, and thus rather loath to assemble themselves on the bandstand wearing fish-scale gold skullcaps and beam-reflective silver capes, especially when the bandstand haberdashery of the day called for something sharp in a dark Continental suit and a one-stripe tie, with maybe an off-the-stand addition of a sports-car cap set a jaunty angle for class,dash, and panache.

This time, though, Sun Ra and the Arkestra were playing Berkeley Square. That the nightclub is considered primarily as a new pave/wunk rock outlet makes no diff to Sun Ra; the Anglo-Plutonians who occupy such places dress in a manner that clashes wonderfully with the Arkestra's raiment, and besides, Sun Ra's always considered himself something of a teen idol anyway. "When we was playin' over in Portugal, the place we was playin' at wasn't that full up and the teenagers come in over the fence. 'Cause they didn't have no money anyway. Over there if they don't like you, they th'ow corncobs at you. Didn't th'ow any at us." He's talking to this guy from a radio station wearing a white leather motorcycle jacket named Uncle Mark — the guy, not the jacket— and Sun Ra's road manager and some guy with a notebook and another guy with a knit cap jammed full of dreadlocks are all in the dressing-room with them, all of them listening as Sun Ra runs it down. There's a little boy with a shirt that says he's Superman curled up asleep inn the corner on a ledge. "That's why musicians should be on TV more," Sun Ra says, "the ones that are doing something, 'cause in Mexico every Sunday they got all types of music on TV, got musicians from all the different places there, all the sections of the country, I guess, and jazz — they don't play too much good jazz in Mexico, the musicians."

Popular as he is the world over — and he is; most of Europe greets the Arkestra with the sort of welcome that America's cultural commissars reserve for visiting ballet troupes or noted French filmmaker/philosophers — Sun Ra refuses to restrict himself. After a recent swing through England and Scotland, some promoter apparently approached him with an exclusive offer that would have set the Arkestra to touring the length and breadth of the British Isles indefinitely. "Can't do that, 'cause we dealin' on a psycho-spiritual plane . . . can't be signin' up with one nation." And while he's on that plane, and before the No Smoking signs come on, there are some other things he'd like to accomplish. "I suppose there's such things as spiritual criminals," he tells Uncle Mark. "I'm trying to get them to let me be their lawyer, so I can talk to God for them."

Sun Ra is a pretty steady extemporizer, rolling right along, steady as a river with none of the rush. He takes his time, lets the pauses have their places, but the only thing that stops him dead full is when the fellow in the blue blazer and sandals comes in. He comes in on a glide — none too easy in so small a room, and he sweeps over to Sun Ra and gives hime a big wide hug. "You're lookin' good!" he says. "Lookin' good!"
Sun Ra nods and smiles, accepting his due. The fellow in the blazer has those hipster moves, those Love You Madly hipster moves you don't see much any more, graceful and direct. Smooth, like a knife slicing soft margarine on TV. He's telling Sun Ra about some woman they both know (or that he thinks Sun Ra knows, at least; if Sun Ra does know her, he doesn't seem too very interested in hearing about her) and about where the hipster is living. "I was living in the Village," he tells Sun Ra. "But now I'm out here."

"It can be nice here," says Sun Ra. "You got—"

"I don't think I'd want to live back there again. Oh, to visit, sure. To visit. But to live there again? Uh-uh."

Sun Ra is determined. "I'd like to live in Greece, there along the Adriatic, the Mediterranean. It's nice there, lots of sun—"

"Oh, the sun in Italy is just—"

"With them old temples and columns and—"

Superman stirs in the corner a little and goes back to sleep. The hipster in the blazer and the sandals shares a few more memories with Sun Ra, then he gets up to go. "Been wonderful seein' you again," he says. "You're lookin' great!"

Sun Ra gives him a benificent smile and a parting nod and gets back to his interview. He gets around to the suppression of creativity. "I saw a man with roller skates had a motor on 'em and the po-lice came over and made him stretch out and said 'You can't do that 'round here — you operatin' a motor vehicle . . .'"