I heard the horns blare as they’ve seemed to
four times a day
but this time
slow to a halt and rumble
three overlapping jurisdictions
fire logic predominates
different assets, different trucks
twenty, thirty engines, cruisers?
spanning a quarter mile?
One small house steaming smoking
up the night
another battalion assembles
flips open the side rack
particular axes, specialized pry bars
the sub-normals of the neighborhood
a few of us about
Nothing much happening
the street is shut down
a major artery
but a time of day
not many notice or care
about three guys
doing the actual work
no one seems hurt
just another slow change
I bought my first three records in 1977 and due to the genius of the medium, spent a lot of time pondering the album art. ‘Art’ is the correct term here, though the designs were intended to be mass-produced, to break the confines of institutional settings such as a museum or gallery. However, there is nothing about any proper work of art, such as a Picasso or Rembrandt, that would make it unsuitable to be reproduced in this way, as album art, nor is there anything about the nature of album art that demands that it conform to any of the formal, aesthetic, or theoretic demands of the art world, the museum, or the gallery. Specific album art can be said to be ‘bad’ or a failure of some sort, but it never really is- by virtue of existing it creates meaning about itself, and thus succeeds in its function of providing visual clues to the larger enterprise that is being presented. One of the albums I purchased (Fleetwood Mac) featured on its cover an enigmatic ensemble, a man with high boots and a cane nearly in silhouette drinking what might be a flute of champagne with a flourish. A man beside him noticeably impersonates a midget, while juggling a mysterious ball, (or the ball is hovering above him while he makes some strange gesture), the both of them framed by a door that is unfixed to any wall, but remains a portal nonetheless. Although I am about to offer an interpretation of what this might mean, the mysteriousness of the image (its cheesiness notwithstanding, and in harmony with the times), the deliberate evocation of mystery that it presented made it the perfect object of study while one listened to the songs as they played on one’s phonograph. It was a head-scratcher, as was all the best album art, but really, as I intend to argue, thus it was without nearly trying, though here and elsewhere are examples of trying very hard indeed. That is, any image associated with a rock band invites interpretive contemplation, regardless of what the image actually is, by its very nature of being attached to something larger than itself. Of course in the end everything is attached to everything and we do indeed find meaning by following these lines, but in this case I am referring to the very limited constellation in rock that is image/sound/lyric/performance and other sources of information that create meaning for the participants. The collapse of album art in its finest formats, the cardboard vinyl album cover, and the paper 7” sleeve, did not end rock music (and other popular genres that used them), but it destabilized it greatly. Bands still could, as always, write songs, sing and play them, and present many different types of performances and images, but the end result is somehow different, a scramble to find that fleeting, but stable, (stable as a thing in itself, though obviously not stable as a trend) mirage that is/was meaningful popular music.
This seems almost a silly claim. Album art, specifically as it existed as part of the product of vinyl production, was an undeniable joy of the experience of following the artists whose work became thus manifest, but is it an essential aspect in enjoying music? That was one way of doing things, and other ways preceded it, accompanied it, and others that could emerge will equal, perhaps one day surpass that peak. Dancing, for example, being an eternal example of a true way to approach music. The cracked and scratched jewel-case didn’t quite match the vinyl era of album presentation, no. And a scratched record is usually far more usable than a scratched cd, but these are trivial debates, because after all… it’s the music that counts, right? Well yes and no; yes there are plenty of trivial debates to get immersed in while on this subject, and yes, music is more essential to a music group than any specific form of packaging, but rock and other popular formats are about more than just music – there is always a constellation of information and meaning to be had, whatever the particulars- this constellation is essential to the final communication of any artist. To simply hear a song, say on the radio, and then never find out any other information about what it is, where it came from – this is the essence of an incomplete act. The music must be distinct, it must be pertinent, and to be pertinent it is essential that rock music go beyond just music to find its full expression. To fully express itself rock music must call on the powers of its true nature, and if this true nature were to be revealed we would see that rock music is in fact theater, and that all rock bands are in fact theater troupes.
Let’s go back to the image on Fleetwood Mac’s 10th album, their second eponymous album, often called by fans the white album. As I said above, the image seems self-consciously mysterious and is intended to be a head-scratcher, resistant to interpretation. Saying so however moves it down the road towards interpretation, but I believe it’s quite easy to push it further. The doorframe liberated from everyday use makes two things of itself, it as at once both a prop, and an abstract portal, that is to say, a theatrical stage device. The poses of the two figures are both dramatic, each a caricature, thus comic, and yet severe (a shortened man, a man in command) thus tragic. They span low and high, aristocratic and plebeian. The two men are in fact representations of the masks of drama and the whole image is an evocation of the theater in its most classic sense, the roots of which we will explore further. Which, being one album cover, doesn’t prove anything, but proof is not the issue – it fits, and there is more to look at, so let’s continue.
How is rock (and other forms of musical entertainment) theater? What is theater? Well, the question posed as such uses the word, ‘theater’, meaning a building. Not just any building of course but a building devoted to a certain use, and it is the intention where the meaning really lies, as a theater can be outdoors as well. Having a building is not really the point at all, but relevant in that having a space is what is needed, a space for a certain kind of action to take place. Action is an appropriate description, in that action, or doing, is the root word in Greek behind the word drama. The doers are the actors, and the action is a drama, and the drama is the performance that is viewed in a theater. The theater can be an actual building devoted to performance, or it could be an outside area. The area (inside or outside) could be furnished for performances, or it could be completely impromptu, provided the local conditions are amenable to a performance taking place. Adverse conditions outside could be an unfriendly beat cop, unwelcoming local merchants, hecklers of any stripe, or a hail storm- and any of these could be temporary and thus overcome, inside, the same could be said, that there are hazards and obstructions that could be overcome – what is really at stake is security (some kind of outer boundary, just as a dreamer must have a safe space for her body to sleep) and thus the resulting freedom to perform within (for the dreamer to dream, and the performance to be viewed). Now, in actuality safe, the performance must challenge that again, and put the audience on edge somehow. Assured, the audience sits in terror at what might take place, or is taking place. The world, being an incredibly open stage, invites us to be players. Play being another apt synonym for what takes place in the theater (plays).
And people play in bands and these bands play in theaters and in auditoriums, and in amphitheaters, and in garages as well, but always on a stage, well not always, but when there is no actual stage one is approximated somehow, by placing the band in a viewable position, or by crowding around them. But does this make rock the same as Death of a Salesman? Clearly if they are both forms of theater they are different forms, but there has always been room for different forms of theater.
Rock makes its home in the theater but is playing rock music akin to acting? Yes it is, it’s really inescapable. One cannot mount the stage to play and credibly deny that one is making a theatrical performance. Many have understood this principle and taken it to its logical outcome and yet there have been efforts at many times to deny this and instead promote an ethos of authenticity. Well I hate to break it to the earnest but it’s not necessary to wear a feather boa, or Shakespeare pumpkin pantaloons to be a performer. Wearing your work clothes, or your street clothes on the stage results in a performance of working class values, or of street cred, or whatever other form of authenticity one is touting. Some go the other way, and wear their theatrical clothes in everyday life – like the ‘every day is Halloween’ crowd. Many a rocker gets lost in these roles and never quite know whether they are on the stage, or on their way to the post office or supermarket and so wear their pajamas at either. And despite the brain fart that may or may not have taken place, I am not saying that these resulting performances are illogical, (or flawed) or in any way necessarily ridiculous, no, they are natural. I am merely pointing out that appearance has become part of the drama, and that all aspects of presentation are a performance that must be taken as theater. I myself have many favorites (bands or even genres) that have played and presented themselves as plain-dressed, and I think their choices worked. But let’s not insist that Bryan Ferry (whose father was a farm laborer) wear Dickies overalls, or wish that Alice Cooper (whose album, Love it to Death is a perfect example of a way of writing rock as theater) had not worn eye make-up. In some ways this plain-clothes guideline in rock is just a puritan indulgence by white guys who are also too dignified to dance. And it never escapes being theater.
To be clear, I am not saying (though one could) that every person who is clothed is wearing a costume or is somehow making a statement by the clothes that they have chosen, but only that – once one mounts a stage – such choices are naturally read by the viewers. As is the choice to be unclothed or partially clothed. And viewing, whether it be viewing cardboard album art, or a live performance, or an MTV video clip, is an essential aspect of the theater of rock.
Rock perhaps is not visual to the blind, and let’s also consider the act of listening to music in the dark. Although I’ve never spoken to a blind person about music, neither a person blind from birth, nor someone who has seen, and then lost their sight, I’ve put on headphones in bed, or simply had a song in mind, powerfully performing itself. I’m sure someone can tell me whether this is the same for all of us, that an inner vision takes over, which can be abstract or distinct (and is more so, either way, the more drugs one takes). Is it a stretch to say that with music, the blind (or those with their eyes closed) see? Let us ask Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. (And why are there no blind white rockers?)
When a rocker mounts the stage, and is viewed, he or she is playing a role. This is why any serious critic of rock must acknowledge David Bowie as one of the avowed masters of rock, whose distance from and yet complete embodiment of the personae he created completely fulfilled the potential within the form. But not everyone has to be David Bowie to do something that matters (within rock). The stage is wide open for a range of expression that our description should not limit.
And rock must not allow itself to become too self-important, it goes against the whole point of it somehow. This principle is part of the struggle of why rock cannot fully accept that it is theater. Theater is something that can be seen as being pretentious, like Poetry (as it is regarded in America all too often – see discussion below), and must be torn down, whereas theater is in fact a mass form of entertainment (let’s not forget vaudeville) that arose out of rural festivals that celebrated wine, a goat-god, and featured parades of penis statues, among other things. We can’t describe it completely because it all occurred at the horizon of civilization and even then arose out of a purposefully mysterious setting, what we call the mystery religions, but the outlines and visible aspects are well studied and known. Orpheus, Dionysus, Krishna, Shiva – these were the first rock stars.
And let’s just agree that rockers don’t really need to know about history, or understand theater, or really have a professed theory of anything to succeed in their craft. They just need some kind of sense that comes from within that drives them, as well as a connection to their times. But having zero sense of drama- that is definitely not a formula for rock.
But why bring this up? Because one day I looked around me and noticed that rock is dead. Pan is dead! I declared, the only god that ever died. Who knows, maybe epic tragic death is part of what makes rock. And probably, along with it, the potential for rebirth.
The first time that I witnessed rock die (but not the first time overall that it died) Punk killed it, thankfully many would say. Many of these killers of rock however were self-consciously rock revivalists, like the Ramones, who even dressed like Sha Na Na. When my cohort (a smaller set than my generation, to be sure) came of age and could freely associate beyond the structures of our childhood, we were fully steeped in rock but only drove the knife in deeper by giving ourselves up to music that seemed more punk than punk, a music that was barely music (which is another way of pointing out that this is all theater) but theater or not, rock and its sub-currents exist as social movements, or they are nothing.
Social movements are forces that either buttress social order or threaten to upend it – rock is caught in a crux where it begins as a natural, unruly force that then gets tamed and sacrificed, its spilt blood now useful as a consecration of the status quo. Think of how rock anthems are constantly being adopted by presidential campaigns, to the perennial complaint of the aged rockers who penned them.
Think of the baby boomers.
I was, like any true rock fan(atic), an adherent, a partisan, which meant that a performance by a band sacred to us was a call to arms, an alert for all hands to be on deck, and after hearing the word passed along by network, one must be there if at all possible. The music itself was at first (due to the ethos that had developed as a strand out of punk, and become hardcore punk) not intended to be beautiful, rather it was a chant of togetherness, and of repulsion to those who would be outside of it- it was a fight song, a would-be war song. But it was music, and eventually the desire that it be beautiful crept in (which at first seemed a validation- that we were right to be the way we were – as we possessed the beautiful, disguised though it was in the disapproval we wore as a mantle). This desire for, and realization of beauty, itself killed hardcore punk, an experimental avatar of rock theater destined to be short-lived, but crucial in its creation of networks of distribution and nodes of production. Faced with this- as we more and more accepted that we were part of rock, we could not help but to make a transmission of our culture into the wider environment (Nirvana et al and the dawn of post-punk which when conceived as mere product was marketed as ‘alternative music’). In fact this was not a process that started here and ended there but was part of a drama that had always taken place, each time a band formed, each time a song was written or rehearsed, and then became a thing in itself, something that others hummed to themselves, or sang aloud.
This private to public transmission was perhaps first set up by the mystery religions with their theater of initiation that transformed into the widespread public affairs that were the Tragedy competitions during the festivals of Dionysus oh so many years ago. But I don’t mean to harp on Greece – this example of theater, though it is integral to Western culture, out of which rock sprang, is just an example. Let us not forget Africa, the other true parent of rock, or Asia, or any other part of the world where rock, or any form of meaningful popular music (hip-hop e.g.) may spread to or come from. All human habitudes are brimming with drama and theatrical traditions.
I began a form of participation in this theater of hardcore when 14 or 15 and then more, when I could drive to the nearby cities (D.C. and Baltimore) and watched my private club (a floating roster of meeting halls) open its doors and swell with the hoi polloi, in fact, I was the hoi polloi, not an original club member at all, but an -nth wave gate crasher. The club (again, a loose association, an identity, an unfixed location) was composed of people like myself, it addressed itself directly to our sensibilities, welcomed us on stage (to scream lyrics, and then stage-dive), and had an ethos of minimal security other than the fighting that took place in the pits (more than 90% of the violence was theatrical, though occasionally it wasn’t). It was only natural that the disaffected youth of America, whose numbers go beyond any count that I can make, would take to it, and form the -nth ++ wave, the tsunami, only it didn’t sit quite right after it was over. In fact, hardcore never went big, but was the seed that split and grew from a sprout into something else. Was this a victory? For many it was.
The final inevitability that any subculture may be appropriated and thus neutered of its revolutionary potential – the notion that this can take place sets up a few questions about what this people’s music is, and how it may best be deployed, performed, or enjoyed. We’ve been speaking mostly about rock, (and then hardcore) but all of this is just as true for hip-hop, soul, pop, any popular genre, even of course any genre known in short-hand as ‘rock’. (glam, metal, punk, prog).
But what do we mean by ‘revolutionary’. It’s hard to limit this if we are planted within rock – as it is decided on by the participants. We can say that this begins as an exercise in imagination. Does it end there as well? Can rock finally be a revolutionary act in the political sense (where theory of revolution is much more codified), or is there an absolute demarcation between the world of rock and the world of politics?
Politics and the political realm are difficult to demarcate, people are bound to say things like ‘everything is political’ and just as likely to deny that anything in particular is. There are some areas that clearly are politics proper, such as a parliament, or the arena of diplomatic negotiations, but even within these there are activities that cross over larger categories, for example the performance of oratory, the realm both of the actor and the statesman (and who can tell the difference some would say). The aesthetics, the soaring language of a speech could win the day on an important vote, as could a well-designed and branded political campaign win an election. The arts thus play a crucial role in politics but the default understanding of rock is that it is against all this, or not a part of it, or something… Is rock in opposition to the political realm itself, or does it simply function as opposition politics, holding within it the aspiration to nurture a nascent golden age (or other imaginary world-that-is-not-this-world)?
The birth of the political within rock took place in the birth of (yes) theater. Before theater – there was the storyteller who told the lore of the group- all meaning was continuous from the past. Then our first modern setting arose and theater (the division of the storyteller into actors and chorus) stepped up to address the complexity (the complexity of democracy for example). Theater, as Greek Tragedy, discussed issues facing the populace, the rulers et al, riveting the audience and providing catharsis, the cleansing of emotions. The issues may have been disguised as the mythical past but they were felt as an immediate presence.
Rock, like theater, is a human affair, concerned with politics, concerned with love, hunger, death, concerned with any human concern, but like theater its action cannot be said to be practical. Actors, artists, rockers, all need to get paid, all need to eat, but their acts as artists are not practical, rather they are inherently abstract. A songwriter may be drenched with practical, political concerns but what comes of it? A song, a song drenched in whatever it is drenched in. Something an accountant, a lawyer, a politician does in reverse, taking abstract concepts such as numbers and laws and making them practical.
And yet this theatrical churning of all and any issue does cause agitation, that currency that amounts to a check the ruled can accumulate and unleash upon the rulers. The politician proper pricks up his ears when he hears the sound of agitation – be he king or freshman councilor. Whether this sound be signal or noise – of concern or trivial – can all be discovered by the well-tuned political ear.
Let’s look at agitation on boil – riots- this is a political realm wide open to adherents of the arts. Spectators riot, either in support of or against the work (see Black Flag and Igor Stravinsky for former and latter) the police can show up and riot (see Black Flag again; or the earlier Sunset Strip riots beginning in 1966. In So Cal bands and their fans have often been taken to be gangs by the police, an assessment not wide of the mark). Riots speak the language both of social upheaval and counter-repression (see Kent State). Such actual riots are rare, but the sensation that they will erupt is not – to a conservative, the mere appearance of a rock partisan is a riot (until the boomers took power at least). Behold the rocker, doing what? Raising a freak flag – what ho! An army arises behind the rocker – the rocker reads off a list of demands, articulates a political platform – how often does this actually happen? Maybe there was a time but even then, as now, the power was in the fact that it seemed to be happening (because it was theater) and not in any actual practical threat. Some say the psychedelic music scene ended the Vietnam War, though if you go back and look at the dates, the Summer of Love was in 1967, the Woodstock Music and Art Fair was in 1969, and the withdrawal from Saigon was in 1975. Although the debate over whether organized protest drove or effected this political decision cannot be resolved by asking whether 6 or 8 years is a long time, or a short time – (it’s a long time when bombs are dropping) -, it is clear that the combined theater of dissent, based on the foundation of the music scene, created a lot of drama – a LOT of Drama – according to its natural ability – its ability as an offshoot of the theater.
There is a lot of flag waving in rock, even allegiances to militias, at times. It is hardly unheard of e.g. the Crips/Bloods, IRA, FSLN, and LTTE all have been referenced and/or paid allegiance to by well-known performers. Also, consider the ‘Southern Man’ tiff between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd (the band and their fans both being exemplars of Confederate battle flag rituals, and thankfully taken to task for it, at least on this occasion). Rockers are prone to political arguments, however, that could be said of anyone, of Everyman, but in the end they are not legislators, or law enforcement, or generals or politicians of any stripe (other than that of the cultural diplomat, e.g. Bono, with Václav Havel fulfilling some other kind of archetype) -unless they effectively retire themselves as rockers. Admittedly, this is a description of a world that is intertwined, and some may find it unnecessary or unconvincing to pull apart the threads, but let’s look at what is at stake. What do you want? To be political with your art or music, but without being theatrical? This is just not possible. Do you want instead to have theater and art that is not political – at all? Go ahead and try- that’s an entirely different discussion, as it would be to imagine the world of politics without any art, stripped bare. In the end probably none of these propositions are possible. Popular concerns, musical subjects, theatrical performances, and political actions are all in a perennial interaction with each other.
And let’s remember, there are large-scale politics and there are everyday politics and/or the politics of matters that may not be headline news but nonetheless are all-important. Rock has lost the ability to comment on large issues, so it redeems itself by patrolling the everyday, and providing a report, as if it were a poet. Rock lyrics are of course a form of poetry (as are song titles, album titles, band names – it’s all a poetic literature), that form necessitating they be but one component of a larger piece that matches the weight of a real poem, the total music and performance of a song being on par with a poem. The rocker can fulfill the figure of the poet quite easily; the strange hat or bold hair, the cape or cane or boots, and most importantly, the wild look in the eyes. Of course not every poet fulfills the profile of a brigand or pirate, nor does every rocker, but they are both required to make up for it in some way, or be irrelevant. To appear as a poet, rockers allow their theater troupe – the band – to fade into the background and their efforts then are presented as a singular voice. They become a unit of one, the solo artist, even though they can be unpacked by the astute ear and eye to be the ensemble that they actually are – it is all just a presentation, whereas a real poet actually is just one, and provides her own music and beat in the bargain. Even the rocker who stands alone on the stage in fact is not alone, and at least invites his arms (to play the guitar), and can then go a step or more further, and accompany himself on harmonica while singing, or tap his heel – he may appear to be a poet but he is not a true poet; rather he is a one-man band. Bob Dylan is exactly not a true poet – he is a rocker that produces material that serves the function of poetry, and is on par with it, and why not? This is a good thing.
Poetry is words that are organized in a way that the mind can draw from them some meaning – rock lyrics are often howled or mumbled and cannot be understood immediately. We stretch our minds to accommodate this – it’s all part of the fun (‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’). Poetry uses music to create emphasis, and rock uses words to create music – music being inevitably more abstract than language. Music is a language, a language without words, and when words become unintelligible, they remain as sound.
Poets are said to be held in high regard (in many cultures) outside America whereas in America, until you arrive in a poetry scene or unless you just happen to travel in educated circles, poetry is mostly just (when it is thought of at all) considered to be reserved for effete faggots. And of course there are homosexual poets and poetry readers, some of the best poets are gay (Sappho, Oscar Wilde, James Merrill, and who knows how many others), the same could be said of rockers (Freddy Mercury, Rob Halford, Darby Crash, Morrissey, and so on, with the female sexual preference perspective being too complex to even address, a status that can go beyond static descriptions and instead be a spectrum of movement), but this epithet ‘faggot’ comes almost exclusively out of the mouths of adolescent males (and their uncles and coaches) who ironically tend to, and are in many cases, pledged to only keep the company of other males, whether they be hooligans or football players (or some hybrid). To them poetry is for faggots, a guy that has a girlfriend is a faggot, everything they don’t understand is faggotry, that is to say – all this only says something about the culture the accuser is defending, and not much about poetry – other than that it is threatening. Rockers again take their place as poets by brawling in the high school lunchroom with such bullies, because there are few of the other kind of poet to take the heat, and who would recognize one in any case.
But rock is dead, as I was saying, although it is evolving and growing. As an undead phenomenon. Some random observations: The School of Rock movement for kids undoubtedly yields moving performances and maybe hordes of actual artists will emerge from it down the line. Rock also is now delivering education and entertainment geared specifically to kids, by performing children’s music that is at the same time rock. This is happening on the show Yo Gabba Gabba (if you haven’t seen it – it seems specifically geared to couples who watched Pee-Wee’s playhouse, and never thought Paul Reubens committed an actual crime anyway- rather a faux-pas, and now suddenly find themselves raising kids and are seeking to enjoy the experience for all it’s worth). Also, a lot of children’s music is being produced out of solid hipster families, rockers taking an active role in raising their kids and seeking to unapologetically reproduce what they see as the best of their values. And moving on from children, rock has aged and aging rockers are still touring, and just playing and enjoying themselves, from the Feelies to some surprisingly non-extinct rock dinosaurs. But if you’re not a kid or a senior citizen it’s harder and harder to believe that anything is really happening in rock – the rather large exception being the people who perform and go to shows, largely confined to urban areas in the subcultural domain of rock clubs, or the smaller realm of the more guarded and mysterious underground warehouse parties (I’m speaking more of the noise and experimental scene than raves). These folks believe rock is alive (even if they call it by a more preferred name), or rather they understand that it is dying and has always been dying. This is just part of the drama of it all. When I say rock is dead I am not talking about you or your mates, or your granddad/mom, granddaughter/son, you guys are doing good work. Of course (a large) part of what I am saying is that I have just lost touch with everything. But it’s too easy to do, and when I do look around, it seems that nothing is happening that isn’t some splintered, isolated, community-based lodge-meeting (which – in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing – it can be everything if the spice and cooking is right, but it can be downright boring for those not seeking membership). Rock is in a phase of being ever more cryptic – in fear of being captured it speaks secret, natural languages, and has retreated into a thicket. At the same time it must market itself, brand itself, and perform all the functions that capitalism used to do for it. Rock has seized the means of rock production via the computer and all the robotic tasks that wonderful machine is capable of, and now become professionalized, and thus slick and uninteresting. Which is a drag for the local working class, who are reduced to following defunct jam bands, and for critics, who are too tired to get further than the turntable out of range of their couch or easy chair or stool (or rough bench even) when listening to music, but who can kill it every once in a while with the wax on the dance floor. After this rather transparent self-portrait (the critic with the phonograph, not the jam-band devotee) I have little else to say other than a few more observations:
It’s always nice to see a nearly forgotten or even unknown rock song come alive in full form in a film segment, as cinema (and disheartening when this is blundered e.g. the totally weak use of Black Sabbath’s Iron Man by Jon Favreau during the Iron Man film credits).
T.V., never shy of being sensational, should commit itself more (at least ONE show) to showcasing outré rock and hip-hop acts doing a truncated performance as an aside during a sit-com or other suitable format. I am thinking of how exciting it was to see Motörhead as well as the Damned and others on BBC2’s classic anarchic sit-com ‘The Young Ones’. Pro-tip to the producer reading this – the music doesn’t have to be this sure-fire classic, curate it more as a magazine of ‘what’s happening’ – people are always interested in that. Let me be clear – this has to showcase music that has a small, but devoted following. Don’t mess with successful acts as neither of you have time for each other and in any case would be sure to be tremendously boring. Remember, not-yet successful acts who have already proven themselves to their local followers are incredibly interesting, at least in a passing way, and a showcase can profit from the aggregate spectacle. This formula worked for American Bandstand, Soul Train, MTV, and many Late-Night TV shows like Saturday Night Live or David Letterman. Since the beginning, rockers have had countless cameos in sit-coms and movies but, with a few exceptions, these have all been scattered and irregular. It needs to be done more methodically, by having a quick band segment on every episode that the ensemble bops to.
The puerility of a show like American Idol could be relieved by merely focusing on good, original music, music not made by pliant absolute amateurs, but rather by practiced groups who have just outgrown their first petri dish. Instead of a show displaying the insidious effect of capitalism on people’s artistic impulses, just let it be a Battle of the Bands revue. The attempt to create music as commercial product may not be overcome by this suggestion (also, I don’t really watch T.V., but could always start), but having a visually dramatic competition open to new contestants is not a bad idea for reviving rock music – this is how drama was originally done.
About two days ago
On Sunday or Monday, I forget which
Or between them, at midnight
I lay in bed
I thought: Here we go again
Poised on the brink of utter violence
We’re all waiting for it
The whole country knows
Where it will happen
It will explode at a rally
And crush someone’s body
Someone’s son or daughter
Lost in mad bloodlust
Denigrated and hastily dismissed
By gears turned malignly
Not without thought
But without precision or care
A battle in a coliseum
I foresaw this spectacle
I used no talent in this
Only sleep – lost hours of sleep
I felt a lull, really felt it
I looked around
Spring is pushing up
Hungry though they are for the mulch
Of all living things
Chilly winds and sunshine mingle
Pleasant warmth with brisk tones
One could jaunt about
But me? Well…
I need a nap after all the tossing and turning
Have we paused in our course?
Dark circles round my eyes
Has the specter of death shaken us?
I drank too much tea yesterday
Have wise leaders stepped in?
I should drink more water
Who will form the next comment; the au courant critique?
Tonight wine will sooth me
It’s hardly the collapse of certainty
That dark forces have sprung up to take their opportunity
I’ve been waiting for this since I noticed the life political
What people call “my whole life”
But I had a life before that
A secret mystery of a life
I was happy and swam and ran
Now it’s my time to play the adult game
Of serious business and arrangements that hold
I can accept that
But what game we are playing?
It’s certainly familiar
It stinks of the cruelty of children
The ones who weren’t happy
To be free and have the freedom of delight
We all began drawing muddy pictures
But this is a food fight
A shit smear
A time-out in the Chinese Algebra test
And I saw it coming
From two days ago
Or since day one
Such a small comfort
Such a tidy pleasant lull
My dream of the river city of museums and trees,
of marble and barges – was it a necropolis, a funeral city of a queen?
The ghost shells of houses abandoned in woods
haunted by memories and crystalized bric-a-brac
dotting the woods surrounding small towns
A city likewise with abandoned houses- now that’s a shame
the central district, wiped clean for procession
No one can live there, a wandering fox’s ear perks if he hears, sees something
just over caution and reflex, nothing is there
If one wins a battle with the city, they fold and then fête you
Present you with the key – the people throw themselves at you
Differently then a battle, but
God save us from a mob, from the local team winning
Do you join them in turning over police cars? The people unleashed,
You should run and hide, or join them
You can’t just watch – unless it’s actually a parade
presenting the key – then it’s all good
So the barge sailed on the main canal
Classical antiquity laid over the present
One and the same
A ritual of community
purity and purpose
but also stark, lifeless
scanning and finding no one,
except you – you were there with me
on the barge
Everything else was empty
So unlike the pub-ridden alleys of my initiation into decadence
I sneered then like an odd farm boy
to shame the sodomites
but there I was, ordering a drink
with the rest of them
unsure about the vision sent to soothe
of the frolic of lasses and lads bucolic
the hazy fantasy of real companions
clumsy, another alive, unlike the locked water closet
with soap and musty towels
None of this was but a moment’s assurance
But still, it was a rough refuge
We were hardly in a natural state back then
blanketed instead by leather and boots
black underwear for the ladies
black shirts for the guys
to remind us where we came
and could be dragged back to
My heart was possessed by the demon of Arcadia
Was I a mere man of the crowd?
I learned to get what I asked for, but it was never what I expected
I didn’t expect nomadic camps of workers, overalls, motels, whiskey
I didn’t ever expect to join a team of men
I only wanted to draw on my best activities
I wanted the total experience
there are always ruins out buried beneath the vines
there are always those hiding from judgment
To be condemned by the crowd however
became a mere fad among the morons,
bent on foul acts
I prefer these sleek, polished canals
built with a cosmopolitan sensibility
the monumental, empty city of polished stones
And you on the barge, your voice behind me
though I can no longer discern your language
and the city devoted to the sun
beyond this place that I dreamed of
with particles imported from what I have seen
its slums endure
the particular placement of its paths
I’ve tried to move to California many times
Something about that place
Speaks to me
The ugliness of modern life
Can be found most anywhere
And this is no exception
So when in California I ponder it or
Squint my eyes to screen it out
Focus on the beauty instead
The banality doesn’t dissuade me, nor the horror
Los Angeles doesn’t rebuff me
With its whole ‘natural’ thing, nor its freeways and ‘car-be-cues’
It is urban after all, yes
More like 100 cities
Crammed into a valley
But it’s surrounded by mountains
And the sea
Even the worst neighborhoods have that
Can remember that
I don’t figure into it though
Los Angeles doesn’t focus on me
It’s fair to say
It barely notices me
Which is part of the problem
Why I haven’t stuck yet
And part of why I go there
I have no real reason to be there
(Unless love of the sea is a reason, or seaweed, or film)
No job in California to say
‘You have to be here on Monday
And take care of this’
On Monday I’ll be elsewhere
Doing other things
Good things worth doing
Just this year I realized
That if I had insisted to go there
When I was shoved out the door
And told ‘Go anywhere (that has a university) and do well – do your best’
I would have done better in California
I went to Chicago
(For me it was – I became the living dead – the outpatient; I was cut up and tested)
This wouldn’t have happened by the sea, near the mountains
A bitter northern lake was the perfect setting for that
The problems I brought there would have dispersed
On the beach or the crest
Of a canyon hike
I think those that loved me
Wanted to keep me closer
While pushing me away
But either way meant boarding an airplane
To get home in a few hours
So what was the big deal?
They said ‘No’
And I needed to get away
Not take the greyhound for a secret weekend in Baltimore (which was too close – a mere 700 miles)
Indulging my white-faced passion
For a friend that literally stabbed me
Suffering from the drama of abandonment
Which was the opposite of what was taking place
I had a friend from California at the time
Who was sleeping with this friend in Baltimore
I could have taken his place (as he did mine)
In his home state
A swap negotiation that would have meant freedom
He was from Ramona
‘Which is nowhere – up in the desert hills of San Diego’
Once much later on one of my trips to California
(This time the excuse was a conference)
I was invited to spend an afternoon there
By a buddy I had made – he was a paramedic – we said hi to his father,
and went to the Barona reservation casino for dinner with him
He ate standing up at a counter
It might have been a corn dog
Did we go up there for dinner? Was that the overt reason?
I left hungry but got what I came for-
to walk through an average neighborhood, probably past the former house of an old friend
who I’d dreamt of pounding to death with my fists
That it was just a place
A nowhere place up in the high desert
Not without beauty
A guy sawing plywood in his driveway
Desert scrub invaded by wan suburbs
I haven’t been to the far north of California, but I’ve driven around
More than just a few spots
Tried different environments
As I pretended
That I had the power
To be there
The place where I hadn’t wadded up a bunch of chances like tissues
And infected them with snot-like cancer
I can’t decide which is more beautiful
The Pacific shaped rocks on a pebble strewn beach
Or the sound they make as the water washes through them
To climb once again into the powerful surf
The flora / the fauna , of course attenuated by the clumsy violent history of our people
Who cleared it, settled it, made it what it is today
A collection of bad architecture, simple rotten boxes or gaudy faux appropriations
Like the Getty museum
Which could pass for the aerie
Of robed Vulcan hidden masters
Or the cottages on the Venice canals
Whose simple gardens invite
But most of the housing stock and interior design- hideous
I of course say this as an ambivalent alienated wanderer
Leering from the outside
A home is a home though
A design scheme or simplicity can make it work
I’ve seen it happen
What’s so great about a brick row house in Philadelphia by the way?
Or a restored farmhouse in Maryland?
Except that that’s what I grew up with
I screen out whatever ugliness is there effortlessly
Which as I said I can do in California
Sometimes this is as easy as gazing
Over a rich buffoon’s golf course
On the edge of a bluff
To see the mists of Catalina catch the light
Ever so enchantingly
I said goodbye to that today
My life set on the path where I’m not quite there yet
And I could have done better
But that’s just mist that will burn off
In an hour’s time
Or grow into fog
Or wed itself to pollution
And become smog
And the whole thing will fall into the ocean
One day (soon)
While bursting into flames
The ocean, however
And I’ll take a boat to get there
If I have to
and return again
Looking for a place
Somewhere to start
A lease on a clean and focused heart
My death will probably approach with bloody fever/ impossible chills
And stab me in the lungs with a rasping cough
Or retch – a convulsion either way
That ruptures suddenly what was already unraveling
The truth is I have a mild cold and
The insight from this – provided by
Over the counter medications
That don’t reveal whether they have helped
Shows me how it all will end
But I want one thing
Give me this
I want more of course
All that can wait
This must come first
Give me this (I demand it)
Of my mother, my father
The people I have loved (rightly or wrongly)
Let me understand my son, my wife
Everything I have seen and done
Just as the brain explodes
With the knowledge that it’s over
I want to go:
Ah – that’s what it was all about!
But give no priority to my pet mental projects
I’ve worked hard enough on them
They will fall into place on their own
Not before the next time I sneeze
To be sure
But maybe before I die – and if they wait until then
Then they can wait until the last portion of the last second of understanding
Or be damned into unconsciousness.
I myself am an off and on cartoonist, what developed from doodling in class combined with other interests. In college at the University of Chicago I was the editor and a contributor for two issues of Breakdown Magazine, an anthology of cartoons (mostly) by students. The second issue that I edited especially was controversial and resulted in the magazine being defunded by the student government. One day when I was hawking the magazine in front of one of the largest buildings for classes, a foreign professor was assassinated in a restroom of the Divinity school building, the building that was to my back. It was quietly done and covered up, if you missed the hour of yellow tape and the A3 article in the Chicago Tribune, you might have never known. It remains a relatively unknown case, and an unsolved one, even though since then a book has been written about it. The connection to this recent event is minimal I suppose, just a personal coincidence linking controversial drawings and writings and a violent end. I suppose I tell the story because I think it is important to see this type of violence as part of the overspill of war. In this case, the most likely thing that happened was that the professor was made an example in his exile community for criticizing the results of a recent revolution by writing columns in an expatriate newspaper based in New York and was thus targeted and murdered by still powerful secret police.
I was politically positioned in the sense that I was opposed to the Persian Gulf War that had just taken place (this was 1991) and part of my aim in editing a deliberately controversial publication was to shake up complacent acceptance of the status quo. As a large goal this was an abject failure. Whatever eddies were stirred, weren’t on the level of the wide-eyed professor, or of Charlie Hebdo.
There’s been a lot of interesting discussion regarding the actual position of the Charlie Hebdo satire, who they were punching at and in what context. Some of it is quite incisive and interesting and some belongs to the obtuse and blowhards. To that mix, I’d like to add my own thought experiment, deliberately absurd. What if this all took place in a time-machine and the gunmen were French resistance fighters and the journalists in question were actual Nazi propagandists in their weekly meeting with Joseph Goebbels?
Sorry, that was stupid.
Just to be clear though, I don’t mean this as a comparison, please give me that much credit, comparing anyone to a Nazi is an overused and often lazy tactic. Yes the Nazis had cartoonists that depicted those they deemed untermenschen or worse, (click if you dare) and yes I saw someone on the internet call the dead French cartoonists Nazis, but the point is that if we imagine a massacre, an attack on civilians as a strategic act of war, and valorize one side, suddenly it resembles something that happens nearly everyday in the hell zones that we as humans have created. It’s a shocking bit of blowback for Western democracies to absorb right now.
Most everyone is debating the Charlie Hebdo massacre as a free speech issue but this seems circular to me. So Democracy equals free speech and free speech equals democracy; but the killers weren’t debating how things should work in a democracy. They’re not interested in having a democracy. When we get caught up in that question we’re debating ourselves on terms that are not up for debate, as they are aspirational.
This was an attack by Al Qaeda on France. Although France is not supposed to be at war, things are pretty grim now in AQ land, places like Iraq, Syria and Nigeria. There’s supposed to be a membrane separating the civilized world from the hell-zones, but this event represents a puncture in that membrane, a puncture by a bunch of losers who were sick of delivering pizzas.The killers were criminals, and they were AQ (as well as being French citizens), whether they took orders or independently conceived and launched the mission. The fact that they declared themselves to be AQ, invoked the prophet and so on makes many want to discuss and parse religion, which seems a no-brainer but I think is a mistake. These brothers and others before them were religious hacks and lived deeply secular lives before putting on an armband (as it were) for their final act. Religion was just a touchstone in their personal struggle, a web they were caught up in that is in many ways a global political critique of the West, or rather the developed world. The Cold War no longer fits as a backdrop for that critique so if America destabilizes Iraq in a war of adventure, as it did Cambodia in the 1970’s, the nihilistic insurgents clad in black pajamas declare themselves communists, or jihadists, depending on the context of what is most oppositional at the time.
Although I see this as an act of war, I say this without the hot-blooded analysis that declares war, as Bush’s America so readily did after 9-11. Rather it is that war that I am declaring this to be, not a future war, though we can predict we will have those. This war, this Charlie Hebdo war is an extension of the second Iraq war, the war where it was as if Japan invaded Pearl Harbor, so we invaded China because they looked the same to us. To enrich contractors like Halliburton and Brown and Root, the only goal of the Iraq war that was actually achieved. That was a stupid war and the Hebdo war was a stupid war, the Kouachi brothers are not going to stop cartooning any more than the Tsaernav brothers stopped marathons. For that matter, the Khmer Rouge also failed to stop vegetable markets, despite their best efforts.
On the other hand democracy is looking less and less like democracy (if it ever was)(so I guess the terrorists have won)…so what do we do?
First off, let’s recall that Bush’s war, Cheney’s war, America’s war did not slap sense into our perceived enemies, or eliminate them, it only made things worse. The utter sadism and depravity unleashed at Abu Gahraib, and the same sort of acts further revealed by the CIA report only pumped more poison into the situation. Allowing sadists to sate themselves turned out to be bad foreign policy.
Obama’s drone wars have the advantage (when trying to retain the image of a liberal democracy) that the scale of desolation is decidedly of a lower order. But if it were an experiment we would have to conclude that the number of innocents killed has still been above the magic threshold that produces more new enemies than true enemies that it kills. So it fails on its own terms.
Realistically, something war-like and violent must be done in response to such an act, so in such cases this reaction must be channeled into police work, into catching the gunmen, as was done.That’s all that’s needed – we don’t need further wars.
Journalists and other citizens do not always fare well in war-time.
After googling ‘journalists killed 2014’ I was relieved at what seemed to be a low number to me of 61. But still, not an easy job. The word journalist connotes objectivity, at least it is meant to, though at times this seems laughable. But satirists are not quite journalists, nor are they mere propagandists. They report, if they are any good at all, on visceral ideology, and whether they are aware of it or not (the best ones are) they are ideologues of a sort. If the cartoonists at CH were or were not your sort of ideologue then so be it, whether they were French bigots or leftist situationists, they knew what kind of hornet’s nest they were fooling with- not that they wanted to die, who does? But they took their stance and are now martyred for it.
It’s not how things are supposed to go in a liberal democracy but we’re all grown up living in a bigger world than that now.
I just returned from a second, almost unexpected trip to America this year. An opportunity arose to bring my wife and son there for the first time, and we surprisingly achieved a travel visa for my wife, something we were denied twice already. I was at first reluctant to return, having been there three months prior, but ultimately had to accept it, even though it meant briefly borrowing money from my brother and taking a month off from writing. I love traveling, but there are places I haven’t been yet in the world, and I at times detest my hometown, where we spent much of our time, but this sacrifice was hardly heroic – and I think it was good for everyone, for different reasons.
Sebastian traveled well, slept a lot, and as he does these days, developed nearly every day right in front of our eyes. He did get his first cold, which was worrisome, and in modern style this coincided with a mysterious new (recognized the day his symptoms arrived) respiratory virus that was hospitalizing children in the Midwest. We flew through Chicago, where he caught his cold, judging by the hours that elapsed before his symptoms arrived, so it is possible that he got this bug. But the snot eventually dried up, whether it was a less potent, average cold that he got, or he simply was one of those that handled the new alarming strain well.
America was in a heat wave, which lasted about a week when we arrived early September, during the onset of late summer, which then mellowed into cooler weather that more resembled the approaching fall. By the end of the month as we left trees were still green, but most only 50 – 70% green – yellows and reds were there to see but the crisp glowing orgy of autumn was still a few weeks off. The sun’s power still asserted itself on days when the clouds did not cover it, and my wife cut short a walk we were taking one day with our boy because of the sun, and it being too close to noon. The air was not hot that day, there was a nice breeze, so I complained “But it’s September” and a moment later “This is not Vietnam” but she was right, radiation bathed our fragile heads, beating against our skulls. I don’t remember the sun ever feeling that way when I was a kid, and there are three possible explanations for this, that I, in the mid-Atlantic region in America, didn’t feel irradiated by the sun’s presence when I was a kid because: 1) kids have a protective layer of vitality 2) kids sense things differently, some things they sense more simply, or even thoughtlessly (a kid could get a headache from being in the sun too long but might not even notice it unless they were bored or it was severe enough), (which may just be a mushy way of restating the first point) or 3) climate change has removed layers of protection from the atmosphere, or added pollution, allowing or creating more damaging rays to penetrate to our realm. I think maybe it’s all three but I seriously ran around in the sun all summer when younger without a hat and never felt any caution at all about the sun, and don’t remember napping either. Well, those were the days. I took my wife back to that neighborhood where I had lived thusly and felt transported as always.
We had some fixed events to attend during our allotted time in the U.S., and family members to see, but we had a month, and for some odd reason we didn’t seem to have much free time despite the openness of our schedule. There were many people I would have liked to see and didn’t, or saw only briefly. This time evaporation is a basic mystery of traveling, and for this reason I’ve learned, or tried to learn, to not try to bring a stack of books along with me ‘on vacation’ because the first one usually gets cracked the first evening or morning for about 5 minutes before being slammed shut and the next 2 or however many don’t get cracked at all, but just follow along with their mournful weight. I was able to read most of a good serious novel however, Volume 1 of Karl Ove Knausgaard‘s ‘My Struggle’.Karl Ove, as he is most frequently addressed in the book, recapitulates and comments on his life, in exhaustive detail; this is a memoir, an autobiography, and literature in the mode of À la recherche du temps perdu.
After I finished I allowed myself to read some criticism about him and his works and it seems that the word on Knausgaard, although still positive somehow, is that he largely transcribes banality. I think that this is just self-hate (a term I use here not without some caution) on the part of the critics because they and I and Knausgaard all grew up in the eighties, and if one were to write about that, what else but banality would we have to work with? I was almost hurt by this taunt, having enjoyed the book, and having gone through many of the rituals Knausgaard and so many other’s have, albeit in a slightly different milieu, of beer stashing and smuggling, listening to the beginnings of the new music, and, well, even falling in love when it was impossible and fruitless, and when the girls were, in their own way, more ready than the guys.
I’ve been told before that I’m too hard on myself, but I think I was maybe more a buffoon than he was during the college and immediate post-collegiate years. It’s an odd sort of self-flattery, but basically we were in the same camp then, in that we were awkwardly writers who had written little, if anything. A painful position to hold; one that he’s been able to overcome quite handily.
Without the freedom to actually sit down and write (speaking now just of the recent trip, not vast expanses of my life where this has also been true)(those traveling with 1 year-olds will understand) I found myself mentally composing passages à la Knausgaard, discussing my family life and relationships in exhausting, revealing detail. I’ve tried my hand at this before, not in the same conscious manner of course, before his example arrived, but similarly taking journal and diary and trying to forge literature with that – in a recent attempt at a novel, for example. I felt uneasy telling tales on people so I attenuated the treachery by disguising identities in a basic roman à clef format, also attempting to manipulate key events into a plot. I was shocked that I got through about 3 small bullet points on my outline key before I was well over 100 pages. Of this kind of thinking, 6 volumes are born.
I blathered on, yes, and no one I showed really liked it. The most interesting comment I got was that it seemed kind of like Judy Blume but a little stoned. Was this banality akin to the banality it takes to be mulled over in the New Yorker? If so, hurrah. One critic friend said it fell into the Faulkner side of American writing, a grave error in his estimation. Again, this is an accusation I can live with, that’s for sure, but was this what I was aiming for, and attaining, with my YA level run-on sentences? It’s important to have models in any case; this is standard advice.
For this reason I’ve been casting about for would be peers that I’ve never considered before. I decided to give Franzen another shot, after reading The Corrections last year and recognizing scenarios and things to take note of, so I picked up Freedom in the San Francisco airport. I love that he announces he is trying to write great American novels, something I would have admitted to with a ‘maybe, yes’ in my authorial majesty in high school days (my journal of not great, barely approaching good poems under my belt).
The trouble is, I’m not convinced anymore that there is such a thing (great American writing). Of course there are better writers than myself that are American, great writers, loads of them, both in journalism and in the business of writing novels, criticism or even poetry, its just that I’m starting to doubt that any of the better ones are pursuing this “Great American” thing. Well there’s Franzen, who says he is, but let him have special case status; I don’t care to endorse or dismiss his efforts here, only to say that for me to try to do the same might, as my test case indicated, just reveal my whole juvenile take on the matter, of the supposed greatness resident in this specific place. I’m thinking I might be better off just refashioning my work as genre, and hope it will come out as fusion, a lit sci-fi novel, that can be optioned as a B-movie that’s actually interesting. Astute pop aesthetes will know the example (or hopefully, examples) I’m referring to here.
So Franzen is a contemporary writer waving the G.A.N. (Great American Novel) banner, but what is the indisputable canon of G.A.N.? Well, indisputable, ha ha, but about 4 years ago I reread Catcher in the Rye, there was a nifty four dollar promo for some anniversary and I said “why not?” I have to say, it made me want to puke, and I’m sure On the Road would have a similar effect.
Here I think is part of the explanation for the “Min Kamp” title that Knausgaard dared to use. I tried to just dismiss the whole thing in a recent Facebook post, that there was any intended connection with… you know, that he was merely speaking of his struggle, and I don’t think anyone bought it. At least no one ‘liked’ or commented on it when a similar post about a different writer last year had lit up. It truly sucks that there are Hitler admirers in this world, among them true anti-Semites along with bandwagoners and other brain-addled losers and idiots. Knausgaard is not one of them.
So… Why Name Your Book After Hitler’s? – as Evan Hughes in the New Yorker asked. Knausgaard can answer himself, why the title, and maybe has, but an essay that might provide answers is buried in Volume 6, so… I’ll get to it later. My understanding is that it’s meant as both an ironic self-deprecating send-up, coupled with a reference to the fact that nearly every supposed great modern book written by a man is really a story of a rotten monster. Who convinces you he is a hero.
Every? Well, at least Holden Caulfield is a monster. The fact that both he and Jack Kerouac inspired me greatly in my life makes me shudder. The step they took to be outsiders I can admire. That they had adventures – that’s fine. But becoming a moronic self-important alcoholic – hopefully there’s more to achieve in life than that. But at least I never admired Hitler! So there, take that! Here is a new monster, myself, that can be fashioned into a hero based on the scantest of evidence and the flimsiest of arguments. That will be my struggle; shame being such a powerful tool.
Another thought is that there’s this idea of reclaiming stolen treasure from thieves, or even just raiding jewels from villains, just before they howl and go up in flames like in Spielberg’s ‘Raiders…’ “I’ll take that …” [coolly plucks]. “Schwein! – Ahhh!” [immolated by God’s holy rays of justice]. It’s a just reversal of history.
Punk, Glam and other subcultures, icons like David Bowie, the Ramones, gay leather boys and so on have all appropriated Third Reich paraphernalia, and it can all be debated and explored in journals of pop-culture. For myself, this title is the crown jewel of the branding those assholes came up with, surpassing even Triumph of the Will, that Nietzsche appropriation, and the Swastika, that Buddhist and every other culture that opted for sun motifs appropriation. Stuff like that is too grand, too pompous to ever really be redirected. But struggle? Come on, they can’t own that! On the other hand, maybe it is truly pompous, especially the ‘My’ aspect of it, oozing of self-importance, the forehead sweat of a loser plotting to rule the world. But struggle is just a part of life, what should we say? “Our struggle?” That has almost more opportunity to come off as pompous I think. Unfortunately, we struggle alone, even if the struggle is to know oneself without self-importance.
It is without a doubt that the Nazis are the most notorious criminals of the 20th Century, and Hitler is the king of the bunch. Many others have suffered, the Albanians for example, the list is too long, even the Germans, in Dresden. All of it matters of course but the Nazis win in the popular imagination. They have become pop evil.
I think it’s important to not minimize their crimes, but pop meaning is elusive. Is it a crime to make money on a thriller with Nazi villains? Swastikas have littered glossy pulp paperback covers arrayed on book carousels at airports and beach five-and dimes throughout my youth. Maybe that era is over but this basic impulse has been reiterated again and again. I’m clearly defending Knausgaard, saying he’s not of this ilk, is above this, furthermore that his act has punctured something that is over-inflated, and is thus a just, even heroic act. I welcome other views, but I cannot read Norwegian, where the most in-depth debate on this has occurred.
Let’s put all that aside though, for if he had just called the book I just read “My Book” Volume 1 it would have had the exact same effect on me, and called in the same questions I am asking myself now. Questions of what is mine to discuss, to reveal. It’s as if in the present situation I am writing the same book that he has, different context of course, and just putting it in the drawer “oh no, this will never do” and then preparing to share with you, the reader, what? Karl Ove said no, I will write what I know, be it private, middle-class, shameful, or universal, and do it until I have nothing left to say.
Oh the stories I could tell you! Want to tell you! From this month even…but will not. And another question I have – is this refusal of mine really out of consideration of those around me? Can I blame my cowardice on them?
And look at me. Here I am discussing literature as if I know anything about it, as if I have something great to tell if only.
I might as well mention another writer who puts a nail in the coffin at least to my obviously bad notions of the G.A.N. When I discovered Roberto Bolaño my reaction was on a completely different level then what I was getting from Franzen, and I started reading them at about the same time. Let’s just call my reaction visceral – as the opportunity presents itself. Visceral Realism, what ho! – the fictional, or fictionalized poetic movement Bolaño reports on in his Savage Detectives. With Franzen I see the problem he is getting at, but with Bolaño I see the problem solved. The tapestry of chaos unfolds, as it should, or as it does, but the correct gesture is made.
Bolaño and Knausgaard challenge the necessity of Great American Novels for me, but the problem is persistent, also the reason also why I was not an English major, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Sartre, Camus having not being written in English were not part of that department. I guess Bolaño comes close in a way to ‘Great American’ –ness in his effort to create a pan-Latin-American literature but… and isn’t this true? – one must be a gringo to qualify. One must write about the spirit of our times and have a particular background; nothing in itself wrong with qualifying for that. But why fuss with such particularities? And it’s not that I’m trying to bash America. All experience is valid subject matter so ipso facto America is, and I have experienced things here that I wish to share. I’m just pointing out that the trick lies in resolving the ultimate cosmopolitanism of literature with the writer’s inevitable provincialism, is this not the crux of the ‘struggle?’ And so if it is great writing the locality of it will be so much smaller than ‘America’ and the universality of it will be so much larger.
Bolaño, Proust, Knausgaard show that the Great Novel is the horse, and that the cart, the American-ness, or Asian-ness, or whichever continent-ness the writer has collected her baggage is just the material, and though it may command some aspects of the form, is not specifically crucial as material in dictating whatever greatness is achieved. Maybe everyone but me has always understood this detail of emphasis, but here I am working it out. Because after being an expat for the short time that I have, the idea that if I ever write anything great it will be about America or else classify itself as travel writing is not sitting well.
Let me state here that I am not that well read. I’m certain there are important writers that I’ve never heard of. And also, not only important, but best-selling, popular, well-known authors, who are nevertheless still good that I’ve never heard of. Sure, I’ve read a lot of books in my life, not something every rube can say, but maybe I can only quickly list five important writers that weren’t assigned to me in my schooling. An hour after that maybe I would have come up with 5 more. Given more time maybe five again, or maybe not, but that’s it, and it’s not as if I have actually tested myself in this way. Nevertheless that’s how extensive my knowledge seems to me. My ignorance is buttressed by my belief that most writers are just writing crap. This heroic razor-sharp criticism may have also prevented me from writing very much, which has been an injustice to me but maybe a blessing to everyone else.
If I could just write what’s in my head as Knausgaard does, about my family for instance, about my father’s death, or our current state, would it be as fascinating? I could wait for all of them to die, but I could end up being buried first. Also, with this kind of writing, if you wait even a few days you will end up writing an entirely different piece. (Knausgaard: “I know that if I had started any of my novels two days later it would be a different kind of novel.”[here]) And I have things I want to tell! But relax friends and family, you nest of humanity, my lips are sealed.
to be as a horse
is an act of great vigor
breathe deep and with force
the lungs must deliver
a snort is in order
a stomp is commanded
with wings or without
rear up and break wind
the horse of today
has internal combustion
the gas that it spews
as lethal as methane
a very old story
tells of a race
twelve animals vied
to each find their place
why race at all?
there’s some obligation
to venture with gusto
I was riding a snake
then I switched in midstream
to a horse and we swam on
unfazed, quite hypnotic
the snake won the race
secure and at ease
in its water element
the horse was startled
swift and hot-blooded
its composure in contrast
to the ancient long-thinker
the snake is derided
smooth sexual skin
cold and elusive
horses and snakes
have an old enmity
conflicts in stature
and dietary needs
wild horses exist
and those that went feral
beasts of men’s wars
and high-value transport
I rode in a herd
the horse can be social
colts mares and stallions
geldings and foals
fillies and yearlings
lock their knees
for a while
yet still must lay down
protected by others
a rattle spooked pony
sprinkled with hazards
the snake has not left us
man’s oldest friend
through dense vegetation
red light on a face
a draw for attention
scale shell renewed
eyes clouded- released
ticks and mites
all sloughed at once
ride on driver
the gait is adjusted
the race carries on
Again, why the race?
what’s the advantage?
why not lay
like a snake
in its cavern
let the sun heat the ground
slither out in late morning
but the river
we burn leaves at dusk
orange consumed piles
a cover for actions
the snake won the race
yet the horse takes its place
next year a new story
Poem of the year
A year is a song
we sing it
Twelve, sometimes thirteen months long
a strong melody
tones of midnight
the mantle of dawn
the people hum
and do all the things
in the world
that don’t stop the world
the days roll on
a candle gets lit
surely it must burn out
we’ve come this far
I’ll spell it out
A wild berry
plums and cherries
peaches and ease
September was special
is a table
outside on this plaza
on a cool December night
The wars of men have stopped
some of us
(blown out candles)
a selfie in Beirut
I won’t forget
New Year’s Day
In November we ate
I can’t remember
the full menu
fish sauce and turkey
I have a new issue
the song in my head
it needs a new sound
than a carol
or a jingle
after the year’s final countdown
renewing a song
that’s countless years long
is an art
I’ll draw deep and sweep the notes
of my heart
and breathe out what’s left
and walk around the sun whistling
the true alphabet
*this was a fb status composed for New Year’s Eve 2013 that has been worked on a little up to the present form, January 2, 2014, Nha Be District, Saigon, Vietnam
small town I loathe you- your derelicts approach me
through every open transom and window I see
the same televised set-piece
portrayed on a tube screen
Can’t someone walk about
without watching this scene?
a man with an eye-patch and a suit too tight
insults his old lover
a mild social slight
made all the more galling
by the girl on his arm
the tension is rising
a slow-paced alarm- but no one is watching
they’re just staring
possibly even thinking
their bodies in repose
a small dream.
To have the time
to do nothing
be part of
small town your leaders
sit at tables
big and small
eating strange foods
and drinking as much
as they are able
I’ve sat with them before
they offered me plenty
told me what to eat
and when I didn’t want
smilingly threatened me
now, again- drink!’
I walked away cursing
swaying on my feet
a fascinating sight
when time’s at a standstill
I saw it at random
Time just hit
that old boy
I’ve sat down with you
we’ve talked before
I came to your bookstore
a habit I couldn’t break
didn’t want to
was life such a crashing
Too long to wait
And wait for what
what water waits?
It’s an open gate
shall we fix
what we chase?
from a given fate?
The long road
the distant shore
And what of our children?
with a board
a tutor’s home
on each lane
you haven’t heard me
or left me alone
that’s what I’m waiting for.
that’s why the pain
Ho Chi Minh City, December 2013
(Note- I’ve been reading the biography of Allen Ginsberg and keep remembering and forgetting and remembering how far back I’ve wanted to be a poet. The guy was amazing, silly and serious. A politician, an advocate for friends and the common man. A member of the street and the academy. He desperately wanted to be famous and was a fan and friend of others like himself. I met him and talked to him in line at a book signing and poetry reading at Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago on December 1st 1988 where he read from White Shroud. He talked directly to me, like I was a person he had just happened to meet- which I was! He signed my book ‘AH ‘ and then wrote his signature underneath. I looked at it puzzled and said “AH?- What’s that?” (thinking plainly it should be AG). He engaged me with a smile and said “Say it!”….”Ahhhh!” He said it for me, encouraging me to join him. “Ahhh!” I think I followed his lead. “It feels good!” he explained. I can still see him smiling at me, encouraging me, breathing with me. Ah indeed. For this reason I can’t believe he ever died. And there he had seduced another young college boy, who walked away seconds later. This poem is for him).
forest of my youth
crouched against the earth
in a plywood-earthen fort
the bum musk
cleansed by a spring in bloom
desolate weed tree
patch of an old field
tick strewn waist high grass
I paced the woods
I saw her across the creek
embracing a new love
a different time
I crouched in darkness
phantom shadows on a high balcony
I slept in the leaves
when the world closed
I mapped your hide
mother of woodland
nest of the old tribe
haunt of the night bird
smoke of the lost brother
the shackle of the rusted camp
the stamp of the milk bottle
rotten porch of the fish shack
neck of the eagle branch
the golden hound
whose got em on the run
– has he?
I post his name
in an icy slick of storm winter day
I hide in electric heater warmth
I drove to a distant city
unable to make it
hauled back by a faint agreement
a steep drive
with a running start
a forgotten plan
a place to mourn
a cot to lay on
an old coin collection
a deep pit to sleep in
driven by the leaves
the light through the trees
it brought me through
and lifted me
to my knees
The first day I was in Burma there were three photographs I wasn’t able to take. I went to Burma, or Myanmar as it is also, and officially known, to take pictures, write in my journal, buy gifts , and participate in other typical enjoyable traditions of traveling. The pictures that I did take felt good for the most part, the best ones I experienced almost as an act of Kung Fu, I can count on it being a good photo when I have that feeling, but the ones I missed I felt as a deep visceral ache inside. I then strove to let the feeling go, to be ready for the next thing.
I met my brother at the train station in Mandalay. We had made this plan in advance and he commented that our success in meeting there had been a triumphant throwback to the time before cellphones, where meetings were arranged at public places, and you had to be there, or that was it. We both remembered the tail end of this era, having grown up in the 70’s and 80’s, where public pay phones were also used, as well as the family phone at home. I rode in a shared taxi from the airport, asked to be dropped off at the train station, strode across the street with my bags, and scanned the many-storied structure for an obvious meeting point. Although there was a porticoed pavilion indicating the entrance to the building, there was also room after room devoted to waiting, the exterior-facing curtain wall of each such room absent, save for some type of roll or fold-away grate to lock in the off hours. And so waiting rooms like open cells lined this side of the building that was opposite the train track, and no doubt the track side as well. Worried eyes from half-vacant benches glanced back at me, wondering, as I vaguely was, what I would do next. I was about to enter the building, from the myriad of open paths in front of me, when I heard someone yell my name, my brother of course, who revved up his scooter from his perch and came over to meet me. Apparently I had chosen the correct place. A security guard expressed mild concern at our reunion in what appeared to be also the taxi circle, my brother uninterested at the moment in observing the customary traffic flow. I motioned to the guy first with my index finger, that we would soon be gone, and then with a circular motion of my wrist and a nod of my head, that I understood that we needed to turn ourselves around before we left. We went through our greetings, fist-bumps, what have you, I adjusted myself onto the bike with my bags, and with the guard conducting, we somewhat clumsily u-turned out of the vehicle reception area and were on our way. Our mission at that point was to make our way to the nearby neighborhood across the railroad tracks, where the motorbike rental shop was located, so I could get outfitted with my own bike, as the plan was to leave almost immediately that day, at least right after lunch. My brother took the first side street past the station, but the tracks looked difficult to cross there, so we came back to the main road and went to the next street, a nice comfortable bridge. When we took that turn bells and horns seemed to go off from gesturing cops? Passersby? We weren’t sure, but motorbikes were prohibited on that bridge, as everyone knew, even my brother I believe, though he suppressed that knowledge from himself enough to express surprise and worry that we would be stopped. But we were given the ‘foreigner pass’ by whatever forces were on alert there that time and we made our way to the shop. After meeting the proprietor and gabbing for a while I had my own bike, and we were off in search of a lunch spot. It was then that I saw my first missed picture of the day.
The motorbike guy had given us directions to a good Chinese restaurant he knew of, and judging from the circle we had just gone in we had already abandoned that and were redirecting ourselves to a cluster of restaurants my brother had already been to and thus had more confidence in finding. With him zooming ahead I found myself beside a strange bicycle carriage, the likes of which I had never seen before. Unlike the various bicycle taxis I had seen in Vietnam, China, and Cambodia, it was a rickshaw with a side-car, a single wheel supporting the car. A grandmother had just plunked in, as the passenger it seemed, and popped open her ancient looking parasol as an old grandfather began pumping his still strong legs to take her to her desired destination. As it was the first tricycle of this design I had ever seen, and because of the way that I happened to perceive them as a couple, I half supposed that this might be their private family vehicle they were tooling around in. Traffic seemed calm enough for me to risk taking a picture while driving (something I don’t think I’ve ever actually done before) so I reached towards the pocket that had my camera phone (an iPhone 4 with various camera apps), looked ahead at my brother turning out of sight at the next intersection, and adding the various risks all up, put aside my photo plans for the moment, and raced to catch up, losing an opportunity forever in the process (sob!).
We soon came to the restaurant cluster and my brother indicated a vegetarian Indian restaurant that he already had enjoyed, a Thai restaurant (Myanmar shares borders with both India and Thailand, as well as China, Laos and Bangladesh) and a local Burmese restaurant, and said it was up to me to choose. “Burmese!” I exclaimed and rushed towards the place, disappointing him a little I believe, as he can seem a picky eater and had already found a safety zone at the veg place, Marie Min as it was named, which was a fine restaurant as I later found out. Nevertheless I was thrilled to try the local food immediately. The restaurant, as is common in South-East Asia(and already noted), had no front wall on the first floor, so we parked the bikes in front so we could keep an eye on our packs, walked up the stairs which spanned the whole of the building and tried to get oriented with a table and the food selection and so forth. It was busy so we were seated at a large table with another diner already present and eating, the ad hoc foreigner table as it were, we later learned that he was Italian. Other patrons were gathered around the glass cases that barricaded in the kitchen section of the room near the back, examining the dishes within. My plan was to follow this behavior, point at a few dishes when I got someone’s attention (as the bowls seemed small, and I felt hungry) and then go sit down and eat with abandon. It’s an understatement to say that many people have used this foolproof plan countless times before in the history of the world both in foreign countries as well as at home (pointing at food to order it), but for some strange reason the staff at this restaurant didn’t seem to catch on. I’d point at a few dishes, the coterie of waitresses gathered around would strain their faces in concern, the cook behind the case would shrug, and little else would be done. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little impatient, but I was too happy to be there to get downright cranky so I just tried to put more flourish into my gestures and expressiveness into my face. A waiter arrived who spoke a little English. It seemed that they wanted to explain to me what the dishes were. “This is maize…” he told me, of the dish filled with sweet corn. “I know!” I smiled, “please can I have some?” He still seemed confused. I tripled my efforts with my nonverbal communications, miming as I also spoke, for his possible benefit, “please put these dishes into bowls for me and I will eat them back at the table” like that, with miming and pointing actions for each component that I could think of. The food attendant finally had had enough and in a matter of seconds whipped every single selection out of the stainless steel trays and into the little serving bowls in the entire section that she controlled, without regard to whichever ones I had pointed at. The waitresses were now cheerfully laughing at our affair, which we all seemed to mutually agree to just push pass our communication impasse, and get on with the serving and eating of food, with some lingering confusion notwithstanding. The one assigned to our table twirled a serving tray within our circle and now playing, I wrestled her for it, and we began loading it with food. Now openly playing with her, I insisted on being the one to carry it to my table, lest she get confused… My taunts made them roar with laughter as I continued my instructions in how to deal with the outlandish foreigners- bring rice, cutlery, and so on, in short, everything that every other table in the restaurant had, including a plate of raw vegetables such as cabbage and sliced cucumbers and basil leaves carefully arranged. They got the joke- we wanted to eat lunch! Why hadn’t they thought of that? – and then my brother threw a new wrench into our nearly resolved situation by refusing rice, an act in fact utterly foreign to them. One after another the waiters and waitresses tried to offer him a rice bowl, which he continued to refuse to their consternation until one of the ladies finally just placed an entire serving bowl of rice on the table across from him and backed away slowly. “I’m not eating carbs,” he explained to me. Conversations about nutrition and personal eating habits can be volatile affairs, able to split families apart, sever friendships, but did that stop me? We’d been through it before I guess, though never really in opposition to each other and I was primed after just having read a great book on the subject- The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, so I ploughed ahead exclaiming “That doesn’t make any sense!” He strengthened his fighting stance and spooned more of some delicious vegetable mush into his mouth. “Tell that to my gut” he said. “No no, I don’t care about what you want to eat, that’s not what I’m saying”. He had lost a lot of weight after all. The last time we went on a road trip together he looked almost like a water buffalo from eating pizza? I don’t know, in any case he looked much much slimmer. “But no carbohydrates? That’s crazy!” I continued on with my rant about how carbohydrates were an absolutely essential nutrient and if he was saying he didn’t eat carbohydrates he was basically claiming to consume only protein and fat, and nothing else (with the vitamins and fiber just part of that mixture)(I actually knew what he meant, ‘carbs’ being a neologism of the ‘just eat meat’ craze that seemed to refer mostly to processed foods made from grains and starches). Unimpressed, he finished a bowl of corn, which the waitress quickly replenished (a clue as to what the food ordering confusion had been about). “I don’t eat rice,” he elaborated, “It’s just filler. And I hate it when people tell me what to eat”. “Yeah, you said it partner, nothing worse than that, I remember all the bullshit we went through in our teens and twenties”, I went on, shoveling it all in as I went, “but if you think about it, there was hardly a single obese Vietnamese person known until about the 21st century, and the way they say hello is ‘Have you eaten rice yet?’ I doubt it’s the rice that’s starting to make them fat”, and so on, my reasoning utterly failing to make a dent in the triumph of the propaganda of the Atkins diet, where even a vegetarian can be a believer. No carbs!
Anyway I later figured out what I believe the confusion had been that day in the restaurant. Inspired by T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, in part an epidemiological report showing the healing properties of a plant-based diet, and in concert with my brother, who was a vegetarian before me, and stuck with it after I had abandoned my stint avoiding eating meat, which lasted at least a few years if I remember correctly and which I now only intermittently practice, by that meaning sometimes only once a month, and getting my bike and being rigged and ready to go out to the countryside, infused with all that, I had decided to go veg that day in the Burmese restaurant upon arriving in Myanmar. It was in an arc of activities and enthusiasm so to speak. The problem that so confused them was that I was standing in front of the selection of food that essentially, for the mode of cuisine that they were engaged in, were condiments, or natural accompaniments of the meal, and it didn’t make any sense to them for me to ‘order’ them or ask for them. It would be like ordering salt and pepper and ketchup off the menu in an American diner, or fish sauce in a Vietnamese restaurant, or… something like that. Everyone else was over deliberating between chicken livers or stewed sparrows, or boiled pork belly and so on. But we wanted to eat lima beans and eggplant and corn and food like that that day, and thank god we worked it out, because it was delicious.
The second picture I missed that day occurred after we were not very far out of town and were approaching a teak foot-bridge that was quite long, at 1.2 km the longest such bridge in the world. We were driving with the Irrawaddy River to our left and a thatched fishing village to our right. Fishermen waded along in the shallows with nets and other gear, gathering their catch, and the village itself was quite active in a way that would have required a long scrolled panoramic painting ( like Along the River During the Qingming Festival ) to capture it, or in this era, a lengthy photo spread. We were just whizzing by however, and I was not equipped for any distance photography. In fact for the most part, with the equipment I had, if my pictures were to have any value, they would need to be snapped at close range, with all the apparent connections to the subject matter quite visible. In other words I would have to get up in people’s faces in order to take their picture. Probably anyone who has ever contemplated taking a stranger’s picture in public has felt the same trepidation and anxiety that this can provoke, although obviously there are ways to get over this and just do it, many ways I’d say. Some also back away from the task, either at key moments, or altogether. It’s something worth discussing. I have found, for instance, that a lot of people will smile and indicate that they’re quite happy to have their picture taken, while others will show no hesitation in refusing. I have my own ad hoc rules about this, and I’m not sure I even always follow them, but how about this: let’s just keep talking about it and I’ll promise to do the right thing in the best possible way that I can. One of my rules for instance is that someone participating in a public display, such as a parade or some other performance, has pretty much licensed themselves to be photographed, and you’d have to tell a pretty intricate story before it started to be problematic to take their picture. However, to tell such a story, one thing I’ve enjoyed doing in the past is that when I come across people posing for pictures in public places, if I think I can get away with it (because the photo subject is occupied with smiling and posing for their intended photographer) I’ll snap a shot of them posing, either including their photographer, or not, depending on where I’m standing, or what looks better. Although it passes some of my tests, I at least feel it’s a little ethically strained. I could call it a ‘freebie’ as they are posing in public, though I’m well aware and possibly the subjects feel this also, that they are posing only momentarily, and not for me. I could imagine that they, if aware of my actions, might be thrilled in some way at the extra attention, like it’s all part of the fun of being on vacation or at leisure. I could also imagine them moving away from this pole passing through a place where they would just say ‘fair enough, you got me!’ and then start drifting towards lands of greater vulnerability, where they might wish I hadn’t taken their picture at all. It seems fun anyway when I capture a smiling person, maybe flashing some hand jive, and I’ve mused even about presenting a series of such shots in a show, but I haven’t been doing this too much lately, either because it’s a thing that I did, and I’m over it, or because of all the ethical dimensions of this practice. My brother and I talked about the whole wider subject of taking pictures of people on this trip and I brought up three different standards that I was aware of, none of which I am completely conversant in. The strictest I would think is in the world of anthropology, where there is a developed ethical protocol, at times known as the Human Subject Protocol which was developed in response to the wider problem of scientific researchers abusing their human subjects while conducting research upon them , of which there are all too many examples. The basic standard is informed consent, with a conscientious weighing of benefit and harm, in a bureaucratized environment, where scrutiny and oversight are established. For example, a graduate student in anthropology typically would develop a proposal with their advisor and then have to submit an ‘Ethics Review Protocol Submission Form’ to a committee and would not be able to engage in fieldwork without final approval from a ‘Research Ethics Board’. So, if they wanted to take a picture of someone in the village we were traveling past (or anywhere in the world) and use it in any way, they would first have to go through all that. Another relevant standard, especially for photography, would be the Model Release Form. This is similarly a measure of consent to give up privacy, tailored for legal and commercial interests, rather than academic ones. But it’s not clear exactly when it’s required. Certainly if you’ve appeared in a Pepsi ad, you’ve signed a model release form. George Clooney no doubt has signed a model release form. What about the Afghan girl with haunting green eyes from National Geographic? Is there some document somewhere establishing her consent? Or was it all done with a wink and a nod of the head? There’s no way that news photographers get model release forms, for example, when shooting a battle, a natural disaster, a political rally, or anything of that nature, so obviously there is a wide range of editorial content considered exempt from any standard of consent (the third standard I presented while discussing this with my brother) because the public nature of the acts renders them ipso facto not private. Actually, even anthropology acknowledges exemptions for situations based in the public arena. Imagine if you will however someone looking out their window in contemplation. You can dress them in pajamas or formal gowns or their birthday suit if you will, as this is a thought experiment. They are staring out their window, you are on the street, with a lens powerful enough to frame them, and you yourself are not hidden in any way. Is this consent? Who’s asking, really? How many pictures are we ourselves part of around the world without even realizing it? When my brother and I got to this part of the discussion, we both recalled situations where we had actually found pictures of ourselves published, without any direct awareness of the picture having been taken, albeit in very small magazines.
For my brother’s part, he boiled it down also to three different stances you could take. One is the set-up mentioned above where you have your camera out in a near ready, but not absolutely ready position, and you smile and nod and wink at your subject and mime taking the picture, using similar basic language if such language is shared or understood, encouraging the subject to indicate consent to have their picture taken. If they refuse, you walk away, and try to think no more about it, if they consent, you snap away, and hope you’ve taken your lens cap off.
The second way is what he described as ‘pretending to be their friend’, where you spend time building trust with your intended subjects, however long it takes, until you’ve passed some sort of test, and then you carry out what had been your plan all along, and take a lot of pictures.
The third way is to just take pictures whenever you can and decide later whether it was appropriate or worth it when deleting and publishing said pictures (in our case on Facebook and our own personal blogs).
In any case, that afternoon, while driving along with the Irrawaddy River to my left, and a small, bustling, sprawling village to my right, I spied an older gentleman in a hat and jacket seated in an alert but relaxed manner, entirely on a small platform built at about waist height above the ground around the base of a tree. He was reading a newspaper and so had the double position of both being at rest, as well as participating in the business of attending to and holding up the world. I don’t recall whether he was wearing trousers or the more typical longyi sarong, as it was the hat and jacket and newspaper, and the overall poise that captured my attention. There’s nothing else to refer to, as I didn’t stop my bike, put down the kickstand, walk over to him, and after some or no negotiation, take his picture, I just kept driving along, with some tearing and longing in my heart.
The third picture I did not take occurred I am not sure where. After we finished at the teak bridge we began heading in a West South-Westerly direction, hoping to somehow make our lodgings in the archeological city of Bagan that night, despite our late and meandering start. My brother drives faster than I do, and the bikes we rented, while great bikes, were actually cheap Chinese copies of a great bike (the Honda Wave) that itself had limited power and suspension. The roads were fine, but not without some pitting, so I soon found myself skipping through town after town with just enough control to not really worry, but with a sense that going a little bit slower would be infinitely more sensible. The towns were all similar, and all different, all with some market activity near the road, some with more beautiful tree glades than others, some with more active urban pursuits. The men for the most part all wore longyi sarongs, some tied up higher if their thighs were directly involved in their work or play, such as when they were kicking a rattan ball around, the women also wore longyis, though more brightly colored, and tied at the hip rather than at the center. The women and boys and an occasional man wore a yellow paste-like single-colored yellow make-up on their face, sometimes in squares or rectangles on their cheeks, for example, sometimes in fierce stripes, occasionally in circles or any other design. I saw a sixteen year-old boy with a semi-circle of dots going across his forehead, meeting at the two larger circles on his cheeks. Somewhere in the midst of this kaleidoscope of market items, melons and fruit, fish and knives, and men and boys at work and at play, of cool creek oases at low points in the road where the largest trees would grow, amidst the dust and approaching golden hour of sunlight, I saw a little girl with a full face of the traditional sandalwood make-up, the ghost-face as I termed it for myself, as it is striking to behold, I saw this tan-faced girl somewhere on one of these roads in one of these towns, with two bright-yellow marigold-like flowers in her hair, one above each ear. I saw her right beside me it seemed, in front of me and beside me at the same moment, as I was in motion. She was looking straight at me, and I didn’t take her picture. Instead I slowed down just a little bit, and then kept on driving.
In honor of the new album by My Bloody Valentine, “m b v” released more than 20 years since the previous album, “Loveless”, I am posting this fan video I made of their song “Feed Me with Your Kiss”, the video also maybe more than ten years old.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis make appearances from early pre-code films they were in:
Okay so I’ve turned in the Solaris project, now known as Solar Mannequin, and the desk is a little clearer. By ‘turned in’ I mean that I posted it on Youtube and on this blog, and I probably won’t be doing any major edits to it, if any more edits at all. Now it’s finished and free to stand on its own, albeit also with some commentary I am now providing.
Before I say anything else about it I want to make clear that I really like the film, and I’m really proud of it. I want to thank my collaborators who gave their all and also mention that it took a great deal of work to see the project through to the final state that it’s in.
The truth of the matter is, however, that the film failed on a few fronts, and despite its relative charms, it is still in search of an audience. Truthfully no audience was ever really expected, and thus the failure that is in the film is almost pre-designed, and comes out of the context of my whole profile as a film-maker, an amateur that is, an amateur film-maker. Within that personal context the film is a great success, and deserves further consideration, but without that frame, refracting and reflecting the motions on the screen, it’s more of an awkward child, provoking one’s inner bully, or mother to come out and, one way or another, take hold of the situation. I do want the film to be viewed more, I think there are people who will enjoy it, but realistically there’s zero chance of it going viral, becoming a cult classic, inciting a movement, or anything along those lines. I do think some of my present and future friends, at an event like a summer outdoor barbeque screening, might give it a watch, with the outside prospect that a Tarkovsky freak might check it out on YouTube and maybe mention it to a few other such freaks at an annual meeting, or in a newsletter, thereby pumping up the views from the pathetic 54 that they now hover at, to eventually somewhere above, say, 75.
So, what’s wrong with it? This film was my first attempt at narrative, and the goal I stated and my collaborators agreed upon was that we wanted the audience to understand what was supposed to be happening. No one yet has claimed that they have, so I have to face that squarely. There were other goals attached to the film of course, but this one is of particular note, with its complementary corollary, that I wanted to move beyond abstract music video form, which is what I usually have produced- another obvious failure as a goal, considering the two long sequences cut to music, maybe half or more of the film.
The whole decision to re-make this ponderous classic was a bad art-joke from the get-go. I’ll admit, it still makes me chuckle, but that’s probably some character flaw of mine. To take a treasured but obscure foreign film, and translate it into an absurd comedy that isn’t really a comedy, was a small feat, and I guess when I look at it that way, maybe I’ve actually succeeded, but… – is it really worth all that work, the resulting chuckle being very dry indeed? We thought it’d take a night or two of acting, with another week of editing, and out would pop the joke, of 8 to 10 minutes. This actually did happen this way (the tan-suit interrogation), but for various reasons I decided to amp up the whole production, including deciding to get a green screen…In the end I nearly died from exhaustion (and pneumonia) and commandeered night after night of my cast’s time.
I got the green screen to combat a basic flaw of the amateur home-movie auteur, what I call “parents’ house syndrome”. This occurs when you’ve rounded up your volunteers who bravely attempt to dramatize the chosen story-line, in front of-what… whatever situation you happen to be living in, that they so strongly have turned in their minds into the landscapes of the story-line, and yet the camera is not getting these mental projections… For example, there is a vast legacy of such films of some brave thespian in a robe emoting in front of a suburban staircase or bathroom mirror. Who cares, you’re having fun, right? In our first attempt for Solar Mannequin we got something like this- what I believe was an outstanding performance, on a shag carpet in front of a plaster wall etc. a stage set to be ignored. No, it wasn’t our parents’ house, but the intentionality of the setting was insufficient to the cause, in other words, in a quite accidental landscape for our Sci-Fi outing. Adding the green-screen allowed me to include a diverse host of backdrops, from the World Expo in Shanghai, China, to the basement of the seat of the South Vietnamese Republic, to the theaters of the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, as well as just textured space-junk, such as a vintage tube amplifier, from our personal basement collections. Heck, the green-screen allowed an actor to mount a cat-dragon, and fly above a cityscape, exacting his revenge on the inhabitants. The absurdity of such juxtapositions was of course intentional, and this successfully captured a theme of the film, the absurdity and narcissism of everyday life, which also can be a little spooky at times.
Another intentional aspect of the film, and perhaps something that ends up subverting the main goal of the film was that at a certain point I began to see the film as an opportunity to house collections. I knew I was leaving home soon, for an extended time, and I guess in a way I was thinking “I can bring this world with me after all, or at least show this world to… the Asians, the Solarians, or anybody who just would not otherwise see it”. The film became a place to just put a bunch of stuff, almost as a time capsule, hopefully thematically consistent with the film. For example, we drove through some pretty bad neighborhoods, like Point Breeze in South Philly, and near the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey as a way of showing the degradation that Dr.Spacebo is concerned about, and why he would risk everything to explore a new world, as a way of renewing the current situation on Earth. Collecting such landscapes also makes it almost like a documentary. I also added the Chinatown New Year’s festivities as a way of suggesting a different, possibly strange, possibly invigorating world. The collection of junk and other locales pushes the science fiction aspirations of the film (junk and landscapes of junk = technology affecting the social realm- the sine qua non of sci-fi). This is all good, in my opinion, and independent and possibly all good film should have something of a personal edge. The problem is that it can become the opposite of the “parents’ house syndrome” where instead of just glossing over the familiar, which is carelessly included in what you are presenting, one can intentionally collect everything that is familiar, and present it, and its just this personal collection, you know, for a target audience, ‘come up and see my etchings’, rather than a story that people are following. But what can you really do as a storyteller; you have to stick with stuff that interests you.
I think the real answer to that is just a process answer- because making film is such a time and resource intensive endeavor, and it’s collective, as well, we’re not just talking about wasting your own time or throwing away your own money, one really has to be prepared and organized, which in my case means writing the damn thing first.
We basically were a bunch of friends hanging out, working together, looking after kids, making dinner and so forth, and just rapping a lot. I’m always conspiring to make a film, so when Rob (Dr. Spacebo) began regularly joshing about the things going on around him as if it were an action film (starring himself as some sort of fictional twin brother of actor Stephan Seagal) just as part of a verbal routine to entertain his two daughters, I smelled an opportunity to recruit a new team of film volunteers. Caleb (Pilot Rochester, and his twin, Dr. Holbrooke) was also game, so we started casting about for a plot. We had some ideas about dramatizing various events going on around us, and we were watching a lot of films in the evenings. I think I latched on to the idea because the 70’s was an era of Sci-Fi that, post Star-Wars, has largely been forgotten. WestWorld, Logan’s Run, Silent Running…. These kinds of films are largely slow-paced and mood-driven, and absorb their contemporary fashions in a way targeted and encompassing enough to present a world seemingly alien in its everydayness, because, of course in the future men will have side-burns… After I came up with the fateful plan to do a 10-minute fast-paced remake while watching the Soviet classic we had a few more conversations and then assembled what gear we had to shoot our first takes.
That brings up another fact about this production- it was a no-budget enterprise, I even pirated the software if you want to get down to it. Sure, I had a computer (bought a year before, not because of the film), and an HD camera, but we’re talking the mac-mini, a powerful little bugger, but the bottom of the line, and an HD flip, and then after that broke, another handheld consumer gadget camera, less powerful than an iPhone. It seems that even a no-budget film shot on digital starts to eat cash immediately however; there were other expenditures as well.
As far as the theory behind the writing of the film, I felt buttressed by two main pillars- firstly, that the film had already been written, and secondly, that digital filmmaking allows for improvisational scene creation without any cost-impact. This allows for a new type of acting/ writing process that I adapted in part from Larry David’s show, Curb your Enthusiasm. The show famously uses a bullet-point skeleton script of basic scenarios. The actors themselves are steeped in the sensibilities of the characters they are portraying, which are likely typecast alter egos, intimate and yet almost independent in their power to create themselves The characters generate the script by interacting; only the set-up is pre-determined, with a general sense of the outcome allowing the next set-up to be plotted. An enormous amount of material must then be edited, which is much easier when you have a team of professional editors waiting. Another filmmaker, Mike Leigh, has a similar method, with a crucial difference. He allows his script to be generated by his actors during rehearsals, later to be solidified after many practices into an ironclad shooting script, a necessity due to his use of film stock during his career beginning in the 70’s.
I think we created some great performances, such as the haunted and defiantly bitter Pilot Rochester, the grand outsider statesman Professor Spacebo, and the worn-out but incisive bureaucrat Professor Enzyme. The scenarios needed to be introduced more carefully to the audience, especially an audience who had never seen the Soviet film, and our conversation about the film really started to get ahead of our ability to capture it adequately during the final days…which is reflected in the post-credits shots, surely incomprehensible to one and all as to how they could fit into any narrative. My fallback explanation here is two-fold, the precedents set by acknowledged classics: 2001, A Space Odyssey, where the resolution implies infinity, death, the possible fate of Spacebo after traveling through a worm-hole to Solaris, and mapped as well in the original movie, when Kelvin encounters his father in a house that is raining on the inside, an imperfect re-generation of his previous life, signifying the finality of those possibilities. Also, I came up with the idea to present my film using inter-titles as episodic chapters, along the lines of the Flash Gordon serials, hoping the audience would allow crazy incomprehensible scenes as a natural enticement to watch the ‘next episode’, which will never come of course. To be honest, many times I considered giving up on the effort to tie the film together. It had become impossible to shoot any more expository or linking shots, which went against our methods anyway, so in the end I faced the choice of only presenting successful scenes as they were, as fragments, or pulling the project together as best I could. Many friends have noted that I have succumbed to one of the fates a filmmaker should avoid, of falling in love with footage. It’s true, and a tighter film would be a better film, but in this case, I will allow myself the indulgence because without the cues a master-hack would have provided, I think it’s better to just wade through the plodding drama, than cut quickly to a plot that’s barely there.
In the end I was able to tie together some loose ends, bejewel it with a few songs that otherwise might have been lost, and like any great project, hint at a psychodrama that was unfolding beneath and is mirrored in the final product. Not a bad job, and yet…
The plot, for what it’s worth is as follows:
Professor Spacebo retreats to the holy temple of nature to reflect on his relationship to the Earth, a sacred bond unquestioned until now. He asks himself, “Earth, my home, what will it look like at the end of a telescope?”
Meanwhile, a formal panel has been assembled to examine the testimony of troubled space-pilot Rochester. Rather than being a routine debriefing, the proceedings feel like more of an interrogation to the rattled pilot. His colleagues attempt to calm him, but it is clear they are reluctant to take his statements at face value. In fact he reports nearly unbelievable and almost certainly hallucinatory phenomena, such as a giant baby frolicking in a distant planet’s sentient ocean. A planet where Earth scientists devoted to pure research, and the professionals and politicians devoted to the mineral extraction industry are battling for control. Rochester’s revelations, as they stand, not only ‘lose the battle’ for the scientists posturing for their cause, they also threaten to wipe the slate clean, making the planet irrelevant for all human interests, thus provoking the plant’s abandonment.
Professor Spacebo realizes that he must investigate in person. Overcome with intense feelings for his remaining links, such as his father and friends, he chants out his feelings, freely adapting segments of Walt Whitman’s Blades of Grass in the process. A friend reveals that Spacebo once before had attempted space travel with his own questionable technology, and caused a major disaster in the process. Spacebo blandly manufactures confidence that his adaptations will succeed this second time.
Spacebo’s ‘space-jump’ technology seems to involve capturing travel impetus from trains. On his previous try, it is said that he blew up the underground. This time he’s riding the elevated train, but seemingly with no improvement in outcome- he travels through space, but does he survive?
He arrives somewhere, and meets new and old companions. Perhaps these individuals, like himself, have retreated into their own ruminations, and become phantom wards of a planet with its own intelligence, and agenda. The implication of course, like all good science fiction, is that this is the state of things for us now. We have abandoned active life and exploration in order to play out our mental urges. Some strange planet has diverted us from our purpose of travel by giving us our thoughts, and our wishes.
Or maybe…Spacebo has succeeded in reaching a new world, depicted as a rock party in outer space. Fine conversation, companionship, youth and age aligned, what’s wrong with that? Mere problems can be annihilated from astride a cat dragon in this world of freedom. Let’s go!
What- you didn’t get that? Watch it again!
From over a year ago:
Worthy of a serious recording, if it could be arranged.
A deep-space pilot brings back troubling testimony from his mission monitoring the solaristics project- a research center orbiting a mysterious planet. An old friend and stake-holding scientist springs into action to save what’s left of this faltering project, the implications of which could shatter what’s left of a struggling democracy; or simply be forgotten…It all hangs on DIY worm-hole technology. Let’s hope the roto-intentional booster has been stabilized!
This is the first complete edit of this epic re-make of Solaris, shot on location during the Winter and Spring of 2010 in South Philly, locations also shot in Camden NJ, the World Expo, Shanghai, China, and the Presidential Palace in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
One week after I arrived in Vietnam I set out on foot on a quest to purchase various sundry items to outfit myself with, the basics, so I thought, needed to set up house. I remember buying a hairdryer in a bookstore for instance, thinking it would be necessary for my new job, which required me to be fresh and professionally attired at 7:00 am Saturday and Sunday mornings. I never ended up using it, as Saigon is blessedly free from the freezing temperatures that I was used to half the year in the city I had just come from (Philadelphia). In any case had I began teaching a class with wet hair, no one would have actually been bothered as it would have been dry by the scheduled break-time. In other attempts to acclimate myself I also purchased a Chinese chess set that I am still waiting to learn how to play as well as a ceramic teapot that I use nearly everyday. As I wandered around that day I had an iPhone in my pocket that I used to snap shots of all the interesting and bizarre things that I was witnessing, events that I half-guessed were normal everyday affairs in this new place that I was calling home. Among the things that I saw were denim-clad municipal electric workers on bamboo ladders, people transporting all manner of things on motor-bikes, including mannequins and sheet-glass, such as a large mirror, and what was the prize event of the day, in terms of range of detail and sheer illumination into the Vietnamese way of life, a funeral procession, complete with a Prajna carriage and a marching band accompanying the mourners in what was an unmistakable to my American eyes bleed over from New Orleans tradition, the ‘funerals with music’, now known as Jazz funerals. This was the first time I had ever seen whatever I was seeing, so when I turned and saw what I can now refer to as a Prajna boat (having done a little reading on the subject), the thought that popped into my mind was “Buddha bus”. I needed little confirmation to suspect what this ornate and impractical vehicle was intended for, what we call a ‘hearse’ (but with a decidedly different signature), intended to deliver the guest of honor not to a solemn rain-soaked last-rites, but to Nirvana. It seemed as good a photo opportunity as any, although I hesitated with the typical laziness diluted with shyness of a middle-class tourist witnessing something not yet categorized. My split second dawdling lost me some key moments as the band somehow cued into action. In a swirl of photogenic activity I managed to capture a few fumbled shots and turn on the digital recorder that my phone also contained. Now captivated, I followed the bus along as it began to amble down a Saigon lane, carrying the beloved family member to their next place of rest, not realizing that I had formed a second-line to the musicians until some people we passed on the street smiled and pointed at me, hoisting my iPhone almost like a parasol in rhythm to the unmistakable tune of [St. James Infirmary]. After a short promenade the musicians in their captain’s caps and all-white coats and pants hopped onto the bus and it accelerated to the normal pace of traffic on its way to wherever the deceased would be buried.
I later asked Vietnamese friends and colleagues about the music that I saw that day but no one suggested a foreign (i.e. American, New Orleanian) source for this. But how can they think this is Vietnamese music? Perhaps there are earlier Vietnamese horn-music traditions that this seeming anomaly was grafted onto, but I was reduced to stretching for a proper explanation.
Here are the facts on the table, as far as I can tell, be they relevant or not. Vietnam and France have a lot of history together, both politically and inevitably culturally, the French for instance introducing Roman letters, coffee and bread into Vietnam. Take iced coffee with condensed milk and banh mi sandwiches (both decidedly Vietnamese in flavor) away from the average Vietnamese and they would be disoriented to say the least, and very few would be able to read the old Vietnamese Sinicized chữ Nôm characters, still visible on some old temples here and there. The French also settled the city of New Orleans, eventually selling it to the growing American nation in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, finalized in 1804. So…is it possible the French provided some sort of cultural conduit from New Orleans to Saigon? Quite a stretch it would seem, as Jazz wasn’t really developed until the beginning of the twentieth century, long after the French played any direct role in the administration of that city. The Catholic church, another item introduced by the French, frowned on the playing of secular music at funerals (in New Orleans), especially so the ‘hot music’ that has come to distinguish these marches, though it can be said that the restrictions of Lent, for example, dictate the excesses of Carnival. Nevertheless, the musical societies that comprise the tradition in America, although inarguably influenced by French (and Spanish) martial music traditions practiced during the city’s history, are almost uniformly Protestant African American New Orleanians (not French!), a set beyond miniscule in Vietnam’s Saigon which could be said as well of any one of the components of the previous description. Nevertheless the French have long been big Jazz fans since the 1920’s at least and probably played the role of introducing through diffusion Jazz recordings and appreciation in what was then known as Indochina.
There is a also rather large settlement of Vietnamese in New Orleans these days. I found an article that figured the population as around 12,000 in 1990 and described them as largely being Catholics that fled the North of Vietnam to the South during the division of 1954, and then fled further after reunification in 1975, perhaps being drawn to the strong Catholic presence in N.O. as church sponsorship could be a decisive factor in successful immigration. This possible back channel of American culture to Vietnam, through overseas Vietnamese contact, only points to the larger issue of cultural contact between the United States and Vietnam, largely of course through the American support of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam beginning in 1955 and then escalating into the well-known and well-studied conflict that ended in 1975. During these years somehow the “funerals with music” tradition of the marching brass band with military style caps somehow became adopted or melded onto a similar tradition whose sensibilities matched what I am only aware of taking place in one other city in America.
Is it always so, and has it always been so?
A woman I know who runs a tailor shop in HCMC tells me that people didn’t use to have music at funerals. “When did this change?” I asked her. She seemed a bit puzzled, because she didn’t know. Her recollections it seemed came from her childhood, when she lived in the countryside. The change came when she moved to Saigon although she’s not sure exactly when was the first time she remembers this. Nowadays at least it’s a frequent complaint. Mourners sometimes revel until 5 in the morning, drinking beer at tables while being entertained by Mekong Delta guitar-men (a common feature of Saigon funerals separate from the brass band tradition) who play their strange slinky riffs, similar to the slide of old Delta bluesmen of another river, the Mississippi. My friend calls this “crazy, noisy, country music” and smilingly described its proponents as “xom lao dong (hamlet laborers)”, or common country people. Another friend recently joked “if this funeral lasts much longer, there’ll be another one coming right up” meaning either that he would perish from lack of sleep or be driven to a homicidal state, the funeral outside his window having lasted for 3 days.
As mentioned above, music plays a key role in more than just the final procession in funerals in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly [and informally still] Saigon).
“As with weddings, feasting is an essential part of the funeral process”(189) according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit ,and along with feasting comes music.
I first began noticing these gatherings on my way home from work. Many motorists would just stop in the street, in a crowd of motorbikes, to watch the musicians play, just like I saw them do in front of electronics shops, to watch an important football match or because a promotional extravaganza was being put on by the store, with a model or some other form of entertainment provided. The Mekong guitarists sometimes play with the guitar flat, recalling the prior stringed instrument, the đán tranh, a Vietnamese board zither.
I am still struggling to learn more about traditional Vietnamese music forms although I can tell you that there is a folk opera tradition called Cải lương as well as a folk chamber music tradition called Nhàc tái tử (the name translating something like skilled amateurs) which undoubtedly share melodies and themes much like jazz, blues, old-time, Broadway and popular music have interacted in America.
I moved into a house on a residential alley (hem) in District 3 soon after arriving. Fortunately for my neighbors, no household funerals were required during my year there, demographics and luck being as they were. The next year we moved deeper into the residential hems just down the street, near chợ vườn chuối (the Banana Garden Market). Life here seemed to be more all encompassing, catering to many needs of the residents, like a self-contained mini-city. All manner of vegetables and protein as well as varieties of dried rice are available in and around the traditional market. Thoroughfares through the adjoining alleys provide various types of noodle stands, as well as hair-dresser shops and juice and banh mi carts. There is a pawn shop, various bodegas, as well as small tailor factories, computer and motorbike repair shops as well as people just selling mobile phone credit, all out of the gated first floors of the residences lining long and sometimes twisted alleys, not big enough for a car but wide enough (for the most part) for two motorbikes to pass. Generations of folk live together here, or in houses close to each other, and occasionally one of the old people will die. Several, in fact, seemed to die all at once, or in close proximity to one another right before this past Tet holiday. I speculated on the psychology of giving up one’s last hold on life, and dying peacefully at home, before the New Year could begin, clearing the way for one’s family to make a fresh start. Was this a common practice? My wife insisted I had this wrong, as no one would wish that there families be sad on such an important holiday. Nevertheless, with a few also coming after the turning of the year, we have yet to see such a cluster again, in fact barely any have been held at all in the past few months, with our neighborhood thankfully busy with matters other than dying for the moment.
There are preliminary signals to the neighborhood that someone has died, and a funeral will take place. The family will hang a special flag somewhere in the alley at a crossroads near the deceased’s house. The design is a series of concentric squares starting in the middle with red, then going outwards, white, sky blue, orange, and then deep blue. The final deep blue border has a jagged edge.
The flag reminds me somewhat of the international Buddhist flag and at least one informant also misidentified it to me as such. A side by side comparison reveals that they are not the same. Incidentally, the location I am describing is a quick walk from the Xa Loi pagoda, the center of the Buddhist crisis of the 1960’s, which began when 9 unarmed civiliains were shot in Hue protesting the banning of the Buddhist flag by the South Vietnamese government. The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức probably the most memorable event of the crisis also occurred at a nearby street-corner. (These events led to the downfall and assassination of President Ngô Đình Diệm after 8 months of such turmoil, through an internal coup.)
Though this flag can be striking once noticed, harder to miss when they occur are the barricades or signs leaning against chairs blocking the alley which ask neighbors to kindly find another way around, as a mourning tent is to be set up. Tables and chairs are placed under the tent for family members, relatives and neighbors to gather for the vigil, until the body is carried away. If the deceased died at home, the coffin will remain. However, according to the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit, “when someone dies outside the home, the casket is not permitted to be brought back inside, and the funeral must be conducted with the casket outside the door”(188). A small altar is set up near the casket, usually with a portrait photograph of the deceased, and incense and candles.
A professor of Vietnamese culture, Professor Phan Thi Yen Tuyet, of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities of the Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City graciously answered my questions further about what typically takes place. According to her, the family often carry out the washing of the body themselves; using herbs and water made fragrant with a special red flower, and then carefully dispose of the water. The deceased is then dressed in a traditional Ao Dai (silk tunic) suit tailor-made in advance for the occasion. The family themselves will wear white ghost-like shrouds over their clothes, or perhaps only headbands of the same rough linen. 9 grains of rice (and sometimes even gold) will be placed in the deceased’s mouth. The coffin will be filled with dried tea to absorb water and odors from the body as it may lie in state for days or as long as a week before the appointed day to journey on arrives. In another curious custom peculiar to South Vietnam a bunch of green bananas may be put on the umbilical region of the corpse, explained either as a diversionary meal for a spirit dog who might otherwise consume some of the deceased, or merely as a natural neutralizer of odors and dangerous substances which might leak from the body. A friend of mine witnessed this once as a child when her grandfather passed away and his body was prepared in the family home.
The contours of Vietnamese spiritual life are revealed and confirmed further by some of the less immediately pragmatic practices that may take place. For instance, the editors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit tell of a practice where bowls of rice porridge are often placed near the threshold between the house and the outside, in order to appease and distract wandering, possibly angry ghosts who seek to find lapses in proper ritual as an entree to cause havoc (like the aforementioned spirit dog), perhaps by stealing items intended for the family ancestor. These angry ghosts (con ma) are themselves the result of an inadequate funeral, perhaps the result of “one of Vietnam’s most poignant contemporary problems…the tens of thousands of soldiers, from both north and south, who died in battle and never received proper funeral rites.” Published in 2003, only 8 years ago, the authors go on to say “Although the wars are over, this army of wandering souls remains, and scores of families continue to search for the bones of their lost loved ones so they can perform appropriate funeral rites and give their souls their final peace “(191).
Sadly, as the world turned, inexorably, another and another and another person died, including one of our neighbors. The authors of Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit compare weddings and funerals and after describing typical features, admit “above this deeper structure rests a bewildering number of possible variations”…and “not only have such variations long existed, but new ones keep appearing”(185). I can confirm that features of the funeral that I witnessed did not conform wholly to accounts I found in other sources; an example is the clowning that the bandleader performed, beginning by balancing his cap upright on his forehead. He continued with a plastic stool, then a bicycle, then two bicycles (I kid you not, balanced on his forehead), then 13 red plastic stools arranged geometrically, and then finally ending with a folding metal table balanced on one leg, all on his forehead. I can only guess that the unreal performance was intended to somehow balance the magical forces present in the air, not unlike the lively music played by the brass band accompanying the coffin to the waiting vehicle, or the fighting stance taken by the band member wielding two funeral flags like torches as he led the vehicle in a slow procession briefly on the street before the ceremony ended and basic city-street driving began.
The machinery of the ritual thus arranged itself around us to guide the family and all others swept up in the wake of events through to what is perhaps just another beat in the cycle, where a person who was walking among us becomes a corpse laid in a box, and then carried outside the community to whatever new incarnation, in this particular case, cremated remains and then whatever, if anything, after that. My wife told me that the Vietnamese have a saying, that this is the temporary life, which is over quickly, and then the real life begins. On the final day, when this occurred for one white haired lady we had been accustomed to seeing, a brass band arrived to line the alley adjacent to our house to act as an honor guard. I instinctively grabbed the best camera we had in the house and went out to capture some of the events. The neighbors encouraged and directed me to photograph as fully as possible what was taking place and later I was able to provide them with an album for their memories. Perhaps also my presence as a foreigner gave them luck somehow, as I may have overhead the matriarch of affairs comment to the others after she insisted I come on the bus with them to the cemetery; my language comprehension however is spotty. In any case I hope my being there served to “share the sadness” and dilute the burden, as I had said the day before to the brother-in-law of the woman, as I carried out a custom of giving a small envelope to help defray the costs of all that was taking place; “xin chia buồn”.
Cambodia was one of the first places I began reading about when I came to South-East Asia. As I sat in the ground floor café of a guest-house in Ho Chi Minh City, getting my bearings, among the sellers that would come in hawking goods would be the booksellers bearing a large stack of books, about 3 feet in height, tied in a package with string. Any eye contact with a spine would prompt them to deftly extract a volume and begin pitching it at twice the price they would actually accept. I was desperate for something good to read, call it an addiction, but balked at the Dan Brown titles and those by Obama and his ghostwriter. Later, I did succumb to some beach books that robbed my life of precious minutes and hours such as the dreadful Memoirs of a … and something about a witch that later became a musical, an equally dreadful and thoroughly sterilized account of what could be, dare I say, magical, but the first book I bought in Vietnam was First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung about a middle class family swept from their life by the total evacuation of Pnom Penh, the capital city, in a revolutionary attempt to return the entire country into a pre-industrial state, even pre-historical. The “organization” behind this putsch used a term for their target state-of-being in their dramatic social engineering gambit, the term was the “Year Zero.” Among the books currently available to the English reader cast into South-East Asia there are quite a lot of books written about the infamous genocide of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, the events that first thrust Cambodia into my life as a household word when I was less than 10 years old. It wasn’t surprising to me that I chose a book with this topic, a book, as it turns out, that is quite a good read. There is a lot of bravery in facing one’s worst memories, and in facing human nature in its starkest terms. This first person account forges a connection between the liberal humanity cherished in places such as an America, where the teller of the story eventually fled to, and the unbelievably appalling and perhaps inexplicable saga of a country insane, occupied by its own leaders and impelled to kill perhaps one out of three of its own people, often with the blow of a hammer to the skull. Although I cannot argue or explain the causes of this catastrophe I recommend not overlooking the effect of Nixon and Kissinger’s decision in 1969 to secretly order 3,500 bombing sorties over Cambodia, because of its use by the North Vietnamese army as a supply trail, resulting in 600,000 civilian deaths among Khmer villagers. Nixon and Kissinger’s carpet bombing campaign of 14 months is now seen by historians as a furious episode in a series of secretive bombing raids that lasted over 11 years that began with the Johnson administration. It is often argued that the outrage of a peasantry who were not even at war with the country whose flag was painted on the B-52 bombers that granted such gifts drove them into the ranks of an otherwise marginal group (the KR) who alone promised opposition to the arrangements as they were. This was in fact the initial explanation given by the KR cadres as they emptied their capital in 1975, that they had intelligence that the Americans would begin bombing it any minute now.
Cambodia is also known the world over for its dramatic ancient monumental cult cities, akin to places like Chichen-Itza in Mexico, the Forbidden City in China, and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Egypt is the oldest of these examples, and China is the most recent, but there is no reason not to include the classic ages of Greece and Rome in this panoply, and surely there are many other standing monuments to compare and contemplate (e.g. Stonehenge). Archaeologists and anthropologists get easily annoyed however if you compare too closely, for several reasons, of which I will name just a few.
For example, there is an obnoxious legacy of disbelief among Western “discoverers” of such sites outside of Greece and Rome that local people, or their ancestors rather, could have ever been capable of such remarkable and incomprehensible feats of complexity. The structure is then credited to a “lost tribe of Israel” in order to subtly claim ownership. Nine times out of ten however one needs only to look at the pictures carved into the sides to know who built them…though this is hardly foolproof (e.g. the sinoid and negroid features perceived by observers of remnants of ancient Mexican societies such as the Toltec and Olmec). I think speculation on cultural contacts heretofore unverified or unknown is not actually a great crime to science, and can be an aid if done carefully. But only speculate or make claims carefully if you care about science, otherwise, go wild, you are free. This leads to the twin view of course, wedded to this by the sheer awe such places inspire is the notion that the builders were people superior to the Western tradition. Awe tends to silence the chatter of the mind, and bring peaceful stirrings, therefore the creators of such places must have been peaceful New-Age geniuses, no? Again, as those who devote their lives to studying such places have discovered, the tale told by the images and writing etched into these stones is typically of war and bloodshed.
Yet they remain beautiful and awe-inspiring. So should we speculate a golden age of arts and state-supported public works, perhaps even levitated into place? Or one of cruel slavery and forced labor? Such is the dilemma of the pyramidiot, too lazy to read the dusty words of the scholars who have gathered the (credible?) facts. For what it’s worth, here is my nuanced view. The romantics in the debate as a rule want too much, are too invested in redeeming themselves, and want to see what they want to see. The scientists are possibly all secretly romantic (to their own tune perhaps), but are invested of course also in their own success to a very human degree (and thus must focus rather narrowly, as any succesful person must). To me, they (whoever actually works to preserve and understand this heritage) are the heroes if there is in fact some culture war between the two, even though their commitment to evidence can be a drag. Said in jest of course, because the real obstacle to a pure, unfiltered knowledge of what these temples in Cambodia and the others around the world are really all about (that is, knowing beyond our limitations and errors) is (obviously swinging back to the romantic side) our own capability to perceive. That is, although we might wish it, we are not New-Age qualified enough to know the intent of these structures. Any structure or object is at its core, intent. I learned more about this as a builder myself, listening to old timers talk about how a table or a wall “wants” to do this or that. This kind of builder, by seeing the intent of materials and structures, can direct them into the useful devises that they can become. The other kind of builder builds crooked buildings. As an apprentice I was intrigued, how does a table want anything? So try it yourself. Make a three-legged table, or a table with 4 legs of different lengths, and see what the table “wants” to do. Much has been made of our pre-packaged society and the assumptions that go along with it, that we are the one’s with wants, and the stuff on the assembly lines has no agency to challenge us (up in our baby chair). And a chair doesn’t “want” anything! But only the king baby really thinks that, anyone that actually tends to the stuff knows that the meat, at the very least, wants to rot after death, that the liquid wants to fill a cup or spill from the bottle, that the toy car wants to break or get stuck somewhere, like under a foot or in baby’s mouth. It’s only by taking such “wants” under firm consideration that we can design a good life for ourselves or is this just a way of talking? In any case the monumental structures remain a puzzle because they so clearly speak to life beyond the average day to day. I don’t think anyone disputes that. But what does this non-average life “want”?
Let’s take a case in point, the temple of Bayon at Angkor Thom, Cambodia, the towers of which each have two, or three, but mostly four serene faces clustered and jutting out every which way. There is no official count of towers and faces as the number has changed over time tough currently it is about 37 towers and 200 faces. Observers note a striking likeness between the faces and that of the ruler who ordered they be built (Jayavarman VII). Because they also represent figures in the Buddhist pantheon, further reasoning sees the ruler’s intention of representing himself as an incarnation of Buddha as a facet of his rule. But the deeper intention of the work is to last as long as it did (or be knocked over in places by the force of a growing tree, as it were), and to be as impressive as it is, and to impress in a specific way. Whatever the actual deeds of this Buddhist emperor (a notion puzzling in itself to the Western mind) the sublime inner nature as depicted here, and in the remarkable statue held in the National Museum of Phnom Penh represents a being in possession of a powerful force apart from, but not opposed to, rationality. Tyrant or not, its better than anything the people in my age we call tyrants have done.
Whatever power he possessed in life was tossed off in death, and subsequent rulers and events conspired to convert his temple to Hindu worship, and then later again to a different branch of Buddhism.
The Hindu aspect of this story underlines a cultural fact about Cambodia that separates it from its cousin to the East- Vietnam, though both share Buddhism, historically practiced more thoroughly in Asia outside its legendary home in India. That fact is that Cambodia takes more culturally, in the deepest sense from India, than it does from China, the mother culture of Vietnam and much of Asia. Though Vietnam and China are frequent and bitter antagonists throughout history, they resemble each other too much. But there is nothing Chinese about Cambodian pop music, its unmistakable psychedelic sensibilities indebted forever to the Hindu pantheon. Because of this cultural debt, English seems to come so much easier to those who need to or wish to speak English, such as in the hospitality trade, from receptionists to porters, and even street hustlers. Linguists classify English as Indo-European and here the DNA seems to match, or perhaps it is just the mere fact that the Khmer language is not tonal, like Vietnamese, which makes English and Viet so mutually alien to each other.
But Cambodia and Vietnam are also very much alike, and very close not the least because of their geography. And in fact as it is so often the case in such matters the maps are subject to change throughout history. For example, Saigon has an older, Cambodian incarnation, as Prey Nokor, and all of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta had been inhabited as Kampuchea Krom, or Lower Cambodia until the Vietnamese population surged past that of the fishing villages of the Khmer. An old map I saw also showed an inflated, but northern Vietnamese empire, which seemingly swallowed Laos. The food is nearly the same, the array of fruit at the market the same, the weather the same. Because of the weather and the food, both cultures share a love of sour soup, the Khmer version I found to be even more delicious than the Vietnamese version, its qualities bringing a chemical balance to my body. There is a tree in Cambodia dear to its culture that we call the sugar palm, its fruit being very similar to coconut. My wife asked me for the English word for this fruit. We don’t have the fruit, I told her, so we don’t have a word for it. “Speaking as an American…” I corrected after a little thought, guessing that the British, because of their old habits in overseas adventures let’s say, would have developed more of a reference for this sort of thing. I found later that they sometimes call the fruit “ice-apple”. Because of a saying that wherever that tree grows, there is Cambodia, and because of the history of the border issues between the two countries, the tree is not allowed to grow in Vietnam, for fear a Cambodian claimant for the land will arrive. If a Vietnamese person sees the tree anywhere they will cut it down. At least according to my father-in-law (lets call him Ba), who I was traveling with. My wife told me that he knew the Cambodian language, Khmer. Yes, she said, he can talk to people; listen to the radio, read the newspaper. As a lifelong soldier in the Vietnamese Army, he participated in the invasion of Cambodia to drive Pol Pot from power and was stationed there for 8 years. Returning to Cambodia was like visiting an old friend for him. He freely talked and chuckled with the cab driver on the way from the airport to our hotel in Siem Riep. True to his profession, the cab driver tried to sell us on his services, offering to be a guide today, tomorrow… My wife had already booked a tour for her parents but we were slightly deviating from it, we did have some free time and had already bought a sim card for our phone at the airport, why don’t you just give us your phone number we offered. No, he didn’t have a phone he said. Was it possible? Of course there was a disparity of resources between a tourist on holiday and a working person in an undeveloped country emerging from decades of civil war, but it had long been a gag with me to spot monks on motorcycles with gadgets in their hands, mountain villagers in traditional clothes gathered around a glass cell-phone counter in the market, and so forth.
It seemed that the world had already passed the cell-phone gap for the most part, but still, not everybody wanted or had one. He continued to gently press us to go to this tourist village he knew, the tickets were $12 and he would take us there and back for $11. Sometimes while traveling you just have to let yourself be hustled if it can roll off your back and you’ll see something new, but this was mild highway robbery with dubious bait. I didn’t even bother to get angry, the key I am learning to becoming a good bargainer, but just blandly turned him down. We had a few hours to kill so a quick nap was what we wanted anyway, to have the power to enjoy whatever came after. As he dropped us at the hotel it was the cab-driver who began to get angry; that we were declining to allow him to set our itinerary. “You can’t even arrange one afternoon,” he challenged to me. Sorry, I said, sorry you don’t have a phone. I have a phone he retorted, but I don’t want to give out my number, people have just taken my number before and they don’t call me, they just chuck it in the bin. Yeah so what? -I shrugged. I think this was his third explanation so far so I don’t think he actually had his own phone, maybe relatives or girlfriends or associates he could sponge off perhaps, but it was also possible I was encountering some kind of pre-capitalist sentiment of thin skin and hurt feelings at the lack of personal relationships between partners, where the money went his way, simply because we had more of it. The battle of don’t call us, we’ll call you was to go his way in his thinking, he would take our number, and we could sit around and wait- take that barang. I don’t know, sometimes I can be sympathetic, but his way of doing business wasn’t winning me over. Several times later that day I would have called him in fact had I been able but it was actually for the best. Ba had no trouble negotiating with the drivers of the more common way of getting around, the tuk-tuk, or motorcycle driven carriage, which was in fact much more pleasant for me than the closed space of the automobile. Did Ba learn Khmer from the Army or just on the street? – I asked my wife. He just learned, she said. Listened to people, wrote down first what it sounded like in Vietnamese writing, than asked people and more and more begin learning the local script. It wasn’t surprising when I began to consider his bilingual daughter, my wife. He carried himself in an investigative way, seeming to poke anything new, with his finger or a twitch of his eyebrow.
Because of the various tides of the civil war, there are quite a noticeable array of land-mine victims (and land-mines waiting to go off) in Cambodia, men riding bicycles with one leg, riding motorcycles with one or no legs, walking around with the aid of rugged home-made crutches. Here and there you might notice other limbs missing. At Ankgor Thom we saw a group of landmine victims musicians playing along a path to one of the major temples. They had a tip-jar with a polite sign in several languages as well as cds and dvds for sale. Traditional Music Bands Victim of Land Mines/ We play benefit and find out the generous ladies and gentleman to support for daily family’s life and for the future of our children at school. We expectancy your great helps and supportes to us. We all wish you to gets everything what you desirous.
At Angkor Wat later that day I overheard a guide mentioning the barbarities of the Khmer Rouge past to his European client as they walked along. I have a habit of never hiring guides at Museums and places like that. I like to stock up on the facts off-site, and just follow my whims when I’m there. I suspect I’m missing something and consider changing my ways, so from time to time I’ll lurk in the background or tag along on a conversation and then split long before they can begin rightfully charging me. Like with so many other negotiations part of it isn’t the actual price, it’s the laugh in your face sucker deal that I am afraid of, no matter how much the actual money means to me. Living in Asia has taught me that I have to move beyond that but I also find that guides anywhere sometimes charge real money, so it matters whether you are getting a con man or a scholar, or something in between. In any case the foreigner had a solemn serious face but a stern absent stare, tolerating the comments but wanting to move on. The guide was calm and articulated his point, the ‘them’ of the KR, and the ‘us’ the country that had suffered, and then prevailed. This perhaps is a key part of the identity of that project. Who was it that did ‘this/ that’? Was it ‘them’, the KR, brutal murderers, or was it murderous peasants, or murderous communists, or murderous Khmer people, or the murderous developed world, the US, the French, and the entire industrial world that worked together and dropped bombs on a people who were not even claimed to be involved in the supposed conflict at hand, that is, the entire murderous human race. And yet, the comments I heard that provoke these contemplations were just a story that I overheard being told while we were all walking in a peaceful garden, a story that could be swatted away like a mosquito that emerged from a shadow, a story that maybe wasn’t even real, told by a nervous suspect in the docket pardoning his relatives in front of a sleeping judge. But the story was real, and as I am writing this and as he was telling it (by my impression actually a sweet intelligent looking young man) a tribunal was sitting in Phnom Penh and attempting to adjudicate the fate of the surviving high-ranking participants in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy, where convicted prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch was providing testimony against his superiors. There are four defendants in the case, known as Case 002 in the court of the ECCC, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC), and under trial are: Nuon Chea, aged 84, former Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, commonly known as Brother Number Two; Ieng Sary, aged 85, former Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs; Khieu Samphan, aged 79, former Head of State; and Ieng Thirith, aged 78, former Minister of Social Affairs. These are, it is said, the sole surviving “Big Fish” and it goes without saying that the legitimacy of these proceedings threaten the tenuous balance between glassy amnesia, and these events “really” being dealt with (with many suggesting a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process as a more productive alternative).
On the bus from Siem Riep to Phnom Penh, while going through what seemed to be the first town outside Siem Riep, Ba told us to look out for a statue of an elephant stepping on a tiger. Minutes later we passed by such a statue and he was gleaming with pride at remembering his way around. You lived near here? I asked him in Vietnamese (Ba da song gan o day?) He gave me an affirmative shake of his head and after we passed through the town he pointed at an orchard on the side of the highway. My wife translated his account for me, that the Vietnamese Army camped here along the road, and the KR cadres camped on the other side of the orchard and would come out at night, to fight (in her idiosyncratic usage of English, she referred to them as “the Pol Pot team”).
Also along the way we saw huts on poles, baroque temples, an insect market (with spicy fried tarantulas for sale), and a riverside dock with hammocks for the comfort of bus travellers at their rest stop. In the province closer to the Angkor temples, there didn’t seem to be any waterworks for dry season agriculture. Such sites sorely test the romance of the 1st world onlooker: the despair of the idle, blankly staring out of the window or door of a shack, when so much trash and ripe fruit is lying about. We want the people to be busy, striding in traditional clothes, strong and smiling. Isn’t that what they want also? Would that the targeted aid for this type of thing create a durable infrastructure for agriculture rather than gilding the cell phones, VIP cars and toilets of the final recipients of these buckets of cash. These types of characters roar down these highways in their Lexus SUVs, driving small engine motorbikes and bicycles off the road and playing chicken with buses transporting foreign tourists.
Back at Angkor Wat my wife retold a story to me that Pol Pot had used Angkor Wat as offices, maybe even filled the magnificent pools in the interior courtyard with bodies. Although seemingly ghoulishly plausible, this story I believed to be merely a contrivance to put the two prominent themes of Cambodian life together for out-siders.
Such rumours can be trifles, but they can also have immense power, and no less so in South Asia. Such a rumour caused a riot in January 2003 in Phnom Penh, when a newspaper printed a claim that a Thai soap opera actress said something along the lines that (quoting from Wikipedia) “ Cambodia had stolen Angkor, and that she would not appear in Cambodia until it was returned to Thailand”. No less than the prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, repeated and denounced the accusations, insulting the actress by saying she was “not worth a few blades of grass near the temple”. Radio and print media echoed the charges, stoking centuries of simmering between these neighbors who have warred before (perhaps the meaning of the elephant/tiger statue?). The Cambodian government banned all Thai television from being broadcast; finally a mob approached the Thai embassy and destroyed it along with many major and minor Thai-owned businesses. There was never any evidence that she had actually said this and in fact she strongly denied it, in the end the Cambodian government had to pay to rebuild the embassy. It is unclear however whether they ever ponied up more than half of the promised 6 million dollars.
Due to this reputation of violence I perhaps over-reacted (just in terms of fascination and adrenaline, with no clear outward response) to something I saw when walking along a street in central Phnom Penh, someone pointing a hand-gun into the face of a young kid and clicking it off as a gag- sure, I could tell it was a plastic toy by the sounds it made as I walked along my path, but for a few seconds I was riveted in this vision of the lawlessness of Phnom Penh from the ‘90’s that I have read about. I have also read that it’s different now, but how should I know?
As I maybe mentioned already, there is a large body of work written about South-East and South Asia (and maybe anywhere) by English-speaking expats who have been there for whatever reason and just had to record their experiences for posterity, as moved as they were and are. I concur, it’s a crazy place (to me) and maybe one day I will kill a tree in offering to this heap. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to catalogue all these types, but among the sub-genres (and surely there are more) are the foreign correspondent types (like the brilliant Dispatches,by Michael Herr, with the most full account of lost photographer and pin-up Sean Flynn and others such as Dana Stone and Tim Page, as just a bonus in the mix of an unforgettable vision, perhaps crystallizing the understanding of the war more famously portrayed in Apocalypse Now), the home-seekers (such as Andrew Pham with his Catfish and Mandala) , the decadence seekers (or sex-pats) who I think should more be represented by someone like Somaly Mam, rather than the pathetic sleazes who typify this sub-genre, with her first person account of being sold into sex-slavery as a very young orphan girl (the road of lost innocence), and her struggle to form a rescue operation as she came of age, and the violent border-line criminals most gloriously portrayed in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which in fact for the most part is a fantastic read, until he transforms himself into a macho full-fledged Mafioso member, among his many different manifestations in the book, and begins to follow the lunk-headed logic that typifies so many of the authors of the lesser of these books, where you might start to fathom, “ah, this is how you go to prison”.
As alluded to above, ex-pats in Phnom Penh sometimes can have a seedy image, at least judging by the literature that they themselves generate. One of these writers who has done his part as a flag-bearer of this line is Amit Gilboa, in his Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls, and Ganja, which is seemingly uniformly denounced by old-timer types on forums such as Thorntree and Lonely Planet, for a variety of reasons, including that the author when writing the book was not really cognizant enough of the local scene to realize that one of the low-lifes that he was portraying was the English tutor of a high government official (which seemingly would have made his book even more brazen). I pawed my way through a dictionary in the 4th grade, looking for dirty words, so I’m not above leafing through a lurid tome, though as I said above, the account by Somaly Mam is crucial to really understanding the gears of this background. Whatever their true and aggregate habits, expats in PP seem to be at least a literate bunch, at least judging by the haul I made at a hole in the wall bookstore I happened by. The store boasted of more Haruki Murakami I have ever seen on one shelf, that’s comparing to both London and Philadelphia, matched only by the virtual super-sellers on-line. After plunking down a twenty for a stack I could reasonably put in my luggage, I had to spend my change on a collection of essays by Luc Sante on the table in front of me, an original no less, as so many books are indeed pirated photocopies.
Later that night, at the Foreign Correspondents Club with Ba, we had ice cream and beer on the balcony over-looking the Mekong river while he told us tales of an empty city. Did he participate in the initial seizure of Phnom Penh? No, he came there later from time to time. To him the war was fought to stop the Khmer Rouge from killing every last person . He emphasized how the KR army in the fields required no specific approval, no records, no command structure or bureaucracy whatsoever to kill. All executions were pre-approved. Ba described the aftermath occupation as being complicated by a king that spoke out of both sides of his mouth, while looking straight ahead. Finally the international involvement was such that the Vietnamese Army could do no more to help, and went home.
Walking back to the luxury hotel where the tour had put us up (getting a hefty discount no doubt as our wing was under construction, and had no direct elevator to our floor) which I thought of as “snake-world”, after the real name, Naga World (Naga can just mean snake in many sanskrit related languages but more famously are mythical King Cobras or snake creatures in both Hindu and Buddhist lore; in Cambodia apparently, according to wikipedia, the Naga are “a reptilian race of beings who possessed a large empire or kingdom in the Pacific Ocean region”, Ba pointed to what used to be a bridge a mere 30 metres from us. Just last year, about 350 people died there during a festival, stampeding after perhaps another rumour set off an already intensely dangerous situation during a water festival. After that, the government destroyed the bridge and built two new modern ones.
I can’t understand all this, the smiling, kind intelligent faces of the people I saw around me, yet how guarded I was against becoming angry, much more than in Vietnam, where people regularly cut in front of me in line rendering me indeed as an angry ghost. I’ve read a few books and articles about Cambodia, I have been a brief visitor. I have no choice but to let it be a puzzle, a puzzle of complexity.
My tale is a normal tale of Cambodia; these are all well-known facts. I have added little or nothing to the discussion, including these final thoughts. Cambodia has invaded my mind, my imagination, my dreams, and I will return. Cambodia, your reputation precedes you.
When I was in about the 11th grade in high school, one of the English teachers suggested that I write a piece for the youth-page of my local newspaper. My credentials were that I was a dreamy juvenile poet who had been somewhat radicalized by reading On the Road. I had doodled in class extensively and had undergone multiple musical awakenings. In other words, although I had evidenced some creative output I felt rather suspect as a legitimate source of the news. Comparatively what my peer journalists corresponded on in said youth-page is mostly lost to memory as well as history though I would hazard a guess that there were a lot of articles about the 4-H organization and the county fair (nothing wrong with that!). I felt giddy with responsibility when I proposed an article on a local group of guys that I knew of that played in a punk rock band. I felt that what they were doing was both vital and entertaining and so a legitimate subject for a short piece of writing. Nevertheless when the adults in the chain of permission blandly accepted and encouraged me to just turn it in I felt somewhat surprised and incapacitated by the freedom. I don’t think I had whatever it took to present such a hybrid of hometown gee-whiz and leather rebellion- another way of saying I was a youth accustomed to being paralyzed by ideas, as often as I was enlivened and charged by them. I was about fifteen or sixteen years old at the time.
The members of the band that I talked to were enthusiastic and answered my questions without hesitation. The basic thrust of the article started forming- friends meet and become excited about the freedom promised by a new trend. They begin copying songs (“covering” them), then start writing their own. They brand themselves with a hand-drawn logo and play music for whoever will listen. Paragraph, paragraph, paragraph, picture. Easy enough, and yet I stalled. The editor of course, used to working with kids, had seen it before. She called and asked about my intentions, presciently gauging that actually getting copy out of me was hopeless, and withdrew. Ned, a member of the band, expressed bitterness at my excited but powerless posture- “Are you ever going to do it?” – he demanded. Was it that sneer that dragged me back into this mess more than 25 years later? Now living overseas in a country strange enough to me that I clearly should be posting reports, communicating my findings, engaging in journalism in other words, I find this old assignment sitting on my desk so-to-speak, still not so easy to file.
This wasn’t the first time I had tried to write about punk for a square audience. I had taken on the subject in an earlier paper that I submitted to an English class in prep school. The class had been taught by a renegade teacher who quit mid-course, due quite frankly to her immaturity. Before she exiled herself in an outburst to one of the school heads she had been trying to seduce the class into Ayn Randism and personally counseled me to take up the cause of greatness, in the terms that she saw. After she left I carried on with this campaign (and my assignment) by researching Punk via the only media I could get my hands on- found blurbs in Time magazine and Newsweek on microfilm at the public library. I compared it to the French Revolution via Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables I believe. The replacement teacher, a stayed trustee of the school placed over our class to calm the disruption caused by the confusing absence of our previous leader, indicated that she thought my topic ridiculous and unworthy of the initial approval it had received. My grade I remember as a C, maybe a C+.
I no longer remember the specific parallels I drew between Victor Hugo’s wordy tome and conditions in London in 1977 but perhaps it was the contrast and mixture between the noble and the criminal in Jean ValJean, a.k.a. number 24601 (a man of assumed identities) as well as the backdrop of revolution(although not actually the French Revolution) and barricades in the streets. Although punks didn’t mass in collective actions, they saw themselves as street enemies of the established order and thrilled at civil unrest such as the Notting Hill Carnival Riots of 1976 when Caribbean youth turned on the police and kept them at bay for hours (see “White Riot” the Clash).
The Spastic Rats represented a new iteration of Punk- its arrival in the small towns and suburbs of America. Roughly speaking, the Sex pistols Johnny Apple-seeded through a string of cities in the U.S. in a fabled tour that planted the first wave of such culture. Of course, seminal artists in the U.S., especially in key centers such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles pre-date and perhaps have paternity over many strains that followed. However, examples such as The Stooges (with Iggy Pop), from Ann Arbor, Michigan, demonstrate that research in counter-cultural and innovative primitive music took place in less urban settings as well. This all occurred in an ongoing and reciprocal cultural exchange between the cousin cultures of England and America. There is no doubt however that the excitement generated by the spectacle of the Sex Pistols in America ignited a vast prairie of dry brush. Kids living near cities such as D.C., Austin, Los Angeles and San Francisco became aware of new possibilities, and grafted them on to old traditions of garage-bands that already had bloomed before throughout the preceding decade. After a few more years of such experimenting, these and ever generating new waves of kids began infiltrating the urban nexuses and bringing the germinating pollen detritus of such culture back to their suburban perches. In a crucial, grueling follow-up to this process, the members of Los Angeles’s Black Flag got into a van and visited it seemed nearly every out of the way city and town that they could find, playing to perhaps handfuls of people at a time, but in a process that, like the Sex Pistols, produced an artist or a band out of nearly every spectator-participant.
The Spastic Rats bit onto this wave in the early 1980’s as high-school students living, in most cases at least, with their parents, and aspiring both to glory at the battle-of-the-bands in the school auditorium, as well as in fields beyond.
My hometown, Annapolis, was an hours car ride from the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. Interstate 95, which runs from Florida to Maine, and which also passes through the major cities called out on James Brown’s classic song, “Night Train”, such as Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Richmond, has an on and off ramp here, at the gates of this federal enclave. The folk artist songwriter Leadbelly described D.C. as a “Bourgeois Town”, unkind to folks like him. It was and remains a puzzling city that I can hardly begin to unravel. Deserving of praise and scorn, it shares countless features common to all cities. For that reason, as well as the particular features that make D.C. unique, those of us in Annapolis that cared were blessed by our proximity. My peers and I began traveling here when we could to soak in the storied strain of punk, both native and alien, that was cultivated here.
What follows is an account, given long after the fact, of that experience. I have more to say about what it was like to do all this, but let’s take a break and hear from one of the participants that I talked to this past holiday season, in the tail end of 2011.
I recently contacted an old friend, Kenny Hill in order to continue some work I was doing documenting the story of a band from my hometown. Kenny was the drummer for that band, The Spastic Rats and had also started a small record label, “Vermin Scum”, in order to release the music of that band. The label took on a life of its own after another local musician entrepreneur offered to shepherd it forward and Kenny agreed. Kenny also found more fame himself anchoring the rhythm for emo-core pioneers ‘The Hated’. During our conversation we noted the onset of his being invited to join the Hated and also discussed his feelings about the record label and its ‘part II’ history. We focused however on what it felt like to be the first or of the first in a small town to adopt the wave of ‘Hard-core’ as it grew out of the swamp of youth culture as it existed in America in the early ‘80’s.
Kenny invited me to visit him in his new digs, a comfortable trailer he had recently purchased, positioned in a small community just south of Baltimore across the Patapsco river, Kenny was in the process of re-orienting his life after the loss of his beloved mother who he had spent considerable time with as a care-giver. His new home was decorated with framed Scottish poems and illustrated scenes of Scotland, a heritage closely held by Kenny. An antlered deer skull hung over his hearth area, which also contained Christmas stockings.
Kenny caught me up on his most recent past while his small dog, Terra, zealously sought attention and simultaneously guarded us against anyone outside who might press against our interests. This reminded me of the days gone by at Kenny’s mother’s house when Kenny would welcome any and all, despite the fuss put up by his mother’s dachshunds. Kenny brought out his file on the band, showing me old photos and a hand-made layout circa 1986 for a double album with another local band (Disdain) that was never released. Kenny and I had spoken already via e-mail about these days but I thought an in-person interview might paint a more detailed picture of what exactly went on.
As Kenny had clarified in an earlier interview, our hometown, Annapolis, had had numerous weird music scenes before we came up. Bands such as the Monuments and Judy’s Fixation perhaps would be classified as some permutation of Punk or New Wave. Bands like these, however, populated by seasoned bohemians, operated in a terrain far beyond the high school landscape where our story begins. Punk and New Wave, while pre-dating 1977, erupted into mass exposure in Britain in an often told tale of media shenanigans and manufactured and real outrage. The average American suburban youth had had little chance to form an opinion of this style and music until the launch of MTV, and also billboard chart penetration by rock/new-wave cross-over (i.e. skinny) artists such as The Cars in the early ‘80’s. As Kenny will attest, the response was often visceral, and taken as a threat against a bed-rock way of life that was anthemic in its musical form.
Kenny: I hated Punk Rock when I started going to boarding school. I was into Skynrd. You know, AC-DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath… I went into a room at school where someone was playing a Sex Pistols record. I remember grabbing the record and throwing it out the window. You know…”Fuck this”… I would see guys like Pete Boynton in Annapolis with pins. Gary Numan, The Cars, Devo. I was laughing at him. I thought it was a stupid style. I hated Disco and I hated Punks. “Play it Right!” But Devo are fucking great now. For that matter I can also listen to and enjoy Disco.
I went to boarding school for four months in 10th grade in a small town in Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia. I got thrown out. It didn’t last half a year. There were kids from New York there playing all that music, Television, the [Talking] Heads, Richard Hell, The Ramones. I was into guitar-oriented rock and then it finally dawned on me that that’s what punk was. About a week after I threw the record out the window, it stuck. I heard something…and it was like, “what is this?” It was the Buzzcocks or The Ramones or something and it was guitar-oriented rock and it clicked on me.
Before I went to school I had been hanging with Matt Pumphrey and sharing in our same musical tastes. When I got back, changed, it turned out that he had changed too. He had discovered Art-Rock and was listening to Genesis and stuff like that. I played him some of my stuff and he played me some of his stuff and we were both like, [twists his lip] “hrmm”, not convinced you know. He was like, ‘this is nonsense’ to my Buzzcocks and Ramones and I was…’okay, this is fine…. A little boring and indulgent, but fine… to his Genesis record.
Me: Was that the Pumphrey of ‘Pumphrey’s field?
Kenny: Yeah, you know the Faction fiasco. The biker’s stole everything. We were lucky to get out alive. His family owned the woods up there on Route 2. There was only Anne’s foot-longs [a hot-dog stand] there on the highway.
Me: And that was their house back in the woods?
Kenny: That was the Pumphrey family home. His Mom got rich off [selling] that.
Me: So that’s Marley Station Mall now.
Kenny: Yeah, his mom did some thing where they wanted to buy the whole thing as farm-land but she said, no, you could build this number of houses here and held out for that rate and finally got it and now she’s rich.
[The ‘show’ or party that was organized at this small non-operating family farm provokes memories in myself and others that were there, such as fellow Rat Ned Westrick who cites it as formative. “That’s when I knew I was on to something.” In the free-wheeling creative style that hardcore kids employed at the time a touring band from California, the Faction (with skateboard legend Steve Caballero) was hosted along with the Rats and another local band, Fit of Rage, (that I was a member of) in a field in some woods that were part of a sequence of suburbs that linked Annapolis and Baltimore. Parts of the stretch retained a country style attitude. At some point during the day a local biker gang smelled a party and showed up, demanding to hear Freebird from Lynrd Skynyrd. Dan (the guitarist of Fit of Rage and later The Hated and Ida) was in fact a guitar prodigy who could produce licks at will. He would tease them with the opening bars of Stairway to Heaven and then with a wink and a cue we would tear into one of our thirty second thrash compositions, at the end of which they would go “no, no, no. This time, play it ‘agin, RIGHT!” The bikers ended up drinking a lot of beer and stealing the generator that was used to power the PA system. ]
Me: Tell me more about the early days of punk and hardcore in Annapolis.
Kenny: It was purer then.
Me: Pure how?
Kenny: There was no crossbreeding back then. You would see someone with pins and hair and go right up to them and be like ‘who are you’ ‘what are you into’ ‘are you into this[band], are you into this’. I met Scott Bickle that way, he was walking down Hillsmere Drive with his girlfriend and they had on leather and like a Sid and Nancy look. I pulled my car over and went right up to them. I met Kabler the same way.
Annapolis sucked. It was a tourist town with a lot of rich people. It had sailboats and rednecks. There were a couple scrubbly redneck gangs. The Pharaohs, the Majestics. They hated punk. A couple people got beat up. It was the ‘city of the dead.’
At that time, Punk was seen as Adam and the Ants [a decidedly British fashion-conscious rhythmic music experiment organized by former Sex-Pistols manager Malcom McClaren]. Teddy Rayhart had been to ‘Frisco and seen Mubahey Gardens[a seminal nightclub that booked early American hardcore icons]. He was aware of shit really happening. From trips to D.C., probably to Commander Salamander [an early New-Wave boutique and meeting point in the Georgetown neighborhood and shopping district of D.C.], I saw a flyer for Black Market Baby and The Ramones. We went to that. Then I saw a flyer for The Dead Kennedys. It said ‘Dead Kennedys and 4 D.C. bands’ and didn’t list the bands. So we went to that show. I was there in paint spattered pants and a t-shirt with greased hair roaming around while the other bands played, waiting for DK. to play. I had DK tunnel vision.
Me: Who were the other bands?
Kenny: It was Double O, Red C, Government Issue, and…mmm… can’t remember the other one .
Me: So it was the lost legendary era of D.C. hardcore.
Kenny: Yeah, I didn’t get the local thing quite yet. I was just focused on Jello [Biafra, the lead singer of the popular San Francisco band Dead Kennedys]. He had on this t-shirt that said “Libyan Hit Squad” because supposedly at that time there was a group of Libyans roaming around the U.S. trying to take out Reagan. Jello always pointed out all the crazy but important stuff that was going on. We had the [Berlin] Wall then, Russia, the Bomb. Jello was a trip, unbelievable.
Me: Where did you get your fashion tips?
Kenny: From the Clash. There was this magazine/book thing at the Record Exchange called New Wave, from England that had all these pictures of the Clash. Paul Simonon [the bassist for The Clash] designed their clothes, throwing paint on them and shit. He grabbed things from different eras and had stuff sewn. In a way the Clash were some Monkees band, fabricated by a cash oriented manager type Svengali like the Pistols and McClaren.
Me: Everyone knows the story about McClaren but how do you figure the Clash?
Kenny: Bernie Rhodes stole Joe from the 101ers and put them together, and said “Write about what you know, Society, living on the dole, living in a squat.”
Me: So how did you meet the other guys?
Kenny: Tristan [Lentz] was playing in this band Jade with Les [Lentz(his brother)] and Butch Powell, playing Judas Priest and Rush. They were playing this party and I had heard that Tristan was into the Sex pistols. I started heckling him to play a few chords of that ’God Save the Queen’ and he did. But it was a few years before we got together.
Me: When did you first play with the Rats and who was the first line-up?
Kenny: The first line-up was Tristan, Gregg Speight, Richard Whelan, and Pat Moynihan on drums. I first played with them in ’83 or ’84.
Me: Were the Rats your first band?
Kenny: I had played some with Jim McPherson around ’81-’82. Jim had this long-haired hippie scene and was into the Stooges. He also played Damned songs and 3 or 4 originals, like “Blow Nun”.
Me: Yeah I think he found out about the Damned because they covered the MC5 song “Looking at You”. I also remember the Slugs originals “Cold, Wet and Dead” about the 14th St Bridge plane wreck as well as “Schizophrenia Blues.”
Kenny: This was even before they had the name Platinum Slugs. We played in my room a few times before the Rats were like ‘let’s ask Kenny to play.’
Our first gig was at John Thompson’s house. Gil Cochran [a local alderman] came by and was like “You’re great!” It was around 5,6 or 7 p.m. Maybe there were 10 people there. We had six songs, all covers. We played them over and over.
Me: Who did you cover?
Kenny: The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Fear, the Germs, one or two Clash songs, like 1977, although Tristan had a hard time with them.
Me: What was the first original?
Kenny: “Armageddon’s coming Down.” I remember writing the lyrics to that.
Me: What inspired that?
Kenny: [Pause] I don’t know. Some bleak PR [punk rock] outlook. [laughs] I also wrote the music to “Swine” and then Ned and Tristan ran with it. It was kind of a rip-off of a Black Flag song I think.
After a while we realized it was easier to write our own songs than try to sound like somebody else. Even at Pumphrey’s field though we were still playing Minor Threat. [Our band F.O.R. also covered a local band that day, performing Government Issue’s “Sheer Terror”.]
It wasn’t until Ned joined the band that we did originals emphatically. He had lots of lyrics and musical ideas.
Me: So what was it like to be a Rat? What did you do?
Kenny: We would meet at school and then go [hooking school] to Shaw’s Market to get liquor and find a place to lay low. [Note: Shaw’s Market was a corner grocery store operated by a Chinese family who for whatever reason allowed liquor sales to some local youth.] At some point in the day we would start practicing or go cause further trouble.
Me: Didn’t you risk getting discovered playing loud music in the middle of the day?
Kenny: We would usually wait until the afternoon to play but occasionally we would play earlier thinking everyone was at work. We did get caught a few times. We would also hang out and loiter downtown. There was that whole Hooligans controversy [a brief editorial campaign in the evening paper depicting a downtown youth element as Sha Na Na type greaser menaces].
Me: Oh Yeah.
Kenny: Like 3 or 4 kids standing around looking slightly different completely upending Izod sensibilities. Necessitating editorials and cartoons. Man there was nothing else going on in that town.
Me: I guess I was part of that downtown hooligan scene. That’s how I met everyone. Any other notable adventures?
Kenny: Yeah there was this fascist gated community in Eastport that we rampaged through one night, stealing liquor, an American flag, and a wet suit from their cabana/club-house. I still have the flag. The police questioned Richard and Gregg but we got away with it. We also spray-painted six- foot tall tags of the Dead Kennedys and Fear on this 100’ sea wall to assault the local sailing community. You could see it all the way from the Naval Academy. You could only see it from the water so it remained there for a long stretch.
Me: What did your Mom think of the band?
Kenny: Mom always encouraged me. She bought my drums and wanted me to play bagpipes. She brought me to lessons for both. I eventually bowed to some unseen peer pressure on the bagpipes and stopped playing. I regret it to this day.
Me: The band played at your house, right?
Me: What about some of the other parents?
Kenny: Mostly they were cool with it I guess. Tristan’s mom however was a complete psycho head case at first. She was like, “This punk-rock shit is villainous- it’s nasty, you need to throw it away!” Then she started taking Valium and switched. She became supportive of Les also [who started doing sound and opened a recording studio in the basement] and she just became cool. You’d go into the kitchen and there would be Pink Floyd playing and you would just listen to it with her. She didn’t like Punk, me, us, and then she became a completely different person. It turned out she was a nice lady.
Ned lived with his Dad in Arnold [a community near Annapolis on the way towards Baltimore]. His Dad was quiet. Ned’s Mom lived with her boyfriend in Takoma Park [a community that is partially in Maryland and partially in D.C.] I think that Gregg lived with Ned for a while.
Gregg, now Byron, never got along with his parents very well. At sixteen or seventeen he was ready to move out and deal with the world. He left here and went to New York. He was all about that he wanted to act. He was waiting tables, doing the audition thing. He went through a couple reincarnations and now he’s kinda cornered the market as it were on… I still don’t understand exactly what it is that he does. [Byron Speight owns and operates IB Creative Inc., a company that specializes in video production, podcast marketing and website design]. He’s pretty successful now but in the band he wasn’t too great a guitarist. It was, you know, turn him down, fade him to the left, like Joe Strummer- a chugging monotony.
Me: I’m sure many guitarists would enjoy being compared to Joe Strummer.
Kenny: It’s like, yeah, you know there’s a rhythm guitar in there but its not doing much.
Me: So you guys never really toured. How many hometown parties do you think you played?
Kenny: Two or three.
Me: I’m sure it was more than that. You definitely played in Baltimore countless times.
Kenny: Yeah, at the Marble Bar and mostly at the Loft. Maybe 5 times. We played at this place in Pittsburgh, the Electric Banana. For some reason that felt successful. That went well. We wanted to play a Spring Nectar so we drove up to the Institute one day.
[The Spring Nectar was an annual party in Annapolis held at a local private residence dubbed The Institute because of the way the space was arranged and run. The host was a well-known eccentric who collected bicycles and ‘60’s era Dodge and Plymouth cars among other things. The Nectar party was always an all-night bonfire that attracted a wide swath of types.]
Me: Was that when the Institute was at Weems Creek?
Kenny: Yeah. Anyway we drove up and there was this old man raking leaves. We couldn’t tell whether it was Sam or not. We said we wanted to play the party and there was some kind of cryptic exchange and then we just had to leave. We couldn’t tell what had happened. Anyway like a week later Sam showed up at the Exchange [The Record Exchange was a used vinyl shop owned by a dentist that Kenny and many other members of the local original music scene clerked at]. He asked to hear a tape or something and just straightened the whole thing out. We also played a College Park Party.
Me: Oh yeah, I remember that place. I think they were friends of Jim’s [Jim McPherson].
Kenny: Anyway we finally got a gig in D.C. at this placed called “The Complex”. It was with Dain Bramage with one Dave Grohl as the drummer [Grohl, who got his start in the D.C. scene in Dain Bramage and Scream, later went on to fame in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters]. We hadn’t been playing and I was out of shape. Ned reprimanded me for playing too slow at the end of the show so I freaked out and kicked the drums off the stage. Danny and Eric were there and asked me to join The Hated. So we practiced for a week and one week later we recorded “What Was Behind”. That was the end of ’86.
Me: So was that the end of the Rats?
Kenny: No, they played on for a year without me. Ned was getting into Venom and Celtic Frost and eventually moved on to do Iron Christ with Tristan and Scott Treude. Richard joined the Army. Byron as I said moved to New York.
Me: Okay. So what does it all mean?
Kenny: I don’t know. I felt it at the time. I was really into Jimi and Janis and basically anything that could be construed as protest music. From Sabbath to Country Joe and the Fish. I always thought how cool it would have been to have been a part of the hippie thing, you know, an active movement. I was never political until Punk Rock. It made me think about the environment, war, politics, everything.
With the music that I was into prior to PR you couldn’t go the Capital Center and meet Robert Plant or Jimmy Page. You could go to the 9:30 club, go up to the stage and meet people though. It was music for people and people for music. All music is basically made between four walls and we took those walls and made a community center.
All these zines popped up in every major center in America. We all collected flyers. Granted, the arts were a little different, just cut and paste and go Xerox down at the Minuteman Press. It was so much more grassroots, that shit’s never going to happen again in this era of the computer.
[Punk] was entertaining. It was pseudo-intellectual. It made you think. It made me want to go out and research things.
Me: What about Reagan?
Kenny: God man fucking Ronald Reagan. I was primarily political through Punk Rock. If I had known what was coming. There were so many songs about war. But we got off easy, without many wars for us. Then Bush came on and it was back to cowboy. I got tense, uptight; I was having a hard time sleeping, [thinking] “what this bastard is doing to our country?” But I guess we had to worry about Russia back then.
Me: I read the newspaper every day back then and I couldn’t believe that people took Reagan seriously. He seemed to so obviously be a liar, a murderer, a clown. Not a real person.
Kenny: That was when the Republicans were mastering the craft of placing propaganda. Bush was behind Reagan. Cheney was behind Bush. You know I really hate this bullshit [intoning in Reagan’s voice] “Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” That shit was falling apart for years, not because of some American president. What about Solidarity and Glasnost, do you think that had anything to do with it? You’re damn right it did! I mean here we have 200 years based on genocide and slavery, based on killing people.
Me: But why give a shit? What you describe is so far beyond us.
Kenny: Bands like the Dead Kennedys make a mockery of it, so first you laugh, and then you cry, because it is based on the truth. But maybe there was no reason for us to care. We were too young to vote. Foreign policy didn’t really affect us. We didn’t have to worry about food stamps then. We had freedom to burn. We weren’t going to get shot or sent to the Gulag like some people. What I had to worry about was my next good score of records and when and how I’d get laid. We would practice and practice and try to get a gig. But I never did a D.C. punk percussion protest against apartheid for example, so I’m hypocritical. I guess I feel like politics is a scam, they’re going to do what they do. But then you have the classic example of Eisenhower, who was a war-lord, a war-pig himself, warning about the military industrial complex, telling the American people to watch out because they are taking meat pies from your baby’s mouth.
Me: So what about class issues? Relevant, do you think?
Kenny: There were some ratty shit-hole urban punks, but mostly we are talking about middle class kids who had everything and didn’t have need to complain about anything complaining about everything.
Me: So you were middle class?
Kenny: I don’t know. I never really knew what that meant. My Mom did a lot for me. She made it all work. I’ve since found out how difficult it was for her. I wasn’t aware of it. I could have gotten a job and helped. On the other hand I was too shy or depressed out of my mind. I swung between seething with pent-up angst and being afraid of my own shadow.
Punk had a range of classes. There were people from Dundalk who just wanted to fight and are still scumbags. But we had D.C. where things were surprising. I mean the leader of the Skins in D.C. was a black woman. It wasn’t like Cleveland with no lyrical content.
Me: But what about you guys?
Kenny: We were all totally outcast. We couldn’t play downtown [in local bars]. They weren’t going to stand for that shit. It was a struggle to be heard. We were relevant, pertinent, and of the same ilk [as kids in D.C. and nation-wide]. Nowadays everything is a convoluted homogenized cross-over. I mean Paula Deen has spiked Sid Vicious hair. The bars downtown have everything.
But on the other hand the establishment shows up at 3 in the morning at the Occupy site in full riot gear. They got rid of them and for the most part people were lucky when they didn’t get the shit beat out of them.
I mean I went through this thing where Anti-Seen got together again and it caused me stress to get into it and read the lyrics. I mean I’ve never really grown up. I still feel like a kid. I was never lucky in love. I guess I took heartache too hard. I would love to have the ‘white picket fence’ but the people I know who went that way are either miserable or hollow shells. I mean, should I feel irresponsible, silly, stupid? Or just be a cog in a faceless machine. In a sense we have to face that we were just put here to propagate, spread seeds and die. Beyond that, we’re here to have fun. It is what it is. But with these young kids, there’s gotta be someone young and innocent, yet to be jaded by the ineffectualness of taking a stance.
All of a sudden I had a rush of excitement inside the Chinese embassy walls – we were ostensibly within another country already where other customs, languages, and procedures prevailed. When my girlfriend and I started preparing for a trip to Beijing from Saigon, Vietnam, where we live, we began visiting the bureaucratic compound on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, actually the consulate, the embassy proper being in Hanoi. It was gated of course, and behind large walls, with guards young and low-ranking, manning an entry guard house, and an intelligent-eyed host-type person, an older, Chinese gentleman, thin and tall with glasses and salt and pepper hair who spoke Vietnamese and a few words in English canvassing the courtyard for small problems to solve and ways to be helpful. I say ‘ began to visit’, because you must drop off your passport and visa application with the correct number of photos and then return with payment to pick up the processed papers, and in my case, return to have pages added to my passport (by visiting the U.S. consulate) and return again to start over. This otherwise tedious form filling and line waiting actually felt exciting, for me at least, as it packed a double-Asian punch. The week before we were to leave I ate the wrong thing at a seaside hotel buffet and spent a few days purging and then building back strength through the miracle of (once again) assimilating food. The day we were to leave, still mildly weakened, I spent the morning scurrying around town to my bank, then the Bank of China, then to a woman I know who changes money, and then to a nearby gold shop that my friend directed me to, gold shops being the established money-changers in Asia (where I should have started). This was all to secure some Chinese cash so that upon landing after midnight (which we were scheduled to do), we would have cab money, and could buy a bowl of noodles and a beer if necessary. I considered it possible that since we were landing so late, the sleepy airport might have the ATM down some dark and barricaded corridor, inaccessible. As it turns out, it was inaccessible to me for reasons other than administrative obscurity or some other form of Chinese mystique. In the early afternoon on the day we were to leave I began slowly, methodically packing, searching in my mind for the thing I would forget. Would it be the phone charger? How was the underwear count? My girlfriend, having packed the night before, arrived home eager and charged to get to the airport ahead of schedule, and not get locked in any rush-hour nonsense. That fuzzy spot in my brain, as yet unsatisfied, yielded to this energy so that the show could go on. “Ah I must have forgot something important” I thought. “But what is it?” My socks, my jeans, cameras and other such junk all bundled in my two bags, in my pockets were my passport, my ticket information, even a wad of Renminbi! Ah, deceptive ruse, the cash in hand, concealing unavoidable obligations of a thousand invoices yet to come. Turns out I had forgotten my bankcard; it’s void hidden beneath the sixty bucks in Yuan extending beyond the borders of my wallet. Just the first in a series of fiascoes we somehow seemed impervious to. Luckily I had already rooted out a potential disaster by testing my friends Beijing local sim phone number, determining that at least one digit was out of whack. With his corrected phone number in our arsenal (though without even our own sim card for days) we ventured into China, arrived at his apartment, and spent the next five days examining the city as tourists and guests, and as ourselves. Among other difficulties, the cab drivers couldn’t make out the address on the custom taxi-card we had printed for my friend’s apartment. (Cab drivers in Beijing usually don’t speak or read English to the profound degree that you should be equipped with Chinese character addresses of your destinations. Handily, there’s an ‘app’ for that). Either Beijing is so big the cabbies don’t know their way around, or there was some confusing misdirection in our translated ‘simplified’ (guessing ’twas the kooky name of the apartments-International Wonderland), which allowed them to find the neighborhood but not the correct block. Regardless, we arrived at my generous friend’s pad without incident. Other issues: we couldn’t get the intercom for our friend’s apartment to work right for us, his internet was down and connection problems plagued two local cafes, (when clear access to email and online banking and a few other internet services could have solved several problems). We spend one morning at a Starbucks style coffee shop futilely setting up a paypal transfer to cover our funds situation. Unfortunately, every time I try to use paypal, it finds it suspicious that I would want to use my account and subjects me to a 9 gate extra security protocol designed to somehow prove that I am not only myself, but am at home (and not traveling, a forbidden activity in the modern techno-digital era, or so it would seem). Our mission otherwise disastrous I met an American free-lance journalist using the space as his office for the day, working on a story about a new Tibetan prime minister of the government-in-exile. I acquired the address for his web page, an interesting lead. Luckily none of these potentially gate-barring forces caused any real problems for us at all due to an alliance of friendliness that smoothed it all over. If I hadn’t had such a friend in Beijing as the one that I had, we might have had to sleep in the airport and beg the airlines to send us home early, though perhaps I could have arranged some cash between my bank and a partner bank with some heroic effort on my part and gracious allowances from otherwise faceless corporations. But there it was, a big heart in a big city, with hardly anything but big places waiting for us. During our trip rumors of war ricocheted through the capital with digital speed. An attack on one of Qaddafi’s command and control centers killed a son with the same name as a more important son, also killing other family members. Qaddaffi claimed to have been there himself and survived the attack though witnesses who later arrived at the scene said no one could have possibly survived the wreckage and argued that Qaddafi was merely posturing for sympathy. The expresso conversation centered on whether such an attack constituted a targeted assassination attempt, (a more-or-less established habit of U.S. foreign policy), or whether giving direct orders to tank brigades through a satellite phone against entire civilian centers and their war councils and fighters made you no longer a protected head of state, or family member of a head of state, but a military combatant, and thus a legitimate target. The foundations of this discussion didn’t have a chance to cool down before being blasted into a higher profile a few days later. For our first day of touring we skirted through the Forbidden city without crossing any of the ticketed gates, except for the large garden park, and also entered Tienanmen Square. I was surprised to see the face of Mao, gazing from Tienanmen Gate. A young soldier, on guard, falling fast asleep in eight second intervals while standing up with locked knees, in front of this monument, was unable by duty to breath deeply, or shake off his somnolence. There was also an odd array of t-shirted men in jeans methodically arranged as guards on the series of bridges connecting the city that was forbidden with the street fronting now vast Tienanmen Square. A uniformed man for every three t-shirts, all behind the same yellow rope, in the same chest-and-eyes forward stance, without even matching informal wear. We traversed the underground tunnels, which led to the square, passing through a security check, as riot gates prevented street access. My guard-gazing continued in this vast steppe of the world’s largest public square where I spied inside a waist-high plexi-glass box with a gate, on a faded red carpet-covered one-man dais, ultimately surrounded by a tattered cinema velvet rope line with four accompanying stanchions, an alert, erect military man standing guard (with several identically positioned comrades strategically placed). These fellows had greater leeway to step down and take a refreshing 30 pace march than the Mao guard had, as I witnessed one do, before stepping back into his ‘impressive’ perch. When I later discussed difficult Chinese matters with someone I trusted I expressed dismay at the lack of self-awareness about how several power-postures come off. “They’re aiming at an internal audience” my friend said ” who understand the force behind such gestures, and fear that force”. There are more serious matters to address but I couldn’t get over thinking that of the five-point program for specialness being performed by that soldier’s perch: 1) rope and stanchion, 2) special glass box, 3) red carpet, 4) elevated platform, only the 5th one, the soldier’s uniform was really necessary to convey the gravity of his presence in such a historic location. (Ah- I forgot his special umbrella stand, another striking symbol of his strength). I did notice a slightly self-conscious face on a policeman patrolling the square on his Segway. Cover it with a tattered red carpet and install an umbrella stand and no such doubt would enter his mind I tell you! Thusly outfitted so starkly, he failed to deter the joy of a fox-faced girl, spending the afternoon with two of her friends posing for pics in front of the twin jumbo-trons. A scattering of random soldiers throughout the square marched in centipede units or alone, executing a fascinating rotate and stop motion. History perhaps shows the importance of having an alert police and military force in the square. But does it make the government look strong? Such vigilance did not prevent an old man collecting bottles from peeing in one however.
One of the things Beijing is noted for are its alleyway neighborhoods composed of courtyard houses. These neighborhoods are known as Hutongs. At one point the houses were single family residences, then during periods of social upheaval and further urbanisation, began being divided into multi-family arrangements, with a communal kitchen and shared courtyard. They are in a dual state now of being prized as a quintessential heritage of Beijing and also having their survival be threatened from a government bent on modernization. Many were torn down in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, for example. There is a move to protect what remains, including the adapted reuse as restaurants, bars, cafes and entire Sunday-walk enclaves of shopping and everything else already mentioned. We really enjoyed dinner at such a Hutong complex, a Yunnan specialty place named after a well-noted city in that province, Dali. Afterwards we had a fine beer and a single malt scotch in a small, beautiful establishment across the street supposedly owned by a Mongolian rock star. It was decorated, detailed and furnished with salvaged hand- carved doors and sashes and ephemera such as yellowed party identification cards and old photos of long dead people. A place to really gaze through a glass at candlelight. My girlfriend is Vietnamese, and there was an almost expected pattern of people speaking Chinese to her in expectation that she would understand. We didn’t know how to say Vietnamese in Chinese, she would just shake her head and say “English”(The basic gist of the various names the Chinese have used for Vietnam are variations of something meaning Southern Kingdom or as R. said, “guys, you’re actually still us, you’re just down there”). The bar man here followed suit and after first being surprised at Que’s inability to respond to his Mandarin, nodded in recognition and then made a playful gesture about the shape of her SE Asian nose, she smiled and joined in by stretching her eyes.
We visited Tiantan, the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor served as head priest, conversing and giving sacrifices to ensure a good harvest. I could not help but to compare these imperial sites with the imperial cultures of the Yucatan, if only to understand similarities in the sensibilities of human displays of power and divine connection. Though the Chinese dynasties repeatedly collapsed, the sites since their inception were either continually developed or, if left to decay, restored again in a timely fashion in a situation where the surrounding human society never depopulated. The Mexican sites collapsed in a process still undergoing study and all organic structures (such as a wooden building using a pyramid or other stone platform as a foundation) are no longer visible to the eye. Temples such as the Castillo, the Bell Tower, and the South Gate were clearly intent on reaching the sky as a man-made mountain and stairway to heaven. Large incense burners often sit at the entrance to such stairways, to mystify with smoke, and elephant shaped gutters carry water away. And the Eagle and Snake, or The Dragon and Phoenix, or the Feathered Serpent stand as foundational images. To be clear, there is no established connection between ancient Mexican and Chinese culture, and although several outlier claims do posit such contact, no evidence convinces the mainstream of experts who study such things. To me it’s just curious, and as I marvel I don’t imagine any Mayanist or Sinologist would be impressed with my thoughts. Nonetheless, it was poetic enough when one of these cultures came up with this stuff, let alone both. (To clarify further, Chichen Itza is said to have been built in 600 AD whereas The Forbidden City was built maybe 8oo years later, though I am not yet clear on when the first ‘reptile and bird’ ceremonial grounds or any other cultural component were developed or built in either culture).
At the Ming Dynasty tombs situated perfectly in a valley in a series of valleys and mountains outside Beijing the grimness of the historical obsession with power is emphasized by a ceremonial hall deep underground complete with throne and candle, though under intended conditions, there would be no oxygen to light the candle. A deep wind whipped the banners and blew dust from the Mongol desert around us. This is the coldest Que has ever been. At the mountain restaurant we witnessed a westerner with his Chinese wife, their son, and her mother argue loudly with a waitress. We could not figure out what they were arguing about but my girlfriend was able to use this as a lesson to warn me against learning Vietnamese and Mandarin as a means of being an asshole in more than one context. We were here to visit the Great Wall and the town turned out to be 100% tourist- ready with ski lifts to carry us up to the mountaintop and a toboggan attraction to carry us down as well. I opted to hike instead because of my love of hiking; a mistake only within the foreshortened scheduling our tour operators had designed. Despite this tragedy, of spending two hours of a twelve-hour tour at the Great Wall when that was our only real goal, so that the tour guides could bring us to silk and jade centers were we were educated on these topics while before being provided with vast shopping opportunities we ungratefully declined. It was the ‘exit through the gift’ shop bait and switch. Nevertheless we experienced the Wall in a real enough way, as a visitor to a not overcrowded, restored section on an intensely picturesque mountain ridge. It really looked like “The Great Wall”. The field of play for the soldier went something like this: ascend wall, walk wall, live in guardhouse, (fire cannon, drink tea) descend wall to mountain town to gamble, drink, visit prostitutes, re-supply etc. Repeat for life. The base town, before serving soldiers, recreates itself by now serving visitors. The architecture thus is a large wall with a walkway wide enough famously ‘for a carriage to pass’, punctuated by guardhouses and then occasional stairs for any necessary ascending and descending. Nevertheless, the added field of the mountain adds a parametric level to the architecture, raising it from its blocky simplicity to an avant-garde level, its serpentine contours conforming to an unpredictable horizon, its demands for field performance unwittingly foreshadowing the most forward-thinking architecture today by releasing the line. Really stunning to see in person and I can’t wait to one day visit the wilder sections and do some hiking and camping there.
Inside my friend’s apartment we could flip through design books and read Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist and Patrik Schumacher’s Auotopoiesis of Architecture Volume 1, a fascinating analysis of social systems and the avant-garde applied specifically. We could ponder such things in private or at a cafe. We could visit imperial culture sites and observe the obsession with power displays and bigness. We could sense and witness and read about an intellectual ferment. And we could at times witness the blend of all this, such as at the Olympic Bird’s Nest Stadium, where artist Ai Wei-Wei briefly collaborated as a commissioned artistic consultant for design, with a Swiss firm of architects before distancing himself with anti-Olympic comments. And so he is now residing in jail, one of the world’s foremost artists of this era, after a long series of skirmishes with the authorities, as a signal from power that no one is protected. Ai, as an international artist, transcends nation and culture, but also is epically Chinese, portraying perhaps a Confucian struggle of a proper scholar with an errant emperor. His father, Ai Qing, was a famous poet who also suffered official displeasure. Looking at the level of ferment in Beijing and Shanghai (where Ai Wei Wei’s studio was bulldozed in a surprise attack from zoning officials) I speculate on the nature of the avant-garde in general. There can be self-consciousness within, or an accusation from without, that the avant-garde is arch, recklessly bold, or even destructive to the mainstream. The focus on the new can cause instability or anxiety for the existing. On the other hand, the moment the new achieves enough stability to have a recognizable form, it becomes the rage, not as a threat we are enraged against, but an emblem we are clamoring for. Schumacher, in a new and yet resonant manner for myself, describes the hallmark of perhaps all valid avant-garde activity in his description of the practice of architecture. For Schumacher, avant-garde architecture is engaged in an act of research and the avant-garde firm is properly a research laboratory (in contrast to a mainstream firm, whose focus is on delivering the state-of-the art). The ultimate concern for these affairs comes from within the borders of a communication system where any act is a ([n] internal) communication. Such a description of the foremost thinkers as researchers rather than some villainous “other”s strikes me as insightful and humane to all parties. The communication system of central concern for Schumacher is architecture, existing with it’s bold borders alongside uncountable other social systems, among the most stable being the legal system, the finance system, the political system, and so on. The communications aimed at the public from whatever social systems within Beijing are often big. They speak of an obsession with central power. Ai Wei Wei with his communiqués of, for example, shoddy school construction that culminated in the unnecessary deaths of Sichuan schoolchildren is researching and discussing the central power with the central power. By cutting itself off from such research and conversation the leaders are attempting to change the borders of a system that has evolved along with human history. Are they trying to exist as a system without research? Or can they successfully brand any dissident as an outsider from the system, akin to a military opponent, along the lines of a terrorist with a satellite phone and thus unprivileged to communicate? Why is it that the dissident comes from within the system? Why are university towns full of dissenting intellectual weirdos? Is it that the impetus to communicate new or oppositional designs comes from having Empire stamped on your soul?
We spent our Sunday walking in the Hutongs, watching girls with rabbit ears pose for photos (a year of the Rabbit fad). We purchased a chess set and a kite that’s attraction was that it was actually a tethered system of kites. We mildly debated eating from, then bypassed, a stinky tofu stand, and witnessed a shop that was an experiment in absurd pricing for sub-ikea design, testing China’s emerging middle class’s appetite for Western style, and its attendant price-gouging in a city where the common person can probably still buy a nutritionally rounded meal for less than a dollar. We relaxed for an uncountable couple of hours by a lake where pedal-boats are rented in an outdoor shisha bar. Many bastard taxi-drivers throughout our trip refused to pick us up but the ones who helped us represented an array of cool. Many of them were women in their thirties, with an attractive blend of toughness and an ability to smile when they chose. The coolest guy who drove us sang to himself while holding a pair of walnuts aloft that he circulated across his palms in an act of mental and physical hygiene. We sent our last day inside the Forbidden City, where I bemoaned the endless processions that must have taken place. Later that day, before we got misdirected into an expensive high-end tourist attraction restaurant, we met a funny pair of friends who wanted us to drink with them because they thought we looked interesting. “There’s so much money here,” the guy, Johnny told us. “I’m just an actor, not even a real one, a clown, and I can make 15,000 a day”. He was from a Northern European country and had been living in Beijing for ten years. His friend clearly had Chinese parents (the world agreed she looked Chinese) but was from the Ukraine, and was 100% acculturated as a Russian-Ukrainian. She considered it one of the banes of her life that as a Beijing-er, people would inevitably triangulate her as Mongolian(= Russian + Chinese Q.E.D.). The pair interviewed a street-sweeper walking by to prove their point. They both declared America to be the best country in the world and warned that if you said the wrong thing in Beijing, you might just disappear, due to a helicopter extraction or some such similar fate. They looked visibly worried when discussing such matters. I found further confirmation of these types of concerns (without the drunken hyperbole) after I looked up the writings of that journalist I met at the coffee shop. His name is Paul Mooney. Please read his article about a human rights lawyer existing in a standoff with police. Our host told us that the authorities even control the weather, and indeed they do! The truth is, none of this deters me from considering this an interesting place. It goes with the territory so to speak. The injustices I learn about disturb me, and I hate the fact that in speaking my mind, maybe I am someday making myself a target. But If fate sends me to China, I should continue my research, find a favorite fruit vendor and say ‘so be it’. All day long we heard on the taxi radio chatter about Obama and Bin Laden, unable to predict what for. That night we ended up in the airport, much like I did on September 10th, 2001, returning from a family friend’s wedding in California, sleeping and waiting for our ticket counter to open.
This morning I followed some Facebook link to a “funny” article categorizing expat types found in China. One description was of a type of teacher who sought the overseas teaching lifestyle as an opportunity to write a script or engage in some similar solitary artistic pursuit. The profile stated that such a bird could be found in the cafe staring into their MacBook. Inspired by or in defiance of the satire implied by anyone who thinks they have your number, I now address you from the Con ếch Xanh Cafe on Duong Pham Ngoc Tach, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. I’m barefoot, sitting on a pillow, drinking iced tea, coffee with condensed milk, and also have next to me a coconut with a straw in it. In front of me is a 3 year old MacBook I recently picked up for a relative bargain, to replace my 7 year old powerbook. What brought me to such a place, where I could exist both as a cliché, and a … how to say..? Something with a slim chance of not being a cliché.
I think turning 40 had maybe more to do with it then all the economic reasons cited below. It made me wonder what I had accomplished in my life. It made me want to go. (The pull of Viet Nam is another story indeed). I gave my life as hard a look as I could and the hardness of this gaze somehow also made me soften my reactions. What I discovered wasn’t as bad as I thought, but there was much work to do, as I had assumed all along. In all honesty I had been struggling sincerely to be uniquely productive since I was a teenager, and before being so motivated I hadn’t had a bad track record either. I guess the problem that I and probably many had is that the advent of this conviction to be industrious with my life came about in tandem with a force that sat its hulking inertial body right in the middle of everything and refused to budge. Philosophically, I can identify this force as ‘self-absorption’ though perhaps it is more than that, forces that prey on self-absorption. People have different standards of productivity of course, and different ideas of what is a suitable product. All the same I have gained some admiration for those who found paths of endeavor outside the typical malaise of artistic youth. They couldn’t have all been suckers.
Nevertheless, strengthening my gaze and accepting my fate means that I just have to write more, and follow other such pursuits more earnestly. I don’t think I have been slacking, per se, but my system is and always will be in need of further refinement, as better results are mandatory.
I have a lot of different projects I am currently working on. They all seem necessary to me, but at times having a lot of projects seems to be the perfect way to arrange that not too much work gets done on any one of them.
Something that I just finished is a film here in Saigon using my students as the actors. It’s just meant to be crazy fun – a salute to the antics they get up to as youngsters. It was part of a holiday competition at my workplace that I shot while teaching. I meant it more as a record of my experiences and was shooting for a wider audience than the ballroom at the Christmas party. Although this made it less than competitive in that context, and perhaps not a career starter in a commercial context either, I’ve watched it again and again and showed it to friends back home who seemed to wholeheartedly endorse it. See for yourself:
I have also been working on an interview and profile of the first hardcore punk band to emerge in my hometown. The guys in the band have been enthusiastic about the project and participated to an extent, but email interviews more or less require too much of people who otherwise aren’t intending to write their memoirs. Nonetheless we’ve had some interesting conversations; the next stage of the project is to arrange interviews in front of a camera, where recollections can be freer. The work so far has been collected in two web-sites: http://spasticrats.wordpress.com/ and http://spasticrats.com/
The project for me is an opportunity to do some journalism, as well as personally recollect some interesting times in my own life, as I was a participant in the era, and in the second hardcore punk band to emerge in my hometown. It was an exciting and vibrant experience, but telling it as a story is a challenge, for it can always be said of social phenomena that either you get it or you don’t. Looking back on it, in the broadest sense, I’m not even sure that I get it. Of course there are many who have never even heard of it.
I think that it was more of a social movement than a musical one, though the two are interlocked, perhaps always, as it takes people to make music. Music has always been a linking social force. The act was to take up the available musical instruments typically used for Rock, and creating some participatory context unlike anything before (though an intrepid and dedicated musicologist could stretch some connections). Musically, the drive was to reach a breaking point, away from all music, provoking the typical response, to question whether it was music at all that was being produced. The rule was to be loud and fast, which in the context of the era created the exact sensation that the phenomena was in fact just noise- even to the kids who exulted in it. Upon multiple listens, patterns could be discerned, unlocking the code and providing the discourse for the initiated. Perhaps garage bands were nothing new in America circa 1980 and perhaps some new form of Rock that others called noise was nothing new either. Indeed it was not. So it follows that what they may have been responding to was not new either, and indeed it was not.
So the music provided a forum for a secret discourse to be carried out in the open, defiantly. What need was there for such a social response? My answer would differ from almost any other answer and not be unique at the same time. It is the nature of such breaking point exercises that the meaning is almost always personal, though it can be shared, and exercised communally. The fanzine magazines at the time were awash in ink debating the meaning of Punk. Somehow I doubt that this ritual has abated just because I canceled my subscription in 1986.
But I will not hesitate to present my own interpretation. I would point to the perennial disappointment the West breeds when it promises freedom and delivers it as if it can be extracted from a foreign enemy. American cultural life is constantly impacted and imprinted by its foreign policy, which is imperial in nature. At times this is clearer than at others but consider this: What serious viewer of American film cannot see the shadow of the Cold War cast in black and white celluloid? Who cannot hear the Vietnam War enacting its conflicts inside the hazy chamber of psychedelic rock?
Hardcore was, I believe, a final cultural response to the tail-end of the Cold War exemplified by the figure of Ronald Reagan, his presidency, and the Reagan Doctrine. The Reagan Doctrine called for the rollback rather than containment of traditional Cold War enemies. The Reagan presidency was used to secretly fund militias in Central America and Afghanistan without the authorization of Congress, and thus the American people. This continuation of a foreign policy with deadly impact separated from any domestic popular control or oversight, politically speaking provoked the artistic community and other cultural arbiters, typically those most unaffiliated with any prior actions, to create an appearance of political involvement and agitation. An inclusive communal experience that had the appearance of anything but inclusivity. It seemed hyper-political, but was it really? It had a potent social charge, sometimes provoking violent confrontation and typically, usually, always providing a spectacle of confrontation. People in the streets often took notice of these kids and the reaction often was not one of approval. Seeking disapproval was in fact a driving force behind many stances and actions performed under the rubric of ‘being hardcore’. Am I saying that hardcore kids were politically aware dissidents? Not exactly. Self-images and focuses and concerns varied within the movement. The Hardcore scene internally covered a spectrum of left and right stances. Even the skinhead movement (typically seen as working-class Right) could be politically indecipherable at times. Consider Lefty- a well known skin in the D.C. scene when I was there, and an African-American female. Anyone with any passing familiarity with the skinhead movement will tell you that being a black woman is not the usual starting point for the genesis into a ‘skin’, but then again Lefty was not entirely unique either. I, at least noticed many skins of color in the Chicago scene in the mid to late eighties, and no doubt other notable examples are documented. Skins emerged as a subset of the total scene and as discussed, had a tendency to categorize themselves even further. Practically anyone could elect to membership in fact, and this is attested to by the wide range of ages and social classes that mingled in church basements, shacks on the edge of town, nightclubs, and other such establishments that served as housing, meeting places, and venues for musical performances. A full taxonomy of all who were there would be an exhausting if not impossible task, though the principle of ‘why not?’ has inspired books such as American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush which soundly demonstrates the primal nature of the impulses behind the activity. The thing that united all, I believe, in this spectrum was the adoption of such cryptic fronts. The rule was to not fit in, to be misunderstood, to not be pegged, and in so doing, finding the freedom to act, and to participate in a context of acceptance. Thus the political landscape that I cited as the context does not define this movement as political as a rule, only motivated to point at such context and declare- NOT ME! The ensuing stance could well be wholly political or equally apolitical, yet always political at its edge, in its self-definition as a separate body from the imperial mainstream. I interacted in my own way with those around me and I hope to examine and tell some of these stories with further work on this project. Here is a flyer I took off a pole in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. in the early 80’s when I was just beginning to circle into this whole phenomena. Notice the cold war imagery of homogeneous conformity giving way to a more chaotic phantasmagorical existence:
Some of my friends wanted me to stay, some saw the wisdom in going. I had a job but was underemployed. Certainly becoming the number one hustler in Philadelphia would have brought me everything I needed to continue living there. ‘Tis true. When I first came to Philly this could have been my theme:
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
I went to London and I
I booked myself in at the Y … W.C.A.
I said : “I like it here – can I stay ?
I like it here – can I stay ?
What can I say? A company offered me a job in Vietnam. I took it. Vietnam- a socialist republic. One of four remaining communist countries. Vietnam, a song in my head. The first seven years of my life my country was at war in Vietnam, having taken sides in their internal war. Our leaders told us of a domino effect, an international dimension to a war in Indochina. They warned that each country that came under communist leadership could prompt an adjacent or otherwise contiguous nation to also tip towards this terrifying state. For this our armies drafted youth and sent them to the other side of the world. In the end our ally, the southern Republic of Vietnam was toppled- our troops were evacuated. The devastation of war was triumphant.
Our own country had undergone an emotional internal confrontation on the meaning of the war that occasionally erupted into actual violence. This violence was real enough to the participants but statistically negligible compared to what was endured in Viet Nam by civilians and soldiers of whatever stripe. If I were unaware of these events as they transpired, I would be informed of them again and again as I breathed American air throughout my youth.
Notable among American atrocities was the use of chemical defoliants to try remove jungle cover and in time flush out jungle savvy guerrilla fighters and supply chain workers, this is the so-called Agent Orange which still wreaks genetic havoc in the countryside, and the use of Napalm, a chemically thickened form of gasoline into a jelly that burns in the vicinity of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Communist rule also proved to have a deadly grasp. The Northern forces based in Hanoi who eventually overran Saigon, the Southern capitol brought a single party Communist rule to all of Vietnam. They termed their victory “Reunification”. For many Vietnamese the war was a nationalist anti-colonial struggle. Victory was real. Fighting a nationalist themed civil war ended up seeming much easier than bringing prosperity through collectivization and other socialist schemes. Planning by proclamation did not always feed the people. Self-reliance, such as foraging, fishing or hunting during a time of famine was both a crime and a thought-crime. Hunger, a familiar fellow traveler of Marxist-Leninist state planning, made its face familiar in Hanoi as well as the countryside in times virtually up to the present. Vietnamese leaders became frustrated at the lack of economic progress and opened up the markets to private ownership, while retaining control of strategic industries. As a result of this policy and globalization, “KFC” has now entered the Vietnamese lexicon. New forms of malnutrition are appearing as the Western fast food diet becomes popular and widely available.
Now that I am in Vietnam I try to detect communism. There are red flags with sickles and hammers fluttering everywhere. Here and there seem to be empty dreary buildings full of sleeping bureaucrats having dreams of dogma. Otherwise I and the teachers float around inside our bubble, oblivious to most political issues. We sense the by-the-book ethos vibrating through our citadel, but just as easily we can have a drink in our hand, gazing at candlelight, marveling at how such a small salary can go so far. Many teachers engage in community outreach, visiting orphans, children in the cancer ward and many other examples, but I am speaking to the structure of this country as I now see it. In fact I see little difference between the working expats and the nationals, communism lingers on with a bony grasp on political party structure, people seem to hew to the rules with their little finger, then spend an exuberance of energy on the shiny new: computers, motorbikes and delighting as well in the ample supply of food that is available. What this means I don’t know but is it bold speculation to imagine a new generation of English teachers in Baghdad and Kabul in a few decades?
I swooped into this scenario, working hard 12 hour shifts in order to remain, and then basked as others did. I found myself three months later on an island off of Cambodia.
For the price of a diner meal, a six-pack, and a motel on the New Jersey Turnpike I lounged by sunset over the Gulf of Siam eating exquisite grilled prawns with garlic and chili, reading a novel, alternating between other luxuries, and gazing at the candlelight. I had come to gain perspective after spending a period finding my feet in Saigon. Teaching and air pollution were all well and good, but how should I place this within – oh I don’t know, larger questions, I wondered. The sea would perhaps speak a different language than I was used to, but I was resolved to add a few more languages to my repertoire before all was said and done.
For a few days I roamed around on this island on a Yamaha or Honda motorbike along windswept beaches occasionally littered with Styrofoam and other shipping trash, as well as coconut debris, and down orange dirt-roads through forested hamlets, trying to balance discovery and the unknown- strategically getting lost. It seemed risk-free. As far as I knew bandits and certainly guerrillas were not currently operating in the vicinity. One could be come embarrassed to be a tourist, or possibly waylaid by running out of gas or a mechanical malfunction. Otherwise I was at complete liberty to roam the countryside. It was the rainy season however, which accounted for my reduced resort rates. The driving rain only added to the adventure, as vast stretches of road projects that I had to pass through became motocross tracks. One day I followed signs down a long beach-side village road to an “eco-tourist” hotel and restaurant. Youths milled around a pool table in a complex of awnings and concrete decks stretching out to the beach with tables and chairs. Eco it seems can be as simple as having a pet monkey (check) and directing some labor to sweep the beach clean, satisfying this Western bourgeois aesthetic. The hostess was very kind; when the rain became too driving she helped move me to a drier spot. At her request we held an impromptu English lesson covering the snack food I discovered at her counter (“peanuts”), as well as the word for the establishment where she worked (“restaurant”). To show her gratitude she tied up a hammock for me where I napped until I sensed it was time to be on my way.
On my travels the next day I saw a giant millipede, nearly a foot long and as thick as a stout hemp cord crossing the road. The geography yielded a view of a series of small valleys, a small mountain covered with foliage, and of course coastal beaches dotted with thatch and tarp shacks. Throughout the island were chickens and roosters as well as at least one duck. Cattle roamed freely, sometimes tethered only with the sound of a wood bell around the neck, eagles and sea-hawks cruised the beaches. Children were a plentiful commodity usually eager to yell out at least one word they had learned in the classroom- “Hello!”, everywhere young people were friendly, a gang of lads on bicycles high-five slapped me as I passed them on a forested road. Of course I was confronted with poverty everywhere. The children on the whole seemed much happier than the adults. Of course gauging people’s happiness is a tricky practice- an unkind joke I have heard shared among teachers is that sometimes you can’t really tell if the Vietnamese are viciously quarreling with each other or saying “good morning- it’s a lovely day” “yes I think so too- happy birthday to you…” Occasionally though I would see in the distance a strange stare on a child’s face standing in the road. I knew instinctively that there wasn’t much that could change the expression on such a face- haunted as it was by some disease borne and nurtured in poverty. Vietnam has taught me to reconsider poverty and ask what it is. A romantic westerner thrills at experiences that do not conform to western standards and macro-thinkers declare the impossibility of spreading resource hogging American suburban life everywhere. It is collapsing even as we speak in America itself, or seems to be. If we want to be biased against the poor, rationalizations are easily conjured up. A young student in Saigon I was speaking with among a group of students in the park, no doubt on meager income herself, after shooing off a Cambodian beggar declared that the people in Cambodia were too lazy to plant rice, and only ate- oh I can’t remember what she said- I probably was no longer listening at that point. People do live in different ways than each other and if you visit them it is not always easy to see what they are doing or why. Some things, like the haunted stare on a child’s face, or just as easily, the brightness and intelligence of a young person, are unmistakable. Maybe things like wooden footbridges do not need to be cured, or even humble housing. What does a person need to lead a proper life? The most basic formula I could surmise, as a catch-phrase, was that people need “vitamins and vocabulary”. That is, they need the physical nourishment to develop their organs, muscles, and other such structures properly, and they needed the necessary tools to develop the greatest diversity of knowledge that could be useful or even just merely interesting to them. Western standards can both provide and impinge on these two directives and so are not the final answer to these questions. I say this only to spur us all forward, I clearly am a result of middle-class standards, I dare-say we all are.
And so in my hapless way I am trying to blend in where I can. I study Vietnamese and try to learn how things are done. If someone asks me what my name is I may reply “I am fine thank you”. I can show you where to eat delicious food on the street for less than a dollar. And yet there is no getting around my distinctive presence, if that was what I wanted. The struggle is to just try to not be clumsy about it- which is also an inevitability.
The name of the island I was on is Phu Quoc. As I toured it I knew of course to be careful of soft spots in the road and had heard somewhere in a file in my head of a unfortunate sand wipe-out somewhere else. I didn’t realize how easy it was to do this until I pulled to the side of a paved street in Duong Dong town where there were patches of sand. Like quicksilver in front of the shop on the avenue my bike sailed out from between my legs. I landed beside it, neither of us too much worse for the wear. The sensation was so immediate, and the consequences so negligible, no one at all seemed to be alarmed once the half second of uncertainty had passed. Surprisingly I was barely even embarrassed as I righted everything and strolled in to purchase some phone credit. That proved to not be the only wipe-out of the day either. Later, after my exploring was complete I was once again in the town trying to retrace my path back to the hotel. I decided on a direction that was not the exact road, but I felt certain if I kept pressing my way through the increasingly rural hamlet a path would connect to the road I wished to be on. It was kind of as the crow flies mixed with as the cow walks that drove me further and further along ever narrowing paths. A city street became an orange dirt road became a hardened path became a white sand track. I noted that people on motorbikes obviously frequently used this way but I couldn’t help reflecting on a similar trek through a Saigon Ghetto as I pressed deeper and deeper into the alleys as residents watched me from their 3-walled dwellings, before I finally gave up, and retraced my steps. Lost in this memory I buzzed through a copse of trees into an opening. An encroaching bog at high tide lay in front of me. I jerked slightly at the sight of the tidal pond covering the way ahead and then sailed over the handlebars as the front wheel dug into the sand slurry that was no longer passable. Quite a soft landing as these things go.
This stuff will be worked over and combined with some photos in time but for now I need to post this to just spread the word on string bands over the whole gosh durn world.
Just click on one of these bad boys, hell, click on all of them!: