September 2005 Archives

the coppery curl of silvery eyelashes

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Back from SPX, which was fun and fairly relaxed, as usual, but I don't have a whole lot of stories to tell. The best thing of the whole weekend has to have been K. Thor Jensen's wordless minicomic adaptation of "Trapped in the Closet"... starring Batman as R. Kelly. As great as it... had no choice but to be.

Other than that, the moments that are sticking in my memory are greyed over by the sleep deprivation that lasted all weekend: taking a cab back to the airport with a driver who was listening to some AM news station, and continuing to turn it up long after the distance from the transmitter added so much screeching waving noise to its output that I spent the last 20 minutes of the ride feeling like I was inside Ira Kaplan's amp during an especially vigorous performance of "Barnaby, Hardly Working"; Brett Warnock's glee at his round-corner-cutting device; seeing a couple of friends' darker side, and appreciating it; realizing that the house where Bryan Lee O'Malley and Hope Larson live probably has more raw talent per square foot than any other building; somebody's shouted answer to the question (on a panel) of what was possible with sex in comics and not in other media ("Tentacle porn!"); hearing a story about a cartoonist's drunken middle-of-the-night mishap repeated by various people over half a dozen times (and eventually repeating it myself); quiet dinners with new friends (on the way to which I watched old friends try to squeeze into other restaurants in 20-plus-person hordes) too many conversations that involved lemurs; too many conversations that involved iPods; too many conversations with cartoonists who'd come to see what everyone else was up to but never managed to get away from their tables.

go Sharon Olds!

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"I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it."

Currently in Bethesda, MD, at the Holiday Inn where Small Press Expo will start tomorrow. I flew through Houston, and as I dragged my carry-on through the terminal, I looked out the window and saw the terrible, slow, long line of people waiting outside the entrance, hoping for a spot on a plane that could take them away, anywhere.

The seat in front of the man sitting next to me on the plane out of Houston was empty, which puzzled everyone.

release the bats (with MP3s!)

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I'm a hopeless moony-eyed fan of pretty much everything the New Zealand songwriter Robert Scott has done--he's been in at least three of my favorite bands, and I've had the honor of putting out records by two of them (The Clean and the Magick Heads), as well as a couple of solo recordings by him. The other band he's best known for, the Bats, is releasing a new album today (on the Portland label Magic Marker), their first in about 10 years. Yay.

The Bats have been around for well over 20 years now (with exactly the same lineup: Robert, Malcolm Grant, Paul Kean, Kaye Woodward--the last three of them also play as Minisnap). They didn't break up during the gap between records; they've just been taking their time. The Bats at the National Grid is the new arrival, and after playing it a handful of times I'm gradually sinking into its loose hand-woven wire mesh--it always takes a while for me to acclimate to their records, and eventually I can't remember not having had them on my mental jukebox. "Horizon" (MP3), credited to all four of them, is my favorite song from it. (Also see their page on the Magic Marker site for another MP3, "Bells.")

As a taste of the Bats' history, here's their 1986 single "Made Up In Blue" (MP3) which I've been a little obsessed with lately. The Bats' own page is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in their history.

And here's something you probably haven't heard before: back in the early '90s, Robert wrote a song for Barbara Manning to sing, "B4 We Go Under"--it came out as a single on Teenbeat (with Barbara backed by Flophouse), and was later re-released on her singles comp Under One Roof. Robert recorded a version with the Magick Heads, as the title track of their first album. And, as a treat for anyone who's read this far, this is Robert and Barbara's never-officially-released home demo of "B4 We Go Under" (MP3), an amazingly beautiful little recording.

Many thanks to Curt from Magic Marker and Robert Scott for permission to post these.

shilling for milky giants

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I note that Amazon currently has Peter Blegvad's The Book of Leviathan for $6.99. If you like strange, wonderful, very smart comic strips, you really ought to indulge yourself in a copy. This site has some curious and marvelous examples of the strip; The Milk Museum is a little project by Blegvad that is similarly Not Like Anything Else.

Also, Blegvad was one of the people behind Slapp Happy. Sing it with me: "He used to wear fedoras, but now he sports a fez/There's Kabbalistic innuendoes in everything he sez..."

drowning in wood

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Nothing quite like the feeling of going shopping for books at a time when there are thousands of pages I need to read for work in the next week, and tens of thousands I've made myself promise to read before acquiring more. All the shelves at Powell's were whispering seductive things to me. I noticed that I'd been quoted on the front cover of the paperback edition of Christopher Ricks' Dylan's Visions of Sin, but rejected the impulse to buy it as cluttering vanity (got the hardcover already, duh). So I managed to escape with only the book I had to get for research, plus a remaindered copy of Stewart Home's 69 Things to Do With a Dead Princess (I think I only need to own one Stewart Home book, but this might be it) and a remaindered copy of Max Barry's Jennifer Government that leaped into my hand, honest.

Leigh tells me I need to read Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, too. Anyone want to agree or disagree?

day of fog

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There's something I really like about staying up most of the night to write an article, especially on a little bit of caffeine: I feel focused, I'm self-critical enough to rewrite and polish a lot but not so much that I lose hope, and I don't get distracted by the shiny things I can see by daylight. The problem is that the next day is a washout. Finally wriggled toward bed at about 5:00 this morning, and was woken up about three hours later by a phone call. And that was it for me in terms of productivity for the day: did a little listening and research for some pieces that are due imminently, attempted to go exercise (finding that my reflexes were slow enough that I noticed that some stretches were really not feeling so good a few seconds before I realized that, duh, maybe I shouldn't stretch that far), spent a few more hours in a fog at my desk, then finally dozed for a while. I think I also entertained Sterling for a while with the help of the Ukulele Boogaloo songbook--nice to be able to play "Elevate Me Later" and "I Will Survive" on the uke.

Somewhere in tonight's haze we watched Napoleon Dynamite, which I hadn't seen before--the whole thing seemed like an extended version of the maybe 30 seconds of stylized dialogue and ultra-sharp fisheye or quasi-David LaChappelle cinematography in a music video before the song kicks in.

Currently listening to Vladislav Delay's The Four Corners, which is strange to hear after the glory that was last year's Luomo album (Delay's reverb-house pseudonym)--his early stuff wasn't that far away from this, but now this sounds to me like the component parts of Luomo disassembled and lying on the ground, some of them still partly charged and most of them inert. You can tell it's his work, it's just making a point of not going anywhere. It's actually the same sort of effect I get from the Delia Gonzalez & Gavin Russom album, which I like more than Matos does, but Gonzalez & Russom's everything-pulling-together triumph of a record was one single, Black Leotard Front's "Casual Friday." Can't I get more than that before the whispering breakdown arrives?

The song in my head despite the Delay album is Ray Charles' "Greenbacks," in which "greenback dollar bill" is rhymed with "just a little piece of paper coated in chlorophyll."

Eight novels to read in the next five days, effectively.

the genius of Richard McGuire

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I really should not have been surprised that babies are transfixed by Not4Long (scroll around until you hit both of the hidden treats). But it took a little digging to relocate Willing To Try, which is slightly more suited for my attention span. Liquid Liquid, these; I'm very impressed with how this guy's brain works.

dry blue somersaults

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The question is: what is Burning Man now? What's it for? There are now 40,000 people coming out to the desert for the week leading up to Labor Day--about double the number there were when I started coming in 1999, I believe, despite the efforts of the organization to slow the rate of growth--and incredible amounts of money and energy being put into the stuff that happens in the course of that week. The event has gone from small to large to so big it's impossible to do everything to so big it's impossible to see everything to so big it's impossible to even get a sense of the scope of everything even if you're on your bike most of the time.

What's the idea behind it? Is it a massive festival of installation-based and interactive art? (That's how I usually describe it to people, & the way I tend to approach it.) Is it a creative D.I.Y. survival experiment, a sort of cognitive toolkit whose problem-solving techniques might be applied to the rest of the world? (That's something I tend to like a lot about it--not just getting by under ferocious desert conditions, but doing so with as much style as possible.) Is it a weeklong chemical-crazed sex party? (I know some people who look for that, and find it.) Is it a hacky-sack-and-drum-circle-riddled hippie convention? (Not so much any more, although I know some people who look for & find that, too.) Is it a tough but fun camping trip with amazing entertainment for the whole family? (It can be that, as well--Sterling didn't come this year, since five-month-olds aren't well suited for the desert, but I saw a bunch of preschool-age kids who looked like they were having the time of their lives.) What?

The occasional conversation within our camp centered on the question of whether Burning Man is meant to be an alternative to the world outside the trash fence ("default reality," they used to call it) or a corollary to that world. I pretty much see it as a testing lab--a place where all kinds of societal experiments can be tried under harsh conditions, to see what works, with the understanding that most of it won't. So you get occasional lovely elements of its culture that bleed into the world outside it (the D.I.Y. cultures of New York and San Francisco, especially--I can't imagine, say, the Madagascar Institute being nearly as sound without Burning Man), and a lot of stuff the world can do without, but the good parts are worth it.

I camped this year with Comfort Food, a division of Foodlab, within the Irrational Geographic Society village. (My fourth village in seven years, preceded by Illumination Village, eVille/Comfort, and Asylum.) Our mission was to make delicious food for about 110 people--a hot meal once a day, plus a pantry available to the group. A friend of mine who'd been responsible for the Costco run to stock the pantry noted that he'd never bought $2000 worth of snack food at once before.

But I also like to do a couple of projects of my own. Last year, I'd put together the Sound Sun Pleasure installation, which was a hassle and a half; this year, I'd sworn that whatever I did would require no equipment too large to carry in the pocket of my Podbelt. (Which I endorse heartily.) So my most persistent project was Change Your Mind, which I didn't identify by that name to anybody else who participated in it; its equipment consisted of a small roll of Smarties in a side pocket of my belt's flask holder.

I'd roll up to someone on his or her own (it totally failed with anybody accompanied by a friend, I quickly found), and say "Excuse me, [sir/ma'am]--I'm giving people temporary new personalities. Would you like one?" [The answer was almost always "absolutely" when I was wearing my Lou Reed Live reflective sunglasses and brightly colored wigs; I was batting more like 60% with my own eyes and hair, oddly.] "Great! So are there any personality traits or characteristics that you've always thought were admirable or interesting or cool, but they're... just not really you?" [Usually they'd come up with one right away. If not, I'd say "It doesn't have to be something you aspire to, just something you admire in other people but don't see so much in yourself. Something you might like to try on for a little while. Like a wig."]

So they'd come up with something. [If it was something really abstract, I'd make them clarify it: "How would that manifest itself out here?"] Then I'd say "Okay: your assignment is that for the next three hours, you are that. Everyone you interact with, everything you do, that's what's driving you. Can you do that?" (Sure.) "Great. And I'm going to give you something to make it easier. Close your eyes; open your mouth; stick out your tongue." [Here I'd put a Smarties on their tongue. People accepted it without a second thought if I had the mirrorshades and wig; when I was myself, they were sometimes a little reticent, and I'd have to explain that it was just a Smarties.] "So if you run into anybody you know in the next couple of hours, and they say 'wow, what's going on with you? you're really not acting like yourself!,' you can just tell them: 'I met this guy... he gave me something... I thought it was candy...'"

I did this with something like 250 people. A handful treated it as a total joke. Most of them looked like they thought it could be fun to give it a try for a little while. About 10% of them got a look on their face like they'd just had a revelation: they really could be something they desperately wanted to be, and all they'd needed was permission to do it. It was amazing when that happened.

I also did a couple of other little projects, each of which had one hugely gratifying moment. The first couple of days, I biked around asking people if they'd like to join a secret society. ("What kind?" "Well, it's a secret secret society!") When they said yes, I tied a bright pink string around the mouthpiece of their water bottle or Camelbak, and told them that they were now a member of the Secret Secret Society, and if they saw somebody else with a piece of pink string, they could go up to them and demand to be told a secret. One woman said "hey, I remember you--you did something about secrets last year too. [This was true--one afternoon I went up to people and told them I was with the official Black Rock City Consortion on Secrets and they had to tell me a secret.] I told you something that I'd been keeping a secret even from myself--it really changed things for me." I have no idea what it was, and was too flabbergasted to ask, but I was impressed.

Then, on Friday and Saturday, I realized that I had to do something to use up the expired Polaroid film I'd brought along, so when I saw a cute couple I'd bike up to them and announce that they were busted--that I was from the BRCCCPA (the Black Rock City Cute Couple Polaroid Alliance), and that I was afraid I was going to have to give them a Polaroid of the two of them smooching, sorry, man, I don't make the rules, I just enforce 'em. This generally made people very happy--and one couple that there'd been obvious sparks between kept kissing for a couple of minutes after I took the picture. "Congratulations," they told me. "You just took a picture of our first kiss."

Maybe the most fun thing I got to do all week, though, wasn't my own project at all. I'd been curious about kecak (Balinese monkey-chant) for a few years, and this year I actually learned how to do it from a workshop offered by One People Voice. Monkey chant sounds like it's "traditional," and totally isn't: it was invented in the '30s by a German artist and the Balinese tourist bureau. But it is very VERY easy to pick up the rudiments of--I got the hang of it in an hour-and-a-quarter-long class--and I ended up participating in the big performance they did at Center Camp on Friday afternoon. Hundreds of people, an hourlong performance, a joy.

This year's art: there were a few stunning pieces, especially a beautiful wooden clock-tower that burned on Sunday night (after the Temple, which was not designed by David Best this year and, a few people opined to me, didn't seem "sacred" in the way Best's stuff does, somehow) and The Machine, a wild assemblage of wooden gears. I also really loved the gigantic vertical ladder, extending into the heavens and held upright with a whole lot of guy-wires, that somebody had set up, although it looked way, way too dangerous. Matthew Blackwell's "Dance Dance Immolation" was a hilarious idea (Dance Dance Revolution, played in flameproof armor, with jets that shot fire at the players if they missed a step), but too plagued with technical problems.

What I missed, though, was the kind of homemade "what do we have a lot of? let's make some art out of it!" pieces that there used to be more of--there was nothing as brilliantly low-budget as the shrine from a few years ago that was constructed out of Plexiglas and Chinese-restaurant condiment packets. And, for the first time, there seemed to be a lot of meta-Burning-Man-art pieces: versions of the Man sinking into the deep playa and lying drunk against a lamppost, the "Thumperdome" (100 yards away from Thunderdome, a miniature replica with stuffed bunnies climbing all over it--and how funny is it that Thunderdome has the same music every year? in 40 years, will it just be "traditional" to play "Stigmata" and "Punk Rock Girl" and "Baby Got Back" there?), and my favorite, outside a set of portapotties: a big rectangular translucent box that blinked occasionally, atop a wooden pole, atop a wooden crate labeled "Generic Art Project."

Other things I loved: a silk-acrobatics area that had some gorgeous performances on Saturday night, a DJ at the periphery of our village who spun an hour of kickass early punk rock (the Misfits' "I Turned Into a Martian" sounded better to me than it ever had before), a squad of people in tiny motorized cupcakes (with helmets to match the particular frosting/sprinkling on each one's cupcake), OBOP's butterfly/chrysalis/womb decor and hangout spaces, a tent on the east side of the city that had a dream-interpretation project (person A writes down a dream and his or her on-playa address; after they leave, person B reads it and writes down an interpretation, and then somebody else delivers it to the original dreamer), and a ridiculous and wonderful little five-room chill-space deep within the city (on 4:30 between Delirium and Ego) that included a 40-square-foot version of the legendary Black Rock City dance club Xara, complete with its grassy turf. And, of course, making a bunch of friends, especially in my village--that's one of the things that keeps me coming back year after year. (Hi, Robin, Vicka, Maggie, Sha, and all the rest.)

But I also notice that there are some things that are becoming standardized at Burning Man that I hope get un-standardized soon, especially fashion. Can't tell you how many 20-something women were wearing sarongs and pink/red/black braided hair extensions, and I would like to propose a temporary moratorium on Utilikilts. (If you have to propose a Podbelt moratorium right back at me in a few years, I'll understand. Camelbaks are exempt.) Also, if you are going to bring little gifts to give people, that's great, but prefabricated strings of beads do not cut it.

This year, my camping situation was a little strange: Jess, Patti and I arrived Saturday (a day earlier than we'd ever shown up before), and my tent promptly exploded--early on Sunday, there was a severe windstorm, and its fiberglass poles snapped and ripped up the top of the tent. So, after a night spent in another camp's geodesic dome/chill-space, I ended up borrowing a spare tent from a kindly neighbor, but I still felt slightly displaced for most of the week.

It was also strange being cut off from the outside world while a whole lot of stuff was going down. By the end of the week, we knew that New Orleans was mostly under water, but the extent of the disaster was being both over- and underestimated. The two other rumors going around were that William Rehnquist had died and that Michael Jackson had been shot. Nobody knew for sure. Tempers were fraying; I overheard a number of things that made me remember 1) that in tent and yurt societies it's usually a serious taboo to let on that you've heard any conversation coming from inside somebody else's structure, and 2) Eddie Lee Sausage's justification for recording the drunken, abusive fights of his next-door neighbors Raymond and Peter: "You have to wonder what kind of right to privacy someone expects when they're shouting at the top of their lungs."

On the final night, Jess & Patti & I attempted to see the temple burn, but were foiled by misinformation about when it was going up. (As we were sitting around at Spock Mountain Research Labs, somebody glanced up at the playa and said "Welp, I guess there'll be another temple next year.") We did, however, see the clock-tower burn, which was gorgeous--beautifully designed, right down to the colors of the fire. And eventually repaired to Center Café in the no-longer-so-wee hours glowing with final-night-of-a-good-week happiness & accompanied by our friend Yoz, who'd just gotten married earlier that day, to hear a Coldplay wannabe do Portishead & Leonard Cohen covers, followed by a godawful comedy/protest singer, followed by somebody unscheduled who was flipping out on something (throwing chairs and tables and rocks around the café) and eventually commandeered the stage to have a very tense argument with an imaginary being called "Angry Meth." Around then we decided it was time to go home.

There are other stories, too, but they're reserved for people who know me personally & are curious; email me privately.

Oh, one other thing that colored my week a little: on my way to the airport, I grabbed Kelly Link's short story collection Magic for Beginners, having read a story or two by her earlier, not much more. It is wonderful--just the kind of brainflipping fantastical semi-metafictional superfinessed prose I love, somewhere in my personal cosmology a little closer to Borges than to Donald Barthelme, but with zombies. Her story "Catskin" gave me nightmares that I was happy to have. Now I need to read everything by her.

my forebrain is in Killdozer

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I'm back from the World Within the Trash Fence, still a little dust-caked and bleary-eyed, but basically okay. Details on that in the next entry.

Work stuff first: I've got a bunch of new pieces out. The one I'm most proud of is "Aardvark Politick," a longish essay on Cerebus in the new issue of The Believer, which I was working on intermittently for most of last year. It's not online, sadly, but the description they came up with for it is "Discussed: Freud and Jung, Jules Feiffer and Robert Crumb, Iron-Fisted Agrarian Revolution, Anarcho-Libertarian Feminists, Foghorn Leghorn, City-States, Sebastien Melmoth, Light vs. Void, Literary Pastiche, The Not-So-Good Samaritan, Women’s Suffrage, 'Total-Dick Literature,' Gesamtkunstwerk, Birth of a Nation, Cathedrals." Which puts it nicely, although they could've mentioned schizophrenia too.

In Salon: a review of F.C. Ware's new Acme Novelty Library book. ("Day pass" required, sorry.)

In Spin, a review of the New Pornographers' Twin Cinema.

In Seattle Weekly, a review of Death Cab for Cutie's Plans. And here is another Smallmouth column I forgot to link earlier, this one on Richard Hell, Judee Sill, Slapp Happy, and the misplaced sound of 1974.

Also: two pieces in the Village Voice. This one is about '20s banjo player Charlie Poole and You Ain't Talkin' to Me; this one is about payola in the music industry.

(And, Carl asks, what was I so all-fired angry about the other week? The fact that the Voice just slashed its pay rates for freelancers--this after not having increased them in the close-to-a-decade I've been working for them. When I moved to New York in 1992, it was my dream that someday I'd be able to write for the Voice, and it's been a joy to work with editors like Chuck Eddy, Robert Christgau, Eric Weisbard, Ed Park and, really, everyone else I've dealt with there. The pay cut is an insult to them and to everyone who writes for the paper. I am a freelancer, which means I don't get health benefits or paid vacations or job security; what I do have is the ability to walk away when one of my employers insults me. So I've quit; those two articles are my final pieces for the Voice until they reinstate decent rates for their writers.)

(Is it unseemly to talk about financial compensation issues in a public place? That's exactly what people who want to rip us off are counting on us thinking.)

Alex suggests that Beethoven and Bob Dylan "make sense when the world becomes apocalyptic." And so does Charley Patton, as Dylan knows and I think Alex does too. His "High Water Everywhere" isn't metaphorical, it's just despair-soaked literal art-as-reportage on the Mississippi flood of 1927--by the time the "ice sled" shows up, if you're not shaking you're not paying attention (lyrics lifted from this site; looked for an MP3 and couldn't find one, but besides Revenant's ultra-deluxe Screamin' and Hollerin' the Blues there's a cheap Patton anthology on JSP that's also on eMusic):

Well, backwater done rose all around Sumner now,
drove me down the line
Backwater done rose at Sumner,
drove poor Charley down the line
Lord, I'll tell the world the water,
done crept through this town

Lord, the whole round country,
Lord, river has overflowed
Lord, the whole round country,
man, is overflowed
You know I can't stay here,
I'll go where it's high, boy
I would go to the hilly country,
but they got me barred

Now, look-a here now at Leland,
river was risin' high
Look-a here boys around Leland tell me,
river was raisin' high
Boy, it's risin' over there, yeah
I'm gonna move to Greenville,
'fore I leave, goodbye

Look-a here the water now, Lordy,
Levee broke, rose most everywhere
The water at Greenville and Leland,
Lord, it done rose everywhere
Boy, you can't never stay here
I would go down to Rosedale,
but they tell me there's water there

Now, the water now, mama,
done took Charley's town
Well, they tell me the water,
done took Charley's town
Boy, I'm goin' to Vicksburg
Well, I'm goin' to Vicksburg,
for that high of mine

I am goin' up that water,
where lands don't never flow
Well, I'm goin' over the hill where,
water, oh don't ever flow
Boy, hit Sharkey County and everything was down in Stovall
But, that whole county was leavin',
over that Tallahatchie shore
Boy, went to Tallahatchie and got it over there

Lord, the water done rushed all over,
down old Jackson road
Lord, the water done raised,
over the Jackson road
Boy, it starched my clothes
I'm goin' back to the hilly country,
won't be worried no more

Backwater at Blytheville, backed up all around
Backwater at Blytheville, done took Joiner town
It was fifty families and children come to sink and drown

The water was risin' up at my friend's door
The water was risin' up at my friend's door
The man said to his womenfolk, "Lord, we'd better go"

The water was risin', got up in my bed
Lord, the water was rollin', got up to my bed
I thought I would take a trip, Lord, out on the big ice sled

Oh, I can hear, Lord, Lord, water upon my door,
you know what I mean, look-a here
I hear the ice, Lord, Lord, was sinkin' down,
I couldn't get no boats there, Marion City gone down

So high the water was risin' our men sinkin' down
Man, the water was risin' at places all around,
boy, they's all around
It was fifty men and children come to sink and drown

Oh, Lordy, women and grown men drown
Oh, women and children sinkin' down
Lord, have mercy
I couldn't see nobody's home and wasn't no one to be found