Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mystery Machine

The crowd on opening night of "Otherwise." 

Mr. Ben Clark in front of his work.

Keith Benjamin's tabletop genius, with Richard Emery Nickolson's and Ben Clark's
drawings on the wall behind and adjacent.

Keith Benjamin, Richard Emery Nickolson,and Ben Clark's brother.

Basement fundraiser for human rights happening at the same time.  Thanks to Holly Prochaska.

Keith Benjamin's work, with Ben Clark's on the wall.


A mirror piece by Keith Benjamin greets everyone.  Below are other shots and angles of the show:

We just opened a show called "Otherwise" last night, and it was a blast.  Down in the basement was a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and Southern Poverty Law Center.  The joint was packed.  What I want to concentrate on though is the "Otherwise" show, which presented works by Keith Benjamin, Ben Clark, and Richard Emery Nicksolson.  It was so much fun installing and organizing their works together that it felt as through all 3 gentlemen had worked on being in an exhibit together without actually know it, like they'd combined their visions into a perfect puzzle we could solve.  

We stumbled across Ben Clark's work at InsideOut Studio in Hamilton, Ohio, last year; it's a storefront space downtown that houses both a gallery and a studio for artists with developmental disabilities.  As soon as we saw Ben's work we knew we'd need to figure out a show.  I'd seen Keith's work in shows at PAC Gallery and the Carnegie, and Bill had reached out to Richard, who was his drawing professor back in the 80s at John Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.  

Richard's stark, perfect renderings of smokestacks, cranes and sky-wires have such an intense precision they read like imaginary movie stills, cinematic moments frozen into pen-and-ink telepathy. Keith's gorgeously and deceptively simple sculptures pull together tossed-aside materials like torn t-shirts and commercial packaging and rearrange and repurpose those things into objects that feel almost on the edge of utility but somehow find a poetic escape from it. Ben's paintings combine both Richard's intense connection to atmosphere and scenery with Keith's nervy, heightened appropriation of everyday objects; he creates totems from road signs, myth from strip malls and maps.  

Inside "Otherwise," you go from a minimalist, frenetic drawing of the Scooby-Doo gang's "Mystery Machine" to an almost sinister smokestack vibrating against a stark white sky, to a fresh, smooth wooden table covered in what appear to be delicate nostalgic maquettes of dream buildings constructed from stuff you find in your basement on a rainy day.  

All of the art in the show has a classy handmade/homemade aesthetic to it; all three artists have accomplished their missions by paying close attention to what's already there and transforming it all into a beautiful kind of strangeness.     

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The Backstreet Cultural Museum is nestled inside a house in the Treme neighborhood in New Orleans.  Bill and I finally were able to make a visit last month when we there, and it's one of those experiences that's hard to convey, outside of just showing pictures and describing the feeling.  Here goes. 

The door wasn't locked, the open sign was out, so we just walked into the place.  The front-rooms are the actual museum (with a claustrophobic hallway lined with black-framed newspaper articles leading into a little kitchenette).  Two front-rooms are stocked with enough Mardi Gras Indian costumes as to make your head spin in a gleeful, dreamy manner.   On the right is a folding chair next to a little fan with a sign that says "10.00 per person." 

On that morning we went no one was around.  A sense of vacancy, all these costumes and history left unattended, gave the whole visit a ghostly sweetness.  (We met up with Sylvester Francis, the owner and proprietor, on our way out; he had gone to the store.  So we were able to pay him in person for the visit, as well as get a selfie with him, see above.)  I felt cushioned inside all the feather and beads there, those outfits giving off more than vibes, a sort of radiation you can't Geiger-count, or even understand.  All that work, all that thinking and sewing and doing.  

Up close the Mardi Gras Indian costumes read both show-bizzy and heart-breakingly homemade, astutely constructed and yet firmly dedicated to "prettiness."  In fact, "pretty" is what the makers of these works are going for -- it's the highest form of compliment in Mardi Gras Indian culture.  (If you don't know the history of all this, check it out here: Mardi Gras Indians.)  Basically, Mardi Gras Indian culture is an African-American self-made New Orleans tradition in which "tribes" of artists and performers construct voluptuous costumes from feathers, beads, and whatever else is needed; subject matter for each outfit is based on regional histories and other ideas.  Once the costumes are complete (it takes months), the makers and others parade around on certain days, seeking out optimum moments of grandeur and exposure.  The whole thing started in the 1880s, but also has some historical connections to slavery and Congo Square in the 1700s New Orleans, a site where African-Americans folks were "allowed" to party and play music for a certain period of time, flaunting their culture and humanities even while they were enslaved.  

So all that gorgeousness, like a lot of beauty, is anchored in horror and survival, and yet when you witness the costumes up close you only are in awe of the work, by the sheer funky fluorescent profundity of each effort, each stitch.  I could go on.  The Backstreet Cultural Museum allows  "art" to get real, without getting self-righteous.  

Bill was on a panel last week at the Cincinnati Art Museum concerning "artists and social justice," and while it seemed like a valiant effort on the parts of everyone who participated, I kept feeling antsy listening to the talk.  Bill was antsy too up there on the stage, trying his best:  how does art really contribute to cultural and social salvation?  I mean, for real?  How do artists matter in a world going to, well, kind of going to hell?  Bill mentioned "humor," and his personal history, his connection to people with developmental disabilities, how we are all equal, how that has to matter. That seemed pretty sane.  But a lot of the other panelists went a little loftier, tried to draw some conclusions, some abstractions, and I think that's why I'm writing this right now, why I wanted to revisit Mr. Francis's joint.  

The Backstreet Cultural Museum is a funhouse of sacredness, a tribute to surviving, but also a celebration of the intricate and somehow heady process of "prettiness."  Each bead and feather is a way to understand "social justice" in that little house on Henriette Delille Street.  The Mardi Gras Indian pretentiousness devours pretentiousness.  It's a working-class code of departure, of dedicating time and effort toward style, glitz, and escape, and yet also a return to personhood, to identity, like drag, only the end result here is spectacle beyond spectacle, turning the streets into theater, but a kind of theater that transcends theatricality.  It's homespun, visceral gaudiness.  It's screaming and laughing and carrying on, faced with unfairness and bull-shit politics and history and poverty and so on and so forth.  But it's not by any means fussy or self-involved or pedantic or even literal.  Those costumes reverberate with a strange magic you can't qualify.  That strangeness allows all of us to feel how odd it is to love without knowing what's being loved.  To be alive and full of love and energy and spite and power and creativity:  to be heroic just walking down the goddamned street.  

That's about all I have to say.  

Except, thank you very much Sylvester, and God bless you.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Get the Hell Out

Get Out is a movie built from other parts of movies, a pastiche/celebration of horror and other genre tropes.  Yet it doesn't feel at all derivative or superficial.  The writer-director Jordon Peele (of Key and Peele fame) has the goods.  He's a stylist with something very important to say, and that blending of subject matter with technical prowess is exhilarating to witness; in fact it's the overarching reason why movies themselves are so important, so influential.  Peele cannibalizes Rosemary's Baby, Nightmare on Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Silence of the Lambs (just to name a few) with abandon and glee, skillfully slicing and dicing moments and dialog into a meta meditation on horror movies and race and otherness and whiteness and privilege, until by the end of Get Out you are hooked and sunk into a world totally manifested by Peele's intelligence, wit, and anger.

But he doesn't just riff on horror movies.  That would be too easy.  Interspersed within the glittery, gory, Grand-Guignol fetishes are bits and pieces of Woody Allen movies and even a sort of Merchant-Ivory attachment to comedies of manner.  He's out to skewer, but also to humanize what it means to be shut out of the ruling class in a way that's not so much about hate as it is adoration, a belittlement based on fear and envy.

The story is pretty simple, like all great horror movies.  Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya, even better than he was in Black Mirror) has a white girlfriend (Alison Williams, just plain perfect), Rose Armitage.  Chris and Rose are going to visit Rose's family for the first time, and guess what?  She hasn't told them he's black.  Once they arrive (after a run-in with a deer and a policeman), the gaze of the movie sets its sights on the opulence and appurtenances of Rose's mother and father (both doctors) and her douche-bag of a brother.  Here we have the reversal of tropes: freakishness in the guise of white-people in posh circumstances, with Chris the horror-movie innocent negotiating the strangeness and ickiness.  The "ickiness" is most on display when other Armitage family and friends visit for a dinner party wherein they put on the happy-happy smiles of white people welcoming a black person into their midst.  The arrogance of the scenes here topple into the grotesque; each of the rich white folks at the party finds ways to compliment Chris on his athletic prowess, his muscular beauty, his genetic strengths.  It's not about pushing him away; it's about somehow owning his identity without wanting to know him.

That's the crux of the horror here, that dinner party by the lake.  It has the fever and fright of everyday embarrassment and condescension merged with the promise that the paranoiac atmosphere will soon boil over into sordid hypnotic realities:  abduction, enslavement, basement brain surgery.

Get Out's plot is funky enough to be both genre frenetic and yet perfectly, coolly satirical.  Peele never loses sight of genre-movie pleasures, while also  using them to help us feel and understand what it means to be shut out of the world, completely ostracized, while also being smiled at and cajoled and patted on the back.  Rose's dad, after all, would have voted for Obama's third term if he could have.

Within this maelstrom of manners and terrors, our avatar is beautifully performed by Kaluuya.  He's the center-point here, and as we follow him through his paces we start to understand the totality of all the little humiliations he has to go through.  The smiles that kind of make you feel sick.  The ongoing onslaught of conversation that has nothing to do with who you are and yet everything about who they think you are, or at least they think you should be.  Kaluuya's brilliant, intelligent eyes shine out of all that bullshit, as he tries to remain rational, as he tries to remain alive.

I never really liked Key and Peele's sketch-show on Comedy Central too much.  It always seemed to be trying way too hard to make points that have already been made, and the more they went at it, the more tiresome it got.  But Get Out is the complete opposite of that kind of exhaustion; it has a freshness to it, a sense of righteousness devoid of self-righteousness, exercising a brand of humor that's both ghastly and completely optimistic, unique.  After you see this movie, you feel smarter somehow, edified.  Most movies don't have the guts or brains to edify anyone.  Get Out has guts and brains galore.  It skewers (literally at times) a brand of poshness and stupidity heretofore often left out of horror-movie villainy:  pleasant, professional white people in palatial lake-houses, stirring their cups of tea, smiling like they have everything and know everything, and are just waiting to let you have it.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Blizzard Stew

We're doing a show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. that commemorates the blizzard that swept through this region in 1978.  Opening January 7, 2017, it's titled "Thunder-Snow," and about 30 artists from across the area have contributed works of all kinds (poems, paintings, sculptures, drawings, you name it), delving into their memories and dreams about what it felt like confronted with all that colossal snow-fall and fury.  Evidenced by the blue-and-white-tinged nostalgia and comfort depicted in many of the works, the '78 blizzard, nicknamed "The Great White Hurricane," somehow yielded its own form of community:  neighbors who barely spoke to one another in the sunlight helped dig each other out and families got reintroduced to one another, surviving together as opposed to "living together."  The whole world seemed altered, at least for the time it took for the snow to fall, the wind to turn the snow into castle-sized drifts, and eventually for the air to warm and melt it all away.  The stories behind most of the works are next to each piece on the wall in "Thunder-Snow."  Those narratives really are what the whole exhibit is about.  The stories we tell ourselves before, during and after crises, those images and smells and tastes we commit to memory and then somehow lose, flood back when given an opportunity, a reason to reinvent and retrieve them.    

Blizzards isolate, turn people inward, and yet due to their catastrophic nature they cause people to reach out for help.  That contradiction is what gives, I think, the Blizzard of 1978 its force of inspiration:  there was no running away from it, only trying to figure out how to live through it.  One of the pieces in the show is more of a "happening," in that Sharon Butler is asking folks to write down what they ate during the storm and then she will be making versions of those recipes for a closing-event dinner.  Food, of course, is central to a blizzard story.  What's the first instinct when people hear on the news that snow's coming?  Rush to the grocery store, stock up for "the white death."  In the '78 storm, though, many people didn't have the chance to make a run for food, so they had to figure out how to make what they had on-hand into something that would get them through. That's what happened with my family.  I always remember my dad making this really salty but somehow totally delicious stew the third or fourth day we were cooped up.  I was 13 at the time. I think all we had left was some bacon, old shriveled potatoes, pinto beans, garlic salt, maybe an onion. So he made this soup for us.  He didn't really cook when there wasn't a blizzard; my mom was the cook. But he got bored and hungry and just decided to do it.  We were all like that, cabin-fevered and hungry.  He fried the bacon, cooked the potatoes, soaked and cooked the beans.  It was just this taste of salty warm water, the potatoes going creamy, that bacon/garlic residual lining the inside of your mouth.  And out the window all that white.  We weren't a real close-knit clan, and I don't have a lot of sentimental-happy memories stocked up, but that one comes at me with a warm and elemental authenticity.  Remembering that stew he made helps me understand that you often have to focus on something peripheral and real to get at the bigger truth, whatever that "bigger truth" might be.      

E. E. Cummings once wrote in one of his poems that the "snow doesn't give a soft, white damn whom it touches," and I think that's what makes a blizzard of the magnitude of the '78 one such an epic moment.  That snow is a reminder of how much nature really could not care less about your problems, or even your existence.  That essential epiphany of how small you are allows you to reconnect with what makes you human.  

Thursday, November 10, 2016

False Teeth

An original drawing by Antonio Adams.

Election Night 2016 I got sick of the whole damn thing and made a carrot cake.  It was soothing, to tune out all of it and crack some eggs and make something sweet.  It was a box cake, with a little container of icing, so it wasn't like I was the Barefoot Contessa or anything, but still doing one stupid thing like that made a lot of crap go away at least momentarily.  I wasn't scared of what was going down.  It was more like I was apocalyptically disappointed.  I haven't really bumped into that kind of instant depression in a long time, but there it was:  the monster winning, everything I thought decent and kind just poof, gone.  And then the monster's idiot parade continues on, all the way into history and power and the Whitehouse.  And so on so forth.

It is what it is.  You can't predict what he's going to do because he lies all the time anyway, and he'd probably tell you that just to get your vote.  But one thing is for sure:  it's pretty set in stone that he will keep on kissing the asses of the people who shout how great he is and desperately need someone to help them blame somebody else for how rotten their situation is. Monday morning quarterbacks are talking about how that's the real tragedy here:  no one was listening to the Rural Working Class and boy oh boy now they are getting their revenge.  Well I got news for you:  I am from that stock, and still circulate within its circles at times, and the RWC does need help but it's the kind of help that's truthful and sober and quiet, as in TPP or no you're still shit out of luck if you think "your way of life" will return just like it was before. Monumental cultural/economic shifts have happened that have disconnected the RWC manufacturing base from the global market, and no amount of screaming at the top of your lungs to lock somebody up will alter that.  No amount of shifty dealings and heavyhanded negotiations can change that situation.  China does not care about you, nor does it give a shit about you-know-who and all his wonderful businessman skills.  The RWC is going to have to change how it sees the world, how it deals with what the world taketh away, and then move forward accordingly, as in:  there are no saviors.  Just strategies.  Plans.  Hope comes out of that kind of pushing forward.  It does not come from standing around with signs that say somebody is a "cunt" and by the way all lives matter.

Poverty and lack of opportunity is the one universal for a lot of people, of all races, nationalities, religions, sexualities. And uniting to combat those circumstances might be a wonderful start to a Utopia, but somehow uniting around changing the system to redistribute the wealth and chances always gets enmeshed in identity politics so sordid and flat-out wrong it makes you want to make another carrot cake.  All sides on that one too:  from thousands of whiny-assed RWCs jumping up and down wanting to make America great again to posh universities filled with safe-spaces just in case of micro-aggressions.  No priorities just pontifications and victimizations and posing and bitching so on so forth.

I really never loved Hillary, to be honest.  I understand the distaste for her shrillness, for her need to seek power and then turn it into a public display of phony tenderness.  I get it.  But you know what?  I voted for her because I knew all of the things I don't like about her are the things that make shit work in government, as in steely reserve, automaton-hippie smile, and above all else a greedy need to be seen as a problem-solver so craven and self-serving that it makes you actually get things done.  Of course I voted for her also because I don't think she will unleash a new phase of orgiastic fascism.

Anyway, after making the cake, after realizing for sure it was all the way over, after witnessing the pundits on every network looking shocked and pale and disappointed at their own impotence and stupidity, I went to bed and it just so happened that I was on the last few pages of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.  I reread this book every few years.  I've probably read it 15 or 16 times now.  It has velocity, sorrow, grotesque humor, soul-stirring poetry, floods and fires and broken legs.  It is about a family of rural working class nobodies whose mother Addie is dying and her oldest son builds her a casket while she watches.  All her other children are in their own little moments of lunacy, despair and tragedy.  They end up taking her corpse across the country in a vain attempt at burying her where she wanted to be buried, but by the time they get there, well, she sort of smells bad and there are buzzards following their every move.  Not funny-weird, not-funny-haha, just goddamned funny the way life is.

But it's her husband, Anse, who closes out the book in the most hilarious and human manner. Basically his quest to bury his wife reveals parallel, multi-tasking motives:  he also wants to get false-teeth so he can eat victuals the way God intended him to.  And then also,  just through serendipity, while borrowing a shovel with which to dig his wife's grave from a lady he's never met he falls in love and asks her to marry him right there on the spot.  Right after he puts his dead wife's stinky remains in the ground.  Tah-dah.

Happy ending for sure.  When I finished the book I just thought to myself:  thank God for books like this that take you away from grand concerns and worries and terrors and allow you to relax into situations so complicated and stupid and vexing as to make you feel alive and somehow sympathetic beyond words and beyond even maybe consciousness.  The people Faulkner writes about in As I Lay Dying are pure white-trash, poor, crazy, stupid, pissed off, petty, and lost.  Yet they all feel so alive and beautifully rendered you want them never to leave you, even while buzzards flutter above them, even while they are setting fire to your barn.

That's the spirit I am going to live in and on.  Not love or hate or whatever, but I think a version of good old-fashioned wonder.  Not the joyful kind, but the kind that allows you a poetic and distant understanding of how the world actually works, and maybe even how it will fix itself by getting new false teeth when all is said and done.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Yours Truly

Tomorrow we're going to be pouring the concrete platform for the permanent sculpture commemorating Raymond Thunder-Sky's cultural status here in the area.  I've written so many times about Raymond sometimes I think I'm really not writing about him anymore, just telepathically conveying what he means to me over and over until the meaning becomes my status of things, the way I hope people see the way I think.  Raymond, to me, was a godsend because he helped me in many ways imagine and re-imagine what I wanted to make happen in the world, as well as how to survive what happened once things get put into place.  

That may sound odd, but Raymond was a specter of survival more than anything else; he used the world to his purposes and found ways to keep going even though the world often seemed not to care.  His ghostliness, his weirdness, made him more powerful and yet also easy to dismiss, and his art, elemental and hilarious renderings of destruction and madness and creativity done in Magic Markers, has that same quality:  some people look at what he did as endless unnecessary doodles, others as social commentary, and then others (like me) simply a vibrant, anarchic diary of existence translated through a need to be seen while disappearing.    

Here's the official data about the sculpture:

“The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower”
The Center for Great Neighborhoods

“The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower” is an outdoor sculpture created by renowned international sculptor Tom Tsuchiya, commemorating the life and legacy of Raymond Thunder-Sky, a Native American artist (also labeled with a developmental disability) who traveled around the region dressed as a construction worker and clown, drawing construction and demolition sites in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Northern Kentucky.  He left behind over 2300 drawings after his death in 2004, and these drawings, along with many of his tool-boxes, costumes and other items, are archived at Thunder-Sky, Inc., a gallery opened in his name in 2009 in Cincinnati.  Mr. Tsuchiya has completed many private and public sculpture commissions, including statues of Cincinnati Reds players at Great American Ball Park, completed in 2004.  In 2009, he was commissioned to create the "Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award,” the trophy that is annually given to the National Football League's best offensive line.  Other works have been exhibited at Cincinnati's Fountain Square, New York City's Grand Central Terminal, and Washington D.C.'s National Mall.  On September 15, 2016, 4 to 7 pm, “The Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower” will be unveiled at the old Hellmann Lumber Mill at the corner of Fisk and MLK (formerly 12th street) in Covington, the new office complex for the Center for Great Neighborhoods.  During the unveiling ceremony featuring Tom Tsuchiya with give a short talk about the creation of the sculpture, as well as what Mr. Thunder-Sky meant to his creative process.  As well, inside the Center of Great Neighborhood’s new offices, works by local artists commemorating Mr. Thunder-Sky’s legacy will be presented, as well as a video documenting an educational program that took place at the Carnegie this summer in which Mr. Thunder-Sky’s drawings were used as inspiration for short plays.  “Demolition Man: Selected works from the Raymond Thunder-Sky Archives,” the first retrospective of Mr. Thunder-Sky’s works since his passing in 2004, opens April 28, 2017 at the Carnegie.  All of Mr. Thunder-Sky’s drawings can be viewed at    

Bill met Raymond back in 1999.  He introduced me to Raymond's drawings before I got to meet the man himself, and I was kind of blown away by the simplicity of his art's philosophy and execution. Bill and I were members of an artists collective in Cincinnati and so we were able to curate/sponsor Raymond's first show of drawings.  From that a lot of things unfurled, including a relationship with the great Antonio Adams, lots and lots of shows, eventually founding a non-profit called Visionaries + Voices and opening a studio in Essex Studios in Walnut Hill which was modeled on the artists collective we were in.  And then V+V transforming into an organization/studio solely about artists with disabilities, and then Raymond passing away in 2004, and Bill and I helping V+V to grow into 2 facilities/programs with a staff and clientele.  And then figuring out we needed to keep Raymond somehow in the mix, in 2009, we left V+V and started Thunder-Sky, Inc. in order to reclaim that sense of art without labels, harkening back to that moment when Bill first showed me those Raymond drawings in 1999, using that nostalgia and stubbornness to keep ideas and aesthetics in the mix without the  diagnostic/programmatic/charity overlay.  

For seven years we've kept it going at Thunder-Sky, Inc.:  exhibits and stunts and events that feature artists of all socioeconomic, cultural, educational, etc. backgrounds showing what they can do under the regal banner of a Native American construction-worker dressed up like a clown with a tool-box of markers, getting a kick out of how people build things only to tear it all down and rebuild.  Rinse and repeat.

And now a great sculptor named Tom Tsuchiya has generously created a wonderful monument to Raymond.  When we pour the concrete tomorrow (ironically on the anniversary of 9/11, which is completely unintended and yet kind of brilliant without being brilliant), I'll be thinking of Raymond Thunder-Sky not as a memory but as a force of nature, a weird silent asteroid who came through this area and paved the way forward for a lot of human beings, including yours truly.

To Raymond.

Below are photos with captions of some of the history of Raymond's life, and the history of the sculpture.  

1999:  Raymond with Paul Rowland and Antonio Adams outside the Base Gallery in Over the Rhine, where this whole shebang started.

Raymond drawing, with a mention of Covington, Kentucky.

Antonio with a print of a drawing of Raymond by David Mack, circa 2012.

Drawing of the concrete platform and the Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower by Sculptor Tom Tsuchiya.

Tom with a replica of the Spirit Tower.

Plague for the Raymond Thunder-Sky Spirit Tower.  David Wecker was one of the first journalists to write about Raymond.

Tom Tsuchiya's plan-out for the sculpture.

Raymond in Chicago, by the then-named Sears Tower...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

As I Want You to Be

Last Saturday we went to see a Nirvana cover band at Bogart's in Cincinnati, a sort of rundown, grungy, funky venue that houses a lot of memories for me (we saw Foo Fighters there right when their first album came out, Frank Black sans Pixies, Flaming Lips, etc.).  It was a beautiful thing to hear those early nineties songs again, in the land of the living, played the way they should be played, banged out and elemental, no talk.  The cover band's name is Orchid in the Ivy, and I know nothing about them except that they can play Nirvana songs, but that's okay.  They did it exactly the way they should have:  shut-mouthed and reverent in the church of skillful and demented punk-pop.

Kurt Cobain's main talent, above all else, was his obsessive welding together of vulnerable melodies with pure chainsaw fury.  His down and dirty hurt was always glazed with an outsider-art attention to detail, whimsy and torture welling up into a burst of guitar chords that sound kind of familiar at first but right when you get into it you also get assaulted.  The assault was Kurt's art escaping its prison, letting you have it.  He was pissed at you for enjoying his little fucking ditties, and yet those ditties, and your response, was all he cared about.

And so all week I've lived in the shadow of that cover-band cathedral, listening to all the songs again, mesmerized by all he was able to pack in his short time on earth.  One song kind of became my mantra as I drove around in my Kia Soul:  "Come as You Are."  The second single off Nevermind, that song has incredible chops, a powerful bass hook that grinds you into its atmosphere, and lyrics that don't give away anything but also tell you everything you need to know:

"No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun.
No I don't have a gun."

What the hell is more vulnerable and succinct than that?

That surrender somehow confiscates an era's cynicism.  It lets us know what the world is about more than a whole slew of newspaper articles or tweets or speeches.  It's not poetry as much as secret code. Needless to say I got into that song in 1992, when I was 27 and in graduate school.  I was in a fiction-writing class, and I played the hell out of "Come as You Are" while drafting the short story I scanned in and uploaded below.  I wrote it in three weeks and decided not to submit it to workshop because I loved it so much and didn't want people to pick it apart.  It turns out to be the first piece I was able to get published in a national magazine.

Christopher Street was the bastion of gay lit back in the 70s and 80s, so I got in on the tail-end of its glory and tenure, but am still kind of proud that they chose to publish "Mars," which I just reread, all caught up in my Nirvana k-hole.  It's not a bad piece of work.  I recognize all kinds of tricks and tics that make what I write what I write forming within it:  simple declarative no-nonsense sentences and paragraphs, a cryptic poetry circulating inside scenes revealed with as little poetry as possible.  Not a lot of laughs in this one, but I learned as I went how to make things at least a little more comic.  "Mars" is about a foster-kid named Paul who eventually gets brutally killed, after a life spent trying not to be what everyone wants him to be.  It has a sort of shadow-narrative, as well (I was all into The Great Gatsby at the time and wanted to white-trash-gay that Fitzgerald shit up), about a gay not-foster-kid who sees in Paul a specter of meaning and transcendence nobody else can in his world.

But that song, right?  "Come as You Are," all momentous and full of doom and tenderness.  I wanted that to be in the story too.  I followed its rhythm and snark as I wrote, and when I saw the watery-rusty-chandelier music video, with Kurt with his dyed-amber hair and nasty green sweater and pale-angel countenance, singing into the camera like the camera was his parole officer, well then I understood where I stood in the world of literature and art and just the world:  I was trying to not so much elevate trash and tragedy as to grasp it through the glamorous haze of punk's magic mirror, a reflection giving off such a shitty glow you start to understand how sometimes you can't turn the lights on and you can't turn the lights off.  You can only wait for things to settle back down so you can go to work.

It's a sad story, "Mars."  I was afraid to go back and read it again because I thought I might be embarrassed by its sophomoric attempts at gay grunge, but nope:  it's pretty good.  It has all kinds of chasms and humorless hurts and yet there's also a strange, sweet, unspoken love that slithers through it, kind of the way Kurt's voice growls and whimpers through "Come as You Are."

No it doesn't have a gun.