Sunday, April 28, 2013

A Pocketful of Pennies

George Jones died this week.  I got really, stupidly, tearfully emotional, just like I did when Tammy Wynette died 15 years earlier (April 6, 1998 to be exact).  Both George and Tammy seem to occupy space in my head that is sacred.  They are long lost relatives, ghosts from a Tennessee picnic I went to when I was a kid and I saw them laughing and eating and then singing in the middle of a campground, all glittery and rhinestoned and perfect, right next to a campfire and a swing set, belting out "Golden Ring."  They were figures from hillbilly poems I've always wanted to write, bigger than life, and yet completely accessible, and the stories about them -- the apotheosis being the one where Tammy locked George's car-keys up because he was so ripped she was afraid he would get into a wreck on his way to the liquor-store, but George being the genius he was got the keys to the riding lawnmower and tried to drive that thing there only to get picked up by the cops -- were legendary but also kind of like stories you hear about neighbors or family friends. 

I met George once.  No shit.  At the Bonanza Steakhouse in Elizabethon, Tennessee, back in 1985.  I think it was summer, and his tour bus pulled into the sidelot, and all of us inside got totally excited as soon as we saw him.  He was in Bermuda shorts and sandals and a short sleeved shirt and sunglasses.  Some of his band members came in to the restaurant with him.  I was the dishwasher that afternoon, and I had just got the dishroom cleaned up after the lunch rush, and it was only me, the manager, and the cashier there.  Not another soul in the place.  George came through the line and ordered a T-bone, and went out into the dining room after paying.  He was a true gentleman especially to the cashier, an older lady whose husband had just passed away and whose son had Down syndrome.  She always wore a lot of make-up and had her hair done weekly so it was always perfectly shaped and colored.  She had a great sense of humor about her, and she was kind of loud without being abrasive.  She went out, I remember, and sat a table down from George and his bandmates and she just had the best time.  So did he.  She was flirty by nature, and George was too.  I didn't have the nerve to go up to him like that cashier did.  Hell I forget her name!  I was 20 years old.  I'd just quit art school up in Indiana the summer before, moved down here with my mom and sister so my mom could be near her mom and sister after she found out my dad was having an affair.  I felt obligated to both of them.  Anyway, I knew who George was, but wasn't a big fan back then.  But I did get up the nerve to get his autograph before he left.  He had the smoothest and shiniest hair, shellacked and country-western perfect even with his leisurely riding-on-the-tour-bus clothes.  And he laughed while he signed, I remember.  He said something like, "I don't know what you're going to do with this, but here." 

I lost the autograph somewhere along the way.  But I remember the cashier kissed him on the cheek and he laughed harder.  Then he and his entourage left.  The cashier and I bussed their table, and then I went back and washed George Jones' plates and silverware.

I think that week I went to K-mart and bought his greatest hits album, and on it was a song called "Treasure of Love," which is probably one of the greatest country songs I've ever heard.  It's humble and sort of epic in the way it treats all the bad shit that happens to you and still maintains some room for confidence and optimism.  I've listened to that song over and over this weekend.  The words just go right through me and I follow them to a place where there's a sort of sadness merged with relief, a gratitude for just being able to love somebody and to sing about it without a lot of fuss. 

Here's the lyrics George wrote and then sang, the words I haven't been to escape since I first heard almost 30 years ago now:

I've got a pocket full of pennies
But a heart full of gold
Though my troubles are many
I have treasures untold

And the shack that I live in
Is a palace to me
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me

In this world there are riches
That money can't buy
Like the treasure of true love
A love that won't die

So why should I worry
What tomorrow will bring
For the treasure of love, the treasure of love
Makes me a king

Though my clothes are all tattered
And I've seen better days
Know it really don't matter
For I'm rich another way

Yes, my pockets are empty
But still wealthy I'll be
With the treasure of love, the treasure of love
You gave to me
(Damn right George.)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Crawl of the Wild

Top of the Lake is a Jane-Campion back-woods fever-dream that pulls together the hypnosis and dread of Deliverance with the static, beautiful creep of David Lynch at his best (not just one of his movies, but all of them in different modes and variations).  Campion directed The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, among other movies, but Top of the Lake is a sprawling, crazy, pretentious and gorgeous mini-series (that first appeared on Sundance Channel, and is available On Demand and on Netflix now) that feels like a huge novel, or better yet an encyclopedia of sexual politics, abuse, power, and powerlessness. 
Every scene in this thing is a composite of two forces (usually innocence versus meanness, in the guise of female and male) smelling one another out until some horrible repercussions are conjured and dramatized.  All of these scenes take place in a setting that is glamorously rural, menacingly prehistoric:  a haunted New Zealand so beautiful you could swear it's CGI, but then when you look closer you can almost feel it's not.  Elizabeth Moss plays Robin, a police detective with enough skeletons in her closet to warrant a museum.  Her face has a glum, half-crazy bluntness to it that seems to mimic the very atmosphere, and Moss' New-Zealand accent is impeccable, but even better than vocal verisimilitude is the way her acting buttresses the strangeness Campion creates.  Robin is pulled into an investigation of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, whose father turns out to be a tyrant whose horrors are commonplace and petty, the signature of a tortured soul.  Peter Mullan plays the son of a bitch with a menace and a mundanity that allows you to glimpse the cowardly core of his soul and somehow feel completely connected to it.  He is the king of a world made up of gigantic whispering trees and ice-cold lakes the color of concussions, but he isn't comfortable with his power.  He seems terrified of it.  Against that dynamic, Campion gives us a camp of sadly lost ladies sleeping in box-cars next to mountains, shepherded by Holly Hunter's granny-haired ex-hippie.  The women are all examples of different kinds of abuse and neglect (both self-imposed and not), and they all wander around the camp like Diane Arbus subjects in search of whatever they think will get them through life. 
All of these elements combine into a sort of Henry-Darger/Nancy-Drew phantasmagoria that somehow, by the end of 9 hours of programming, becomes pure unadulterated art.
I just can't forget some of the scenes Campion has filmed, the moments that aren't really plot-related but somehow plot-inspired, or just plain inspired:  the white-trash drug-dealing sons of Matt flinging plastic chairs into a majestic waterfall (all framed in a window Matt is staring out of), the yellow weeds blowing outside the box-car encampment like frayed old hair, a mute-by-choice teen-aged boy with the words "no" written on one hand, "yes" on the other pulling a kayak out of the woods and into a bitter-colored lake.  It all sounds precious and a little too much, and it is, but it also feels uniquely that way, as if meant to be, not fashioned to impress.  I think Campion often seemed contained and a little mannered in her other movies.  In this one, she has let loose the hounds of hell, and they bark and bite in a sedatedly horrifying way.  Campion's vision really benefits from that slow pace, the stare she has going.  You get caught up not in the makeshift and kind of wobbly plot, but in the scenes.  The scenes, in fact, kind of erase the plot as they advance it.  By the end, mainly all you feel is the crawl of the wild, and a sort of awe at how terrible and sweet and nasty and gigantic the world actually is when you look at it long enough.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Utterly Meaningless

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."   Ecclesiastes 1:2

I have been making these collages on 4 X 6" notecards, using crayons, magic markers, glue-sticks, masking tape, magazines and junk-mail.  I've almost made 50 of them now.  As I do them I try to push everything out of my head, pursuing meaninglessness.  The main reason, I think, I need and want to do something so silly and worthless is because making images and ideas that are meaningless is sort of like envisioning actuality.  A realness sets in as I go through the process of it all, culling the most mundane images from junk-mail and National Enquirer and Time Magazine, cutting them out (usually quite sloppily, although Bill helps out, and his cutting is much more careful), applying it all on notecards of official size, scanning in each card, and then slipping the finished product into little plastic photo-albums for preservation. 
It's all so stupid that it is beautiful, and I don't need anyone else to see what I'm doing, even though I know I'll end up posting it just for kicks, and also storage.  I feel like I am connected to a strain and cult of artists who don't give a fuck.  I know that sounds preciously punk, like I'm proud of such a thing, but all I'm getting at is the comfort of knowing nothing really matters.  Anyone can see.  Nothing really matters.  To me. 
And in that refrain comes a sort of peace you can only get at by understanding, as the Bible says,  "Everything is meaningless!"
A lot of the time art-making and fiction-writing seem to be constructed around the rational enterprises of meaning-making, of creating objects and worlds that will be understood and consumed and spoken about as if they have broken through meaninglessness in order to give us a new way of celebrating what we already know.  I guess in everything I do creatively I'm trying to do the exact opposite.  I cling to the notion that nobody knows anything, and that the pursuit of knowledge makes sense with microscopes and telescopes, but cutting out pictures of Marie Osmond and deep-dish pizzas is a whole other quest.  It's a quest for absurdity without a tongue in your cheek.  It's a search for something beautiful that isn't. 
I write short stories about people who have often given up.  Hopelessness pervades most of my creative decisions, not because I'm hopeless, but because hopelessness is a part of being alive and aware of your situation, and in that hopelessness, often, is where the people I write about find a sort of recognition and sanctuary from a world that is always trying to push hope and decency down their throats without giving them the economic and social tools they need to make "hope" matter.  I write about low-rent nobodies and I try to stylize their nobodiness not so that it is palatable, but so that the writing and the style replace the need for relatability.  Flannery O'Connor one said,  “It is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.”
That process is the process of pulling meaning away from itself, and allowing people who think they are not freaks a moment of pure beautiful nothingness, a taste of what it is to have meaninglessness intervene and win.  The "depth" Flannery is talking about comes from that comeuppance, if that's what it is.  Who really knows?  But the collages and stories I make have that mean sense of upheaval, the bad manners and the awkward yelling of a drunk crawling into a room full of upstanding citizens about to pledge allegiance to something.  And the drunk says, "Ecclesiastes Volume 1, Verse 2 motherfuckers!"
I'm not iconoclastic.  Or even unruly.  I just have a bull-shit detector, and it  produces documents such as this:

And paragraphs such as this (from one of my short stories called "God Knows Where"):
 After we leave Urgent Care, me and Misty and Shawn go to Walgreens to get Shawn’s antibiotic, which costs 124 bucks.  I don’t mind, I keep saying, and Misty keeps saying she will pay me back.  I also get Shawn some coloring stuff.  We drive back to Misty’s place, where we find her boyfriend in the shadows, watching Survivor.  The place smells like chili and old water.  I carry Shawn, and Misty flicks on the light.  Chuck is the boyfriend’s name, and he opens his eyes wide.  He has the top of his Arby’s uniform on, and below that just underwear and tube-socks.  
At the end of day I guess I'm haunted by the fact that everything is shapeless but still causes shapes.   Everyone is stupid but hey we did get a man on the moon.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Language Is a Virus

Casino Living

Last night we went to the new Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cincinnati.  It's right next door to the county jail, a blank slate of conspicuous consumption, gold-plated and sort of monolithic.  As we walked toward the edifice, firetrucks were pulling up to the main entrance.  Someone had collapsed just outside from the front doors.  What a beautiful introduction.  The anonymity of emergency workers attending to an emergency.
And once inside it smelled like a brand-new house, plastic and clean and slightly chemical.  I wanted to write a sonnet or something about the feeling:  the newness of it all, and how vice has a sheen to it when it is first born that can only last maybe 6 months, and then everything just starts smelling like old mop-water and burnt nerves.  Right now though there is a cheer in the air, and all the lights in all the signs are shining bright.  People are comfortably seated before gambling machines, like blank-eyed fighter-pilots in cockpits, and it's heaven.  No one pays attention to anyone here.  They are focused.  It's a lovely sensation, everyone all super-obsessed with what they know they have to do.  In this case, it's winning.  But mostly they'll just lose.  Which is okay too because there's a big buffet called Spread and Bobby Flay has a new burger restaurant.  And over there is a Starbuck's.  And Jimmy Buffet's got his whole cantina-thing going on. 
I like the desperation inherent in this thing, that fever that seems to percolate through the ductwork and into the velvety atmosphere.  People are alert to the pulsations of their own sad little pleasures.  But it's not actually "sad" until after.  Everything glitters right now.  It feels like you aren't anywhere when you're inside here, which is the suspended animation people need to escape what they need.  This is all want and beautiful abandon.  You can say it's recreational of course, and it is I guess, but gambling is keen on the stress of its own practice.  The anxiety of losing/winning/losing/winning is the kick, the reason for the season.  Without that danger, it's just a big plush bar.  Or a zoo for people-watchers to stroll through.  That's me.  I don't gamble, but I sure do appreciate the glow of it in people's faces, and that sensation of knowing it's all sin, and sin is just like everything else.  That's sort of comforting. 
I hope the guy who collapsed out front last night is okay. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Bill, Antonio and I had lunch at Dusmesh today, this little Indian restaurant near Cincinnati State in Clifton.  The buffet is amazing.  I wanted to touch base with both of them about the idea of supporting creative, hard-working, unconventional people (like Raymond) to get jobs, using Thunder-Sky, Inc. as the platform.  So I asked Antonio what he thought, and one of the first things he said:  "Don't quit your day job." 
He also said, "You can be an artist but you can't sacrifice yourself."  I asked him what he meant by "sacrifice," and he said, "You have to make yourself a living.  You have to have a roof over your head."
We talked about employment for people with disabilities and how Raymond was a prime example, and how Antonio is a living example.  Antonio went through his mental Rolodex and out came all the jobs he's had since high school:  a lumberyard, a Blockbuster video, Goodwill, and since 2002 where he is working now, Frisch's Big Boy Restaurant.  He said he has been there at Frisch's so long that he now trains in bussers, showing them how to do tables right, how to unload tubs, and where the trash goes.
Bill and I also talked about how Raymond used to go to Goodwill over in Woodlawn, and Antonio said that he and Raymond sometimes used to work side by side there, before Antonio got his job at Blockbuster.  What a beautiful image that is:  two great artists and people working very hard during the day, and individually making works of art whenever they could.  Evenings, weekends, afternoons after work.  If made me think about how working a job sometimes helps people produce better art because it gets rid of the BS and the procrastination inherent in being a fulltime anything.  You only have a certain precious amount of time to create, because you're either going to collapse from exhaustion or you have to go in early to cover somebody's shift.  That creative time to make something gets prioritized and you truly know what you are making has to exist, not because someone is paying you for it but because you have sliced out this moment of your life to do it and it has to get done.  The pressure applied is your own, and that beautiful pressure can be seen in Raymond and Antonio's art:  there's no excess to their drawings, paintings and sculptures.  They seem preordained somehow, because I bet you they were thought about while doing the work they had have to do to get a bonafide paycheck. 
Joseph Cornell, one of the best known self-taught artists, had day jobs.  A whole lot of them.  He worked throughout his life as a wholesale fabric salesman, a door-to-door appliance salesman, a worker in a plant nursery, and a defense plant janitor. He also, when not working for a living, helped take care of his brother who had cerebral palsy.  Somewhere in there he made his shadow-boxes and dossiers and photographs and movies.  He was reclusive, creative, a little strange, and yet he lived his life like most of us do, earning a paycheck, taking care of his family, and making art.  Probably in that order.  And yet he was able to produce a body of work that boggles the brain.  The point isn't that all of us are versions of Joseph Cornell.  Most of us aren't that talented and inscrutable.  The actual point is that most artists have to do what Cornell did, piecing together an existence in order to make what they need and want to make.
I guess that's why I think pulling together an employment agency/organization for people with disabilities using Thunder-Sky, Inc. as the foundation makes sense.  I'm sure most people will find it odd, but what I love most about Raymond, and Antonio, is their unpretentious, completely organic merging of art and life, so that the two interchange seamlessly.  In Raymond's case, he used his desire to make art and to make a living as two forces that combined to create his iconic persona.  In Antonio's case, when he is at work bussing tables, he is thinking of all the drawings he is going to do when he gets home, and when he has time time to do the drawings he remembers the toil and frustration and joy of working and that informs what he does.
Don't quite your day job is not a presciption.  It's a formula for success.  And creative artistic people who happen to be labeled with some kind of disability often don't need that much help with making art as much as they need assistance in making a living.
April 26, 2013, 6 to 10 pm, we're doing the opening reception for Antonio's next gig at Thunder-Sky, "She Blinded Me with Science."  This one is a collaboration with Pam Kravetz and Matthew Waldeck Sr.  It's going to be a blast. 
In the basement we're going to have a makeshift "whiteboard" for people to write down what they think Thunder-Sky, Inc., as a non-profit organization, might look/feel like in the future.  One of my main contributions is going to be that Antonio quote:  Don't quit your day job.  And under that I'm going to write:  "Thunder-Sky Industries."  That's the name I'm floating for this little endeavor.
Stay tuned.     

Saturday, April 6, 2013



It Is What It Is

I heard about Kacey Musgraves on NPR.   I don't know if that's ironic or not because I think she has an appeal that expands instead of contracts.  She may have been introduced to the world as a country-pop singer, a sort of Taylor Swift from the wrong side of the tracks, but her music has a folk-synth-pop buzz and sparkle to it, spiced with steel-guitars and banjos, and her lyrics are both old-school/white-trash country and new-school hyper-smart.  The mix is intoxicating on songs like "Merry Go Round" and "Blowin' Smoke," making her album Same Trailer, Different Park feel like a high-class book of short stories you wish Bobbie Ann Mason could still write.  Mason's penultimate short story "Shiloh" seems to haunt these songs, that lyrical, working-class exhaustion, that sense that you are living a life everybody else is living and yet there's still no comfort in those numbers, except the shared almost mystical misery of smoke-breaks and backyard lightning  storms. 

Kacey Musgraves has it.  She's young, but the music and the words she writes feel eternal, and her voice has an ache to it that doesn't announce itself with hillbilly pride, but with a sort of lilting and sad sense of loss even before she has gotten started.  And there's humor too, but the bitten-into kind, the sort of laughs that come after working a double-shift and knowing you'll still be bouncing a couple of checks.  The beauty in her work comes from that kind of kitchen-table truth:  she looks despair and unemployment and church-lady hypocrisies right in the eye, while singing into a midnight microphone.  Same Trailer, Different Park's final song, "It Is What It Is," is basically one of the most gut-wrenchingly melancholy, and soul-liftingly honest tunes I've heard in a long, long time.  It fuses the pessimistic depth and breath of Simon and Garfunkel's "My Little Town" with the longing and desire of Joni Mitchell's "Hissing of Summer Lawns."  

Kacey Musgraves is not the white-trash Taylor Swift, though -- she's the 21st Century Patsy Cline.