Friday, December 24, 2010


The motel is a fixture of the American imagination.  The term entered popular lexicon in the first half of the Twentieth century, following “Auto Camp,” a quaint tag evoking a quieter time before the post-Eisenhower roar of highways and blend of diesel fuel and baloney sandwiches would become for millions of Americans their Proustian cake back to simpler times.  The parents in Robert McCloskey’s 1943 children’s book Homer Price were the proprietors of a “Tourist Camp,” a modest small-town enclave consisting of a gas station, a diner, and wooden buildings with bedrooms.  Mom cooked and tended to the rooms, Dad pumped gas and mended things.  Their son Homer lived an idyllic 10-year-old’s life, often interacting with the visiting tourists who were eager for a home-cooked meal and cup of coffee after a long day of driving.

The old-fashioned tourist camps of Homer’s world didn’t last; by mid-century, the hotel-and-motel industry was accelerating rapidly.  After the $25 billion Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 paved forty thousand-plus miles of highways across the country, increasing numbers of Americans loaded up their station wagons, strapped on car-top carriers and headed out, visiting far-flung family or National Parks, grinning wearily behind guide maps, enjoying wider (and more numerous) lanes, and tuning in AM radio broadcasts of baseball games and car-dealer ads.  The impulse to find a motel at the end of a lengthy day hasn’t changed much, but the motel itself has undergone radical transformations over the decades. Mom-and-pop motels still cling to the branches of the interstate system, but the majority of motels are now corporate-owned, offering few differences in service or styles from state to state. According to Census Bureau data published in September of 2004, there were 46,163 hotels and motels (excluding casinos) in the United States; though the recession has certainly slowed growth, there are likely more now.


You don’t plan to visit an abandoned motel.  You come upon it accidentally.  You notice how it’s been reduced to its elements.  Any entrepreneur’s flair, individualistic owner’s touches, or corporate brand bludgeoning have vanished after years of pitiless sunlight.  The buildings decay back to their skeletal origins, man-made structures meant to house the weary.  Their blueprints are showing.  It’s shabbily sad.  This devolution is a kind of dismayed silhouette of a great American promise: Head for the highways and the horizon’s marvels; we’ll take care of feeding you, recreating you, putting you to sleep.  The abandoned motel is tragic Americana.  Embalmed in time, its trumpeted features obsolete, whizzed past by ever sleeker, GPS-emboldened cars in pursuit of smoke-free rooms and free Wi-Fi.

“Un-remembering is the enemy of good places and of public history,” says Robert R. Archibald.  At an abandoned motel, un-remembering dwells at the intersection of facts and ghosts.  I took the following photographs in June and August of 2010 at two abandoned motels in western Pennsylvania.  In both cases I caught a glimpse of the motel as I was driving down the interstate.  (Jean Baudrillard, in America: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia.  Everything is to be discovered, everything is to be obliterated.”)  Locating the motel among generic service roads, chain restaurants, gas stations, and other hotels was tricky.  I trusted a call of the discarded to lead me there.  In both cases, the shabby motels looked a bit embarrassed to be standing at all next to new, or in some cases refurbished, establishments that — given the harsh reprove of daylight and my overly-romanticized imagination — seemed to want to glance in other directions.

Archibald, again: "Places are produced in that wonderful interaction of people, place, narrative, and time.  When the people desert these places, narratives are forgotten, ties break, and the place is unmade."

A motel parking lot is designed to invite and efficiently draw weary vehicles off of the highway and to deposit them within brightly-painted parking spaces.  We don’t expect the natural world to be there, a field rising to its own surface. The lovemaking, the fights, the children’s cries, the overindulgences; the spirits of ardent, ugly, exquisite lives blooming as something verdant and permanent.  Wild now in a different way. 

Manicured plantings, flowering shrubs, and ground cover are the hallmarks of a nice motel.  But when shrubs grow unchecked they threaten the organizing principles, redefining parameters by erasing them. The cool, regulated commerce of the 7-Up and Pepsi machines is crowded now by a countrified revolt.  What’s become of our pleasant view, our casual meeting spot?  We’re in an unexpected greenhouse. 

If you look long enough, the poured concrete and the nature-echoed curves of the pool drift, and only the metal ladder remains as an unnatural thing, a rusting toe-hold.  I look long enough and imagine the pool softening a bit at its edges, the fading blue paint turning cerulean, the depths blurring into a swimming hole lucked upon by a wandering kid in the woods.  What’s man-made and forgotten begins to give and loosen in the sun, the unnatural taking on organic rhythms.  In the quiet of a very hot afternoon I listened to the cicadas and frogs and birds doming their loud buzz around me.   I felt a pull back.  I was too wary of having walked beyond the NO TRESPASSING sign.

A resting area, a shady patio off of the room, has been obliterated by hoods, a tossed rock, or nature.  The two lounge chairs are long-gone, stolen or blown away, probably lying somewhere near the interstate. The cut branches?  Early Twenty-first century tumbleweeds.  

“Things fade into the distance faster and faster in the rear-view mirror of memory,” Jean Baudrillard, America.

Doors provide the illusion of privacy.  Removed, their absence reminds us of how thin they really are.  An empty bedside table, a tottering lamp, ugly things caught with their clothes off.  What’s missing: an eye-hole, a chain-lock, room freshener; things we hide behind.  When the elements strip away a motel’s comfort and protection, what’s left but brutality and ugliness, a regression back to the true nature of the place: a temporary stay against chaos and disorder.

“At times, the simpler the image, the vaster the dream,” Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics Of Space

You and your tired, hungry family can relax knowing that a full-service, high-quality restaurant awaits you at your motel.  A top-rated chef will prepare fresh, delicious meals to help you wind down your fun-filled days of touring and exploring.  And when the kids are asleep, dad and mom can slip down to the cocktail lounge and enjoy a drink or two, unwinding with new friends and pleasant strangers.  Then it’s back to your comfortable room for a night of blissful slumber, dreaming of tomorrow’s drives to new places, and new  possibilities.  Have a good night on us.  We hope you return. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"Life should be an aim unto itself; a purpose unto itself."

I've just finished reading Sara Bakewell's absorbing How To Live: Or A Life Of Montaigne In One Question And Twenty Attempts At An Answer.  Montaigne was a fascinating man in his commonness.  His life wasn't common — the majority of us are not born into nobility, live on a prosperous wine-growing estate, or became mayor of a town, let alone enjoy sufficient leisure time to devote to writing — but as anyone who's a fan of Montaigne's Essays knows, the ordinariness of living, not one's special trappings, is his great and endless subject.  Montaigne's "I," though a unique one, is universal; at its best, his hundreds of pages of autobiographical essaying over decades reduce (or elevate) that "I" to a silhouette of the human condition, where Montaigne's specific biographical details and 16th century historical and regional contexts evaporate into ether that drifts over time.  What's left is the human across ages.

This is not new, of course, but Bakewell's biography does a great job of freshly presenting Montaigne's achievements both during his life and after his death, discussing not only the content of his essays but the heated and humane reactions to them by successive generations, and how those generations found warmth in or recoiled from Montaigne's musings.  How To Live explores the human's tendency to recognize himself/herself in what's gazed upon, whether it's a mirror, a book, a political process, or an act of war.  Bakewell describes the manner which the Romantics, the Protestants, the Victorians, the English, the Twentieth Century postmodernists, among many others, all found their own versions of Montaigne — and how they needed to — and how those versions were created and affected by the politics of translation, of abridgement, of religion, and of pride and self-indulgence.  And as Bakewell points out again and again, this would have delighted Montaigne, "the accidental philosopher," wryly aware as he was of the flux of life, the self-interested need for the corroboration of self, and of the limitless lives of language in the minds and hearts of readers.


I came to Montaigne late, and hesitantly.  He'd slipped through the cracks in my undergraduate education (so did Yeats!), and he was of little interest to me beyond a dutiful head-nod to the The Cannon until I moved from writing poems to writing essays, about a dozen or so years ago.  Suddenly, he was everywhere: in my reading, in the libraries of my favorite essayists, in my shamed, late-to-the-party conscience.  So I moved through the Essays slowly, first with Phillip Lopate's help, then on my own, eyes glazing at the obscure historical references; I taught the essays for a semester, and slowly grew to appreciate them beyond a kind of essayist's obligation.  One day it struck me that appreciating and fully absorbing Montaigne was going to take the bulk of my lifetime.  Then he made sense.  "Anyone who turns his prime attention onto himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice."  It was going to take a while.  A man's life.


Bakewell writes:
Modern readers who approach Montaigne asking what he can do for them are asking the same question he himself asked of Seneca, Sextus, and Lucretius—and the same question they asked of their predecessors.  This is what Virginia Woolf's chain of minds really means: not a scholarly tradition, but a series of self-interested individuals puzzling over their own lives, yet doing it cooperatively.  All share a quality that can simply be thought of as "humanity": the experience of being a thinking, feeling being who must get on with an ordinary human life—though Montaigne willingly extended the union of minds to embrace other species too.
     That is why, for Montaigne, even the most ordinary existence tells us all we need to know:

     I set forth a humble and inglourious life; that does not matter.  You can tie up all moral philosophy with a common and private life just as well as with a life of richer stuff.

Indeed, that is just what a common and private life is: a life of the richest stuff imaginable.

Bakewell's book is less a biography of Montaigne than it is a biography of mind, a chronicle of thinking.  Montaigne's often described as the first "modern person"; he was also the first blogger, in that he edited and rewrote obsessively, never bound by false closure, always open to doubt and uncertainties, to the fluid nature of life and of self-expression.  (Many have made this point about Montaigne; especially good is Andrew Sullivan's take.)  Bakewell also tackles the tendentious, somewhat ludicrous history of  book publishing, and the violence of Catholic/Protestant warring, the mania of the French Civil Wars, and the heated, intimate nature of mentors and mentees.  Above all, How To Live is a well-written account of how honest, measured, disciplined, skeptical engagement of the self is the great leveler.  Smart, impressively researched, calming, and humane, How To Live is an important book.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Ordinary Matters With Luc Sante

Luc Sante has been essaying the fringes and half-shadows of American culture for many years.  His first book Low Life (1991) was a dense, grimy, wholly alive account of Manhattan in the 18th and 19th centuries.  (Sante's research and the book's verisimilitude attracted Martin Scorsese, who hired Sante as an advisor on Gangs Of New York.)  In his many books and edited collections since, including Evidence (1992), Walker Evans (1999), Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 (2007), and Folk Photography (2009), Sante explores the commonplace, the underside, the accidental and the artful in American life.  He engages photography, literature, art, and music with a scholar's skill and an everyman's perspective, never forgetting that the minor, unself-conscious Americana document has the power to move us as profoundly as conventional art-making.  As Sante himself says on his image blog Pinakothek, "Generally I favor humble over great, marginal over central, old over new—but not always, because like a four-sided porch I'm open to all winds."

Sante was born in Belgium in 1954 and moved with his family to New Jersey in the early 1960s.  In 1998 he published The Factory of Facts, an autobiographical account of his upbringing and emigration.  Sante currently teaches at Bard College.  His essay "My Lost City" is one of my favorite pieces about New York City.  I recently e-interviewed him about writing, photography, and nostalgia.


I'd like to start with the personal nature of your writing. Are you a daily writer?

No, I'm not.

Why did you decide to write an autobiography?

I don't think of The Factory of Facts as an autobiography. It only goes up to about age 7 or so, for one thing, but it's not primarily about me at all. It's about my family and my city and southern Belgium in general, which few Americans have visited or know anything about. I wrote it because I wanted to make an accounting of where I came from, and it's relentlessly specific, but my alibi was that it was about the experience of immigration and displacement, an experience more widely shared today than in my actual childhood.

What do you mean by "alibi"? Defending the specificity of the book?

I'll leave "alibi" alone, if you don't mind.

What role does "Resume" play, those very cool alternate "I was born” mini-memoirs at the front of The Factory of Facts? At what point in the book's writing did you compose them? And why?

I'd been struggling to start the book for a couple of years when one day I woke up from a nap and wrote the "Resume" chapter in a single breath. It made the rest of the book possible. "Resume" helped me by putting matters into perspective, confronting my fears—my early years were drenched in fear, and all those alternate scenarios represented very specific fears (there were a few that were even more scabrous that I omitted from the book because my parents were still alive and I didn't want to cause them pain), and it set up a verbal rhythm. Maybe that last one is actually the most important.

You essay the past often. I'm interested in the role that nostalgia plays in your writing, both in your autobiographical work and your less personal work. You successfully avoid nostalgia and sentimentality in Low Life, and elsewhere. Do you guard against being led or deterred by nostalgia/sentiment when writing about the past, especially about customs and modes of living that are gone for good?

Nostalgia plays no part when I'm writing about the time before my birth. I'm deeply interested in the past and compelled to try and recreate what it was like to live in a certain long-gone time—something I've now done in a number of works—but I can't be nostalgic about something I didn't physically experience, can't imagine how one could be.

Maybe I meant feeling sentimental for a long-past age, for what it represented, and now represents.

When I've written about my own youth, that's a different matter. I do have to find a way to contend with nostalgia when addressing the 1970s, but I think I have pretty effective built-in guards against sentimentality.

Is that a native guard, something in your temperament/personality, or something that you've fashioned by necessity?

Yeah, I think my anti-sentimentality guards were fashioned by necessity long ago—I lived in a household where the chief theme was regret (my parents regretting Europe, primarily) and was both prey to it and determined to fight it.

About what in the 1970s are you/could you be sentimental? The way the city's culture was, the way you were?

Whenever I think about the 1970s I feel a gigantic weight of loss, about a great many things but especially about living a scavenger existence outside the market economy (but not, like, in the woods). The past thirty years have been a huge regression—people are working more and getting less and there's no hope in sight.

What jobs did you hold in the city? You teach now, but were you able to commit yourself to writing full-time?

I worked at the Strand Bookstore for three years after college, then as assistant to a photographer who specialized in author bookjacket photos for about six months, then for four years at the New York Review of Books—one year in the mailroom, three years as assistant to Barbara Epstein. That was my last fulltime job. Then for five years or so I was a proofreader at Sports Illustrated—a fantastic job at the twilight of both proofreading (they eliminated the job category circa '91) and of the paternalistic corporation. Full benefits for 17 hours' work a week was a good deal.

In 1990 the murder rate in NYC was the highest in the city's history. You were presumably writing or finishing Evidence around the time. Was the city's then-crime wave an influence on you and/or that book in any way?

No. I had no idea of that statistic. I was aware of murder as an aspect of the city in both the long and short term, but my book was not intentionally about the current headlines. It was about photography first and foremost.

As a scholar (and fan) of photography and its cultural history, what is your reaction/attitude toward the explosion of personal images in the form of digital self-documenting (i.e., digi cams, phone cameras, Facebook, etc.)? Do you see this as a positive development?

I see it as a neutral development. We don't know yet what the ultimate effect will be. I imagine that more photographic images have been produced in the last year than in the first 150 years of photographic history, something like that, and so grasping the totality is nearly impossible. The pix also seem more dully competent and less risky, but there are undoubtedly other complications. Just the other day I met some young people who described themselves as photo collectors, and it turned out that they collect by selecting and downloading pix from online databases. It thought that was great. Much editorial and curatorial work lies ahead.

In Folk Photography you write of early American domestic and regional photographers, and how isolated they were from one another, having few examples of photography to react or conform to, or rebel against. Now we have the inverse situation, it seems to me. Do you see us reaching critical mass at some point? A teenager can have over 1,000 images of himself on Facebook, gathered in just a year or so!

Our relationship with photography is changing in very large ways we can't yet see. For one thing, the set rather than the individual picture is the unit of measure on Flickr. And pictures taken simply as documents are much more compelling that the ones taken for artistic purposes. (Well, maybe this has always been the case, actually.) We may well end up with a situation where photography as an art is something relegated entirely to the past, while photography continues in daily life as a mere unremarkable practice of recording. Advertising is what will keep schools of photography in business.

Given the capacity/potential of art to "return us to the world refreshed" as A.R. Ammons described poetry, why do you think it is that photo-as-document is more compelling than a quote-unquote artfully-composed photo?

Because it's unconscious. The unconscious mind is much more interesting than the conscious mind. But it's also the case in the other arts that you make good work by following a rhythm, a color, an image, etc., whereas if you decide deliberately to tackle an important subject you will produce dogshit. Your unconscious has to do that tackling while you remain more or less unaware.

Can advertising photography ever move us profoundly? Or do artists have to co-opt it, approach it from a different angle, such as Walker Evans (signs, billboards, etc) and others?

Not these days. This actually follows from what I said earlier. Advertising photography, besides being an aspect of evil, is far too calculated and calculating nowadays to be any good. Evans's pictures were not advertising. They were documenting advertising, which is another matter altogether, and it was advertising of the Eat At Joe's variety, which was the very opposite of calculating, and which is in the process of disappearance, at least in the Western world.

Yeah, I know that Evans wasn't in advertising; he was photographing advertising in interesting ways that revealed their aesthetics, such as they were. On to the present: who are you reading now who's compelling to you? Any current and/or future projects to mention?

I just read Geoff Dyer's The Missing of the Somme, an older book by him that used to be hard to find here. It's terrific and he's terrific. I'm rereading Colin Fletcher's The Man from the Cave (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's The Family). I'm slowly beginning work on a very slo-mo translation of Maxime Vuillaume's Mes Cahiers Rouges (1914), a nearly hour-by-hour account of the last week of the (1982) in preparation for a trip to the southern California desert, where I've never been. Fletcher's book was the second book to make me want to go there (the first was Ed Sanders's Paris Commune.

And I have two big writing projects, but I'm superstitious—sorry.

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Origin Story

Spying on a teenaged couple making out in the woods I lost control of my ten-speed and went careening off the path and in my hot memory the couple turns toward me and mouth curses that I've willfully mistranslated down the years, and the other time, walking up Amherst Avenue to 7-11 staring hungrily at the girl in shorts atop her ten-speed I ran into a parking meter and saw stars and bruised the bridge of my nose, a story I've told elsewhere and a story that lingers like a poor-boy's myth, the way it dissolves, always dissolves into the yellow afternoon when my brother was trying to take a hill in his bike and he couldn't make it to the top and lost control and slid hysterically down to the bottom, and the jeers and laughter from the other kids there — girls and bikes, and woods, and watching, and boys' hoots and a boy's submissions.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Fleshtones Ain't Leavin' 'Till You're Believin'

Bottom Lounge, Chicago, June 2010
I've been asked plenty of times if I plan on writing a follow-up to Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band.  The band jokes about the next edition, too.  (And the edition after that — they don't call themselves Living Legends for nothin'.)  It took me half a decade to write the book, and it's only been three years since it came out, but the band's been involved since then in enough sloppy, fun, high-intensity International Action to at least make "Volume 2" something to semi-seriously consider.  I've no doubt that they will be around long enough to warrant a sequel.

In the meantime, they're laying low, mastering a new album that they've recorded on NYC's Lower East Side with the legendary Lenny Kaye.  It's out in March, and the guys are supporting it with their busiest gigging year in a long, long time — (What is this, 1986??) — including a swing through SXSW.  There will be plenty of Flickr and YouTube evidence, and I'll be hanging out at as many of the shows as I can.

If you want to get a taste for this great American band, check out Sweat, and/or Geoffray Barbier's great documentary Pardon Us For Living But The Graveyard Is Full, posted in-full here.  As the Fleshtones once sang, they can't change their luck, but they can change your mind.

Photo by Amy Newman.  Ken Fox was feeling under the weather, hence my minute as a poor-man's/poor-band's Jimmie Nicol.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The New Remembering

Driving home after shows at the 9:30 Club or The Bayou or Wax Museum.  My ears are ringing.  We cruise up 16th Street into Maryland jamming to tunes in the car, drinking the night down, and already my memory is conspiring against me.  I try to recall the opening number, the sequence of songs, what'd they play for the first encore? what'd he say then...?  Among the bittersweet contents the next day were the hangover, the hopeless peering into an empty wallet, and the piecing together of the show.  All very Twentieth Century, I know, a kind of analog blank, replaying an event in my head with only the dubious, faulty aid of memory.  Occasionally we'd sneak a mini-cassette recorder into a show — to tape the gig or to ask band members for station IDs for WMUC, the college station where I was a DJ — and the result was usually a muddy roar, a blurred legend on the map.

Many bands like Phish have been encouraging show-taping and -swapping for years, and now — and this has been happening for a while — clubs like the Double Door in Chicago will record select shows direct from the soundboard to be downloaded the minute you're home, or immediately on the premises.  How many times have I seen kids at shows holding up their smart phones or Flip video cameras to record a show for posterity, guffaw and groove to it on the way home on the train or in the cars, or even while the show's going on.  Now, when I miss a show by choice or otherwise, I head to YouTube and minutes after the gig's over someone somewhere will post ten minutes of what I "missed."  Old news.  People take photos at shows and spend the next few minutes head-down, scrolling, looking at what they've taken or sending pics out to friends while dBs are roaring over their heads.  The New Remembering is Instant Memory, GB FlashPast, RAMNostalgia.  The New Remembering is a kind of slide show of the near past in digital precision — before memory and desire and the co-mingling of both produce myth.

I sound dreadfully Luddite.  I don't mean to.  I don't miss ringing ears — remarkably, my hearing is still excellent after decades of rock & roll and I want to keep it that way — though I might miss the dark room that that ringing creates: a room of shifting shapes and memories, half-forgotten shards and story images creating their own, new stories and moments the next day as we wake and begin to sift through what happened.  I will resist downloading those stories, I will tell them instead.  How long will this stubborn (stupid) tethering to last century last.

"Vintage Tape Recorder Book" via Etsy Vintage.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Essays @ Scribd

I've posted some more essays up at Scribd, a few going back a bit: "Swooning At St. Andrew's" (from River Teeth, 2001), "After Cornell" (Quarter After Eight, 2001), "Lime Green" (Quarterly West, 1998), "Gazing" (Caketrain, 2007), and "Looking For Karl" (Under The Sun, 2007).