Thursday, June 30, 2011

An Origin Story

Driving down 14th Street from Wheaton into D.C., rows of blocks of abandoned houses and storefronts blurring, remnants of an earlier era of fire and dissent, fire and flight, the broad long avenue and side streets intersecting under mostly busted street lamps, slow dissolves, and when we hit Logan Circle the traffic ebbs and the prostitutes approach, materializing at our suburban windows, knocking on the glass, human voices asking for a date, angling away in hot pants and heels, inured to or annoyed by our giggling and fake-macho muttering, and ahead: a left onto Massachusetts Avenue and the slow glide past Logan Square and a right onto 9th Street and the descent blinked to life and off again by the neon signs outside of the bars and porn arcades and theaters, we're looking for parking now, circling, eying the junkies and drunks swerving or splayed, quietly making up stories about the concrete park at 9th and F, maybe coke at the back of our throats, surely empties beneath our feet, maybe lurid fantasies about empty buildings, ghosts of gentrification looming and unseen, the Old Downtown really really urine-old now though we don't know it then, as Barry sniffs and sniffs and blocks away Reagan sits in his home like myth even then, we're looking for parking and resisting the magnetic lures of the old man bars and the peep shows and the rat-kicking and the funky wig store and black that welcomes but only as a come-on.  "C'mon."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What I Love About The Seventies

DMZ made loud, fun, tough-to-categorize rock & roll punk
DMZ was a bit of an oddity, a rock & roll band that history has condemned to the shadows of late Seventies punk. Being from Boston didn't help the group's exposure, dwarfed as they were by the media wattage pulsating out of Manhattan, London, and Los Angeles. They were a hard group to classify: a punk band with an organ and two guitarists? They released an EP on Bomp in 1977 produced by Craig Leon, and a self-titled album on Sire a year later produced by Flo and Eddie that hasn't aged very well; the production brutally squashed the band's dynamics. After DMZ metamorphosed into Lyres around 1979, various EPs and singles were released that collected stray studio tracks DMZ had cut during their brief existence. Some ("The First Time Is The Best Time," a cover of "Teenage Head," "Boy From Nowhere,") are pretty great.

My favorite DMZ document is a show recorded at Barnaby's in Boston in 1978. The tapes languished in the cans until 1986 when venerable Crypt Records issued DMZ!! Live!! 1978!!. It's a great, muscular, frenetic, sweaty rock and roll album, organ player and singer Jeff Conolly and company—J.J. Rassler and Peter Greenberg on guitars, Paul Murphy on drums, Rock Coraccio on bass—tearing through a set of originals and covers in front of what might be described generously as a sparse crowd. They cover the Stooges, the Sonics, 13th Floor Elevators, the Troggs. Conolly's own songs are blistering, desperate takes on his heroes.

My favorite track is the cover of the Kinks' "Come On Now." DMZ's arrangement is everything that was exciting and possible about late Seventies rock & roll. Here's the original, the b-side of "Tired Of Waiting For You" from 1965:

And DMZ's rampage from 1978:

Listen to the thundering rhythm section, the hoarse, urgent vocals, the dual-guitar slashing—a snaking lead figure atop chunky power chords—that filters 60's Beat Music through the Stooges via Boston punk ethos; the guitar solo is borderline metallic. The Kinks' original is cool, but DMZ's version adds muscle, urban attitude, and the sonic near-chaos, sneer and wattage that late-Seventies punk demanded. It's vital stuff.


Oh and the album jacket features one of the all-time great rock & roll photographs: Conolly on stage with one hand gripping a tambourine and the other bandaged beyond recognition. Judging by his on-mike requests for screwdrivers and beers, I'm guessing Conolly wasn't feeling much pain on this June night.
Monoman, reporting for duty

Friday, June 24, 2011

Nostos 2.0

I'm sitting on a bench in front of an unrecognizable building that housed my kindergarten.  I used my phone's GPS to guide me here.  Cause and effect: the Slurpee I had earlier burned like acid, because the Baskin-Robbins has closed.  Optical delusion: the roads are narrower.  I expect homeowners to de-restore their homes to honor my sorry past?  (Where's that house?)  I expect homeowners to let ruins surround them so that I can see homes as they weren't.  Please, decay.  I don't recognize a soul.  The woods are still there.  The half-assembled car still sits in that yard.  The old beer store remains; I see it from across the street as I stand in front of an uninhabited new storefront.  I'm sitting on a bench reading on my phone a Facebook group devoted to the fact that my hometown has dissapeared.  Hundreds of far-flung strangers opining on loss.  Everything's changed.  I go for walks after dinner, and nothing changes.  If only I could lift the transparencies laid on top.  As the poet said, I have wasted my life.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"Barfly On The Wall"

I have an essay up at Junk: A Literary Fix, a new journal devoted to writing about addictions:
Living too long in the imagination is tempting, and dangerous—I remove myself from tangible reality and create a false comfort. My drift toward romance and sentimentality is analogous to addiction as it divorces me from the world, creates a reality in the mind that’s always hospitable, always heartening, never too dark to acknowledge, where the story ends before the sad denouement. Perhaps writing “sad denouement” is too tender a way to describe the brutal reality of some addicts. This is part of my problem. Like all addictions, mine tells lies.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Early Violence

I don't know how I got into this.  M. and I circle each other on the blacktop playground at Saint Andrew's.  I’m not a fighter.  If this situation were to ever come up again first I’d verbalize frantically.  Then run.  Were I only clever enough to have launched a sarcastic rejoinder, skewering M. with my own brand of cerebral brutality!  (Years later I'd nerdily learn that the word “sarcasm” comes from the Greek sarkasmos, after sarkazein: to tear flesh like dogs.  Take that!)  Here I am, ears buzzing, forced into acting at center stage, the world tilting violently toward me.   


His mom had soft red hair like my mom’s.  We traded baseball cards on his living room floor once, and leaned together under the basketball hoops.  Later, in high school, M. became a body-builder and a good-looking jock who carried around a show-off photo of his blonde girlfriend.  She wore a tiny pink bikini, amply-filled: the kind of existential, undeniable fact that soured so many of us on our cafeteria coke and pizza.  We circle, we spin, we charge.  The language sounds aggressive and confident.  What really happened was small, pathetic.  I didn’t want to fight; I don’t know if M. wanted to.  He was teased a lot before he bulked up; maybe fighting was as involuntary for him as waking. 


A giant Biblical movie, a history-of-the-world in Cinemascope glory pinched down to the size of our TV set.  My feet dangle over the edge of the couch.  Something cataclysmic occurs and I feel weirdly that this is the reason I'm sitting on the couch with my family.  There on the screen: a wide vista, a long plain split violently down the middle, a mile-long rend sending tremors for miles, hundreds of men, women, and children slip into the widening chasm, clinging desperately to the red earth intent on randomly sucking them inside.  Screams of anguish and I’m sitting breathlessly on the edge of the couch, wide-eyed.  I mutter Wow, cool, and my mom leans forward and slaps me hard on my thigh, hushing me, fixing me with a shame-inducing gaze.  My heart beats up red into my ears.


J. pulls me out toward the circle of onlookers, rubbing my shoulders, a bantam Burgess Meredith: Fake like you’ll hit him in the stomach then hit him in the face.  The words sound ridiculous, a nightmare on opening night when I've forgotten to learn my lines; eying M. out of the corner of my eye I feel like a badly miscast actor.  J.'s face near and enthusiastic: It’ll work!  Pushed back unwillingly, I gamely try his coacherly advice.  All I do is hurt my fist and feel stupid.  This fight was my first clue that insincerity breeds self-loathing.  Two phonies.  The cries buzz in our ears.  Our hearts fight their own quarrels in our tiny chests. We circle, our charging becoming less and less assertive as the minutes pass.  I'm sweating terribly, and feel miserable that in addition to having to fight I have to stupidly endure Social Studies with wet clothes and hair.  An early lesson in cliché: literally this fight was saved by the bell.  I don’t remember the rest of the day, or anything I might've said to anyone.  We landed few punches.  Our hearts weren't in it. 

"Abstract image of a face on a man's clenched fist" via Science Photo Library

Sunday, June 5, 2011


Imagined, or real: a snow-packed fort of dim tunnels and openings, intestines into the sides of the snow drift we dug.  The patience of recess, the dig for lore a twelve-year old is surprised by.  We dug, and dug, The Miracle of Antarctica at St. Andrew’s, February breathing its dark geography into our little half-lives.  We dug, dug, dug until one of us became trapped, soft snow collapsing around the dream.  The kid’s name?  Lost in the chalk.  The cartography of this dark day: the bend of the gray of a tunnel comer, the quiet, quiet, quiet despair, a kid disappeared.  


Somewhere it’s May.  A fort for the back yard is bought at a hardware store.  Rough hands poring over virgin decrees: slot A into slot B, plastic bags filled with content, finished by dusk.  Boys sit in the cedar-chip fort with regulation window and nail-and-glue glumly reading of exotic tribes blinded by destiny, as the small, action-figure Cowboys and Indians in the Mattel Apache Fort lean in the air-conditioned hush of the dark basement, discarded, blue, gray, red, depending on politics, tool-and-dye, depending on history.  This fort closed with a snap-latch and was portable: the-past-in-motion from suburban house to yard and back again.  Manufactured warriors, molded drama.


A small boy peers into a fort pieced of twig and leaf, a continent of the day it takes the blackbird to move back and forth across the lawn. Later this fort will leave itself, turn, curl in the sorrow the boy might learn, later, reading some book.

Friday, June 3, 2011

We You Me: In Defense of Autobiography

Against the tiresome argument that autobiographical writing is narcissistic, I can only say this: distinctions must be made between good autobiography and poor; and more importantly, the autobiographical impulse is ultimately a humble, and a humbling, impulse.  It has always been this way for me.

When I begin an essay, or find my way into a subject autobiographically, I'm trusting not that the qualities of my experiences or character matter in and of themselves, but that I can recognize what in my unique experience might be, in the recollection of and in the telling, emblematic of something larger, something not exclusive but recognizable.  I ask myself, directly and indirectly: If I care, does that not mean that someone else will?  If the answer is No, then I've got work to do.  This is mostly an unconscious conversation I have with myself when writing and editing, but the ringing impulse is always there.  Do I dismiss the subject of the piece as too trivial or too hackneyed to be redeemed, or do I explore further, trusting my impulse to the page?  Again: not to celebrate or commemorate experience simply because I had it, but because undoubtedly others have as well, and might find in my shaping that they fit inside in a way that reveals far less about me (privately) than it does about them (personally).  We you me: that's what's ultimately humbling about writing autobiographically, the profound (and healthy!) discovery that in fact I'm not particularly unique or special.  Is there some light arrogance involved in presuming that my experience might resonate?  I think quite the contrary. 


I've written about the autobiographical silhouette before, and about some petty thieving in my past.  I'm reading Garry Wills' compact biography of Saint Augustine (part of the defunct Penguin Lives series) and in it Wills recounts the oft-told story of sixteen-year old Augustine stealing some pears from a local orchard.  Wills notes that Augustine obsessed on this small transgression, spending more than half of Book Two of his Confessions trying to make sense of it.  Wills writes:
It was more than [a petty theft] to Augustine. In fact, he had dismissed with passing mention earlier thefts of food from his family larder, food used to to bribe others into letting him play with them.  That theft had a motive.  The pear theft seemed not to.  He specifically says he had legitimate access to more and better pears (probably on Romanian's estate).  He did not want to eat or use the stolen goods.  He and his fellows in the raid carted the fruit off and dumped it before pigs.  Why did they do it?  Augustine goes down and down into the mystery of this apparent acte gratuit: "Simply what was not allowed allured us" (eo liberet quo non liceret). 
When reading this I was struck by the similarities between Augustine stealing those pears and me stealing a crappy plastic ring from a boardwalk five-and-dime when I was ten.  Despite the differences in age between Augustine and me, the correspondences were interesting, and inevitable, and, in that moment of reading and reflecting, my childish gesture and a childish gesture of the (future) Bishop of Hippo Regius morphed — became, as in metaphor, something new and strange and compelling.  You're comparing yourself to Augustine, elevating yourself to the plateau of one of history's great thinkers.  No.  I'm exploring a startling, and moving, replication of gestures: pathetic, trivial thieving across centuries.  Someone transgresses, someone transgresses.  That brief historical (read: not historic) moment of recognition of myself in Augustine, and thus others in myself, and, perhaps, Augustine in others — a transparency laid atop a transparency atop a transparency— was kind of thrilling.  Augustine and I traded silhouettes, reaching for something that doesn't belong to us, trusting an unnamed impulse and fearing it at the same time, then attempting to make sense of it.  In this moment I didn't elevate myself hubristically to the level of the great Augustine — indulgently viewing my simple boardwalk transgression through the scrim of a fourth century writer, philosopher, and theologian — as much as I received Augustine at the splendidly ordinary human level.  Humane, humbling stuff.  Hardly Saint Joe, more like Augustine the Common.

Original image of Augustine via Harmless Nocrophilia.