Saturday, January 30, 2021

In the middle

Detail of Franz Kline’s Turin (1960), left, and Joan Mitchell’s Noël (1961-1962)

In college I essentially moved among the poles of art, literature, and rock and roll, cut through with beer. At the University of Maryland I minored in Art History; in retrospect, I wish I'd Double Majored, so in love was I with those cool, dark classrooms, murmuring professors, and oversized screens full of eye-popping, challenging paintings. I loved the way that the stakes in Modern and Post Modern paintings felt so absurdly huge, matching my own outsized self-regard and innocent belief in the power and value of art, and seemed to speak to me in a secret or foreign language that I boldly intuited. (I hooked up with a painting major named Kate H., and mooned over after her even when I knew that there was nothing there.) This all came back to me as I was looking through some of my old textbooks from those classes. I'm thinking fondly of a time when I'd be exposed to a Franz Kline, Phillip Guston, or Joan Mitchell painting, and I'd be affected for days. It's what life felt like, as if the painters were using my chest cavity and heart chamber as life models. And it still does. As I look back, my deep affection for the work of those painters, and many more, has stood the test of time, though I demand, or need, much less from them now than I did then. 

Then: I was half-convinced that, beyond boring stuff like food and sleep, all I needed in life was that zone between Kline and Mitchell, beyond stark figuration and colorful abstraction. At the end of a day, staring at the ceiling trying to fall asleep, my heart pounding—looking back at my fraught crushes on girls next to me in class, the politics at the campus radio station, songs playing in eternal rotation on my Walkman, the difficulties of remaining faithful to a girl I no longer loved as much as I did, anxieties and sleeplessness, musty books in high, musty floors in the graduate library, solitary strolls on campus, rock and roll on the radio—everything dissolved into that abstract yet deeply felt space between Kline and Mitchell, all of life in its variety of sensations, arguments, sadness, bliss, ugliness, and beauty, right there in the middle. 

Kline, photo by John Cohen (via ThoughtCo)

Mitchell, photo by Robert Freson (via Artsy)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

You don't know what it's like

I took a long drive the other day with the Ramones on shuffle. If I could, I'd write a screenplay or novel based on the songs that Dee Dee wrote or co-wrote for the band. There's a great character-study story there of urban disaffection, addiction, triumph, and tragedy. I'm currently re-reading Poison Heart: Surviving the Ramones (written with Veronica Kofman), struck again by Douglas Colvin's fucked-up adolescence as the wayward son of a brutal alcoholic father and generally indifferent mother. His book's semi-fictional, grouchy, and riven with paranoia, pockmarked with errors, misremembering, and petty grievances, and swerves from topic to topic—so, in many ways it's an ideal rock and roll memoir, energized by a storied man at the end of the bar chatting off the cuff, moving between honesty and mythology. Ramones' lighting and art director Arturo Vega's quoted in Monte Melnick and Frank Meyer's On the Road with The Ramones as saying that "Nothing of what [Dee Dee] wrote [in Poison Heart] is 100 percent true. In his mind it became indistinguishable to write something that was supposed to be autobiographical and to write a song or to write a chapter in a book—there was no difference. All the differences were erased."
It wasn’t intentional. He wasn’t doing it to be more provocative or to shock; it was more an artistic decision. He wanted to live his life like his art. His life and his art became one. It’s not that he was lying, but he was creating at the same time he was supposed to be writing the truth. His intention was to create exciting literature.
In his autobiography Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, drummer Marky Ramone concurs, remarking that Dee Dee "fantasized the way other people breathed," adding, "It didn't make him a reliable witness, but it made him a great songwriter." 

Shuttled among military bases until settling in Forest Hills, Queens, Colvin found refuge in drugs, rock and roll, and male friendships, eventually learning bass, forming the Ramones, and changing his name, not necessarily in that order. His history of drug abuse and mental strife is melancholy, to say the least, and the pole between normalcy and instability was a wide and difficult gap for him to bridge. A famous person, he's an Everyman addict. His story's painfully familiar. I've always been attracted to the characters in his songs, who seemed genuinely and graphically punk to me, despite his band's often cartoonish image. I won't claim to know how purely autobiographical his songs were, though I'm guessing most began in a fraught memory, an unhappy personal situation, and/or a fuck-up, universalized in the guise of a faceless, lost street punk, a silhouette inside of which millions of outsiders found they fit. 

Late in Punk Rock Blitzkrieg, Marky Ramone touched upon Dee Dee's gift. As he tells it, the band was visiting Stephen King in his New England home in the late 1980s when King slid Dee Dee a copy of Pet Sematary; Dee Dee vanished for an hour and returned having skimmed the novel and produced the lyrics and melody to what would become the theme song of the film adaptation. Despite his triumph that night, Dee Dee was beleaguered, strung out and near the end of his tenure in the band. Marky sat with Dee Dee on King's front porch. "I explained to Dee Dee that he was among maybe a handful of people who could pick up a book, skim it, and write a catchy song about it in under an hour," Marky wrote.
I told him he had done for punk what Stephen King had done for fiction—create, from scratch, images, themes, and stories that drew people in because they could relate. Because the songs penetrated to the curiosity, fears, and insecurities people carried around with them but couldn’t put into words. 
I can easily see a composite character based on Dee Dee's songs in a narrative film, moving on the streets of the East Village, or a similar cityscape, among hard drugs, friendship, sex, and music, striving for reasons to live beyond opened eyes in the morning and a drug fix by noon. Some of Ramones's later songs for the band—"I Believe in Miracles" and "Strength to Endure," among them—wearily celebrated a hard-won transcendence, yet we know how Douglas Colvin's life ended in Hollywood. 

His lyrics, however aphoristic and skeletal they sometimes are, dramatize a really vivid point of view, and suggest so many possibilities for story lines for a kid born "a drumbeat behind" striving to battle addictions and demons to find a place to call home. Here's the storyboard.


Now I wanna sniff some glue, now I wanna have somethin' to do
Then I took out my razor blade, then I did what God forbade
Now the cops are after me, but I proved that I'm no sissy
I was feeling sick, I was losing my mind 
I heard about these treatments from a good friend of mine
He was always happy, smile on his face
He said he had a great time at the place

Peace and love is here to stay, and now I can wake up and face the day
Happy happy happy all the time shock treatment, I'm doing fine
You by the phone
You all alone
It's a long way back to Germany
The plaster fallin' off the wall, my girlfriend cryin' in the shower stall
It's hot as a bitch, I should've been rich
But I'm just diggin' a Chinese ditch
I am an outsider
Outside of everything
Everything you know
It disturbs me so
Under street lamps I will play, after the school day
When troubles disappear, I feel excitement is here
I'm not an imbecile
Don't treat me like an animal
I'm not a creature in the zoo
Don't tell me what to do

You don't know what it's like
You don't know how I feel
I don't have a monkey's brain
I'm not an animal
No one ever thought this one would survive
Helpless child, gonna walk a drum beat behind
Lock you in a dream, never let you go
Never let you laugh or smile, not you
I'm making monsters for my friends

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Playing a ventriloquist

Luc Sante's 1998 The Factory of Facts is an engrossing memoir in which Sante attempts, with the titular facts, to assemble some sort of coherence out of the circumstances of his life: namely, he was born in Belgium, yet raised in New Jersey. Feeling rootless in both histories, he's in a sense placeless, without a tangible heritage to call his own. It's a great read, Santeesque in its unsentimental looks back at childhood and adolescence with, paradoxically, a romantic urgency. What Sante knows about his and his extended family, and about the history of Belgian art and culture—what the facts say, or dispute—often leads him into the ether of speculation, and that movement between solidity and uncertainty, between calendar and narrative truths, drives this great book. (I spoke with Sante back in 2010 about his work.)

This passage on the vagaries of writing about childhood is exceptional, and hasn't left my head in the weeks since re-reading the book:

Friday, January 15, 2021


The Cheepskates, summer 1983

"...that's the only problem." So said Mark Strand. I was reminded of that observation last night as I listened to the Cheepskates' "Run Better Run." My then-girlfriend had dug the song when it came out, played it on her radio show at WNUR at Northwestern, and turned me on to it on a compilation tape. I never owned a copy—I've happily sung it in my head for decades—but I recently picked it up. When the Cheepskates released the single in 1983, they were a decade-and-a-half removed from the era and the influences they mine in the tune; the Farfisa organ, neatly-harmonized chorus, and early-Lou Reed vocals vibe might consign this song to the heap of Neo Garage tunes bands with the proper period gear and look were issuing in the mid-1980s. Spinning the 45 at home last night, I realized that I'm nearly four decades removed from its release now, more than twice as far away from the single as the single was from its ancestors. And the further away "Run Better Run" gets from its source material, the fresher or, dare I say, the more timeless it sounds. Gently lifted by the rising tide of history, its self-conscious fashion trappings falling away, the song stands on its own as a great tune—well written, well played, no more, no less—rather than a copy, or an homage. Stripped of its historical context, which paid explicit tribute to earlier times, "Run Better Run" now exists in the air above our heads, unmoored, if not new again than certainly less moldy. I'm not sure what accounts for this except the passing of the years, which, as they often do, force us to reassess the past, maybe second guess the smug biases we'd placed on things, the boxes labeled This or That that we dropped them in, secure in our narrow knowledge of naming things, consigning them to smaller lives. It's what the late Ned Stuckey-French called, in another context, "the tyranny of taxonomy." Time's not only a problem, it's also a welcome, often surprising unburdening. Anyway, turn it up, it's a great song.

Photo of the Cheepskates via The Cheepskates Live at The Dive

Saturday, January 9, 2021

Beyond us

A disconnect has been shooting sparks in my brain lately. The wide gap between the ugliness of the events on the national stage and the beauty of the natural world around me has been nearly impossible to reconcile. Here in northern Illinois we've been blessed with a hoar frost that has lingered for days—trees have been wearing stately coats seemingly for our benefit for nearly a week. The landscape has been a surreally serene background to the abhorrent gestures of Trump and his rabid, terrorist followers, and has created a cognitive dissonance, a graphic tension between loud violence and silent awe, between monstrousness and brilliance. I confess to have been so distracted by what's gone down in the country that I haven't paid nearly enough attention to the natural world, a small, pretty patch of which I'm fortunate to have just beyond the backyard. Nature always wins out, of course, as, hopefully, will our democratic institutions, ideals that are larger than the puny folk who are trying to subvert and twist them. The stately, beyond-gorgeous trees in town bedecked in dazzling ice and frost, as in a regal ball, have been reminding me of what's always just beyond us—the world that will outlive us.