I've long maintained that Marcel Duchamp is the most over-analyzed and misunderstood artist in recent history. The genius of pieces like "Fountain" lies in the elegant clevage established between form and content. In many ways these "Readymades" are brilliant editorial cartoons, yet they derive no small part of their power in their ability to convey a sense of esthetic beauty which only bolsters the profound intellectual content they embody.
The subversive profundity of Duchamp's work should not lead observers to the false conclusion that he was somehow anti-art. I believe that he was really a sort of anti-esthete, at least as pretains to the tendency of esthetic doctrine to degenerate into a cloistered and stifling orthodoxy. When we consider his career we see an artist who was an avid proponent of the primacy of visceral beauty, and the fact that his work was so richly invested with humor and intellectual depth does nothing to betray such advocacy.
Yet Duchamp, like Pollock and Warhol, has been picked to pieces, disassembled and replicated in the worst manner imaginable. The result has been the most vapid and appalling form of pseudo-intellectual simulacrum. The art world is rife with examples of those who would seek to carry forth the innovations of Pollock, and yet in so many instances they offer absolutely nothing new to the dialogue, nor do they betray a convincing understanding of just what made his work so breathtakingly valuable. They're like musicians who know all the chords and none of the songs.
Last month I had the good fortune to stumble across "The Innocent Eye?" at Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago. This show, which was a closely currated selection of amateur photographs from the 20th century, brought me back to that question of "where art happens," and I filed it away for further consideration.
In this case the value of the work is two-fold. First there's the esthetic experience of the amateur photographers, individuals who are obviously responding to esthetic stimuli, even if their powers of esthetic judgment are "naive." It's obvious that some of this work is meant to be editorial, some is meant to be artistic, and some is meant to simply provide a document of events.
And yet there are several pieces in this collection which are both technically and viscerally engaging, whether by intention or good fortune. I should demonstrate at this point a recognition of the fact that these are not art objects, and yet it seems such a slippery slope to offer such a pronouncement. How is one meant to establish the artistic veracity of an object without first defining just what art is? This fool has no intention of pursuing that fool's errand.
The point I'm trying to make here is that there's tremendous esthetic value in the curatorial aspect of this show. Nicholas Osborn, the man who has amassed this collection of "found" images, is clearly in posession of a learned eye, and his selection fo imagery creates a fascinating narrative of it's own.
The beauty of this show is that it doesn't try to be more than it is. As with many shows at Hammer, we're not faced with a didactic literary agenda. Rather, we see an enjoyable and appropriate emphasis placed on the art of choosing.
Central to the nature of art is the act of choosing, whether overtly and intuitively. It's beyond obvious to note that really great art demonstrates a conflation of many things - talent, instinct, proportion (seemingly the most rare and difficult to find nowadays), and volitional intent. So it's clear that the act of making good choices, whether they pertain to subject matter, medium or form, is a primary component in the creation of art.
Osborn's collection shows us precisely this, thereby illuminating just one facet of "where art happens." It may not be "art," but it's valuable and enjoyable nonetheless.
By contrast have a look at this tremendous review in Thursday's Chicago Tribune. I'm compelled to withhold comment on the specific piece in question until I've actually seen the exhibit, but Mr. Artner's terse analysis of the piece "Him" by Maurizio Cattelan is most certainly germane to this issue.
It seems that Mr. Cattalan, an artist who by Artner's analysis seems to have taken conceptual reductiveness a tad, er, far, doesn't even see his "work" until it's been finished and installed. This sort of detachment may have legitimate historical predicate - we're told that Giotto, for example, employed painters to work on his frescoes. Regardless, doesn't it seem just a little de-humanizing?
Art, like Soylent Green, is people. Or at least it ought to be. But such high-concept, low-involvement work is really more akin to manufacturing than creative expression, and it's just a little hard to conceive of an artist enjoying an esthetic experience with such little involvement in the process of creation. As Artner so correctly observes,
"...So all the terms in which the work has been discussed are not artistic but historical and sociological."
Call me old-fashioned, but I'm a firm believer in the naturally humanizing potential of art. There's a vicarious arc which travels from the creator (small "c"), through the inanimate object to the viewer. The wonder which often accompanies the viewing of truly brilliant artworks is often a result of the sense of connectedness which is created between artist and viewer - they are, in essence, joined in the process.
How can it be that something pure and essential is not lost when the act of inspired creation is eliminated from the process? It's all about choices.
Chicago Blog News~
EatChicago has redesigned. SharkForum is a group blog featuring some big shots from the Chicago arts and music scene, including Redmoon's Jim Lasko, New City's Ray Pride and Nicholas Tremulis. And holy crap! Sour Bob is back!
Replay: from time to time we bring back a piece which we feel warrants further attention. This is one such piece. -ed.
Stephen Gaghan, Oscar winner and Louisville, Kentucky native, is a man with more talent and more life experiences than most of the rest of us could ever hope to understand. Louisville has sent forth some fine artists (My Morning Jacket are burning up the pop charts as I write) but only one of them has won an Oscar. The single fact of his success as a storyteller (which is essentially what he is) is that his ability to write and to move people emotionally was forged in the crisis of his drug addiction. And his ability was not destroyed by that addiction. The specter of DOPE and dependency in general hangs heavily over his best works ("Traffic," "Syriana") and his best works are as good as anything American cinema has seen since the glory days of the Ashby-Hopper-Coppola-Altman-Scorsese 1970's. An ex-dope addict, he has suffered for his art in the righteous and classic sense. The Easy Riders and the Raging Bulls have a clear heir in Gaghan. And yet Gaghan himself is less ambitious than he is eager. Eager to write better screenplays, eager to make better films, but with seemingly no ambition to add his name to any sort of pantheon, especially when there is more work to do and more stories to tell.
Great artwork comes from pain, and Steve Gaghan is a great artist. A great director can tell any story and make it shine, just as a great singer can turn even the lamest song into a heartbreaking masterpiece. A great artist either creates new worlds cutting from whole cloth, or else he or she lives the story and then retains the ability to recount it. Gaghan, obviously, is in the latter category. These days mark a transitional time for Gaghan; the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. With "Traffic" and the accrued cache of the TV work he'd done before, Steve got bumped up to the A-list. When they let him direct, he stumbled with Katie Holmes and "Abandon." His recent directorial effort, "Syriana" puts him securely back on the top tier and cements his status as one of the best director/writers currently operating. No more need to prove himself, Steve can, for the foreseeable future, film and write whatever he wants. It's daunting, but perhaps not for a humble fellow who has worked steadily and overcome a few serious obstacles in arriving.
Gaghan is plainspoken and earnest in his answers to a host of disparate questions that did not sport much of a connecting thread. What he has to say is self-explanatory and best left largely unedited (by me).
Q: As a writer, who are your favorite writers?
A: I like so many different writers in different forms but I tend to go work by work because people have good books and bad, good films and bad. Usually it's just people i've been thinking about lately. Novelists: Graham Greene, The Count - Leo Tolstoy, Checkhov -- particularly for his innovations in dramatic writing -- Wm Faulkner, Richard Yates, Nathaniel West, too many to mention, really.
Q: People working today?
A: I thought The Corrections was a major book. I think Richard Ford's Sportswriter and Independence Day are classics. In fact, I think if Ford knocks out the third in the trilogy and it's as good as the second they should give him the Nobel. Of film writers, that much maligned group, I think Eric Roth is really good. Scott Frank. Frank Pierson. Oddly I think it's harder to get into the hall of fame in screenwriting than in fiction writing. To my way of thinking you only have to write two great scripts. One great script and you're a great screenwriter, two and you're in the hall of fame. But almost no one has written two great scripts. Pierson and Roth probably have. Alvin Sargent. Maybe Robert Bolt. Maybe Dalton Trumbo. There are a lot of pros out in Hollywood and New York, people that can craft a good, shootable scene, who write clean, fast stuff, but they either have no souls or no ambition and really just get hooked on the money so fast it'll make your head spin. These are the people about whom Trumbo said, circa 1950, "they pay you a thousand bucks a week and pretty soon you think you need it." I think, hey, a thousand a week that ain't bad
Q: So as a director, who are your favorite directors?
A: All time hall of fame: Rosellini, Coppola, Clouzot, Godard, De Sica, Howard Hawks, Hal Ashby, Tarkovsky, particularly Andre Rublev which is a film you can watch over and over, understanding more each time. I love Z and Battle of Algiers. The 400 Blows is incomparable and perfect. More recently I loved "Sexy Beast," "Punch Drunk Love," Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"... Michael Mann is always doing something interesting and usually Fincher is, too, even if the films don't completely gel there's tons to learn from. I love the cinematographers Robert Elswit, Harris Savides, Ellen Kuras and Matty Libatique. This year I really loved "Junebug." The last line of that film, how it's delivered, where, the shooting, just slays me... as good as the last line of "Breathless."
Q: Ever been approached by HBO to work on the Wire or the Sopranos? Some of these shows including Showtime's Sleeper Cell seem to copy some of your moves.
A: Friends of mine, Robin Green and Mitch Burgess, who I met when writing for American Gothic, are the Sopranos producers under David Chase, and early on, when they only had a pilot, they reached out to me to see if I'd want to write on the show. I watched the pilot and the great genius Gaghan decided it sucked. I didn't buy the shrink, thought her performance blew, felt the ducks in the pool was derivative and mannered, all that kind of pseudo-critical theory bullshit you can pile onto something. Really, I'd decided I didn't want to write TV anymore and wasn't going to be tempted even by something good because no matter what, on the very best day ever on the Sopranos, you're still serving someone else's voice and that's not the business I want to be in, and isn't why I write.
Q: If oil is the west's biggest addiction, then what is the cure and how bad will the withdrawal be?
A: Imagine three hundred million starving, shivering monkeys huddled naked in their own piss and shit waiting for some democrat president to get the solar energy panels up on the roof of America. It's gonna hurt worse than kicking nicotine. It's gonna hurt. But we are a plucky, can-do lot here in the USA and I think we'll figure it out, not before we've done irreversible damage to the earth but, hey, that's not W's problem is it? Because he will have choked on a pretzel and gone to the great Skull and Bones frat party in the sky long before Kentucky becomes a desert. And truthfully it's hard for me to be too critical since although i'm trying to become "carbon neutral" I still have a '66 GTO which I do drive about once a month.
Q: Do you read a lot of new fiction to look for stories or will you be continuing to work up your own original scripts?
A: I usually find some book or underlying thing that has the seed of an idea, something that I'm interested in, that is a jumping off point from which to make up an entire world. I've needed this for some reason, a flag to plant in the sand with the studios, something to get me going... I'm trying to change that currently by writing something that is truly strange while also writing something loosely based on the book "Blink" by Malcolm Gladwell.
Q: Regarding the British "Traffik" miniseries, what was your method for adapting it? What were it's strong and weak points (as you perceived them) and is it easier to write an original script or an adaptation?
A: I was working on a satire on the war on drugs for over a year before I ever met (director Steven) Soderbergh and "Traffik." We had lunch and he pitched me the miniseries. But I was already writing the same thing, I said, at Fox 2000. I watched it once and realized that the problem I was having writing my film was because I had a single protagonist. And he had to virtually time travel around to cover all the turf I was trying to fit in: Columbia, Bolivia, Mexico, San Diego, Washington, Louisville (where it was originally set... moved to Ohio because Cincinnati has better looking inner city locations). So I watched the miniseries and knew I was stealing that approach. But I loved "King of the Hill," Soderbergh's film, and wanted to work with him so we threw in together. At that point I never watched the miniseries a second time. Truthfully, I admired the scope of it, but when push came to shove I found the plot mechanics largely forced and that it was very melodramatic. So i fought against this draft after draft. Ultimately I had some of those devices forced on me. They tidy up some loose ends in handy way. But the only story I care about is Benicio (Del Toro's) because that's the one we made up from whole cloth and the one that came out of my research in and on Mexico. I also like some of what (Michael) Douglas discovers in Washington which also came from my own observations of our little Nigeria on the Potomac. And much of Erika Christensen's drug use and adventures are my own use and adventures so it's kind of nice to have made use of all that wasted time. In terms of adapting i just don't look at the underlying stuff very much. There was a book under "Abandon," I think all they shared in common is that they take place in college. There is a book under "Syriana" (Robert Baer's "See No Evil") but less than one paragraph and none of the plot or stories come from it. There is a book under my next one but it is really just a point of departure. "Traffic's" strong points ultimately were showing that upper middle-class kids, our best and brightest, our hopes for the future, were fueling the misery of this international interdiction biz known as the War on Drugs. And Soderbergh's reintroduction of doc-style shooting to mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. the idea that it's a health care issue rather than a police issue was and remains a valid point for somebody to be raising.
Q: Is there anything particular about Louisville and/or growing up here that informs your current work to a significant or noticeable degree?
A: I think coming from the south and having been a bit of a generalist, living many places, trying many careers, etc, gives me a bit of an advantage in that I have a peculiar perspective. A lot of talk in Hollywood centers on "the flyover," "the red state punters," "the middle" and it's extremely helpful to actually consider oneself a "red state punter." My parents still live on the middle of the block in the middle of the neighborhood in the middle of the city in the middle of the country and I have many friends in Louisville still. I'm trying to push the envelope of what is a "Hollywood film" but I'm doing it in a way that doesn't lose sight of the fact that I am the audience. I am the person I'm trying to reach. I know because I don't underestimate where I'm from, the people who are where I'm from. And I believe that a lot of other people do underestimate. They look out the window of their jets as they cross the country on their way to Europe and think... well, I don't know what they think, but if you look at the average film released in this country, they're not thinking very highly of the audience.
Q: Does moving within the higher hollywood echelons come easily to you or is it predatory and difficult and a pain in the ass? Does it help or hinder the creative process?
A: I just find that the higher up the ladder you scrabble the more people are focused on problem solving and the less ego driven it seems to be. The more talented and experienced the collaborator, be it a studio head or a huge star or producer, the more focused everyone is on solving things. Everyone can pretty quickly identify what's wrong but there's a whole class of people who just go to lunch and gossip and these are the people I like to avoid.
Q: Any ideas about your next project?
A: "Blink," a book by Malcolm Gladwell. WIth Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star.
Q: Any outside hobbies? Are you a big music fan, or sports, or politics or comic books or whatever?
A: I love music and movies and playing with my children and surfing and snowboarding. I can surf in my backyard and sometimes go out twice in the same day. This is the biggest drawback to Louisville - no break on the Ohio.
Q: Your political stance seems clear to me from the films but is there anything specific you'd like to state regarding the status quo? Since "Syriana" deals with the geopolitics of oil, I suppose it is fair to ask what you think about our presence in Iraq.
A: I stand with President Reagan's National Security Advisor, General Odom, who said he thinks it will be, "the single biggest strategic error in the history of the United States. It was a colossal fuckup. We're handing the country to Iran. There will be Civil War. We destroyed the place, murdered so many children. For what? So Exxon and BP could make record profits quarter after quarter. I also think they lied to get us into the war. I think that if the democrats take back congress there will be impeachment proceedings against the president.
Q: Is there anything at all good about drugs (in general) vis-a-vis the creative process?
A: No. Drugs and alcohol are a massive distraction. At first they're a crutch to have connection with strangers and friends but rapidly they become the end in themselves and you have less connection than you had before which in many cases is zero, so you end up in a hole. I would binge and then write to try to stave off depression. I never wrote one usable sentence drunk or high. it was like having two arms and one leg tied behind your back, hopping around shrieking "look at me" while you try to be filmmaker, husband, friend. What a joke.
Q: How involved are you in the casting process and what are your main criteria?
A: I make every casting decision, no exceptions. I don't want to see the strings, don't want to feel the person acting. They have to be capable of inhabiting it, of making it feel true, or it won't work for me.
Q: How important do you consider music to be in a film?
A: Music is beyond critical. "Casting" the composer is almost as important a decision as hiring the director of photography. I need someone who is collaborative and willing to take risks, to try and do something that isn't the thing that is the reason you hired them. I believe the score of "Syriana" is very, very good and Alexandre Desplat is, in my opinion, a brilliant guy (Desplat is up for an Oscar).
Q: What was it like to work with Friedkin on "Rules of Engagement"?
A: I love Billy. No two ways about it. He's a great guy and a great storyteller, and he made a perfect film, but it wasn't "Rules of Engagement."
Q: One last question. What do you say to the consistent voiced criticism that "Syriana" is too complex for the average viewer to follow, that it is downright confusing? Also, are you particularly drawn to complicated works of art, you know James Joyce or Pynchon or Tolstoy, something along those lines?
A: We shot over 200 different locations on four continents in 75 days, which is a lot. We also came in four million under budget. But now I'm so damn sick of all things "Syriana," I just want it to go away. So that's it. (..but) The film is not too complex. It's challenging but also works. It works even if you don't understand every last thing on the first viewing. This said, I probably cut too much out of it, some scenes with Bob and his wife, Bennett and his father, that really let the piece breathe, let the audience orient, that made it less "schematic," particularly in the second half. Who the hell knows. I don't think I'm drawn to complexity per se, but I know what I like is shit that feels real and truthful. One little moment of human truth can sustain me for a long, long time. And it comes in unlikely places. For instance, there is more of what I consider the true details of the messy human condition in the first half of "In Her Shoes" than in almost every "Oscar contender" added up. The relationship with the sisters, the ache of uncertainty, the small, random decisions that just happen, that aren't the product of great rational thought. This is what I'm drawn to. And any time you want to write about a system you'll find it easier to fragment the protagonist into multiple characters to cover more turf. And Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is my all-time favorite book. At least the first 750 pages.
In case the reader is curious about question #15 above, rest assured. I wondered myself. I even placed a bet with a movie-loving, "Syriana"-loving friend of mine. Which William Friedkin film did Stephen consider "perfect"? It had to be either "The French Connection" or "The Exorcist." I bet on "The Exorcist." I lost five dollars and -- given that "The French Connection" was one of the 1970s' original maps of addiction and public corruption --I should have known better.
An incipient Sidney Lumet revival continues to bubble up from the underbelly of the American film community. The resurgence of films about police corruption, along with the recent rereleases of "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon" herald a renewed appreciation for the 1970's master's works. Like "16 Blocks," Spike Lee's "Inside Man" draws heavily from a Lumet piece; in this case it's "Dog Day Afternoon" with a significant twist.
Jodie Foster and Denzel Washington are the good guys, Clive Owen is a bank robber and writer-director Lee comes on as an African-American Hitchcock (or Lumet). Lee and Lumet (along with, perhaps, Jewison, Altman, Sayles and, recently Paul Haggis) are adept at treating racism as something which is a GIVEN; up-front, on-the-table, and often just as funny as it is evil. "Inside Man" is not one of Spike's overtly racial joints, so the preceding is a bit of a digression.
What "Inside Man" is is an intelligent heist film with plenty of suspense and atmosphere to burn. It offers a typically intense Denzel Washington performance, but, just as importantly, it returns Jodie Foster to a level of serious dramatic work she has not worked at in her last several outings. Owen is a star as well, with charisma to burn even though he spends a good deal of time with a canvas sack over his face. Owen has gone in 5 short years from an indie curiousity in "Croupier" to working with the likes of Mike Nichols and Spike Lee.
As a bank robber, Owen is something of a criminal genius but his character is also somewhat less than fully drawn. He is also getting some strategic assistance in this heist from the title character. These are, in the end, piddling concerns. When the title is finally explained at the tail of the film it is tribute to the genius of both the director and first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz that the ending is truly a surprise. "Inside Man" features two of the best plot twists in recent cinematic memory.
And before deciding on "Inside Man," let us take a moment to praise Spike Lee unreservedly for everything he's ever done in film. Lee has made any number of weak films but he's never, ever made a truly crappy one. Along the way, of course, he has made a handful of masterpieces and done so with a sense of joy one only finds in the very finest artists. Some claim "Do the Right Thing" to be his high point, a benchmark he will never surpass. Others claim that Lee's moves toward the mainstream in recent years have made him "less black." Nothing could be more false. Lee has made many films since "Do the Right Thing" which were better -- the underrated "Jungle Fever" comes to mind. Recently there have been "Bamboozled" and "25th Hour" both excellent films. Lee is that rare artist who continues to improve even as his work is assimilated (that's really the only word) into the mainstream. Denzel did a great job for Spike in "Malcolm X" but this performance here might even be better. In any case, "Inside Man" is one Spike Lee joint I'd be happy to smoke again and again and again. Word.
By the time May rolled around I had a large body of work together, and I was ready for attention. None developed. My trips to the AIC that summer involved, for the most part, staring at a small Van Gogh self portrait. I would drill into those eyes with everything I had. Nothing answered back, in a very deep voice. The painting was radiant. I was sullen.
But I was undeterred. I had seen Roger Murray sally forth in blissful ignorance, and look where it had gotten him! Surely I’d go farther. Hadn’t it been predicted?
“When you grow up,” folks would say, “you’re going to be an artist.”
My Mother would nod. “That’s right.”
They were cursing me, but they were right. I glided through all the high school art shows, drew cartoons in yearbooks and painted a portrait of my Grand Dad just before he died. It was the fall of my junior year of high school, and my Mom cried when she saw it. I almost did too. She was always the reason, she was the cause. While she unleashed withering criticism on anyone who dared disagree with her, she always approved of and supported me. And that approval meant everything in the world to me, because it was so rare to hear it from her. More than that, she had a sophisticated, if idiosyncratic esthetic. Everyone else in my family thought of me as a pathetic, indulged wierdo, but not Mom. No matter how outrageous my behavior, no matter how cruel, antisocial or thoughtless I could be, I was always covered by her umbrella of sanction. She was the one who bought me the sketchpads and pencils. She introduced me to all the Renaissance Masters, and she kept absolutely everything I ever touched. At school I was a pariah. At home I was a prince. An art school scholarship got me to Chicago, and I even had a painting on the cover of the School of The Art Institute catalog. I was poised for greatness.
It seemed at this time as though my slump would just be a blip on the screen. I had tugged on this little thread of found object sculpture, and now the thread was pulling on me. God help the man who has no muse.
Every failure in my personal life was excused by the fact that I was a great artist in waiting. I ran through jobs and girls. I even got kicked out of an apartment, but it never really mattered as long as I had this one thing in my life that was special.
I know I’ve made it sound like Roger and I never got along, but that’s not true. There were times, however few, when he could stop being a spaz long enough to enjoy meaningful interaction. Without question the best times we ever had together were up on the water tower.
The Belly’s greatest feature by far was the water tower on it’s roof. Standing guard atop the building’s southeast corner, standing like an extra from War of The Worlds, solid wood and wire cable. There are still hundreds of these old tanks in Chicago; they provided the water pressure for the old fire sprinkler systems. Most all of them have been empty for years, and one by one they get broken down and hauled away by wood dealers who sell the wood for a lot of money.
Our studio was in the southeast corner of the building, too, and there was a stairwell behind a bolted steel door situated in the corner. One day we decided to jimmy the bolt and have a look up top. The door wasn’t even locked. We’d spent 8 months in an unlocked work space. There were no lights in the stairwell, and we didn’t have a flashlight, so we groped our way up two flights of stairs. Furniture was strewn about, and we both tripped a few times, but we didn’t hear any rodents scurrying about, and we felt pretty safe. The darkness was worth it. Opening the roof door was like watching time lapse photography of a sunrise. The city of neighborhoods stretched out in every direction.
I think we were equally drawn to the tower, but how could anyone resist it’s allure? Neither of us spoke. We just walked right over to it and started climbing. The ladder was rusted but intact, and I don‘t think either of us looked down or stopped. The platform around the bottom of the tank was missing boards, but it was otherwise solid. We looked around, then sat down facing the river. It was a strange sensation to look down; the river was moving, and there was a lot of it. The result was to feel as though we were really above the water, as opposed to the small slope of shore beneath us.
We sat there for hours, and didn’t really say much. Roger pulled a joint out his pocket and we got high. The sun went down over the Kennedy and we watched it as the traffic eased. We just sat there and took it all in. The tower swayed a bit with the wind, but the effect was less noticeable when the sun went down. We didn’t go all the way up to the roof of the tank; that would have been overkill. But we were already a full 30 feet off the roof of the building, and easily 90 feet from the ground.
Next week: Act 6: It’s All About The M-O-N-E-Y
<< Last week - Act 4: I Discover Urban Archeology
Saturday, March 25, 2006
MORE FILMS ABOUT BUILDINGS AND ARCHITECTURE
Over at Movie City Indie, Ray Pride posts all manner of thoughts and links regarding contemporary cinema. But over at Shark Forum, the Chicaco artists online group, he posts more personal stuff that might not make the general-interest cut of his other sites.
I still remember the day that I really started working with found objects. I had collected them before, converting them to bookends and paperweights, but I had never really crawled inside their meaning or potential. I remember the day because it was April 15th, and I got off the O’Hare train at the Wicker Park station. The walk from the Damen, North, Milwaukee intersection to the studio at Cortland and Mendel is about a mile and a half, and it was a beautiful day. I’d gotten off work early in order to get my tax return in the mail at the Post Office downtown. In those days the downtown station was still housed in the hulking WPA era building which straddles Congress and the Eisenhower Expressway. I walked down Jackson to the subway and got on the O’Hare train. It probably would have been easier to take the Howard up to Armitage, but that train would have let me out in Lincoln Park, and I really don’t like it there.
So I went out of my way. As a result I stumbled upon a small trove of urban treasure in the form of an old three flat which had been gutted and stood open. Inside were industrial objects both large and small, representing processes both muscular and chemical. Dirty puddles covered most of the floor, but I just walked right in. Leaning against the wall was an old wooden dresser. The paint, which was the color of a hooker’s lipstick, was worn away on all sides, revealing the grain and providing an intriguing figure/ground composition. Before long I had collected together a mound of objects, not too close to the door, but close enough to get at easily.
I filled my arms and started walking. By the time I got to Ashland I was exhausted; I’d been exhilarated by a rush of ideas, and completely unrealistic about the distance I would have to carry these objects. I didn’t really have enough money for a cab, so I set my loot down and I rested. Within five minutes I was back on my feet and moving north on Ashland. I dumped my stash under the Kennedy overpass, and bolted up Cortland for The Belly. I grabbed an old shipping cart from the hallway and made for the elevator. By midnight I’d made the round trip, bringing back everything from the building on North Avenue.
What followed was an almost obsessive search for objects everywhere I went. I even borrowed a friend’s truck and drove up to the North Shore for their annual Haul Anything Away day. Sometimes, while scouring the streets of Chicago, I’d see other people walking in a manner I thought I’d invented, eyes to the ground, and I’d wonder if they were my competition. Most of them were homeless.
How could I have missed it? These objects were practically readymades, and Chicago is a veritable found object factory. Since that day in April I’ve become a savvy urban archaeologist. For example, all variety of under-carriage car and truck parts can be found at busy intersections and freeway ramps just after the snow melts away. And you can still find places where people just dump, like at Division and Halsted, across the street from Cabrini Green.
Each of these found objects has a physical beauty and cryptic history all it’s own. Sometimes I’ll stare at an object for hours on end, pondering it’s possible pasts. Roger was a little intrigued by these objects, and he was politely interested in the pieces which they produced. But I never got the impression that he really respected this direction much.
“I mean, really,” he said, “where do you go with this stuff?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
He smiled at me and punched me on the shoulder. “Buddy, come on, lighten up! Ev’y little thing gonna be alright.”
I pursed my lips. Roger had changed over the winter. He was getting a fair amount of attention from dealers, as well as other artists. There were always people visiting the studio, and they were never there to look at my work. He had figured out that some of the classic rock he held so dear was acceptable amongst hipsters. Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin; it was cool to be old school, as long as you could back up your musical esthetic with something current. He blended in just fine, but how could he lose? He bought a copy of every cd I played for him, and never once found fault with even one of them. What’s that about? He was so busy jumping my train that he didn’t stop to think about how obvious this aping was. I was appalled, and felt violated. He glommed onto a music esthetic that had taken years to develop, and they had been tough years to be different. You try telling some linebacker in your senior class that you’re going to see a band called The New York Dolls. I earned it, not him. I stopped bringing in new music.
Melanie was marginally more supportive. She was a big fan of absurdism in general and Marcel Duchamp in particular. Her gallery represented people like Donald Lipski and Dennis Oppenheim, as well as artists like Martin Puryear and Robert Ryman. We saw these shows together, and we spent many hours gazing into Joseph Cornell boxes at the Art Institute.
For all her comprehension of the art historical soil my work was rooted in, for all her stylistic acumen, and her ability to connect the dots of influence, I never trusted her instincts, and never detected that she got the deep connect with my work. I saw how she got excited about Roger’s new pieces. She responded much differently to mine.
“Your styles are about different thinks.”
“Yea,” she replied, “Roger’s work is more like music, or dancing. Your work is more like trig.”
“My work is like trigonometry.”
“His work lives in the Kingdom of The Soul, and your work exists in the Kingdom of The Intellect.”
“I get it,” I put a finger to my fore head, “you’re saying my work has no groove.”
She kissed me on the neck. “Don’t be shtoopid.”
I know now that she was right. I was so dug in to the conceptual qualities of found objects in particular, and Form in general, that I couldn’t see the value in any other way of thinking. Formalism can be freeing in it’s rigor, but it can get dogmatic, too. I ranted at both friends and neighbors that painting was dead. I held forth to all who would listen on the primacy of sculpture as an art form.
“It boils down to creating reality.” I’d insist. “Painting is reliant upon the canvas, a substraight of little or no relation to the meaning of the object, and as a result painting is dependent on something outside itself for it’s meaning. It’s derivative.”
Blah blah blah.
It all made sense, to me at least, but anyone who listened would just get pissed. “Go read Plato’s Republic.” I’d sneer. No one cared.
And that’s the funniest part of it - all that escetic crap didn’t mean anything real. These ideas made sense on their own, for one person, but they had nothing to do with the process of connecting to others. It was just too personal. That’s ironic, really, because my militancy was a result of an insistence on meaning, and a belief that significant meaning is the glue between people.
“Everything means something.” I’d say to Mel.
“Nothing means anything.” She’d volley. We’d go around and around on that one.
How do we measure meaning, anyway? Isn’t it about the fact that more than one person interprets things the same way? Agreement is a necessary ingredient, at least for starters.
Roger offered an answer, of course. He had a response whenever he felt one was needed.
“What is art, anyway, y’know man?”
“You’re looking at it.” I said.
“I mean, is art a lens, or is it a hammer? On the one hand it’s a mirror, but it’s also a scalpel. It’s weird.”
“That’s not the kind of meaning I’m talking about, Roger.”
“Are you sure, dude? Are you really sure?”
“Yes, dude, I’m really sure.”
See what I mean? I’m pretty tolerant - this guy was just too much.
Next week: The World as Viewed From The Water Tower
<< Last week - Act 3: Roger Gets A Break
Having been invited to join the sharkforum I find myself suddenly bereft of imagination. I might have hoped for a bigger story just coming out of the chute; something with more splash and impact. But it’s the little things that count, as Sergio says, and that sounds good enough. I’m happy the little red Uno has found a home with a friendly young man and dog.
In pre-internet days—when that F-100 was close-to-new— I started Poor Richard’s Newsletter. Postmarked Galveston, Texas, it was folded with stamp affixed, hand-addressed, stapled, and mailed to friends. It was about music, boats, drilling rigs; about work, beauty, boredom, and bragging about drinking too much. Poor Richard’s became Don Ricardo’s Life & Times in the early 1980’s in Nashville. Home was the Gulf Coast of Texas again for a few years. Home has been New Mexico, Chile, Michigan, with short stays elsewhere. Then home became Switzerland, an event nobody could have foretold.
Gouged out by the Rhine glacier some 15,000 years ago, Lake Constance is the largest inland body of water in Europe. Viewed on a map from the north, the German side, it looks like a crudely-drawn shark, or a cloud mirage, with its nose at Bregenz, Austria where the Rhine comes in at the eastern end. It reaches its widest point between Rorschach to the south and Friedrichshafen, from where the mighty zeppelin air ships once sailed. Narrowing towards the west the Bodanrück peninsula divides the tail at Konstanz, called Kreuzlingen on the Swiss side. Below one fork of the tail would be the Überlinger See; above, the Untersee narrows with hills coming down on either side: past Ermatingen, Mannenbach, Mammern, Eschenz on the Swiss side, and the peninsula Reichenau, then Gaiennofen, Hemenhofen, Wangen on the right bank. The lake becomes the Rhine again at the town of Stein am Rhein, which though it straddles the river is Swiss, belonging to Canton Schaffhausen. A one-lane wooden bridge crosses the river about eight kilometers down. Here on the north bank the road goes up the hill to the town of Gailingen, part of a German corrodor with Swiss territory on either side. On the south bank sits the ancient, still partly-walled town of Diessenhofen, where this wanderer came to rest. Five years now we’ve lived in a house atop the south wall, in an attic loft under massive wooden roof timbers. On a clear day we can see the Alps away in the distance.
Ten kilometers downstream the main body of Canton Schaffhausen pokes up into Germany like a mushroom. Below the town the river drops over the thundering Rhine Falls, the largest waterfall in Europe. Zürich and the airport at Kloten are forty-five minutes to the south; I can leave the house at six in the morning and eat dinner in Houston the same day. This is my beat, between Europe’s largest lake and waterfall. I have written a book about this country. Because no one else has, not in English that I know of. It concerns music, work, wine, language studies, fishing; my ongoing life as a performing songwriter, recording artist, husband, Texan in exile. I don’t work on boats or drilling rigs anymore, though I go there every day in my mind. I am beginning the third revision of this book; third or fourth, I disremember. The work goes forward, with grit, grunt, joy and some dissembling.
13 March 2006
* * * *
Not much time to ponder, I better make haste. Sergio flew in Wednesday night from London on Helvetica. We drove to pick him up in our almost-new Fiat. We had two days to hang out before we drove up to Baden-Baden to rehearse with Mätze, Richie, and Peter—the nucleus of Thomm Jutz’s old band— for the big show opening for Albert Lee at the Albisgüetli Country Festival in Zürich on the 15th. We’ve got more club dates coming up, but this one requires the full band with drums and keyboard, and guitarist Giampiero Colombo. If we don’t give Albert a run for his money, we’ll give the folks a good show.
I miss our little car, the red Fiat Uno, a sweet-running machine, grown a little tired of late, with an engine not much larger than a loaf of bread. Lots of famous musicians rode in that car from the days when Edith ran a concert series at the Trottentheater in Neuhausen—Peter Rowan, Rosie Flores, Katie Moffatt, Tom Pacheco, Dale Watson—they all wanted to ride in her little red car. I was the only one to lay a hand on her leg, an act fraught with consequence. Later it would become her Fluchtauto, her getaway car when she ran away to Texas.
Sophie, Thomas’s—her middle son’s—girlfriend drove it for a year. After Edith came back to reclaim it we drove it to Croatia and back—twice. We drove up to play in Mettmann, up in the north of Germany with Mark Wise who’s well over six feet, the three of us packed in with two acoustic guitars. We drove twice to France, to Leon, and down in the south the year we played the Crappone festival; to the far side of Austria hard by the Hungarian border; and south over all the major alpine passes, San Bernadino, Gotthard, Arlberg, Brenner. It’s not that a car has soul, but it begins to represent the accumulated memories of the times and places you’ve gone in it. A car is a piece of gear, really, but that doesn’t mean you can’t come to love it. You can feel that way about a boat, a guitar, a worn pair of boots. Great love and affection I had for a silver F-100 Ford pickup with close to a quarter-million miles before I let it go.
We watched the odometer roll over at 100,000 and still it kept chugging; uphill and down, dependable as it was unassuming. “We must think of getting another car one day,” she said.
“Oh, let’s keep it rolling awhile. There’s plenty of miles left in this baby, and it’s paid for long ago.” The kilometers ticked away with the days and the days into years. It would almost do 150 on a long straight-away. Other drivers were ever anxious to pass us, even when we were going over the speed limit. I had the feeling they found it annoying to be stuck behind us. But it was gradually losing compression, and power on the hills. Then one afternoon, deep in hinterland of Canton Thurgau it failed to start. I looked under the hood, checking for loose wires. Finding nothing wrong I tried again and it started. We took it straight to Herr Schwyter at the Steiggarage in Schaffhausen. Had it been using water? Well, as a matter of fact…. Aha… My Swiss German is better these days, but I still didn’t follow all the conversation. I heard Zylinderkopf and understood we needed a new cylinder head. Not a complicated job but it would cost us 700 Francs to repair. In time it would need a new clutch. A rigorous inspection coming up in August, there was no telling what else might need attention. Then he showed us the almost-new Punto, a dark silvery gray, 4-door. A patient man, Herr Schwyter had shown new cars to Edith before. She had always resisted, but this time she wavered. It was time to let the Uno go.
We went down and cleaned it up next morning. Swept the snow off the roof, polished the windows, ran the sweeper, emptied out the door pockets and under the dash, collecting parking receipts, shopping lists, pencils, maps, matchbooks. Looking good with clean lines, no wrecks, and paint slightly faded. A friend of Michael’s, Edith’s youngest son, had agreed to buy it from us for 350 Francs. I wondered if he would peel off the decals—the Texas flag, stickers from Luckenbach, Arizona, and British Colombia—likely revealing a darker red underneath.
Herr Schwyter gave us a pretty good deal on the Punto, a demonstration model with only 2700 kilometers, air bags, CD player, AC, bigger engine. This would be a help on the German Autobahn where you took the little Uno at your peril. It required steady nerves and concentration to venture out there, and you really had to watch out in the left lane with the big Mercedes and BMWs barreling down on you, flashing their high beams and looming in the rearview.
The doorbell rang in the late afternoon, after we’d gone in the Punto to buy floor mats and a new map of Switzerland. Edith chose expensive ones; on purpose even though money is tight. It was Michael at the door with his friend, a tall young man with long hair pinned back and a floppy cap. After shaking hands and some pleasantries we went downstairs together. I saw a dog in Michael’s car, parked just behind. The dog barked once and Michael let him out. Medium-sized, black with a white throat and bandana collar, it looked like a born Frisbee-catcher. The door to the Uno was open and at a word from his friend the dog jumped in, streaked once around the back, and returned to sit bolt upright in the shotgun seat, looking straight ahead and ready to go.
Jack Fish by J. Milligan
pub. by Soho Press, 220 pp., $10.00
Another book about water in the midst of a trend which seems to be something to which all of us should probably pay attention.
Politically speaking, water will soon prove more vital than oil. Water shortages, lack of water, the need for water, all seem to loom large above the plotlines of a number of recent books. Jack Fish is a protagonist who actually comes from the water. He is a secret agent acting on behalf of the Elders of Atlantis, and he washes up on the beach at Coney Island, Brooklyn somewhat unclear as to what his exact mission is. He knows that he is supposed to find and kill a rogue agent named Victor Sargasso. Other than that, Jack cannot remember.
Nor can he easily breathe -- that being a skill only slowly and fitfully learned "up top." Nonetheless, Jack becomes an effective and fearless topside agent. He is like a James Bond with gills, a literary device of such simplicity and brilliance that one is surprised to be finding it for the first time. Eventually, Jack learns to breathe and to drink liquor and to dance and to navigate the 5 boroughs and to talk his way into a nightclub.
Jack's attempts at finding Sargasso allow the author to take his reader on a whirlwind (and decidedly satiric) tour through modern New York City. There are lesbian performance artists, punk rock nightclubs. freelance hitmen, dealers, stalkers, hookers and thieves. The Brooklyn topography is accurately rendered even as the plot spins off into unbelievability. The black humor saves a book that might otherwise be considered a mere curiousity. The great James Elroy calls this book "a wild ride" and who am I to contradict him? As a first effort, "Jackfish" indicates there may be great things ahead coming from J. Milligan.
It was mid March when I met Melanie. She was standing in front of me, waiting in line at Joe’s Fish House. She caught me looking at her, and she smiled as we made eye contact.
“Hi.” I said.
“Hi back.” She said.
There was a tense quiet. She paid for her coffee and turned around. She smiled again. I moved to the side, trying to be as non-threatening as possible. It was just another case of misreading the situation; I do that all the time. By the time I’d paid for my food she was bundled up and out the door. I followed her into the blustery night as she hugged herself and made a bee line for the front door of The Belly. Taking the stairs two at a time, I lost sight of her after the first flight. The stairwell was tall and reverberant, brick walls covered with closetsfull of paint coats, stairs steeper than normal and concrete. Roger and I were on the second floor, at the far end from the stairs and freight elevator. The hallway was narrow and high. The bathroom was utterly disgusting. The building itself was really big - a one acre footprint, with 15 foot ceilings and patchworks of drywall. We called it The Belly, but we should have called it The Hole.
As I approached the studio I heard music and voices. Both were vaguely familiar but unplaceable. When I opened the door I saw Melanie and Roger standing by my work bench. They looked surprised to see me.
We said our hellos for the second time and Roger introduced us. We discussed art, we discussed music, we discussed Joe’s, the fish joint next door.
“Do you eat there often?” She asked.
“Yea, I guess I do.” I said.
“It’s OK,” said Roger, “it won’t kill you unless you eat there more than once in your life.”
They laughed. I took off my coat and threw it on the couch. I tore open the plastic lined paper bag. Even with the plastic lining the bag was soaked through with oil.
“Hey,” I offered sardonically, “fish is brain food.”
They laughed, and that’s how I met Melanie. I thought she’d change my life, but it turned out I never really cared for her all that much. When she finally moved out it was my idea, I was just surprised that she agreed with me.
“Who’s this?” I asked her, smiling and shoving a thumb at the stereo.
She pointed to Roger.
“Five Style,” he smiled, “they’re a local act.”
“Oh yea?” I said. “It’s not too bad.”
As the conversation moved on it became clear that Melanie and Roger had only just met. He had taken his slides into a River North gallery, and Mel was working there as an intern. It’s always been hard for me to understand why someone would major in art history, but then again, everybody’s into something different. No surprise that she loved his work - everyone did. She paid passing respect to my end of the studio, but it was clear that she was there for Roger. I finished my dinner and set about making sawdust.
Roger ended up in a group show as a result, but that didn’t happen until July. By then Melanie and I had been seeing each other regularly, and we were just a couple months away from moving in together.
My funk began to melt away with the grey snow. I held on to enough of it to reinforce my cynicism, which angered Roger, and seemed to amuse Melanie.
“Cynicism,” professed Roger, “is truly the worst form of self-indulgence.”
“My cynic,” Melanie would grin, “He’s seen too much of the real world.”
I snorted at them both. What other antidote is there for naivete? I get so sick of these idealistic twits with their high school notions of creative fulfillment and purpose. The art world is just another marketplace, I say, and these precious little objects are nothing more than trophies for the rich.
Roger Murray never lost one drop of blood in the service of his muse. He never wept, not even a single tear. He was never confronted with the horror of losing track of your vision, because he never had one. He was a blind esthete, operating on instinct. There was nothing intellectual, conceptual or metaphorical in his work. That’s why his titles were so corny, and that’s why Melanie was so important to his development professionally. She’s the one who told him to leave each of them “Untitled,” and add a number. It was a deft move, and seemed to be the one missing element in the mix. These days Rog is a professional artist, with works at Art Expo and everything. Someone just told me that he’s featured in an upcoming issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine.
You’d think that all this would have filled me with anger, but I didn‘t, and don’t care. Why should I? He’s still an idiot. And I know the truth: Roger Murray is a poseur. I did get pissed off when Mel would defend him, or compare the two of us, but the anger never lasted. After all, I was the one who was giving it to her.
In truth that was all I was really after. It’s true that at first I had fantasies of us living out our days together, pillars of the Chicago art scene. She’d be a powerful dealer, or perhaps run the Art Institute, and I’d be the world famous artist, headed for the Venice Biennalle. But over time I came to lose respect for her esthetic sensibilities. How can you really have valid opinions on art if you’ve never been through the process? She never bled for art, either. She was an intern at an upscale trinket gallery, attempting to tell me what was what. Fuck that.
Next week: Act 4: I Discover Urban Archeology
<< Last week - Act 2: Working In The Belly
My first concert experience ever was Frank Zappa with Captain Beefheart at the International Amphitheater in Chicago in 1975. Row Forty on the floor. The amphitheater was originally used for livestock shows. Our dog raced there once. I was ecstatic. Zappa was previewing the upcoming Apostrophe record (remember Yellow Snow?). Luckily, there was the Bongo Fury live record to document that tour because the sound was atrocious. I’m pretty sure that was Zappa on the stage. The guy next to me (I didn’t know him) passed out with his head on my shoulder. The air smelled funny.
Rock and roll got big. Really big. Stadium rock. My second concert was Chicago and The Beach Boys (with Terry Kath-yay and without Brian Wilson -nay) at Chicago Stadium. My third concert was The Who with Toots and the Maytals in Cincinnati. Get the picture? Big bands in big stadiums. I loved every second of it. C’mon, Keith Moon and lasers! But what did I know? I was an air guitarist with a rapidly expanding record collection. For the bands, money was flowing in; bands were throwing it out of hotel room windows, Cynthia Plastercaster was sculpting, and the drugs were plentiful. If it was difficult to see the band on stage, don’t worry, the band didn’t see you either. The audience was a big blur; we were the cash flow, we were dollar signs. Especially the boys. We trampled our way into the cow palaces, sometimes literally.
It wasn’t just stadium rock that began for me in 1975; by the end of the year I was introduced to the music that would change my life. In the fall, I went off to college in Lexington, Kentucky. I had no career goals, no vision. I was going to be a lawyer, but I quickly switched to psychiatry. How’s that for an about face? In my dorm, where I knew nary a soul, I somehow hooked up with the only person that hadn’t gone home to pick tobacco over the weekend. That fall my new friend Keith turned me on to the Velvet Underground and Van Morrison. He also had a new single, Gloria by the Patti Smith Group.
We listened to lots of FM radio. It was a novelty to listen to radio with no static and album cuts, not just a string of a-side hits. It didn’t take long for it to suck. For every Steely Dan song, you got four or five Baker Streets. I grew to hate sax solos. Bands started to put out lousy records ruined by coked-up producers. They were in love with the sheen of synthesized schlock, but payola still ruled the airwaves. Satin-jacketed record company hacks paved the way for airplay with lines of coke snorted from rolled up c-notes. Bands holed up in studios for months to make their supposed masterpieces. Rock became a bloated, disinterested beast. Some artists, like John Fogerty and Roger McGuinn were still victims of bad record deals; Fogerty refused to play his hits lest he put any more money in Saul Zaenz’s pocket.
I couldn’t get enough. My record collection was on its way to albatross proportions (I’ve had to move them close to ten times, often up three flights of stairs) When I was in college I spent hours in dusty bins; my mom would send me one hundred dollars a month so that I could eat on Sundays, but I would spend most of it on new and used records. Peanut butter and crackers became my Sunday staple. Ah, those used record stores. My favorite in Lexington was Bearswax which was responsible for my mediocre grade point average. The owner, Chris was a former dj who was basically making a living off old promos.
The seventies also had some great television for rock addicts. I used to set my alarm so that I’d wake up to watch Rock Concert at three in the morning. My favorite image from those days was Neil Young live doing Like a Hurricane. The song wouldn’t be released for another several years, but there he was, wind machine blowing him away, the black Les Paul, and the most ferocious magical guitar playing I’d ever seen. I’ll never forgive the city of Lexington for canceling a Neil Young tour because advance ticket sales were slow. The University also turned down a Springsteen show in 1976 because he wanted half the arena closed off with a curtain to keep it at 5,000 people. There was nothing to do in that town. If I wanted to have an intimate relationship with rock I would have to do it myself. I ordered a bass and an amp from the J.C. Penney catalogue for $180 dollars. I bought the Who Quadrophenia songbook and tried to learn bass by reading the notes. Have you ever listened to John Entwhistle’s bass on that record? I really tried.
And then, as D.Boon said, “Punk rock changed my life.” The Sex Pistols were coming to America and I was going to see them New Year’s Eve in Chicago. Of course, as we all know, that tour was canceled, but Elvis Costello appeared on SNL and blew everyone away. We drove up to Cincinnati to Bogarts to see him. That year we made that ride again and again to see The Ramones, The Dead Boys, and Devo. The cool thing was you could stand right in front of the stage. Heck, we could talk to Stiv Bators at the bar! Music was finally accessible. At the Patti Smith concert in Louisville she yelled for the fans to climb over the barriers and come right up to the stage. You could feel the air move out of guitar amps. Sweat would land on you. You felt like you were part of the concert.
By that time I had picked a few notes out of the Ox’s repertoire and found myself in a punk rock band, The Pods in 1978. We did almost all cover songs; Buzzcocks, Clash, Cheap Trick, Ramones, all the hits. I had kind of spiky hair and a skinny tie. For some reason Lexington bands were playing covers, Louisville bands like Tara Key’s Babylon Dance Band were playing originals. No matter. By 1979 we were ready for the stage. On New Year’s Eve, 1979 we booked ourselves at Halle Lou’s, a dive that let you sign up for a night, first come, first serve. You played for free. That night at the stroke of midnight, I played my first song in a real band on a real stage. The two dozen punks and a bunch of redneck regulars helped us welcome in a new decade. I’m not one to kiss and tell, but I got lucky that night with a girl I was previously unfamiliar with (ahem), a scenario that was highly foreign to me. It would never, ever, ever happen again, but I couldn’t help thinking as we left the club, sweat chilling on my face in the stiff winter wind, that I was going to like this. Rick Rizzo, the bass player, the musician; part of the world I loved.
Next: The Eighties- indies save us from a flock of fluff.
A Meditation On The Enduring Importance of "Nashville"upon the Occasion of Robert Altman's Lifetime Achievment Oscar (part I)
My friend Tim Welch (one of the best American drummers of the last 20 years) makes the claim that Robert Altman's "Nashville" is the finest American movie ever made. I believe he is correct. When he first expressed this opinion I admit I considered it another blustery partial truth typical of a percussionist. "Better than "Citizen Kane?" I asked, better than "The Godfather" or "Bonnie and Clyde" or "North by Northwest" or "The Bride of Frankenstein"?
His succinct answer was: "Definitely."
Over the years I have come to decide that he is correct.
In 2000, before 9/11 made America once again aware of its fragility, a man named Jan Stuart wrote a thoroughgoing essay on "Nashville" in the form of a book called "The Nashville Chronicles," published by Simon and Schuster. Stuart was prescient in the same way Altman was. He sees in the film a veritable Rosetta Stone of information regarding the entertainment and political solar systems that light American society. If the term "American Film" requires, by definition, that the film be not only made in America but also somehow ABOUT America, then Stuart seemingly agrees with Tim. He seems, in his book, to consider "Nashville" certainly the most EXEMPLARY American film ever. And, again, he is correct.
The important points I make here are largely the result of Stuart's research and Welch's love. My own observations on this phenomenal film add a minimal insight that pales in comparison to that of those whose work I've digested.
Let us start with the film's relevance to events of today. Let us start with the cynicism and disillusion that coats our modern politics like an oil-soaked blanket. Let us start with Hal Phillip Walker -- which is where "Nashville" starts. The droning, non-sequitorial voiceover by the invented candidate was actually written by a semi-politically-connected Southerner named Thomas Hal Phillips. Altman was pals with him. His "speech" is the film's frame.
"We have some problems," his deceptively folksy voice intones. "I know something about money because I never had any until I was 27." It's not to difficult to tell that this Altman depiction of Middle America ("the Red States" in today's parlance) is meant to be satirical and comedic; only the dumbest of dumb Americans can fail to see that the film is essentially a joke, a parody. And yet the charicature is so savage that it is easy to see why the good citizens of Nashville were horrified by the final cut and why they felt insulted. The great Wim Wenders (who at one time was married to ) has said that "Nashville" is a film about noise. It's noisy, certainly, but "Nashville" is actually a film about democracy; dysfunctional, messy, democracy.
So that’s that. We took over a sub lease on a 3,000 square foot warehouse space in The Belly. That’s right, the building had a name. Moving in was easy, because we had nothing. Two days after the October fire we signed the sub lease and drove over to Handy Andy to buy wood for our new benches. Roger picked me up at work. He was dressed like a lawyer. We collected two by fours and plywood, gathering up drywall screws along the way. Roger stopped in the tool paddock and picked up a cordless drill and a worm drive circular saw. He didn’t even look at the prices.
“I’ll pay for these.” He said, dropping them on the cart.
When we arrived at the new building we had a hard time finding a place to park. The dock was full, and the neighboring buildings were all covered with restricted parking signs. We sat there for five minutes before he turned to me. “What should we do?”
“We should go in there,” I said, pointing to a small fish shack next door, “and eat dinner.” Their parking lot was large and empty.
“What about our stuff?”
“We can eat in the car.”
After dinner we found a slot at the dock and I went inside to find the elevator. It was on the fourth floor, so it took a while to find the thing. The freight elevator was a large shambling box with overhead doors on two sides. Engraved with gang tags and vows of love, it smelled of oil and bearing grease. It made a loud clanking noise while in motion, and the woven metal grates which served for interior doors bounce up and down. It was lacking a roof by design, so you could see the workings of the cables reaching up four stories. The thing was magnificent. As it rumbled down I was filled with hope. The new space was big, and it offered possibility. So what if I had to share it with a frat boy? He’d be easy to manage. Otherwise I’d planned to simply ignore him, and I’d already gotten some practice at the hardware store that day.
“It’s way more relevant than science, y’know? Man can’t go on without it.” he paused and drew breath deeply. “I really don’t know how I could live in a world without art.”
I read labels in the checkout aisle. What a dork.
We loaded the material into the elevator.
“Do you think my car will be ok?”
“Yes,” I said, “your Cherokee will be fine.”
We went upstairs and we built work benches. We drank beer and smoked pot. There was no music. Around midnight the foundry lit up: a night pour. We would come to anticipate these rare pours, and it was hard to get any work done on those nights. We had the perfect industrial/urban view. The room’s longest wall was south facing, and four large windows provided a spectacular view. To the right stood the rusted iron mounds of the Cozzi scrap yard. Occasionally barges would moor there and fill up. Trucks of all sizes moved in and out all day long, depositing their loads of scrap metal. Finkel Foundries lies across the river, on the eastern side, covering the river on both sides of Cortland Avenue, and then moving east for about 5 blocks. Downtown Chicago is the backdrop for all this, the opposite end of the process which either begins or ends across the street from our studio.
It stayed warm into early November that fall, but our comfort was short lived. By December we were feeling the lack of a furnace. The truth is we had a furnace, what we were lacking was gas service. Neither of us could afford it, so we bundled up and brought in our space heaters from home.
It was cold. It was Chicago in December. What were we thinking? The cold made it hard to work. I tried to be romantic about it, remembering that Picasso and Braque had once shared a coat. It didn’t help. Was I Picasso or Braque in this relationship? The possibilities made me shiver. Meanwhile Roger soldiered on. I began to suspect that he was mocking me with his enthusiasm. And he was always there! I moved my bench to the other end of the room.
I found out in a hurry that he was loose with money. Before long we had a chop saw, another drill and a saber saw. Ryobi, Porter Cable, Milwaukee, only pro grade stuff. He let me know right away that I was free to use his tools as needed, and I didn’t waste any time in taking him up on his offer.
It’s not like I didn’t contribute; someone had to provide the hand tools, and we used my stereo for music. I always brought beer, and he seemed to rarely do that. Even when he did bring beer it was bad beer. Miller Lite, or Michelob. Yuppy beer. I was coiled for the night that he’d show up with wine coolers. Fortunately that sorry night never came.
So we negotiated a method, and for a while it worked pretty well. But there were times, and they weren’t few, when he would say something so stupid that I could barely contain myself.
“Y’know, man, life is really like a pendulum.” He was swinging a plumb bob just above the floor. “Your ability to tolerate pain,” he said as the bob reached one side, “determines the amount of joy you’re capable of experiencing.”
“It’s wild, man, y’know? It’s really really wild.”
What a yutz. It was a while before I figured out that he wasn’t a lawyer after all. He was a corporate real estate sales guy. He had a license, but he didn’t have any buildings of his own. He spent his days cold calling small industrial businesses and getting hung up on. I would have quit that job in a day, but ol’ Roger just soldiered on. He seemed to soldier in all things.
We had to establish right away that I wasn’t about to tolerate bad music. He didn’t even seem to care.
“OK,” he said, “maybe you can turn me on to some new tunes.”
“Well,” I said, turning to the tape deck. “Check out Motorhead. They make some good ‘tunes’.”
I used that word every time I widened his world with something new. And it was all new to him! It was like he’d lived in a classic rock cocoon his whole life, believing every word they sold him. We fixed that in a hurry. I gave him everything. I gave him his muse. In return he took from me the one thing that made life worth living. In the end I managed to transfer this theft into my own personal liberation, but i still resent the need to do so. He took everything from me.
Even though he was there all the time, it became easier to avoid him. There were plenty of nights when I would barely speak to him, and I had a good reason to stay away once he started producing good art. The titles were awful - contrived, pseudo intellectual, lurid and emotional - and he would explain them as if he were being interviewed for ArtNews. But the pieces were too good, and even if I rarely said so, I couldn’t deny it to myself.
They were arresting, activating and fresh. His approach was completely intuitive, which was all the more annoying given his lack of any form of training. As his creative successes mounted, my frustration bloomed. Every time I set my tortured eyes upon one of these pieces my stomach would turn and sink. Every success of his translated into a personal failure for me.
I decided a project would be the thing to bust my needle out of it’s bad groove, so I took on a portrait commission. In exchange for $500 I’d paint a double portrait. It was a lay up. Having cranked through similar projects for pocket money in art school, I approached this painting with brassy confidence. Roger Murray would soon see where the talent resided in this studio. The painting was meant to be a surprise, so I had to work from a dim, out of focus Polaroid. There hadn’t been very much light in the room when the shot was taken. My patron asked me to correct the curve in his mother’s nose; she’d fallen recently, breaking it. I responded by smoking weed until I couldn’t see the break in her septum. It was a chemical septoplasty.
Even if I’d finished that piece, even if it had been the best painting to ever come out of me, even if it had been the fucking Madonna of The Rocks, it would have been a hollow victory. Roger was already my biggest fan.
“You could make some serious money,” he said, looking as though he may cry, “you really could.”
How can you say thanks to that? What did he know about me or my work? Nothing. Nothing at all. His highest praise came from watching me sketch and draw cartoons! Stupid, puny, unfunny little cartoons. His praise was worthless.
But as a sculptor he was a natural, that prick. I really think he mocked me with his optimism. I spent that winter frustrated and depressed. Reaching for the thread I’d lost, fantasizing about that fire, wondering what type of work I’d be turning out had the building not burned.
Next week: Act 3: Roger Gets A Break
<< Last week - Act 1: The Second Building Fire
The other night a bunch of middle-aged musicians were sitting around drinking scotch and telling road (war) stories from their touring days. Here's mine:
We were lost and late for the sound check. There were four of us crammed into the van with all our equipment, driving around Virginia looking for the nightclub, when we pulled into a gas station to get directions. The woman at the cash register, a forty year old bottle blonde with Kool-Aid orange lipstick, insect green eyeliner and low-tar cigarette dangling from her lips clapped her hands together and said, “Okay, listen up boys ‘cause I’m only gonna tell you once! You pull outta here, hang a U-turn and take a right at the first traffic light. You go two more lights and take another right. You go down this hill and the road just keeps winding down and around and around. It’s like you’re goin’ through this tunnel and the trees have these long branches that hang down just like arms trying to grab you. But you just keep goin’ down and around and just when you think you’re lost, you’re not! You just pop out the Devil’s asshole and there you are!”
Two days later we’re finally expelled from Satan’s anus and landed with a thud on the Bowery, outside of CBGB’s in New York. It was my turn to stay with the van while the rest of the band went inside to check out the scene. The usual throng of punks, junkies, pimps and hookers were hanging around outside of the Palace Hotel, next door to the club. A moment later three cop cars pulled up and the boys in blue jumped out with their heaters drawn. I immediately got down on my knees and hid beneath the dashboard, only popping my head up occasionally to witness this little slice of life. Everyone on the street froze while the cops rushed up the stairs of the Palace, Kojak style. A minute later they came swaggering down the stairs, shoving their pistols back into their holsters, frustrated over a false alarm.
After sound-check I met my friend Gregg at an Indian restaurant on Sixth Street. We went into a tiny basement with a blue parrot painted on the door and ordered a small feast. The waiter fetched a tray of little dishes filled with lentils and onions and chutney while a sitarist with a bored expression on his face twanged the eternal Hindu blues. Gregg was in the midst of recounting his grind at the New York Times when suddenly a large rat darted up the heat pipe beside me and into a hole in the ceiling. I stood up and put on my coat while Gregg kept talking. Between mouthfuls of vindaloo, he looked up and asked where I was going. “Gregg, we gotta go. Right away. I’ll explain once we’re out of here,” I said. Just before we reached the door the manager grabbed my arm to ask what the problem was. I told him his restaurant had rats and if he wanted to cause a fuss over the bill I’d be sure to let everyone else in the joint in on the secret. “Oh yes the rats,” he said, with a smile, “they are an omen from Lord Ganesh. Thank you! Thank you very much!” he said, sounding delighted as he opened the door and whisked us out.
I walked with Gregg over to the Astor Place subway stop, through the urchins and tourists on St. Mark’s Place. He had to get back uptown. Since I had nothing better to do I headed back to CB’s to catch the opening act. Just as I’m crossing the street, a chartreuse Chevy Caprice with a rash of rust spots and a torn black vinyl roof came screeching up beside me. The man in the passenger seat was obviously not well. His complexion looked like someone forgot to put the mayonnaise back in the fridge. His eyes were all glazed over, like a fish gasping for breath on a deathbed of ice in a Chinatown market. The driver leaned across his friend’s limp body and screamed in panic, “Where’s the hospital? Where’s the nearest fuckin’ hospital, man?”
I stood motionless for a minute, recalling the faces of frogs and baby pigs I was once forced to dissect in tenth grade biology. “Your buddy doesn’t need a hospital,” I told him. “He’s dead! Take him to the morgue!” With that the driver stomped on the gas and peeled out.
When I finally got back to CB’s, the opening band, a group called Evil Twin was in full throttle. They featured a pair of gruesome dudes with heavy metal poodle hair-do’s playing matching double-neck guitars.
At last it was show time. The band had been a little edgy for the last few days. We’d been on the road for nearly three weeks as the opening act for a popular new wave art rock band on the comeback trail. At first I was pretty excited about the gig until we got to know them a little better. The lead singer who resembled my Uncle Alfred, a portly kosher butcher from Chicago, was a Jehovah’s Witness and the drummer (who never took a shower and always wore the same T-shirt that smelled like burnt cheese) was some sort of snotty Marxist. They were always arguing over everything, including us. They didn’t approve of our song lyrics and wanted us off the tour if we couldn’t find anything else to sing about other than sex, drugs and religion – which comprised our entire repertoire. It was the first night in weeks we didn’t have to put up with their crap. The band cut loose and played a wild and inspired set. After the last number, we stumbled off the stage in the dark while the crowd howled for more but before we could make our triumphant return, the soundman cranked up an old Iggy Pop record and robbed us of an encore.
With the show over, I made my way through the crowd and out the front door for a breath of fresh air. Hanging out with the creatures in the street, I momentarily felt relieved, certain that my baptism in the shit was over for the moment. Suddenly the boys in blue were back with their lights splashing and sirens screaming. Everyone froze as they jumped out of their cars and ran up the steps of the Palace Hotel again. But this time they were too late and a minute later an ambulance arrived. A pair of poker-faced attendants yanked the stretcher out of the back and pushed through the crowd. The cops came back down the stairs dragging a young guy, cursing in handcuffs, followed by the ambulance attendants carrying a body on their stretcher, covered from head to toe with a white sheet oozing big red splotches.
With that I marched back inside the club to get a drink and grab my gear, to beat a retreat. Just as I was lifting my amp some young goateed freelance hipster with pad and pen wanted to know if he could ask me a couple questions for his fanzine. “Sure,” I told him and set the amp back down. “What do ya want to know?”
“Why did you move to Milwaukee?”
(Sharkforum's own John Kruth has played with more famous and brilliant musicians than you can shake a stick at. Lately he's been working with Peter Stampfel. Following is a review of their show last week with John Hammond - ed.)
Somehow suppressing my inner old-fart, which was telling me "stay home---it's a school night" I went out to see Peter and John at MAKOR (which I still don't know how to pronounce).
The songs ranged from great to greater, setting my heart to dancing with laughter, and a couple of times nearly inspiring tears. They did a bunch of stuff I hadn't heard before, some of which
had the definite earmarks of Peter's kind of songwriting (suspicions of which were later confirmed). There were a couple of John's originals too--fantastic stuff. From the start, they had such sweet chemistry and complementarity going on---it was sort of the musical equivalent of peanut butter finding jelly.
Early in the set they played John's wonderfully goofy song about his checkers-playing cat, set to a kind of dark melody in a minor mode---a perfect background for funny lyrics.
Then came Peter's hilarious and biting song about being a white guy in a white man's world, full of rhymes like this one about white folks having more of everything--more guns, more toys of inherited wealth:
The condo & the yacht:
Daddy bought it
Junior got it
Another Peter original was "Sad Song" (or "Be Sad"? "So Sad"? my tiny handwriting on post-its had turned into smudgy near-indecipherability by the end of the set). It starts out with sentimentality about bygone things like cowboy movies, merry-go-rounds, and Studebakers, and such. Then suddenly we're hearing about homeless people, then Chernobyl, and woah, it's not funny anymore, but he done hooked us. A memory surfaced from somewhere years back: I think I recall a quote of Peter's, something to the effect that however non-mainstream/alternativey/hippie/beatnicky it might be, this wasn't protest music. But it seems Peter's songwriter soul was temporarily overtaken by the impulse to mourn the world's powerless underdoggies' suffering at the paws of the powerful overwolves.
John's song about a Croatian general took a similar trip:
starts out funny, then subtly but definitely steers its way into heartbreaking references to Serbs, death & destruction, loss of loved ones. The General is not fictional, it turns out. If there's a force for goodness in the universe and the law of karma means anything, the General will someday hear John's
ode to him. But alas, we all know that more likely life is mainly just random chaos from Random Canyon (get it, HMR fans? I hope you've read this far), and the General will probably be long-gone (like Long John?) before that ever happens.
There was some great picking, too. Peter had a new (to me) bluegrass-style resonator-backed banjo; John played the old-timey version. There was one dual-banjo, all banjo tune---I guess dancing banjos. It sounds like a setup for a joke, but IT WAS GREAT!!!! Peter did a neat chunka-chunka uke-ish kind of break in the middle of "It's Gonna Be A Great Day" that had the audience whooping with glee.
They closed with Dylan's "I Want You"---which I've never heard anybody cover, but I could picture old Zimmie himself hearing this and giving it a classic hyperbolic "yeah".
Well, I've never written a music review before ("Oh really? No kidding") but something tells me I've gone on too long already, so I'll just end here.
Oh yeah...I almost forgot: John Hammond was there too.
He closed for Peter and John.
An old saying goes like this:
"What you don't know can't hurt you."
Another favorite amongst artists and pseudo-intellectuals goes something like this:
"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
Lately the news has me wondering.
When you run down the list of recent near-scandals it's almost hard to believe that anyone believes the PR issuing forth from the White House any longer. The problem isn't that the White House makes an effort to spin stories to their advantage - every administration in history has done that. The real problem is that this administration has elevated secrecy to a position of dominance which, I dare say, would make a loyal Kremlin aparatchik blush.
One is almost moved to boisterous laughter at the outrage expressed by the President's supporters in reaction the rancorous questioning of Scott McClellan after the Vice President's unfortunate hunting mishap. But what do they expect? When you insist on secrecy, you invite scrutiny and suspicion.
A quick rundown of past and recent events reads like a political police blotter: the shameful lack of awareness of the situation in New Orleans shortly after the landfall of hurricane Katrina, the opacity of the process surrounding the drafting of the country's energy "policy," the details surrounding the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame, the inexplicable time lapse involved in the releasing of the news that the Vice President had shot a hunting companion and friend (not to mention the fungibility of the account), the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the news that the NSA is spying on U.S. citizens, and that the President personally signed-off on this illegal action, and, most recently and perhaps most distrubing, the bizarre details surround the UAE "ports" deal.
President Bush insisted that he would veto any bill which quashed the sale to Dubai Ports World - before he had any familiarity with the details of the transaction. This statement elicited a rare public rebuke for GOP stalwart Trent Lott: "OK, Big Boy, I'll Just Vote To Override Your Veto."
Having played poker a few times I understand that secrecy almost always demonstrates an interest in covering detail. Thus we are left to ask "just what are they hiding?' The current administration's posture towards the rest of America (including the judiciary and legislative branches) can only be typified as paternalistic. But this isn't "Father Knows Best," and the First Lady isn't Jane Wyatt.
Now we find out the President and his Homeland Security chief were warned explicitely about the impending risk of levee failure before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Micheal Brown, a man who can generously be called the Don Knotts of the Federal disaster recovery effort, even warned President Bush and DHS head Michael Chertoff of a "catastrophe within a catastrophe" at the Superdome. Just days later the President was quoted as saying, in essence "no one knew the levees would fail." Please forgive us if we suspect that the President and his cohort enjoy a relationship with the truth something like that of Michael Jackson and his last wife.
Now that we see this for the bald-faced lie that it is, we're forced to wonder just what it is that those who support the President are thinking. How can an administration which has been busted repeatedly in outright lies claim any credibility at all? Even the most credulous amongst us are forced to wonder.
"Fool me once..."
The real shame for all of this lies at the feet of an impotent congressional body who has repeatedly allowed administration officials to testify to Congress without swearing an oath to tell the truth. Why in the world would the President of the United States, sworn to uphold the US constitution, refuse to swear under oath to tell the truth before a closed session of Congress?
The answer now seems painfully clear - this is not a case of mere oversight. No, it's much more horrifying than that. Whether by intention or effect, the White House has continually demonstrated contempt for the rule of law in this country and elsewhere, asserting that the actions of the Chief Executive, any actions, are legal because he says so. What else can you call this but Imperialism?
It seems hard to imagine the GOP carrying the Neo-Con water much longer. Congressional Republicans are increasingly pushing back against the White House, and the looming mid-term elections have got them about as settled as a "Christian Scientist with an appendicitis."
In the final analysis the GOP has got to be wondering what price they'll be forced to pay for this Faustian deal. If the President ends up getting impeached, it will be the result of actions taken by Congressional Republicans. The first law of politics is self-preservation.
Now you can participate in the (re)writing of history. Chicago Living Arts has created Chicago Wiki Arts: A Collaborative Site for Writing on Chicago Culture.
A quick read of the music section demonstrated a painful ommission - no mention of Eleventh Dream Day. P-shaw! Someone alert the authorities!
Given that this, like Wikipedia, is a communal work-in-progress we're sure the gaping hole will be filled soon.
Viva le Web!