I’ve been cleaning out the drawers and boxes. These are cuts, maybe not finished, maybe laid down and left to knock around, or fragments culled from the air in a given moment and then forgotten. Tapes sitting in cracked cases, tangled, frayed amd torn. So I cleaned and spliced, and they kind of make a story now that I’ve stuck them together. It’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
There was a lot of reaction on Facebook to my expression of a personal conviction that President Barak Obama is by far the best choice to lead our country for the next few years. There was a lot of support. Some respectful dissent which I, in turn, respect. And some pretty crazy shit. Selected or twisted so-called “facts,” that are often nothing like facts. Weird constructs developed to make the world fit into a peculiar mindset.
I don’t take them down, those comments. Mostly I don’t, and I struggle a little with that. After all, it’s my wall. Not a radio talk show. Not a street corner. I’ve no obligation to give others a place to vent whatever it takes for them to meet some private need in whatever yap and banter suits them. They can write on their own walls. They can find an audience for themselves. Surely, there is one out there. There is always that. Or they can talk to themselves, if they don’t already.
Do they think they are being read by others as they read themselves, or do they suspect that’s not the case, rationalizing it away with the notion they have some greater brainpower or vision beyond all those otherwise intelligent, educated, well-intentioned folk who cannot grasp or handle “the truth” because of some terrible infirmity of blindness? What magic of cognitive dissonance is this? Do they imagine the rest are the ones chained to the wall of Plato’s cave, and not themselves? What terrible pressure is it to own the last period after everyone has gone away, shaking their heads.
I leave those comments up as illustrations. They make an argument, though not any intended one. I think it’s good to see it. It represents something real and powerful that can be pretty easily discerned. No further commentary needed.
So, fuck a duck. I’m feeling good. Optimistic. Even if I’m the only person on the planet feeling that way for the moment. Rare enough these last years. I’m not going to squander it. I’ve been daydreaming. Almost all day—and O, man, how I love to daydream. I was once known for it. Internationally.
Today, in my dream, 20 or 30 or 40 other folks and I are marching through the streets, just like we did in Seville back in the day, as they say. Guitars, flutes, and tambourines, cardboard boxes and cowbells, metal pails and plastic ones and broom handles—anything a person can carry to pluck or blow on or pound against something hard. Singing. We’re singing. Palms slap flamenco rhythms, bottles of tinto passing, great hashish clouds swirl with our toned breaths. Only it’s the streets of Jacksonville instead of La Alameda. And we’re heading for the polling stations. That’s right, baby. And it’s Cheryl Wheeler’s “Your God” we’re bellowing to brick face and allyway and one another, laughing as we go.
I was living in Seville, Spain in 1986. For the first month or so, I stayed at the Hostal Virgen de los Reyes. I got sick. Ferocious fever. Neck glands bulging and tight as drums. The works. Flattened me good.
Then, one night, the sheets were knotted bladderwrack, the way they get when it’s late and the air is wet and you’re coughing so much you feel your lungs rip and something bursts in your brain with every bark. I dragged myself out of bed, grabbed my Walkman, guitar, and a carton of wine, and went up to the roof where I hoped the air would be cooler. Thought I’d strum a bit. Drink until it made me tired. Maybe lay out under the stars.
There was a guy already there. One foot hooked on a rail behind him, he stood leaning back on the parapet, his head tilted toward a fiddle he plucked and tuned. He tossed me a nod when he saw me coming. I flung one back at him and grinned, because that’s what you do when the moon is fat and blue and the sky all glittery-like, and there’s the fiddler on the goddam roof.
The whole real/unreal thing always throws me for a loop. I don’t really get it. For something to be real, does it have to be permanent? If that’s the case, then nothing is real. Love can’t last longer than a heart, and hearts give out. Unless, of course, you believe in the long embrace of the afterlife. I mean, according to some folks, we’d be too busy to hold hands anyway, hot dogging it over brimstone or singing praises in, I don’t know, 36-part harmony? Cool idea, the singing. Walking fearless through the shadowed valley into the glorious light of the Lord, eating a trail mix of joy and bliss and berries on our way. This all feels like crap.
The answer isn’t in a classroom either. Science and philosophy regularly fumble some of the big stuff, because they are too often based on a narrowing of vision at the expense of the periphery. And not just that. Take evolution. Plenty of facts in the ground for that one. Though some of the dots may be missing, there are more than enough on the page to connect and get the picture. But to suggest evolution supports a hierarchical understanding of life, or that it justifies the endless assault of social Darwinism on our better instincts, is just mind-numbing. That isn’t extrapolation; it’s imposition. Blinkered eye out, dead eye in. But you know what they say about the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, so crap is king.
You have to see in and out at the same time. You have to look. The yearning to understand has to be stronger than the yearning to prove. And so much of understanding is in our skin.
Consider the practice of philosophy. Reading is a significant part of it. So is rumination to build synaptic “muscle.” But if you want to have something to say about the world, you have to be in it, absorb it, and be wholly absorbed by it. Not through conferences or speaking invitations or a neatly fenced program of “study abroad.” These things are fine, but limited, controlled, protected. You need to be alone and loose on the streets, in villages and jungles and deserts and cities. Starting with no direction, so you discover who you are in that place as you build the story of it with every step you take. You have to go where you’re afraid to go. That’s part of how you know you have to go there. And is it corny to say you have to be in the moment? You do. You can’t take yourself out of the equation. You can’t understand a thing without you.
Of course, not every journey is geographic. Anais Nin wrote about cities of the interior. There are worlds on both sides of our skin. Some of the best trips go both ways. Maybe love happens when we yearn for those worlds and they yearn for us and one another all at once. What trembly bliss might then ripple on the surface of our skin and under it?
But I don’t know. All that yap about dream and reality eludes me. I generally can’t tell the difference between the two. If you think you’re in love, you’re in love. The rest is just finding out what that means. You have to go there. If you’ve got a one-way ticket in your hand, it’s because that’s the only way. All that “planning” for a future you won’t get hurt in is just what you tell yourself to convince yourself it’s a good idea to get on the bus. Just get on while the door’s open.
Look, you can only get hurt to the extent it matters. And if it matters that much, what are you going to do? Sit around and think about it? Maybe pack the trail mix. I don’t know what kind.
One of the people I met when I first slid down to Jacksonville was Rob Thomas. Rob hosted “90 in the Shade,” a radio magazine on WJCT, Jacksonville’s public radio station. I’d heard the program a couple times and liked it a lot, so I was glad to find out I’d been booked to interview with him.
Rob was great. I’d been traveling and touring about, but working with him wasn’t just another gig. It was more of a good sit down with a new pal. Despite all the techy things around, I felt at home in that little Studio A. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It was all about him, really. His manner. His voice. A terrific voice. Natural. Unforced. Warm. Given to laughter. With a bit of a break in it that somehow made it comfortable to be around. You can hear it on the EP, “Live at 90 in the Shade .” You’ll see what I’m talking about.
Over a few years, Rob had me on the program more times than I can count. Sometimes planned; sometimes spur of the moment. I made sure to always have something new for him. Prose to read or a song to sing. Something to try out. “Out of the Blue” was like that. I’d just come back from the MacDowell Colony where I’d written a bunch of songs, and I kind of liked that one. Rob’s show was a chance for me to hear what it sounded like when I played it for people I didn’t know.
On occasion he had me scurrying. There’d be a sudden cancellation, and Rob would ask me to fill in. In the hour or two before air time, I’d write a song. “El Dorado” was one of those. My dreidel song, too. I’d be halfway through the show and start in on whatever new thing I had, wondering if I’d remember the words. I usually did, more or less. Or I made new ones up as I went. It was fun.
Now and again, I’d play an old tune simply because it came up in conversation. Even if I’d never played it before. Like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime.” You know, faking it. But not really. Just being in the moment. A nice place to be.
I’m talking about these things like they are in the past, like those peculiar times are gone. But about everything we think we know of time is bullshit. We imagine if we can’t put a finger on a thing, it’s not there, so we’re just a bunch of folks poking around in the dark, looking for something we can’t recall what it is. Fuck a duck. The trick is to make it up as you go along. You get better at it.
“Live at 90 in the Shade” has a few of the performances I did on Rob’s program. I don’t have many of them. Rob says he thinks he has bunch hidden away in Georgia. I hope he gets around to digging them out. I’d like to hear them again. But he doesn’t need to find them to have my thanks. He’s got that.
Go to Live at 90 in the Shade.
I always had a thing for small presses and tiny mags. I read Bukowski for the first time on typewriter paper, photocopied and saddle-stitched. Seymour Krim, Paul Bowles, Mohammed Mrabet, even Tom Waits: the list is longer than memory. I found the things remarkable. Like they were made next door. Like I could smell the wine and cigarettes still on the pages.
I read HOWL in high school, and it sent me careening, dizzy and delirious, through the streets of my town, hauling folks up by the collar, pressing their backs to walls while I wheezed breathless lines into shocked mugs. CITY LIGHTS, Ferlinghetti’s press, was the publisher. HOWL was part of the POCKET POET SERIES—the same series that introduced me to Corso’s GASOLINE, Ferlinghetti’s own PICTURES OF A GONE WORLD, and opened me like a can of party snakes. But when I found a Ginsburg poem in a homemade journal held together by a couple of staples, it was something else. Even closer somehow. More personal. More private and direct. I forget the name of the zine, but I remember the moment.
Then I met Irv Stettner, editor and publisher of STROKER MAGAZINE. He had accepted some of my work and invited me to visit him. I did, bottle in hand, and we became pals. Together, mailbags swinging from our shoulders, we pinballed tables in East Village bars and cafes, fists full of Strokers waving as we went. Irv taught to me to hawk them like the boxes of Cracker Jacks they were, each with a surprise on the inside.
That’s when I got the itch to make things like that or to help other folks make them—excellent words stuffed into bottles or homemade baskets strung to balloons and let loose on the blue. It’s not all that hard. Sure, as I recently mentioned to my friend, Tim Gilmore, the less money you have, the more muscle you need. But think what you do for the next guy or gal. The artist you boost. The reader with a chest full of snakes yet unsprung. And we have the internet. So, you know, fuck a duck.
I’m launching EAT POEMS, a series of digital EP albums, each focusing on a single poet reading his or her own work.
The first album will be THE RAPE POEMS by Frances Driscoll, a sampling of the work in her extraordinary collection published under the same name by Pleasure Boat Studios. Look for the announcement in the immediate future.
“with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.” from HOWL by Allen Ginsberg
We were a pally bunch, tramping the streets of Peterborough, New Hampshire, yapping as we went. I think the magnificent Thulani Davis was there, the great Karl Ciesluk, David Barnes of “Barnztuff” fame, and some others. We were thirsty, and there was a place I’d heard a lot about and never seen.
When we went through the doorway, I saw a small stage on the other side of the room. No one was on it. Some skinny guy behind the bar spotted me with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I always had it with me in those days. After all, you are what you carry. Then the bar guy grabbed up a short stool, walked over to me, and put it in my hand. “Buy you a beer,” he said, giving me the once over. “Another when you’re done.” I touched the brim of my hat.
I’d have done it for one.
So, I figure, there I was, glue on my fingers, not knowing what I was going to play, a stranger in a stranger land where loons totter in spilt moonlight and martinets are heard but rarely seen, their fluttering like breaths and whispers into raven ears. I had some friends in the crowd. That was smart. But all I could think, all I could really think, looking out blind from the light in my eyes, was man, man-oh-man, they oughta see this Jewboy fireman when he gets the boiler hot.
1994 Version (from “Live at the Legenday Folkway café“):