Rambling about Love and Familiarity — Music and Appreciation

When I was twenty years old the Repo Man soundtrack became a staple in my listening diet. It was 1985 and I had thoroughly enjoyed the wacky, low budget, semi sci-fi, comic adventure and I’m not going to bother reviewing either item here as I recently heard it discussed on some National Public Radio show and realized that the artistic subversion the film might have had the right to inspire in that decade had long since passed into a forgotten yawn or belch. I will quickly say that there are several solid numbers on the soundtrack, Iggy Pop doing the titular track has never left my psychic playlist with, “I’m looking for the joke with a microscope” as a conspicuous refrain. There’s a terrific cover of an old Johnathan Richman number from when he was a modern lover called “Pablo Picasso” by a band I never learned anything more about called Burning Sensations. They were probably very good. I love the sax. Fear has a track and it’s much what Fear do, sounding like heel pro-wrestlers. The Circle Jerks do a hilarious vamp of a song about welfare and lazy poverty that I had never quite noticed was tinged with fairly heavy Reaganesque conservatism. Somehow it was just funny at the time with lyrics about five pound blocks of government cheese, and unemployment lines all wrapped up with grandpa’s kitsch, “You gotta duck when the shit hits the fan.” It fit the dystopia of the film perfectly. I have always liked the term “dystopia” using it whenever I want to conjure the opposite of utopia. Though I’ve never really bothered to look it up and grok it precisely. I’ll get around to it eventually, or not (some years ago I enjoyed reading that Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann was sick of looking up the word hermeneutics every time he had to debate creationists) And we won’t even get started about the purported use and meaning of “post-modern”.
Do you love Jonathan Richman? I wasn’t really intending to talk so much about him, but I went through a phase where, for a time, I felt that every sweet thought I’d ever had was better expressed by his nervous, talky lyric delivery which ended up inspiring bands like the Talking Heads (and one of The Modern Lovers ended up in that band). All this to say that I had no idea where Richman came from. I mean he makes it clear he’s from Boston and that was fun, especially when he references things I grew up with like Stop and Shop, but, I had not realized his almost total devotion to all things Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground. All the hipsters shake their heads and roll their eyes at me, sure, but let’s face it, The Sex Pistols did not cover “Sunday Morning” they covered “Road Runner”. And so, my musical journey leaped over Lou Reed. It wasn’t until the late 80s into the 90s that I knew anything about all that dirty NYC street kid life that ended up steeped in the CBGB sounds and possibly entirely accidentally. When I was a kid I mostly loved The Talking Heads and later mostly loved The Ramones while secretly adoring Blondie. Now I’m certain that Blondie was the best thing that came out of that scene, despite my lack of interest in anything post Parallel Lines. So there you go, you can argue all you like, right? This is just a matter of taste. It didn’t hurt that Debbie was a knock-dead, flat-out, no arguments NYC Venus who made my young head spin with every image I saw of her.
So, The Velvet Underground being a decade older, and in an age that pre-dated the internet, I had no idea about anything Lou Reed except that “Take a walk on the wild side” was something I heard him rap on the radio a lot (along with “the colored girls” singing “doot do-do doot”). And I understand, I do, I know that in the midst of so many candy-coated nursery rhymes percolating out of the so-called British Invasion and the garage-rock, psychedelic movement that erupted in that wake, that Reed and company were doing some very gritty street level lyricism mixed with a shocking amount of electric noise (There are only a few songs on that White Light/White Heat album and the piece de la resistance, “Sister Ray”, is seventeen minutes long). You have to wade through a fair amount of forgettable flotsam to get to it, but it is incredible and at least somewhat inept something like a live take gone awry. Especially when taken in context. Later, when The Fall was doing “Repetition” on that cranky organ, I had imagined it revolutionary, but is anything rudimentary really revolutionary? Is a one chord jam really revolutionary? Can a one stringed guitar be revolutionary? It can shock the zeitgeist because we’re so much more refined, etc. But you can’t pretend the baby banging on the pots and pans, or the feed-backing, string scratching guitar are revolutionary, because these things are happening anyway. They are fundamental. Experimental is fundamental, fundamental is experimental and then what is subversive is sincerity and skill, and then the damned pendulum swings back so that what is subversive is back to being the primitive. When I first heard the Ramones my main listening had been progressive rock masters Yes. The garage rock metronomic power of Johnny, Joey, Dee-Dee, and Tommy simply hit the road hard in a cheap compact on worn tires. After the extravaganza of the exquisitely played Yessongs triple disk live LP they were the satisfying fat and sugar of a whopper (definitely with cheese) and a shake. But if you live long enough, you’ll find yourself circling back and around again, the same way we learn to play an instrument or learn a Tang Soo Do form. Each time orbiting the material brings us some more depth and adds to our growth, and with it appreciation of the efforts. One can appreciate recorded wildness and this was well documented long before rock music dared to stray past a twelve-bar blues format, by the likes of Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman. Magnificent noise can reveal a purity of sound appreciation that, like adding seafood to your previously strict diet, allows you to expand your consciousness.

When I was twenty I had a band, and any time we did a little gig (almost always for charity of some sort) we’d hear a contemporary dive into a rendition of “Sister Ray” or “Sweet Jane”. I had no idea what was going on when even Ian Curtis of the famous and defunct and suicided Joy Division did the same on the low-quality live vinyl sides (with hand numbering in ball-point pen) we couldn’t get enough of. I swear that it was a full on decade before I’d actually heard the actual songs on the actual albums by The Velvet Underground. And many more years before I’d bother to own it. Lou Reed gives me fits. Albums are distinctly uneven. Reed even dabbles, much like the Beatles before him, in twenties style oom-pah music (right on Transformer!). I find myself frustrated by Reed far more than even Captain Beefheart. Beefheart attempted to fuse blues rock to free jazz. What he ended up with was brilliant, but also entirely compulsively orchestrated by his brilliant musicians. My issue with Reed is different. I simply don’t understand his frames of reference for anything but his rock. I’ve never been back to albums like Berlin. And I haven’t even said anything about Metal Machine Music.
And so this leads me to my discussion of settings and loving what we love because we want to love it. And the reason is because it has meaning greater than constituent parts. For The Velvet Underground Warhol comes into it. Nico has to be discussed. There was a scene, and frankly I don’t care a bit about any of that. I’m interested in music. If music is about fashion, hairstyles, location, and posturing then the argument is made (and I’m not interested). If music is about soul, excitement, inspiration, and transporting ourselves through transcending mediocrity (boys and girls with guitars and drums) to a greater more passionate mental space, empowerment through the sound and noise, then please, let’s discuss the music. I’m less concerned about image and personalities. I don’t need to know that my favorite music is produced by particular cultural identities (first nation shamen perhaps) or how certain sexual proclivities might have influenced a particular use of tone or beat. As Foucault once said we don’t need to be concerned with the weaning age of Newton to appreciate his contribution to physics. In the same manner I am not concerned with what ethnicity my favorite authors are, I don’t need to have a life history of Lou Reed or Sun Ra to be moved by their efforts. On the other hand we’ve been pummelled with so much of it and I end up wondering if it actually hurts or helps artists to have so much of it laid on so thick. You can watch some interviews of Reed on the internet and watch him turn from silly to angry and stubborn. At first the attitude annoyed me, what’s the point? But considering all the purely personal and dopey questions coming out of the press people (for example asking him if he’s happier as a brunette or a blonde) one wonders when music will be important to the clowns. Bob Dylan was accosted by a reporter who admitted never listening to his music. Dylan smartly refused to talk to him further, why should he? Stories get invented, characters get erected by the popular consumption of these silly soul delving interests. Howlin’ Wolf was rumored to have murdered a man. An entirely apocryphal, though popular, story it turns out. Why do we need it? Did Sun Ra really think he was from Saturn, or did he enjoy playing with music aficionados and critics? In his late years it was said he could be found sitting on a park bench with an earbud, but the wire was plugged in to nothing. Was this a message or just his idea of a cute joke?

As a twenty year old kid in 1984 I was admittedly, like just about all kids of twenty years, an idiot. I felt trapped half because of setting and half because of my own idiocy. I was tremendously impatient. I had loaded myself on Vonnegut books, and hours of guitar practice. But also, had spent many long days whiling my time away walking around the woods, day-dreaming, reading bullshit self-help pop psychology books, and writing insipid poetry and stories, most of them burgeoning with a kinky sexual hopefulness that would never materialize. In short I was like everyone, nothing particularly special. But then, I started to hear more and more in the music my friends and I consumed.
We always felt late to the scene, but then every scene is something arrived at late, because they aren’t recognized as scenes until later. I love to think about the riffs bands like the Who and the Kinks exploited for their universally known hits “My Generation” and “You Really Got Me”. Imagine walking into the studio or garage or whatever and saying, “Hey guys, check this out,” and literally pounding out a two note song that just alternates back and forth. And so adding a bit of complexity to the song construction seems inevitable, after all you can only do the two chord thing for so long (the fundamental). The blues of course are generally a three chord progression, and follow just one or two patterns almost entirely across the spectrum of the entire genre. Hell, they even reuse the lyrical themes over and over again. How many times can we hear about a lady having left us, or being so broke we just want to die? But these are the universal anxieties that press our need to complain. And it does seem that emoting in some driven manner, through anxiety of some form, is a considerable motivating force.
I feel lucky that music touches me as much as it does. It mostly happened accidentally as absorbed appreciation though my mom’s choices. As a twelve year old kid I went to see Neil Sedaka perform (Billy Crystal opened for him) with mom. She loved Manilow and Diamond and Mathis. I inherited albums from my uncle and I can still remember being somewhat unnerved by The Rolling Stones as the album mentioned Satan, and had a strange three dimensional image that included the faces of The Beatles and spoofed their Sergeant Pepper’s album, and had oddball stuff on it like snoring, and carnival hawking. It was the first record I heard that was challenging. And I’m sure at the time I would not have recognized anything as outlandish as Sun Ra or The Mothers of Invention as even being music. So the answer is that exposure until familiar is what creates appreciation. Simply relying on associations is limiting.
While sitting at a friend’s house and reviewing a tape made by our band many years ago, we were interrupted by his mother who came in and wrinkled her nose, “What is that?” she asked with a clear angle toward being wholly offended by it. We responded that it was our music. “That’s not music, that’s just noise!” she said, leaving us amused. More recently while listening to a live CD of Muddy Waters performing a young graduate student stuck her head in and with much the same tone as my friend’s mom all those years ago, demanded to know what the hell it was I was listening to. With a smile I offered her the CD case and mentioned the old blues legend. She shook her head and left, clearly finding the racket unendurable. Finally, you have Slim Pickins from Blazing Saddles demanding a song from the black rail workers. When he was unsatisfied with the refined rendition of “I get no kick from Champagne” he launched into the silliest version of “Camptown Races” ever as a riposte.
And that’s all you need to know really. We love what we know, and we don’t know much. So our love is limited. We live in an age where it is almost criminal to limit ourselves because access is so widespread. We can know everything at the click of a button. Kids today have the ability to be so familiar with so much more than we could as kids. I envy that wide open ocean of knowledge at their fingertips at a time when they can sponge at will from the great collection of human endeavor. I guess we’ll soon see if it makes much of a difference. Will today’s kids be wider in their appreciation or not?

Petty Contrarian or Compulsive Angst

Think about some of the most classic entertainment themes, troubled love (so many flavors!), cheating hearts, jealousy, manipulation, and back to the top. These silly tropes entertain people of all varieties, languages, religions, modern and ancient. These are universal feels. So why do they annoy me so much?
Why is it that whenever I am faced with an old mom or a truly goofy sweet bro, I find myself desiring to puncture the cloying bubble of sugar? I want to stomp the life out of the puffball of joyous familial celebration. I want to scream “No!” at the top of my giant terrible-two inspired lungs. What is that unreasonable immature reaction I can barely contain? Am I incapable of enjoying other people’s pleasure? Am I a psychopath only interested in the misery of others?
I feel certain that the most natural thing in the world is to immediately think of contrary positions to any proposition. And the examples are endless, especially if you have any overly or at least overtly sweet people in your social media. Mothers are love, is something that can force our minds to immediately recall famous terrible mothers drowning their offspring or beating them with coat-hangers. Friends should always be honest, brings to mind the countless times lies have saved the day from awful, embarrassing and unnecessary drama. Sometimes it is clear that people want to romanticize their childhoods, or brag about their rich and budding romances. They compete with baby care photos, pet cuteness, or inspirational quotes that may or may not have been said by the cited authority, if there’s a citation at all. Many people are simply suckers for over-the-top saccharine nonsense, and if it’s not that, it’s Bollywood movie level emotional silliness that would make Morrissey cringe. People seem to enjoy over-reacting and being indignant about almost anything perceived as an opportunity to become emotional. Highs or lows don’t really seem to matter all that much the point seems to be exercise. Any child knows how to go from skronking and miserable to elation before the tears have even dried on their cheeks. Are adults much different?
The adult part of this unremarkable, indeed childish, reaction to emotional expression is possibly the keeping it to myself bit. I should think, amuse myself, and drop the desire to express the meaningless and self-involved argument that seems to well up inside.
Many acquaintances of mine, and they are all male, hate liberals. But it turns out it’s generally not liberal politics or liberal positions they are against. Most of these acquaintances are very much on-board with everyone having a good life and access to the best health-care and job opportunities etc. What they are mostly against is a kind of NPR liberal media story-telling that creates a world of (albeit largely justified) complaining. What my friends despise (though, it’s not like they don’t whine endlessly themselves) is what they’d call people being “little bitches” and bitching endlessly instead of “doing something” about their situation. This last bit is of course entirely ludicrous and a wholly ironic perception. After all their grousing is of exactly the same sort of noise but with less good reason and so they aren’t on NPR (which also probably acts to upset them further). Of course, complaining on national media is actually doing something to shed light on problems in our society so we can see where solutions need to be routed. The problem in the end seems to be that compulsive toddler response, that contrarian argument that instinctively wells up inside us to combat the endless procession of news agency delivered problems, or anything that rankles our sensibilities on social media.
Recently some friends of friends did their best to share their pregnancy and birth of twins to their social media universe. Pregnant belly photos, and milk pumping, and the tiny human larvae on display for as much of the world as they could reach through their tweets and posts. The exuberance with which this new family’s enjoyment was expressed ended up being a point of tremendous mockery for us. How dare these people flood our lives with their disgusting and wholly exaggerated excitement. The pictures of the lady posing with fruits and vegetables about the size of the twins in her tummy, the lady floating on her back in a pool with the mount of her baby belly in full focus, the lady in full display in poses that most of my lady friends found upsetting (in fact, no one is quite sure if she knows she’s been on such display!). Our discussions easily ebbed over to the possibility of the relationship being actually on the rocks, and the poetic expressions of love actually being desperate pleas that were nothing but elevated mediocrity. We snickered and guffawed at our twisting of the seemingly outlandish desire to share every last detail (we’re certain we’ll be getting full diapers soon enough), and of course, we justified our cynicism. Are they really wrong, or are we?
At least we kept it to ourselves. Not everyone did! Some complained to them directly. And at that I found myself reasonably surprised. Couldn’t you just look the other way?
Working on it.

The Compulsive Contrarian

Think about some of the most classic entertainment themes, troubled love (so many flavors!), cheating hearts, jealousy, manipulation, and back to the top. These silly tropes entertain people of all varieties, languages, religions, modern and ancient. These are universal feels. So why do they annoy me so much?
Why is it that whenever I am faced with an old mom or a truly goofy sweet bro, I find myself desiring to puncture the cloying bubble of sugar? I want to stomp the life out of the puffball of joyous familial celebration. I want to scream “No!” at the top of my giant terrible-two inspired lungs. What is that unreasonable immature reaction I can barely contain? Am I incapable of enjoying other people’s pleasure? Am I a psychopath only interested in the misery of others?
I feel certain that the most natural thing in the world is to immediately think of contrary positions to any proposition. And the examples are endless, especially if you have any overly or at least overtly sweet people in your social media. Mothers are love, is something that can force our minds to immediately recall famous terrible mothers drowning their offspring or beating them with coat-hangers. Friends should always be honest, brings to mind the countless times lies have saved the day from awful, embarrassing and unnecessary drama. Sometimes it is clear that people want to romanticize their childhoods, or brag about their rich and budding romances. They compete with baby care photos, pet cuteness, or inspirational quotes that may or may not have been said by the cited authority, if there’s a citation at all. Many people are simply suckers for over-the-top saccharine nonsense, and if it’s not that, it’s Bollywood movie level emotional silliness that would make Morrissey cringe. People seem to enjoy over-reacting and being indignant about almost anything perceived as an opportunity to become emotional. Highs or lows don’t really seem to matter all that much the point seems to be exercise. Any child knows how to go from skronking and miserable to elation before the tears have even dried on their cheeks. Are adults much different?
The adult part of this unremarkable, indeed childish, reaction to emotional expression is possibly the keeping it to myself bit. I should think, amuse myself, and drop the desire to express the meaningless and self-involved argument that seems to well up inside.
Many acquaintances of mine, and they are all male, hate liberals. But it turns out it’s generally not liberal politics or liberal positions they are against. Most of these acquaintances are very much on-board with everyone having a good life and access to the best health-care and job opportunities etc. What they are mostly against is a kind of NPR liberal media story-telling that creates a world of (albeit largely justified) complaining. What my friends despise (though, it’s not like they don’t whine endlessly themselves) is what they’d call people being “little bitches” and bitching endlessly instead of “doing something” about their situation. This last bit is of course entirely ludicrous and a wholly ironic perception. After all their grousing is of exactly the same sort of noise but with less good reason and so they aren’t on NPR (which also probably acts to upset them further). Of course, complaining on national media is actually doing something to shed light on problems in our society so we can see where solutions need to be routed. The problem in the end seems to be that compulsive toddler response, that contrarian argument that instinctively wells up inside us to combat the endless procession of news agency delivered problems, or anything that rankles our sensibilities on social media.
Recently some friends of friends did their best to share their pregnancy and birth of twins to their social media universe. Pregnant belly photos, and milk pumping, and the tiny human larvae on display for as much of the world as they could reach through their tweets and posts. The exuberance with which this new family’s enjoyment was expressed ended up being a point of tremendous mockery for us. How dare these people flood our lives with their disgusting and wholly exaggerated excitement. The pictures of the lady posing with fruits and vegetables about the size of the twins in her tummy, the lady floating on her back in a pool with the mount of her baby belly in full focus, the lady in full display in poses that most of my lady friends found upsetting (in fact, no one is quite sure if she knows she’s been on such display!). Our discussions easily ebbed over to the possibility of the relationship being actually on the rocks, and the poetic expressions of love actually being desperate pleas that were nothing but elevated mediocrity. We snickered and guffawed at our twisting of the seemingly outlandish desire to share every last detail (we’re certain we’ll be getting full diapers soon enough), and of course, we justified our cynicism. Are they really wrong, or are we?
At least we kept it to ourselves. Not everyone did! Some complained to them directly. And at that I found myself reasonably surprised. Couldn’t you just look the other way?
Working on it.

The Improved Way of the Superior Human (being an adult)

This is just an unordered list of behaviors I admire in people, and warnings about those I don’t. I see some of these things as being the biggest contributors to world difficulties.

1. Stop defining yourself – distinction comes from life well lived not who you hope you are or who you say you are. You are not any of the chance happenstances of your birth. It is fine to desire association but you aren’t it because you wear the hat or badge.

2. Pride is ugly, even the Bible got that right. Jodorowsky says: transform pride into dignity. Carlin laughs at our desire to be proud of things we have nothing to do with. May as well be proud of having a genetic predisposition to colon cancer.

3. Do not believe. Do not trust in faith. Have no use for hearsay or nonsense. Understand soul as your conscience and your conscious being. Satisfy it with experiences and widen your experiences as much as possible. An intelligent human is one who respects science because science is a process of observation, experimentation, and repeatability. Do not accept anecdote as evidence. Be polite but firm about this.

4. Learn to play an instrument, pick one, or some if you like, but practice it, learn it, allow it to satisfy you. Music has been scientifically tied to health. And learning new skills has been shown to stave off dementia.

5. Forget about talent lean on and respect and build SKILLS along with a healthy endurance, some might call it grit.

6. Argue only when you are dealing with people who matter to you. The only point in argument is to build a better relationship with your opponent. If you don’t want that, there is absolutely no point. Arguing otherwise is akin to egotism.

7. When trying to understand or decide a complex issue look first for precedent. How was the case decided previously. This guide can often have myriad interesting consequences recorded by history.

8. Never assume expertise in anything – ever. Unless you can honestly say you have it you’re a pretender, a poser, and more harm than good.

9. Only children imagine there is perfect honesty. Such a thing cannot and will not ever exist in human beings. We are not capable of it, nor do we want it. We want harmless and special lies that stroke our egos. Don’t long for too much of this. Don’t fish for compliments.

10. There is no single way, there are many paths, just as in the Tao. Keep yourself open to improvements in what you do.

Always be a student of your interests.

11. Read voraciously and widely it is the best way to learn and the finest way to practice using your brain. Also learning is amazingly satisfying as entertainment. If you usually read fiction, try some non-fiction. If you usually read non-fiction it’s time to shake it up with a novel.

12. Take many and long walks, not only is it great exercise it frees the mind to dream and create. Sometimes you even find treasures.

13. No single person can be nor should be all things to any other person. No person owns another person. No person can box and limit another person, many try, and many suffer the consequences.

14. Never brag, and name-drop gently and only about those who will remember you.

15. Enjoy your loneliness. Cultivate periods of boredom. Let yourself explore your thoughts. Introspection is an important skill.

16. Fix broken things Don’t just automatically replace them. There is a kind of satisfying subversive culture in repair.

17. Don’t imagine you can solve problems for others. You can only offer your opinions or options. You have not walked in that person’s shoes. On the other hand, if you know of a job for an out of work friend, mention it!

18. When you make a mistake, admit it, enjoy it. You are learning. Those who don’t make mistakes don’t make anything. Anyone who tells you they never make mistakes is either a liar or very lazy.

19. Sociopaths will try to milk pity from you. Don’t be a sociopath. Do not think only of yourself. Sociopaths are children who were never forced to socialize or grow up.

20. When you offend seek out the offense and treat it as misunderstanding. If the offense is unwarranted don’t think of it again.

21. Pay your bills as best you can. When you cannot, say you intend to and make arrangements. It’s easy to make excuses and pretend services were not rendered properly. Remember that expenses and problems are two different things. Problems are things that can’t be fixed with money.

22. Pay for your arts and entertainments. Support your favorite parts of culture.

23. Take up a martial art. I highly recommend Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. But virtually any that allow you to get sweaty with sparring will do.

24. Compliment your lover. Do not have sex with people you don’t respect. If you don’t think you’ll want to see them again, don’t touch them.

25. When your relationship ceases to provide you pleasure, end it. Shake your partner’s hand, and thank them for the special time you spent together. Understand that it may take a little while for your partner to adjust to the new conditions and be responsible about being a friend and helping them get over it. If you cannot be friends you shouldn’t have been together to begin with. If the case is you should not have been together be very kind and apologetic and be responsible for your fuck up. Do not make an enemy do not create hate. This does not mean show up for the birthday party, but you should send a card.

26. When you have ceased to enjoy something don’t continue holding on to it. Let it go. Make a gift of it or sell it, but don’t let it just collect dust on your shelf. Someone out there can appreciate it.

27. Keep trying things. If it doesn’t work the first time, that’s OK you can try again later.

Unfamiliarity is actually one of people’s biggest fears. Overcoming fear of the unfamiliar is a huge step in being an adult.

28. You are not required to have children. But if you do have children they are yours. You will fully devote to them and their needs and make them your priority. Your family and friends will likely help you, but do not expect a village to care for your offspring-it is your job.

29. The roll of the dice and the risk of gaming bets (from cards to billiard balls) have inspired both prayer and statistics. Attempting to predict the chaos of the universe supplies both reasonable and irrational mental gymnastics from lucky underwear to advanced physics. Your choice is important.

The Great MES Dead at 60 . . . Is there anybody there?? . . .

I feel I should say a few words.
I’m always curious about those things we love, loved, and will love. Do they have meaning?
Mark Edward Smith, also known as MES or the poet vocalist anchor of the rock band The Fall has died (January 24th 2018). And it is perfectly meaningless, hell I didn’t know him. By all accounts, especially Ben Pritchard’s, and Steve Hanley’s (both former band mates who tell some cringingly disappointing tales) he was a difficult handful of unknowable drunkenness. But just the same I feel something, don’t I? If it’s not meaningful it’s at least noteworthy.
Kurt Vonnegut says that he met Jack Kerouac when Kerouac was unknowable. Someone set up the meeting but Kerouac was such a drunk he was basically a crazed person. Vonnegut’s son came home during the meeting and was at the time basically a hippy, with a backpack and shaggy look. Kerouac apparently launched into the younger Vonnegut angrily saying “You think you know me?!” Kurt’s son didn’t know him at all and was bewildered by the onslaught. The story is a sad tale, alcohol had ravaged Kerouac. Whatever Kerouac had once been was lost now, and the man wasn’t even fifty yet.
My good friend Joe Murphy managed to meet MES in Canada. He was on his honeymoon with our dear friend Ellen, whom he’d managed to marry in the early 90s (that long ago?). Sitting at a restaurant Joe happened to realize he was looking at MES at another table. Sure enough they were in town for a show, and Joe bought him a drink. MES came over to their table and thanked Joe. Joe told me later that MES had been seriously soused and was remarkably pungent. He offered to put the newlyweds on the guest list, but later when Joe and Ellen went to see if they were, they indeed weren’t on the guest list and they had other things to explore. No big deal, but perhaps MES in a nutshell?
We’d seen the Fall a number of times in the 80s each time with Brixie doing material off mid-80s albums Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and well as This Nation’s Saving Grace. My friends and I argued over what Fall was the best Fall, my favorite was the Fall of slightly previous albums like Hex Enduction Hour and Slates. I adored their skronking rough-edged wholly unproduced sound. Most of their recordings from the early albums sounded like one off garage tapings. Things that would never have required a studio, and part of the appeal of that was the fact that we too had a band and we too had terrible cellar recordings of our efforts. It felt right to be associated with a band that sounded something like we could achieve. There was something else though, something deeper that resonated with our little group of mates, and that was MES’s poetic cloud. He excelled in a poetry of something akin to a rock pile, or a garbage heap, or maybe a word hurricane. It was indescribable and vast. It was his own literature. No one wrote or performed the sort of verbal onslaught MES did, and probably no one ever will again. I will provide a favorite example the song is called “Leave the Capitol”:
The tables covered in beer
showbizwhines, minute detail
its a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square
its vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures of
white frocked girls and music teachers
the beds too clean
the waters poison for the system

Then you know in your brain
LEAVE THE CAPITOL!
EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL!
Then you know you must leave the capitol
straight home straight home straight home
then you know in your brain
you know in your brain
leave the capitol

it will not drag me down
I will leave this ten times town
I will leave this fucking dump
one room one room
Hotel maids smile in unison
then you know in your brain
you know in your brain
LEAVE THE CAPITOL
EXIT THIS ROMAN SHELL
then you know you must leave the capitol

I laughed at the great God Pan
I didnae, I didnae
I laughed at the great God Pan
I didnae, I didnae, I didnae, I didnae
Leave the Capitol
Exist the roman shell
Then you know you must leave the capitol

Pan resides in Welsh green masquerades
on Welsh cat caravans
but the monty
Hides in curtains
grey blackish cream
and all the paintings you recall
all the side stepped cars
all the brutish laughs
from the flat and the wild dog downstairs

MES delivers all that over a very catchy riff and a tight performance of the band. I don’t think they ever did this one live for us, but I always loved it. You should go listen to it on the Youtube. He somehow makes it all fit makes it all feel like you’re listening to a pop song. Do we know what he’s talking about? Hell does even he? Bob Dylan used to rave about that, the people, especially the conservative ears, waiting desperately for his attack on mainstream culture or the meaning of the Vietnam War. They wanted so much to hear in his lyrics a clear message to their youth that was inciting them to reject the world they’d worked so hard to create (or so we all like to think, really the world is an accident of the many independent activities). Dylan always refused to agree, asked instead what things meant to people who listened to him. I don’t know if MES wrote the same way, if he was blank and just letting it happen. But it is an artist’s way. Art often enough is a bridge we build to someplace we don’t know, and crossing a distance we have no idea about, and lastly providing a reason or purpose that is entirely non-existent. Luigi Serafina some thirty plus years ago created a whole encyclopedia, that is occasionally added to over the years, of a non-existent world full of non-existent animals and plants, invented natural phenomena, occupations and activities that cannot be interpreted as the language of the Codex Serafinianus is also an artful creation. It is possibly the most useless thing ever painstakingly made, but it is nonetheless beautiful and inspiring. The author said he wanted to create, in part, the feeling of a child looking at a book before reading was possible.
MES’s lyrics remind me of this, though I’m sure there are meanings in some of his lines, and I’m sure some of the mess is reflective of his beloved pub culture, and of course football. He was a blue collar working stiff once, and once said that if the band didn’t work out, that he’d just go back to working at the docks. A little lyric book, half in German, we bought early on in the Fall’s career called The Fall Lyrics has a bit of a blurb about the albums the songs come from, “Fit and Working Again”, it reads, is about regeneration.
Another example called “A New Face In Hell”:
Wireless enthusiast intercepts government
secret radio band and uncovers secrets and
scandals of deceitful type proportions
aghast goes next door to his neighbour
secretly excited as aforementioned was a
hunter whom radio enthusiast wanted
friendship and favour of
a new face in hell
nearly a new face in hell
a muscular thick-skinned, slit-eyed neighbour
is at the table poisoned just thirty seconds
before by parties who knew of wireless
operator’s forthcoming revelation.
A new face in hell
a prickly line of sweat covers enthusiast’s forehead
as the realization hits him that the
same government him and his now dead
neighbour voted for and backed and talked
of on cream porches have tricked him into
their war against the people who enthusiast
and dead hunter would have wished torture
on. A servant of government walks in and arrests
wireless fan in kitchen for murder of his
neighbour.
A new face in hell
the dead cannot contradict sometimes the living cannot

You get a feel for his rambling storytelling which sounds a lot like so many blue-collar stories bandied about mostly urban legend-like. He’s good for slogans too, crazed things, “Stop talking to the cigarette machine!” and things chanted like “senior twilight stock replacer!” from a much more recent vintage. But I shouldn’t spend all my time just dishing these things up for you, it’s much more fun to get lost in the whirlwind of his blue-collar lit-wit.
I’ve read his book, called Renegade. It’s a bit of a mess, it starts off defensively as at the time Ben Pritchard’s harsh criticism of MES had put him on his heels. Pritchard was frustrated with MES as he was constantly abusing people and the final straw was this moment when MES was pouring beer over their tour-bus driver’s head going 80mph down the highway. Another old band mate earlier on, Mr. Hanley, tells the story of the brawl that actually ended the band to my mind it should have been impossible to resurrect it. I was unaware that they’d actually split over a fist fight in NYC in 1998. My then wife and I actually went to see The Fall in London that summer and it was MES with a couple of ladies on guitars (we hadn’t a clue who they were, and I was in a bit of a shock not seeing Scanlon or Hanley on the stage). I joked that it must be his daughters.
MES recounts the fight, it doesn’t sound good though, and I feel like it had to have taken its toll on him psychically. Of course, MES rallies and says that if it’s him and your granny on a bongo it’s still a Fall show! OK why not. Captain Beefheart wasn’t much different and doesn’t Robert Fripp recreate King Crimson every few years?
There are ramshackle poetic word salad bits in the book as well, but they don’t seem to me to hang together. I sense randomness, chaos, perhaps something like Uranium spitting out particles that can’t be predicted. MES in decay.

When Bowie passed, just a little while ago, I thought: holy shit if even David Bowie has to die . . . what chance have we got?
Sometimes I think, it’s not really important, these things we love. We fall in love for no good reasons. We fall in love with things we make ourselves familiar with, and then we harangue friends and acquaintances with it all. You didn’t love Abba? You’re crazy! Abba were great. And maybe so, maybe so, but I had MES, still do, hell I’m spinning the 2017 New Facts Emerge and I swear there’s no break in the excellence. I did not see, but I heard that he was now performing from a wheel chair. I don’t know if I care to look that up. I’d rather remember my slang king in his Guess jeans mumbling into his pocket tape recorder and shouting, “For all those who’s minds entitle themselves and whose main entitle is themselves shall feel the wrath of my bombast!”
The great MES! Imitable is the word for him. Where are we going to get another one?
His vibrations will live on.

Meeting Erika and Seeing The Fall C. 1986 (Excerpt of Near Do Well)

I am inspired. I meet Erika over at she and Rod’s apartment in Arctic, and I immediately start some kind of wholly loopy argument with her about the invalidity of The Cure being a worthy band to devote to. Erika for her part is far too easy to rile up about her beloved Robert Smith.
Erika is tall, slender, elegant, has a terrific relaxed, mellifluous, voice that crackles with excitement occasionally and rises dramatically in pitch when it does. She has soft round cheeks, big wide-set golden eyes, and exceedingly delicate features. Some beauties don’t seem possible. I have to keep looking at her to see if what I’m seeing is real. She talks with her elegant hands making graceful gestures that reveal, to my mind, a sophistication. I cannot take my eyes off her, and when her eyes are on mine I feel a little extra heat.
The Cure have always just seemed kind of boyish in comparison to the level of Mark E. Smith’s wry, observational, literate, ranting. What I call his old-man delivery. A Mancunian accent peppered with his speech habit of adding an “uh” to the end of each phrase, “Underground medicine-uh, underground medicine-uh”. His poetry is loaded with references to Greek gods, the occult, modern and old Brit culture, and what turns out to be a powerful love of English football. Mark E. Smith maintains himself as a blue-collar workman. He was a longshoreman before The Fall, an everyman poet. I find this distinction important. I respect the working-man artist.
“But The Cure aren’t about anything, the lyrics are a kind of universal pop song, with the exception, maybe, of ‘Killing An Arab’, everything else is aimed at the pop charts. You can’t be arguing that that “Love Cats” thing is anything but chart trash . . . ” I’ve got her at the mere mention of this one. A pain seems to have forced a convulsion starting in her impossibly slender lower spine.
“Ooh, you skipped a lot of good stuff in your rush there, . . .” she waves a slender hand, her voice cracking a pitch higher.
I smile. Here we go, it’s Robert Smith vs. Mark E. Smith. It was almost obvious for Morrissey to create a band called The Smiths, now wasn’t it?
“Well give me a song by The Fall that rivals ‘Killing An Arab’ then,” she says, holding her chin up from her comfortable arm-chair.
I don’t have a response really. The closest gun-toting song by MES isn’t about a Camus novel, it’s basically a sort of news item he may or may not have invented about—well, some idiot who shot his wife. Smith mentions novels, musicians and writers from time to time, such as Wilson’s Ritual In the Dark, which I haven’t read. While it’s perfectly ridiculous to argue taste, to attempt to justify these favorite things being better than other people’s favorite things, I still devote myself to it. I can’t help it and I am still not-so-secretly sure that I’ve got the right to do such, that I’m justified imagining my things better than the things of others, because, well, I imagine I devote more, care more, am moved more, am more introspective than the average Joe. But I also maintain the argument because if I don’t it might cause her to stop paying attention to me.
I’m sitting on the floor, feeling like we’re a bunch of very cool folks of intellectual depth, listening to records and talking about the various qualities of our favorite artists. What could be better?
In a nutshell I’m fond of The Fall’s uncompromising garage-rock style, they took punk rock, which took earlier garage rock to another level of angst, and created a new music. Next to The Fall so much else seems overproduced and unrealistic, full of back-up singers, overdubs and other studio tricks.
“In my opinion all you boys into The Fall are confused. I don’t think you can understand what he’s talking about. He’s writing about experiences you guys aren’t having—living in Manchester, or whatever,” she’s got me on this.
This is, in fact, a problem with MES’s lyrics, much of his work is definitely setting oriented, about northern English experiences, that I’ve not and cannot have. But I don’t care. I enjoy his weirdness, his surrealism, his lack of interest in pop song lyrics, his stories about J. Temperance. It’s a delivery, and an art, why must it be easy to understand? He’s a punk rock Thomas Pynchon. There are no love songs, no spelling songs, nothing done just to be pretty, nothing done just for appeal.
Rod runs back and forth switching albums, “You guys like Fear?”
“They’re OK,” Moshe says lackadaisically, exhibiting excellent detachment cool.
Rod only lets “The Mouth Don’t Stop” play—not a song you typically want to play for the ladies—and then switches to The Dickies.
Vinny is fondling Rod’s records, he’s got some nice ones, some oddball stuff too, an original 3D cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request (the one where you can search out the faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo in the artwork (though I fail to find one of them!)), and some fascinating French stuff I never heard of, Les Rita Mitsouko and Jean Michel Jarre. Also Rod isn’t afraid of blank-jacketed bootlegs of things. He’s got bunches of PiL and Joy Division live shows that sound as though they were recorded from outside the venue with the microphone possibly inside someone’s shoe. The bootleg records are in plastic bags, have hand-written numbers on them in ball-point. Vinny wants to hear them all, even the really bad ones. Vinny’s a classic Ian Curtis obsessive.
Ty leans against the wall, smiling. I suspect he and Vinny have already smoked a bowl before we picked them up.
I reach for, and pull out a Crass album with a photo of a sex doll in black in white on it, and Rod is on me fast.
“Have you heard that? You need to hear that.”
Crass had formed early in the punk stream and disbanded by the time I heard the first Crass song.
Everything is in our hands all at once. Dates on these records seem all to be simultaneous to us, our access to them is limited by our funds and the crap record outlets at the mall, or the lousy Strawberries (though I got all the Buzzcocks albums from their cut-out bin!). It’s a while before anyone gives us a good place outside of Boston to buy our music.
Rod has more than we’ve seen available. It happens that Rod has been around a bit, he went to NYC with his previous band, spent a bunch of time trying to rekindle the origin of the punk scene with a bunch of potheads called Buddha’s Palm, apparently after a kung-fu movie killing blow.
“Oh Rod,” Erika scrunches up her pretty nose.
“Erika’s not a fan,” he smiles at me, he-he-hes out the side of his mouth as he slips the Crass disk out, and before long has what I quickly learn is Eve Libertine snidely ranting about falling about in a pair of red high-heels, being a vulnerable slave of fashion, or something. I find it sexy, somehow appealing—but I know I’m probably not supposed to. The vocal is in that very declaratory-accusational style, the urgency of a newly quit smoker telling you about your smoking dilemma. She’s doing her best to impress me with how wrong I am, what a bad man I am. Fine lady, whatever you say.
I’m sitting close to Erika’s tiny, stocking-clad feet, very bony little things, cables and wires. I noticed her tiny Peter Pan boots by the door when I came in. She’s the only lady in the room with the five of us music obsessed boneheads. I want her vulnerable in a pair of red high-heels.
I wonder how I can continue to keep her interest, no sense in delivering endless Robert Smith put downs. Truth is I like The Cure, especially the moody Pornography with the creative drum patterns, but also pop songs like “Plastic Passion” are addictive fun. There are few song-smiths as clever as Robert Smith.
Rod is switching it up again. he wants to compare something, note the depth of drum tone on Live at the Witch Trials. This makes me grin, it’s a Fall album. Erika’s mouth is twisted to the side with a sweet amusement, she’s playing with me. I bump the foot nearest me with my hand and she play-acts kicking me with a smile.
Cute!

Erika knows her way around Boston like a pro and promises to get us to the Spit to finally actually see The Fall touring their The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall album. She orders me to take up both lanes as she hasn’t decided which exit to take yet, the boys in the back of the van are discussing the various merits of jello-wrestling with Muriel Hemingway. I’m feeling so adult, responsible for blocking the road at Erika’s command.
The Fall take the stage while we try to pick lint off our black-lit trench coats. The opening phrases of “Lay of the Land” drone over the crowd. The band with Brixie, such a cute monkey-girl, chanting “lay, lay, lay”, I hear Smith but don’t see him. He’s begun the jeremiad, “Armageddon, . . . this beautiful tree, . . . boo hoo, . . . give up livin’, . . . I’m who I . . . be given!!—” And then he stands up, ah, so he was laying down, there he is, nerdy, bony, after so many pictures, he’s so tiny. He’s wearing a pair of Guess jeans, and this I find almost too funny. A kind of weird-ass embrace of fashion strapped onto a man whose bony little behind will never embrace anything like a fashion beyond being a kind of poet and rock artist—Guess jeans! I get this joke! I have no idea if he intends it, but, of course, he can’t help this. I smile broadly, dumbly, he’s our sage, our guru.
The band kicks off the song in a simultaneous bluster of power and it is arguably one of their most arresting rockers. It has an almost Arabic-influenced swing to it. I feel more than hear the heavy bass driven riffs of Steve Hanley’s no-nonsense box patterns, driving the music. After Smith, Hanley is The Fall’s sound. I study Craig Scanlon’s lefty technique, and I cannot see how he can be playing guitar. His hands barely move, his rhythm hand without rhythm.
This is the first time I’m seeing my favorite band and my heart is pounding. Who are these people who have managed to inform me so? What are they really like? Would I be disappointed? Do I need to know? And then while I’m standing behind Erika she leans back into me, and I put my arms sort of around her, hold her shoulders, and she just kind of lets me. I am excited and a touch worried by this, but it seems entirely unremarkable to anyone else. The crowd hides us. I embrace her secretly.
All the way home we’re obsessing about the show, every nuance, did you see this, did you see that, that was the coolest thing, Brixie stepping back with the megaphone, MES using his pocket cassette recorder intermittently with his live vocals. . . . Rod is excited about Karl Burns’ powerful drumming style, he is certain it’s his style too, just like he plays.
By the way, we have a band too. We struggle with our own version of cellar rock in my parent’s basement. But ours is a band with issues, we struggle over originals. We’re all writers, all artists, all Fall lovers, and we’re all ridiculously critical of everything. We agree on almost nothing, argue incessantly and disturb one another’s wa.

Near Do Well : prologue


Chapter 1
PROLOGUE

“The first god had in his garden, from the back, looked like a household pet, but when it whirled round, was revealed to be a 3-legged black grey hog!” Mark E. Smith “Garden”

Confucius once said that listening stops with the ear and the mind stops with recognition. And I think this is absolutely correct.
Most people don’t listen to music. I’m talking about really listening, not just singing along or tapping a foot in time to some moronic stadium anthem. I mean something about deep perception, a sort of state of enhanced-consciousness, taking in the tones and styles of the instruments and musicians and their creative processes. I’m talking about listening to the specifics of the poetry, reaching a kind of self-transcendence that lets you go entirely inside the collective bits that comprise that wavy signal, that sinusoidal form that a stereo nearly magically picks up through a needle and pushes out to the paper cones. Most people have never bothered to look at it, study it, or wonder about it.
I suppose most just take it for granted, the way we accept our collective obsession with blue jeans or cheeseburgers. Music just is. But it’s madness (like Killing Joke stomps out) that it actually works. Madness that the differences between horns and strings and percussion are nuances that can be identified.
You might say, so what? You might say, people have more important things to do, more important things to think about.
But I doubt it.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Top five albums by The Fall in descending order of greatness:
Slates, Etc.
Dragnet
Live At the Witch Trials
The Hex Enduction Hour
The Wonderful and Frightening World of . . .

When the boss comes back, roaring up in his newly traded-in for Dodge pick-up, he’s soused of course, and we’re busy. I’m cleaning out a sod aerator, tapping a flat-headed screwdriver into each of the sharp steel plug pullers to knock out the packed-in dirt. The boss saunters over to the mechanic’s bench behind me and belches gently. He pulls out his pistol—a little .25 caliber auto thing he likes to carry around in his pocket—and unloads it into the stained wood top of the mechanic’s work-bench while laughing in a wheezy smoker’s cough, his legs splayed to steady himself. The mechanic’s busy up front with a landscaper, so there’s no one to appreciate the bullets drilling into the dirty hardwood of the workbench but me. Tack! Tack! Tack-Tack-Tack! By shop standards, this isn’t much noise but it is rather unsettling just the same. He looks over at me through his boozy grin and I nod at him with a half smile. I add it to a mental list of the earned privileges of the working man. Something to look forward to perhaps.
The boss had been gone all day at his girly show hang-out, one of those masturbation facilities that has girls shake their stuff while men drink and make ridiculous remarks to them, sometimes even over breakfast with the “Legs and Eggs” show.
“Goddamned Monigs,” the boss laughs, poised for my response.
“What’s a Monig?”
“It’s a Narragansett Indian, only they’re more nigger than Indian! Ha ha ha!”
“Ah, I see.” That’s about the speed of it after lunch. At least it wasn’t another “That’s what she said!” joke. Often enough used when there wasn’t a hint of it being properly humorous. Man, traffic was awful this morning. That’s what she said!
This morning, idling behind his paper, under his Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour, streaked with silver, he’d held forth about his solution to the Irish problem, which was, inexplicably, to give Ireland to Scotland.
“Har har har, that’ll teach ’em.”
“What makes you think Scotland wants ’em?” I shrug, not being entirely facile on the topic, but also finding his idea entirely nonsensical. Of course, later on I find out that he’s got some kind of remote ancestry in Scotland.
I’m stuck in the back room with him, washing rental dishes in a small industrial washer that produces a lot of heat and steam. The dishes stink, rammed into green, wire racks, greasy with food residue. But he’s already on to his next topic, knowing I’m a music fan he’s dropped the paper and points out a story about 2 Live Crew. “You know about these pieces of shit?”
“Not my thing,” I say quickly looking at the paper and then away. Though I can’t deny the purest desire to indulge in fantasy about those ladies’ beautiful asses on the cover of that record, the cover image published in a tiny black and white photo in the paper, as if to suggest we should be offended by their bathing suit clad gorgeousness, the smallest one, her hair flying in the beach breeze catches my eye. As Nasty As They Wanna Be . . . as if to suggest that they’re kind of trying. Of course, the ladies face away from the camera, which, you know, objectifies them, and we’re supposed to . . .
“Niggers. These are niggers pure and simple, I’m not saying there aren’t white niggers, there are,” he peeks over his glasses rims at me, making sure I’m paying attention to his high dudgeon, “trust me, but these fuckers are niggers,” his finger thumps in a kind of time with his offensive rant.
He, of course, is much more offensive, as far as I can tell, than anything 2 Live Crew produced. “Me So Horny” is just trashy musical porn from all I can gather. The hooker, the Vietnamese one, ripped off from the Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket saying “me so horny” over and over. I’m not sure I understand the boss’s outrage beyond the fact that they are bold black men making money with porn-influenced rap. There is a stack of trashy and somewhat gooey porn right behind the boss that’s been salvaged out of the dumpster behind the adult bookshop stationed right next door, no less, by his chain-smoking son Kyle. Porn salvaged from a dumpster. So I’m kind of phlegmatic about it. It’s a meaningless outrage, like so much of the boss’s grandstanding. That’s what she said!
But then, I’m also instantly reminded of my own paternal grandad, a typical card-playing, beer-quaffing good-fellow of Providence, spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery, saying to me one fine afternoon on the parent’s porch, “Take that Bill Cosby, now he’s a nigger, but he’s done well for hisself”. Grandpa’s lesson, was apparently, that in our land of plenty even a man as handicapped with darker skin color as Bill Cosby has opportunity. So what was my excuse?
“These pieces-of-shit should just be lined up and shot!” the boss blusters. This is his favorite solution, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds it the way a ball-bearing rolling the steep sides of a bowl eventually settles in the bottom—he’s attracted to it. This is his gun-toting tough-guy version of “Amen”. Everything he disagrees with or feels offended by should have a bullet put between its collective eyes, and he relishes the opportunity to ejaculate this hot little sermon. You can almost see him fantasizing it behind his steel rims.
“Why? They’re just havin’ fun, you don’t have ta listen to it,” ill-advised, never give the boss a chance to wage his lazy-ass, table-side war against you. You’re handy after all. He doesn’t even have to get up to get himself sufficiently riled. “Plus, they’re making butt-loads of money off it, even banned, maybe because it was banned . . .”
The finger returns to stabbing out his points, “Let me tell you something, you didn’t grow up with these people! You grew up in a kind of Disneyland compared to what I went through. These people are worthless shits, they’ve never accomplished anything, no nigger ever discovered electricity, or invented the lightbulb—these bastids should be shot!” A bit of spittle on his lips, his eyes gleaming over his rims.
I probably could have mouthed this last bit along with him. I even sometimes start repeating it in my own macho-bullshit way, “Shoot the bastids!”, about the Quayle in the Bush, especially. I nod solemnly, he signs my check after all, Richard Morrill.
Boss Morrill often demands you behave the way he imagines he would in your position. Which is most often ludicrously. He loves to cajole you into turning against the red light, or pressure you to take the illegal left across the oncoming lane to pick up the Route 95 on-ramp. When you’re on the phone with people, he’s in your other ear telling you what to say to them, and it’s not friendly, even if you could effectively listen to him lecture you aggressively in one ear and a customer complaining in the other.
“You tell that spic es-oh-bee that we’re gonna call the police and you’ll see how fast they suddenly recall who Ramone is, ees not hee-er, bullshit!” he’s glaring at you, you’ve become the object of his rage.
He wants you to wrap some tape around the chewed up cord on the trap snake and send it back out for rental. People are forever cutting the ground posts off the electrical plugs, because the old houses don’t have ground outlets. We are supposed to put new plugs on them, mention to the customer that we can give them an adapter. But he has you send it out on the next rental anyway.
He laughs about you paying the three dollar disposal charge the garages put on your bill to throw away your old tires, but his old tires are stacked up in the back of the rental facility. He’s getting a pretty good collection of them back there. Better there at least then on the sides of the road where they usually end up dumped by those folks who refuse to be “suckers”.
We’re always counting the numbers of pressure washer spray tips. I have dreams about these tips. They are always getting lost (the quick-disconnect collars don’t always snap right back into locking place, customers pull the trigger and 4000psi of water shoots the tip off the end of the wand—gone!), customers argue they didn’t have all five when they left the shop. Too often, we don’t have all of them, and we send out the units with three or four nozzle tips (someone is supposed to record this on the contract). The boss flips his lid every time they come back with less than five tips. You’d think this would be an easy thing to keep track of, but for some reason, pressure washer spray tips are a never depleting source of the boss’s rage. He both doesn’t care on the front end of the rental, and cares too much about four or five dollar parts on the return.
Then, when he finally cajoles you into behaving the way he demands, becoming the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is, he then presumes you’re the same kind of irresponsible jackass he is!
“I know what you’re thinking, kid.”
But he’s terribly off the mark. I am never thinking the nasty sociopath crap he’s thinking. His thoughts are abysmal. But it isn’t hard to mimic it and I soon learn how to appear as one of the crew, “Monigs! Ha ha ha!”

The main trick to being a really tough-guy, is to affect being unmoved by anything, vileness never surprises, no beauty awes. The idea is to desensitize yourself so much that you kind of shrug off just about everything as exactly what you anticipated. Tough-guys anticipate everything. It’s basically a back-of-the-school-bus skill honed by the kids practicing one-upmanship, starting each rejoinder with the words “That’s nuthin’!” The murder of Kitty Genovese on the streets of New York City, occurring while citizens refused to assist her, pulled their curtains, horribly ignored her pleas, should elicit no more than a shrug and perhaps, “What did she expect?” from the tough guy. Perhaps a few remarks like, “You don’t walk around like that, New Yawk City? Alone? C’mon! A pretty girl—what was she thinking about?”
We have our own pretty Warwick girl, Michelle St. Pierre, recently strangled to death, or bludgeoned, perhaps both, left in an industrial park not far away from this humid, smelly, dish-washing steam bath. I feel like I knew her, but then I get them confused. Those newspaper reproductions of their graduation photos make them all look like a girl you knew from high school—the fluffy hair and the faraway dreamy gaze. The tough-guy attitude on these things is that they brought it on themselves. That St. Pierre girl was not behaving properly. Friends warned her to stay away from the jackasses she was hanging out with, plus cocaine probably.
After reading Das Boot and finally seeing the movie on a double VHS, for a while everything I thought about related to it: the almost childlike pleasure of the hunt, the gruesome futility of warfare, the terror of horrible death those young men endured in that goddamned bubble of air under the sea—of course, not too far under the sea, because the u-boat had limited depth capacity, safely only at a maximum depth of around 160 meters, that really surprised me. Old submarines were not really much in the way of sub marine.
“Tell me, why should I care about a German u-boat?” Boss Morrill turned on me one morning as I was telling him about the movie, which I thought did the book serious justice, “those fucking Nazis killed millions of people, and you’re telling me I’m supposed to care about a handful of them on their goddamned submarine?”
To be honest, I hadn’t thought of it as a story about Nazis just as a story of young soldiers who were expected to sacrifice all for their nation. But I just smiled. My interest was getting at the core of humanity. I’d allowed myself to be moved by it and that was, of course, irrefutably gay. Empathy was something no tough-guy expressed.
“Let me tell you something, my uncles fought those sonsofbitches . . . the problem with you people is that you have no memory—you’re there cheering for the enemy, trying to convince the world that it was just some kind of point-of-view, . . .” he lumbers on, filling the air with his diatribe, hating the film sight-unseen, ready to burn books he’s never read. Perhaps it’s my fault though, I did a poor job explaining it to him. I didn’t anticipate his reaction, somehow, again.
I’m continually writing my mental notes, my stories, my novels for no one, . . . no one wants this stuff, no one asks for it, but, it all goes in my notebook anyway. . . .
To be a proper tough-guy you have to find other people’s misfortune funny. Not just their poverty, or their house fires, but also their diseases are hilarious, because, obviously, sensibly—let’s be reasonable here—you’d never let anything like that happen to yourself. You have a plan, a mission, God on your side, a stack of porn you pulled out of a dumpster. . . .
The tough-guy is just like the old joke about the new army recruit who, when the sergeant says “Two out of every three of you are not coming back from this mission.”, looks at the guy on the right, looks at the guy on the left and thinks, “Ah, those poor bastards.” That’s one of my favorite jokes, seems to wrap up the condition nicely. That seems to me to actually be what gets us through our lives from day to day.
I yank the dishwasher open, pull the steaming hot dishes out of the racks and re-stack them in their green wire holders. Stack them where they can cool and dry on the wooden shelving. I’m sweating terribly. The boss won’t move. As he reads he’s shaking his head slowly in that way that seems to impart he’s imagining how deranged the world “out there” is. I remember reading someplace that the Rolling Stones got arrested for pissing on a wall in the mid-sixties maybe. They were considered very nearly something like a public enemy. Nixon even had it in for John Lennon, saw him as a serious enemy of the country. Some people saw a kind of decline of civilization based around kids with guitars.
Boss Morrill’s eyeglasses are perched about halfway down his nose. He juts his chin out and back choosing when to use them, or not, kind of like the way an old world chameleon might gauge its distance to a cricket. He is always pissed off. It’s basically his hobby. What he’s doing right now is looking for more things to fuel his rage pastime, more junk from the ProJo.
The wine glasses I can leave right in their wire racks and put the entire arrangement into the washer as is. Glasses and wire rack washed in one cycle. A blast of semi-rank steam billows out of the machine each time I open it, adding to the overall state of humidity in this slippery back room, beginning to need a hatch opened, air exchanged, a re-breather pack worn.
I’ve learned to cultivate my hate. I justify it daily. I work myself into that rage frenzy, foaming-at-the-mouth about some outrage or other. For example, a customer who comes into the shop regularly is a small elderly Hungarian Jewish fellow named Imre. Imre drives Kurt—the mechanic—crazy with his specific demands, at least once about how he wants his lawnmower blade sharpened. He only wants Kurt to do it. Imre is convinced the rest of us aren’t doing it properly, aren’t putting the proper amount of care into applying just the right shining razor’s edge on this thing he’s going to roll through his lawn and dirt. When he’s talking to Kurt about this, Kurt is at first polite, but soon he realizes his time is being wasted. Imre plans to spend the day haranguing Kurt about the sharpness of his lawnmower blade. A blade I actually sharpened.
“Kooert, Kooert!” Imre moans, and waddles over to Kurt’s bench looking like Humpty-Dumpty.
I am amazed by the fact he’s actually got a number stamped on his forearm, a relic of the fucking Holocaust.
“Da boyz, dey don’t take da time, Kooert.” It’s fine, Kurt explains to him, it’s just a lawnmower blade. That pretty razor’s edge will be gone as soon as you start cutting with it.
“No Kooert,” and here Imre does something very odd, he hooks the index finger of his pudgy right hand into the top of Kurt’s pants, right behind the belt buckle, and begins tugging, like a child pulling at his mother’s skirt. Kurt disentangles himself from the strange little man who stares through huge bottle-bottom glasses. At this point Imre has not only upset Kurt, but he’s also managed to cut himself on the lawnmower blade. “You see how sharp it is!” Kurt points out to him. Imre is unmoved, “No Kooert, iz not sharp!”
And now, of course, I’m angry at the fussy bastard. When I think about Imre I can conjure up that desire to punish the public. Imre is a Holocaust survivor, and I can’t stand him.
After an hour or so, the boss has switched to flipping through a gun magazine, settling on an article about the relative merits of 0.223 caliber as opposed to 7.65 millimeter ammunition. I prefer this quietude to when he’s reading those goofball home-invasion fantasies that always seem to be packed into these rags the way Playboy has a dubious sex forum, clearly a form of porn. They are always written in a self-congratulatory style, and Boss Morrill takes them at face value. Old folks’ homes are invaded. Patriotic, former veteran, elderly homeowners, pull out their Peacekeepers and rid the world of thugs. I can picture Rooster Cogburn in every such story. But the stories don’t end there. In another popular tale someone has stolen a JATO and attached it to his car. I didn’t know what that meant, so Boss Morrill explained that it’s a rocket attached to overloaded aircraft to help them get into the air. The story continued by describing how this fellow somehow stole one, somehow attached it to his car, and somehow fired it up. The rest of the story was a humorous description of the tires burning off the car and the car being slammed into the side of a mountain. It sounded pretty suspect, especially as the narration was having so much comic fun with it, calling the foolhardy adventurer “Swifty” and discussing how his last moments must have been spent trying to reverse the course of actions that were rapidly to end his life. I wondered aloud if it were possible. Boss Morrill just glared at me over his glasses his good humor now interrupted.
The guys also love the rage they feel when they recount this other story, too many times. You might hear this thing every day for a month. It’s about the Hispanic man who rents a lawnmower and decides to trim his hedges with it. “He sticks his goddamned finguhs unduh the thing and picks it up and trims ‘is fuckin’ hedges!” Kyle is impersonating the action, squatting down, pretending to lift a mower, mimes using it as a hedge trimmer (an awkward idea at best) “It even works for a while, but then, brrrrrzt! He loses his finguhs!” The punchline is he sued the rental company for not having a warning label in Spanish, telling him not to cut his hedges with it, and the kicker, of course, is he won! The guys stare at their audience wide-eyed, waiting for the outrage. “Crazy fucking world!” They tell this story, this obvious urban legend, which contains so many tough-guy axes to grind, as a kind of warning, not just about the untrustworthiness of foreigners, but of the unknowable legal miasma that is, more likely than not, to screw the good hard-working American. And lastly because our liberal society does not require English to be a requirement, and on and on.
Then the guilt sets in, guilt I can’t do anything about. Problems I can’t fix, people in the world, I know, who would kill to just have the water I get to drink every day. So, how dare I complain. I have a job, I have an income! There are seriously poor people in the world. I feel sorry that I, through some cryptic process of random, Brownian-like motion, ended up over here and they over there. I have a rattle-trap of a vehicle, a 1976 Chevy sport van, red, flipped once. I have a second story apartment I share in West Warwick with two mates. My own bedroom is tiny but nice enough, a twin futon, a book pile, a boombox and a turntable, a Sansui—I was talked into buying even though it’s a weird linear-tracking turntable and often has difficulties playing albums that have sides longer than the usual eighteen minutes or so. Maybe I should stop complaining so much, I’m lucky. Though I did get that stinking speeding ticket on the connector to Apponaug, cop was rude too, assuming me a thug. I’m just trying to get by, just trying to get to class. Another fantasy, trying to climb the ladder through the education system.
I load another set of dishes in the steam and greasy chemical stench of the washer. I wish the boss would get the fuck out so I can put the radio on. So I can relax a bit. So I can maybe look over the paper. Monday morning dish-washing is a chore, but I don’t mind it if I’m left alone. There’s not a lot of pressure about keeping busy as long as the dishes are getting done. Kyle and Kurt hate doing the dishes and will stay away from the back room as long as I’m taking care of it.
So keep the mouth shut and do the dishes, don’t argue with the boss. Don’t encourage his hanging around. It is the best job I’ve had so far, hell, I can sleep at night, . . . there are even some benefits. And considering what it costs to pay rent and feed the gas tank, back and forth to the university, (I put courses on credit cards!). . .
I return to my mental notes, these ideas and feelings I scribble in notebooks. These become ranting letters to friends, or superbly self-indulgent poetry and ludicrous missives to girls I really like, who, I no doubt, bewilder. . . .
Frankly, the fast food starts to lose its flavor, and the “freedom” we’re all supposed to be so grandly infused with, so we don’t forget how special it is, like soft-serve dropped straight from heaven into our wide-open, fat mouths, well, it doesn’t seem like much in the way of a life. But, we do get compensated for it. That’s why they call it work, right? And, we kind of allow this, right? We kind of agree to be working our way toward a middle-class. Not just being slaves, but living lives worth living, or at least, maybe looking forward to that down the road. Living lives with value, if we just put the hours in. . . .
Frequently, the fellows compare their shop to another hilariously inept, family-owned, rental business in West Warwick called E-Z Rentals. We love to send folks to them as an alternative to us, as usually those customers come running back. E-Z Rentals is a third world risk compared to us, a box of broken crackers.
Red-bearded Randy “Hutch” Hutchins and his doughty sister Anne run the shop, which is a shambles located behind the long defunct West Warwick rollerskating rink. Sometimes Randy calls us and he always says “This is Randy from Eezee Rental”, in a voice that sounds as though his tongue were too big for his mouth, too heavy to lift, it is always obviously him, as soon as he utters his first syllable we always join him chorusing his “. . . is Randy from Ee Zee rental”. He never responds to this with amusement, he just says “Yeah.”
A customer told us Randy rented him a 100 CFM compressor that had no battery. Randy pulled the battery out of his Pontiac and put it into the compressor so that the compressor could be started and sent out on the job. Randy left the hood of his car open until the compressor returned. We guffaw about that one.
Randy often wants to go in on table or chair rentals with us, borrowing from us and splitting the profit. Randy’ll show up with a fourteen-foot U-Haul truck he rents to himself, writes up a contract for it and everything. We chuckle about this as we use the U-Haul trucks indiscriminately, but we don’t bother paying for them. Stupid Randy. Perhaps though, this kind of comparison shouldn’t really be the most gratifying. Just because we clear a higher hurdle than E-Z does doesn’t necessarily mean we’re especially praiseworthy. Worse, we don’t respect them at all, so what sort of comparison does it make?
My notebooks are full of mulled over disappointment, how could you not be disappointed? . . .
Maybe I’m not appreciative enough—another aspect of the built-in guilt mechanism. Maybe when I look out the window of our apartment over the rolling mill-town landscape I should see advantage, or I should see opportunity, but what I see is gray. Ranks of ramshackle houses, looking for all the world like any clapboard, slapped-together, third-world town anywhere just waiting for an earthquake and tsunami or a good fire. I see the neighbor’s little, white epileptic dog twitching in the yard, on its side, trying hard to work its feet, oblivious,. . . then, there’s the steeple of a church, and then there’s a steeple of the old mill a powerful granite tower, looking something like a castle, its riverside stone body green with algae. The tower in its day would have housed the bell to wake the workers, measuring their days, competing with their religious devotion to the church bells. Work and God, the ancient dual devotions.
The little dog, over its pathetic seizure, snuffling around in the grass again, some kind of lesson there, making the best of it, or something. . . .
I have this sense of desperately desiring to be part of some kind of serious wisdom, some kind of contribution to something meaningful, I want to be able to be proud of something. . . .
Looking back at what I did to get where I am, would I do it again? If the last ten years had been revealed to me, right down to every last shit and tooth-brushing right at the start, would I bother to do it? Seriously, unless you’re a princess someplace—what are you looking forward to? Isn’t most of our time spent hoping something good is going to happen? And if we could clearly see that nothing good was really going to happen, would we bother to endure it? So then why endure it the first time, that’s the question that really scrapes at me (this term “scrapes”, incidentally, we adopt in place of “sucks”. Sucking is a pleasure, soft, arousing. If something is terrible it doesn’t suck, it scrapes—yes, down there!). So maybe none of us look very carefully, we believe in a kind of lottery even if we don’t play the real thing, keep hoping that the prayers are gonna work, that we’re deserving, that someone loves us and that good shit will come. We believe that hard work will be rewarded, and this is clearly untrue. I’m not even sure I’m convinced that it’s a harmless untruth. But if we don’t believe it, how could we keep getting up in the morning? How could we keep even a modicum of motivation? . . .

Boss Morrill suddenly stands up from the table, “Try not to break any more dishes, Flower.” Flower because I generally use some cologne. He calls it an Italian shower.
“I’ll try.”
What I try is not showing too much exuberance about his exit.
The recipients of my writing efforts, the poor bewildered young women, are always polite, but they never respond to me. . . .
Who the fuck am I, anyway? How did I end up here? I’m someone who took on a bunch of debt, could be five grand, could be ten. The terrible thing is there’s really nothing to show for it. I wasted that money, blew it on stuff: repairs on old heaps, tires that long ago wore out to pass inspections, clothing I’d need for interviews for jobs I didn’t get, haircuts, gas to get to the classes, the courses themselves, food, books, and treats.
It’s all one big crap shoot. We all just bump around til we get lucky, and then we pretend that was the plan all along. I learned that from The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and from watching pro-wrestling. Always lay out the history of your success like it was a grand plan. No one is much interested in the endless failing attempts, they just wanna hear about your genius and celebrate their chances at opportunity.
This word “chance” we don’t think about enough, it’s loaded with subtle and dense import. It means I’m a goddamned gambler, throwing my lot in with the rest of the dumb-ass gamblers, hoping for a payout from a game entirely rigged. Of course, I hate gambling, gamblers are marks, they’re dupes, they keep the casinos rich. The keep the rich richer. But even to live we’re playing some kind of gamble.
I evade these concerns by putting off something I call “real life” for later. This isn’t my real life, not yet. These are the good enough years. This is good enough for now. . . .

But then I’m out of a job. The rental/repair shop goes under. There’s a banking crisis, and an outrageous forty five credit unions closed indefinitely, the money unavailable, people’s lives ruined—ten percent payouts. The Morrills keep the business going but do so on much reduced pay, and I’m only going to be getting hours when I’m needed. It’s hard to understand this banking crisis. I’ve never had investment money. I only use banks when I cash my measly checks, or stick some money in to support a check. And there are some odd stories of people vanishing, or jumping off bridges.
So maybe now we will see our protagonist suddenly wake up as a cockroach? . . . Instead, I roll up and down Post Road, and Bald Hill Road, and Warwick Shore, wondering where to go next, JiffyLube, Golden Lantern, Bess Eaton Donuts, but the Barnes and Noble stands out in my mind. I love books, I could live with books, sell books, no shame in that. How bad could that be? Plus, there are girls there, in dresses, in cute shoes, working the registers. Maybe I can help them find books, shelve books. Look at it as an opportunity, says the inner voice in my head.
But before all this . . .