It’s New Year’s Eve. How many of you wake up tomorrow wondering where your underwear is?
“For all of the amazing women I’ve worked with in theater and for Tennessee Williams, maybe our greatest playwright.”
When you hang around New Orleans long enough, eventually you run into someone with a Tennessee Williams story. He lived there for a long time as a young man. His plays and repartee would have one believe that he lived in the quarter and was part of that milieu. The truth is he lived out by Elysian Fields in a working-class enclave that was infinitely less glamorous and lacked the transgressive chic of the Gay Quarter culture. My friend, Henri Schindler, told me stories of Williams flirting with the waiters at Galitoire’s , while drinking the afternoons away.
He also relayed another tale of Williams, after he was famous–meaning after ‘A Streetcar named Desire’– waylaid by a group of blue-haired ladies from a book club wanting to know all about New York and Williams not quite knowing how to handle this group of curious interlopers. For all of the drunken Williams tales, he was actually quite shy, or those who knew him have told me. He is, perhaps, our greatest playwright. At the very least, he is probably our most internationally known.
Thomas Lanier Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, the son of an alcoholic and abusive shoe salesman and a fading southern belle-type mother. He was closest to his sister, Rose who, sadly, suffered from schizophrenia as she grew into her teen years . It is thought that Williams ability to write women characters with great insight and empathy has its origin in his close relationships with his sister and mother. It is rare to find anyone who writes better women’s roles than Williams.
It is hard to over estimate the impact of –A Streetcar named Desire. It made a star of Marlon Brando and also holds up today as a great play. No matter where you are in the world, the sun never sets on this work of art. Some company, somewhere, is staging it. And why not? It serves up the great thematic human desires in spades; sexual tension, madness, loneliness, abandonment and animal longing.
For zctors, this play has it all. How many Blanche DuBois wander our streets to this day; the perennial ingenues still harboring illusions about their youth, beauty and desirability? I would guess many. I mean, really. . .where do you think all of that Bo-Tox is going? And how many Stanley Kowalski’s, with their working-class furies and sexual piggishness knotted like tangled kite-string? Hell, try any Lincoln Park sports bar . . .
The one who interests me the most in this most American of plays is Stella. Stella Kowalski knows her mentally-challenged, Pop-Tart of a sister and her brutal, sexually rapacious husband are headed toward one another like two locomotives, and it has always seemed to me that she practically curtsies to get out of the way as this happens; knowing that both will exact their temporary satisfaction, as well as their own damning punishments from this act.
After Stanley rapes Blanche, he is finished as a man. Even he knows it. Blanche is taken away to an institution and grateful for “the kindness of strangers” and Williams hints that they get not only what they deserve, but perhaps, darkly, what they actually want.
My friend, the film maker, John McNaughton, just directed a stage version of Streetcar in Pasadena and loved it. He also told me a story of Tennessee Williams in observing previews for this play, cackling with laughter when Stella delivers the “kindness of strangers” line, a story passed down from a lot of people who knew Williams.
There are also stories of Williams, surreptitiously attending productions of Streetcar, all over the country and raising hell if they fucked with his play. He had many other successes, but Streetcar seemed to be the one he was most protective of. The Rose Tattoo and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were also hits. Later in life, his plays were not as well received, though recently in Chicago, Camino Real, a darkly surreal Williams play of a dead-end Spanish town, got a fitful production full of imagination and great performances at the Goodman Theater. I was bummed to have missed it, but by all accounts, it was a sexually frank, no-holds-barred imagining of a wildly misunderstood play, directed by the great Spanish director, Calixto Bielto. The reviews were mixed, but everyone I spoke to loved it and admired the fact that it was an adult piece of theater–Tennessee Williams, very close to the milieu of his own life in New Orleans, with its people for the ‘other’ side–boxers whores, poets, strippers and stoned dreamers, those Williams counted as his own, the marginalized and the mad, all coming out to dance.
On April 20th, the worst oil spill catastrophe in human history began. Today this broken drill bit is still pumping 60,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas and now, Florida. For years, off-shore drilling in Louisiana was discouraged and for a brief period of sanity, against the law. It was thought that this practice would destroy the wetlands, which it has, removing from south Louisiana any natural or ecological self defense against hurricanes and levee breeches. There is no silt build up or bedrock. This geography is mostly swamp.
The “Drill, baby, drill” crowd eventually seduced President Obama, in the name of creating jobs; even hard, shitty, dangerous jobs. The oil junkies made our President take leave of his better sense.
I don’t know what I expected from the President. I was hoping for bold strokes and the audacity of new ideas, along with the stomach and will to foster these ideas into the world. I knew that no human being could be equal to the onerous framework of hope bestowed on this President. He could not be all things to all people. His first year in office I reminded myself to cut the guy some slack. Still, I remembered the promises he made at Tulane University in 2008; how America would make New Orleans and the Gulf Coast its priority and how rare and special a place the Crescent City is. He said all of the right things to get me drinking the Kool-Aid. His only discussion about the Gulf War was about ending it; putting a halt to an immoral enterprise that has cost so many American and Iraqi lives for something that appears to be more and more every day; the easy flow of cheap gas. It isn’t worth it.
This President knew that two years ago and now he doesn’t.
The oil industry has been rat-fucking the American citizens since its inception. The early days of oil companies are rife with stories of them stealing land via eminent domain laws and slant drilling. The movie, There Will be Blood was tame compared to how this industry actually behaved. What is most vile about BP is their bullshit commercial of the last several years; the “Hey, we’re the GOOD oil company that cares about you and environment,” shuck they’ve been trafficking in for years.
Three years ago they tried to ram a “Lets dump more shit into Lake Michigan” proposal on the city and the surrounding states. These skeevy pukes spend millions on lobbyists to weasel their way around EPA regulations in order that they may continue to fist-fuck the American landscape and foul the world’s oceans. We should be fighting these motherfuckers in the streets.
The oil companies have also done a brilliant job of branding anyone who opposes their continued rape of the planet as “eco-terrorists” and sadly, a great many Americans follow these bastards through the lookingglass where dark is light and light is dark. there are a great many people working in the green tech fieds to try and lessen our suicidal dependence on oil and fossil fuels. There are organizations like Greenpeace, who are often demonized as “eco-thugs” working hard to make sure maybe someday your kid can see a whale, or an eagle, or marvel at the natural beauty of our still fierce and lovely landscape. I watched the show, Whale Wars, with great interest and realized none of these people get paid. Their work is insanely dangerous, yet they do it because this planet and its creatures require some moral stewardship. The BP spill should wake us up. We should demand more of our President in the way of action, and he should give us more. He owes us. We voted in favor of history. It is up to him to make some.
This is my scummiest superhero, The Oil Man.
Being a refugee from Catholicism, I’m acquainted with all manner of imaginary apparitions, angels and the like. Being Irish there is also that whole passel of Jenny-Linds, faeries and bog-trotting terrors embroidered into our narrative as well.
I’ve always liked gryphons. Nobody can tell you exactly their genesis, though they are spotted most often in the heraldic symbolism of the British empire. The Ottomans were also quite fond of them as was the Indian poet, Rumi, who wrote of them as if they actually existed. In almost all accounts they are part lion, eagle and goat of some wild sort, and they are stone bad-asses; reportedly as strong as ten lions, if you believe the Scots. ( I don’t.) They are quite arresting visually. A few years ago I began noticing them around New Orleans on crests for hotels and things like that.
I’ve been thinking about New Orleans a lot the last few days. The disastrous oil-spill that comes just as this holy place has found its footing again. Through the monumental cultural efforts of people like Daniel Cameron, the visionary who brought (against great odds) Prospect 1 and soon, Prospect 2, the New Orleans Biennial, to this town and struck the first vital blows and arguments for the cultural revitalization of this city, David Simon and Eric Overmyer; who have filmed the engrossing and deeply-felt meditation of New Orleans and its people with the “Treme” series for HBO. Catherine Brennan, of the Brennan restaurant family, who built Second Line Stages in the Lower Garden District to attract more film projects and thus more jobs to New Orleans. Garland Robinette, who fights the good fight for his city every day on the radio and takes no prisoners and accepts no half-measures.
It is a city and a people worth every word ever written about them. I also can’t help but miss the brilliant Paul Sanchez and John Boutte, guys who stayed and played the benefits, kept the faith, and loved this city with a fury despite the fact that New Orleans could love its musicians a little more. After all, music is New Orleans’ first language.
About a year from now my New Orleans diary will be published. It is called A Thousand Beautiful Things and when I started it three years ago, honestly I thought I’d be done by now. But as with everything else in New Orleans, this book took its own sweet time and will be what it wants to be. I’m going back down there in early June to reconnect and finish my thoughts about our most necessary city; this place. . .our covenant with the old world. . .the place where I finally learned how to dance.
I was thinking of my friends in New Orleans as I made this piece, the beads and ornamentation, the echo of Lafcadio Hearn who left New Orleans to live in Tokyo, find much alike in those places. Some of my collectors have whined that the Japanese things have been too decorative and too pretty. Maybe there is something to that…who knows. Myself, I feel like they are good representations of the Tokyo I experienced, as elegant and ornamental as that place may be. I love the graphic sensibility of Japanese comics and graphic art; the more, more, more of it. If it is not for you, well, this is what makes a horserace, and I give not a fuck.
New Orleans is also like this ñ color and shapes and sweat and nature all commingled into a lovely kind of sweet gumbo for the eyes. I’m especially happy for my other city in the wake of the SAINTS . . . BOO YAH!!!!!! It is the indication that this holy place is back. My friends from NOLA texted, called and e-mailed their collective joy from all parts of the city yesterday, and I was overjoyed and over the moon for them. I also made a neat pile of cash on the game ñ the Saints being 6-point dogs. I’m betting more than one bookie lost his shirt yesterday.
I go to places like New Orleans, Tokyo and New York for sanity, for the joy and the mysterious poetry of those streets. It is odd how I feel at home on the streets of New Orleans and Tokyo, and like a foreigner on the streets of Chicago lately. At times there seems to be this untethering of my belonging to this city. The desire to wander is more and more part of my work and make-up. I have been the dutiful son to Chicago; I feel like I have done my bit here and I want to put the rest of the world in my work and see it with my own eyes.
I enjoyed performing This Train so much because I feel like it was a fair look at this place. I love and hate this city, and I’ll always need it, it is my home. But I also feel tremendously at home in New York and New Orleans, Tokyo and Austin. You couldn’t give me other places, but these ones I dearly treasure. This spring I’ll go to Prague and Istanbul, and I hope I love those cities as much.
In Ueno Park in Tokyo, all manner of gorgeous songbirds can be found and actually heard. It is a magical place. See it before you shuffle off of this planet. You’ll thank me.
In almost all of the hobo lore I’ve read, plants are a prominent theme. Plants that are edible. Plants that are poisonous. Plants that get you high. Hobos were well-acquainted with ‘shrooms and peyote, as well as many other plants that acted as home-cures for everything from rashes to tooth-aches; aloe and oil of clove. For stomach disorders hobos often ate dandelion greens, among other herbs. Plants were the hobo’s best friend. Sadly, many hobos would commit suicide with Jim Pye weed and other poisonous plants. In many of the texts I’ve read, hobos spent long hours laying in the tall weeds waiting for trains slow enough to hop. Often times, trains would “cannonball,” meaning they would run at top speed in order to discourage unwanted passengers and train robbers. Hobos had to be canny and live by their wits in order to read the minds of train engineers coming out of the yards. Seasoned hobos knew to stay away from the railyards and the “bulls” who guarded them, in order to avoid beatings and jail. Mostly they would wait in an area outside of the yard with some cover to hide in and hope for a slow-coming train.
Last week my New York show, Big Rock Candy Mountain, opened; the first of three shows about the hobos and the hobo alphabet. The second show, The Devil’s Handshake, will open in New Orleans at Ammo Gallery in October. The third and final hobo show, The Ticket to Canaan, will open in January at my home gallery, the mighty Pierogi in Brooklyn, in January.
I had a great time in New York at my show. Dieu Donné could not be better hosts or friends. The women who work there cooked pies for my opening. Catherine Cox and Rachel Gladfelter labored a whole weekend making Shoo-fly pies, lemon meringue, blueberry and other pies. It was lovely of them and I was deeply moved by their generosity. Nick Floyd and Barnaby Struve drove the especially hand-brewed “Hobo” beer from Chicago to New York. They are the best. Though I can no longer drink beer, everyone was happy with their amazing brew. It was kind of them and I am fortunate to have such great friends. Jenny Scobel and Ted Utley hosted me and Mike at their beautiful home in Harlem and spoiled us rotten with homemade lasagna and bread and pastries. They also hosted a gathering for me the night before my opening and my friends were kind enough to come out for it. It was really lovely.
My opening could not have been more fun. It was full of so many artists whom I greatly admire; Jane Hammond, Leslie Dill, Rico Gatson, the incomparable Deborah Kass (Mommy, I would love to dance), Fred Tomaselli, Martin Wilner, Eric Doyle, Joe Amrhein, Polly Apfelbaum, Jenny Scobel, Walter Robinson and the great Lou Reed. It was edifying to be celebrated by people this talented; I am touched and grateful. Thank you to all of you.
I elected not to go to the art fairs in New York this week. I actually haven’t been going to them for a while now and I don’t miss them. I think as recently as 10 years ago, I still enjoyed them. It was thrilling to see work I’d not seen before and art that excited me. And then a curious thing happened–the art market became a beast unto itself and the lines between art and fashion became irrevocably blurred. It became high school with money. Some will argue that this was always the case and they would be wrong; before art fairs became a growth industry, there was actually something kind of innocence about them. They had a wonderful capacity to surprise you and weren’t inhabited by as many “advisers,””consultants,” and “freelance curators”–the fleas and ticks of the art world. There weren’t jaded, wall-street types building hedge-funds comprised of art objects; or at least as many. What we made was Art. Not Product. This was how we entered the world in a meaningful way. This was our definition.
Most of you know that for the last two years, I’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans; a lot of time around people at the other end of the economic scale, and it’s been something of an epiphany. I’ve watched an art community down there hold each other up in the face of economic calamity and horrific tragedy. They made art out of whatever they could scavenge, borrow, find, afford, with no promise of anyone ever buying it. They made art to add meaning to their lives, and to them it was absolutely necessary. They weren’t thinking about “careers.” They were doing this because they hadn’t a choice about whether to create or not. It was a powerful lesson, and one that I am grateful for. I like to think that this was the place where I reclaimed my purpose as an artist.
I started making these hobo pieces as a way to honor the memory of Studs Terkel. I’ve recently reread his towering oral history of The Great Depression, Hard Times, and this text seems to go hand in hand with some of the thoughts I began to have in New Orleans about the nature of class and poverty; how powerfully people without political or economic advantage are compelled to create. Blues and jazz have their genesis in grinding poverty; so does quilting and carving. Hobos even had their own art form, referred to colloquially as “Tramp Art.” I’m not sure where all of this will lead me, but it’s a journey I am glad to take. It has changed the way I move in the world.
This one is the hobo symbol for “Religious People in this town.”‘
It’s called, “The Red Road.”
In a lot of hobo literature, there is not much mention of women or romance–one suspects that hobos didn’t get much pussy, being smelly and broke and all. In a few hobo ditties, there are mentions of women, and almost invariably, they are redheads. The hobo romance about redheads is peculiarly universal (one folk song attributes red hair to being akin to the devil; or the Devils daughter); in others, it is a marker of almost angelic grace and beauty. Redheads seem to be the most desirable of feminine prizes to the hobo. The myth is they are temperamental. There is the legendary New Orleans story of “Bricktop,” a nineteenth-century hooker in the Crescent City who killed as many as eight lovers. Her story is impeccably chronicled in Herbert Asbury’s splendid history, The French Quater, published in the 20′s. So mercurial was Bricktop’s temper, the local gendarme only approached her with weapons already drawn. Her favorite method of dispatching those who’d displeased her was a straight razor, backed up by a long wicked hatpin; a slash and puncture kind of gal. Failing this, she had a”Jesus gun,” a small, lady-like, two-shot Derringer, in a garter holster worn on her wrist. She was also breathtakingly beautiful, which, according to the local lore, “made her variety of lewdness wickedly irresistible. . .even men of the cloth succumbed to her lascivious charms.”
You have to love a woman that dangerous.
Redheads are infinitely more mysterious than other women. They tend to get right to the point and you don’t want to piss them off. Oh no.
My mother is the most angelic of redheads, but when I displeased her, she had no trouble letting me know in not-uncertain terms that my behaviors were not acceptable; not that it did much good.
Redheads are the subject of much poetry and song-writing. . .they are walking poetry.
My mother is 83 years old. She will be pissed that I’ve told everyone this. She is a child of The Depression. Her mother was widowed when she was a little girl, her father was a railroad man–a yard master for the Great Western Railroad. My mom lived at the end of the freight tracks at Austin Boulevard in Oak Park. She remembers well the homeless men who rode the rails. Her mother and grandmother often fed these men when they would knock at the door to inquire whether they could do any yard work in exchange for money or a meal.
Her grandmother lived to be 104. I remember her. I knew her as Nana. She worked as a domestic (a maid) and never refused the hungry hobos who knocked at her door. She would never let them in, being a widow and all, but would instruct my mother to get a linen to lay out on the porch and she would make them a meal. In exchange, they would fix the fence or do yard work. I try to keep my great-grandmother in mind when men knock at my studio door and offer to shovel the snow or wash the windows–there are more of these guys lately and they are hungry. Do they drink with the money I give them? Maybe they do–hell. . . I would. It cannot be easy being homeless in 2009 America. This is the only country that has starving people and grocery stores full of food. The hobo alphabet speaks to me more and more as a language of hunger–when men roamed the country just trying to get some food. It is that kind of America again.
My friend, Eric Doyle, the great tattooer, just put some hobo alphabet tattoos on me. I thank him for reminding me of the primacy of these images and re-igniting my interest in them. The more time I spend with these, the more they relate to New Orleans for me. It too, is a city of old languages revivified anew– jazz, Creole, Gospel, R&B, and Cajun. It is a city of secrets and codes and puzzling paradox. The melding of this old language and this city seems natural to me.
It feels like a kind of Jazz.
There is a remarkable, if forgotten, film from the early 70′s called ‘Emperor of the North Pole‘ , directed by Robert Aldrich. It is about the struggle between the “King” of the hobos (played by Lee Marvin with a grizzled and cruel efficiency) and “Shack,” the sadistic and pop-eyed freight train conductor (played with malevolent abandon by the great Ernest Borgnine) whose sadism and hatred oozes from every pore. It is a piece of filmic muckraking and its proletarian heart beats with a down-at-the-heels, Spartacus-like brio. Marvin is, of course, the coolest hobo on this planet and his grizzled hobo, only named “A-1,” decides–more out of orneriness than anything else–that the murderous Borgnine character, Shack, has lorded his petty and murderous tyranny over him and his fellow hobos long enough. . .and wordlessly, we see this thought cross his face and eyes, “I’m going to kill this motherfucker.” And we pull for him, because men like Shack need killing. They become the Hitlers and the Pol-Pots–normal little nobodies who acquire 2 bucks’ worth of authority and yet acquire an astonishing amount of discretionary power over the lives of those who have nothing. It is one my favorite movies; in part for its look at the culture of hobos (the hobo jungles in particular) and the cruelties inflicted on hobos for not having an address.
Of course hobos begged, borrowed and stole, as did many others in the height of The Depression or after the Civil War. I’m thinking that now is not all that different than then — only now some of the hobos have cell phones — but there is a hunger among people that I’ve not noticed before– like The Depression people are losing their homes and their jobs and there is real hunger out there; not just the metaphorical kind. In New Orleans and Chicago I’ve seen more hungry people lately than I ever remember. You know when the homeless guys are buying tacos rather than NightTrain, it’s bad.
The hobo alphabet always fascinated me. I used this imagery in my slate drawings 20 years ago and lately have become more and more enamored of it. It is a lost language; like an American Sanskrit. It is a language of survival. There is anecdotal evidence that the hobo alphabet evolved out of cattle-brands; and I believe there may be something to that assertion (it certainly makes sense); a great many Civil War veterans and depression-era itinerants were cattlemen and ranch-hands (and perhaps rustlers), and back then an enormous amount of our population was not literate. Education was still catch-as-catch-can and considered more of a luxury among the growing populace.
This particular image means, “Man with a gun.” I put the arrow through it. I don’t intend on merely looting the hobo alphabet; I’d like to change each one and further this language nobody speaks anymore. It so relates to the bigger ideas I have about New Orleans, which was founded as a city of itinerants and restless spirits. It, too, is comprised of idiomatic language and tongues not spoken anymore.
This one is called, “The Devil’s Handshake.”
The poetry of Kenneth Patchen often makes reference to hobo songs and tales. Patchen is one of my favorite American poets. His poem, The Origins of Baseball, may be my favorite poem in the world. In it, one side of a hill is me killing other me walking home from the Civil War. On the other side of the hil, the first baseball game is being played. It is a marvelous and trancendent moment; a snapshot of an America caught between eras. We often forget that baseball (its invention routinely credited to military men) was thought to be a thing that would help heal the hatred accrued between the North and South.
Another byproduct of this awful war was the culture of people who came to be known as “hobos.” Widespread unemployment and newly homeless and restless men sought out the West and North for migrant and factory work. A great many of these men wound up in Chicago and New Orleans. It is no accident that one of the largest “hobo jungles” lined west Madison Street in Chicago and another lined the newly built levee system in New Orleans. An American subculture was born in the wake of the civil War complete with its own slang-infused jargon and pictogram alphabet scrawled on buildings and trestles all over our nation. It was a codified language spoken by the dispossessed of our country; a survival tool for hard times, not so much unlike now.
The itinerant is a long-standing figure in American art forms–musicians like Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill and Boxcar Bertha–people who belong to nobody and to all of us at the same time. In New Orleans, the ghosts of these wandering spirits and their contemporary progeny are still around. This one is about them.