The Fish Ghost

The Fish GhostA couple of days ago I sent a few of you a black and white state of this etching, because it was a particularly lovely state proof.  Here is the color version which I like a bunch.

This is the beginning of a new body of etchings called, Nickel History: Volume 2. The first suite of Nickel History was made in 1997 while I was working on a film called U.S. Marshalls.  It was the not-very-good sequel to The Fugitive.  It starred Tommy Lee Jones and Wesley Snipes and a very shaky Robert Downey, Jr. who was in the middle of his travails with substances and the law.  I played a crook and there was a lot of downtime waiting for big stunts to be wired, lit and shot, including a plane crash where I got to hang upside down for a while.

I’d taken to secreting a little 2 by 3 inch plate to set with me every day with the idea that I’d make some miniatures about childhood that would be kind of a  sequence of stories about childhood.  I’d seen several Lynd Ward books around that time and was intrigued by the idea of a really intimate scale–and I enjoyed making them immensely.  I didn’t think anyone would be much interested in them.  They were dark, angry and  compelling little pieces, but they were also oddly funny in a gallows-humor kind of way.

At that time, my father was suffering from the cancer that would inevitably extinguish his life and I was fairly consumed with anger.  I was mad for him; that at a time when men of his age were retired and enjoying a respite after a lifetime of working, he was desperately ill and still needed to work.  It made me furious and I was a fairly volatile person in those years.  I had not had a drink in 12 or 13 years but I was acting out almost like a drunk.  My friends would later inform me that this was classic dry-drunk behavior.

Anyway, this  state translated into the work.  What I had at the end of making ten of them was a body of furious, tiny etchings.  Oddly enough, people jumped on them; not at first, but after a few viewings, my hardcore print people had to have them.   When I look back at them today, I’m very proud of them.  They were sensitively drawn, atmospheric and packed a tiny novel into each piece.  Regrettably, I sold all of the complete sets I had of them, including my own, which always pissed me off.

Making a living as an artist, I have had to make this bargain with myself a hundred times; to pay the bills I’d have to part with something I will never be able to reproduce exactly as it was.

I began to realize that Nickel History was the start of my grieving for my father. He would hang on for another year, but every day there was less.  These ten little etchings were the beginning of a slow walk into darkness that would end quietly on September 18th 1998.

By this time, I was working furiously on a 26-piece suite of the alphabet for my kids and a show at the MCA.

I kept thinking about Nickel History and how it’d have been nice to keep making these miniature novellas as a way of just entertaining myself and keeping track of a journey and and keeping one foot in the childhood I so missed.

This is the first one of Volume 2.  I’m making them now because I can and I don’t give a fuck whether anyone buys them or not.  This is the magical set of stories I will tell myself.  I probably won’t send all of these out–just once in a while.  They may or may not go up on the blog, but make no mistake, these are for me.

Published in: on May 27, 2011 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Dust Radio

Dust RadioIn his lifetime, the Texas-born guitarist and songwriter, Chris Whitley was, from time to time, criticized for the surreal turns his lyrics would take.  His initial audience here in America thought he was a blues-folk rocker when they heard Living with the Law, his freshman effort for Columbia records.  It would not have been a bad assumption.  There was plenty of Robert Johnson and Texas radio kinds of sounds on that record; lots of dobro and grit, gravel and tumbleweed. . .it was a record of austere and American loneliness.  It is one of my favorite records of all time for the very reasons some find it oblique.  There is nothing easy about it.  Songs that sound poised on the edge of roadhouse electric blues take odd and surreal turns:

Walk it with the spirit
Talk it with the spine
Mama sing “Open up yourself when worlds align”
My secret Jesus
The Good Red Road
On Blood antenna
and dust radio. . .

These lyrics might, indeed, sound odd unless you’ve been here at the end of the string.
They are oddly biblical and apocalyptic; a reminder that somebody’s world ends every single day.

Living with the Law has a few moments like this, otherworldly and common as dirt at the same time.  Tt was part of Whitley’s singular gift.

He would never make the same record twice.  He was just as inspired by Albert Camus and Chet Baker as he was by Texas R&B, and in the following records (most impressively, Terra Incognita), sometimes he got all of the lightning from these influences into the same bottle.  If it was not a completely successful record, it was not for want of trying.  Give Whitley his due.  He did not ever try anything easy and he never, ever, sounded like anyone else but himself.

I met him in the early ’90s and was struck by the rail-thin man with huge eyes.  He was handsome in that Chet Baker kind of way, kind of sad and hungry looking.  He was quiet and gracious, but uncomfortable in a crowd, which I thought odd for a guy who made a living as a musician.  From the beginning, one could tell that he’d be a nightmare for record company types to sell.  He was a shape shifter and he defied type.  There was no category for Chris Whitley and no convenient box to throw him into.  Chris was living proof that real artists search and evolve and they move forward or they cease to exist.

The Chris Whitley catalog is not a long one, so get these records and enjoy them.  Even his flawed work is better than what passes for success among lesser artists.  Start with Living with the Law; this is where we met him.  It is lovely elegiac, electric, gritty and as true as a Raymond Carver story.

Last year on my road trip out west, I treated myself to the whole Whitley output on my iPod.  I’d forgotten what a reflexive improvisational talent he was.  His command of the dobro was an utterly shamanistic exercise that channeled everything from Miles Davis’ jazz to Hank Williams plaintive yodel.  I saw him here in Chicago at the Double Door one night and he was on fire.  It was a ferocious performance with windmill flourishes and almost no songs from previous records, which pissed off the roots-rock crowd.  I remember liking the feeling that he was only concerned with what he was playing at that moment and that he was improvising as he went along. . .that performing had not become some rote activity for him.  He seemed to me far more a jazz kind of player than a rocker.  My impressions of Chris Whitley change damn near every time I hear him.  In this way, he keeps beginning.

When I started my hobo pieces 2 years ago, I revisited Chris’ music a lot.  Living with the Law seemed as perfect a soundtrack for these lost, searching Americans as Woody Guthrie or Steve Earle did.

Chris died of lung cancer in November of 2005 and not a day goes by where I am not grateful for his “otherness.”  I believe he channeled everything he ever heard, and all musical idioms American, and we are better for it.

Published in: on May 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Map of Mercy

The Map of MercyMy pal, Steve Earle was in town last night.  He was signing his first novel amid some glowing reviews.  I’ll  Never Get Out of This World Alive tells the tale of Doc Ebersole, who may or may not have given Hank Williams the morphine that killed him (if morphine even killed him) if it wasn’t alcohol or heartbreak or, as they once said of an old friend of mine, massive failure of. . .everything.

Complicit or not, Hank’s ghost chooses to tag along with Doc, hectoring him, cajoling him from the beyond.  It is a marvelous novel about a deeply flawed man who, despite all is essentially good; or as good as a dope-fiend, defrocked, M.D. and abortionist can be.  Doc is not only noble in his own way, but necessary.  It is an unforgettable story.

The book is dedicated to Steve’s dad, Jack, whom I was fortunate enough to meet a few times.  Jack Dublin Earle was one of the air traffic controllers whom Reagan fired in 1980 in order to break their union.  PATCO wasn’t stiling for more money, but to build in tougher regulations about the conditions they worked in so that air traffic would be safer for you and me.  In the anti trade union furor of the early 80s, they were easy to demonize for the great communicator, and thus started the long dismantling of labor’s ability to bargain collectively for rights, benefits and an equitable salary.  The unions, some of them, had plenty of corruption of their own that just made this process easier.  But the big loser in the union-busting 80s was the American worker, whose progress was undone in very short order by Reagan and his ilk.  And after those years, Jack Earle’s life was never easy again.  The PATCO workers had been black-balled and branded as malcontents and for a great many of them, years of unemployment followed.  Reagan fucked them, but good.

We forget, often, who built America.  When we marvel at skyscrapers, bridges, homes and skylines, we forget the human toil that comprised the making of them.  The Irish digging the subways, the Native American workers walking the high-steel of great buildings, the myriad of Asian slave-labor who built the railroads, the Germans, Swedes and Italians who built homes, worked in bakeries and butcher shops, the Czechs and Polish who worked in the slaughterhouses and quartering shops.  And in our most shameful chapter, the 400 years of forced labor Africans endured before being allowed to be Americans.

Working people and working poor people were also good enough to fight our wars for us, in numbers so great that nearly half of the men who fought in the civil war could neither read or write.  Literacy, back then, was the provenance of the wealthy classes; not the great many of our citizens, farm and factory workers, who’d not had the luxury of an education.

We’ve benefitted from the sacrifices of those who came before us.  When I think of Steve Earle’s father and my own, guys who are held by the neck by the circumstance of their industries, it makes me sad.  I come from a long line of working people.  My great grandmother, Nana, was part of the first union for domestic workers just after the turn of the last century.  My dad, my mom, my uncles and grandparents. . .all working people.  My brothers and sisters, same way.  I was taught by my father that work dignifies us; provides us with a role.  And if we do it well, an identity.

When I revisit the hobo alphabet and battlefield sketches and native american ledger drawings, even without words, I sense a very different American history is being told.  This one by those who had nothing; those who wandered the roads and rails and battlefields. . .the people who live on the other side of the billboards.  It is a visual language; eloquent enough to let you know what is going on.  Slashes, stick-figures, diagrams and maps testify dramatically to a country taken by force; built by murder, conquest and the genocidal need to conquer.  Though the witnesses were illiterate, they still testified.  Ledger drawings by native Americans testify to the wholesale slaughter of their peoples and their own desperate slaughter of the buffalo in an attempt to remove the food source from the white man.  Gospel songs sing of the whip and the chain and the long, bitter, middle passage of a kidnapped culture.  These too, are a history, and now that I’ve paid more attention to these marks and markers, I see a different country.

It is the history that never gets told, as opposed to the lies we have all agreed upon.  It is Custer slaughtering Indians–man, woman and child.  It is a firing squad executing Joe Hill in Utah despite his innocence.  It is the shot-gunning of labor activists in Arizona, and it is Dr.King, staring that long quarter-mile across the bridge at Selma.  They, all of them, sacrificed for the America and life we now have.  Let us be better stewards of their great hopes for a better country.

This is an etching called. The Map of Mercy

Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 12:24 am  Comments (1)  

The Fish Market

The Fish Market (etching)
In central Tokyo, the biggest fish market in the world attracts damn near as many people as the Grand Canyon every year. Its proper name is, “The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market,” but it is known the world over as Tsukiji (pronounced “SKEE-jee”) and it is a mesmerizingly visual, aural and sonic assault on the senses. Every manner of seafood and sea creature is bought, butchered and sold here to restaurants, markets and trawlers for export on a daily basis, and what is hauled from the sea every day is staggering to see–especially the tuna.

Every day, tons upon tons of bue tuna are pulled form the oceans and auctioned at Tsukiji. The auctions are oddly not unlike the trade in stocks and bonds in the financial markets, as there is no set price for sushi-grade tuna. It is all dependent on the day’s catch and fluctuates wildly as the blue tuna become more and more scarce. This fish has been teetering on the endangered list for quite some time and with the American appetite for sushi, which has grown wide and deep since the mid 1980s, the blue tuna is in very real danger of extinction.

The Japanese are ruthless fisherman, eradicating anything that gets between them and the tuna. For centuries, they also have imperiled shark populations with the wholesale slaughter of these fish in order to harvest their fins. The fishing culture is a very old and honored industry in Japan. The Japanese still also actively hunt whales (one of the only countries to do so in modern times) and there are legendary bloody battles between the whalers and organizations like Greenpeace. The Japanese do not fuck around on the high seas and defend themselves with great alacrity. Every day though, the haul of blue tuna gets smaller and smaller. Even the Japanese fishing industry, long opponents of regulation, are beginning to implement quotas for the mighty beasts.

Watching the tuna auction is fascinating. A man stands on a wooden box with a hand-bell and opens bidding. The bidding is brisk, polite and quietly furious. Another man walks the rows of giant tuna carcasses and paints figures on it with red dye which determines the final price of the fish bought. From there, the tuna are quickly hustled away, often to onsite butchers who have to cut the huge bluefins with a band-saw, after which the pieces are cut again–filet syle–into sushi grade pieces with a huge fucking knife called a maguro-bocho. Often times the purveyor will taste the fish as each quartering cut is made.

Watching this from the perspective of an outsider is hypnotic, as is the rest of Tsukiji. There are buckets of oddly beautiful eels wriggling and writhing, their saw-toothed mouths open as if to try to speak. Everywhere, electric carts laden with ice and the morning’s catch zip by and one must be careful not to get run over. Warnings are shouted out in Japanese and not knowing what is being shouted is more than a little disconcerting. There is a labyrinth of maze-like booths for slaughter, selling and weighing, and all of it with the smell of the sea. For as much fish as there is here, the smell is not fishy, but rather musky like the sea. I remember a whole table of wolf fish that are so ugly that they are beautiful; prehistoric and vicious, with a face like Jabba the Hut.

The tuna themselves are vicious hunters. Like wolves of the sea, able to swim up to 50 miles an hour in pursuit of prey, they are miracles of natural selection. The least likely to wind up endangered. Atlantic bluefins are warm-blooded, which helps them withstand the icy waters they inhabit around the world. Bluefins are found in almost every ocean climate, from Greenland to the Mediterranean, and used to be among the most plentiful of game fish. The American appetite for sushi, particularly toro (the red, fatty tuna) has greatly diminished the population of these amazing fish. This meat is hugely valuable. A single tuna selling recently for almost $400,000US at auction.

Tsukiji was built after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923, that devastated most of Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi market. The new market was built in the Tsukiji district in 1935 and went on to become the world’s largest seafood market.

It is a fascinating place. Me and my friends went there almost right from the airport and, at one of the 10-seater sushi huts, were treated to a raw tuna breakfast for about 12 bucks. Around every corner was something fascinating and visceral. The non-stop fish butchery, on one hand brutal, and on the other, strangely beautiful. The men and women dressing the seafood like they’ve done every morning for their whole working lives enables a virtuosity that is hypnotic to watch. I watched a man dress a giant fish, about twice his size in about four minutes. Seriously. A leviathan pulled from the depths carved into steaks, and kibbles and bits. . .skippy-chop-chop.

We were an odd collection of visitors; four visual artists and one film director hanging on every sight like children who’d wandered through the other side of the mirror. The fish market was at once otherworldly and very much of this world; where there is one great lesson and one sad moral. In the ocean, the big fish eat the little fish and then even bigger fish eat those fish. The moral?

Don’t be a fucking guppy.

This is a new etching and it is for sale.

Published in: on May 12, 2011 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Man With A Gun

There is a horror implicit in the stick-figure, “Man with a Gun,” from the hobo alphabet.  Its triangle with outstretched arms hints at a fleeing figure and encourages the viewer to do the same.  Hobos were shot at, shot in earnest, and had a very real and rational fear of firearms.  More than one of them admitted it kept them from committing serious crimes.

One hundred and fifty years ago we were the most well-armed country on the planet.  We still are. Firearms were part of our contract with the idea of freedom and sadly, they still are.  If one defies the government in any meaningful way, eventually they send men with guns.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we’d not have a Republic without guns. As much as I hate your hardcore gun nuts (you know the ones–the psychotics who need to own five automatic weapons for “home defense”), I have to agree with them about the preservation of the Second Amendment.  Some  years ago, our own Mayor Daley defied the Constitution and banned the ownership of handguns in the city of Chicago.  Like every well-meaning big city mayor plagued by gun violence, he tried to apply the baby-sized band-aid to the gaping wound.

The Latin Kings still had guns.
The Gangster Disciples still had guns.
The 2-6 nation still had guns.

And you can bet your monkey-ass I still had one.  Far be it from me to be the only unarmed fucker in the room.  There is no percentage in bringing a knife to a gunfight.  What Daley did was to make the average citizen less safe.  The idea was that the police would protect us.


Fuck, the police are the ones I’m afraid of in this city.  And the politicians who tell me who should be strapped and who shouldn’t.

Every dictator, tyrant, despot and opressor throughout human history has disarmed the populace as a first step toward bankrupting those cultures of their inherent freedoms.  Dissent becomes non-existent.

I, too, was horrified when that asshole bought a loaded gun to our president’s speech a couple of years ago.  It sent a message the responsible firearms owners should have been appalled by.  I don’t hold with the crowd that wants a “concealed-carry” proviso in the law.  I do believe one should have the right to own a firearm for his home or, in some cases, his automobile.

The most responsible gun-owners are people who have a healthy revulsion for just what it is that guns do.

As long as there are humans, there will be gun violence and the toothpaste is out of the tube.  The best one can do in a society this well-armed is to protect oneself.  I would like to be able to do it with kind words.  I would like to do it with witty repartee.  I would like to be able to do it with logic.  But I can’t and neither can you.  When the asshole breaks onto your home?  Introduce him to Jesus.  The word gets around the asshole community pretty quick:  Break into my home. . .get dead fast.  When kindness fails, a nine millimeter holds 16 rounds of persuasion.

If this seems like a less-than-nuanced argument, look around.  The economy is in the shitter.  There is less opportunity and more hunger and desperation.  In Chicago’s tony Lincoln Park, there were jump-out crews working out of a van, robbing couples (and for good measure) beating the fuck out of them with bats.   Three years ago, this didn’t happen. . .and now it does.

Liberals cream their jeans for gun laws.  They love the fuckers, even though those laws do not make them one bit safer.

A great percentage of gun violence is an outgrowth of the drug trade; 15-year olds blasting away with firearms they can barely lift.  Our ongoing tragedy known as the “War on Drugs” has armed every kid in the city.  The “War” is not on drugs.  It is on the poor.  The more law enforcement dollars, the more profit margin for dealers  in drugs. . .and guns.  It is a zero-sum gain and a self-fulfilling prophesy of despair.  The minute you legalize drugs, the profit goes out of the black market.  It seems nobody remembers that we never heard the term, “bootlegger” again after the end of Prohibition.

This is what worries me about the government and the question of guns: A culture where only the government is allowed to have firearms?  This is an invitation to tyranny.  Think about everything the G is in charge of now.  That is all working out swimmingly, isn’t it?

As much as I hate to side with the gun nuts–and they are nuts–part of why to have a gun is to protect you from THEM.  I have to admit the deluded, deficient yo-yos happen to be right.  But I also have a sign.  It’s on the door.  It says, “Don’t Worry About The Dog. Beware of Me, Mother-fucker.”

Published in: on May 5, 2011 at 1:15 am  Comments (3)  
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