When I Was a Kid, I Thought There Were Sea Monsters in Lake Michigan

When I Was a Kid, I Thought There Were Sea Monsters in Lake Michigan

Published in: on April 28, 2012 at 7:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Winter Night Moth

Winter Night Moth etching

It is the time of year when the moths die; when, on window sills all over the world, the first chill has laid them, on their powdery sides.  A perfect mirror of each other.

This fall I’m performing  my play, Stations Lost in Brooklyn, New York.  We’re performing it in The Boiler, a performance and exhibition space in the Williamsburg section of North Brooklyn.  It is kind of a perfect room for this show.  A one-time actual boiler where citizens of this borough worked for 100 years.  It is a grimy and hard-scrabble reminder of the hard labor done in this great city back when our country actually MADE things.

There is also an odd juxtaposition in that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations are occurring just across the East River.  I walked through the demonstration  on my first days in New York before we started our technical rehearsals.  My play is very much about the country we find ourselves in now, with its blighted economy and missed opportunity, greed, and unfocused bigotries.  As I walked through Occupy Wall Street, I was amazed that this was no ‘youth’ protest.  I saw all kinds of people; firemen, construction workers, teachers, mothers, veterans, and many, many more of the educated and unemployed new underclass created by the greed and mismanagement of our financial institutions. I feel, for maybe the first time, that I have a bit of skin in this argument.  I employ eight other artists.   I have a gallery and a printmaking shop in Chicago. My partner, Adam Seidel, and I have invested over six figures each to start a fine art company focused on  small edition etchings, as well as books and job creation.   My other partner, Stan Klein, and I have a theatrical production company and a publishing house.  After depositing 100,000 dollars in a business account we found out that even with this capitalization, we’d not be allowed to  borrow more money to expand our business and create more jobs.  In fact, this deposit did not even avail us to a line of credit.

I seem to recall the President telling the banks that in exchange for their TARP money–their bail-out–they were to lend money and stimulate the economy and, more importantly, create jobs.  These little etchings support eight people. And, truth be told?  They could support a whole hell of a lot more were we allowed to grow.

Performing this  show in Brooklyn has been a lot of fun.  Though our houses have been smaller we’ve had great audiences.  Last Saturday night while performing the first act, I noticed an elegantly dressed gentleman with white hair in the third row.  I took me a few moments to realize it was David Byrne, the true renaissance man of  New York–musician, visual artist, activist for biking and all around cultural catalyst.  It was cool to see him in the audience.

Our opening night we had the great Lou Reed, and the director of MoMA, Glenn Lowry, as well as a whole host of my fellow Brooklyn artists who’ve been amazingly supportive.

The Boiler is the performance and arts space fostered into existence by Pierogi Gallery, also of  Williamsburg.  They went through no small amount of bullshit getting this space up to code, so that we could perform this show and I appreciate it.  New York audiences are a little different than Chicago; a bit more reserved. . . quieter.  They really listen.

I’ve been staying with the painter, Greg Stone, the mordantly funny and exceptionally gifted visual artist who is the best roommate one could imagine.  He  is in possession of the dryest of wits and has a wise-ass, hard-boiled and no bullshit view of the world.  We’ve laughed our asses off.

One of the most lovely things is being in New York for autumn.  It is a season that loves this city.   Everything that seems timeless and classic about this city only seems more so, preserved in the amber of autumn light.  I went to a farmers market in McCarren Park in Brooklyn and the nip in the air, the changing colors of trees and the general goodwill were the ingredients of one of those perfect New York days that keeps people wanting to live here.

There is something to working as an actor in New York , that makes one feel more for real.  And that there is more at stake.  No matter what theater one works in, you are surrounded by the ghosts of giants.  This is one  of the places where people come to be measured against the best.

Published in: on October 26, 2011 at 10:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Angel of the Riptide Lounge

Angel of the Riptide Lounge

There are joints.
There are dumps.
There are gin mills.
Watering holes.
Saloons and dives.

Jilly’s was a joint; upscale full of well put-together cabaret goombas and big-haired girls with after market jugs and enough botox to seal the Liberty Bell.

The Mutiny is a dump.  It smells like piss from the front door and gets worse with every step with the Pine-Sol kicking in to try and cover the other aromas.

Stop and Drink was a gin milll; the kind of place where guys  knock back hard liquor drinks quickly to stave off the shakes.

The Billy Goat is a saloon; a no-nonsense place to hammer back a few shots and beers at lunchtime to maintain one’s sanity.  It has regulars and a sense of raucous camaraderie come payday.

Marie’s Riptide Lounge is a dive, in the best sense of the word.

The proprietor of this dive, the late, bouffant-crowned, Marie Wuczynski was ten days older than dirt when I met her in the late ’70s.   The Riptide was where you went if, at 2 in the morning, you just weren’t drunk enough yet or if you were still looking for “love.”  The Riptide is your bar of last chances.  Marie herself would pour you shots and have one with you.  She liked a jigger of Jaeger with a Pespi back.  Only old Polish ladies drink like this.  She was not above a bawdy joke.  In fact, she relished them.   To put a finer point on it, She was a dirty old broad.

The place was always big with my musician friends.  My pal, Buzz Kilman, years ago, answered the phone one Saturday morning, bleary of thought and speech and he told me , “Dude. . .I had a long night.  Whatever was supposed to happen today, will not happen today.  I ended the night at the Riptide.  .I feel like I’ve been shot at and missed and shit at and hit.”

There is a word for people who cannot get sufficiently stinko by 2 A.M.  A cynic might surmise that they just aren’t trying hard enough.

The front-door of the Riptide empties one right into the on-ramp from Armitage Avenue to the Kennedy.  Everything about the place warns you in advance, before you walk in, to go the fuck home.  Once you break the plane of the front door, it’s over.  You aren’t going anywhere, Sporty, unless it is to the bar for
another shot of Jaeger and to pet the light-up Spuds MacKenzie, because you’re hammered, Bucko, and you think it’s a real dog.

It always seems like it is a Twin Peaks version of Christmas in here.   You may not find the girl of your dreams, but you will find the 40-year old lass, who is, for probably very good reasons, still single, out for the night, and wants nothing more than to be pounded like a milk-fed veal chop; and only a drunken, miserable bastard like you will do.

It is a nice antidote to all of the dipshit bars that have opened in Bucktown over the last few years.  Every swinging dick in the Village has a bar you don’t want to drink in. You know the ones.  Twelve-dollar martinis with all manner of shit in them. Chocola-tini?  What kind of pussy shit is that?  Even saying word this can turn you into a Ken doll.  Apple-tini ? Dirty Martini?  I know, I know. . .these are for chicks; get them drunker, therefore more malleable,faster.   Still.  The pussification of a perfectly good bar?  this is some sad shit.

There is also the issue of 20-dollar beers.  Huh?

Now look.  I quit drinking 28 years ago.  Back then you could get a longneck Bud and a shot of Beam for three bucks and during “Happy Hour,” they’d back those bitches up with a two-for- one which served as a guarantee that you’d walk out of the joint hammered to the bone and trying to string noun and verb together.

Now there are these really primo Belgian ales and artisan beers.  I know guys who are brewers and they are VERY serious about making beer as an art form.
So I don’t doubt for a minute that their beers are worth every dime you pay for them.  Hell, if these brews were around when I drank, I’d have never been able to afford being an alcoholic.  It IS a substantial investment.

At Marie’s Riptide there are no “beer snobs;” just guys who want their Old Style or Bud and maybe a shot of something to stop the hands from trembling.  It is a last-chance kind of place.  Like I said before, the dive you choke down your last drink of the night in at 4 in the morning so you can maybe forget why you’re there.

This past February, Marie passed away.  Nobody is REALLY sure how old she was, I’m guessing 82 or so.  I’m also guessing she went with a with a shot of Jaeger in one hand, a Parliament dangling from her lips, under a new perm.   She was the best reason to find yourself on the ass end of Armitage at three in the morning.

Published in: on October 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm  Comments (1)  

My Pony Drugs

“If you’re snorting smack when you’re 21, you’re crazy. But if you’re 80 and you’re NOT snorting smack, well. . . then, you’re really out of your mind.”
— Alan Arkin’s character, Little Miss Sunshine–2006

Every year for the past 28 years October 5th rolls around, and I have a quiet thought about my sobriety.  It is the thing I am most grateful for in this life.  All else would not have been possible but for it.   On this date in 1983, I stopped drinking and doing drugs.  My last bender was an all out hurricane  involving whiskey, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and what is now called “Ecstacy.”  We called it MDA, but it was your same basic happy-happy, warm and fuzzy fuck-drug that kids used to pop at raves.

There are some days I honestly miss the hell out of drugs.  There are also days when I tell myself I’m glad I did them.  Then come the days when I’m by myself and shake at the thought of how close I came to killing myself.  Drugs are like that–confusing and deceptive, wily and beyond discipline (at least, for me) or definition.

There are also people who are just better off stoned.  Reality is way too poisonous for them.  As cynical as this sounds, we all know someone like this; people for whom we are grateful there are Ddrugs to channel their unpleasantness into.  As sad as it is, there are those who are hungry for the grave , or the coma and do not care who they take with them.

Teachers, parents, nuns, and other authority figures would always tell me, “Drugs are for people who cannot handle reality.”  All of these years later, I realize they’re right.  It’s true.  Not in the way they suspect, but these mulch heads are absolutely correct.

In our own country, right now, “reality” sucks the big, blue vein.  The banks, the politicians, and our government have systematically fist-fucked the average citizen.  Whenever Joe Sixpack walks into a business office, or their former place of employment or the local chicken franchise and empties a clip into the inhabitants, am I surprised?  Truth be told? I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often.

I think, sometimes, people make a choice:  “Go home, roll up a fatty , and try to put today behind me?” or “Go home, clean my guns, come back, and toe-tag as many of these mother-fuckers as humanly possible before the cops get here and park one in my brisket.”

I think this choice is considered WAY more often than we suspect.   I know perfectly normal, friendly, next-door neighbor-type, regular slobs who harbor annihilation fantasies that would curl your hair.  I have an acquaintance you’d swear is the sweetest guy in the world (and he is) who once, with a smile on his face , told me he’d wanted to pound a barb-b-que spit up his ex-wife’s ass and slowly turn her over a fire.

No shit.

I don’t want there to be any obstacles between this guy and whatever stash of chill pills he might need to put this thought out of his head.   Vicodin? Oxycontin?  Percocet?  Here you are,Bro. . .take two.  And have a cocktail.  Jesus.

However much crime drugs account for, I’d hate like hell to think of how much there would be without them.

If you want an example:  Prohibition.

It provided the venture capital for the rise of the most powerful criminal enterprises in the world.  Without Prohibition?  Al Capone would have been just another bartender in Brooklyn.  A great many in our country would like to legislate our morality for us; tell us what we can drink, smoke, snort. . .where we can live, who we can fuck.  These are the imbeciles who think the government should be your fucking mom.  There is NOTHING in the Constitution that says it is the job of government to protect you from yourself.  The founding fathers did a fairly good job of asshole-proofing our basic freedoms.

Were it up to me, drugs would be legal.  All of them.  You’d be able to walk into Walgreens and buy crack,  ten rocks for a buck.  Smack, ludes, acid, hash, shrooms, opium.  ALL of it, Bunky.  The whole shooting match would be as legal as Girl Scout cookies.

The war on Drugs has been a war on the poor. It has monetized a criminal empire that make the bootleggers of the 20’s and 30’s look like rag pickers.  Would a lot of people kill themselves with legal drugs?  Yeah.  the same ones who are practicing suicide on the installment plan now.  It is sad and it is true.  A certain and specific part of the population would not be able to handle this much freedom, just like now.

The alternative is to continue the fruitless , foolish, and racist “War on Drugs”and guarantee another generation of 15-year olds will be on corners spraying the rest of us with 9 millimeter rounds.  So either teach these fuckers how to shoot. . .or remove the need.  Legalize drugs and you break the back of a black market and reduce gun-related crime by at least half.  Prisons would be for violent criminals instead of unlucky potheads.

I suspect this won’t happen anytime soon.  There is WAY too much money in incarcerating people–mostly people of color  The next squeak-head politician you hear promising to get tough on drugs?  Know that guys hasn’t a clue.  In the early ’90s the Mayor of Baltimore, Curtis Schmoke, was run out of office
for suggesting legalization.  Mayor Schmoke, at the time, was presiding over a city with the most pernicious homicide rate in America.  He had tired of passing caskets containing teen-agers.  So he suggested something smart, bold, and brave.  In the American political theater, nothing gets you killed faster than this. The truth, in our political discourse, is still the most dangerous drug one can traffic in.

Published in: on October 6, 2011 at 10:54 pm  Comments (2)  

The Halloween Parade

The Halloween Parade  (For Lou Reed)“This Halloween is something to be sure
Especially to be here without you. . .”
— Lou Reed, Halloween Parade

The first time I ever went to New York –I was happily side-tracked by the Halloween Parade.  Woe be unto to he who tries to get from the West Village to the East Village that night.  It is almost the first memory I have of New York, and the one that made me fall in love with this city.  It was not different from Mardi Gras and had the ribald flavor of the Ensor painting of Jesus heading into Brussels.  The costumes, the color, the freedom and the sound of it were intoxicating.  I knew that in some way I had to be part of this city; these out-loud, square-pegs with an insatiable appetite for life.

The Halloween was a kind of wake up call to me, telling me to free my ass and my heart and mind would follow.  It was a huge event in the gay community, and these gay folks were not afraid or quiet of the retiring sort.  It was good for me to see.  At the time, I didn’t know a lot of gay people.  Back then, Chicago was still very conservative and buttoned down when it came to matters of sexuality.

The Halloween Parade was where people could be whoever and whatever the fuck they pleased, and this idea had more than a little appeal to me.  There were drag queens, giant puppets operated  with rods, harlequins, bikers with assless chaps, Village People imitators, walking penises, dogs with no leashes, people with leashes, fairies, wicked witches, angels, devils, Alice in Wonderland characters, red queens, princes, leather cowboys, guys in drag as nuns, Samurai warriors. . .you name it.  It sent the message to me loud and clear that New York City was about what was possible.  One’s hopes were as viable a currency as anything else.

“There’s a girl from Soho with a t-shirt saying,  “I blow,”
She’s with the “Jive five, 2 plus 3”
And the girls for pay dates
are giving cut rates

Or else doing it for free
The past keeps knock, knock, knocking on my door
and I don’t want to hear it anymore”

I’ve always loved the New York record by Lou Reed.  For me, it is one of those albums that reads like a great novel; a novel buoyed between the polarities of tragedy and hope.  On this record we hear Lou at his most bitterly angry, yet also at his most plaintively hopeful.  There is a feeling that at this point in history, New York, the city, could go either way and Lou read the tea leaves a little quicker than everyone else.  He is smack in the middle of the Go-Go eighties, “Greed is good,” stupid hair and Duran Duran.  But his attention is focused on the making and unmaking of his city, the reckless homicides of Elanor Bumpurs and Michael Stewart, two powerless people of color the police executed with impunity in the shadow of the Statue of Bigotry.  Here, Lou goes hard on his beloved city and its thoughtless cruelty.  Or in Dirty Boulevard, when the song’s subject, Pedro, is beaten because his father is Too Proud to Beg, Reed knows the impoverished spirit is intergenerational and will soon infect the son.

There is also the plague-like specter of AIDS which haunts the Halloween Parade and it’s ghostly revelers.  The New York record was one of those vital watershed moments in my life when I felt like another artist was talking directly to me, lending me a voice until I could cultivate one of my own.  It is amazing how often I return to this masterpiece for a little bit of the busload of faith.

There are many songs and books and musical tropes that hint at the subjects Lou writes about in deft, sure strokes, but they’ve always seemed watery to me.
Lou Reed’s New York is the raw ether of that city, as real as Algren’s Chicago, and Ellroy’s Los Angeles, and it is as indelible and dirty as tar.

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 10:33 am  Leave a Comment  

The Autumn Tiger

The Autumn Tiger

“We die of cold, and not of darkness. . .” – Miguel Unamuno

A great many Chicagoans will tell you they love living here because of the seasons. We actually get four seasons here; not in any kind of equal proportion, but we get all four seasons. There are two months of blazing hot, humid summer, nine and a half months of gray-layer-cake sky and nut-numbing winter, and two days of Spring.

The season I live for in this city is Autumn. There are trees on my block that turn to pure yellow fire and at dusk or dawn are unspeakably beautiful. There is a bit of a bite in the air and nature, even in the city, begins to pare down to its essential shapes and colors. The landscape shows its bones.

October has always been my favorite month. It has its sadnesses; the end of baseball for the year, which in Chicago–at least this year–is a welcome relief. October seems to me a month of reckoning. Whatever one failed to do with the rest of the year? Well, this is a good month to rectify this. It seems to me a month that is good for coming clean. Twenty-nine years ago, I got out of rehab in October.

Every morning the sun came up and some sense of contentment, if not happiness, seemed at least possible. I almost always have a winter exhibition to prepare for; it takes my mind off of other memories. I lost my beloved grandmother and father in autumn, and I think often of both of them.

The end of autumn seems to be Thanksgiving, which is the holiday that means the most to me. It is when I take the day and remember to be grateful for the immense luck of my station in life, and remember those whose strength and forbearance got me here. Autumn is a time of reflection for me.

Last year, I spent part of the autumn in Istanbul and unlearned a lot of crap I’d been told and taught about Islam and Muslims, and it was good. I had this hopeful feeling standing outside the Spice Market, next to the Sea of Marmara; that we pretty much all want the same things. I was far away from the poisonous 24-hour news cycle which is there only to scare us and divide us as people.

Autumn is tough on moths. The first chill usually kills them. A few hearty bugs make it until the second or third frost, but eventually they die of cold, and not of darkness.

The Autumn is also when the new art season begins every year. This year, I opened the season at Pierogi in Brooklyn with my new etchings. In the front gallery, there was a wonderful show of graphite drawings by Michael Schall, a gifted young artist from Brooklyn. I had the smaller room in the back and the new etchings looked great there, like a small box of jewels. I had a great time with all of my friends and my crew from Chicago flew out in force and had a lot of fun.

What I love about Pierogi is the shared sense of community. There aren’t a bunch of asswipes standing around and staring at each other’s clothes and appraising one another. It is a place about the community of artists; long on goodwill and short on pretense. Every exhibition I’ve ever had here I felt I was among my friends—that after a long, fractious journey through this career, I’d finally found my community.

It is a marvelous bunch–odd, funny, journeyman, and women—artists, who are in it for the long-haul; and yet have an immense sense of communal pride. This is the community Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson built, and were kind enough to welcome me into.

It is also the beginning of football season. Usually, I have all of my pals over every Sunday to watch the Bears. This year, I’m just not feeling it. I’d rather work on my etchings and walk my dog.  Ever since they let Michael Vick back in, I can’t get interested in the NFL.  And I used to be a fanatic.

I don’t have three hours to burn on this stuff anymore. I think autumn is nature’s momento mori–a reminder that we will all attend ONE funeral–and I won’t waste the time anymore. I often tell young artists that the only thing on this planet worth buying is your own time. And I am right.

With the three hours I bought myself every week, I read more poems–James Wright, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, Mark Turcotte and Reginald Gibbons. . .the good stuff.

I joined a health club and go swimming and it wakes you up and breathes new life into you on a daily basis. I allow myself to watch more nature shows on the Bug Channel–the oceanic stuff hypnotizes me in a wonderful way. I take walks and I watch the every-morning drama of my bird feeder. . .the cardinals, house finches, sparrows and blackbirds. . .I have it made.

Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Hud’s Girl

Hud's Girl
In the cinematic  pantheon of  scumbags, louses, and all-around rotten motherfuckers, Hud Bannon ranks  right up there with the worst of them.  He is amoral, unprincipled, selfish and brutish.  He is a  lousy brother, uncle and son; a loathsome ass-wipe who would sell cattle with  hoof and mouth disease in order to preserve his inheritance.  As played by Paul Newman, his charm is damned near SO disarming we almost let Hud off the hook.  It is to Newman’s credit  that he allows himself to be such an awful man.  When Hud forces himself on Patricia Neal’s Alma, we, rightly, hate him and keep on hating him through the end of the movie.
Newman’s work is bookended by performances that steal the movie from him–the late, great Patricia Neal, and the towering Melvyn Douglas, both of whom won Oscars for their work in this magnificent American film.  It was also directed by the profoundly humane Martin Ritt, from Larry McMurtry’s novel Horseman, Pass By–one of those  enterprises that tried to capture the mid-century American west like The Misfits and Lonely are the Brave–a cowboy movie informed by the 20th century where all chivalry is dead and the lessons of the Depression and the dust bowl are still fresh in people’s minds.
All Newman’s Hud really knows how to do is drink, fuck and have a good time.
He is a bit like a down-at-the-heels George W. Bush, before Jesus got ahold of him and “changed his heart.”  He is one minor cut above a dude ranch “himbo”; stupid and selfish, and above all, entitled.   He is also a metaphor for what more refined (wealthier) Westerners  were calling “The New West”–the wide open town culture of the cowboy was being marginalized.  Big corporate ranching was becoming the backbone of the industry.  In some ways, this movie reads to me like a eulogy for the cowboy movie, or even the West.  The culture was changing.  There was a Kennedy in the White House.  Shitkickers were not welcome  in this American Dream.   A man who had no desire to wear a cowboy hat. . .or any hat for that matter.  Hud and his ilk were being discarded from the American conversation.  We were beyond cow-tipping, fucking and fighting.  Hell, it was Camelot and we were all sophisticated.  The Cowboy and his culture were disappearing.  Cowboys got off horses and strapped on steel.
Newman, the actor, had to really bring his ‘”A” game to this picture.  He was surrounded by heavyweights and they brought out the best in him.  A desperation creeps into the skin of Hud about halfway through the picture and Newman’s work is riveting.  Lss so than Patricia Neal. though, whose world-weary, MILF-y Alma has had bastards like Hud before.  There is a great scene where he is driving her home and trying verbally to seduce her.  He’s talking about giving her a back rub and her eyes roll low like those of a locomotive and she offers him a Fig Newton instead.
Neal was at the height of her powers –Pretty rather than beautiful  and Sexy in that older woman-Waitress kind of way and wise.  She was an interesting woman who endured no small amount of tragedy in her life–a near -fatal stroke when she was young, and the loss of a child.  She was also married to the great Roald Dahl–the brilliant author, but  philandering husband. Neal solldiered on through whatever life handed her–head held high.
Melvyn Douglas was a much-respected stage and screen  actor who, via marriage, had survived the Black List.  He was married to Helen Gahagan Douglas who, while running against Richard Nixon in California, was branded as a “pinko” by Tricky Dick.  She lost the election, which effectively ended her political career. Melvyn Douglas would go on to win another Oscar years later for his role in Being There.
When ever I think of this film, I think of Neal.  Her role reminds me of a line from the poet Adrienne Rich:
‘The common woman is about as fragile as a nail. . .”
I think this line hangs on Patricia Neal pretty well.  This one is for her.
Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 10:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Return (An Etching for Octavio Paz)

Return - An Etching for Octavio Paz

The poet, Octavio Paz was Mexico’s ambassador to India from 1962 until 1968, when he resigned in protest over the Mexican government’s massacre of students just before the Olympic games.

The Mexico City Paz returned to shocked him, with its corruption and its violence.  While there had always been some corruption, the cavalier nature of the new Mexico City shook him up. It also inspired one of his great poems–or suites of poems–I can never tell which it is. Vuelta, or Return is a ferocious portrait of Mexico City in flux.  It is also fascinating for how much the writers he’d read in the East informed this poem:

On corners and in plazas
on the wide pedestals of the public squares
the Fathers of the Civic Church
a silent conclave of puppet buffoons
neither eagles nor jaguars

buzzard lawyers
wings of ink sawing mandibles
ventriloquist coyotes
peddlers of shadows
beneficent satraps

the cacomistle thief of hens

the monument to the Rattle and its snake
the altar to the mauser and the machete
the mausoleum of the epauletted cayman
rhetoric sculpted in phrases of cement

There is as much European surrealism in these lines as there is Mexican shape-shifting.  Paz came back to a city he no longer recognized; the city he was born in, no less.

Return is my favorite Paz poem because of its contradictions, digressions, left-turns and dead-ends.  We see, perhaps, the greatest poet of the last century stepping out onto a limb that may not support him.  This, for me, is his greatest high wire act as a poet; in fact, the one I feel freed him, forever, from the shadow of Pablo Neruda.

For all of its beautiful flow, there is much in this poem that is inelegant and ugly, sexual and mordantly funny.  I fear it is beautiful in the way a curtain of fire is beautiful.  What I admire the most about this lovely draft of poems is Paz’ fearlessness.  His reputation was pretty much already made as one of the most formidable literary talents of his time, yet he continued to push his work forward into dangerous directions and uncharted places.

He chafed at being labeled a “Latin” poet.  He was as much informed by Camus (particularly The Plague) and Breton as he was by Latin writers.  In 1970, he founded Plural, a literary magazine that went on to become the most influential one in all of Latin America.  It was not confined to Latin writing, but had contributors from all over the world.

If you’ve not ever read Paz, treat yourself.  Even if you do not have a nuanced understanding of poetry, let yourself wonder at just what Paz can make words DO.  I know more than one person who became fond of poetry after sampling Octavio Paz.  There is no bad Paz.  Whether it is Sunstone, or later poems like A Draft of Shadows or Return, Paz’ luminous way with language is always a journey worth taking:

Here every speech ends
here beauty is illegible
here presence becomes awesome
folded into itself Presence is empty
the visible is invisible
Here the invisible becomes visible
here the star is black
light is shadow and shadow light
Here time stops
the four points of the compass meet
it is the lonely place and the meeting place

City Woman Presence
time ends here
here it begins

–Octavio Paz, from Salamander

Published in: on September 19, 2011 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Chicago Mephisto…Take this Waltz

Chicago Mephisto etching

In Faustus, Mephistopheles, speaks for the Devil and seduces Marlowe into wagering his soul, in exchange for his gifts of talent and intellect.

There are many variations on the Mephisto character– Devils, Demons, Apparitions–and as you can see– I’ve chosen a spider– a big hairy fucker with ghetto teeth.

There is a marvelous movie starring Klaus Maria Brandauer from 1981 also called Mephisto — in which an actor finds the role of his lifetime playing this deceiver,  only to cast a spell over the Nazis, entreating them to become his biggest fans and, in the process, having this role subsume his selfhood.  It is a searing portrait of an artist losing his soul–one who probably didn’t have much of one to begin with.  It is a great film.

The Mephisto character is a lot about ambition and pride and how the mixing of both can be lethal to one’s better sense.

When you work in the art world (or really, any creative community),  there are all kinds talents.  There are virtuouso talents; those that loom large and
are truly visionary. . .there are journeyman talents–those who work at it everyday, brick by brick, and build something salient for the world and themselves.
There are small talents made into something much bigger and huge talents that produce the puniest of statements.

The most common thing in the world?   Wasted talent.

That’s right.

The sidewalks are littered with wasted talent; those who could’ve done SO much more with what they had.  If one could choose guts or talent?  Take guts every time.  The guts will carry you where talent will not.

It is why a syphilitic dwarf like Toulouse Lautrec was a great artist and LeRoy Neiman wasn’t.

It is why Ray Charles was endlessly soulful and Liberace is not.

It is how one turns the suffering into the spirit.

There are guys who can draw all day and never produce anything interesting, and then there are talents that begin in a threadbare state and evolve into something special.  Van Gogh was not a great draftsman at the beginning of his career.  He had to work at it.  And he turned his idiosyncratic mark-making into flashes of the transcendent.

The Mephisto character has also been used in countless comic books and horror movies.  He comes as a friend or seducer and then whispers the Devil’s message, or in some cases, does the Devil’s deeds.  It is a great demon in German literature, with almost all of the Mephistos being somewhat musical or poetic in some way.  Mephisto is almost always an elegant, if evil, apparition or character and often a musical conductor–always a Machiavellian type who seeks to sow discord among people.

I know more than a few people like this in the art world.  Those unsatisfied with where they are, so they seek to disparage everyone else in an effort to elevate themselves.  It is a sad way to be. . .and throughly transparent.

There are also those who suck up to the gatekeepers and institutional types.  For them I have one thing to say,  “It must be tough using Preparation-H for lip gloss.”

Published in: on September 16, 2011 at 12:44 pm  Comments (2)  

Gray Dog in the Service of Ghosts

Grey Dog in the Service of Ghosts - EtchingIt seems the longer ago an event or person or place occurred, the more affection the subject is regarded with.  It is how we service our ghosts. How we gently lie to ourselves to pretend what came before was better, sweeter, more valuable. . .somehow more worthy.

Of course, this is bullshit.  The “good old days” sucked.

I often get accused of sentimentality or nostalgia because I reference the past.  This is not out of longing.  It is about remembering; making notice of what was and was not there.

Some years ago I had a show of a different body of work at the Chicago Cultural Center.  It was from a three-volume set of books I’d made about Chicago– specifically, the Chicago of my childhood.  The critic from The Tribune dismissed it as “sentimental,” which could not have been further from the truth.  Some of the imagery was absolutely monstrous, remembering a city of thoughtless cruelty and punishing bigotry; the city of Algren’s perpetually-rigged game.

Still, this handjob, who wrote badly for The Tribune for over 30 years, and is now, thankfully for Chicago, unemployed, made the cheap and easy assumption that this work was nostalgia or sentimental.

When people tell me this is what they see, I know they haven’t really looked.

One of the good things about the discourse of the internet is that it has forever shit-canned the self-appointed aristocracy of art critics.  It made the conversation bigger, with more voices, more choices and more democracy.

The imbecile who wrote for The Tribune all of those years?  He got kicked to the curb.  Art critics were either good, or they didn’t survive.

One notices that the great critics, Smith, Schjeldahl, Saltz, Cotter and my favorite, the one-man hurricane, Charlie Finch, had no job worries because of the Net.  Mostly it was the bad ones went up in flames.  It went that way for all of the other disciplines as well.  They no longer hold sway.  We all get to be part of this discourse.

I know artists who foolishly long for the art world of the ’80s–that decadeof greed, Reagan, social indifference, AIDS and stupid hair–merely because of the booming art market.  These morons were the “big whispers” of that ugly decade; the dwarves who were momentarily the tallest midgets in the circus.  They never seem to get it.  This thing is a marathon, not a sprint.

I don’t know if we can trust what we choose to remember  It seems the longer a relative or friend has been dead, the more saintly they become in the rear view mirror of memory.

I call it the “High-School Reunion” version of remembering.  My high school teachers, with a few luminous exceptions, were mostly lazy, bumbling dolts, dullards, and douchebags.  C-minus intellects who wanted nothing more than a job they only had to work eight months a year.  If you want education to get better, make teaching a meritocracy and make these fuckers take a test once a year.  If I meet one more high school English teacher who has not read Wallace Stevens, I’ll scream.  Seriously.  Fire half of the fucking teachers.  Both of my kids went to Chicago public schools.  My son get a first-rate education at a progressive, marvelous high school named Whitney Young.  My daughter went to Lincoln Park High School and was taught by slack-jawed mouth breathers.

If these assholes could count to eleven, without taking a shoe off, I wouldn’t be surprised. . .I’d be amazed.  Still, people I know look backward and think of these pukes with fondness.  I do not get it.

It is dangerous to romanticize the past, precisely because it can hobble our efforts to go forward into the future.  I’m not really nostalgic for anything.  I like the idea of tomorrow much more than yesterday.  Too many people waste their lives trying to replay yesterday’s box score.  When I reference the past,  I am remembering, not longing.

Xerox this to your brain.

Published in: on September 3, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (2)  
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