Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pure Feel

It's never good to send a note to your buddy to arrange a date to get together only to have his girlfriend write back with this:

Dear Jeb,

It is with great sadness that I tell you that Karl died Monday September 24th.  He went peacefully in his sleep after a year long struggle with age related ailments.

Talk about a wind knocker-outer, a teeth kicker, a gut puncher, a jaw dropper. I was sitting on my back steps at our new hillside beach home in Coon Hollow (known as Stinson Beach "on the hill" or "up past the market" to most folks) when I got the news earlier today, and now I must write to simply provide my heart, soul and tortured brain some sort of release, else I may burst with grief. What better way to honor my friend and keep my wits about me at the same time than to senselessly blab away in Limboland? Karl was old - 78 - so I suppose you're kinda in the red zone when your get up there. As Susie says, he died of some "age-related" ailments (he couldn't get it up anymore so he just cashed it in), but I had no idea that he was sick when I talked to him in August. Hence the teeth gut jaw experience.

Karl has been in and out of my life since I was about 25, after he accosted me in the dressing room of the Last Day Saloon on Clement St. during a break. There was something about the way I played the bass that got him all worked up. Like a lot of the fans of the various bands I have been in, Karl might have believed that the involuntary spasmodic movements I make when I play signified some heightened spiritual relationship with the music and he was curious about how that worked, when what I'm actually doing with the scrunched up facial expressions - the one's that look like I'm either coming all over the stage or have a bad case of barking spiders - is trying to distract listeners from all the wrong notes I generally play. As it turned out Karl was way way beyond all that. Karl knew that there was something else, something out there, that only a few musicians are allowed to touch, and even then only for a very short time: pure feel. 

(Frank Anderson, fimmaker/historian/writer/MUSICIAN and one of the players and leaders of the Emperors of Wyoming, founding member of Call Me Bwana and creative co-conspirator for 30+ years now, summed up our mutual friend and soundman Karl: "I know one thing, he wanted pure feel and nothing short of that.")

Pure feel. Come on! How can such a thing be? Turn off the brain completely and simply channel the music, just let it flow through you like shit through a goose with eyes closed and that ear to ear nirvana grin glowing. Underneath that do we have...pure feel? Fortunately we don't have to define to know what it is and I'll bet all five of you Limbolanders that actually read this thing have some idea what it is, even though you may not know how to go 'bout gettin' it. I certainly don't though I think I've been there. Doesn't every art, every sport, every roll in the hay aspire toward this thing we only know as pure feel? Certainly Karl did. 

When the band started hittin' on all cylinders so did Karl. My most vivid memories are from a 5-night a week gig we played in a bar on the corner of Valley View and Imperial Highway in La Mirada, California. If you don't know where that is you don't want to find out and if you do you don't want to tell anybody because  the corner of Valley View and Imperial was, in 1981, the anus of Orange County. The barmaids at The Valley Imp (yes a little Irish gnome-like creature was their logo/mascot - an Imp, I guess) worked there because they were coyotes and couldn't get a job at Denny's a half mile down the road, and the drinks were free for employees. Being employees,  the band drank. Doubles. From 8:30 to 2AM 5 nights a week. But we were young and pure feel was always close by, and when we locked onto it Karl would start making love to his mixing board, thrusting and parrying like Elvis on Ed Sullivan, his More ciglet dangling unlit off his lower lip, tickling the knobs, fingering the EQ, throwing his head back like a lover in the throes of a half hour orgasm. Pure feel. 

When you get your fair share of pure feel, or even more than your fair share, it gets harder to come by as time goes on. You know what the pure feels like and you want it that way every time. When you hit a perfect golf shot, or string together a perfect line through the bumps, or throw a strike from center know there is a pure feeling, as if you weren't doing it at all but rather it was doing you. 

That's when it's pure feel. 

You can feel it, but you can't name it. Nor can you control it, start it, stop it, speed it up, slow it down because  [my hypothesis is] YOU are not in charge. Karl is!

As Frank also quoted in a note tonight from Johnny Cash who sang 

"there is a sadness in the season

when you watch a good one go". 

Thanks Karl. Oh by the way, since nobody seems to know for certain what happens when we die, I won't say "goodbye". Will "see ya later" work?


Friday, September 21, 2012

The Rhetoric of Your Mama!

Oh frabjous day calloo callay I have been saved, enlightened, delivered and reborn into the blinding white halls of literary logic, reason and good sense. Yea, verily I have been  scooped up from the bottom of a vat of steaming barf by an erudite angel from the gleaming spires of academia!

My savior, unfortunately has been pushin' up daisies for some time but his work lives on, or at least the work that has shown me the way of the true and enduring writer. The sage, the seer, the wise elder was none other than the sex symbol of the University of Chicago Professor Wayne C. Booth, and his gift is The Rhetoric of Proctology.

(long uncomfortable silence goes here)

Ha Ha no it wasn't really The Rhetoric of Proctology, thought I think a similar study of the canal zone would be welcome in our scatological society. But what would probably be more valuable would be The Rhetoric of Virtual Violence, (also not Mr. Booth's focus) where we could all learn how the dark lord is manipulating the muggles into killing each other by allowing us to mimick murder in a realistic 5-thousand bit 10-dimensional video killing field. Yes I wish Wayne C Booth was still around to write the Rhetoric of Violence to figure out the system by which the dark lord has programmed the human mind to believe that blowing a 2 foot wide hole through your friend on the other end of the network - even if he is a zombie avatar - is fun. I honestly don't believe humans are born with this desire to kill, but after we've squashed our first bluebelly lizard with a rock and see the blood and guts the killing transistor is activated. With a little help from Electronic Arts, Sony, Dreamworks and the rest of the dark lord's minions we can be blowin' holes in heads with Glock semi-automatics, then we can watch the blood gushing out of the poor sucker's skull and watch him take his last virtual breath. Isn't that fucking great? Hey don't get me wrong I think death is super it's killing I have a problem with.

So here's the connection: Back to Wayne that crazy dead son of a bitch he was one thinking dude and even though reading The Rhetoric of Fiction is evil torture of the worst kind (not nearly as fun as real virtual torture which you can buy), once you get past the arcane language and the references to authors that nobody born past 1955 has ever heard of unless they were a lit major - once you get past all those academic hurdles and really get the whole rhetoric thing, lights start going on. Lights, alarms, barking sea lions, hooting barn owls - a veritable cacophony of epiphanies start blasting forth from the font of wisdom.

Simply put, Booth studied and wrote about how "rhetoric illuminated the means by which authors seduce, cajole and more than occasionally lie to their readers in the service of narrative." Well now is this seduction, cajolement, and out 'n out lying limited to the authorial sphere? Fuck no! I mean...obviously not! Isn't rhetoric then the crux of all communication?

(short pause likely leading to clicking the hell out of here...)

This is juicy thought, and the paths through it and around it are well worn by just about everybody who has ever pondered both personal and mass communications, and I have nothing new to add. Beside a lot of barking spiders.

Indeed I would be better off checking up on the Lap Doggy and seeing what's become of our hairy girlfriend Asha Rajaratnam. Yes, back to Limboland, I say, where the men are tall and stately as they sun their dusty tallywhackers in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. We will leave the heavy lifting to dead Mr. Booth and his dead buddies, long may they theorize!

Hey whaddya think of an ADVENTURES IN LIMBOLAND T-shirt? Cap? Coffee cup? Undies? When people ask you what the hell it is, you can tell them it's a lame front for this guy that is trying to sell his stupid novel, but you liked the name and have always wondered "how low can you go?" Yeah? You like? I should make?

Oh, also, if you get 5 of your friends to buy Hack and can prove it you get the Limboland shirt for free! Now whaddya say, eh?  Is that some serious rhetoric or what?

Friday, September 7, 2012

This is the Writer’s Mind on Drugs - more on Denis Johnson

As part of my adjudication in Writing School I get to write book reports! Actually they are called "Critical Response Papers" and so far in my case they read like papers that require Emergency Medical Response. Oxygen! Nurse! Get me some oxygen for this sentence I think it's about to shrivel up and die! Truth is I'm just trying to be clear and straightforward for a change, since these papers are not about how fucking clever I can be with the turn of a phrase, never mind the turn of an entire Limboland experience. But, after writing up a relatively serious observations about the self-publishing phenomenon and some real opinions I have about the great leveling of the quality of fiction, and then deleting that post in fear that it would be misinterpreted as critical of my own work, I am sick and tired of trying to act my age. 

So. I'm publishing the book report, as you can see, mainly 'cuz I think Denis Johnson deserves the attention of everybody that might wander through Limboland. But I promise after I push the publish button, I will ingest a few barrels of Orange Sunshine and return to our Limboland adventure in progress...because the Lap Doggy never sleeps.

This is The Writer’s Mind. This is the Writer’s Mind on Drugs. Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson – 1992 - Picador

 On the cover of Jesus’ Son it clearly states that these are “stories”, so you assume that’s how the author intended to position them. Certainly they “work” as stand-alone pieces. However as I writer in the nascent stages of putting together a new work of fiction, I was far more fascinated with the idea of the stories being loosely connected chapters in a novel. As a reader, I also found the experience more satisfying and fulfilling when I followed the common threads through the stories and pulled those threads together to form a single whole. Then, and only then, does this work become a complete and meaningful depiction of the life the professional substance abuser. (Interesting to note that the narrator, known only as “Fuckhead”,  doesn’t once use the phrase “substance abuse”, either because it’s too clinical or simply wasn’t a popular phrase when the book was written.)  

I also felt that these pieces were not what we would call “short stories”, as they lack many of the characteristics that are traditionally attributed to that genre. Instead I reacted to them as vignettes or a collection of scenes that when read in order form a somewhat linear story of a guy hitting bottom, going through detox, and finally in the last story riding the pink cloud of recovery. Most of the stories depict the narrator’s spiraling descent into drug-induced chaos, first in Iowa and then in Seattle, and ending with the ingestion of a “horse pill” that seems to put him in the hospital and the road to a shaky recovery.

Regardless of how the collection is viewed or read, each story is in itself a stark and vivid description of the world of the addict: his self-loathing; his visionary escapes; his objectification of women as just another drug that, in the end, become another addiction. Johnson is so masterful at embodying the life of the addict in the architecture of his writing, I find myself looking at words, sentences, paragraphs, and punctuation in a new, and different light. There are so many striking passages – some beautiful, some terrifying – that it’s difficult to choose those that exemplify all of Johnson’s unique inventiveness.

Johnson employs a consistent, singular point of view that is focused purely on events that the narrator – aka “Fuckhead” -  experiences first hand, either past or present. Fuckhead’s  direct involvement varies as well, from bystander to primary protagonist. This all results in a diary-like effect that feels very natural, except that in every vignette save the last, Fuckhead is either opiated, psychedelicized, amphetamined, drunk, and/or stoned.

So not surprisingly there is vivid description is of the drug-induced experience in almost every story, but my favorite was in Emergency, with the amiably dangerous “Georgie” at Fuckhead’s side:  

“We bumped softly down a hill toward an open field that seemed to be a military graveyard, filled with rows and rows of austere, identical markers over soldier’s graves. Id’ never before come across this cemetery. On the farther side of the field, just beyond the curtains of snow, the sky was torn away and the angels were descending out of a brilliant blue summer, their huge faces streaked with light and full of pity. The sight of them cut through my head and down the knuckles of my spine, and if there’d been anything in my bowels I would have messed my pants from fear.

Georgie opened his arms and cried out, ‘It’s the drive-in, man!’” (Emergency, p. 67)

While it’s possible to imagine that one could mistake a drive-in theater for a military graveyard in a heavy snowstorm, what “Fuckhead” describes is a “pants messing” hallucination that is as frightening as it is hilarious.

Johnson is also the expert at characterizing sudden flashes of heightened perception: “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined and eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. (Car Crash While Hitchhiking p. 9) What’s really odd about the narrator’s reaction here is that the women is shrieking to learn of her husband’s death, and the narrator feels “wonderful to be alive to hear it”.  Powerful juxtaposition such as this characterizes Johnson’s finely tuned, honed and stark presentation throughout Jesus’ Son.

Johnson puts women in the same category as drugs –drugs that can be good, for awhile, but then backfire. After “fuckhead” punches his girlfriend in the stomach on the sidewalk and she is picked up by the car full of college kids, his description of the feeling of losing her is similar to what he might feel going cold turkey: “I remember lonliness crushing first my lungs, then my heart, then my balls.” By the last story he has become addicted to women, and he likens his OCD behavior to his days on the street:

“The spring was on and the days were getting longer. I missed my bus often, waiting to spy on the wife in the town-house apartment.

How could I do it, how could a person go that low? And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding? That’s nothing. I’d been much lower than that. And I expected to see myself do worse.” (Technically page number goes here. Oh shit. My teacher is going to kick my ass!)

There are a couple of things going on in this passage that grabbed me. First is the recognition that a while a Peeping Tom may be disgusting, it’s not nearly as disgusting as what he had done in the past and what he expected to do in the future. “Fuckhead’s” is a fucked up recovery, that, like band aids applied to seething boil, is sure to erupt in a dramatic and possibly final denouement. The second is how innocently and naturally he brings the reader into his story. First it seems he’s talking to himself: “How could I do it, how could a person go that low?” Then, almost as if he has stepped outside of himself: “And I understand your question, to which I reply, Are you kidding?” The out of place capital A in Are suggests that there should be a new sentence with quotations. But there isn’t. It’s left dangling. He’s talking to himself. He’s talking to you. Are you talkin’ to me? I can help but think of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver when I read this passage.

Finally, Johnson’s use of metaphor is consistently striking and unusual, because he stays true to the POV of “Fuckhead”, and “Fuckhead” as we know is on drugs. Part of the appeal of drugs is, as with the military graveyard drive-in theater, their ability to help one see beyond the surface. “…we drove out of town where the fields bunched up into hills and then dipped down toward a cool river mothered by benevolent clouds.” Would not the opiated, encased in the pillowy safety of dope, see the river as safe, welcoming, well-intentioned, like Mom?” A warm and fuzzy opiate high would to produce warm and fuzzy images: “Willows stroked the water with their hair.”  Almost corny but perfectly fitting.  

As with Train Dreams, there is much for the writer to learn from Johnson. First, rather obviously and like all good fiction, his stories operate on many levels. This speaks to the power of the content, in and of itself; the events and actions that comprise the scenes; the characters, whether they are human, animal, or natural; the multitude of meanings. Johnson then takes this amazing content and delivers it so that it arrests the reader and forces his attention. My theory is that it is primarily through careful choice of resonant language, constructed into sentences the way Miles Davis might construct a solo: long, slow, cascading, then short, fast and punchy, that Johnson distinguishes his stories. It is also his frequent use of mind-bending juxtaposition, often within the same sentence (see example from Car Crash While Hitchhiking p. 9)  

With Jesus’ Son, I was so enthralled by the content that I hardly noticed the writing, which to me is what happens when the author gets it right. The words create images so vivid in your mind that the type on the page falls away and, as if dreaming, you become part of the story; the witness standing in the shadows with his hands in his pockets, watching.  This may be because, as an avid drug enthusiast in high school and later a professional musician, I could see the world that Johnson describes from where I sat, but never actually went there. It’s far better from this even safer distance: the middle-aged family man, starting to look askance at the peach on the windowsill, weighing the risks of a second glass of wine. I assume Fuckhead is perhaps Mr. Johnson himself, and all I can say is I’m glad he made it out alive. 

Wasnt' that just fucking fascinating?" Don't you want to rush out and read Jesus' Son this afternoon?