Horror Films

Posted in Art, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2015 by swampmessiah

Are you the person who loves horror films, no matter what? All genres? All budgets? Serious or tongue-in-cheek? Down to earth or metaphysical? Do you avoid them at all cost, even choosing loss of friendship over months of nightmares? Do you watch them just to laugh at them, or the audience, in a fine moment of condescension? None of the above? All of the above? Do you ask, what are horror movies, as you convey to me that they are outside your consciousness? Are you like me in thinking some horror films are great but that the majority are idiotic and not worth your time? When horror films get it right there’s nothing to beat them.

Public reaction is so extreme you have to wonder if there’s something wrong with yourself and the rest of the audience for enjoying them. Why would we sit through that crap? Why would we allow ourselves to be frightened or disgusted? And why seek out that experience again and again, like a fix for your addiction? Horror cinema is not noted as one of the more redeeming or healthy products of our culture. Even with some scholarly backing they remain lowbrow, juvenile, and morally suspect. To me, that in itself can be a recommendation. At the very least it should make you question those who condemn them for any reason other than personal distaste.

Historically horror films (or terror films, as many of the practitioners would prefer) have been low budget, which means the genre has been an entry point into the industry. It’s where the fast food mentality of just giving them something to fill their mouth meets the art school mind of probing consciousness. Of course it’s been a great way for an aspiring filmmaker to show that they can actually make a good film, because of their great talent, with no money in a genre of low repute. I’d say that it’s easy for a good writer and storyteller to look better than they are because the competition is so weak—I find that many of these directors are mediocre once they step beyond horror. Too often it’s how people with very little talent can make movies (Ed Wood being the most famous example). I respect their determination even if I distrust their lack of self-evaluation (I’m sure they think they’re great). Still, the human experience is so rich that often even the idiots manage to say something interesting and the genuinely talented have made great films in the horror genre. I still say that Sturgeon’s Law is optimistic: of the horror movies I’ve seen far fewer than 10% are even good, much less great.

Before I go any deeper into what will become a rather longwinded essay I need a disclaimer or two.

  • First of all, I’m not a scholar. Nor am I a super fan. I’m just an ordinary product of mass media culture. There will be no scholarly validation of the points made nor a flaunting of obscure movie titles and trivia.
  • Nor am I so sophisticated that I cynically laugh at horror films. I like the ones that are comically bad but, really, I prefer to accept the reality of the films and take them at face value.
  • Primarily I focus on the old horror films, such as the Universal classics. I am at home with them to such an extent that those films and the plastic model kits of the characters (think 1960s Aurora kits) are like a security blanket to me. On one side of my bed I have books of poetry and on the other side I have Dracula and Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man. (I also have the stamps and Postal lapel pins of those characters—my idea of fine art.)
  • I tend to be drawn to the more otherworldly stories, such as the Hellraiser or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises though I’m tired of all the stories tied to Christian myth and folklore, such as vampires and demons. If the story revolves around the clichés of good and evil I decree it as a failure of imagination.
  • I do not like slasher films or gore. And very specifically I do not like stories that revolve around torture. Seeing people be hurt or mutilated does not give me pleasure or satisfy some background psychological itch. That’s not to say I’m all that moralistic or squeamish. I can sit through such films. They just don’t trigger much of anything in my imagination except discomfort if they’re done well enough or boredom if they’re hokey.
  • What is it with zombie films? It’s quite possible I will say nothing to explain the motivation or appeal of zombie films. I could name quite a few that I like, that I own, that I’d like to see again. But I don’t understand what the draw is.
  • Also, nature amuck…except for The Birds those movies have been pretty lame.
  • The terms movie and film do not pass judgment in my vocabulary. Plan 9 from Outer Space is a film. Citizen Kane is a movie. And vice versa.

Enough with the disclaimer crap. Here are some images that have given me years of comfort, companionship, and many a good night’s sleep. Idolatry in middle America.

Packaging for the Universal Monsters model kits. In my youth these were made by Aurora, then Polar Lights. The image is of Oliver Reed in Hammer's Curse of the Werewolf but the model is of Lon Chaney, Jr. in Universal's The Wolf Man. I never saw Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera until recently. It wasn't commonly shown on television.

Packaging for the Universal Monsters model kits. In my youth these were made by Aurora, then Polar Lights. The image is of Oliver Reed in Hammer’s Curse of the Werewolf but the model is of Lon Chaney, Jr. in Universal’s The Wolf Man. I never saw Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera until recently. It wasn’t commonly shown on television.


Too often the books, essays, magazine articles, documentaries, et cetera, try to narrow down the themes and appeal of horror to a single cause or source. I find the field too rich for that. To me, it’s a modern replacement for mythology. I do not come from learned or educated people, nor are they part of a folk tradition, so my reading of mythology came late in life rather than something learned on Grandpa’s knee. When I finally encountered mythology I saw horror films. Though some of the writers and directors are very consciously adding psychological and mythical elements, no doubt creating rivers of id and archetypal representations, I suspect much of the content is more intuitive than intentional. At some remove the act of creation will recognize its intellectual repercussions but in the immediacy of creation I think it’s the undercurrents of thought that come out on paper as the stories and scripts are written. I think horror stories tap into some very deep places, both human and pre-human.

Sex sells. Probably the most popular and discussed theme in horror is repressed sexuality. This is certainly true of Dracula and his more trivial descendants. On the whole, in regard to horror, I consider this argument to be lazy and glib. The annotated versions of the book, Dracula, show in great detail how it is a projection of Victorian fears of being consumed by lust and disease. Since then every generation, as sex has become socially acceptable in the media, has focused more and more on the sex appeal until vampires are nothing but a rather tawdry and unimaginative prurient fantasy (I’m not just talking about Twilight, which is as low as it’s gotten to date, things really started to go downhill with Ann Rice but even Hammer, throughout the ’70s, upped the gonadal ante). Demons also seem to like groping human flesh, as do many of the serial killers. I suppose as long as we have children being raised in repressive homes sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—and vampires—will seem the epitome of rebellion and the good life. If you watch Murnau’s Nosferatu you’ll see the vampire as more of a metaphor for the plague than as some gentleman’s peccadillo.

My proposal for a primary theme in horror—and it might be something I thought up rather than stole, borrowed, or recycled (which is what all the rest of this is)—is power: lack of power, having power, losing control of power. Someone goes from being physically or socially helpless to dominating and intimidating everyone around them to the whole scenario crashing down on them (usually fatally). You will find the theme is certainly true of many of the films aimed at teens, the traditional market, who are often in the midst of that exact struggle in the real world. I think Carrie is one of the finest examples. Power is a rich theme that spans the classics right up to this week’s release. How often do we see a misfit accept some trait they’ve denied having, or they’ve acquired some mysterious ability, only to have it go all wrong? Part of the fear factor in most horror is a total lack of power: someone or something is out to get the teenagers, or the nice family, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sometimes it’s a direct power, like the strength and intelligence, and possible immortality, of Frankenstein’s monster (who, except for being ugly, is otherwise superior to us) that no one can control. Or it’s indirect power, such as the ability to create the monster, that gets out of hand. Power out of control is what underlies Jurassic Park . Primarily, as I’ve said, it is what rules many or most of the teen stories and pretty much all the mad scientists (I’ll get back to the lab coats in a few minutes).

Until very recently we were obviously a part of nature. That means to eat and avoid being eaten. For most of us we no longer have any sense of being preyed upon. Or, for that matter, hunting. We obliviously step out into the world as though nothing can hurt us—any other species behaving like us would be lunch. We have become disconnected from our evolutionary past. If anything is a universal theme in horror I would say this is it. We try to avoid becoming meat, whether the predator is a human psychopath (or just your friendly neighborhood cannibal), a supernatural being destined to feed on mere mortals, or an alien invader who will take protein in whatever shape it comes in. Of course what is consumed is not always material. Sometimes they want to poke a bendy straw in the top of our heads to suck out brains, the soul, the life force, or your answers to this week’s math quiz (it’ll help them rebuild their space ship). Consumption is an essential of life.…I suppose most of the audience identify with the one survivor (that’d be Ripley the eternal) rather than all those tasty morsels who only show up again when the credits run. It’s not considered natural to lay down and die or to throw yourself into the monster’s maw. The only moral outrage stronger than being taken for food is to give up on life to become that meal (the audience yelling, at least inside, “Do something!” “Don’t just stand there! Do something!”) Aren’t you both sickened and relieved when Veronica Cartwright’s sniveling character is put out of her misery in Alien?

We have fear of the body, living and dead. A fear of our bodily functions. A fear of being meat. A fear of dismemberment or any other irreparable damage. A fear of being disconnected from the body, not only loss of life but of being alienated from what is essential to our experience of living. An almost universal theme, ranging from slasher and gore films to a story of hosting a foreign life (Alien or The Exorcist), we stare on in fear, loathing, and fascination as people on the screen are being torn apart, both identifying with the characters and denying that it could ever happen to us. Depending on how the film is made we might look on in amused disgust. Or we might feel so much sympathy we never want to see the film again. It’s rare that a conventional horror film will trick us with believability into the sort of compassion that will keep us from coming back for more (rare exceptions would be Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, which are truly heartbreaking films, though maybe not repulsive…unlike the average horror film they don’t get to you via explicit carnage but, rather, with good storytelling).

Darkness haunts us, fills our nightmares, our trips to the basement, and our horror movies. A visually dependent creature losing that primary sense, we imagine we are unable to navigate or recognize a threat. Since my youth, in the 1970s, I’ve made it a habit of finding my way in the dark and have generally made myself comfortable with not being able to see, perhaps because I’ve seen enough horror movies. But have you ever run into an unfamiliar animal on a moonless night? Do you have bear or wolves wandering around the neighborhood? Being able to see tips you off much sooner to walk a different way or to even turn back. If you don’t trust your senses of smell and hearing you could get into a lot of trouble. Horror films play with this fear in non-urban settings even though usually our only reason to fear is another human, someone hiding in a dark alley or doorway. (By the way, I grew up in an area where bear were a regular sight. Wolves have since reclaimed some of their territory, too. Typically, though, skunks and porcupines were what you had to watch out for.)

The idea of disrupting the nature of things, going against nature or god, is a rich theme. Things always go wrong. I think more than anything this is the fear we have of technology, letting ignorance and hubris make our decisions for us, forgetting to be humble, letting it rule us. We have Dr. Viktor von Frankenstein to lead us wrong, followed by a century or more of crazed men in white lab coats walking a fine line between horror and science fiction. I think we’re a conservative species no matter how much we love our gadgets or vote Liberal, with a deep fear of destroying the balance that keeps us in oxygen and clean underwear. If the madmen dump their technology on our laps we either dig in or blame. Horror stories are the worst that could happen and give us the greatest gloating satisfaction as we sit back in I-told-you-so smugness. A truly frightening film of this sort is called a documentary and it’s something we tend to avoid.

Unfinished business is at the heart of ghost stories. Do the dead remain with us by their own will or do we call them back? Those left behind cling to the departed and hope that they really did love us. We like to imagine we’ll all have some say in what happens after death so we, likewise, can hang onto life, our possessions, and our passions. But what if death corrupts living passions, isolates them, and gives them the power to drag the living into death with us? As with the story of power, which side do we fear being on the most? What if the passion grows into a malignancy greater than the original personal loss? What if it becomes a force unto itself? What if it lingers for centuries and cannot be placated? Not knowing what comes after life, our imaginations are limitless…though rather predictable.

Ostracism. Revenge of the misfit. Tormenting and killing the misfit. Back and forth, being part of the crowd or not, the hatred is like a metronome. A young audience probably feels this daily in their own life, whichever side of the tragedy they are on. An almost universal theme in the classic (Universal—sorry, I couldn’t resist) horror films: The Wolf Man; The Creature of the Black Lagoon; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; and, of course, Frankenstein. To say nothing of the teen horrors of the drive-in era and all the spoofs of later generations. How about the remake of Fright Night? Sometimes it’s a side story and the misfit either dies first or is the sole survivor. Often it’s the main story (again, Carrie is a great example). Often the theme of ostracism ties in with repressed sexuality and the misuse of power.

A related theme: rejection. Shame. Retribution. Why are so many pretty young women abducted, hurt, killed in horror? Shame seems to be a very deep motivator. You would think having your sexual advances rejected is not a big deal, she just said no to a date. Depending on your emotional development, how your family treated you, if you’ve already been broken down by shame, if you’re a pariah, it can seem much bigger than that. At least at some period of our life, most of us run the risk of feeling rejection as a dismissal of our fundamental being: it’s very easy to look at that character who is or becomes a monster with a sympathetic eye. Many of us feel an affinity with Quasimodo as he’s spurned by Esmeralda. How would you feel if that scaleless babe in the skimpy swimsuit screamed in your face (damaging your sensitive but hidden ears), then fainted, as you moved to put your Black Lagoon arm around her? If women were expected to make the first move perhaps we could have more female monsters. As it was, Elsa Lancaster, despite stitches and bad hair, had a conventional female role—she hissed rather than screamed as she thoughtlessly destroyed the monster’s hope.

We all desire and fear secret knowledge and its price. At least, we hope there is secret knowledge. A supernatural world, aliens from other planets, secret societies, the habits of psychotic neighbors—it all tempts us. How many cinematic characters have died prying into hidden matters. Or have been hunted down by vengeful cults or irate demons. For how many decades will this drag out the Hellraiser franchise?

Usually we know we make a contract with the Devil but did we realize we made one with Dracula when we invited him into our home? Lethal deals and their consequences are a common theme in horror stories. Sometimes the characters know what they’re getting into but are in denial or try to renege. Sometimes it’s a complete surprise, as in the aforementioned invitation to a vampire. The Hellraiser stories play with both the intentional and the unwitting as each character opens the puzzle box and calls in the Cenobites.

A related idea is calling an evil force into your life, as in Candyman. In general, bringing ancient and more recent urban legends to life is a recurrent theme, people foolishly bringing on demons, ghosts, curses, or a very specifically described bad luck.

The façade of normality was deeply shaken in the horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Familiar people and places that had always somehow seemed creepy were ripped open to expose the danger within. The ordinary neighbor whose oddness slips out little by little until he’s chasing someone with a knife or you find other neighbors dismembered and stored in the freezer. I think we’ve always known this about small towns and suburbia but it took a long time to break the gothic cliché of old abandoned houses and mansions. Low budgets will do that to you.

Related to our fear of the dark is the anxiety we feel for potential hiding places and lairs. Do not put your hand in there. And really, really do not stick your head in there, dumb shit. Most horror and suspense films, regardless of other motifs, play with this idea. In the real world you should have sense enough not to put your hand in there, or you could be bitten by a snake or a rabid raccoon or find a nest of spiders. Who knows, it might only be disgusting, like grabbing something slimy and malodorous. Or it could be diseased and lethal. You never know.

Loss of humanity, mutation or transformation into something inhuman whether through supernatural means or, to a more modern audience, contraction of a virus or an experimental mishap. A fear of becoming a monster or an other. The Fly is a classic example.

The right to exist. No matter what. No matter how deformed you are. Or, the right to destroy what does not meet society’s standards, even if it or they are sentient. Mary Shelley was so young and inexperienced when she wrote Frankenstein yet after 200 years it still resonates in many ways. Depending on how the story is told we might identify with the monster—at a certain age we probably feel we are monstrous. Or we might feel the need to defend self and family, community and way of life from some force or being or contamination that threatens everything we love.

Fear of the unknown. I almost forgot that. The common backdrop to all horror? The essence of Conservative legislation.

You’ll have noticed by now that I haven’t dug into fear itself and our adrenal thrill, as addressed in Stephen King’s essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies”. Fear is implied in everything I’ve said but is not my primary interest, nor the relief of having survived the chase and the imaginary brush with death. I look for a less visceral connection. If I want to ve afraid I don’t have to read or watch fiction. Humanity scares me. History scares me. The daily headlines make me afraid. Horror doesn’t do that. Once in awhile something is odd enough or creepy enough yet familiar that it gives me a chill of unease (think of the sparrows in The Dark Half) but horror films usually put things too far out of the ordinary to resonate days after viewing a film. Maybe that’s intentional. Maybe the creators don’t want to send too deep a chill down our spines. This is why Sophie’s Choice has frightened me in a way no horror film has.

I think I’ve given you a start in appreciating that horror films are more than a sick thrill, more than just an entertainment for morons and the morally deficient. If you weren’t a fan of horror I hope I’ve given you something to think about. Maybe you’ll take the genre a little bit more seriously than you did when I started.

If you already were a fan, I expect or at least hope you have something to add, whether you comment here or write your own essay. Seriously, my accounting is so superficial I could see hundreds of more thoughtful works springing forth.

Top Ten Records

Posted in Art, Friendship, Memoire, Music, Perception with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2015 by swampmessiah

If you have this dog-like sniffing ritual of checking out the record collection of anyone the first time you’re in their home you might find yourself reading this even though you don’t give a shit about my tastes in music. It’s something you can’t stop yourself from doing. It’s how you try to understand other people and seek out friends. Even if you think I’m an idiot and you hate my taste in music, you’re going to want to know exactly what kind of idiot I am. It’s a way of gauging enemies as well as friends. It’s how you guard your gate. It tells you how far to let someone in.

Record collectors who are in it for the money might go through a similar ritual but their motives are different and the end results are different. People like you and I know that a large percentage of our psyche is on the shelf. Our thoughts and feelings and beliefs have been expressed in music and we can remember who we are just by strolling through the collection.

I have approximately 2000 LPs (I stopped buying vinyl in 1990 when I got my first CD player—I hate vinyl) and maybe 1500 CDs that are not duplicates of the vinyl collection. It’s only in the past year that I’ve been downloading music (I’m still not sure if I like that but I’ve run out of space). One of the peculiarities of this list and discussion is that it is limited to rock. For the past 35 years I’ve been losing interest in rock and pop, heading toward classical, jazz, ambient, both pop and folk world music, (I hate to say this) new age or ambient, electronic, experimental. Another peculiarity is that bands or musicians who are favorites might not have produced favorite albums. They might always be interesting and often good, or consistently good, but never quite there (that’s how I feel about David Cronenberg’s films, which are spotty, often outright failures, but almost always interesting, or Ridley Scott’s, which are pretty consistently good but seldom outstanding).

I’m working off a list I compiled through the process of elimination sometime in 2010. It does not reflect my current idea of my top ten but it probably didn’t the day after putting the list together either, since this is a very fluid and subjective process. By 2010 I had almost stopped buying new music and would rarely listen to the records I already had. Then in the summer of 2014 I decided, first, to get a bunch of Beatles’ albums, making my partner wonder if someone else had taken my place or if I was demon possessed or had an alien in my brain—I have often claimed to hate them. Not true: I just think they’re ridiculously overrated. For the hell of it I put these albums on my computer. Except for my own recordings I’ve never had music on my computer unless it was a temporary thing, for instance as I’d digitize vinyl. Then I obsessively uploaded about 2000 CDs onto my computer. And since then I’ve probably downloaded at least 75 more. Now I am again listening to music. Compared to what I did when I was young I still hardly ever listen to music. But compared to what I’ve done since getting into a relationship 30 years and ago and then becoming a parent (1991) (and working a fulltime day job, et cetera) I am again listening to a lot of music. It’s the first time since the turn of the century that I’ve been exploring new music.

There are only two albums that have been consistently and indisputably on my top  ten records list, which vacillates between five and twenty-five, for the past 35 years or more: Funhouse by The Stooges and Caravanserai by Santana. So let’s just consider them my top two.

I first heard Funhouse when my cousin bought it, sometime after the release of Raw Power, maybe in 1973 or early 1974. When he started college in the fall of 1973 my cousin for the first time in his life had money to buy new music. And a place to find it, on campus. At that time we were both into all hard rock and the beginnings of heavy metal. The Stooges were something else. Nothing, absolutely nothing, had that intensity. Nothing else felt that real or serious or had that sense of commitment. At the time I only liked the first side of the album. Now I almost prefer side 2. “Dirt” is one of my life’s theme songs and probably needs to be played at my funeral.…Iggy’s The Idiot has hovered near my top ten over the decades. Raw Power and Lust for Life are great but I’ve never liked them quite as much. Too many of his records just sound like imitations of The Rolling Stones, such as The Stooges’ first album or his collaboration with James Williamson, Kill City. On the whole I don’t find him all that interesting.

When I was in high school, in the early 1970s, Santana were very big, especially with the stoners. I think it was as close to a spiritual moment as many of us would have. Anybody with any kind of hipster musical credibility, though, probably stopped listening to them after their third album. There were already signs that they were straying from their Caribbean roots and the rock and soul of the first couple of records. Caravanserai took us to Brazil, into jazz, and was probably not that popular. I don’t know, I never hung out with music freaks, except for my cousin. And he never hung out with any music freaks except for me.…I am still very fond of Abraxas and the third album, feel some nostalgia for the first, but can hardly listen to anything after Caravanserai. When I first heard it, after stealing it (when I was 15 I stole about 85 LPs then quit before I got busted), my response was luke warm. It was certainly too mature for me (this was the height of Alice Cooper, T. Rex, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep). By the end of the decade it was my favorite Santana album and one of my favorites by just about anyone. Carlos’ solo and collaborative albums never made much of an impression and the earlier albums have been drifting from consciousness but Caravanserai remains, beautiful and dreamy and always finding a way into my blood.

For Christmas in 1967 (I was 10) my cousin and I were asked what record we’d like for a present. I chose Look Around by Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66. He chose The Doors’ first album. I was oblivious and The Doors meant nothing to me. Maybe in 1968 I saw The Doors on American Bandstand, or some such show, and I hated them. I thought Morrison looked like he was praying as he clung to the mic. Yet in 1969, after my parents’ divorce, my father gave me The Soft Parade for my twelfth birthday. And with birthday money I went out and bought Waiting for the Sun (the first record I’d gotten with my own money). Since then I’ve been a Doors fan. Some years or decades an ardent one. Some years, as I’ve been for the past decade, rather fair weather. Yet most of the past 35 years that first album has been hovering in or close to my top ten. The posthumous release An American Prayer has been the single most influential album I’ve ever owned, one that eventually propelled me to recording my own poetry and audio compositions, even though it’s a rather cheesy affair by a not-so-great band both honoring and seemingly cashing in on the words of their dead singer. Over time I’ve come to see Morrison as a mediocre poet, at best, but for years he was the only person I could attach the word poet to. He’s the one who inspired me to write my own poetry. For that, I give thanks.

I first heard Hawkwind when I found Hall of the Mountain Grill in the post holiday cutout bin, January 1976. They were an immediate favorite. The hint of metal with a residue of psychedelia combined with the sci-fi lyrics (it’s possible I’d already discovered Michael Moorcock’s novels), the relentless rhythm and whooshing synthesizers—really, an immediate favorite. It took me at least till the end of the decade to round up all their earlier releases plus what was current (finding several as imports in San Diego, spring of 1980). I remember loaning Space Ritual to a coworker in 1979. He was a Jehovah’s Witness and though he liked metal he had to take this off his turntable because of the paganism. At that time it wasn’t yet my preferred Hawkwind album but it seemed to define them better than the others, which is why I’d chosen to lend it. Almost all that they did between Lost in Space and Hawklords’ 25 Years On is magnificent, in a lowbrow way. They are wonderfully, sincerely idiotic (I doubt they consider themselves idiots but they are). Space Ritual has usually been my favorite and hovering in or near my top ten for the past 30 years or more. Hall of the Mountain Grill, Quark, Strangeness and Charm, and 25 Years On also hover close to that top ten. You will probably notice a paucity of fun in my selection but Hawkwind qualify as fun, I think (since fun is something I’ve never understood—at least by anyone else’s definition of it—I could be wrong). The Doors turned me onto a dark and serious path at a young age. Hawkwind are something of an antidote.

Christmas 1969 was the jackpot for my record collection, as small as it was. It was a long time ago and my memory is vague, so I might have gotten something the preceding year. Whatever. Let’s pretend I know what I’m talking about. The story I’d heard from my mother (in rather catty tones) was that my aunt had married such an old-fashioned Catholic that he wouldn’t allow rock music in the house. She had to part with some records and I received ABC/Dunhill’s A Treasury of Contemporary Hits (Steppenwolf, The Mamas and the Papas, The Grass Roots, and others), The Mamas and the Papas’ Deliver, and Three Dog Night’s Suitable for Framing. The real winner, a used copy given to me by a younger aunt, was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bayou Country. That record got a lot of play then and has remained on my turntable, in my CD player, and on my computer ever since. At times I’ve preferred Cosmo’s Factory and gave Pendulum quite a go but Bayou Country is the one I’ve always come back to. Until I crossed paths with Black Sabbath in early 1972 (Paranoid) CCR had been my top band. (I saw them that spring on their last American tour, after Tom Fogerty had left the band. It was so disappointing. Not that they didn’t try. They did everything they could to put on a good show. But they were touring Mardi Gras, the one album of theirs I’ve never liked. Doug and Stu were doing some of the vocals. John Fogerty, at least, had moved on from the ripped jeans and flannel shirts of 1968 and was dressing like a polyester cowboy. I had already begun to move on musically but that concert was a blow from which I’ve never fully recovered.)

Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Yes, bloated prog rock. While I was in high school I was probably like everyone else in preferring the heavier Tarkus and Brain Salad Surgery to the milder Trilogy. The first album had some sort of honor of precedence but was too classical for teens. Over the years Emerson, Lake, and Palmer has been my favorite though I’m sure I wouldn’t have said much of anything about liking them in the ’80s. Prog was pukingly passé. Actually, even then I liked the first album.…I saw them perform sometime toward the implosion, either touring the second Works album or Love Beach. They were very disappointing. Not that they played badly or put on a bad show but you could tell they were not happy playing together. The new music didn’t resonate with the audience and they were just going through the motions.…Since compiling this list it’s possible I’ve come to prefer Trilogy to all their other albums. I listen to it fairly often. I’ll stand by the first one and Trilogy no matter what any of us think of prog.

When did Jethro Tull’s Stand Up become a favorite? I remember bringing it to my cousin’s house circa 1978 and making an ass of myself. I thought the song “Fat Man” was in praise of girth—my cousin’s always been a pretty stocky guy, like Gary Farmer in Powwow Highway—while playing it for him I realized it was just the opposite. When I crawled under a rock I took the record with me and kept listening to it.…I was introduced to them by the same kid, a family friend at the time, who had introduced me to Black Sabbath, spring of 1972. He loved Benefit, which I heard several years later and never quite liked. The first Tull album I heard was Aqualung and for many, many years it was my favorite by them. It was the album I always pulled out when we’d have our first snowfall (my partner still throws out that opening riff on this occasion and, oddly, now likes the record more than I do) so it’s sort of an October album. Or, rather than Christmas records, I’d listen to Aqualung all December. Shortly after being introduced to the band I got a copy of Thick as a Brick, which my schoolmate hated. It remains a favorite with me. But over the years Stand Up has been the Tull album that I need to hear with some regularity. Aqualung, Living in the Past, Thick as a Brick and, most of all, Stand Up are my Tull albums. I’ve found many of their other albums repellent, and not just in retrospect.

Talking Heads’ Remain in Light has been in my top ten about as long as anything. I couldn’t tell you which of their albums I heard first. Maybe Fear of Music. It probably wasn’t until 1980 that I really started to listen to them. If I’d heard either of the first two albums I hadn’t liked them; I acquired a taste for them after going crazy for the third and fourth. Speaking in Tongues is the Heads’ album that I listened to the most, when it was current, because it was good to dance to though I didn’t like it as much as Remain in Light. Now I can’t stand it. Even when I’m having one of those years where I have no patience for David Byrne’s voice (or his personality) I know that I still love Remain in Light and want to have it near me the way I have monster models and books of poetry. I am comforted knowing the record exists.

In the 1970s I was not a fan of David Bowie. Back in high school I’d acquired a used copy of The Man Who Sold the World and was genuinely fond of it but could not stand anything else I’d heard. There’s something about his presence, what seems a mixture of self-consciousness and vanity, that I find repulsive. But it was his music I didn’t like. None of the Ziggy period. Diamond Dogs seemed awful at the time. Young Americans and Station to Station did not appeal to the lingering metalhead I was. I’m not really sure why my cousin and I were listening to Low not long after he’d first gotten it, whether I’d asked to hear it or if he thought I might be interested. I did not like Low, at all. Ten years later I finally got my own copy with the expectation that I would finally like it, which another ten years later I did. Very slowly my opinion of Bowie began to change. It wasn’t until Scary Monsters that I came to appreciate a Bowie album while it was current. And I soon came to enjoy Lodger in part because of Adrian Belew. Since then I’ve really come to admire the Berlin trilogy with Low being my favorite. The Man Who Sold the World has also hovered around my top ten in recent decades. Aladin Sane has become a regular on my playlist, especially the title song (which seems a definitive Bowie moment). I’ve generally come to like all the old records. His work from the 1980s, whether it’s his solo stuff or Tin Machine, has generally left me cold, except for an occasional song. Starting with The Buddha of Suburbia I’ve liked pretty much everything he’s done. Of those albums Outside has hovered around my top ten. There are very few artists I admire and respect as much as David Bowie though I still go through long spells where I can’t stand to listen to him. There is still something about him I find disconcerting and chilling.

I don’t remember when I first heard Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygene. I do believe in love at first listen. Usually it wears off fast: an album or song will be played many times a day, dozens of times a week, hundreds of times in that first six months or year or whatever. Then you can no longer stand to listen to it. I’ve had many of those obsessive musical flings since the late 1960s. I think part of what made the affair with Jarre last the rest of my life (at least, I don’t think I’ll dump him) is that at first Oxygene was unobtainable. I could not afford a new copy and no one was parting with theirs (or the used copy was snapped up before I could find it). I think many of his early fans wanted a monogamous relationship and they meant it to last forever and clung to him. I don’t know when I finally got my own copy. It’s never been quite the heady affair of a genuine fling. The album isn’t like the princess in a fairy tale or that woman you met while on vacation. This is something you can live with. Like my copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, I can feel peace just knowing it’s there on my shelf. It’s only in the past decade or so that I’ve taken to exploring the rest of his music. Most of it is good, though a little schlocky, but none of it has won me over the way the Oxygene has (I tend to think of the sequel as the same record—Jarre has an odd way of coming back to things decades later as though he still thinks and feels as he did, able to make an extension/sequel to the original, able to re-perform and rerecord the original).

When I lived in Duluth, until 1984, our little slice of counter culture (often of the seedier parts) was Downtown Book where they sold records and books, new and used, and posters, pot pipes, incense, and I forget what else. For about a year it seemed like every time I came into the store someone was playing this really odd and somewhat obnoxious record: Dub Housing by Pere Ubu. Eventually I came to like it enough to buy a copy. It was over ten years before I met anyone else who liked them. Their other albums were good (I really like New Picnic Time, too, which I didn’t get until about ten years after release). When they reformed in the late ’80s I was disappointed. The new Ubu was dull, rather conventional sounding except for David Thomas’ voice. (It was at that time that I saw them at First Avenue, with Peter Blegvad opening. Cloudland was their new album. Very disappointing. What I got out of that evening was Blegvad. The Naked Shakespeare is pretty good.)

Another album that almost immediately won me over and has, usually, continued to lay claim to my…I’m not really sure what it claims of me. My belief in it? Echo and the Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here. In the spring of 1980, a few months before my 23rd birthday, I moved back into my mother’s house (stayed until October, 1984). At the time I viewed it as something of a curse but in retrospect I remember the luxury of having time to explore so many fields of thought and to develop my art. I also occasionally had an opportunity to earn money (usually working for my neighbor, hauling concrete blocks and mixing mortar when he needed an extra grunt), which meant that for the first time in my life I could sometimes afford a new release instead of always having to wait for a second hand copy.…I think Heaven Up Here was the first thing I heard by the Bunnymen. Crocodiles never quite did it for me. It always seemed too stiff, like they couldn’t be themselves in the studio on that record. I wanted to like Porcupine but it seemed bogus (and to my ears, now, the mix is awful). Ocean Rain seemed like pretentious shit and I simply gave up on them. So many bands of that era had charm when they were bad, maybe because they seemed earnest like good little amateurs. It seemed like something anyone could do (that whole punk and post-punk DIY credo, though it antedates punk). When they went in for cleaner production and a slicker sound they rarely fared well. Most of them lacked the talent to write good songs or to play them well enough to make me come back for more (Psychedelic Furs were possibly the most embarrassing example of this…and you’re wondering why I would have bothered with any of them, as though I should have known better).


AA drawing three times life size on Rieves BFK, graphite with touches of India ink, chalk, and white acrylic paint. The article is from Rolling Stone. This drawing is one of the few of my works to be seen in a public exhibition, spring of 1985, at the Duluth Art Institute. I can't recall for certain but it might have been featured in the local newspaper. Gendron Jensen was the star of the show, though not an active participant, but this drawing made a small stir because of the craftsmanship.

A drawing three times life size on Rieves BFK, graphite with touches of India ink, chalk, and white acrylic paint. The article is from Rolling Stone. This drawing is one of the few of my works to be seen in a public exhibition, spring of 1985, at the Duluth Art Institute. I can’t recall for certain but it might have been featured in the local newspaper. Gendron Jensen was the star of the show, though not an active participant, but this drawing made a small stir because of the craftsmanship.


Magazine were close to the end when I finally stumbled upon them (after the first half of the 1970s, when my cousin was often leading my musical taste with his new discoveries, I was usually on my own…I came to love the adventure of exploring the record stores, seeking out new and interesting things…either way, it was rare I’d find or could afford a record when it was current). The Correct Use of Soap was not as cool and exciting as any of the other bands I was finding at the time but the music was so solid and the lyrics clever and humorous enough to keep pulling me back (now that I’m becoming an old man the wit seems lacking). Twenty years later Magic, Murder and the Weather had also won me over, sometimes becoming my preference over The Correct Use of Soap. “Song from Under the Floorboards” needs to be played at my funeral. It seems like a condensation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the only one of his works that has meant anything to me.

With her annual bonus, near the close of winter 1994, a few months after we’d purchased a duplex with a friend, my partner bought us plane tickets and a room on the beach of Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It has been my only vacation out of the country and certainly my only vacation as a rich American (I was shit broke but compared to the poverty I saw down there I was disgustingly well off). We were browsing in this very upscale gift shop, all local artisans, run by a German (handmade papers and books as art objects, ceramics and sculpture, et cetera). On the stereo was this music like I’d never heard before. We split the cost of the CD, since neither of us, by then, had much money left (well, I was nearly out of credit): Jorge Reyes, Bajo el Sol Jaguar. After tracking down more of his music (still not easy to come by) I found that the album was more like his collaborations with Steve Roach and Suso Sáiz (as Suspended Memories), who both feature on Bajo el Sol Jaguar, than it does any of his other works. Usually his work is less New Age and more quasi-anthropologically pre-Columbian.

Mike Oldfield has been one of my favorite artists since I first heard Tubular Bells. I was aware of it being used in The Exorcist but I’m almost certain that I didn’t see the film until several years after its release. Are you sick of Tubular Bells? It seems Oldfield’s fans can’t let go of it. Nor can Oldfield, he’s reworked it so many times. Back in the 1970s the album I liked was Ommadawn, which I did not own until I bought the very expensive import Boxed, maybe in 1980 or 1981, and that album has hovered near my top 10 ever since (some of the recordings on the fourth LP, stuff he did with David Bedford, are what I really got out of that collection). Most of his albums were pretty good though becoming progressively cheesier until he started doing pop songs (as on Five Miles Out and Crises) and more or less gave up on instrumental music for awhile. That was as far as I could go with him until the mid-1990s, after getting the Elements box set. I gave Songs from Distant Earth a try. I think he has always had an attraction to schlock and that album characteristically has some pretty nauseating moments. But it’s freakishly beautiful as well. Nothing he has done since compares and, really, none of his earliest recordings do either. It is the one Oldfield album that I unequivocally like. Otherwise, I often find listening to him to be a guilty pleasure, as though I had on Enya or Enigma.

Back in the 1990s I was excited by the apparent freshness of electronic dance music: Future Sound of London, Orbital, Underworld, and The Orb to name some of them who didn’t very quickly get bogged down in a stylistic rut and among the few I still listen to from time to time. Underworld’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman has remained something of a magical release—that is, I still hear it as such. In the past twenty years it has become one of my most played records, at a time when I’ve come to listen to less and less music.

Also from that era, though something I didn’t track down until a couple years ago, is Node. I first heard them on a sampler of some sort, probably from a record label or magazine. Their eponymous album (1995?) was an analog synth throwback, totally fetishistic, and totally magnificent. It came across as the one great Tangerine Dream album that we all knew they could do but was never released (Tangerine Dream circa 1975, maybe). (If you listen to Node’s second album, 2014, you’ll hear parts reminiscent of many ’70s synth pioneers such as Jarre, Kraftwerk, and Synergy. An excellent album but not quite like the first.) Node seems totally derivative yet somehow original. I can live with that, especially since it’s better than what it was aping.

It was probably in 2004 that a coworker gave me a couple CD samplers of various metal bands, most of them death metal since that was his thing. I can’t say I disliked much of it but neither did any of it excite me, except for Opeth. The material from Blackwater Park, Deliverance, and Damnation is incredible—all of it produced by Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree. As metal became formulaic toward the end of the ’70s (think of Judas Priest) I began to lose interest and hadn’t really listened to much since then (though a different coworker tried to reignite my interest 1989-1990…he did get me to reevaluate King Crimson and to pay attention to David Torn). Damnation is such a beautiful album, embodying much of what I like about progressive rock without taking on the mannerisms (unlike Opeth’s last album, Pale Communion, which I can’t listen to, sounding like someone who doesn’t understand the exploratory spirit of prog but merely imitates the mannerisms). I can put Damnation on and listen to it over and over the way I did, say, Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin’s fourth when I was a kid. That has rarely happened in recent decades.

Something missing from this list are non-rock albums such as Perotin by The Hilliard Ensemble, Current Circulation by David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, Fauré’s Requiem conducted by Michel Corboz (I prefer it with a boy soprano, though Fauré probably meant it to have an adult female), or Bach’s cello suites performed by Yo Yo Ma. In part this is because my record database was not very accommodating to classical records. Also this represents a mind rut that often precludes me from looking beyond certain parameters. I would probably add all four recordings to my top ten (bringing it to twenty-two, I think).

Also missing are some recent additions. I’m not sure they entirely belong here. I haven’t had enough time to live with them and they could soon overstay their welcome. Two records that immediately come to mind are Farewell Poetry’s Hoping for the Invisible to Ignite and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock (which is only slightly better than Spirit of Eden and Hollis’ solo, all three of which are superb).

I’m not really sure how I came across Farewell Poetry, if it was serendipity or if someone suggested I give them a try. The general reaction when I’ve tried to pass them on to others has been ambivalent. It is only in the past few months that I’ve come to realize that Farewell Poetry’s music could be described as stylistically banal: they play a very familiar style of post-rock reminiscent of MONO. With an overlay of poetry (and maybe no one liked the poetry). The general business of mixing music and poetry has been my passion for decades so just about any attempt at expanding the field is something I welcome. Also, I like the record. A lot. I generally like post-rock (though it quickly becomes tedious), especially liking the cloying beauty of their sound (as I like MONO’s records), and I am enamored with Jayne Amara Ross’ words and voice. The album brings to mind what I wish I could have heard forty-five years ago, what The Doors and Velvet Underground offered but couldn’t deliver.

Australian poet David McCooey (who, by the way, has an excellent album of poetry and music on iTunes called Outside Broadcast) introduced me to Mark Hollis and Talk Talk. Over the past decades I’ve been pulling away from the song as an interesting structure. I still like songs but I don’t find them all that exciting or inspiring. So, to hear Mark Hollis doing songs that are not in that structural pop rut, are only very loosely related to pop music as we usually hear it, made me an instant fan. Farewell Poetry might not last among my top ten, or even among my top fifty albums but I’m almost certain these three Talk Talk/Hollis albums, especially Laughing Stock, will remain. Like Opeth’s Damnation, these albums reference so much that I was at home with from the 1970s without really copying it—and Hollis extends those ideas without resorting to convention the way Mikael Åkerfeldt invariably does. When it was released, like David Bowie’s Low, I probably wasn’t ready. I think these albums would have seemed to drag. Hearing Laughing Stock now is like instant heaven. I’m at home with how quiet they are. I appreciate the deviance of them. I’m thrilled by the subtlety of the arrangements. I’ve read that the songs couldn’t be performed on stage yet though they’re patched together from hundreds of takes they have an ethereal flow and completeness that seems rare in anyone’s music these days.

Missing from the list and probably my favorite band in the past few years (first heard them in the mid-1990s but didn’t pay much attention until about five years ago) is Einstürzende Neubauten. Many of my recordings resemble their style of industrial music, but with spoken poetry rather than singing, though I have not been directly influenced. Do I have a favorite album by them, something that could be added to my top ten? As a band or artist they might be one of my top five but I can’t think of a specific album that stands out. This is true of many of my favorite artists. They might be consistently good or interesting but maybe never quite great, never pulling together an outstanding album, which has always been a special skill and now a seemingly dying one. I think I mention them just to put the following list and this whole essay into perspective: music I enjoy and admire that never quite reaches the pinnacle of these few others. A continuation of my top ten into a top 50 or 100 or 500 would include albums that have much good material but never quite jell into a wholeness. Well, maybe with this in mind I could probably come up with that top 50 (which would include a few recognized classics, Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road and maybe a Kate Bush or two but still primarily albums snubbed by the professional critics and connoisseurs…Argent, Nektar, Pavlov’s Dog, even a Lucifer’s Friend).


  1. David Bowie Low
  2. Creedence Clearwater Revival Bayou Country
  3. The Doors The Doors
  4. Echo and the Bunnymen Heaven Up Here
  5. Emerson, Lake, and Palmer Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
  6. Hawkwind Space Ritual
  7. Jean Michel Jarre Oxygene
  8. Jethro Tull Stand Up
  9. Magazine The Correct Use of Soap
  10. Node Node
  11. Mike Oldfield Songs of Distant Earth
  12. Opeth Damnation
  13. Pere Ubu Dub Housing
  14. Jorge Reyes Bajo el Sol Jaguar
  15. Santana Caravanserai
  16. The Stooges Fun House
  17. Talking Heads Remain in Light
  18. Underworld Dubnobasswithmyheadman

Now, are you ready to argue? That’s what fans do best, I’ve heard.

A Small Thought about Conservative Thought

Posted in Morality, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , on March 14, 2015 by swampmessiah

If you were to look at me you’d notice a guy. You might elaborate and add on working guy or scruffy guy or old guy. That’s interesting because I’ve never been concerned with the details of my gender or sexuality. On the surface it’s true, I am a scruffy old guy. Yet it’s something I’d rather not specify, my gender. It’s a checkbox on surveys I’d rather leave blank.

This is not to say I’ve ever wanted to be a woman or to fill that role. I find all of this unnecessarily constricting. You can blame my attitude on the ’60s counter culture if you want. I turned ten during the Summer of Love, obliviously playing with my G.I. Joes. I wanted to learn to sew in order to make civilian clothes for them. It was not allowed. Maybe my convictions run a little deeper than a fluke of culture. Maybe my rebellion is a little more intrinsic.

Today I stumbled on a Granta article called Self-Made Man, ostensibly about an 18-year old trans male but really about the author’s thoughts on gender. Gender identity is a hot subject in our household because our 18-year old has been transitioning for the past few years but is not going for an overtly masculine self. I find this ambiguity very interesting and the article did a great job of exploring the non-binary possibilities that I’ve been witnessing in my child and many of their friends. In several different ways I felt at home.

Our 18-year old is currently visiting a friend in Australia while taking online college courses. Discussing the article wasn’t possible. Also, the kid is not always a talker.

At dinner I was discussing the article with our 23-year old, who is a talker. The conversation had come around to it being sad that some people, and not just conservatives (do I need to change the title?), are so rigid about identity, especially sexuality and gender. That was when I said that they need people to play out a social function rather than be an individual.

The ripples are still spreading.

I don’t want to fill in the details and detract from the basic thought: they need people to fulfill a social function.

In my mind this is racing on toward all kinds of things, including economic roles. But very specifically this observation so succinctly—at least for the moment, as I let my mind play with the idea—describes the problem of gender restriction in a non-accusatory way. Some people need social order more than they need individuality. They need order more than they need freedom. They need people to behave in a specified way so that the world keeps turning. For them there’s nothing more basic than gendering the universe. Night and day. Good and evil. Male and female.

I don’t get it. In so many practical ways I’m very conservative, doing the same things year after year, but I don’t need life to be simple and understandable. I don’t need that kind of order. None of it. I don’t need man and woman. I don’t need people to be functional cogs. I don’t need to tell you what your place in the world is. And I damn well won’t let you tell me what mine is.

Okay, so I did listen to the original Broadway cast recording of Hair long before I understood it. “Kids, be free. Be whatever you are and do whatever you wanna do just so long as you don’t hurt anybody.”

The Why of Art

Posted in Art, Perception, Social responsibility with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2015 by swampmessiah

Did you ever find yourself checking a book out of the library again and again? It might just be something that makes you feel good, like mashed potatoes or chocolate or a favorite cartoon can. Or it might be a book of wonder, a book with exciting new ideas spilling out on every page. Or just something so unbelievably beautiful that it makes you ache to turn the pages. When I was in grade school, in the 1960s, it was a book on dinosaurs illustrated with segments from the mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum. I had a lot of toy dinosaurs and a few books on the subject, written for children and sold at Woolworths, the dime store, but I’d never seen anything so magnificent. Were the illustrations even in color?

But there are other reasons for being drawn to a book. Perhaps it’s to give meaning or answer a question.

As an adult, beginning maybe 25 years ago, I kept taking out The Artist, by Edmund B. Feldman. (I wanted to put a link to him or the book. He’s not on Wikipedia. Most of his books are out of print. Sorry. Give Google a try.) After borrowing and reading it two or three or more times I eventually found and purchased a copy, which I read then and again just a few years ago. It has now become one of my security blanket books.

Each chapter takes on a different artistic role:

  1. The Shaman
  2. Child Artist and Naïve Artist
  3. Peasant and Folk Artist
  4. The Classical Artisan
  5. The Medieval Guildsman
  6. The Renaissance Genius
  7. The Revolutionary Artist
  8. The Bohemian Artist
  9. The Illustrator
  10. The Industrial Designer
  11. The Gallery Idol
  12. The Hyphenated Artist

All of this is suggestive but I could never find myself in there. And that, I think, was what I was looking for: my place within the world of art.

In retrospect it seems I was often misguided. I’ve tried to present my art to the public and will, I hope, continue to do so. In the early 1980s I did the obligatory search for a gallery to represent me. In the spring of 1983 I had a solo exhibit at the Tweed Museum of Art (on the campus of UMD) and in the spring of 1985, not long after I’d moved to Minneapolis, participated in a group exhibition of drawing at the Duluth Art Institute, an exhibit I’d inadvertently instigated. I suppose if I’d kept pushing in that direction I might eventually have made a mark of some sort. Instead, I withdrew.…In 1984 I tried producing a book of poems and drawings. Once I began recording, in 1996, I made cassettes and then CD/booklet sets to give to friends. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I once again put something before the general public, starting with soundcloud.com.

That wasn’t what I needed to be doing. I just needed to produce art. Yet everything I’ve read about art insists it’s a social activity, that there’s a transaction or bargain between artist and public, and I kept buying into that in a half-hearted way.

Most importantly, I needed to make the art that was crawling around inside me rather than whatever it was that galleries would show or a public would support or a patron would request. This seems like a more familiar story, right? The tormented artist, confined by society, awaiting liberation and discovery, blah, blah, blah. Don’t take it that way because that’s not where I’m heading.

The public, making money, success, and all that external crap has never mattered except as an occasional afterthought. I’ve always experienced art as a personal need, as something coming up from the depths of my mind, rarely conscious or communicable. Art comes from somewhere under the surface to spill out onto a sheet of paper (or into a microphone, as it has in recent years). Then it vanishes again until the next upwelling. There might be a fallow period lasting years. I might change medium when I next begin working. I might spend years reviewing, revising, and cataloging what I’ve already made. Or I might even play with the idea of publishing, of putting it into a book or website (though that begs the question of engaging the public versus turning my own art into a more familiar artifact—since I’m more likely to encounter the work of others online or in a book than at a gallery). The act of generating something new is only part of it.…Of my own art, what I find in any way satisfactory has not been coaxed or forced or cajoled. It is not subject to intellect or will. It has its own periodicity and purpose. It comes unbidden and freely, at least at first. When I try to force art—that is, when there’s no sense of internal necessity—it makes me sick, almost physically ill, and I almost always hate what is produced.

But, until very recently, I think I’ve been trying to find that social context, however distant it might be from a tangible audience.

I’m going to give you two examples of my graphic work. The first, a still life from sometime around 1982-1983.  The second drawing is from Laughing Water, probably drawn February 1996. (In the spring of 1983 I had decided that I would put together a collection of poems and erotic drawings called Laughing Water, which became something of a Leaves of Grass as it continued to evolve and grow over the decades. You can learn a little more about the history of that at Prattle and Din, a memoir of my recording experiences.)

Still life, circa 1983, with rock, leaves, dragonfly, and antique razor. And incorrect French. Graphite, India ink, and white acrylic on Rieves BFK.

Still life, circa 1983, with rock, leaves, dragonfly, and antique razor. And incorrect French. Graphite, India ink, and white acrylic on Rieves BFK.

To me this still life was and remains meaningless, nothing more than an exercise in technique and discipline. At the time I was trying to be a “real” artist—as Henry Miller defined the role—by working very hard to produce something every day (though he was insisting an artist produce all day, every day). I was also attempting to internalize someone else’s idea about art as observation, perhaps one of the commentators on Rilke’s Neue Gedichte. The drawing has no reason to exist except that I thought I should be doing something constructive that day and that I should be training my eye and hand. It doesn’t really come from anywhere, go anywhere, or embody anything. There’s nothing emotional about it. There’s no necessity. It’s merely an observation of what I set in front of myself.

Drawing 115 from the collection Laughing Water, circa February 1996. Graphite, India ink, acrylic, and Letraset on Rieves BFK. There's a visual reference to one of the Crow poems by Ted Hughes: "he went to the womb and met maggot".

Drawing 115 from the collection Laughing Water, circa February 1996. Graphite, India ink, acrylic, and Letraset on Rieves BFK. There’s a visual reference to one of the Crow poems by Ted Hughes: “he went to the womb and met maggot”.

The second drawing, circa February 1996, is an attempt to process my feelings toward an unplanned pregnancy. At this point I was past my anger at having another child and the ensuing responsibilities imposed on me and was coming around to identifying with everything unwanted, including unwanted children. When I tell you about what was going on the drawing makes sense. But, really, there’s very little conscious activity. The images and words are a random set of connections, momentary connections that might not hold up under daylight or intellectual examination. What is on paper is a fragment of what was churning in my mind that day.

I just said that I needed to “process my feelings” and I think that’s where the critical literature of art falls flat. I think it goes deeper than “processing”.  I have to describe it as thinking. Art is the act of thinking. The artifact is the debris of thought. I can’t recall ever hearing anyone say it this way: art is thinking. It’s fundamental to the artist. It isn’t just processing something. For some of us, thought has to take sensual form. It has to be worked via the senses. More importantly, thinking has to be put outside one’s self so it can be observed at a distance (in part I say it this way to include the verbal arts). We have to shape our thoughts in some way, then stand back from them to take them in as a whole. To an outsider—and maybe to the artist, too—this may seem nothing but an esthetic process, and sometimes that’s all it is. I would say there’s a lot more going on.

If you only look at my graphic output you’d wonder if I thought of anything but sex. Almost all I’ve produced since the spring of 1983, when I began Laughing Water, is sexually explicit (and a majority of my drawing and painting prior to that was often restricted to the female nude). I, at least, have long wondered why sex was necessary (in my art). In regard to my own life and production of art, I’ve never been accepting of our socio-sexual roles, both private and public. In the private realm, I’ve always thought there should be more to sex than orgasm, even as an end goal. If you look at the full body of my art, literary and graphic, you will see a resistance to society, you will see pleasure discussed and depicted sensually rather than orgasmically, you will see sex as a kind of worship of life (of being alive). I hope that you find in my thought and art something more engaging than a one night stand. I hope that you, too, will challenge our social heritage.

Sooner or later I might want your input on my thoughts. And for that I do want to put my art before the public. I do want an audience because thinking is a richer experience if it’s not an isolated experience, if it leads to dialog. And yet, at the beginning, thought is a private experience. We have to walk alone on the moors or take a boat out on the water when no one else is around. We have to work alone while we smear and scribble our thoughts onto paper. Before we engage each other we have to engage ourselves.

To Feldman’s index we need to add The Artist Thinking.

The Challenging Thought

Posted in A Day in the Life, Perception with tags , , , , , , , on December 20, 2014 by swampmessiah

I’ve been reading a book on scientific revolution. Again.

Except for textbooks, is there any other kind? Is someone going to write about how science just sat still? Will someone write about the glorious history of how a scientific paradigm became and remains orthodox? Those textbooks are, I think, as close as we’ll ever get to that.

What intrigues me is how much I identify with the radical thinkers, the ones who just can’t accept and be content with the prevailing attitudes so that they come up with a new and challenging way of looking at things. I imagine that I’m like them. I really do.

You might be kind enough to let me cherish a vain delusion. I’m not. Even if I had the training I can’t imagine that I’d ever figure out anything that would change how others think and see. These people are really smart in a way I can only try to imagine (if testing from decades ago can be trusted, I’m on the bright side of average but very definitely within that category called average). (I’ll admit I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction and fact the past couple years and it’s been both entertaining and frustrating. I’ve been having one of those years where I hunger for intelligence. Not knowledge. Knowledge is cultural and ephemeral and only interesting up to a point. I want the intelligence to ask more questions and then to explore them. That would be fun.)

Then I think it must be a matter of character, since I lack the brain power. I am by nature and (self) nurture a challenger of the status quo. A born and bred radical and rebel. More vanity, of course. Some truth, too. Maybe. I say “vanity” because I doubt I’ve ever really challenged anything and pursued the issue right down to the core. I’ve never gotten to the center of things and built a new way out. I’ve never presented something familiar in an unrecognizable manner. How often is my rebellion more than “leave me alone”? Still, I’m having trouble letting go of the illusion. The idea of being a radical, especially a free radical, is very exciting.

When I read of these scientists, these critical thinkers, and the hostility they face, of course I side with them. All those dull blocks of humanity so thoroughly indoctrinated that they can’t recognize a good idea or a touch more truth than what they already know. But would I be any different? I like to think I would embrace the news but that really isn’t what happens. I think I might be one of those dull blocks. For the same reasons? Maybe not. I do honestly believe that I’m a born skeptic. My first reaction to anything new is “no”. That means “let me think about it”. And thinking about it could take decades, so it could be a long time before I come to any agreement with a new idea (by which time I would be seen as a latecomer). I doubt I reject the new idea because of any indoctrination, at least not when it comes to science, because I’m too much of an outsider. I lack the education and commitment. Cultural indoctrination, maybe: but there, too, I’m a bit on the outside. But do I ever have the perspicacity to see a better idea when it’s in front of me, to immediately grasp the importance of it? If not indoctrination then plain slow wits. I have to say I don’t.

To be fair to all of us, these scientists rarely come up with anything original except, maybe, making connections between existing ideas that others have failed to make. Original concepts are so extremely rare. As Newton quoted, we stand on the shoulders of giants. I think here I can make some comparison with these unusual beings. I do make a lot of connections that others do not make. I hybridize ideas. I redirect the mental flow away from the straight shot between point A and point B, maybe even taking a detour right out of the alphabet.  In fact, I’ve been pushing this idiosyncrasy into a way of life and maybe even an art form (one should live their art, yes?). I willfully misconstrue. I suspect it’s more often out of misunderstanding, like in the game called telephone (or is it Chinese whispers?), than through any intellectual rigor.

After sifting through the possibilities I’m left with one single fact: I like to figure things out for myself. Maybe that makes me a bit like them and self-identifying with the rule changers isn’t totally ridiculous. But in my daily life it’s a time waster, a form of procrastination or misdirection. Do I really need to be grappling with and questioning common knowledge? To be kind to myself I could say it’s a process of consciousness, a matter of being aware of the world and what I’m doing in it, a form of beginner’s Zen.

Before I end, I think we have to acknowledge that in some psychological circles challenging the status quo is a sign or form of mental illness. Rebellion is or should be something of a personality disorder. In the overall scheme of possible crazinesses, if thinking for myself is considered crazy it’s one I’d opt for. In fact, more, please.


A Time and a Place for Music

Posted in A Day in the Life, Music, Perception, Time with tags , , , , , , on October 14, 2014 by swampmessiah

For the past five years or so I’ve been listening to less and less music, easily going for weeks without putting a disc into my CD player. And my purchases have almost come to nothing, averaging less than one album per month.

I find this so peculiar that I’m having doubts as to who I am. Can I recognize myself without music? I feel like a soundtrack should accompany me into any room. I’ve had my own records since 1962 (Christmas with the Chipmunks), when I was five; bought my first LP with my own money in 1969 (Waiting for the Sun by The Doors); bought my own record player and started collecting records in earnest in 1972. Ever since, I’ve been the guy who knows music no one else has heard, using that knowledge as part of my social persona—freak. Perhaps even beginning that year I was acquiring a bare minimum of 50 albums, easily topping 100 a year throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Seldom venturing from my room, long before it was fashionable or socially acceptable to do so, I have always been engulfed in music. Or so it seemed.

Of course that constant sound began to falter when I found a lasting relationship and we made babies and all that distracting adult stuff. It was important to stayed engaged with my household (not saying I’ve ever been good at it). Music comes to seem a luxury rather than a necessity. It becomes abrasive rather than pleasant. It seems selfish. Yet I’ve always been slow to acknowledge this truth and kept buying and trying to listen.

This past June (2014) I decided to flesh out my collection of Beatles CDs—this would only be their albums beginning with Rubber Soul or Revolver, I forget which came first, since I’ve never had the slightest interest in their work before 1965. This in itself was peculiar, perhaps a sign of some sort of mental breakdown or mid-life crisis: I really haven’t paid much attention to them in decades, partly out of disinterest and partly in reaction to the hype (nobody can live up to such a reputation, absolutely no one). For so many years I’ve claimed to hate them that my partner was shocked to hear their songs coming out of my room a few months ago.

Then I started uploading these Beatles albums onto my computer! (Exclamation marks are almost non-existent in my writing. Assume that the last sentence was a shrill statement.) Why would I do that?

Why would I do that? I’ve been asking myself that question for approximately four months as I’ve slogged through my CD collection to upload things I thought I might want to hear. The process is more or less complete: 200 GB, 2,648 folders, and 27,244 files later. It’s hard to get an estimate of how many albums—somewhere around 2000, I suppose—but I think the number of files accurately reflects 27,244 songs. Too many for Google Play or iTunes Match.

If you are, or know, a record collector you know that it’s a type of mania, an obsession, a little (or large) slice of mental illness. Almost all my free hours from early July through mid-October, and even some when I should have been sleeping or doing something more interesting or useful, were spent staring blankly at my computer monitor as I uploaded disc after disc. It also propelled me to buy more, whether CD or download, to fill in some gaps of recordings that somehow seem necessary (in some ways this is just a shift in process, something I’d started about fifteen years ago as I began converting vinyl to CD, then often buying the disc rather than trying to filter the scratches and pops). I think I’ve already sprung for about fifty discs or downloads since buying those Beatles CDs, which is probably more than I’ve purchased total in the past five years.

Now what? Am I suddenly going to start finding time to listen? I have about 2000 albums on each of my computers (this summer I bought a laptop, my first, and I think I have some lifestyle fantasy going in which I venture out of my room, either to bring my computer with me when we travel or merely to sit in the living room or dining room with my partner and our kids as we all play in parallel on our individual electronic devices). Is this supposed to somehow liberate me from other commitments or interests?

Well…I think it will be easier to listen, more convenient.

To get a CD requires a trip to the dining room. A trip to the dining room could lead to interaction with other household members. Not a bad thing, surely. If I’m in the middle of something (for instance, writing this post) it’s too much of a distraction. Then, of course, is the problem of scanning all the CD spines in search of what to listen to, if I don’t already have something in mind. Then there’s the whole business of popping in a disc, waiting for it to load before I can press play, et cetera. All these steps add up to quite a break from whatever it was that I was doing. (My 2000 LPs are in my room but I do not listen to them. I’ve hardly touched them since I bought my first CD player in 1990. As packaging, as a physical object, an LP is a little taste of bliss. But I would much prefer to hear the music, whatever it is that the artist intended, rather than the medium.)

Now, all this music is on my computer. If iTunes is already up and running it’s just a matter of a little scrolling and a couple of clicks.

Does it help? Well…in the past month I’ve probably heard more of my music collection than I have in at least the past year, maybe even two years. While writing this I’ve heard David Torn’s Tripping over God, which I just bought a few days ago; I started to listen to something by Dead Can Dance (Into the Labyrinth, I think it’s called, which I still hate and moved on within a few songs) but had to clear out my ears with DMZ. Followed by Einstürzende Neubauten’s Tabula Rasa, some early Ultravox! and, now, a Mahler symphony.

I think what excites me most is how easy it is to listen to just a single song when I don’t have time for more. I find this refreshing, or recharging, or invigorating, or something comparably positive.

I still rarely have time to listen to a whole album uninterrupted, which pretty much rules out classical music. That hasn’t stopped me from buying more classical albums along with some “classic” rock (originally I switched to CD from LP because the classical market had gone digital and I was in one of those phases of my life where I was hell-bent to explore it). I’ve downloaded all Beethoven’s and Tchaikovsky’s symphonies plus Beethoven’s quartets (I love those budget versions by obscure but capable ensembles).

Have I answered my question as to why I would put all this music on my computers? I’m not sure. I’m just in the process of winding down from the frenzy of uploading and have yet to get very far with the development of any particular fantasy. In fact, writing this post while listening to music is a test run of one of those fantasies.

(A primary reason for not having time to listen to music, at least while on the computer, is that I have been making “music” of my own. Since 1996 my most common creative outlet has been recording my poetry with a quasi-musical background (call it soundtrack and voiceover for lack of better terms). If I get back to doing that—the past year has been something of a fallow period—I won’t be able to listen to anyone else. But if I tend more toward writing essays, as I think I will, I might be getting an overload of real music. That’s a pleasing thought: an overload of music.)

The more I think about it, the more I ask myself why I put all that effort into uploading 2000 albums onto my computer. I find it only indirectly comes down to listening. It is, emphatically, to reconnect with my collection. It was the process itself, the uploading disc by disc, that was important. (Have you ever taken longer than necessary to reshelf your collection or pack it or dust it?) It’s important to handle each recording, to briefly relive fragments of your life. I’m thankful I wasn’t going through my LPs, which go back to my childhood, youth, and early adulthood, covering such a richly emotional and turbulent time.

Since so much of my record collection is internalized, listening to the music only heightens the reconnection that’s already begun. I had to touch the discs, and read the titles, and examine the cover art (often having to track it down online, which turned out to be more difficult for many of the classical albums than the “obscure” rock albums). I suppose you could say I’ve reconnected with myself. At least in regard to music, I like what I’ve found.

Even if it doesn’t entirely make sense, I don’t think this was a waste of effort. Sharon Isbin’s Nightshade Rounds and I say goodnight.

I Brought Home the Gun That Killed Mary

Posted in History, Memoire, Perception with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2014 by swampmessiah

Yes, I brought home the gun that killed Mary. It’s a Savage 22/410 over and under. Just after my mother’s death (8/29/14) I brought home a few mementoes and things I didn’t want to leave at the house in case of robbery: the gun is both.

It was probably the school year of 1962/63 that my mother decided to send me to Sunday school to get used to being around other children, since I was an only child and we lived in a rural area with a school that lacked a kindergarten. I say “send” because I have few memories of her attending church, though she was a Lutheran. My father never went to church (I still have no idea what his beliefs are; I suspect he believes in god but will have nothing to do with churches).…I would have been five.

There was a girl in the class I liked. Her name was Mary. I have no recollection of what it was that I liked about her or what we did together. I have no recollection of any romantic feelings nor any kind of pre-sexual yearning (not for my peers, anyway). It was probably that she was nice to me. A bigger mystery: why would she have liked me? I seriously doubt I was nice to her. Whatever it was, it was mutual: I have a hazy memory of her laughing face.

Probably that spring or summer, of 1963, we got a second dog. Well, a puppy. I named her Mary.

More than fifty years later I still have a fairly vivid memory of coming out of the house (and I use the term very loosely—it was a tar paper shed appended to a small Airstream trailer) and a very excitable Mary jumping up on me, as she always did. That time she left large welts streaking down my chest from where her claws raked me through my clothes. I cried for a long time, as I always did in those days.

When my father came home my mother told him what had happened and probably said or implied something had to be done.

I remember my father and a gun and Mary walking into the alder and balsam woods surrounding our house.

Mary did not come home for dinner.

End of story.

It seems I have a rather alien view of how you should respond.

A friend blurted out that if he’d known how it would end he wouldn’t finish the book, presuming it were a book, because I let him down. He’s as odd as I am, I suppose. Anyway, he surprised me with his reaction.

The usual response begins with the assumption that I’m revealing something tragic and traumatizing. The listener (and I assume reader) will either give me a blank stare because they’re uncomfortable with such disclosure or they will gush pity and attempted comfort.

The incident is a vivid and sad memory (almost all my memories of childhood are sad—is this me or human nature?). I don’t consider it traumatic. For instance, I don’t hold myself responsible for the death of the puppy. You know, if I hadn’t cried so much maybe Mary would have lived a full dog life. I ‘ve never taken that on. Nor have I blamed my father for brutality. His bluntness of action is one of many ways in which he was intimidating and fearsome to me and I think I had to process his nature when I was young, usually in dreams. But, as I’ve said, I’ve never thought of him as cruel. I have not, in fact or in mind, gone on a tirade about him killing the dog. Maybe if he’d forced me to witness the dog’s death I’d have something to complain about.

The fact is, I was a little slow to put everything together and it probably took me at least a few days to fully comprehend that the dog was dead rather than gone (for instance, that he hadn’t given the dog to a neighbor (in the woods!? my mother would have tried to perpetuate such a scenario and perhaps she did)).

I find the story sad and poignant and have told it or referred to it in poems and memoires over the years. I expect you to have some sort of sympathetic response, both for the puppy and for the child. I certainly don’t expect any kind of comfort for my adult self. (I think there’s a kind of sickness going around, a manipulative self-pity, as some of us have become addicted to being stroked while we cry over our lost days.)

Bringing home the gun brings an indefinable closure to this memory and a completeness to the story. Bringing home the gun and tying it specifically to this one memory gives it a twist of absurdity, a bit of mind-fuck, that will and does provide comfort to my rather alien mind. It turns something sad into something bizarrely amusing.



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