Thursday, December 24, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Melvins

Nirvana, right? Soundgarden? Mudhoney? Mother Love Bone (who the fuck remembers Mother Love Bone)? Green River? Temple of the Dog?

Fuck ‘em all.


There may be no better rock band working today, which, unlike all the above mentioned acts (except the sadly reunited Mudhoney) survived the grunge fad and remained active, not to mention relevant. Take the early Melvins records, like Bullhead, and compare them to Pigs of the Roman Empire and look for the similarities. While the initial thought might be that this sounds like a completely different band, the common traits are evident: Dale Crover’s (the greatest drummer in rock history, period) pounding beats, Buzzo’s growl and de-tuned Les Paul, long, punishing riffs, the total annihilation of any expectations. If you are a Melvins fan—a real fan—you’ll know to expect something different each time. The basic DNA is the same, but the results are often surprising. Chalk it up to the rotating bass player slot (6 and counting) or the constant shuffle from label to label (though Ipecac looks like home) if you must. Personally, I think it all has to do with Buzzo’s fluxing muse. Anyone this gifted is not going to be satisfied churning out the same old product, much to the chagrin of lunkhead fans looking for a constant repackaging of Ozma.

So they mix it up, big deal. What else about them is so goddamn special? Who can say? Throughout this series I have tried to pinpoint what it is about a work (or body of work) that has allegedly changed my life. While the Melvins are without a doubt one of the most important bands ever (right up there with the Beatles or the Who or the Stooges), that doesn’t make them life changers in the sense that most might think when confronted with such a term. But to me, they were life changing. Unlike Public Enemy or Mr. Bungle, I was not struck immediately by their work. No, records like Houdini and Stag took a few listens to truly sink in. I was unable to process what the hell they were up to, especially with Stag. Maybe their most eclectic and challenging record, Stag remains my favorite. Much of what the Melvins are capable of is evident in that one CD. If you need a “best of” jump off, then Stag is for you. “The Bit” brings the slow, heavy riffs and bone breaking drums; “Black Bock” is mellow, catchy and yet very evil; “Skin Horse” is a three part odyssey of anthem rock, trance and the most beautiful baby-voiced absurdity you’ll ever hear. When I finally warmed up to the Melvins it was very clear that there was no going back. The germ was too deep. Everything else now sounds tame.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

‘Tis the Season to be Disgusting

It’s the time of year when food is everywhere in the office. Not good food—junk. Well, some junkier than others, but overall, nothing to get excited over. Still there they are, the vultures swarming over free fake cheese popcorn, too-sweet sweetbreads, blue cheese twists packed with processed shit, and homemade crap masquerading as my co-worker’s fudge.

We have a pizza party every year followed by a White Elephant style gift exchange. The pizza leftovers are consumed within a day, usually by the obese attorney who also makes a trip to the popcorn barrel every half hour. During the White Elephant gift exchange, the worst gifts are accepted with obvious resentment while the best—always wine bottles—are stolen and traded back and forth in a cruel three-way face off that lasts far too long (this year it went on for almost half an hour). The people fighting over the desirable gifts are always attorneys. The rest of us are used to getting screwed, so we suck it up. I have a Tupperware salad container, a tea infuser, and sordid other bullshit items as proof.

I have seen the gluttony, greed, pettiness, and forced cheer all too often. I am disgusted by these displays. I appreciate the gestures, truly, but I grow weary of the idea that I should be happy when surrounded by these creatures who swarm around piles of junk food and liquor. Bums act this way, not professionals.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Van Halen

I suppose I ought to go way back and talk about the days when the only band that mattered to me was Van Halen. These years were, approximately, 1984 – 1989. Okay, there were other bands that mattered (Led Zep, of course) but I’d have gladly thrown away their LPs to save my copy of Fair Warning.

I was hooked on Van Halen right around the time most of us were: right after 1984 was released. “Jump” had less to do with the hooking than “Panama” which still sounds like the shit to me. “Hot For Teacher” even more so. “Drop Dead Legs” and “House of Pain” clinched it. I was in love. How did I spell this love: E-D-D-I-E. Eddie Van Halen was my god. I didn’t just want to play guitar like Eddie; I wanted to be Eddie.

Of course, that never happened. Years of lessons and hours of practicing would only advance my skills to a level just above novice. But I still loved the shit out of Halen. And then Dave left and Hammy Cigar filled in. That’s when Eddie took over production and the sound went to shit. That’s also the time when the love songs began to overshadow the Big Rock. But my love didn’t fade. Well, sort of: OU812 was the last VH record I purchased, and I saw them on that tour, but even as I pretended to like “Finish What You Started” I knew that the band was dead to me. I couldn’t abandon them and make the full transition to the “alternative” jive that was courting me pretty heavy, so I put that off and sunk back into the glories of VH past. Fair Warning and Women & Children First, to be exact.

There are two kinds of Van Halen fans:

1. Roth fans, and;

2. Hagar fans.

The second group are simple—they simply like Sammy. The first camp can be further divided into three subgroups:

a. Early Roth era (fans of the first two records);

b. Middle era Roth fans (fans of Women & Children First and Fair Warning); and

c. Late era Roth fans (fans of Diver Down and 1984)

One can be a fan of all these eras, but generally, one of the three is preferred. I was, and am, a middle era Roth fan. Women & Children First is an oft overlooked gem. “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” get more than enough play, but have you heard “Tora! Tora!” or “Take Your Whiskey Home” or “Fools” lately? Rock fucking solid! What about “Romeo Delight”? This song has what might be the quintessential Roth lyric: “I’m taking whiskey to the party tonight and I’m looking for somebody to squeeze.” That was Van Halen—a party band with simple tastes. They were about good times and rock and booze and sex and fun. That’s the way we liked ‘em.

Possibly intentional, though likely an accident, the boys would completely subvert this winning dynamic of party rock with their next record, Fair Warning. Darker than any of their other material—preceding or following—Fair Warning is an angry slap across the face to anyone willing to listen. Sure, there are moments that sound like earlier efforts (Roth joking with someone in the studio during “Unchained”) but the vibe is different. Van Halen found a grittier sound reflected in the lyrics and themes (good girls turned porno stars, sleeping with married women, street life). Oh, there are softer moments, though they too are a lot rougher than anything you’ll hear on 5150 (the ennui of “Push Come to Shove”). Most disturbing is the instrumental track “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” Layers of foreboding keyboard play over drums mixed LOUD by Ted Templeman evoking fear and suggesting danger. We’re light years away from “Jamie’s Cryin.” Even the popiest song on the record, “So This is Love” was too tight and fierce for radio play and has only now becoming a recognized gem in the catalogue.

Not surprisingly, the album did not do as well as their others. I think it took the singer from Extreme replacing Sammy to sink VH lower on the charts. Perhaps an indication of my blossoming love for the “weird” (as my family and friends would refer to my tastes), I loved the record then and have only come to love it more. It is the only Van Halen CD I own. (The LPs are, I believe, in the care of my brother.) By the time the guys were pulling that “Pound Cake” stunt, I had entered into a world of denial—denial of the band’s ongoing existence. I was happy to have them disappear from the face of the earth, leaving two mediocre at best Hagar records behind them. All that “Right Now” shit was not Van Halen but some silly band that vaguely sounded like them. That’s was my mantra, repeated over and over by every spinning of Fair Warning.

And then they stopped embarrassing themselves (i.e. stopped making records) and reunited with Roth after countless half starts and stops. I missed the big reunion tour. Michael Anthony was gone, so there went the tight bass lines and essential backing vocals. But even if he was back, I might have skipped it. They represent a part of me that is pretty much gone, the part that believed that a few years of practice and the right combination of power chords could transform me from a fat, suburban kid into a rock god. I had grown up. So, sadly, had Van Halen, and growing up, for them, equaled feuds, divorce, cancer, and growing irrelevance. I was happy where I was, and I hoped they were as well. It was time to move the hell on.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t revert back to the days of ol’ every once in a while. Luckily, WLUP plays so much Halen that I never have to buy any of their CDs.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Valdes on the Bolaño Myth: Who Cares?

Marcela Valdes puts a great stomp on the so-called Bolaño myth:

"And the fact that American publishers have used Bolaño’s life story to sell his books? Is this really a mortal sin? The book industry is in such terrible shape these days that publishers are trying everything to sell books. Why is the deployment of an author’s life story so much worse than setting up a fan group on Facebook? The important thing is that Bolaño was not chosen for translation and promotion in the United States because of his life story but rather because of the quality of his work and the acclaim he had already received in Spain and Latin America."

Also of interest:

"So, as a journalist, my view is both more pragmatic and more cynical. I don’t think that Americans have a basic indifference to world literature. I think they have a basic indifference to literature, period. And that’s not so different from what I’ve witnessed among people in Chile, Mexico, or Spain. Serious readers -- the kind of people who prefer reading a book like 2666 to the kind of pabulum that’s generated to be consumed primarily on airplanes -- have always been few on the ground. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon. To the extent that it does, it may change precisely because publishers and critics get better at luring general audiences to the hard stuff through narrative and persuasion, in hopes that they’ll get addicted to the special highs that only great literature can provide. What encourages me most is when someone who fell in love with Bolaño’s books asks me, What should I read next?"

Read the interview in full here. It's pretty damn good, especially if you are as perplexed by all this as I. I, as you know, love Bolaño's work, and am a huge reader of Spanish-to-English literature, so the flood of translated Spanish language books that have come pouring in these last few years (mostly from New Directions, god bless them) is very exciting. Valdes speaks of a Sarah Pollack article that might disagree. Okay, maybe we are under read when it comes to other lanuages and cultures, but my argument against that would simply be: Aira, Bolaño, Castellanos Moya, Vila-Matas, Ruis, Boullosa, Bracho, just to name the more recent crop. Need I mention Vallejo, Cabrera Infante, Borges, Cortazar, Arenas, Piñera, Huidobro, Parra, Neruda, Bioy Caceres, or Puig?

Art That Changed My Life: Public Enemy

How to begin to write about Public Enemy? Like a lot of artists on the sticky web, there’s more than enough text devoted to this act. And really, it’s Fear of a Black Planet that changed everything for me.

I grew up in the suburbs. Growing up in the suburbs assures one a penchant for hip-hop and/or metal. I am living proof of this. Prior to rap being injected like a virus under my skin, I was all about the metal. Unlike my brother, I would never bother with License to Ill or Raising Hell. (How little I knew). It took P.E. and Spike Lee to change all of that.

I don’t know that I have ever been as awed by a rap song as I was by “Fight the Power” that first time I heard it, as the opening credits of Do the Right Thing rolled over my TV screen. Fuck Rosie Perez, it was P.E. in full effect that set the tone of the film and smashed open the doors of my narrow little mind. More of an attack than a song, it struck me in the way poems are supposed to strike you—that whole “blow the top of your head off” kind of feeling. Little else has done likewise. I ran to find the song. I had to have it.

I played Fear of a Black Planet for days on end, usually in my mother’s basement, where most of the music of my late teens and early 20s was featured. No one was too thrilled about my Public Enemy worship, especially the metal heads and guitar geeks that populated my small circle. I could get away with having nonsense like the Vinnie Vincent Invasion in my LP bin, but not the black music.

Undaunted, I continued to follow Chuck D. & Co. through to Apocalypse 91... the Enemy Strikes Black, but stopped before that Muse-Sick bullshit. I just didn’t want to hear it. Rap is a young man’s game, alright. There’s little longevity there, and folks like Ice-T are better off making lousy cop shows than rapping about being cop killers. Very few make it past 40 in the hip hop world. P.E. is no exception. Christ, just look at Flav. What the hell is he doing? Embarrassing. Still, I remember when… oh I remember… I remember Chuck D. being the more intelligent voice in music (maybe next to KRS-One) and Flavor Flav being the comic relief as opposed to the sad joke. Oh, such glorious times.

Anyway… sorry for the drift off into nostalgia (which is what this series is coming to) but I just put Fear on and it sounds fucking incredible still. That one record changed my outlook and opened the door that De La Soul walked through, as well as Black Sheep (at least that first record), Wu-Tang Clan and all the other hip-hop that makes me look old to the youth of today who only care about the newest and latest. Yeah, I like Outkast too, but will I be listening to Stankonia in 20 years? We’ll see.

Wait, is anyone still interested in Outkast or am I still five years behind the times?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NYT on Volpi

Maybe the cruelest comment I’ve seen in a book review lately:

"Volpi attempts to be the first great Russian novelist who is not actually Russian. Instead, he has written “Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’: A Novel.""


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Looks like god finally called Oral Roberts home.

Art That Changed My Life: Mr. Bungle

Before I wax on and on and on about the genius of Tom Waits or anyone else, let me give a shout out to the band that will forever be my favorite: Mr. Bungle.

Only three records and yet such a cult following, such devotion. There’s so much on the net about this odd little band that anything I say will be superfluous, so, rather than write about their biography or try to describe their music (which always makes the writer sound like an idiot), I’ll make this one short and sweet and tell you, whoever you are (aside form you, niña), the reason(s) why this remains my favorite band ever. I mean, EVER!

1991. Coming down from the big rock of Van Halen (my obsession through high school) and mildly fond of the grunge thing that was sweeping the suburbs, Mr. Bungle fit in perfectly. Nirvana, as much as I liked them, seemed like the next big thing for maybe five minutes. (What did I know?) Nevermind, a fine record (though not as good as In Utero), didn’t so much “blow me away” as it impressed me. Yeah, there was enough three chord rock to appease the Ramones fan in me, and the lyrics were strange and appealing to the booming Gen X would-be nihilists collectively created by MTV, Rolling Stone, Spin, and all the sheep (like me: BAH!) who bought into the idea that, yes, there was no future and we might as well do heroin or shoot ourselves.

But I was not that down and not that young. As depressed and stupid as I can get, I could never get so gloomy that, say, a Smashing Pumpkins record could truly reach me. So what filled the void? A self-titled gem with a clown on the cover.

I was well aware of who Mike Patton was, though I wasn’t too thrilled with his antics in that fish-out-of-water video. Still, my friend John DelPonte pressed Mr. Bungle upon me, and I shall forever be thankful to him for it. There I was in my mother’s basement listening to “Travolta” (later re-titled “Quote Unquote” due to legal concerns), wondering what it was my dubious friend had gotten me into. Yeah, there were the easy hooks and gross-out humor of “Squeeze Me Macaroni” and “The Girls of Porn” but it would be “Slowly Growing Deaf” and “Dead Goon” that would stick in my head for years to come. To this day, when I dust off that chestnut, I usually play those two tracks twice if not three times each.

Did Patton really sing: “Will Warner Brothers put our record on a shelf” in “Carousel” or am I hearing things?

By the time Disco Volante was released I was a very different person living in a different place with different friends and different tastes. I was pretty out of the loop musically and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was over Pavement and the goddamn Smashing Pumpkins. It was 1995 and no one seemed to care about Pearl Jam, at least no one that I cared about. Cobain offed himself (or did he?) and there didn’t seem to be much worth listening to anyway. I sank deeper into the jazz hole, rekindled my love of Naked Raygun and the Misfits, and occasionally condescended to play some of that classic rock stuff I used to love. Sure, Patti Smith or R.E.M. might have found a rotation or two around that time, but otherwise music was less interesting than it had been when I was 15. I only cared about literature. Even movies were starting to seem a bore. And then came Disco Volante.

Disco Volante is the Bungle masterpiece, make no mistake about it. All the pop elements so praised on California are evident in small pieces shattered and shuffled across the avant-garde landscape of Disco Volante. There is the noise, sure, and the “rock” moments (about three, total), and there is some strange cut-ups and loops and samples or were they really playing this shit? Go somewhere to read an accurate description of the record (if one can be written) or better yet, give it a listen. It fucking holds up.

Memories: buying the CD at midnight with Xtop’s money, staying up late to listen to it in full, looking at the clock and noticing that track three, though it seemed over, was still going strong at nine minutes. Xtop rushes in from work and I play him “Carry Stress in the Jaw” and let it go on into the secret song. Two heads blown that night in Chicago.

Another four years passed. No music to speak of, save for some Zorn and Melt-Banana, and, of course, the Boredoms, but I was desperate for another Bungle CD right around the time they dropped California on the world like an unfunny gag gift. Though people love the CD now, and critics call it their best, I don’t know that the old Bungle heads who ate up the first and tolerated the second were so thrilled when they heard “Sweet Charity.” By the time they got to “Retrovertigo” and “The Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” I am sure they were praying that something was coming, something with funk bass grooves and blistering guitars, maybe hidden at the end. Vlad Drac? Scummy? Hello… Maybe you need to pop the CD into your computer to get a rehashing of “Stubb (A Dub).”

No, this was Bungle in the year 1999. The millennium was coming to an end and so was Mr. Bungle. Their sound, the one they started with, was already over. They matured, moved on, and, in doing so, created one of the last analog masterpieces (second time I’m using this word but it fucking fits!). California is, in many ways, brilliant. It was a good record to end on, the culmination of this oddity from Humboldt County. Barely any of the horns that categorized their first record, and low on the electro-acoustics and noise and whatever that shaped the sophomore effort, California was their idiosyncratic take on a conventional record with conventional songs recorded in a nightmarishly painstaking process that is now the stuff of legend (and, sadly, becoming more of an antiquated process as technology marches steadily into the cold, digital tar pits). I’m still digesting this CD ten years later.

Let’s talk about why I love this band. First: the personalities, or lack thereof. I was drawn to the mystery of the early Bungle, the masks, the anonymity. We knew Patton was the singer, despite the credits listing “Vlad Drac.” But who was Scummy? What was Heifetz? Who the hell was Trevor Roy Dunn? Was that a real name? There were rumors: Les Claypool was the bass player; Buckethead played all the guitar; Zorn was the real saxophonist. None of this was true, but it helped with the allure of the band. Seeing them live helped as well. They played Billy Squire’s “The Stroke” ala Doom Metal. They sang about being a clown and alienated the audience by speeding up the lunkhead favorite “The Girls of Porn” because, as Patton said, “We hate that song.” Patton dived from the rafters of the Metro and landed on the drum kit, crashing so hard they had to carry him off stage. It remains the greatest live show I have ever attended. I was a lucky, lucky young man. Nothing has ever been the same.

When I got a handle on who was who, I only grew to love the band more. They were my Beatles, or, if you will, my Monkees. And now that they have splintered, I can only follow their respective careers: Secret Chiefs 3. Trio Convulsant. Mad Love. Umlaut. Fantomas. The Tango Saloon. Tomahawk. Faxed Head. All of these bands have some form of Bungle DNA throbbing within them. Some are better than others (stay tuned for the SC3 post), but, like a geek fanboy, I follow them, much to the chagrin of my girlfriend and bank account. And while it is clear that at least two of the members are unwilling to consider a reunion, some of us still hold a secret prayer in our hearts that what happened with Faith No More can happen with Mr. Bungle. Stranger things have happened, right? I mean… Faith No More? Yeah, they have two brilliant records, but is there really more of a reason for them to reunite than Mr. Bungle? I think not.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Art That Changed My Life: Miles Davis

[Submitted for your approval, I am beginning a series of posts on, what else, art. Not just art—art that changed my life. Silly, really, as all art has changed my life. The very phrase is ridiculous. Even bad art, or art that I deem bad, has changed my life considerably. Fuck, everything changes one’s life, should we decide to look at things that way. Art, love, cigarettes, booze, coffee, college, paper cuts…

Nevertheless, I am still posting on art that has “changed my life,” loathsome as the phase may be. I will start with some thoughts on music, as that is the art that has had the earliest impact on me. Let’s go!]

I could start this in any number of ways, but I want to talk a little bit about Miles Davis. We’ll get to the Boredoms and Mr. Bungle and Bongwater soon enough. This is not in chronological order, by the way, as the Miles years start in 1991. Why do I know that? Well, you see, Miles died on September 28, 1991. On that very day I was sitting in a classroom on the Moraine Valley Community College campus, waiting for my new favorite teacher, Tom Sullivan, to show up and decimate my presentation on Anne Sexton. My pal Brian Jany was there, though he was squatting in the classroom, or, as they also say, “auditing.” Jany received no grade, but he sat next to me and, though we liked the class and loved the teacher, we scrutinized everyone there and laughed at John Dunne’s “Oh My Black Soul!”

When Sullivan arrived, he brought with him the news that a legend, Miles Davis to be exact, had died. He decided that we should end class early and invited us to come to his office and listen to some music. I agreed, though I was the only one. Yeah, I was kind of a kiss ass, sure, but I liked the idea of listening to music with a teacher. That was the first time I listened to Miles Davis. My only other exposure to what is traditionally thought of “jazz” was via an early Tom Waits album (more on that soon). I was impressed, but not “blown away” as these kinds of stories usually state. Really I was just reacting to a form of music that was completely different from what I had ever heard. There were no guitars, no pounding drums, no vocals, no ‘80s synths, nothing loud, nothing obvious. It was a subtle record, elusive, strange. I liked it.

I want to say that the record we listened to was Kind of Blue, though I can’t state that with certainty. Kind of Blue, for those of you who don’t dig the jazz, is the Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper's of jazz records. Add it to your collection if you want to seem “hip.”

After that first introduction to Miles, I was not necessarily hooked; I was curious. I wanted to hear more, but I didn’t like the idea of buying music I would inevitably ignore. I worked for the PPS Presort Service and made next to nothing. A week’s take home pay could easily be squandered in one night at the bar, so I had to choose my records (actually, at that point, cassettes) wisely. I can say that Kind of Blue was the first Miles record (tape) I ever bought. It is the gateway, though there are definitely CDs (not tapes) of his that I prefer. ‘Round About Midnight is still my favorite of those 1st quintet series (though the Cookin’, Steamin’, Relaxin’, Working series is maybe the best).

So if I was merely intrigued, then why is Miles not only on the list of life changing artists but actually the one who is heading off this dubious endeavor of mine?

Cut to 1992: I don’t remember the song, but I remember how I felt the moment I decided to stop listening to rock music. I was so burned out on the guitar/drums/bass/vocal rock thing that I thought giving up on music entirely might be the way to go. Really it was picking up a copy of the '58 Miles Featuring Stella by Starlight recording that got me back into Miles and jazz. From there I expanded to Sonny Rollins, who shared a last name with a punk icon I was also interested in. Then I discovered Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk and there was no turning back. It was all so different, so engrossing and completely devoid of what, at that time, was fashionable. Need I remind anyone that I was living in the era when grunge was popular and hair metal had just died, when hip-hop was overtaking America? Need I also remind anyone that I lived in the suburbs where one was not very likely to find a jazz club or anyone who had an interest in anything other than Nirvana (musically speaking)?

So I became obsessed. I felt as though I had found gold in the hills of Willow Springs. I wanted very much to be a jazz freak. I read the Miles autobiography and met Quincy Troupe and listened to his anecdotes about working on the book. I bought records by the people Miles talked about: Amhad Jamal, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Herbie Hancock. (Really it was Sonny Rollins and his record The Bridge that summed up what jazz meant to me at that time. It is a very quiet, beautiful record, with some monster guitar work by Jim Hall, that I have since lost and need to re-purchase. Yeah, I rediscovered my love for the guitar around this time, thanks to Hall’s clean chords. The story behind the record helped with the romanticized vision of what it meant to be a jazzman—practicing your craft alone at night, on a bridge in New York. I have never been to New York— though I have long longed to go and will be visiting it next month—due to the fear of it not living up to the city of myth that has become in my head, created partially by the music of Sonny Rollins.)

I definitely had a jazz phase, which, really, is no different than a rock phase. Soon I was buying everything under the sun that was labeled jazz. I loved a lot of it, hated some, wasn’t sure what to make of the rest. But for a solid year I was hooked on the sound of the walking bass line, the snare and hi-hat hit with brushes, the tenor sax, the muted trumpet, the acoustic piano, and the clean-as-a-newborn-bathed-by-its-mother guitar. I ate up that fat 50s-60 jazz stuff and stopped too soon, not letting the stranger, electric or so-called avant-garde era in until way late. Here it is 2009, about to be 2010, and I have finally got a copy of On the Corner by Miles. I heard this once, years back, but never wanted to own it until recently. I’ve just finished listening to it twice in a row and it sounds as revolutionary as anything in rock, jazz, funk, soul, classical, what-have-you. This is music to get excited about. Miles, after all these years, is still surprising me. And there’s so much more to hear! In A Silent Way remains a favorite, but I still don’t know Miles Smiles or Miles in the Sky or the Nefertiti.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Return of the Random

My to-read list is starting to piss me off. It grows and grows, gaining mass, strength, and force while I grow older and more tired. Look at these gray hairs, people!

Recent additions:

Javier Marías – A Heart So White
Roque Dalton – Clandestine Poems
Julián Ríos – Larva: A Midsummer Night’s Babel
G. Cabrera Infante – Mea Cuba
Thomas Bernhard – Correction
Witold Gombrowicz – Pronografia
The poems of Zbigniew Herbert
César Aira – Ghosts
The poems of Juan Gelman
The poems of Herberto Padilla

There are more, many more, but that’ll do for now.

Christ, what’s a guy who works three jobs to do?


Speaking of jobs:

My first gig was working at PPS Presort, now operating at a much bigger level and under a new name. The job was low paying, easy, monotonous and definitely the kind of place that warrants a full length story (look for it someday). I quit that job and took one as a barcoder, which, as the name suggests, required me to spray bar codes on junk mail. Dull, very dull. It seems I could not get away from working with mail. Eventually I quit that job, got rehired at PPS and gave them a few more of my days before pulling up south-side stakes and relocating to DePaulville.

My first job there was at the Phonathon, a miserable place wherein I had to hit up bemused alumni and ask for donations. Imagine the laughs and curses. I was temporarily let go when the operation stopped for the summer. Soon I left the University and was thus not eligible for employment there (or, really, anywhere).

I was rather good at that job, by the way, and once did get someone to donate a thousand bucks. Isn’t that something!

Then I got the job at the bookstore, which remains my favorite. I’ve spoken enough about that before, so let’s move on.

Around 12 years ago, I decided that I should join the ranks of the office working, weekend warrior assholes who commute on the subway to the Loop and whittle away eight-to-ten hours a day in cubicles under fluorescent lights and alongside annoying fucks with constant requests along the lines of “can you make me a copy of this?” as if they don’t know how to operate a Xerox machine, which may be possible considering their lack of aptitude in most respects, though I really think they are just petty little bitches who will utilize any opportunity they can to issue orders, micromanage, and make life in such an environment a stiff stick in the eye. The first of these jobs was at the ol’ MCHC. While I did many an admin level task, my main responsibility was to schedule courier pick-ups and drop-offs. I also had to—ha ha ha—sort mail. Eventually my manager (a real bloodless witch) decided I could also serve as a telemarketer. She had me contacting doctors across the country, pitching her soon-to-be-obsolete POS Medicare machines. Few bit and none bought.

I left that position because I hated telemarketing and did not want to do it anymore. I had, years earlier, taken a job in a call center that I also left for the same reason. I realized then that I simply disliked talking on the phone, especially to strangers.

My next job of significant note was at the first of the two law firms. I started out in a very low key position filing claims. It was boring work, true, but easy, steady, and not one that would cause me to stay up nights. I excelled at the task and was soon promoted to a higher position at the firm, one that, many assured me, was more fitting a man of my stature, whatever that is. I was the sole member of the New Case Department. Well, I had an assistant, but still… it was basically just me meeting with attorneys and talking on the phone, all day everyday, to the sick, dying, wounded and litigious. Somehow I was again tied to a telephone.

I quit. I got a new job at a new firm. I managed to stay off the phone for a number of years, but somewhere around 2006 my responsibilities changed and I found myself on the phone again (cue Willie Nelson), talking to people—or, I should say, listening to them complain. I also open all the mail, then stamp, sort, and distribute it. Not quite as bas as the old mail gigs, but still… mail and phones are my collective albatross.

Better: mail and phones are the herpes I cannot rid myself of—lifelong reminders of the cost of folly.

If anyone were to ask me why I went back to school, why I pursed a higher degree, or why I started teaching, I could answer that I did so because I love literature, or because being an English major was the only thing I was ever good at, or maybe I might affect nobility and say that I wanted to give back to a new generation what that one important teacher gave to me. The real reason I went back to school was to one day get a job that did not require me to sort mail or answer the goddamn phone every two minutes.


Cassandra made papas con huevos last night. The leftovers are doing me good right about now. Ah… sipping some green tea with it and looking forward to dark chocolate. Life doesn’t seem so bad at the moment.

Let’s end on a positive note for a change.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Happy Birthday, Joe.

Dig this:

A list of books that many noted literary types (including my former boss) think deserving of English translation, straight from the new Quarterly Conversation. Some interesting looking reads out there.

Get busy, translators!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Cassandra’s Proxy

Friday, December 04, 2009


A Day (or 2) in the Life of a "Poet"

It starts with a phone call, telling me I won the award. This is a good feeling, though tinged with more than a little disbelief. I ask the very nice woman who broke the news to me exactly which poem won, as I cannot remember what I sent where. She tells me and I remember entering the contest. I assume the poem won due to its length. Ambition often nets rewards. As Burnham might have said: “Make no small poems.”

I agree to travel downstate to read at the ceremony. Why not? I’m as egotistical as the next fellow, assuming the next fellow writes long-ass poems that won’t likely show up in literary journals, as no journal wants to waste that much space on an unknown. At the very least, I am glad the poem found a home, if you can call the internet a home. And then there’s the money…

Cut to the day before the big ceremony. I go to work like a goddamn tool and run the silliest of errands that might fall under the expanding umbrella of “assistant.” I make coffee. I get scolded for making it too strong by my boss, and then, after making a weaker pot, get told by the rest of the crew that the brown water in the coffee pot is undrinkable. I run to Potbelly’s to pick up lunch for my boss. Prior to that, I answer questions about a recent settlement our law firm has worked on. The questions are almost always about money. “Where’s my money at?” they ask, dangling their participles. Or: “Why am I only getting this much? Who gets the rest? The attorneys?” I assure the class members—who have not had to fork over a cent and, in most cases, did not even know they were being ripped off—that the attorneys get paid from a separate pot of money that does not affect the settlement pool (pool-pot?). No one wants to believe me. Why should they? Everyone knows attorneys are scum, right? No amount of sexy TV dramas starring Julianna Margulies can alter that perception.

Before 4:00 PM arrives, the time I am allowed to leave in order to make the 5:15 train to Springfield, I also throw away old documents, call the office landlord and ask him to send an engineer (some of the staff is complaining about the cold; the others, after the adjustment, will bemoan the heat), answer stray emails from students (“My grandmother died. Can I turn my paper in next week?”), and sift through a stack of papers that have been idle in my in-box for close to half a month. I think about my in-box. I wonder when in my life I ever wanted an in-box. Remember the Aspidistra? I used to make next to nothing there, but at least I never had an in-box.

Cassandra meets me midway and we walk to Union Station. I know the place like the back of my hand. It used to be my favorite spot to kill time when I worked for MCHC. Many a mediocre lunch has been eaten in the Great Hall.

We catch the train. All the way to Springfield, I am tense; I try to unwind from what has already been a rotten day. Nothing like 3 hours on a train to further knot the nerves. A few seats behind us, a child wails. His mother (oh, the poor child) is the wreck of human you often see in train stations, but more often in bus depots—a fractured, hideous creature with a nose full of burst blood from years on the bottle. Her voice is serrated, terrible. She threatens her young child. “If you were just a little bit bigger…” she says and mimes a punch to the face. She tries all the usual fuck-up techniques for soothing a cranky youngster: fear, then, after smacking him a bit, reassertion of her authority. When the kid is suitably upset and beyond the point where violence or intimidation will work, she pleads with him. “C’mon, let’s try and get along. We got a long trip.” I walk to the bathroom and catch a better look at the two: a tattered kid and a woman who could walk onto Jerry Springer’s stage without anyone batting an eye. She sucks a lollipop and then gives what’s left to the kid. I feel sick. Springfield, here I come!

Despite the kid screaming and the general discomfort, I read all of Achy Obejas’s We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? (Support the local writers.) Some of the stories are amazing. A few miss with me, but I am immediately reminded of what good writing is, or what I think it is, which is not saying a whole lot. As Bolaño said, anyone can write well. There’s a bit more to the game, I’m afraid. Regardless, Obejas has it down. I also peek at some stories but Virgilio Piñera. One of them is incredible—short, macabre, perfect.

Gods be thanked, we arrive. The first question Cassandra asks: “Where’s the hotel?” I know the general direction, but failed to write the address down. I tell her this. It is not well received. Can you blame her?

The taxi driver drives us a few blocks and drops us at the Hilton. This building, aside from being the tallest in the area, boasts the city’s sole Starbucks, or so I’m told. It is closed, which is unfortunate. A chai would’ve been nice. Look at the fancy fucking writer.

We eat at an “Italian” place still open. The salad is drowned in oil and vinegar; the pasta sub-par. But the beer works. And I finish Cassandra’s wine. Sleep is coming soon.

In the morning I go to the workout room, which was one of the selling points of the Hilton. It is small, very small. I run on the treadmill and consider the metaphor of such an act. How to extend this? After 20 minutes or so, I go back to the room and shower. The time is coming when I will have to read aloud. I feel under-slept and a bit disconnected. A trip to the lobby, an overpriced breakfast, and a Red Bull set me back on my feet, so to speak.

Another laughably short cab ride later, we are at the State Library. A walk through the metal detector, a meet-n-greet… I get a call from my mother, who, along with her best friend, has made the trip to watch me play writer. She needs some general directions to the parking lot. Eventually, we find each other and the festivities begin.

I read as best as I can, though I could always do better. It’s strange. Later, I will read the entire fucking thing into a tape recorder for the Illinois Poet Laureate to post on his website. It takes a good ten minutes. Why am I always overwriting? (Asking yourself that right now, ain’t ya?)

Along for the ride is the Secretary of State. He sits at our table, eats lunch and invites us to view his office, which is big enough to qualify as a junior high school track. The day has become surreal, though this feeling is increased by a trip to the Abe Lincoln museum, complete with holograms and FX heavy biopics. During the Civil War scenes, the seats shake. I swell with national pride.

Back to the train station, we are very hungry. Sadly, there are no restaurants in sight. Plenty of pubs, but no diners. We splurge on vending machine cuisine and get to our seats for another long trip home.

It is not terribly late when we get back to Chicago, but it might as well be. Spent, stirred, shaken, I spend the first of my prize money on a cab home, looking at the lake and the buildings until Lake Shore Dive ends. Then I go the fuck to bed.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Saints Be Praised

The pedway is open!