Friday, October 31, 2014

Overdressed

Exactly 25 years ago I went into labor.  I begged the gods (and they obliged) to give me a one-week respite.  The concept of a lifetime of wearing costumes for a themed birthday party was unappealing… and something about Halloween, for the more literal among us, is confusing.  Some of us talk to angels every day-- and trolls and devils.  We fear painted-on smiles and puppetry, while we see Death among the faces in Times Square, Jesus in a slice of toast, and find our pot of gold in a leathery-faced man with a thrift-shop guitar.

Especially since I have long passed the midpoint of my life, I avoid holidays which celebrate and mock death.  I am grateful not to have to commemorate a birthday with masks and pumpkin heads.  Coming from the kind of family where you were responsible for your own costume,  the experience of listening to strange door-tones and smelling the leafy fall night air were my best childhood souvenirs.  Conversely, I wouldn't want to die on Halloween.  My best friend was buried in a designer black dress with her dark-henna hair clean and shiny...and her face still and pale in full Goth make-up.  All dressed up… the way she used to watch the Rocky Horror film when I wasn't playing a gig.  Her image comes to me every October 31st.  All dressed up, the way her remains would be if someone dug them up.  It's eerie.  It seems wrong.

Last weekend they held the pre-Halloween memorial for my beloved adopted stepmother who took her own life in July.  She expressly forbade ceremonies, funerals, etc.  This gathering was intended to celebrate her brief foray into experimental film-making from the 1960's which won her more hipster-cred than her maybe 1-200,000 hours of dedicated drawing and painting.  It was held at a small theatre; I received a hand-written invite.  So I took the subway, on a Sunday afternoon, $2.50 out of my daily spending allowance of $4, and was delayed by police activity at 14th Street.  I arrive 15 minutes late; the screening has begun, and I am asked for $20 contribution.

Well… backstory---I have sold 40-50 of her drawings over the years,  in my former capacity as a gallerist…  placed her work in some wonderful collections, never took a cent of commission, since she lived this very frugal lifestyle.  I assumed she was poor.  I am poor; we tread lightly around others' financial handicaps.  So I spent hours taking notes, arranging her books, cleaning her house, organizing her life, mailing letters, bringing her hand-made gifts and cherished visitors.  But apparently she had loads of money, and half a townhouse, and had some estranged nieces and sycophants who in the end were 'there'.   And somehow,  my mother or grandfather had given me this notion that it's not appropriate to take credit cards to a memorial, and I'd come, in my one blue dress and leather jacket, with only keys and a metro card.  No cell phone, of course; nor would I have texted any of the guests with my pathetic issue.

Okay…so the smug girl at the booth with the trendy haircut seemed even more composed when the tears began (I am so uncool at times).  After a useless attempt at negotiation,  I left like a humiliated gatecrasher, and wept all the way home on the bus (free X-fer, small consolation) with wet mascara stains running down my dress.  I'm not even sure what the moral here is, because apparently I was the only one who saw the irony in paying admission to celebrate the life or death of someone I had loved, whose films I'd watched umpteen times without the company of the hipster audience who knew little of her soul or her underdressed, no-admission life-- this woman who, outside of her under-fulfilled desire for artistic fame, was my hero, my confidante and mentor for so many years.  Except that she might have ignored me, had she been there.  She might have preferred these nouveau, well-dressed film-fans to the full but cash-poor heart on my worn-leather sleeve.

There are several blocks in my neighborhood which literally compete for Halloween bling.  Private townhouses are swathed in webs and lights and witches on broomsticks suspended above ghosts and monsters and vampires.  Some of them even speak and groan and howl.  The pumpkins are catered… faces are carved with the finesse of a Kara Walker.  I cannot imagine the calibre of candy these people hand out.  It is beyond me.

By midnight, the rain had basically chased away the trick-or-treaters; lights were out, the web and fibrous material was soaked and sagging and sad; the vampires and witches looked a little cold and bewildered.  On our garbage pails were several discarded pumpkins and some party trash… orange cups and candy wrappers.  I took one of the pumpkins upstairs and without thinking, I opened a can of Benjamin Moore and painted it black.  There it sat, my pumpkin in disguise, like a punishment-- like a souvenir of failure and mourning and aborted Halloween.  Like a giant ridiculous mark of punctuation on my day of shame, day of the dead, but not for me who lacked the price of admission.

We are all ghosts and spirits here… we are walking shadows.  When the lights go out we disappear, we are leveled and costume-less and skeletal.  We masquerade and we dance, we make films or music and we cry and we blink and we love and we die.  My pumpkin and I are alone in the dark; I light a candle and through the night rain I can still hear the looped mocking deep digital laugh track of the mechanical Caped Man with the Skull who is waving his scythe back and forth at the top of the steps on the $10-million townhouse on the next block.  Someone forgot to turn him off--- or they cannot, and a lyric is going around in my  head, between the laughs… the one Bob Dylan borrowed from the Bible, from the hymnals… and the first one now will later be last.  



Sunday, October 12, 2014

I Want the Angel

A few of my friends are hoping for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I heard a radio DJ lamenting the other day the 'slim pickings' of this year's pot.  Somehow the recent nominees (and I am personally guilty for my blues Hall of Fame induction) don't have the 'weight' of Chuck Berry or Elvis or the Stones.  Kurt Cobain.  But they will hang on the wall nevertheless.  There's got to be an internet abbreviation for that.  NTL.

Same with R & B.  Somehow I don't process the Las Vegas-style spectacle of Beyonce as deserving the same category of a Sam Cooke or Otis Redding.  What was it she received at the VMAs?  The Michael Jackson Vanguard award? Entertainer of the Year.   Her husband bestowed this on her, having reserved this title previously for himself.  Awards and accolades have become cheap.  The Halls of Fame should be closed.  Let's skip a Nobel prize year.  I can't see that Patrick Modiano has the resonance of say Neruda or  Eliot or Hemingway.  Tagore.  When I was a student I anticipated this award with the greatest interest.  Now…I can't get through too many Alice Munro stories without craving some 'meat'.  It's literature 'lite'.

The night of the VMAs someone sent me a video of a Nigerian kid playing a funky home-made drum kit.  He was about 11, with true rhythmic brilliance and innovation.  I nominate him for Entertainer of the Year.  He didn't seem to have a TV and the dancers in the dirt didn't give a shit about Beyonce.  Anyway, with the Ebola crisis it would be too difficult to bring his family and friends over here.  That kid definitely has some kind of fever.  The good kind.

I met this painter at my gym.  The self-designated kind, who claims great success.  He's a health freak, so already he doesn't make it in my book where chain-smoking, self-destructive behaviors and utter disregard for dangerous toxins are kind of an industry standard.  He uses acrylics.  No turpentine or oil-based fumes for him.  Artists are dumb, he tells me.  They have no broad vision.  Isn't that the very definition of an artist?  Do we really think those Nobel laureates set out to win a Nobel Prize?  They wrote because they were compelled to write, because their demons kept them awake at night stabbing their heart and informing their lovemaking and wrecking their homelife.  Do I have any need to see this guy's paintings?  I do not.  I have already seen them, about a million times over.

How often have you read that we only use ten percent of our brains, and that is surely twice the national average? I vouch for the fact that I use one percent of my computer, but my keyboards wear out way before the cpu.  I have become 21st-century co-dependent partly because I am often unable to read the lyrics I ink-scrawl in the dark.  But have you ever watched one of those 1970's prison-escape movies?  Those guys used at least twenty percent of their brain figuring out how to make tools, and strategizing their one-shot-of-a-life.  It knocks me out.  Or when you love someone-- really, really crave and long for to the exclusion of all normal human need…what part of our brain is that testing?  Or those dogs that make it back across country, to their rightful family?  I want that GPS.

Just because some random genius existed who warranted the invention of some award category--- it doesn't mean that this is going to become an annual red-carpet event around which the media can create another fashion extravaganza.  This is what art was meant to be.  The rest of us are just hacks in an industry.  A Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig didn't have personal trainers and coaches but they hit the proverbial ball out of the park.

When I was really small, my Mom took me to see The Music Man with Robert Preston on Broadway.  I was absolutely hypnotized.  This was of course a kind of prototype of the now-standard music industry hoax.  But as I get older, I begin to see the truth in his 'think method'.  I'm essentially just a blue-collar bassist… I learned to play not from Juilliard or Berklee… but by belief.   I still play once a week in one of those NYC jams… and I hear plenty of musicians struggling with their egos--- some hacking away at some kind of mediocrity which still evades them-- some ineptly executing some idea which has validity.  But most of them are up there because they think they can play.  They watch these award shows, and they hear the non-auto-corrected performances on late-night TV and they wonder why they have a day job.  Why no one calls them for a gig.

Go to Chelsea on any Saturday.  Galleries are filled with gapers and collectors.  Prices are rarely on the wall because it is a kind of financial obscenity.  People used to ally themselves with a particular dealer or POV because they loved art and needed to understand, needed to see.  Now it is cheap and overabundant, like crude oil, and seems to have outlived its own purpose.  There is too much of it, there are no filters… like music… and we are seeing the visual version of the youtube and American Idol phenomena.  The rich artists have become whores and jump from gallery to gallery because they are a brand not a genius.

There is a kind of artist's heaven.  I believe this.  Not a hall of fame, and you will be brought there if you have created something worthy and new-- if you have had the patience and strength in this culture to have nurtured your 'egg' until a tiny creation pecked its way out…. no matter if it croaked or sang or flew or was bought or recorded or adopted by anyone.  You will be judged naked and without make-up.  An angel will be sitting on a kind of carved throne with a parchment book and will write your name with a quill and celestial blue ink.  Not gold.  Even if you have made mistakes and injected drugs and are guilty of all seven sins simultaneously.  Maybe that will actually be a prerequisite, because we are after all humans, we who 'think' and occasionally envy and then go hungry and alone into our dark cork-lined closet-rooms with the traffic noise and the banging and the ghosts and the party next door  and the perpetual winter ahead.

When my son was 2 years old, we belonged to a church which had an annual Christmas pageant/service.  All the small children dressed up as some character in the manger, and went up to the altar when their character in the story was mentioned.  So my little boy, wearing a home-made star costume, was having nothing to do with the procession… fine.  Suddenly, during the sermon,  he must have toddled up the aisle, and in front of the TV news cameras and the crowd, I see him tugging at the minister's cassock… and the great man (he was 6' 4") bends down, and my little boy who was precociously verbal and referred to himself in the 3rd person--  has suddenly connected some mental or religious dots, and announces … He needs to see the star.  So to everyone's amusement, he is lifted up to the top of the great tree and this is not enough because he says audibly and clearly, with gravity…He needs to TOUCH the star.   And he is lifted up, way up-- to touch the glittery decoration on top of the wonderful tree, after which he matter of factly toddles back to our seat at the rear of the Church to great applause.

My son, who was totally unaware of his congregational '15 minutes'  at the age of two,  became a great athlete.  Aside from the trophy-culture,  and some genuine life-ambition, he never really had the need to do anything audience or award-worthy.  But I like to think about that Christmas Eve every so often, especially watching some faceless starlet in a blingy gown coming up to some over lit stage to receive some cheap moon man.  As for me,  I want the angel.