Thursday, April 28, 2011

Parallel Hives

Comment threads make me wet for the divine right of kings. Toxic levels of idiocy, piety, hatred, and warmongering run deep online, primarily at news sites (Yahoo is among the worst). I used to blast those hiding behind screen tags, calling them cowards for failing to show their true faces. But now I realize that anonymity is for the best. Better to think of them as fictional constructs rather than real people spouting vile opinions.

That's my concession to fantasy. Make believe softens the horror of being powerless in a corporate state. Recall that in Network, Howard Beale's top-rated TV show plummets in the ratings once Beale begins reciting the theories of his boss, Arthur Jensen. Beale's appeals to populist anger and action give his audience hope, however slight. After Jensen explains how the world really works and for whom, Beale loses his spark, his viewers, then his life. People need connection, crave relevance, desire some measure of power. Given present realities, fantasy is to be expected.

Corporate outlets eagerly assist in the process, peddling narratives that in a truly democratic society would be mocked if noted at all. When watching CNN or Fox, I wonder who buys such cheap, poorly-scripted propaganda. It's more self reinforcement for the educated classes than indoctrination of the lower orders, most of whom don't even watch cable news. Still, the fantasy remains for all: We The People matter. We are exceptional, unique, envied. Foreclosure and unemployment are part of freedom's price. War spreads our goodness to captive nations. Killing shows we care.

Recent Libya threads at various sites reveal the fantasy spectrum. Pro-interventionists believe they are resisting tyranny. Anti-interventionists believe they are defending radical sovereignty. That neither camp has any influence over events matters little. It's like playing flag football thinking that NFL scouts are watching. Yet, one must have a position. And when you take a position, you own the imaginary baggage that comes with it.

Take mass murder. Gaddafi's actual crimes aren't enough for supporters of drone attacks: they point to nonexistent massacres to bolster their arguments. If you don't cheer on aerial assaults, you have the blood of unmurdered thousands on your hands. How do they know this? Well, they apparently have access to a parallel universe where these massacres took place. They've seen the carnage and know who's responsible for it. Oddly enough, it's the people who hold opposing opinions.

Those opposed claim to know how Libya will be carved up and sold. Oil companies will run the show while imperial troops and mercenaries slaughter resisters. The US, which essentially lost the Iraq war and is barely hanging on in Afghanistan, will magically get it right in Libya. In a sense, these radicals share the patriots' view of an omnipotent America, whose influence over events increases in proportion to the alienation of those making claims. The real world is too chaotic and contradictory for comfort. Absolutist arguments help smooth things out; fantasy provides the glaze.

Obvious? Boring? Guilty. But then I'm back in isolation, facing countless blank pages. The little boy with a crew cut and cape awaits further adventures. I can't let the kid down, though I wince at what he'll face near the end of the volume. Putting it off by writing posts like this merely delays the inevitable. Good thing that boy's got a head full of fantasies. He'll need them.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


Tourists clog sidewalks, stare up at the skyline. Natives clog sidewalks, stare down at their phones.

At least tourists soak in the scenery. Natives are lost in pixels, mesmerized by corporate toys. Fish on hooks show more life.

Walking through lower Manhattan, sunny windy day, I passed several outdoor cafes. Kids at tables saying nothing. Everyone texted or checked email. Were they talking to each other through their toys? Or chatting with others far away? Whatever the case, they rarely looked up. Thumbs twitching. Faces blank.

Younger friends say I'm a reactionary fuck. Get with the program, pops. This is how it is today. They're right to call me out. I welcome it. I'm decidedly retro, embarrassingly so. But what is their alternative? Where does this text-tit sucking land? Are they bending corporate tools to express something uniquely theirs? Or are they docile consumers dazed by brands?

I know there are kids who talk to each other with their mouths. Who make steady eye contact. Who discuss ideas and desires without checking email every thirty seconds. But I rarely see them. I place my aging faith in spoken word undergrounds. Arab uprisings show the way. They use technology to undermine official narratives. To offer mutual support. To tell the world that they mean business. Smart/iPhones and laptops convey solidarity and resistance. Swords into plowshares is no marketed app.

Ah, romantic me. Still thinking there's a domestic out. I've never seen American culture so locked in. So derivative. Repetitive. Madison offered a brief taste of something better; but like Seattle '99, it has faded into the cacophony. It'll take many Madisons to ripple the national surface. And even then statist reaction will be punishing. It's almost as if they're daring us to use their tools against them. Judging from the general quiet, our owners have made a sure bet.

Gallery hopped with some friends Thursday night. Amid so much tameness and unoriginality (Pollock-like drips? Seriously?) stood a few striking images and concepts.

I was drawn to Ed Ruscha's photographs at the Yancey Richardson Gallery. His Gasoline Stations 1962-89 are time capsules for a long-dead America. Full service stations along two-lane highways. Detroit's imperial car-boats under Fina and TraveLodge signs. Sun beating down in the middle of nowhere. People unhurried, casual. An ancient pace. I'm old enough to remember that world, but young enough to appreciate faster times. Lined against each other, Ruscha's photos at first appear redundant. Get close. Sink in. Ghosts spring to life.

On to crowded Sikkema Jenkins & Co. There was much about Kara Walker's Dust Jackets for the Niggerati- and Supporting Dissertations I liked, drawings of subjugation, acceptance of assigned roles, acknowledged pain. An acquaintance balked at Walker's texts. "At least they're hand-printed on paper," I said. "Not the current bullshit version." She grinned, brushed me aside. Pseudo-Luddite charm goes only so far.

At Agora Gallery I discovered Jose A. Gallego. The brother spoke to me. His depictions of isolation and loneliness, based on images by Dali, Hopper and Caravaggio, are arresting. Jacques-Louis David - The Death of Marat (seen above), captures my writing conditions of late. Notebook and pen on the floor. Me slabbed out wherever. Replace the needles with beer bottles and blunts, and it's pretty much the same. But what really grabbed me was this piece, Place 0003.

I know this building from numerous dreams. Either I'm living there or trying to find an exit. Walls near collapse. Floors giving way. Strangers huddled in hallways. Many times I meet a woman who seems familiar, her face fluctuating in dream shadow. I go down on her, soft moans rising until I'm thrown down a peeling stairwell. Frustration. Regret. I wander dark corridors in search of her, finding nothing but dead ends. My sole escape is waking up in a sweat.

If only there was a dream GPS.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Off to NYC. Will check in soon. Until then, get hip to this.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Working on this book makes me pine for the first one. No soft nostalgia there, which should tell you what a motherfucker the current one is.

I often wonder how I finished Mr. Mike. Clearly, that was a different person. Scoring the gig won me few friends. Belushi had been burned by Bob Woodward, and mine was the next SNL bio. Skepticism was the kindest gesture I received. Dismissal and hostility were the main, early reactions.

Timothy White was the first to register his complaint. I worked as a copy editor under White at Billboard magazine. He became Billboard's editor in chief after a successful Rolling Stone run writing hip celebrity profiles. One of his pieces was about O'Donoghue, with whom White became close friends. When I got the book deal and quit Billboard to work on it, I asked White for an interview. He was there during O'Donoghue's Mondo Video mess. I was sure he had some stories. Had I shit in White's mouth, I couldn't have gotten a worse reaction.

He flipped out. "IT'S TOO SOON! IT'S TOO SOON!" he kept yelling in my face. "Who are you? What have you done? H.P. Lovecraft didn't get his biography for a century! Your book's gonna be bullshit gossip!"

White had a Jay Lenoish voice that made his rant nearly comic. His dandy costume of white buck shoes, pinstriped shirt and bow tie added to the effect. But he was very angry. Apparently, White assumed that he would be O'Donoghue's biographer. That some nobody copy editing scrub took what was rightfully his sent White round the bend.

Months later, I tried White again. His secretary coolly stated that White would never talk to me, under any circumstances. So that was that. Several years later, White died of a heart attack in a Viacom Building elevator. I have no idea whether or not he read my book.

White was the least of it. Despite having Cheryl Hardwick's blessing, various Lampoon and SNL vets wanted nothing to do with me. Most who did were very cautious and openly suspicious. It was a shock absorbing negative emotion from these comedy influences, but I plowed through it. What choice did I have? My wife and I just moved to Park Slope, Brooklyn, five-year-old daughter and newborn son in tow. I'd deposited the first advance check. There was no going back.

After a year of interviews and research (O'Donoghue's massive file system the main source), I began writing the manuscript, which filled me with anxiety. Michael O'Donoghue's life was literally in my hands. People whose work I revered were waiting for the result. That's when the stomach pain began. Sleepless nights. Cigarette smoking. Gin guzzling. I needed distraction. Nan suggested I join a health club on Grand Army Plaza. Swimming, basketball, weights. This appealed to me, so I signed up.

Within weeks I was going to the gym almost daily. I wrote at night, primarily between 11 PM and 6 AM, then would head to the club to shoot hoops. At the beginning I shot alone, mostly working on free throws. It was a quiet meditative space. I worked out various problems with the book at the foul line. Then a smaller compact man began showing up. We chatted, shot around, eventually played one-on-one, breaking really good sweats.

Rob was an ex-addict of some kind trying to get into shape. He spoke cryptically of his life, never giving too much away. I had no idea what he did, but on the court it didn't matter. Rob was as friendly as he was tenacious in a game. Eventually he asked if a friend of his could join in.

Rob's friend was John Turturro, who lived nearby. John was open while knowing people were staring at him, his intensity warmer than some of the lunatics he played on film. The gym's Haitian janitor Otto rounded out our two-on-two games as we regularly switched sides to keep it fresh.

John rarely jumped, having a height advantage on the rest of us. He also played hard defense. Once I drove to the hole looking to score the game's winning point. Turturro slammed me to the floor. No gimmes on game winners. Somehow I got the ball away and didn't know I hit the shot until John pulled me off the paint. "And one," he said, smiling.

Between games, John and I argued sports. A die-hard Knicks fan, John insisted that Patrick Ewing was the NBA's best center. This was 1997. Ewing's prime was past. Alonzo Mourning was the best all-around center if not player in the league, with Shaquille O'Neal right behind him. John flashed that crazy Turturro face from Do The Right Thing. "What -- are you high on LSD?!" I couldn't tell if he was kidding, but confessed that I wasn't hallucinating. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing. It feels that way from this distance.

John left to make a movie. (I asked if it was with the Coens. He smirked. Lebowski?) Rob and I returned to our little battles. As Mr. Mike came together, I spent less time at the gym. I saw Rob now and then, but that phase was over. Nothing intentional; just an NYC thing.

Later I learned that my hoops pal was Robert Longo, an acclaimed artist and director who worked with REM, New Order, and The Replacements. (The above image is from Rob's celebrated Men In Cities series.) He never said a word about his work. Rob was just a guy trying to lose weight. Knowing Turturro should have tipped me off to something, but in the city, relationships are varied, fluid. I gave it no thought.

The gym was a healthy distraction from Mr. Mike, which consumed the rest of my life, strained my young marriage, pushed me to the creative and emotional limit. The pressure of the new book is different, darker in parts with no serious distraction. Just me and the text. Anyone up for some H-O-R-S-E?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Measured Worth

Shelly says she has Japanese radiation poisoning. I'd like to believe her, but Shelly lies so casually that trusting her is foolish. Yet she stirs passion in me. I've long loved wrong women, beautiful faces masking ugly emotions. Finding beauty minus nasty is fruitless. I stopped trying ages ago. This led to inevitable pain, but those sweet fleeting moments were worth it. My only regret is that I lacked the strength to make the pain last another day.

Shelly wants me to check her skin. She stands over me, freckled thighs covered by a baby blue skirt. She lifts the skirt slightly, points to what she claims is a rash. I see nothing but soft flesh. Shelly sobs, pushes her leg against my face. "Kiss the cancer away," she demands, and I do, moving up her thigh in case the cancer has spread. Shelly moans then slaps my face. "Asshole!" She walks away, stops at the bathroom, runs her hand along the back of her right thigh. She shoots me a shitty look, then slams the bathroom door. Running water cannot cover her screams.

Love is in the air.

Miles of strip malls rot away, weeds sprouting through the cracks. Kids play in these ruins, oblivious to the carnage. They run through dead showrooms and markets. They crash rusting carts into peeling walls. They jump on the corpse, screaming, cursing. No one stops them or counsels safety. Adults are too busy staving off more death. When the next mile of ghost lots emerge, kids will descend once again. Playing in failure and misery makes them happy. At least we left them that.

It's been an hour since the last blast. Maybe they're tired. Maybe it's a dinner break. We sit in candle-lit darkness trying to retain our sanity. Our block has been spared, but two streets over it's a fiery mess. Dense smoke. Loud cries. Doubtless many bodies. We don't know for sure. We're not going over to check. Some people from that block have staggered down our street, dazed, scarred. But they said nothing. We haven't seen them or anyone else for days.

We're told to be patient, that soon we'll be free. Let the missiles work their magic and a better world will arrive. Any world where missiles don't rain down is fine by us. Until then, some electricity would be nice. Drinkable water, too.

(Photo by Sam Holden)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Feathered, Not Stirred

Sleep pattern shot. Up at all hours. Daylight savings meaningless. Write, drink, read news reports. So much suffering. Endless corruption and lies. Immediacy makes it unreal. Anxiety. Sadness.

Time for Everything's Ducky!

Released in 1961, Everything's Ducky pairs Mickey Rooney with Buddy Hackett, the unlikeliest comedy team since Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante. The boys play hapless sailors stuck on a desert missile base, their military careers at a dead end. One day their commander orders them to release a lab duck into the wild. Soon the sailors discover that the duck, Scuttlebutt, can talk, so they plot betting schemes to make their fortune (Scuttlebutt successfully negotiates for a third of the cut).

Problem is, Scuttlebutt's a martini addict, and when drunk he screws up the boys' plans. He also reveals knowledge of a secret equation for a new missile guidance system. Once the Navy brass finds out, they want to remove Scuttlebutt's brain. Rooney and Hackett play interference, trying to save the duck's life.

I won't give away the ending. It makes no sense, but considering the overall film, to be expected. Rooney and Hackett are energetic, working routines so flat, so obvious, so bad they earn your respect. They really want us to believe they have chemistry, but the half-baked bits undermine them. It's sad that the film's rich premise generated such lazy writing. The entire plot revolves around a smart-ass alcoholic genius duck. You can't write decent jokes for that?

Yes, a talking drunk duck is gold in itself, so the temptation to let the image carry the story is great. Clearly it was yielded to here. And yet Everything's Ducky is fascinating and funny to watch. The cast (filled with period character actors like Richard Deacon, James Millhollin, and Alvy Moore, who was later Hank Kimball on Green Acres, a show that knew how to write for talking animals) plays this absurdity absolutely straight. But the real meat is Scuttlebutt, played by veteran voice man Walker Edmiston.

Edmiston's Scuttlebutt sounds like a cross between Edward Everett Horton and Hans Conried. He even throws in a brief Cary Grant impression. Despite this, you end up rooting for Scuttlebutt. You don't want the Navy to chop off his head and scoop out his brain. You might want to drink with him, though after a couple martinis Scuttlebutt gets loud and obnoxious. Then again, how often do you get loaded with a duck? Especially one who knows advanced calculus?

Given deepening human madness and environmental chaos (at least to us), it's soothing to know that at one moment in time, professional adults gathered to make a movie about a talking, booze-swilling duck. The result could have been better -- hell, in sharper comedy hands, it would be a classic -- but knowing that Everything's Ducky exists blunts some of life's sting. May Scuttlebutt stay buzzed in Happy Hour heaven.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Way Of The Dawg

The dream was near, but not to be.

Some of my better-educated friends wonder why I follow sports, much less get excited by the games. Barry Crimmins isn't one of them. As he said to me last week, when it comes to certain games and specific teams, talking to us is like talking to a kid wearing a ball cap and chewing bubble gum. It's a primal state, perhaps arrested development. The passion we feel transcends higher thinking. Rationally discussing it is a sucker's game.

Butler's basketball team had an amazing season. Cliché but true. How they got to the final tournament game baffled most experts, yet we who follow them know that's how Butler does it -- grit, discipline, focus, luck. When Butler's on a roll, wonderful things fall into place. Last night's performance against UConn blew up that model from 80 different angles. It was the worst tournament game I've seen Butler play. UConn's size, length, and speed had a lot to do with that. But the Bulldogs had plenty of open looks. They simply couldn't sink a shot. For an Indiana team, that was most baffling of all.

Sports fans attach varied emotions to their teams. Mostly it's tribal, a lot of times just wanting to be identified with a winner. For me, it's largely autobiographical. Butler University plays an influential part in my psyche. Whenever I'm in Indy, I stroll through the small campus, memories vivid then gone as a group of kids walk past me. Kids who weren't alive when I walked in their place. At Butler I became politically aware and creatively emboldened. I forged relationships that still exist. I enjoyed some of the best times of my life there. I'm also a huge basketball fan. I'm a Hoosier. It comes with the membership.

Butler's run in the past two years animated all this and more. It's rare that I care this much for a team (not even my New York Jets match it), but the way Butler played, their tenacity and spirit, being in a place where luck ceases to surprise, inspired me. A close friend recently connected Butler with The Project. "What you're doing is like how Butler plays," she said. "You scrap, dive for loose balls, trust your instincts, combine head and heart. You are Butler."

Coming from her, this meant a lot. She's not only a Butler grad, she also taught there, as did her father, who worked closely with Tony Hinkle, the founder of Butler basketball. She lives her life the Butler Way: humble, strong, serving others, primarily in the developing world. It's a genuine mindset, and I'm flattered to be associated with it. And yes, I've had nights where my material hit around 18 percent. So I can imagine how Butler's team feels today. But it's okay. We get off the floor and go back to work. It's what we do. We're Butler.