Drag Queens, Borders, Rivers, Death and Transformation by Sonny Smith
Identity is not stable or rational, but an ever conflicting tension between id and ego, conscious and subconscious mind. -Freud
Up til about 13 me, my friends, we were whatever we wanted top be. One day skate rats, the next day kung fu, the next day new waver, next day heavy metal, surfers, baseball players, on and on it went.
High school ends that usually. The ‘group’ starts telling you who you are. If you’re into sports you’re an athlete. If you’re into studies you’re a nerd. If you’re socially awkward you’re a weirdo. When you give up on the whole scene you get called a loner!
The crowd, the community, the society, has ideas about identity. Strict ideas. If you’re outside it, it’s going be rough; you get called a misfit.
After you grow up bigger limitations come in. Careers. Jobs. What are you going to decide to be? You’ve got to pick SOMETHING. Even if you choose nothing you’ve chosen.
I could never choose… so I drifted around. I’ve had a slew of jobs. My resume doesn’t look too reliable I guess. I had a job making copper gutters for two years. One day the foreman on a job says: here comes the copper guy. I didn’t want to be a ‘copper guy’ so I lost interest.
Marriage is tough too. Any relationship is tough. You gotta be the same person day in day out. What if you wake up, you want to be someone else? Most relationships don’t allow for it.
It’s not identity crisis. It’s identity impermanence.* Who are you gonna be today? Maybe today’s the day you start being someone new. At least you’re trying. Hard to do when your job is depending on you to be the same person as yesterday… society is stacked against the new you! It’s stacked against birth! It only knows death!
* We are never just who we are in a given moment but a constantly evolving thing- Heidegger
Therefore, society is not for the living, it is for the dying. To live, to be fully alive, you must be outside society. An outlaw.
You’d think being an artist would allow for a lot of identity exploration. It does. But the art world is a big jail cell for the imagination. The art sellers and the art buyers, and all the media* in between want you to be one thing so they can organize you accordingly and stack you over with the others like you.
* buyers and sellers at the same time
The art ‘community’ is a big joke. Like any society, it believes it celebrates life but it survives on death.
Some artists capitulate to this game of narrow definition.* Or some find ways to keep their narrowed focus fresh. Then, some don’t conform. They keep breaking their own walls down. Art is elusive, evolution is mysterious…
* Their art doesn’t grow but their pocketbooks do!
Of course, one of the biggest limitations of all is what you believe. If you don’t believe in Jesus you’re in a certain stack, if you do believe then you’re in another stack, if it’s Allah, then you’re that, if it’s Buddha it’s that, democrat, republican, middle of the road, lefty…
This is in Sitka. The wall is carved by Nick’s family. All Tlinkets of the Coho clan.
¡Activista! by Sonny Smith
The Lutra Canadensis
I went to Sitka (southeast Alaska), got off the plane and into the airport (bear heads, stuffed wolves, stuffed eagles), into Nick Galanin’s car (promoter of festival) and to his gallery (festival headquarters), took a brief walk to check out the venue (small French restaurant) where I’ll play solo songs (my bullshit) for an hour or so (dizzy on wine). Following this a brief gaze upwards (bald eagles, ravens), then a jaunt to the shore (through the Russian graveyard), past the local hotel (Ukrainian oil refinery worker housing), past the tasteless tourist traps (wolf pelt bras, photo-ops with stuffed bears), a feeble moment of rest from jetlag (plane tickets financed by local coke dealer), then to the harbor with memory of year before (almost knocked over on skiff by humpback whale), and rockabilly night in Haines (the local crowd never went to sleep, the bar closed at six), or what Jarred Galanin (fisherman, carpenter, musician) said when I took his Colt .45 out of the holster and asked him if this would fell a bear “save one bullet for yourself cause it’ll probably just make him mad”…
In Seward last year I ended up on a tour boat with White Magic (a band from Brooklyn). The captain of the boat nannered on in a non-stop monotone (and now to your right you will see an otter…) The 100 passengers were lulled into a catatonic gaze until we found our way to the pinnacle of the trip (an iceberg). An incandescent blue that exists nowhere else on earth. The guide asked all of us to close our eyes and focus our thoughts towards the iceberg melting. We were instructed to try and ‘make’ the iceberg crumble with our thoughts so we could spectate the grandeur of the falling ice. (Evil! Evil!). The diabolical ignorance of the tour boat captain represents the Alaskan money game in totality from corporate ‘trawlers’ (veritable genocide of the ocean floor), to the perennial blind eye of Exxon Valdez disaster residuals (Exxon never cleaned it up!), selling of water, oil, fish, game, all the way to the marketing of used tea bag Sarah Palin herself.
I’m told the land otter (Lutra Canadensis) is the trickster animal of the Tlinkets (sprawling Inuit tribe of southeast Alaska). Storied to seduce man into the woods on a camping trip say, and lead him in circles until he is disoriented and dies. Or the otter will take the form of an old friend coming to the aid of a shipwrecked fisherman, beckon him onto a boat (a mere illusion) where he falls into the water and drowns. I am told this is an obscure and seldom seen animal, but I say I witnessed thousands of land otters waddling off tourist boats (floating malls) to buy cheap reminders (canoe tchotchkes) of their great Alaskan non-adventure. Ergo land otter remains to seduce people far and wide into a spiritual drowning.
I have come here four years running and I still know next to nothing of this place. Nick put out a 7” record of mine; I am told he traded a skiff for the pressing. Nick, half-Tlinket, half-white, an artist who often appropriates the white man’s appropriation of indigenous art. Tlinkets have two clans, Ravens and Eagles. Within these are sub-clans: Whales, Toads, Slugs, Bears, Halibut… Nick is Raven. But he is an orphan, his mother is non-native and his dad is a bluesman, a Kaagwaantaan (eagle). It’s a matrilineal society (you take your mother’s clan). Ravens cannot marry Ravens. Eagles cannot marry Eagles. A rule widely respected still.
In Anchorage we played at a little club. Walking in, there was a stripper pole, but the bartenders were all unmistakably gay. Downstairs there was a hand written dress code obviously directed to hip hoppers (no sideways hats, no underwear showing). I could not make head nor tails of where this club was coming from. The club (just a theory) is a kind of default venue where anything out of the ordinary is relegated, anything non-mainstream is quarantined there; gays, blacks, small-time rock bands, hip hoppers, strippers, teenagers, us…
Jarred took us to a headwaters. The fish were jumping. A switch buried deep inside their atoms has clicked on; they will need to jump up the river to get to the fresh water. They are sometimes jumping before they even reach the climb to the fresh water. If they get to the fresh water it will diffuse into their system and they will turn grey and die. That is if they are not eaten by bears, humans, and eagles first.
With Breathe Owl Breathe, at a campground in Haines…
A bonfire on the beach in Seward. About seven or eight folks. They are talking about the trawlers, talking about the politics, talking about charter fisherman. The young people in Alaska know the game, at least the ones I’m meeting. One of them boxcar’d up here. One has become a little uneven. Spontaneously, he throws himself on the fire. He’s howling with laughter. He’s got a crazy look.
Later, a ferryboat taking our caravan to Juneau. It is raining. The man in the orange jumper suit guiding our van onto the ferry is speaking Russian.
Another time, the Mycea sail boat. I jumped in the water I couldn’t get back in. they threw a tug to save me. Why did I jump? The work of the Lutra Canadensis? The captain raised his five daughters on an island nearby…
The DJ in Juneau is having us on his show. He doesn’t know our music nor any music. He doesn’t care. He makes a joke of himself. Of everything.
We are traveling with a six-year-old named Wesley. He is Tlinket too.
Will we miss the ferry out of Haines? We are all looking for Nick’s uncle, he has disappeared with the truck, we are looking in ditches, at the jail, at his ex-girlfriends. We find him in the ferry terminal parking lot, asleep in the front seat.
There is a lady’s house we are supposed to stay at. But it’s covered in dog hair. It’s all covered in dog hair. Everything. She has lost to the pack. They rule her.
Back in Sitka I am leaving. I have fish to bring home. They only allow so much pounds on the plane so I stuff salmon in my underpants.
I just came back from tour through the beauteous state of Arizona. My camper broke down in Tucson. Myself and the Sunsets stranded on the side of the road trying to figure out what to do. Radiator fluid dripping down the highway. The John Wesley Coleman boys from Austin traveling in peril with us. There was gonna be too many people to fit in a tow truck we were told, so we had to split up. The boys began walking to the nearest town. Impressive. It was 113 degrees. I didn’t know if I was gonna see those guys again. They didn’t take anything with them. Not even water. Moments later a trucker pulled over and gave us his remaining four jugs of water. As it turned out the boys made it to the Phoenix gig because the trucker had stopped and given them a lift.
Let it be heard: Arizona is lousy with arch maniacs, archfiends and arch fleas!
Phoenix Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s sojourn on earth reveals a basic lack of love and understanding for humanity. Yes this crooked cracker nut cake sheriff clown hails right out of some throwback 1950s deep south paperback: white, pale, bloated, mean and hell bent on criminalizing the inevitable other. Is it possible to surmise he is not an old soul, but a newer soul, perpetrating crimes in order to experience retribution? A de facto style for the soul to learn and grow. Fear not seekers of justice, it may take a hundred lifetimes to learn his lesson. Why, his retribution may possibly last millennia!
Let it be known! Arizona is plump and fat with honest fair folks!
The fellow that towed my camper to the Tucson garage was the nicest tow truck driver I’ve ever met. He said he wouldn’t take advantage of my situation and it turned out he didn’t. He gave me the most amicable deal I’ve ever gotten from a tow company.
Let it be known! Arizona is rank and foul with wicked xenophobes!
I passed six motels with signs stating “American owned and operated.” To be clear, “American owned…” signs hanging from motels are a not so subtle message declaring they aren’t owned by Indians. It’s racist code. A lady told me years ago: “They’re ruining the motel business.” Sheriff Joe dressed in drag.
Let it be known! Arizona is busting at the seams with righteous and reasonable folks!
The Trunk Space club owner in Phoenix was an understanding man when I told him I couldn’t make the gig. Clubs don’t typically forgive bands when they don’t show up. He didn’t have to be so understanding, but he was.
Protesters are attempting various strategies. Some shall win some shall fail!
Under a campaign entitled Soundstrike, bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, Conor Oberst, and Sonic Youth have signed onto protest Arizona’s immigration laws by refusing to play in the state. This is a sincere yet most unfortunate choice of protest. Bands! Musicians! Artists! Do not turn your back away from the people of Arizona! Play underground. Play in houses. Play in day labor camps.
Let it be known! Arizona’s flowing over with good and bad news!
The proto-fascist Senate Bill 1070 was blocked on four key parts. But guess what, it’s going to be against the law to stand on the sidewalk and be available for work!
Let it be known!
When my band passed through the quasi-military immigration checkpoint I briefly quaked in my boots. Little fear however for my blanche white profile. Not so for the Latino angel trucker who gave my band water and brought the Wes Coleman boys one hundred and thirty miles to their gig. The checkpoint guard gave me a sideways look. “You in some kind of band or something?” “Yes” said I. She looked at my rig and sized us up. Had she decided we were “American owned and operated”?