So it’s been a few months since the clan decamped from Brooklyn and moved back to my old stomping grounds of New Orleans, and it’s been an incredible experience so far, and if I had to sum it all up all of its strange beauty in one sentence, it would have to be this:
I’m convinced that if New Orleans didn’t exist, Alan Moore would have to invent it.
Folks here are dreamers and schemers, and the majority of the scheming and dreaming goes on in the city’s bars, taverns, watering holes, speakeasies and so on. Tall tales, big plans and big ideas are everyday currency, and whether they realize it or not, it’s my opinion that everybody in New Orleans is a pulp writer at heart, a spinner of weird tales of the fantastic and supernatural, a closet Stan Lee or Robert E. Howard. Everybody here is a godlike creator of alternate realities. There’s one New Orleans, the “real” city, which is pretty bizarre and fantasmic in its own right. It needs no help to be confounding, dangerous and beautiful, because it’s all of those things automatically.
But then there’s the Uber-New Orleans, the even stranger city, the one invented in the bars. (Let’s pay DC Comics a tribute and call it New Orleans-2) is populated by armies of great bands, classic films, sublime paintings, amazing books and so on. This is not to say that people here DON’T produce things—there’s art going on in New Orleans, art and industry and mad creativity that is at a constant boil. But coming up with mad, drunken ideas for epic works of fiction is a favorite sport of three in the morning New Orleanians, a pastime so endemic that folks here joke about the amount of effort spent talking about things instead of doing them.
If ten percent of these ideas were ever seen to completion, the world would be a much weirder, much more interesting place. I’m certain that the same story could be told about bars the world over, but there’s just something about the way it’s done in New Orleans that makes me feel that it’s a city of a million would-have-beens and could-have-beens, the urban equivalent of a thousand issues of What If…? comics.
But let me get to my point. Every once in a while, just like in a comic book, New Orleans and New Orleans-2 intersect and there’s a massive crossover event and continuity just goes all to hell and it’s wonderful. This happens when someone makes one of these bar ideas actually happen, as was the case recently when my friend Alison Fensterstock had a brainstorm. The idea? To have the Noisician Coalition, a marching club made up of a loose aggregate of ne’er-do-wells and malcontents who bang on trashcan drums and jerry-rigged electronic noisemakers, to play at a local Purim service. Of course!
And this is where New Orleans-2 comes in – the idea was repeated in the light of day and it was run with. Someone knew someone who knew a rabbi, and the rabbi was cool, so the gig was booked—the Noise Parade would be part of the traditional drowning out of Haman’s name at the Anshe Sfard Synagogue over on Carondelet Street. When yours truly got the news that members of the N.C. were needed to add to the ruckus, he was in a bar and semi-disbelieving, but agreed to it nevertheless.
So cut to Purim – only six members of the group can make it, but that’s plenty: group founders MattVaughan Black and Robert Starnes, L.J., Churchy, Fensterstock and me. We’re decked out in our traditional red, black and white garb. The congregants in the synagogue are dressed even more outlandishly and it’s rad. Finally, the service starts. An older gentleman begins to read the Megillah of Esther in Hebrew and we’re all waiting around to hear the magic tragic name of that sneaky murdering bastard Haman to be uttered and when it is – wham! The Noisician Coaltion erupts quickly and messily. Sirens wail, Theremins are distorted and I, the sole member on percussion, bang out the barely recognizable rhythm of “Big Chief.” Smiles erupt throughout the synagogue. This, the assembled folks seem to be thinking, is RAD.
And so the megillah continues, and with every “Haman” we blast it out again and again and again, even going so far as to actually parade around the joint a couple of times. The service winds down, then, and everybody hustles down to the basement for raspberry hamentashen, meatballs, kosher wine and whiskey. Dancing erupts, thanks to the tunes of awesome local jazz-klezmer-marching mutants the Panorama Jazz Band. Dudes are doing flips, people are clapping and every once in awhile a teenager tries to snake a drink.
Later, as yours truly and a few members of the Coalition share a butt in front of the synagogue, a car rolls up, stops. The passenger side window rolls down and an African-American gentleman leans over to speak.
“What y’all doing in there?”
“It’s a Purim celebration, man!”
“Can I come?”
“Hell yeah. C’mon in.”
“Okay,” he says. “But you see, I’m in a wheelchair. I drive with some gears.”
He demonstrates how the gears work. We’re all impressed – it’s a cool set-up.
“So I’m going to drive around and be back later. Is that okay?”
And then he drives off, using his gears, and we watch him go and, well, all there is to say is thank heavens for New Orleans-2 and crossovers in general.
At Home, At Work, At Play A listener’s guide to Sparks’ first 20 albums by Ned Raggett
There aren’t many recording artists in their fourth decade of recorded work whose new albums consistently merit not only attention but, more often than not, a round of applause. But Sparks were an unusual band from the start, so perhaps, perversely, their virtually unprecedented no-fade career arc is to be expected. The full story of the musical partnership of brothers Ron and Russell Mael is worthy of a thick book or two (or at least a really good documentary), but the basic body of their musical work—20 studio albums preceding their newest, the forthcoming Exotic Creatures of the Deep—can at least be talked about here. Not all are front-to-back classics, some may not even be keepers, but the standard of excellence is so high, the continuous artistic risk-taking so audacious, and the number and range of artists they’ve inspired in the last 35 years so vast—from Queen to Morrissey to Pet Shop Boys to Faith No More to Bjork to Franz Ferdinand—that even the rare misstep deserves examination. Onward, then…
SPARKS (1972) Though L.A. performances and a number of demos helped get the initial word out about their distinctly unusual take on pop and rock—the demos still for the most part unreleased, though noted Sparks freak Morrissey has showcased a couple here and there over the years via compilations and show intro tapes—it was the self-titled debut album that first brought the Maels and company into the public eye. Getting Todd Rundgren as producer was key. Probably no one else in America had both the relatively high profile to get the recording ball rolling and the artistic appreciation for the curious yet compellingly catchy pop the Maels and their band were creating. Balanced between a whimsical fragility and a dramatic rock punch that stacks up to any proto-metal group of the era, it’s not merely the tension between the sides that makes Sparks’ first album so memorable, it’s the fact that it’s so instantly enjoyable. If, as the story goes, opening track “Wonder Girl” was a hit in Montgomery Alabama and nowhere else, it wasn’t because it couldn’t be hummed. It can. The band’s whole approach can be heard in this single song: the intentional use of a cliché in the title, Russell’s sweet-with-a-twist-of-sour singing (then and now, one of the most uniquely beautiful vocals in modern pop), Ron’s sprightly keyboards and lyrics which are sunny only if you’re not listening closely. But it’s also a tour de force of production—listen to the crisp hits of Harvey Feinstein’s cymbals and the almost electronic smack of the beats. On the rest of Sparks, songs change tempo on a dime, harmonies swirl in and out of nowhere, strutting rock snarling melts into boulevardier swing, with the monstrous album closer “(No More) Mr. Nice Guys” rocking just as hard as the similarly-titled song by Alice Cooper that it predates. The sense of theatricality so integral to Sparks is already present, but this is as far away from the inanities of such ‘rock’ Broadway efforts as Rent as you can get—and thank heavens for it. The whole shebang really is art rock without apology. Note: This album was released under the original band name of Halfnelson, with the brothers then switching to Sparks after the prompting of their then-manager/label head Albert Grossman, who was convinced this was the key to success. There have been stranger solutions.
A WOOFER IN TWEETER’S CLOTHING (1973) In some ways A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing is the first album redux. Unchanged lineup, same number of songs, and the first song on the album is, again, about a girl. But this time the stakes were a little higher:
Oh, no! Bring her home and the folks look ill My word, they can’t forget, they never will They can hear the stormtroops on our lawn When I show her in…
Imagine that being sung by Russell with an almost sweetly diffident air over a chugging rhythm, with a chorus that soars down to the backing pseudo-Col. Bogey whistles and you’ve got “Girl From Germany,” one of the wickedest songs ever. From there Woofer’s could do whatever it damn well pleased, and did. Beergarden polka singalongs crossed with minimal drones that transmute into a rapid roll of drums, frenetic high-speed instrumentation and a mock Mickey Mouse-style letter-by-letter cheerleader/gangshout for the titular character, “Beaver O’Lindy.” A tune called “The Louvre” sung, but of course, in French, sounding—at least initially—like a random 1968 Beach Boys number drop-kicked across the Atlantic, trailing sparkling keyboards in its wake. A concluding song, “Whippings and Apologies,” begins like Stereolab warming up for a 20-minute freakout and then keeps stop-starting—including a great fake ending —so Russell can discuss the situations a tender-hearted sadist must face. “Do-Re-Mi”—yes, THAT “Do-Re-Mi,” from The Sound of Music, not one of the lyrics changed, turns into a high-speed gallop halfway through the second repetition of the words and gets even more over the top after that point. Nearly the whole album is so insanely fractured, and once again, so astonishingly catchy, that it’s hard to know what to highlight. At the heart of the album lies “Moon Over Kentucky,” the only song bassist Jim Mankey wrote for the band (with Ron sharing the credit), and arguably the landmark of the first incarnation of Sparks. It’s all five members at their most dramatic, with the opening piano and wordless vocals given a steady, darker counterpoint with Mankey’s bass. This gets contrasted with verses shot through with a nervous keyboard rhythm, Feinstein’s rolling drums and a snarling riff that sounds like a Tony Iommi line delivered in two seconds. Russell yodels like a lost ghost somewhere in the woods and the end result feels like what Nelson Eddy and Jeanette Macdonald would have done if James Whale had directed one of their films, down to the horror-movie organ final flourish.
KIMONO MY HOUSE (1974) What to say about an album that endless amounts of musicians openly refer to as a touchstone? The one that was Bjork’s first record she bought with her own money (“My mum and my stepdad didn’t like it and I did, so that was my statement.”), the album that turned Morrissey into the massive fan he is (“Ron Mael’s lyrical take on sex cries out like prison cell carvings. It is only the laughing that stops the crying. Russell sings his words in what appear to be French italics, and has less facial hair than Josephine Baker.”), the album with the cabaret-rock-opera sound that Queen, who were opening for Sparks at the time, would appropriate immediately? Where to begin? Easy—the beginning. It starts, not like a thunderclap, but like a gentle shimmer of spring rain, a keyboard figure easing up in volume step by step. Then a voice zooms in, almost but never once tripping over itself at high speed, building up to the briefest pause, and then: “This town ain’t big enough for both of us!” A massive pistol shot rockets across the speaker range. “AND IT AIN’T ME WHO’S GONNA LEAVE!” The full band kicks in and it is all OVER. And it’s only just begun. Kimono My House shouldn’t have been; had Ron and Russell decided not to take the chance they did in moving to London and signing to Island Records after initial UK appearances before the release of Woofer turned out splendidly, it wouldn’t have been. They did, and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both of Us” crashed into the UK Top Five in early 1974 and what had been a low-key pleasure for some turned into pop star mania. Tales of suicides happily singing down to girlfriends in the still-living world, celebrations of the most exclusive genealogical background ever (concluding with “Gonna hang myself from my family tree”) and specifically uncelebratory non-holiday carols were suddenly all the rage. The lunatics hadn’t taken over the asylum, but their observers were genii at portraying their foibles in entertaining form. The new backing band—guitarist Adrian Fisher, bassist Martin Gordon and drummer Dinky Diamond—weren’t necessarily as outré as the first, but as a crackerjack combo, perfectly in tune with the over-the-top glam hysteria of the day, they were essential. “This Town” is just one example of many songs displaying Ron’s ever-increasing compositional talents—consider other smash U.K. singles like “Amateur Hour,” with its quick, ascending main guitar line completely working against the typical descending rock melodies of the time and place, or “Talent Is an Asset,” a music-box riff accompanied by hand-clapping and foot-stomping rhythms celebrating the young life of one Albert Einstein. If Ron’s keyboards often times seemed drowned in the mix of the songs that he himself wrote, they weren’t absent—the organ adding further beef to the mix of “Here in Heaven,” the combination barrelhouse R&B swing and cabaret glow on the concluding “Equator.” Perhaps the album’s most emblematic song was “Hasta Manana, Monsieur,” with its lovely piano melody at the start and Russell’s bravura extended vocal break towards the end … oh, and the words too:
Leaving my syntax back at school I was thrown for a loss over gender and simple rules You mentioned Kant and I was shocked You know, where I come from, none of the girls have such foul tongues.
And that was just one verse.
PROPAGANDA (1974) Propaganda—featuring the band’s first outright classic album cover, showing the Maels as bound and gagged kidnap victims—was a logical follow-on from Kimono, much as Woofer’s had continued onward from the debut. The producer remained the same. The backing band jiggled a bit, with Ian Hampton replacing Martin Gordon on bass and Trevor White starting to handle the guitar. (Queen’s Brian May alleges the Maels tried to persuade him to join them by proclaiming his band were “washed up”—which makes that group’s Sparks-like breakthrough hit “Killer Queen” all the more eyebrow-raising.) Otherwise Sparks kept up the same glam-rampage approach. But here, everything was more in sync then ever. The album begins with something new—an a cappela performance from Russell, his overdubbed singing providing wordless melody and rhythm as well as words, packing wartime slogans, militaristic imagery and that thing called love into about 20 seconds. Then a stentorian delivery from the full band heralds “At Home At Work At Play,” whose combination of volume, giddiness, hyperspeed melodies and Sparks-trademarked tempo shifts and pauses is clear evidence that by this time Sparks had come pretty close to being sui generis. Even songs like “BC,” which on this album feels just a touch like a “typical” Sparks number, would be utterly atypical for practically anyone else. There’s a winsome jauntiness on Propaganda at points, musically if not necessarily lyrically, almost as if Ron and Russell were creating World War II vaudeville singalongs for their temporarily adopted home country. “Reinforcements,” playing around again with ideas of love and/as war, almost begs a high-kicking chorus line to back Russell on stage. In a different vein entirely is a power ballad of the most arch sort, “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth,” which has it all: strings, heroic guitar solo, a lot of background echo (check out the drums at the end!), Ron on what must be harpsichord, and a beautifully alien mid-song break where Russell sings in fragile tones over heavily flanged violins. On the lyrical front, Ron’s eye for the knowing cliché in the title again reigned supreme—besides “At Home At Work At Play,” we get “Thanks But No Thanks,” “Something For the Girl With Everything” and the concluding “Bon Voyage.” And then there’s “Achoo,” probably the only song in existence with a sneeze as its title. And even if it isn’t, it’s definitely the only one that starts, “Who knows what the wind’s gonna bring when the invalids sing.”
INDISCREET (1975) Indiscreet ended up being the conclusion of Ron and Russell’s first run of hit UK albums, as well as their English residency. If nothing else, they wrapped it up in style, working with an emblematic producer of the era—fellow US expatriate Tony Visconti, whose collaborations with T. Rex and David Bowie helped define the times as much as anything. It turned out to be an inspired combination as Visconti’s ear for orchestral arrangements, familiar from T. Rex’s many singles, was in top form. The result is a rich sounding album, a big-budget effort that doesn’t sound overblown. The band personnel remains essentially the same from Propaganda, though songs like the opening “Hospitality on Parade”—part neo-Gilbert and Sullivan triumph, part hypnotic proto-Suicide drone—suggest that the Maels were starting to feel that their band was holding them back creatively as much as they were crucial to their success. That tension shoots through the entire album, with more conventional rock-band compositions contrasting sharply to such songs as the merry 1930s kick of “Without Using Hands” or the wonderfully energetic big-band recreation of “Looks, Looks, Looks.” “Under the Table With Her” is that tendency in excelsis, with string and flute accompaniment as the sole musical element to match one of Russell’s most elfin vocals. That said, the Sparks instinct for pop smashes in their own particular vein remains strong. There’s the careening blast of “Happy Hunting Ground”—the mid-song dropout to just drums and vocals is sheer pleasure and opening single “Get In the Swing” is an everything-and-the-kitchen sink affair with a marching band strut, band majorette whistles, a message from God to his creations and the memorable line “Well I ain’t no Freud, I’m from LA.” The sleeper hit, though, has to be “Tits”—a thematic sequel of sorts to the previous album’s “Who Don’t Like Kids,” but which, in its slow unfolding musical drama, resembles the epochal “Moon Over Kentucky,” shot full of sequins. For all the celebrations of the female bosom in pop music before and since, this is probably the only one narrated by a married man complaining over an increasing number of “drinks that are something warm and watered down” about how the presence of a kid alters a certain dynamic in their household:
SERIOUS FUN Chris Ziegler and Kevin Ferguson visit veteran sui generis pop duo SPARKS in L.A. as they prepare to perform their 240-song oeuvre in a single month-long London engagement in May. “We’re actually better than we thought,” say the brothers Mael…
Sparks have about 60 days to finish learning the five million notes necessary to reproduce live their entire 38-year discography—20 old albums, select b-sides, one new album, and a special song for anyone willing to buy tickets for the entire month-long event in London—but brothers Russell and Ron Mael remain relaxed and ready in Russell’s home studio, where a portrait of Elvis watches over rehearsals so intense that Russell can’t stop singing his songs even in his dreams. Brand-new album Exotic Creatures Of The Deep will debut live this summer in London after prior nights each dedicated to an existing Sparks album—a marathon physically and psychologically and an occasion to revisit a band almost totally untangled from the industry music mess just miles away from Russell’s Los Angeles home…
Arthur: Ron said that you’ll be playing 4,825,623 notes during the complete 21-show run. That works out to about 230,000 notes per album and maybe 34 notes per second. Does that seem accurate? Russell: On some of the early albums it’s probably true—the Island albums are probably 64 notes per second. Those were really hyper.
Did doing that kind of statistical analysis on your lifetime of work reveal any greater truths? Ron: It’s actually a leveling. A lot of the ones we had maybe less love for are kind of good in retrospect. It would have been sad to go back and realize they weren’t very good. Russell: Fortunately that wasn’t the case. Ron: But we are prejudiced. Russell: We’re actually better than we thought.
So you’re not nervous. Ron: We’re still nervous. It’s awesome.
Awesome in the sense that building a pyramid is awesome? Ron: On all kinds of levels. It’s like going back to school. We haven’t even heard most of the songs for 20 or 30 years, and most of them we never played live anyway, so part of the process was figuring out how to do that. We couldn’t cut any corners—we’re doing everything, including a lot of b-sides as well. We’re figuring out how to be true to the original records and doing it live. It’s a good concert experience.
Are you offering any kind of Sparks Value Pack for the entire run? Russell: The golden ticket! For that you also get—we’re gonna record one song and give a CD of this one song to the people that choose to dedicate an entire month of their lives to Sparks. That warrants receiving a song that no one else will get. Ron: And there’s gonna be at least one book or maybe two about the whole experience afterward, and we’re thinking if we can get up the energy, we’ll try to keep a journal.
Why no hometown show in Los Angeles? Ron: We have a larger following in London. It’s so expensive to put this on that the only viable way was to do it in London.
Will you be including any Sparks alumni in the live bands? Russell: Each of the bands had a certain character to them—someone even suggested it’d be great if we had each of those bands. In a conceptual way, that’s good. In a practical way, I don’t know if it would work. It’s a real test to find people—the fans who are going to spend a month of their lives with us, and then for the band, musicians who want to stick it out for three-and-a-half months of preparation, which is unheard of. When you prepare for tour, you have maybe 20 songs, and this is 240. And you might say, ‘Oh, that’s not so hard,’ but when you think of songs on the albums that fade out and you have to have an ending for that song now. To figure things like that out times 240 is so time-consuming. Just the sheer volume you have to digest.
Are you dreaming Sparks songs yet? Russell: I’m singing songs when I wake up—I swear. And it’s not a happy dream. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t even shut them off!’
Can you think of an equivalent to the total creative energy invested in the Sparks discography? Half a cathedral or the Pennsylvania tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh? Ron: It could never be done by a visual artist, really—we don’t feel like we’re doing imitation, and we don’t see them as finished, necessarily. When we play live, we’re kind of inventing them again. You hear of classical musicians that do a composer’s complete piano works—that kind of thing. But this is kind of trickier. I don’t know for a fact because I’ve never done that, but it seems like more things are involved. Russell: We’d be allowed to read music, but we don’t read music.
I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). The Amana Colonies is an Amish community dating back to 1854. It was settled by the communally living German pietists then known as The Community of True Inspiration, or The Ebenezer Society. Their tenets included avoiding military service and refusal to take an oath. The Amanas are nestled in the middle of what is now a sea of genetically modified corn and soybeans known as the Midwest, more specifically Iowa.
I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.
That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.
Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.
So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.
As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…
When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.
Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.
“The horizon,” Rudy Wurlitzer says on the commentary track of the new Two-Lane Blacktop dvd, “is everything that the rear-view mirror isn’t. It’s the unknown.”
Wurlitzer has been an itinerant traveler all of his life, between Los Angeles, New York, India, Greenland, Burma, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Nova Scotia. On and on. Sometimes alone, sometimes with a film crew, often with his wife, photographer Lynn Davis. His books and films are mythic reflections of that journey.
Most novelists work in Hollywood as hired guns. They do it for the money and there’s not much connection between their fiction and the scripts they produce, unless they’re adapting their own books. Wurlitzer is one of the few exceptions. He came on the scene during a very short-lived and now almost magical-seeming time—the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls days—when mainstream publishers like Random House and Dutton would put out defiant, challenging fictions like Nog or Quake, when Universal would not only release a glacial, plotless tone poem like Two-Lane Blacktop but Esquire would see fit to publish the script in its entirety and feature the hippie-looking cast on the cover of the magazine. In those days, ensconced in the Tropicana and various other LA motels, Rudy’s contemporaries and cohorts in the film world were people like Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman, Hal Ashby, Robert Downey, Jim McBride, Harry Dean Stanton and Warren Oates. The books written during that time—Nog, Flats and Quake—were heralded by pioneers such as Donald Bartheleme who described Flats as “an excellent book, full of unhealthy mental excitement” and Thomas Pynchon, who famously heralded Nog as evidence that “the Novel of Bullshit is dead.” Today, his literary influence is apparent in writers as diverse as Sam Shepard, Dennis Cooper, Patti Smith and Gary Indiana.
Rudy is a renegade descendant of the Wurlitzer jukebox dynasty, founded in the 1800s when they originally made pianos and theatre organs. Coincidentally, musicians have been a fixture in nearly all of his films. In Two-Lane Blacktop, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson plays The Mechanic and James Taylor (before he was bald and marked for death by Lester Bangs) is The Driver. The most famous case is of course Bob Dylan’s involvement in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, featuring his monumental score and his enigmatic acting debut as Alias, a member of The Kid’s gang. Candy Mountain, which Wurlitzer co-directed in 1984 with Robert Frank, features a rogue’s gallery of left-field musical figures—David Johansen, Dr. John, Tom Waits, Arto Lindsay, Joe Strummer, Leon Redbone—all of whom add oddball color to the road movie about a man trying to scheme his way into the music business by tracking down a reclusive guitar maker.
Frank, the Swiss-born photographer best-known for his book The Americans, the Kerouac-narrated short film Pull My Daisy and the banned-by-Mick-and-Keith Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues, was a longtime collaborator with Wurlitzer and a great figure in the music world. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where they both lived, Wurlitzer and Frank collaborated on bizarre, little-seen short films like Keep Busy and Energy and How to Get It. Candy Mountain is their only feature-length collaboration and the only film Wurlitzer has directed. Ten years later, Wurlitzer took the music connection a step further, writing the libretto for Philip Glass’s version of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony.
For most of the ’80s and ’90s, Rudy’s film work was mostly outside of the United States, working with European directors. He wrote Voyager for Volker Schlondorff, Little Buddha for Bernardo Bertolucci and the anarchic, anti-imperialist gem Walker for Alex Cox. He also collaborated with Michelangelo Antonioni on Two Telegrams, a project which unfortunately never materialized. On the literary front, he released Slow Fade in 1984, a dark, masterful novel written in a more straightforward style than his earlier work. It is set in the divergent worlds of Hollywood and India, and finally Nova Scotia, and exudes a spiritual exhaustion tied in with frustrations with the shuck and jive of the film business. This theme is carried further in 1991’s Hard Travel to Sacred Places, a heartbreaking Buddhist road memoir recounting Rudy and wife Lynn’s travels through Thailand, Burma and Cambodia on a photography assignment after the death of her young son.
Now, after 40 years of writing books and scripts, there’s a bit of a Rudy renaissance happening. Two of his classic films—Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Alex Cox’s Walker—have been given the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment, both with Wurlitzer commentaries and, on Two-Lane Blacktop, a book-size reprint of Wurlitzer’s script. He also has a new novel, his first since 1984, out on Two-Dollar Radio, a small Brooklyn publishing house. The Drop Edge of Yonder is an epic Western and a sort of summation of all that’s great about Wurlitzer’s novels and film scripts. All the hallmarks are there—the cryptic dialogue, the outlaw milieu, the love triangles, the Buddhist overtones, the cinematic drift. Patti Smith describes it as “a book you watch as you read, cast the film as you reread, and create a sequel as you sleep.”
The Drop Edge of Yonder actually started as a script back in the 70s and was nearly made several times before its original plot was ultimately pirated by Jim Jarmusch in his 1995 psychedelic Johnny Depp vehicle Dead Man. Rudy, typical of his gentle nature, speaks of this without much bitterness and even laughs about it. His old friend Alex Cox, however, is not so kind. “Jarmusch just stole the idea, which was really shocking,” Cox said when I called him at his Oregon home. “I haven’t been able to speak to Jarmusch since that happened. Rudy could’ve sued him. I would’ve sued the guy’s ass.” Rudy ultimately lets his work set the record straight with Drop Edge, an old hand laying down what may well be the best piece of writing he’s ever done.
“A joke is an epitaph on the death of a feeling.”—Nietzsche
If we are in Iraq looking for the guys that did the Nineleven caper we’re stupid because, according to the FAA, the pilots are usually among the first people to arrive at a crash site.
The only other 9/11 joke I’ve heard is:
Knock, knock Who’s there? Nine eleven Nine eleven who? You said you would never forget me.
Yeah, it’s not funny. Not just because the feeling isn’t dead. It plays on the fact that 9/11 is an old heartbreak whore of ours, the one who unfettered our basest desires, which we’ll be paying for for the rest of our children’s lives. Har de har.
Your kids are going to be pissed when they see the pictures which Colin Powell pointed at when he talked us into World War Three.
“Daddy is it true that you guys started World War Three over a picture of a meth lab out in the desert?”
“Well honey see we didn’t have no education back then and so we didn’t know that nuclear fission takes whole buildings full of advanced ceramics, Germans and yellow cake uranium to manufacture…”
It’s good that we can’t tell a meth lab from a nuclear bomb-making facility because it means that our elders saw fit to give us the gift of bliss, which more judgemental people would call ignorance. With this bliss we are free to see the world without any preconceived notions based on science or pre-known facts.
Back when people got educations they were indoctrinated so thoroughly that they believed crazy shit like the Civil War was fought to free black slaves. Anybody stupid enough to think that white people went to war and killed other white people for the rights of black people will be stupid enough to believe that we are looking for Osama Bin Laden in Iraqian Permian basin.
“What kind of times are they, when talk about trees is almost a crime because it implies silence about so many horrors?” —Bertolt Brecht (To Those Born Later)
Most people have an appreciation for plants and make an effort to occasionally hike among them, repose in their shade or even co-habitate with them. And while it’s safe to say that we recognize plants’ value and usefulness, it’s also a fair assessment to state that the plant kingdom is frequently taken for granted. When we’re not trampling it, cutting it down, or eating it, we’re usually ignoring it altogether.
Perhaps that’s why the vast majority of modern people who encounter the idea of human/plant communication—or “psychobotany,” as we prefer to call it—find it strange. But it’s equally strange that this viewpoint has become normalized. After all, anthropologists largely agree that people have been attempting communication with the plant kingdom for as long as there have been plants and people. So why is it considered “abnormal” to attempt communication with plants today? And what can we hope to accomplish by entering into such a conversation in the first place?
From engendered grudges and evolutionary angst to theological quibbles and accusations of entrapment, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden has certainly been fertile ground for all sorts of controversy. But surely there’s an upside. At the very least the Bible has given us a glimpse of Utopia: proto-hippies living blissfully in a magic garden. In one corner of paradise they receive vitality from the Tree of Life; in another they gain consciousness of self after sampling the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.
Anyone who claims to know what skateboarding is “all about” is full of shit. To define it as sport, art, science, transportation, play, culture, lifestyle, or anything else is to minimize the unlimited potential within the form. Skateboarding is inherently meaningless. Its lack of meaning is what allows it to be such a progressive and influential experience.
The origin of skateboarding cannot be localized to any single point. The skateboard was never invented; it was discovered by children across America simultaneously as apple-crate scooters of the 1940s and 50s were broken down and converted into the legendary 2×4″ with roller-skate trucks. Thus, the skateboard has no intention behind it: no inventor, no purpose, no ownership, no goal, no rules. Nothing in the creation or design of the skateboard assumes any meaning or value. It is a perfectly uninhibited vehicle of action-oriented possibility.
As the skateboard was refined with technical advancements (urethane wheels, slight changes in board and truck design) and influenced by surf culture and technique, it evolved and attracted the daredevils and visionaries who crafted the form as we recognize it today. The terrain of streets and sidewalks led to ramps and pools and drainpipes, and eventually begat massive concrete skateparks. Journalists and photographers and filmmakers developed a symbiotic relationship with the athletes, documenting the physical forms and commenting on the culture and surrounding artworks and personalities.
The masters of the form, the leaders and great events of skateboard history, the varied terrain and infrastructure: all of this has been documented and pored over by an appreciating audience. And yet, for all of the journalism and vicarious entertainment that surrounds skateboarding, there’s never really been a deeper examination of the form— specifically the subtle internal and energetic processes—of skateboarding itself.
The technique of actually riding on a skateboard is not that different than standing still. The skateboard is a vehicle, with wheels and axles and a platform to stand upon, but there is no drivetrain. A skateboard moves by the kinetic energy of being pushed, or by taking advantage of its potential energy positioned at the top of a hill or transitional wall. Once the skateboard is up to speed, the majority of the techniques start and end with simply riding along—standing still on the platform of the skateboard, while the world rolls beneath one’s feet, occasionally in excess of 40 miles an hour. In this standing position, the skateboard and rider may cover larger distances, they may roll up and down steep inclines, they may ride up circular transitions above and beyond the vertical axis, they may launch into the air and cover great distances through empty space before returning to solid ground. The skateboarder, more than anything, must shift his or her weight and stance to accommodate these changes in trajectory. The technical aspects of contemporary trick performance include a lot of board flipping and body spinning and sideways sliding and shifting and grinding, but the foundation of riding a skateboard in a casual, two-footed stance remains. The standing skateboarder experiences dramatic changes in acceleration and frame of reference. Dropping into a ramp or bowl sets the rider off on a path of varying degrees of linear and radial acceleration. Physics students are aware that radial acceleration—the way a skateboarder will circumnavigate a bowled transition, or a planet will orbit a star— results in acceleration towards the center of the curve. This curious feature of Newtonian physics segues neatly into Einstein’s theory of relativity, involving acceleration along the curvature of space-time. Einstein postulated a geometric interpretation of the “force” of gravity, and this revelation completely changed the way we view and understand our world.
This means that the skateboarder, in his ongoing dance with gravity and acceleration, can use the fine instrument of the central nervous system to examine the most dramatic and fundamental forces in the universe. This movement affects physiological change, in the form of blood flow and oxygenation and chemical release and so on, but also affects awareness and psychological change. Finding the center in these dramatic curves, attaining balance in the midst of this tremendous spiraling movement, is as much an internal discipline as an external one.
Over the past ten years I have considered skateboarding in the light of two disciplines which are often grouped together as “mind-body” practices, Taiji (also Taijiquan, T’ai Chi) and Yoga (specifically Hatha Yoga). While the comparisons have been made before, a deeper investigation is overdue. Taiji and Yoga are physical practices with corresponding philosophies that have endured for literally thousands of years, drawing from the sophisticated and profoundly spiritual cultures that spawned them: Taiji evolved with Chinese Taoism, and Yoga evolved with Indian Hinduism and Buddhism. A greatly simplified explanation of their intention is to prepare the human participant for the discipline of deep meditation.
Taiji and Yoga use the body-mind correlation to enhance and actualize the understanding and expression of spiritual connectedness. In Yoga, the intention is to “yoke” or unite with the divine through mental refinement and physical alignment in the flow of universal energy. The intention of Taiji is to follow the way—the Tao—by “uniting heaven and earth”, balancing the opposing forces of the universe internally and externally. The famous “yin yang” symbol is actually called the Taiji—it means supreme ultimate, and is intended to suggest that the universe in its true state is in perfect balance.
Considering skateboarding as a mind-body activity and relating it to Yoga and Taiji can allow insight into the less than obvious internal processes at work. It is not sheer athleticism—strength, endurance, etc.—that make a good skateboarder; a good skateboarder must be a master of balance, focus, perseverance, creative ingenuity, and fear management. It takes heart and vision (and a good sense of humor) to ride a skateboard, not muscle. Cultivation of the heart and vision are among the primary intentions of a traditional mind-body activity, and they do not involve a painstaking enhancement of the ego, but quite the opposite. Skateboarders have as much to learn about the physical aspects of their craft from these ancient disciplines as they do about the internal, mental, and spiritual aspects.
Regardless of whether these systems are studied or adopted by skateboarders, the point is that there is an opening here for some higher purpose. When you are skateboarding, any goals or obligations are self-created. The intention of your skateboard practice is up to you. For someone who has been skating for 20 or 30 years, the reasons for skateboarding have probably changed greatly. What begins as sport, art, play, a job, etc. can become an opportunity to merge a physically balanced form with open-minded spiritual potential. This can take place by studying Yoga or Taiji, or by incorporating another religious philosophy (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and so on) into the mix. It is certainly not necessary, but the choice is yours.
Whatever you choose, you will not be alone on your path. In 50 years skateboarding has developed into a worldwide culture with millions of participants, growing and evolving at the speed of life, and every flavor of humanity and human achievement is accounted for. This progressive, diverse living community is more available to spiritual development than perhaps any other group of people in the history of the world. In America, where freedom of such pursuit is a constitutional right, we have a unique opportunity to follow our own path and uncover personal insight into the deepest workings of the universe, a balanced experience that might as well take place while standing on a wooden plank with trucks and urethane wheels.
I don’t want to try and define skateboarding, nor do I want to attach any extra importance to it. Its meaninglessness is its ultimate value, and any rewards are up to the invididual to discern. That said, the internal processes of skateboarding are available for anyone at any level to explore—but to do so you will have to see beyond the obvious, and you are well-advised to take a cue from some ancient wisdom. Skateboarding goes deep, and it can be about a lot more than fame or success or being cool; it can quickly transcend any imaginary differences between human souls. Skateboarding is a real, life-long spiritual trip, a profound relationship with a higher power. Skateboarding will require you to open up to the unknown, and confront it without fear or judgment. Then you may bear witness to the freedom within the form.
From ARTHUR MAGAZINE No. 29 (May 2008): Peter Lamborn Wilson’s half-serious proposal for a political movement to uphold and propagate the ideals of Green Hermeticism. Wilson sometimes uses the pen name ‘Hakim Bey.’ He is the author of the Temporary Autonomous Zone concept and manifesto, which, for better or worse, was the original inspiration for the Burning Man festival..
THE ENDARKENMENT MANIFESTO
At least half the year belongs to Endarkenment. Enlightenment is only a special case of Endarkenment—and it has nights of its own.
During the day democracy waxes, indiscriminately illuminating all and sundry. But shadowless noon belongs to Pan. And night imposes a “radical aristocracy” in which things shine solely by their own luminescence, or not at all.
Obfuscatory, reactionary and superstitious, Endarkenment offers jobs for trolls and sylphs, witches and warlocks. Perhaps only superstition can re-enchant Nature. People who fear and desire nymphs and fauns will think twice before polluting streams or clear-cutting forests.
Electricity banished shadows—but shadows are “shades,” souls, the souls of light itself. Even divine light, when it loses its organic and secret darkness, becomes a form of pollution. In prison cells electric lights are never doused; light becomes oppression and source of disease.
Superstitions may be untrue but based on deeper truth—that earth is a living being. Science may be true, i.e. effective, while based on a deeper untruth—that matter is dead.
The peasants attacking Dr. Frankenstein’s tower with their torches and scythes were the shock troops of Endarkenment, our luddite militia. The original historical Luddites smashed mechanical looms, ancestors of the computer.
“Neolithic conservatism” (Paul Goodman’s definition of anarchism) positions itself outside the ponderous inevitability of separation and sameness. Every caveman a Prince Kropotkin, every cavewoman Mrs. Nietzsche. Our Phalanstery would be lit by candles and our Passions avowed via messenger pigeons and hot-air balloons.
Imagine what science might be like to day if the State and Kapital had never emerged. Romantic Science proposes an empiricism devoid of disastrous splits between consciousness and Nature; thus it prolongates Neolithic alchemy as if separation and alienation had never occurred: science for life not money, health not war, pleasure not efficiency; Novalis’s “poeticization of science.”
Of course technology itself is haunted—a ghost for every machine. The myth of Progress stars its own cast of ghouls and efreets. Consciously or unconsciously (what difference would it make?) we all know we live in techno-dystopia, but we accept it with the deterministic fatalism of beaten serfs, as if it were virtual Natural Law.
Technology mimics and thus belittles the miracles of magic. Rationalism has its own Popes and droning litanies, but the spell they cast is one of disenchantment. Or rather: all magic has migrated into money, all power into a technology of titanic totality, a violence against life that stuns and disheartens.
Hence the universal fear/desire for the End of the World (or for some world anyway). For the poor Christian Moslem Jewish saps duped by fundamentalist nihilism the Last Day is both horrorshow and Rapture, just as for secular Yuppies global warming is a symbol of terror and meaninglessness and simultaneously a rapturous vision of post-Catastrophe Hobbit-like local-sustainable solar-powered gemutlichkeit. Thus the technopathocracy comes equipped with its own built-in escape-valve fantasy: the Ragnarok of technology itself and the sudden catastrophic restoration of meaning. In fact Capital can capitalize on its own huge unpopularity by commoditizing hope for its End. That’s what the smug shits call a win/win situation.
Winter Solstice (Chaos Day in Chinese folklore) is one of Endarkenment’s official holidays, along with Samhain or Halloween, Winter’s first day.
Endarkenment stands socially for the Cro-Magnon or “Atlantaean” complex—anarchist because prior to the State—for horticulture and gathering against agriculture and industry—for the right to hunt as against the usurpation of commons by lord or State. Electricity and internal combustion should be turned off along with all States and corporations and their cult of Mammon and Moloch.
Despite our ultimate aim we’re willing to step back bit by bit. We might be willing to accept steam power or hydraulics. The last agreeable year for us was 1941, the ideal is about 10,000 BC, but we’re not purists. Endarkenment is a form of impurism, of mixture and shadow.
Endarkenment envisages a medicine advanced as it might have been if money and the State had never appeared, medicine for earth, animals and humans, based on Nature, not on promethean technology. Endarkenment is not impressed by medicine that prolongs “life span” by adding several years in a hospital bed hooked up to tubes and glued to daytime TV, all at the expense of every penny ever saved by the patient (lit. “sufferer”) plus huge debts for children and heirs. We’re not impressed by gene therapy and plastic surgery for obscene superrich post humans. We prefer an empirical extension of “medieval superstitions” of Old Wives and herbalists, a rectified Paracelsan peoples’ medicine as proposed by Ivan Illich in his book on demedicalization of society. (Illich as Catholic anarchist we consider an Endarkenment saint of some sort.) (Endarkenment is somewhat like “Tory anarchism,” a phrase I’ve seen used earliest in Max Beehbohm and most lately by John Mitchell.) (Other saints: William Blake, William Morris, A.K. Coomaraswamy, John Cowper Powys, Marie Laveau, King Farouk…)
Politically Endarkenment proposes anarcho-monarchism, in effect somewhat like Scandinavian monarcho-socialism but more radical, with highly symbolic but powerless monarchs and lots of good ritual, combined with Proudhonian anarcho-federalism and Mutualism. Georges Sorel (author of Reflections on Violence) had some anarcho-monarchist disciples in the Cercle Proudhon (1910-1914) with whom we feel a certain affinity. Endarkenment favors most separatisms and secessions; many small states are better than a few big ones. We’re especially interested in the break-up of the American Empire.
Endarkenment also feels some critical admiration for Col. Qadhaffi’s Green Book, and for the Bonnot Gang (Stirnerite Nietzschean bank robbers). In Islamdom it favors “medieval accretions” like sufism and Ismailism against all crypto-modernist hyperorthodoxy and politics of resentment. We also admire the martyred Iranian Shiite/Sufi socialist Ali Shariati, who was praised by Massignon and Foucault.
Culturally Endarkenment aims at extreme neo-Romanticism and will therefore be accused of fascism by its enemies on the Left. The answer to this is that (1) we’re anarchists and federalists adamantly opposed to all authoritarian centralisms whether Left or Right. (2) We favor all races, we love both difference and solidarity, not sameness and separation. (3) We reject the myth of Progress and technology—all cultural Futurism—all plans no matter their ideological origin—all uniformity—all conformity whether to organized religion or secular rationalism with its market democracy and endless war.
Endarkenists “believe in magic” and so must wage their guerrilla through magic rather than compete with the State’s monopoly of techno-violence. Giordano Bruno’s Image Magic is our secret weapon. Projective hieroglyphic hermeneutics. Action at a distance through manipulation of symbols carried out dramaturgically via acts of Poetic Terrorism, surrealist sabotage, Bakunin’s “creative destruction”—but also destructive creativity, invention of hermetico-critical objects, heiroglyphic projections of word/image “spells”—by which more is meant (always) than mere “political art”—rather a magical art with actual dire or beneficial results. Our enemies on the Right might call this political pornography and they’d be (as usual) right. Porn has a measurable physiopsychological effect. We’re looking for something like it, definitely, only bigger, and more like Artaud than Brecht—but not to be mistaken for “Absolute Art” or any other platonic purism—rather an empirical strategic “situationist” art, outside all mass media, truly underground, as befits Endarkenment, like a loosely structured “rhizomatic” Tong or freemasonic conspiracy.
The Dark has its own lights or “photisms” as Henry Corbin called them, literally as entoptic/hypnagogic phosphene-like phenomena, and figuratively (or imaginally) as Paracelsan Nature spirits, or in Blakean terms, inner lights. Enlightenment has its shadows, Endarkenment has its Illuminati; and there are no ideas but in persons (in theologic terms, angels). According to legend the Byzantines were busy discussing “the sex of angels” while the Ottomans were besieging the walls of Constantinople. Was this the height of Endarkenment? We share that obsession.