Slayer’s “God Hates Us All” is the most important album in my life. It’s not the album I would pick if I was trying to sum up my self-image—for the right mixture of metronomic, pedantic, and awkward that would be something like Bad Religion’s “Suffer,” though god knows I wish it was something cooler—but for better or worse, I have listened to “God Hates Us All” at least once a day for over a year.
I don’t listen to it all the time because I think it is the best album in the world. I listen to it all the time because, like many people have done with many forms of art, I have instrumentalized music. (Instrumentalization = it is used as a means to an end, not that it is performed with instruments). Most of the time I don’t listen to music to listen to music. I put it in my earholes to 1) drown out my coworkers because I work in an open office and need to concentrate or 2) get pumped up in the gym. “God Hates Us All” is the perfect album for what I want music to do. It is loud, angry, and constant.
So, after listening to “God Hates Us All” about five hundred times, I’ve started to notice some of the goofier lyrics. They’ve weathered through like dinosaur bones peering out of a Dakota cliff face. Two songs in particular, “Threshold” and “Exile,” stand out.
“Can’t control the violence that’s spewing from me.” - Threshold
This line gets me pretty pumped and I love it. What makes it funny is that the song is performing exactly the kind of sublimation the lyric disavows. He is controlling the violence and turning it into a song about that experience, which is exactly how Wordsworth defines poetry: a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility.
“Can’t you understand
Everything I do doesn’t stem from you
It doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with you” - Threshold
The first of a few lines that verge from “fuck you” to “fuck you, Dad.” If you listen to the song you’ll hear there is a break after “fucking thing” which underscores the feeling that this began as a diary entry and was later fitted imperfectly to the vocal melody.
“Even though some things are better left unsaid
There’s a few things I need to get off my chest
I need to vent – let me tell you why” - Exile
Look, I was very clear when I said two percent milk. One percent is not the same. I mean sure I’ll drink it, I’m not going to throw it away, but I just wanted you to know.
“Give me a reason not to rip your fucking face off” - Exile
I love this lyric because it captures so much of the Slayer worldview: ripping someone’s face off is the default. NOT doing so requires a reason.
“Just tell me fucking why everything becomes an issue” - Exile
Two things: first, the placement of “fucking” is exactly where I would put it if I was speaking this line in conversation, but not where any self-conscious wordsmith would put it. Second, it’s adorable that Araya complains about something being an “issue,” especially on an album where 80% of the wordspace is used to swear brutal physical violence on everyone around him.
“I will never become your fucking scapegoat” - Payback
That’s not really in your control, is it? Being a scapegoat means someone else has falsely imputed blame to you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; if anything, the shame belongs to the person who would make you a scapegoat. And in fact, heavy metal already DID become a scapegoat for youth violence in the U.S.. It’s not your fault, dude. Well, actually it is your fault because you wrote a bunch of songs about Nazis and torture, but you know what I mean.
There might be something preferable in memorializing someone six months after his death. One hopes that eulogies will be more clear-eyed and composed with more reflection, if not necessarily more critical. I’m not sure if that was why Birkbeck College, University of London decided to hold a memorial service yesterday for Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian and former Birkbeck professor and president who died last October. But the memorial service, held in the academic heart of London, was tear-free.
Over the course of two hours, friends, colleagues, comrades and former students paraded across the small stage painting in their eulogies a portrait of a man who will clearly be missed by many. Hobsbawm was famous as a historian and widely popular around the world with people of all political persuasions, the rare Marxist who receives a complimentary obituary from The Economist. He came to communism as a Jew living in Vienna in the 1930s. He’s best known for his trilogy on the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism, but he was a prolific, versartile writer. He contributed op-eds to The Guardian, essays to the London Review of Books and, for a while, served as jazz critic for The New Statesman. His history books, and his essays, are easy and enjoyable reading.
Italian President Girogio Napolitano sent in a pre-recorded video. Neal Ascherson, a Scottish journalist and former Hobsbawm pupil, recounted lessons in morals as well as history. As a young student at Cambridge and recent veteran of the Royal Marines, the professor told Ascherson to be ashamed of wearing a medal he received for his service in putting down an anti-colonial uprising in Malayasia. “He made me think about what I’d been doing and for that I’ll be eternally grateful,” Ascherson said. Martin Jacques, the former editor of Marxism Today, delivered a political biography, tracing Hobsbawm’s politics from the time of Hitler to the time of Thatcher.
But what I found most interesting in the portrait of Hobsbawm that emerged was not that he was a great teacher (unsurprising), or a great writer (obvious to anyone who has read him), or a committed Marxist (well known), but that he resembled an archetypal bourgeois public intellectual. From the photographs of him in a cardigan and oversized glasses, to the hobbies of birdwatching and jazz, Hobsbawm was something of a stereotype, though not a malevolent one. He was a wide reader and deep thinker. He kept friendships mostly with writers and other intellectuals. He enjoyed the trappings of a comfortable middle class lifestyle. The art historian Simon Schama peppered his eulogy with references to French restaurants and fancy hotels, allusions lost on me, if not most of the crowd. Schama recounted a dinner party at which the “historian from below” found himself seated between Benazir Bhutto and David Frost.
The writer Claire Tomalin, who was tasked with discussing Hobsbawm “as a friend,” talked about these apparent contradictions the most lucidly. Tomalin recounted going to visit Hobsbawm for the first time at his home in Hampstead, a picturesque, leafy North London neighborhood with some of the city’s most expensive real estate. “I asked Eric how being a communist fit with this,” Tomalin recalled. “He said, ‘If you’re in a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class.’”
Dear Current and Future Employers,
The authors of this post have never done drugs. Even though marijuana has the reputation of being “lightweight,” “nonaddictive,” “natural,” and “fun,” we wouldn’t want to jeopardize our careers in media and the arts by doing something as reckless as smoking ganja. We realize how dangerous it is to joke about something as serious as narcotics, especially with the youths of America on the Internet, and the War on Terror, and the recession, and Obama’s betrayal. But we feel that if we can’t laugh at the handful of Beatniks smoking funny cigarettes in their parents basement, then are we really free? The authors of this post believe not.
With this in mind, we took the liberty of reading a site that we feel the NSA should immediately shut down: erowid.com. Referencing their testimonials section, we studied the habits and behaviors of “weed smokers” and pretended that they were us or we were them: hanging out in an apartment in Brooklyn, just getting high and listening to music. Here are the music recommendations we came up with, selected from the assumed vantage point of non-violent criminals. You should read and listen while you’re drunk, it’s seriously like twice as great!
You can listen to a Spotify playlist that features these songs here.
Morphine – “Buena”
The Chameleons – “Swamp Thing”
Agitation Free – “First Communiation”
Blank Dogs – “Another Language”
Rain Parade – “Talking In My Sleep”
Wooden Shjips – “Lazy Bones”
Lusine – “Two Dots”
Disco Inferno – “Love Stepping Out”
Flower Travelin’ Band – “Satori Pt. II”
David Crosby – “Music is Love”
Paul McCartney – “Frozen Jap”
Cave - “High, I Am”
Balam Acab – “See Birds (Moon)”
Follakzoid – “Trees”
Gabor Szabo – “Somewhere I Belong”
The Black Angels – Entrance Song
Kraan – “Bandits in the Woods” SPOTIFY ONLY
The Breeders – “Cannonball”
Yes – “Changes”
Neil Young – “Dreamin’ Man”
Last summer, in an effort to escape the crush of the city and get some writing done, I took a teaching job in Santa Cruz, California. Much like the Donner Party, I knew that my fortunes lay in the West. But on the writing front it ended up being a spectacularly unproductive period, and I spent my afternoons reading Raymond Carver stories on the beach and contemplating the troublingly elaborate hole-digging operations that children were carrying out.
However, a fortuitous thing occurred that is relevant to our purposes here. A few nights before heading to Big Sur I got into a conversation with someone at a bar called Ye Olde Watering Hole. Like most people in the area he showed a provincial pride in the coastal landscape, but he went further in giving me a crude classification of locations I should or should not visit. The Esalen Institute at 1:00 a.m.: “very Irie.” Arroyo Seco: “extremely Irie (though theft is on the rise there and he’d had some “not very Irie experiences recently.”) Drinks on the back porch of the Post Ranch Inn: “Irie,” though the prices: “not Irie, so just get one.” It’s an infectious way of viewing the world, and I began to suspect that “decidedly un-Irie” was the best way to describe the busy work attached to the teaching job.
In this spirit I have conscripted the help of writer Leigh Gallagher to provide you with a 100% Irie playlist of the finest reggae – our small gesture to correct the excesses of my Big Sur travel guide. Trust us, this is the good stuff. —Michael Schapira
Dawn Penn – ”You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No)”
Big Youth – “Screaming Target”
The Blood Sisters – “Ring My Bell”
Sister Nancy – “Bam-Bam”
Slim Smith and the Gaylads – “You Don’t Care”
The Congos – “Ark of the Covenant”
Lee “Scratch” Perry – “Rainy Night Dub”
U-Roy – “Chalice in the Palace”
Hortense Ellis – “I’m Still in Love”
Cecile Campbell – “Whisper to Me”
Lorna Bennett – “Breakfast in Bed (Riddim Mix)”
Horace Andy – “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”
Ken Parker – “Count Your Blessings”
The Soulettes – “A Deh Pon Dem”
Phyllis Dillon – “One Life to Live”
Pat Kelly – “Queen Majesty”
Prince Buster – “Take it Easy”
Dub Specialist – “Banana Walk”
Ruddy Thomas & Trinity – “Loving Pauper/Judgment Time”
Alton Ellis – “Inside My Soul”
We come in the spirit of peace. We’re waving a white flag. We just want everyone to calm down and breathe. Because in your own ways, you’re all right.
Some of you say that the Jerry’s best playing happened in the heady days of the late ’60s — when his psychedelic ramblings sounded fresh and primordial at the same time. Sunshine poured out of the cracks in the cosmic egg. The exuberance of youth.
Some of you say that his playing only matured after being filtered through the dusty twang of the Workingman / Beauty roots revival. Then, Jerry achieved something profound and rare — something that hadn’t happened before and hasn’t happened since — a synthesis of the Be-In and the barroom. In the early ’70s, the case could be made that the Grateful Dead were the best bar band in the world.
And I know that some of you take issue with that. Some of you say, “Sure, Jerry’s a naturally gifted guitar player. But it wasn’t until he started getting into modalities, until he really took the time to make himself a better player in the mid-’70s that he fully blossomed as a musician.” And even those who make this claim have their factions, some preferring the sprawling jams of ’74, and some who swear by the wonderfully executed complexity of his “aluminum guitar” shows. And you know what: you’re both right. You’re all right.
You’re right if your heartstrings are tugged by the hard-won wisdom that comes through in his ’80s shows, especially on “Sugaree.” You can hear the darkness that was always there, even in the early days, come creeping in stronger. Sure, the hope, the beauty — they’re still there — but in the late ’70s and early ’80s Jerry was playing complicated stuff, influenced by parts of the world (and parts of himself) that he hadn’t investigated before. And, hell, you’re even right if you’re a fan of Rosebud and Lightning Bolt, Jerry’s last and, some say, most tonally rich guitars. By the ’90s his playing had gotten both more abstract and tender in equal measure — he was like an aging gunfighter in a spaghetti western. Yes, he would nod off from time-to-time, but when he was on it was like Miles Davis’ E.S.P.
But we’re here to tell you: you don’t have to make a choice. You can enjoy each of Jerry’s incarnations for wildly different reasons. And if you’re at a loss as to where you should begin, no worries. Mellow slow with these choice cuts featuring some of Jerry’s most iconic guitars, each representing a different phase of his life and career. And for goodness sake, keep your love light on and quit fighting.
The Les Pauls: “The Eleven,” 10/12/68, San Francisco, CA
Alligator: “China Cat/Rider,” 9/21/72. The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
Wolf: “Weather Report Suite/Let it Grow/That’s It For the Other One,” 6/18/74. Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
The Aluminum Guitars: “Help / Slipknot / Franklin’s Tower,” 6/9/77. The Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, CA
Tiger: “Sugaree,” 10/17/80. Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY
Rosebud: “Scarlet Begonias / Fire on the Mountain,” 3/22/90. Copps Coliseum, Hamilton, Ontario.
The term “coming out” has a curious etymology. George Chauncey, in his history Gay New York, traced it to the drag parodies of debutante balls popular in Harlem in the early part of the 20th century. The gay-rights movement came to define the term more firmly, marking it as the point in which one breaks from a life of dishonesty inside the closet to a life of self-acceptance outside of it. Several groups in the past few years have appropriated the term for their own ideological needs. Play around with Google and you will discover the stories of Republicans who come out in Berkeley and atheists who come out in Alabama. I don’t find these groups’ appropriations insulting but their stories do not include that one most touching and universal element of the gay coming-out experience. The moment a gay man or woman comes out is a moment of exhilaration but also a moment of sadness, marked by mourning for the lost time spent inside the closet. Straight people read coming-out stories because we all, straight and gay, mourn the missed opportunities, the unconsummated love and the misguided shame of our past. In his new graphic novel Julio’s Day, the straight Gilbert Hernandez uses the closet as an encapsulation of the many ways human beings both waste and make use of our short tenure on this earth.
Julio’s Day tells the story of a man whose lifespan spans the entire 20th century from 1900 to 2000, as if all one hundred years of his existence took place in one day. The book opens on the tiny black space of the baby Julio’s open mouth, pulling back panel by panel to reveal his cradling in his mother’s arms and then finally a studied symmetrical composition in which mother and child are flanked by Julio’s grandmother, father, uncle and two siblings. They are straight-backed, simply-drawn people, a humble Mexican family from an isolated town somewhere in the American Southwest. The tremors of history will reach this family and their neighbors, while internal discord and terrible disease will kill them off one by one. This Julio, quiet, gentle, and to the end of the novel a virgin, partner-less and childless, will stand as the great weight at the family’s center.
Everyone has compared the work of Gilbert Hernandez and his brother Jaime in their series Love and Rockets (in which Julio’s Day first appeared in serial form), to prominent examples of “Magic Realism” (this particular book is a retelling of One Hundred Years of Solitude). There is a key difference. Garcia-Marquez’s Buendías are extraordinary men and women, all at least a square-inch larger than life. Julio’s kinfolk and neighbors, save for one degenerate uncle, are decent men and women, children of a giant and beautiful if indifferent earth, drawn by Hernandez in engulfing whites and blacks. Some of them are heroes of their own tall tales; one neighbor serves as a nurse in almost every conflict the United States fights, even in her dotage, paying her own way to serve in the first Gulf War. But, by and large, their world obeys our own rules of science and they are destroyed by the forces of history and nature that they can neither control nor comprehend.
Only a bastard God would inflict such a series plagues upon one family, plagues Hernandez describes with brutal depictions of either diseased bodies or aging bodies. In one episode, Julio’s father sets off on a long journey, the reason for which is never explained, on which he suffers a blueworm infection which deforms his thin frame, transforming him into a tumescent grotesque. Julio’s sister falls in love with the town’s handsome young epileptic, who returns from duty in World War I with most of his limbs destroyed, and his mind rotted. The ghost of the handsome youth still visits her in dreams as her own body follows a more conventional course towards old age and death. In his youth, Julio falls in love with Tommy, a poor white boy. Tommy gets married and has a large family, but the two remain dear friends until death separates them. As they age from Adonises to relics, Hernandez always positions their bodies tantalizingly close to one another, their romance forever unconsummated. In death, longing, or disease, each member of Julio’s family suffers their own closet-like solitude through these one hundred years.
The final pages of Julio’s Day center on Julio’s great-grandnephew Julio Juan, a gay son of the late-20th-century’s sexual liberation. His life, objectively, is the happiest one any member of Julio’s family knows. And yet Hernandez’s melancholic tone, his stiff black lines and metronomic pacing, denies us the opportunity to celebrate the triumph that marks the end of this particular family’s line. His depiction of Julio Juan’s life during the AIDS epidemic does not indulge any liberal romantic notions. The out gay man, for Hernandez, is not privy to a wisdom that eludes the rest of humanity. Hernandez depicts Julio Juan’s existence outside the closet with the same simple lines and suggestive detail he uses to depict Julio’s long life inside the closet. Both figures follow their lives’ courses with dignity. Julio’s life, that of a gentle man whose heartbeat matches the gentle movement of the earth, is hardly a wasted one. Like Julio Juan’s, it contains its own species of love and connection, just as Julio Juan’s contains its own species of loneliness and loss.
Time spent inside the closet, the book seems to argue, is not time lost. Each minute spent in solitude is a minute spent in silent contemplation of our own existence. “Races condemned to one hundred years of solitude do not get a second chance on this earth.” That line would have no place here. Hernandez’s book suggests that Julio’s family, despite all the time nature and history rob them of, do not need another chance to make anything right. They emerge as simple lines from the mud and disappear back into the mud, leaving behind nothing but the simple crosses in a cemetery. There is no need to argue for or against the value of their painful sojourns on this earth.
Back in my college days (oh, for the lightweight days gone by), I used to quote Dorothy Parker whenever someone asked me about my drinking habits: “I love to drink martinis, / two at the very most. / At three, I’m under the table. / At four, I’m under my host.” Then I’d usually wink or giggle (depending on how many I’d had), and say, “That’s why I always stop at three.”
The need to state my alcohol limit had more to do with making an impression than protecting my liver: one drink was a cop-out; two a good time; three a non-sloppy drunk time, where the drinking experience might be uninhibited but not so wild that it wasn’t fun. What I drank, and where I drank, was all about the face I put forward: a beer at the frats, a glass of wine with a professor, a Peppermint Patty shot at a party. (The theme: Catholic Guilt. The soundtrack: lots of Madonna and George Michael. The themed drink: chocolate syrup and Peppermint schnapps administered to the kneeled recipient by a friend wearing a priest’s costume and assless chaps.)
The art of drinking, and drinking in public, is all about codes — knowing your environment and knowing the art of conversation. If liquor loosens tongues, it also drags you out of the corner and into the culture of the bar itself. This is all beautifully captured in Rosie Schaap’s witty, compassionate memoir, Drinking with Men (Riverhead, $26.95), a meditation on learning how to drink well, wisely, and with eyes wide open. If you’re seeking a story of drinking gone wrong, you’re better off with Augusten Burroughs’ Dry or Mary Karr’s Lit, but if you want an elegy to good bars and a stiff drink, Schaap has you covered.
She writes about grown-up drinking, and each drinking story she shares marks a significant shift or conflict in her life. As a teenager, she’d dress like a Gypsy and offer tarot card readings on the Metro-North New Haven line for free beers; as an adult uncovering her latent spirituality, she’d find refuge in bars between stints as a volunteer chaplain at the foot of ground zero; as a married woman, it took a special bar in Montreal to feel her relationship coming apart. To be a bar regular, she says, is all about “adapting—and about enjoying people’s company not only on one’s own terms, but on others.” We go to bars to find ourselves in other people’s habits, and in finding other people, find ourselves. Three martinis or more, you’ll always find yourself under the sway of your host, and that’s the best part of bar culture.
Most persuasive in this book is the way Schaap openly acknowledges the shifting identities she experiences in each bar — how she slips into whatever mode or role helps her feel at home in a new place. The promise of the bar as communal watering hole is a fundamental part of the New York experience — and this town can promise as many different identities as drink choices. Schaap notes that in New York, “the rich have always been with us, and they have effectively taken over. . . . on this small island, less and less space is available to those who were, and are, responsible for so much of its identity and spirit.” Yet after reading Schaap’s book, I dipped into several iconic New York bars, sipping and eavesdropping and taking the temperature of the place, and it struck me that there is no better place to mix up your drinking identity.
The rules, Schapp notes, are always immediately apparent, the “ways to behave, and not to behave, and each bar makes its own demands. There are loud bars where conversation is not a priority…there are quiet bars, lit low and engineered for tête-à-têtes.” Institutions of fine New York drinking, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, and the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station seem to be the latter — low-lit bars where the plush seats are filled with suited-up men and well-heeled women all balancing martinis precariously on fingertips. Yet if there are tête-à-têtes, they’ve more to do with transit than intention: the hotel and train bars are meant to be enjoyed and then quickly abandoned for other destinations. Even if you linger, as I was tempted to, you become quickly aware that you’re not meant to settle in, and certainly not with strangers. Though your gin & tonic may be impeccably prepared, bars require openness to fit Schaap’s criteria of greatness. “If you don’t want to talk, you might as well stay at home and drink and not bother.” (And the high price point of each drink, unless covered by another solicitous patron, will surely discourage you from staying too long.)
If you take a slightly lower road, you end up at the wide wasteland of the happy-hour circuit, the bars in Midtown East and West where the lighting is slightly higher and the drink prices slightly lower. This is where I first started to see what Schaap was drawn to in her favorite bars: the friendships between the patrons, and the warm greetings by the bartenders that recognize them. At the Archive, a little place in Murray Hill where the happy hour red wine was perfectly quaffable, I found a gaggle of midtown lawyers, each clinging to his bar stools and ordering an elaborately named scotch or whiskey of choice. “Can you believe how expensive it is to drink in NY?” asked a red-faced man in a too-tight shirt, leaning across my chair to snatch his vodka-and-soda. “It’s a luxury activity,” I respond, and we clink our happy-hour drinks in solidarity. A frizzy-haired woman to my left swished a diluted cocktail between her teeth as she complained about her work week to the bartender, but even she declined a refill. “I’m going to surprise my husband tonight,” she snickered, and then added, with a low raspy chuckle, “I hope it’s not a bad surprise.” Such confessionals would be out of place at a fancier bar, but watching people ease out of the workdays can be your first instruction in how to drink like a grown-up. Schaap said, “I’ve come of age in bars,” and perhaps the post-work drink is how you first observe functional adults at play.
Being a solo bar denizen makes it far more likely that you’ll be drawn into conversation, into uncharted territory and debate with a fellow drinker. I was drawn to the Blue Bar at the Algonquin because of its storied literary history (besides being the birthplace of the New Yorker magazine, it was the site of Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table, probably the place of more than three-martini lunches.) If there would be any bar to emulate a certain kind of aloof New York society girl, it would be here — sipping a vodka martini with a twist, as smooth on the lips as chilled silk. But this is a place famous for conversation, and so when a white-haired gentleman settled down into the chair beside me for a martini of his own, I imagined he’d take an interest in my book and strike up a conversation. Yet his first remark to me was not on the state of literary fiction or on the merits of New Zealand-sourced vodka, but rather a comment on the Tiger Woods and Lindsay Vonn hook-up. “Says something about the institution of marriage, or lack thereof,” he remarked, the first of his remarks that would lead me to discover he was a visiting South Carolinian, passing through on a business trip and determined to enjoy his evening cocktail despite the CNN feed. But the martini proved to be liquid courage; I asked him to clarify exactly what he meant, and we ended up chatting for an hour about faith, traditional values in American culture, and the real peril (if any) our country might be in.
While I kept certain things close to the vest — my name, my occupation, my exact age, and my disagreements with most of what he said — I felt like I had wiggled under his skin for even just a few minutes, the alcohol having momentarily smoothed out our political differences. The bar-side chat can let you be as elliptical as you want to be, and perhaps the rule in New York bars, especially the iconic ones, is to “fake it ‘till you make it.” You order by gesture, and you make small talk that keeps the comfort level steady. For anyone afraid to drink out of their comfort zone, Schaap’s experience is beyond comforting: she treats the bar as “a leveler. Because as long as you can be here, be present as they like to say in therapeutic circles, be present in this bar, in this space, drinking and talking and listening, acting and reacting, you’re good.”
If the biggest takeaway of Schaap’s story is how each bar is one tier of the drinker’s comfort zone and confidence, then her experiences give me hope for drinking as a constant act of reinvention. The teenage Schaap, surrounded by “men in wrinkled suits and loosened neckties” begging her for a tarot reading, found a new sense of power. And while drinking at the Algonquin didn’t make me a writer, it did make me feel the rhetorical confidence that comes with a stiff drink and a persuadable companion. Yet even in her favorite bar spots, Schaap explains how much of her status as a “regular” was performative, meant to take her into a new community and place. “I was in the borderlands, neither here nor there, old enough to see that I was too young for the bar car, even though I desperately wanted to be there.” In the pursuit of a place to be, Schaap found her gift for capturing the voices and stories of her fellow drinkers, and found her voice as a writer glass by glass.
My last stop for the experiment, in tribute to Schaap, was far from a den of glittering cocktails, but rather a place of limited options and limitless cheer. Joining a friend at Jimmy’s Corner, one of the great dives of old New York, gave me the sense that the trappings of a great bar are only as good as the comfort you can extract from it. “A bar gives you more than drink alone,” Schaap says, “It gives you the presence of others; it gives you relief from isolation.” The walls of Jimmy’s are plastered with pictures of regulars and famous visitors alike, and though the beer choice is limited — under 5 choices on draft, about 8 options by bottle — and the tables wobble, I’m right at home. The alchemy of a cold Budweiser can be as powerful as that of the smokiest bourbon, and if this is a bar in Schaap’s wheelhouse, “no baloney here, no BS, no airs or fripperies,” I can see why she likes the atmosphere.
Patti Smith, Mountain in Iceland, 2006
I decided to attend the opening of “Dark Paradise” after my friend declared, matter-of-factly, that “Patti Smith is as close to God as we will ever get.” Curated by Tim Goossens at the Clocktower Gallery, the collaborative exhibition features works in various media by Nancy Holt, Joan Jonas, Antony, Zipora Fried, Thiago Rocha Pitta, and Patti Smith. There are two broader themes mutually shared between all exhibited artwork: first, the melancholic loneliness of landscape, and second, the duality of heavenly elements in a hellish milieu or, conversely, the demonic details in a heavenly environment.
The latter antithesis aptly explains the show’s title, but it also summarizes what makes the artwork supreme: it is honest in its presentation of both light and darkness, good and evil. The curator successfully accentuates the coexistence of contradicting energies in sublime landscapes. Landscape is often viewed as either ominous or soothing. Joseph Wright’s Dovedale By Moonlight and Cave At Evening both serve as eidetic imagery of a predominantly threatening element in the depiction of landscape. While Hans Gude’s oeuvre — for instance, the painting Efoybroen, Nord-Wales — shares a melancholic loneliness with Wright’s work, it certainly manages to evoke a soothing feeling in the viewer.
The power of the exhibit results from a context in which the two feelings coexist. Zipora Fried’s contribution eloquently marks this ruminative symbiosis. Fried’s mixed media photographs are enriched by layers of color that essentially fictionalize their reality. The artist’s creative methodology achieves an effect that neither pure photography nor pure painting could: the portrayal of a nebulous ambiance. The viewer wonders whether she is seeing an idealized reality or the fictional paradise.
This ambivalence is also present in Thiago Rocha Pitta’s video installation, O cúmplice secreto, which stands out due to its vivid visuals and dominating proportions. The video (see below) resembles a dystopian dive into the waves of Rio De Janeiro, and each viewer can choose to either swim playfully through the projection or else drown in its trippy chaos. An abstract object looms in the foreground, never revealing its identity.
Goosens’ articulate statement clarifies: “All the works in the exhibition exclude human figures and, independent of scale, evoke feelings of an undefined presence of the past or of a world still undiscovered.” Hence, the alienation the audience ought to feel — due to the jarring absence of the human form in the exhibited art — should be counterbalanced by its awe and fear of a larger implied deity in the art. The audience might sense the liminality of an environment that is moving in a new direction. The curatorial provocation is that it may remain in transition forever, never fully becoming paradise or hell.
Liminality marks the peculiar status of confusion and disarray that defines those who find themselves in transition. A similar notion of liminality appears in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Rather than existing on the median, the novel’s quiet protagonist, Stravrogin, is either pious or evil. This duality gives the character a distinct and conscious charm, which makes the reader empathize with him even if he is not a benevolent character.
A continuous theme throughout the novel is Stravrogin’s quest to find God. Yet Stavrogin’s lack of remorse for his inappropriate actions becomes apparent briefly after he is introduced, through his kissing of a married woman. It is vital to recognize Stavrogin’s abundant charisma, which balances out and take the focus away from his numerous sinful actions, which include biting a politician’s ear and pulling an eminent man by his nose, among many others.
By encompassing demonic characteristics, yet yearning to find God, Stavrogin illustrates the possibility of attaining harmony between “good” and “evil.” Stavrogin proves that the simultaneous existence of both is viable, maybe even more pragmatic than the pursuit of a middle ground. His intentions and actions, are of an extreme nature: he is morally always an outlier, never close to a median. This extremeness gives his morally-nebulous actions an air of acceptability — when he is good he is great.
Kirillov, one of the most earnest and conscientious figures in Demons, says of Stavrogin: “If Stavrogin believes, he does not believe that he believes. And if he does not believe, he does not believe that he does not believe.” The way the reader chooses to interpret Stavrogin is similar to the agency one may feel at the exhibit: the degree to which a visitor will perceive “Dark Paradise” as a paradise depends primarily on her approach towards “Romantik” themes of natural landscapes.
As for Patti Smith, unfortunately she was not present at the opening, allowing us to interpret her selection of photographs — some of which were taken during a 1981 trip to French Guiana, others included references to her personal influences (Rimbaud, Woolf) — without clarification of why she was intrigued by her subjects. God doesn’t have to provide explanations anyway.
“My belief is that ‘recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’”
— Thomas Pynchon, 1997
In the days of 4G wireless networks and Twitter, when virtually every moment of a person’s life can be tracked online and many people offer up that information freely, it’s a rare thing to come across a public figure who not only doesn’t buy into the idea of constant communication, but takes themselves in the opposite direction — completely out of the spotlight. The term “recluse” seems like a dirty word, a slur — “private” or “introverted” seem much fairer ways to describe someone than a word that suggests agoraphobia — but that’s how many would describe artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Marcel Proust, Harper Lee to J.D. Salinger.
Some say that the “recluse” is an endangered species, but to my knowledge, there’s still one artist who is keeping the idea of the private public figure alive: Bill Watterson, writer and illustrator of the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
Depicting the adventures of a precocious six year old and his tiger best friend and syndicated by the Universal Press Syndicate in 1985, Calvin and Hobbes had a solid decade of unprecedented success, running a total of 3,160 strips long, collected into 18 books, and appearing in nearly 2,500 newspapers across the country. For Watterson, who from the very beginning was averse to the attention Calvin and Hobbes brought him, the personal triumph of writing a successful comic strip was at times overshadowed by the burdens that came with it.
“As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”
Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would not survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.
“Calvin and Hobbes will not exist intact if I do not exist intact,” Watterson told the Los Angeles Times in 1987 when he was 28 years old, new to success, and still unused to the attention it brought him. “And I will not exist intact if I have to put up with all this stuff.”
“This stuff, however,” wrote the reporter, “is the stuff of which cartooning fortunes are made. Sweat shirt sales. Greeting cards. Robin Leach Calvin and Hobbes toys, a profile in People… and pitches from hustlers sniffing fresh meat for a marketplace monopolized by Peanuts and Garfield.”
There were plenty of hustlers — not only businessmen dangling potential millions of dollars of paychecks in front of Watterson and UPS, but the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were even attempting to woo Watterson to give up film rights with trips to Skywalker Ranch — but Watterson wouldn’t budge. The man was nothing if not staunchly dedicated to his personal ethics, and licensing his characters was simply out of the question. “If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage,” Watterson told the Comics Journal in 1989, “I’d have gone to work as a carny.”
“I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes,” Watterson said in the same article. “The world of a comic strip is much more fragile that most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.”
After years of fighting, Watterson finally gained full rights to Calvin and Hobbes in early 1991, thus ensuring that toy company’s dreams of Spaceman Spiff underpants and stuffed Hobbes dolls on their shelves would never be a reality. But Watterson’s ethical battle still wasn’t over — in fact, it would last well beyond the final Calvin and Hobbes panel he drew in December of 1995. This time, it would come in the form of reporters, and the ethics in question were theirs.
Hundreds of fans have undoubtedly made pilgrimages to Chagrin Falls, Watterson’s small hometown to the east of Cleveland, seeking him out even as he made it clear that he wanted to be left alone. And since he more or less disappeared in mid-1990 (his last known public appearance was at his alma mater of Kenyon College in Ohio where he gave a commencement address entitled, “Some Thoughts On the Real World From One Who Glimpsed It and Fled”), dozens of journalists have made the same trip.
The Plain Dealer sent a reporter in 1998 and again in 2003; the Washington Post sent someone in 2003, as did the Cleveland Scene. All the reporters hoped to score that elusive golden interview with the man behind the Calvin and Hobbes, and all found that Watterson proved harder to find than anticipated. The reporters went back to their newspapers more or less empty-handed, little more to show for their trip than a possible sighting from a distance or a brief conversation with Watterson’s mother.
When a private figure becomes so beloved, the line between diligent professional and obsessive fan can quickly become blurred. Author Nevin Martell, for example, talked to Watterson’s friends, colleagues, and family for his 2009 book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. Years of work resulted in a fairly complete memoir of Martell’s fandom but yielded no interview with Watterson himself, who rebuffed the request for one through his intermediary in many such cases, former UPS editor Lee Salem.
For Joel Schroeder, the director of the documentary ”Dear Mr. Watterson” (which will be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April), the decision not to contact Watterson was fairly clear from the days of pre-production. After reading Martell’s book in 2009, the choice became even more obvious — respect Watterson’s privacy. Don’t even try to reach out.
“Our choice not to pursue Watterson for an interview was the right fit for our film,” said Schroeder. “When we went to Chagrin Falls, for example, we did not pursue interviews with his parents, we did not drive past his parent’s house. It was a hands-off approach. And the reason was to try to be clear and communicate that [Dear Mr. Watterson] is not about the sensational idea of trying to track him down. It is really about the impact he had through his comic strip.”
In 2010, former Plain Dealer features writer John Campanelli sent email questions to Watterson, not very hopeful that he’d get a response, and struck gold when Watterson wrote back to him with six succinct, yet personable and funny answers, breaking the near complete radio silence he had skillfully maintained over the preceding two decades.
“Because your work touched so many people, fans feel a connection to you, like they know you,” Campanelli wrote in his email to Watterson. “It really is a sort of rock star/fan relationship. Because of your aversion to attention, how do you deal with that even today?”
“Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist,” Watterson answered. “How I miss the groupies, drugs, and trashed hotel rooms! But since my ‘rock star’ days, the public attention has faded a lot. In Pop Culture Time, the 1990s were eons ago. There are occasional flare-ups of weirdness, but mostly I just go about my quiet life and do my best to ignore the rest.”
There comes a time in the dogged search for such a private person that the focus of the quest turns away from the sought and back to the seeker — the goal isn’t to find the person for the sake of listening to what they have to say, so much as finding them to gain the glory that comes along with that. For all the journalists rejected, it’s easy for new ones to imagine that there must be someone able to break through Watterson’s solid exterior; it could be anyone! But Watterson, for one, has said most of what he seems to ever want to say. Pushing any farther, at least when it comes to personal details, is asking for a slap on the wrist — or, worse, anger from an idol.
It would take me less than an hour to get from where I live to Chagrin Falls or Cleveland Heights, where it’s rumored Watterson lives now. I asked people who run in a literary and graphic novel circle if they knew anything about Watterson — novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon, comics writer Derf, and journalist Anne Trubek knew little of his whereabouts and had never met him. I gathered names and contact information of local business owners, jotting down numbers with very little intention of ever actually calling or visiting them. I considered going to Cleveland Heights and sitting in a coffee house, keeping an eye out for a thin man with round glasses vaguely reminiscent of Calvin’s father, just to see what it would feel like. I quickly decided not to. I felt sleazy just thinking about it.
I’d rather stay a fan and admirer than just one of the politely rebuffed masses, yet another rejected journalist with the avid hopes of writing a sensationalist fluff piece. Instead of attempting to track down a man who clearly wants to be left alone, I’ll get back to rereading the 14.3 pounds worth of work that Watterson devoted a decade of life to producing — which is really all you ever need to know about him.
Amanda Palmer is a born performer. Even people who watch her recent and widely discussed TED talk/performance without having already heard of her or her bands should be able to notice this. The way she’s dressed, the way she struts confidently across the stage with her shoulders wide — she isn’t your average TED type; she’s used to being looked at and being onstage.
So it’s not surprising that she begins her talk with a short anecdote about the time she spent working as a street performer, accepting whatever donations people would give her — donations, she notes, that were pretty predictable in amount. Once her band signed to a label but had trouble making the companies’ suggested sales figures, she took to the streets (more figuratively this time) and launched a Kickstarter campaign that ended up making over a million dollars. The lesson? Don’t make people pay for music. You should “let them.”
She’s taken this logic to her shows and beyond, where she collects money, personally, from audience members (one of whom confessed he’d downloaded her band’s album illegally and wanted to set things right). She’s even taken this idea of letting people do things for her into other realms. Communicating on social media, she lets people give her places to stay, extra equipment, and so on. Palmer even tells us, proudly, that she let a poor family help her by allowing her and her band to sleep in their beds while the family slept together on the couch (since they didn’t have any extra room). This, she tells us, is “fair.” People have supported her so much when the standard industry practices failed her, and the lesson to be learned is that people “want to help,” if only we’re willing to ask for it. This might seem like a beautiful idea, but it’s probably not.
Artists have already criticized Palmer for calling for a different business model, one which they think devalues artists and artistic work by not requiring a set price and instead “lets” people pay what they want. Even artists without tons of fans might still deserve to make some kind of living, it seems. That critique is interesting and important, but it also misses the central character of what Palmer is advocating. Rather than just a new business model for artistic/cultural production, what Palmer is actually calling for, and living out, is a new form of exploitation.
What Palmer sees as people willing to help her are actually people who want to benefit, however tangentially, from her social capital. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, being famous has value, and it’s this value (not the supposed value of her music or art), that people are interested in acquiring when they let her come to their place or use their guitar or hand her money when she comes around with her hand out at a show. She’s right, people do want to help, but they don’t seem to want to help many other people as much as they want to help Amanda Palmer, the celebrity. This is why she made $60 as an unknown street performer and makes millions as a well-known band leader.
She, herself, is the product. She is the thing that people are paying to get access to, and in encouraging this model she is not only exploiting others but also exploiting herself. But what’s the problem with any of this? Isn’t it right to support an artist whose work you think is meaningful? Plus, how bad could it be when all parties involved are willing?
It’s the willingness that is so troubling, the willingness to waste their time and energy and money trying to acquire proximity to social capital. And while I do believe artists should be supported, this belief, ideally, would be because people value the art, not because they have some fetish about being near the person who creates the art.
What makes this form of exploitation particularly clever is that it doesn’t look like exploitation — it looks like happy people sharing a good time. On the surface it might even seem anti-capitalist, but when looked at more closely, capitalism’s power to infuse itself in all modes of social interaction, from sex to the grocery-store checkout line, is on full display here. And while there’s something refreshing and sincere about Palmer’s willingness to participate so vigorously on capitalism’s front lines, the sad part is that she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing. She mistakes her exploitation of others as a way for helping them, and the people she exploits, rather than feeling taken advantage of, might say they’re having a good time. But above all, we can see that Palmer is exploiting herself — that she’s all too happy to offer herself up as a product, which for a celebrity or a rock star, is not anything new or novel.