Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Teenagers Dream

I'm never sure what I think about David Lynch. I've seen all of his work, obsessively. I taught an entire course in which we watched, for eight weeks straight, nearly everything he's ever done (except Dune. I know what I think about Dune. It sucks). Last January, I went all the way to LA for the express purpose of watching Inland Empire (well, and to hang out with friends).

I agree with one critic who called his gender politics 'reptilian.' But what keeps me hooked is that, better than any filmmaker I've ever seen, he evokes a transcendent state--that place where the seam opens up between worlds, where everything changes: the abyss, the Black Lodge, or what TS Eliot described as "looking into the heart of the light/The Silence."

In Lynch's movies, the catalyst for this trance, this wild and bright place, is always a woman in trouble: Isabella Rosellini, Sherylynn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Laura Harring. And generally, when the male protagonist thinks of this woman, he falls into the trance, sees this light/shadow place. And that's when you know that she is about to get brutalized. For Lynch, the gate to that transcendent white space is a woman's battered body.

There's music too, a trigger--typically some nostalgic old 1950s pop song. David Lynch loves '50s nostalgia. It was, he says, the soundtrack of his perfect childhood. That nostalgic fantasy of perfect innocence is supposed to be the opposite of the violence--or else the exact same thing, depending on how forgiving of Lynch you're feeling.

My childhood was acid electric. I've never had much time for 1950s music. Stupid songs--nonsense syllables and weird tight harmonies, lyrics about teenagers falling in love, blue moons, blue shoes--that sort of thing that got Elvis all famous.

But like most banal popular music, that stuff has highly interesting origins: tough working class white kids and their streetcorner harmonies, poor black teenagers and their church and school choirs. The history is tragic, and typical. Record producers, looking for the next big thing, sold these kids--the black kids especially--a lot of promises, made them work their hearts out. The producers of 'race records' cashed in, most of the kids never saw a dime. Occasionally, there was a hit. But it was Elvis--the white man who could sing like a black man--who made it big.

So a couple of weeks ago, we were driving home along a lonely, dark stretch of highway just south of the Catskills. We rummaged around on the radio for NPR or something, and caught this incredible, old-fashioned radio show, the kind with an old-fashioned dj playing scratchy old vinyl--all vintage doo wop and R&B--stuff I've never heard on the radio, or anywhere before. The range of vocal experiment was fascinating--sounds you just simply don't hear, kids inventing all kinds of stuff, singing their hearts out, certain--American children that they were, that if they just tried hard enough, were good enough, they'd get rich and famous. This was their chance.

Then a tune came on that, for lack of a better description, put me in a trance. A young woman's voice, backed by several men. They were singing the usual stuff about teenagers and whatever. But their voices! They sounded like runaway angels, sneaking out behind the gates of heaven to steal a smoke and try to get famous. It was the girl's voice especially, that struck me.

She was singing about teenager's dreams. And in her voice, they were her dreams.

I wanted to know what became of that girl. I was pretty sure, given what I know of the pre-civil rights era, that it was probably nothing good. It was likely that her dreams got broken; they usually did. I got all ragey on her behalf, raging at every stupid pop song that every white kid obliviously danced to in every stupid sock hop half a century ago. And I got all aesthetically ragey at all the music I'd never heard, that nobody ever heard, because all that we get to hear is the slick popular stuff that sells. But this old stuff--this was a moment in musical history when anything was possible, and performers were playing with sounds for the sheer pleasure of the experiment.

This was revolution--the matrix of rock and roll. In 1953, the year that unpopular white kids in east coast suburban high schools began to risk being called "negro lovers" (along with all the other things they were called) for listening to these semi-forbidden 'race records,' the #1 Billboard hit was "How Much is that Doggie in the Window." By 1956, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers had broken into the Top 10 with "Why Do Fools Fall in Love." But I'd never heard anything like what this dj was playing--exuberant, eccentric tunes that never quite made it past the local airwaves--the stort of stuff now prized by aficianados and mostly out of print.

The DJ eventually came on, said the name of the band. I didn't hear it. I emailed the station to ask, describing the song. Got no response for a week. He called me today, finally--an old man with a gravely Jersey accent, happy that I'd enjoyed his show. He played me the entire cut on the telephone.

There, on the other end of the line, I closed my eyes and floated away, into a dreamspace--all the way, deep into the music. This hardly ever happens. And this song, that girl's voice, did it again. It was an odd moment of trust, surrendering to a stranger like that. But it was the telephone; he never saw my face, or my vulnerable bliss. Hardly anybody ever gets to see that face. This is a culture in which girls get brutalized when they get that face--it happens all the time in movies; I've seen it.

The singer is Pearl McKinnon, the band was the Kodaks, the song was Teenager's Dream. You can hear a clip of it here: www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll

She was a young black girl from New Jersey--14 when she recorded the song. She's still around, the old DJ told me. In her '60s, and still sings sometimes. Never really made it big. Got into the drugs. But god love her, she's still around.

All of the sites I found that talked about the Kodaks mostly described them as that band that could have been the Teenagers (as in Why Do Fools Fall in Love), but never made it. The only thing anybody said about Pearl McKinnon was that she was somebody's sister's friend, and she sounded like Frankie Lymon. Turned out that when the Teenagers got back together in the early '60s, McKinnon fronted for them instead of Lymon (a lot of people thought she _was_ him). And that's all they wrote.

In David Lynch movies, when a man hears a song about dreams, a woman dies, brutally. That's the way it usually goes.

But Pearl McKinnon, a 14 year old black girl from Newark, was singing her own dreams, making that dream space real, singing everything she had into it. It's not a sound that you hear much--not on the radio. She fronted two bands, and for awhile started her own, in an era and a genre dominated by young men. And she might not have made it big, but she survived.

I've heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I think that they just might sing to me.

Monday, July 16, 2007


It hasn't happened for months. I was beginning to think it had stopped entirely, that thing where the seams open up between worlds, between times. But it's been happening again lately, and I'm glad. I had been thinking that maybe all the shivering ambiguity had gone from the world at last, and all that was left anymore was literal reality, the stark present, none of that elusive gap between seeming and being that sometimes allows the dream space, the imaginary world, to slip in.

Today, for instance, I was walking around town, streets I hadn't seen for awhile, along the crooked creek that runs behind my house. And there, at a corner that I'd seen dozens of times, where the creek bends hard, was the barest remains of an old railroad trestle--and just behind that, about six feet of decrepit track--all of it so overgrown with weeds that you had to be looking just that way to notice it at all.

I started scanning the crossroads where I stood, to see if I could see any trace of the old track bed. There was none that I could see, just the usual collection of houses. But the yard just across from the track remains was oddly open and flat, in a way that suggested some prior history. And....whoah. Right at the edge of that yard in front of the house was an old sign, so faded that I couldn't read it until I got up close. It said: "Eagle Street Station."

The sign must have been at least half a century old, probably older. It was clear that no tracks had run that way in several decades. I was looking right through a window into the town that no longer was.

I've been nostalgic ever since I could remember, in the old Greek sense of that word--not sentimental for the past, but rather dragged backwards into it somehow, into the memory traces that hover in certain places. Maybe it was the town I grew up in. It looks really normal on the surface--smallish rust belt town, seriously in decline in the late 1960s, like every other rust belt town, lately retooled into a semblance of the tourist town it originally was.

But it's not normal at all. The whole place has a strange carnival spirit hovering over it. I grew up between two cities, haunted by two historical ghost carnivals, or more specifically, amusement parks. The amusement park in one city was more or less ordinary, except that it was already antiquated. Soon enough, there was nothing left of it but bones: the twisted curves of a condemned roller coaster, the silent arc of a defunct ferris wheel looming over an old wooden boardwalk. For a long time, the only thing open on the boardwalk was the Funhouse. Inside was a lot of weird antique amusements, like a mirror maze, a spinning wooden disc that threw you off, a spinning barrel that gave you knee burns as you scrambled and tumbled inside it. But the most unnerving part was the Laughing Clown just outside the door--a clockwork horror whose diabolical, mechanical laugh echoed down the length of the abandoned boardwalk.

The one in the other city was its own kind of creepy. There wasn't much left of it anymore in the 60s, except a kiddie train with uncomfortable wooden seats, run by solemn, bearded old men; a pony ride that involved several dispirited ponies harnessed in a steel ring and walking slowly in endless circles; and an ice cream stand from which more dour old people sold exquisite homemade ice cream. The whole place had an odd atmosphere. Our parents weren't entirely comfortable taking us there, and we weren't entirely comfortable going.

The bearded old people were the last surviving members of what had been a huge and thriving religious cult--the House of David. Back in the day, people came from all over to the amusement park, which was bigger and more glamorous than anything else in the county. There was music every night, all sorts of music. There was a dance hall once, and a beer garden, and most of all, a baseball diamond. The House of David baseball team was once famous on the barnstorming circuit--the bearded caucasian equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters, who played a dazzling game and pulled goofy stunts. Every year in the local parade, the House of David float was the most wondrous.

They were a millenial cult, waiting for the end of the world, and for paradise on earth. In the meantime, they thought they may as well give the rest of us unsaved a good time. They came from all over, believing that the leader was Christ returned. They made millions of dollars in their various enterprises, and owned most of the farmland in the county. They were celibate, because they believed that was best. Well, except for the leader, so it is said, who treated the colony girls as his own private harem. There was a sex scandal, there was a trial, there was gossip.

Now there's not much left but two huge old mansions, some land, the rusted remains of amusement rides somewhere deep back in the woods and oh, a few feet of narrow train tracks that lead nowhere. Some say that the leader is entombed in one of the houses in a glass coffin (he wasn't really supposed to have died. He's just really asleep). Some say there's a warren of underground tunnels between the houses, where the colony treasure is hidden. Some say he was an evil manipulative bastard. His few remaining followers--a handful of old people still waiting for paradise, still certain it will come any day now, say he was innocent, and the scandal was all lies made up by people who wanted their money.

In any case, there is an aura about the place--a very strong charge. It's deeply haunted by its own history. And it compels me to track it down, to walk those few feet of broken track right back into the time when it was whole, and alive, and wilder than anybody now living knows.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Reeling in the Years

Why will the '70s pop songs never leave my head? Why is it that the '70s will never, ever go away? Sometimes I have a feeling that the world ended in the '70s, and we all branched off into another string universe of perpetual '70s.

I wonder how long it will be before we as a culture imagine for ourselves a future again, instead of endlessly lapping ourselves through various half-imaginary pasts?

The cocktail of the day is the Margarita--the real kind made with real lemon and lime. There is a recipe here cocktail.nithaus.org/ , posted by my friend the incomparable Leigh Ann, who died on her motorcycle a year and two weeks ago. I think it was one of her last posts. She's listed the Margarita as the Cocktail of the Day the day she posted it, except that the page seems to display a perpetual calendar, so every day is margarita day, in memory of Leigh Ann. She was an extraordinary musician--she claimed to be channeling Leila Waddell when she played her fiddle, and I believe her. I just made myself one--it's biting cold, sharp and sweet--tropical air conditioning, and intensely elegant. Like all such perfect cocktails, it's hard to accept substitutes once you've been initiated.

Today is a beautiful languid sunny day, and it is my birthday. In a little while, we will go to one of the lovely little hippie music festivals they have around here all summer. None of them are anything like Burning Man. It's all more or less like it was well, in the '70s--a little less pot, perhaps slightly less sincerity. But somehow, New York state has managed to retain its memories of Woodstock more or less cheerily intact, so the weekend promises to be placid, with lots of nice neo-hippies and fairly interesting funky sorts of music. Who could resist a lead act by the name of Hypnotic Clambake?

Yesterday I spent putting in several gardens--a mini vegetable garden out front, and smatterings of flowers. Gardening looks so precious in the magazines--hatted ladies snipping delicately away at roses with little shears. But putting one in is all mud and muscle. My favoritist plantsof all are the lovely, old-fashioned bleeding heart, which I tucked among the ferns, along with gorgeous, extravagent columbine.

There's a fierce joy to life these days. I'm all awake and alive. Everything hurts just a little bit and everything is very bright. It has taken me this long to realize that joy isn't pretty. It isn't nice, and it isn't even particularly happy. It's more like, well, the full ferocity of life all through me and around me, whether I will or no.

I am sleepy, and there is no place I'm going to.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Savage Gift on a Wayward Bus

I try never to find out anything about my heroes--especially musicians. Though they were central to my college soundtrack, I can't name all the members of Pink Floyd (though I can generally tell the Sid Barrett from the Roger Waters/David Gilmour era). I'll collect interesting tidbits--like the fact that Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had a bit of a thing. But I've avoided her bio as well.

I've never understood why my students have a hard time with stuff like cryptic modernist poetry. They get frustrated when the words don't apparently mean anything. Like most people my age, I grew up listening to Bob Dylan. Song lyrics weren't supposed to make sense. They just were--certain phrases suggesting entire stories. So what if they didn't hang together?

Somehow, Dylan's lyrics formed so much of my permanent inner monolog--the recurrent scraps of memory, images, phrases, languages that make me who I am, that I did stuff like get married on the 5th day of May.

I just saw "Don't Look Back," DA Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan's tour to London in 1965--just before he went all electric and pissed off all his friends. It was a discovery. He looked, at that age, impossibly young, surprisingly Jewish, and was far more arrogant and less charming than somehow I expected. He was also an amateurish guitar player with a strange, weak voice, and no particular charisma. How the hell did he ever become the musicians that all the other folk rockers in the '60s wanted to be, much less a star? And yet, there was something--the whine and scratch of his voice, the surreal conviction of his lyrics, his soft-spoken self-absorption, that kept me mesmerized.

What put me off, of both Dylan and the doco, however, was what an asshole he was being to Joan Baez. She was doing her best to be the decorative, vapid '60s girlfriend (Marianne Faithfull, who hung silently about in the fringes the whole time, was much more convincing and more annoying in this role). But it didn't sit well--especially when she started singing and playing--better voice, better guitar playing, much more stage presence. When he paid attention to her music at all, it was only as a kind of background noise to his own songwriting--until he joined her in a nice Hank Williams duet, at which point she faded into supportive girlfriend mode again. Later, she faded from the film entirely (it turns out that they were breaking up at the time, and she pretty much just bailed. Good for her).

But I was all pissed off at him--for his stardom and his entitlement, and the way he was treating Joan Freaking Baez. I got all the more pissed off when I looked her up and found out that it was she who got audiences to take him seriously at all. She was the respected star with the career. He was a whiny unknown who used to get booed off of her stage when she invited him on.

He never invited her onto his stage at any point in the movie. I wonder if he ever did. I wonder if he ever knew what he owed her, or just took it as his due.

She was a feminist when there weren't many, out as bisexual long before it was fashionable, and committed to activism. So I got all like full of feminist rage. I get full of feminist rage a lot lately, and I'm neer sure what to do with it. Not many outlets for feminist rage, these days.

The trouble is, I've always liked Baez a whole lot less than I like Dylan. Her voice is interesting, but her lyrics are painfully conventional, and I hate the way that, for decades after they broke up, and after the obviously sucky way he treated her, she obsessively covered his songs--and the ones she wrote were often obsessively about him. Ugh. She's just a boring bland nice lady folksinger. Were all '60s women such freaking doormats?

Well ok, Diane DiPrima wasn't. She fucked all the Beats and liked it, she's outlived almost all of them, and her poetry kicks ass. And then there's the extraordinary Yoko Ono, to whom one of my students recently re-introduced me. So much more interesting than John, so much less conventional. She was nobody's self-effacingly supportive girlfriend. He met her at one of her shows. It was he who pursued her as she continued to make her art. And she continues to this day. And of course Courtney Love, who is both a brilliant musician and an enormous asshole. Except of course she doesn't get to be an asshole. She doesn't even get to be a musican, by most people's account.

Forty years later, it's really not that much easier for women than it was then. They're still judged as girlfriends, wives, part of the support system. And the riot grrrl/Lilith Fair movement of the mid '90s pretty much failed to impress me--all tiny fist-shaking, suicide anthems and delicate hysteria.

I feel like some misplaced Joan of Arc.
I need more female heroes.
Who are yours?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Me and my Chainsaw

My chainsaw makes my heart beat faster. Even though it is dark outside and my arms are tired, I can barely restrain myself from going outside and cutting through more foliage.

I love my chainsaw. It is a 16" Homelite. Starts easily (which many of them don't). It's a bit heavy, but certainly manageable from all angles. It's a little grabby though. Our 20" Craftsman is a lot more work to manage, and I can't get any complex angles on it, but it's a lot easier to settle into a slow, meditative, butter-slicing mode with it. The Homelite is like a teenager, with one mode so far: quick and hard and eager.

Using a chainsaw is intense like riding a motorcycle is intense. It's incredibly dangerous, and requires complete focus at all times. If you lose focus, get weary or distracted, incredibly bad things can happen. It's easy to screw up--to come at a branch from the wrong angle, not think the approach through properly, disconnect from the wood--and bind the whole thing badly up and get it wedged in the tree. Getting whacked in the head or dropping large branches on your foot are also non-remote possibilities.

Getting it right requires focus, and deep connection. Trees are living things, and sentient. You must only cut when you have good reason to cut, and only fell when there is no other alternative. It is best done when the tree is dormant.

You must study the quality of the wood, the angle of the branch or growth pattern of the tree. If you are felling a tree, especially the 50-foot behemoths of unknown species in our backyard that grew too fast on a rapidly-eroding forested floodplain and are about to topple into various neighbors roofs, you must calculate precisely the angle of the fall. As you cut, you must focus keenly, every second, sensing the critical moment of shift when the branch is about to fall or the tree go over. You feel the wood in your wrists, your arms, your whole body, and some innate sense. Too hesitant, and the blade shudders. One second too long, and it can bind or even break, or you can hurt yourself badly.

As in motorcycling, fatigue is a real concern. It's important not to overextend, because your arms get tired fast, and it's too easy to lose focus. When you lose muscle strength and focus, you make mistakes--all the more so because it's such an adrenaline high.

I love the smell of cut wood, the satisfying labor of piling branches and maneuvering logs, the hyper-awareness of the relationships of objects in the environment to each other.

I love my chainsaw.