Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Fox News is Right: The Muppets are Commies and That's Why We Love Them

FOX NEWS GETS IT RIGHT: THE MUPPETS ARE COMMIES! THAT’S WHY WE LOVE THEM!

Fox news came out and called “The Muppets” communist, leading well-meaning liberals to scramble to defend the Muppets against such a slanderous attack. Um, sorry to break it to you, liberals, but Fox News is sometimes right: the Muppets have always been commies. That’s what we love about them. In fact we love communist principles in all our heroic movies, we just don’t know it, because we have no idea what communism is in this country. The Muppets act as a horizontal, democratic ‘people’ with no clear hierarchy. Despite Kermit’s central role, he is always deferring to others’ ideas, commands, needs, etc. Let’s call him Subcommandante Kermit. We’ll go into more detail below but the principles are the same as Iron Man, V for Vendetta, Fight Club, Batman Returns, X-Men First Class, and the Star Wars saga: distrust of the market as arbiter of what people need and get; distrust of rich men; prizing communal over individual work and art; the critique of USA hyper-individualism, an emphasis on embodied being, not disembodied morals, and of course the problematizing of the public/private divide (along with other sectors and genres).

I read an incredibly lame Rolling Stone review of “The Muppets” saying it didn’t have the magic of the Muppets, because among other things, it’s embarrassing to pander to today’s kids by putting in Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” (they said “Forget You”, which is all you need to know about them). Huh? The Muppets always riffed on the popular music of the day. That kind of oversight is an example of the nostalgic way we tend to view art.

The real magic of the muppets has nothing to do with how familiar the song is or the allusions. It can be summed up in one phrase: a lack of cynicism. In fact, the villain (a capitalist pig, as all meaningful movie villains are) says of the sell-out Mooppet Vegas version: “It’s a hard, cynical band, for a hard, cynical time”. Indeed, he summed up most television and film, kids offerings included (the trailer for the latest Chipmunks movie left me so nauseated I almost couldn’t stay for the Muppets. Thank goodness for marijuana). What’s cynical? Low ambitions. Trying what works instead of what SHOULD work. Trying what’s good instead instead of what (you think or surveys say) people want. Wait, isn’t that undemocratic, not giving people what they want? Only if you consider consumerism a fundamental human right and an expression of what people truly want. Anti-cynicism is opening not with Lady Gaga or some jokey old metal song but Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. Anti-cynicism is, as with Moulin Rouge using colors that only exist in children’s films that deny the reality of the world, but here they exist not to deny the reality but to make this reality. (Before his comrades lift him out of the private sector Kermit laments “my green is turning gray”, and sure enough the poser sell-out Kermit in the Moopets is gray in color).

Make this reality…or surreality. After all, the Muppets are always up front about how impossible it is what they do (another communist trait—belief in the ‘impossible’). Their Muppet Show would make sense if it stuck to the show itself—of course puppets can move around and feel things like that when manipulated during a puppet show. But the show always took us backstage as well, as if to say all of life is a puppet show: stop worrying about who’s real and who’s a Muppet, and just pick a goddamn awesome character and play your heart out. (“Anyone who ever played a part/Wouldn’t turn around and hate it” – Lou Reed). Or as animal puts it: “Show!!! Show!! Show!!!!” (leaping into a television screen). For this to work it must be honest. Perhaps the best thing about the muppets is how resolutely unreal they are (that doesn’t mean untrue of course). I made a similar argument for why Tim Burton’s Batman films are so superior to the Nolan brothers’. Magical realism is the rule of the day (in a time before it was in in the USA).

The wider purpose of this lack of realism in great art is always the same: to remind us that the magic is in the ideas, principles, the praxis of a life well-lived. The principles of physics and space-time are irrelevant, and space-time itself as we know it is a neoliberal production (cf. Henri Lefebvre (paper forthcoming on this to link to!). It doesn’t matter how Gary and Mary got to L.A. from middle America in 30 minutes (“we traveled by map!”, i.e. quoting John Williams Indiana Jones music and mimicking the map travel of all four Indie films. To me it’s a sly poke at how we like our heroes to have no boring middle time between feats). What matters is never the plot. Only the theme. This is partly because we are often arrogant about what makes a good plot, caught up in the sensibility of our time (um, Punch Teacher?) and not the sensibility of our timelessness. (“It’s lonely out in space/ On such a timeless flight” – Bernie Taupin, “Rocket Man”)

It’s also partly to remind us that at our best, we aren’t so much ‘merely human’. We are, as the song goes, either a Muppet of a man or a very manly Muppet. To me the Muppets echo Nietzsche in the subtlety of balancing a celebration of all of humanity’s foibles and sins (so as not to live in denial) while affirming that we are only truly admirable when we’re not us. Yes, that’s right self-help gurus, being yourself is a horribly mediocre ambition. Being ‘even better than the real thing’, as U2 argued during their ZooTV tour, is where it’s at. (Zoo Tv and Muppets run together often in this simultaneous exposure and uncynical embrace of the artificial: “You’re my hero, you’re on my watch”, says Walter to Kermit, showing his fan watch. It is an instance of fan collecting redeemed as true care: you’re on my watch; I will not let you fall into this rich man’s hermit trap of private sector blues and fear of the market artistic defeatism. The moral of the Muppet is—if you’re going to be good at something, follow that thread of talent and spirit to its apotheosis. Animal must never be calm, and Rowlf must never be excited. This isn’t a ‘lack of balance’. The balance is in the group as a whole, it’s not in each person. Thus each person is stupendously, powerfully different, and yet all health and effectiveness, all happiness and virtue is only achieved in the community as a whole. The riddle of communism. Deflating American style individualism without trampling on the spirit of each individual.

There are signs of this fierce refusal to be anything other than the most bombastic and unflinching persona everywhere—while Jason Segal’s character Gary grows taller, and his Mom marks heights off on the wall, Muppet Walter lines up eagerly to find that he is always the same size. Of course. He’s a Muppet—he was made that way. Like all Muppets, his tongue is perfect pink cartoon-shaped heart—a popheart not a human heart. Thus he will ride a tandem bike with his brother and sing about both pedaling…but his feet won’t reach. Thus he will brush teeth with his brother though he has no teeth. The Muppets have always reminded us that they are more our spirit animals than ‘real’ people. At the same, time there is a marked materiality to the Muppets. They are not animated, classically or with computers. They are physical beings, and one of the reasons it’s so thrilling and hilarious when they recklessly through their bodies about is they’re actual bodies, hitting actual fences and walls.

Which is why the plot of this film is so much more compelling than that of the others. In the 2nd best film, the first “Muppet Movie”, the danger is of selling out. Here the stakes are higher—the danger is of giving up in a market-driven individualist world where the Muppets are irrelevant now that we all love ‘Punch Teacher’ (the wonderful obviousness of the capitalism critique is one reason people as dumb as the Republicans picked up on it. “Punch Teacher” is the most popular show in a culture devaluing free public education like never before, and the villain is named Tex Richman. Yes, rich men are indeed the villains). In such a world the Muppets are reduced to taking on the trappings and ideologies of American hyperindividualism. Kermit has retreated into a gated mansion with an electric fence and unaccountable ‘privacy’. Animal is in a self-help circle, forbidden to drum and made to utter ‘in control’ as a sad mantra (I’ll be honest—that made me cry, to see the one I relate to reduced by a self-help culture I’ve often been considered crazy for railing against. Like Animal, I grew up petting what I was supposed to eat, and vice versa. Smashing what I was supposed to kiss, and vice versa…)

Is it lost, the magic innocence and passion of the muppets? (Kermit in “Pictures in my Head”: “Would anyone watch or care/Or did something break we can’t repair?”) Yes and no. The film does achieve and surpass the magic of earlier Muppet efforts, but not by means of mere copycat techniques. There is always the sad acknowledgment here and there of what is lost forever, from the decrepit Electric Mayhem bus to the celebrities unwilling to help. For all the allusions to contemporary pop phenomena that Rolling Stone idiotically attributed to ‘missing the point’, the spirit is there (here I think other languages work better: Geist or esprit perhaps). That spirit is the bold and often clueless embrace of the Muppets’ communal and individual values and ambitions. In one scene Mary’s students say ‘noooo’ when they hear it’s spring break, and ‘yeaaa!” when she says don’t worry in two weeks we get to study again. This isn’t cynical irony—this is my memory of school, and it’s a reclaiming a legitimate belief in the curiosity of children, placing the blame not on ‘culture’ but the ‘Punch Teacher’ political oppression of public resources and spaces. Again, the magic is in the energy and spirit. In the songwriting and raw material immediacy of the puppet performances.

How is the film communist, you ask? First, I know I will be treated to the trite, used-up commentary that any piece of art made through the capitalist art machine can’t be communist, and I will say once again: nonsense. That’s like saying that under a repressive regime where dancing is not allowed there are no dancers. Just because Henson and co. go through this machine doesn’t diminish the power of the message. The same goes for Michael Moore’s films, The Wachowskis’ films (particularly V for Vendetta, and Speed Racer), Fight Club, Che, etc. I could care less if a kid bought a Che Guevara shirt at Hot Topic. That face is still good to see on the street.

On to all the leftist propaganda. First of all, the Muppets do everything together, from cleaning up their theater (no hierarchy of labor here) and performing in it. In the opening song, “Life’s a Happy Song”, our heroine laments that it’s not just ‘me and him, but ‘me and him and him’. Sounds like a nice polyamorous triad to me, but the mainstream audience is conditioned to wait for our hero to learn his lesson and return to the capital-affirming confines of the nuclear family, safely demarcated from the community at large. Instead, during the reprise of the song, the entire gang including the two lovers sings “and you and you and you and you and YOU!” (Us beyond the third wall that the Muppets are perpetually demolishing). To solidify Mary’s uptake into the commune instead of the smalltown marriage, when Gary finally proposes her response is a Muppet’s: mah nah mah nah, doo doo doodoodoo. Speaking of the entire gang singing—the muppets tend to sing in unison rather than harmony, and they sing in their own voices, unlike the modulated idiots on the radio today. And Animal plays the drums even on ballads without any acknowledgment for the ‘tasteful’ non ‘busy’ tradition of drumming to rock ballads. When he finally gives up the self-help nonsense and becomes (greater than) himself again, he slams into the “Rainbow connection” finale like it’s a Black Sabbath song. The villain makes a point when he gets a hold of the Muppet theater to insist it’s PRIVATE PROPERTY, including the Muppet name (now his), and they should get out. The response and finale acknowledges the zeitgeist of this year of revolution and occupation, as the Muppets and their supporters (false dichotomy: in the Muppet world we’re all in the show of life ) occupy Hollywood Boulevard and shut it down for their poly/commie dance number, which includes lots of older and bigger actors instead of the usual fit dancers.

I could rail on of course about the unmitigated eccentricity of ‘for all ages’ characters in a time when that usually means the relentless pursuit of ‘relevancy’, which is a euphemism for ignoring the long past and the future that could be. Gonzo is either polyamorous or polygamous, with his loving family of chickens (all cuddling together with him in the rafters). Mushrooms make a conspicuous presence all of the film (hmm…) Markers of the decade are inconsistent (what’s with the fifties Greyhound bus and the small town America?) You can add your own favorite bits of muppet weirdness in the comments.

I leave you with the most important question of the film: “Do you think we’re working for the bad guy?” (If only cops and soldiers would ask themselves that more often.)

And I dedicate this blog to “the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP USA V: THE FINALE



COLORADO

I personally reject the eastern part of Colorado that looks like Kansas. Colorado is required to fit into the Rocky Mountain archetype. So I have removed the first two hours of the drive from my mind. I will say that it is baffling to me that the city of Denver could be a mile high, because the drive doesn’t feel or look like a climb at all. It must be the longest steadiest climb in the U.S. We were late for a date with Vanessa’s sister Lauryl, so we didn’t get to see much, save for a small town that advertised itself as “friendly and full of family values.” We had a few hours to kill before Lauryl got home, so we followed our usual method of finding interesting parts of cities—ask around about what part is ‘dangerous’ and go there. I forget the name of the neighborhood, but the houses were tiny and quirky and the people eccentric and pleasantly unpredictable. It was then time for Captain America: The First Avenger with Lauryl and Sam. A brief digression on the film:

For all the red-white-and-blue advertising, I was pleasantly surprised to find the film not jingoistic at all. On the contrary, the enemies are fascists, and at the end we fast forward to present day, where the U.S. military now seems quite fascist itself in its tactics of paternalistic secrecy and violence-for-the-sake-of-security. The message seems to be that WWII was the last time there could really be a captain ‘America’ we could root for. I also like the more Nietzschean than Christian ethical sensibility in which good and bad are of the same ilk (both the Red Skull and Captain America took the same super serum, which amplifies both good and bad). It was brilliant to have Captain America’s career begin as nothing but propaganda for the government. During that phase, he wears a cheesy costume identical to that in the original comic books (later when it’s time to be a true warrior he adopts the modernized one on the movie poster). The message seems to be that the original take on Captain America was also ideological propaganda. Nice move. The film does well to stay conscious of the more disturbing elements in this character's geist and zeitgeist. On the other hand, as with most films, the villain’s motives for world domination and the psychology of his followers are disturbingly simplistic and barely registerhouldn’t someone who yearns for a human being beyond what we are today—an ubermensch—already love human beings? This is a standard Christian misreading of Nietzsche, in which it is assumed anyone who wants a superhuman must not like humans. It’s the opposite—they love humans so much they want to see them outdo themselves. LINK TO NIETZSCHE? It’s idiotic the way they create villains who are so faithless and cruel to their followers—you don’t win so many followers without being appealing to them. Tim Burton’s version of The Penguin serves as a good counterexample—his army of ‘bad’ guys is convincing because they are all freaks like their leader who weren’t accepted by Gotham’s good citizens.

After a ridiculously hearty meal at The Breakfast Palace (which beat out Breakfast Queen in our crazed breakfast search that morning), we took off into the Rockies. Two hours driving into a sunset stretched out over the Rockies, punctured by the absurd quanity of peaks. We were on a roll, ready to make it all the way across in one evening when Vanessa reached for her backpack and found nothing. We had left it in Denver. Back to Denver. Poor little Toyota Yaris (named “Aayla Secura”). Luckily for us, Brie and Lucas saved the day. They were a couple drinking a coffee in Frisco, CO, and they invited us to stay in the cabin that they from a friend. I admired their willingness to trust complete strangers, especially given that the cabin wasn’t even theirs. Nothing warms my heart like United Statesians who aren’t afraid of strangers, even when they’re ex-cons and sex workers. A far cry from the nurse taking my blood, who told her co-worker "I used to have to take blood from the prisoners. I would shake so much they'd have to give me ____ every time." I asked the nurse if she was afraid of inmates. She looked blankly at me like it was obvious, then bristled: "Well, it's just a very intense situation." The implication that prisoners are a threat to anyone and everyone, including a nurse there to help him, is vile to me.

Anyway, Brie and Lucas cooked us dinner and breakfast, we blew their minds in return for the meals, and we all watched Disney’s “Aladdin”, which contains the barely disguised sex scene “Whole New World.” The cabin seemed stuck in the eighties—it came equipped with VCR’s for every TV and an original Nintendo gaming system with all the games my brother and I fought over as children, until my Mom got sick of our addiction and stomped on the machine (bravo Mamma! You saved us from a form of addiction more ruthless than nicotine). There were also large books on how to ski better written in the sixties and seventies. One talked about a ‘revolutionary’ new French method. As an admirer for real French revolutionaries of the sixties, I am always annoyed when advertisers use the word ‘revolutionary’ for a bourgeois leisure activity. A recommendation: do drive the Rockies. Don’t take the interstate they tell you to take through Salt Lake City or below them down through Vegas (unless your car is old and overheats easily).

UTAH AND NEVADA

Onward through more vast space, empty of construction. Like Arizona, Utah and Nevada are states where you tend to keep your drugs in your lap so you can stuff them into a crevice on your body if you get pulled over. Many voting citizens are much more concerned about marijuana usage and gay marriage than they are about poverty and homelessness. We went to Arches National Park and continued our arch-themed trip (see last post on St. Louis). After an hour there with all the cocks and cunts nature has to offer, we took off down the “loneliest road in America”, Highway 50. Of course, since Nevada seized on that moniker in its advertising, it has become quite un-lonely, but it’s still an amazing stretch of mountains and valleys broken up by only three small towns, running halfway through Utah and all the way through Nevada.

Many of the towns in this area were former mining towns, which means that today they’re barely functioning. We spent the night in WHAT, Utah, in a room with 8 beds, designed to accommodate travelling groups of laborers. The ‘café’ part of the motel and café’ was inexpensive and featured tableside meant-to-be-funny books by a local writer, with platitudes and stereotypes about women, marriage, etc. Our waitress was so surprisingly cute Vanessa couldn’t believe she’d never stripped. She had, however, been trained in nursing and given it up because waitressing paid more than nursing. (Wow.) The town was mostly Mormon, and the bars were still called ‘social clubs’, despite Utah’s recently changing their laws to allow for actual bars.

We really wanted to stop in a polygamous town but unfortunately they were too far off the road. We settled for the town museum in Eureka, NV, with its printing presses, schoolroom, and other artifacts from the late 19th century. I was most interested in a collection of newspapers from 1934, and read stories about the exciting new WPA and Tennessee Valley projects and the big corporations that sternly warned of the likelihood that they would lead Americans towards unionization and communism.

We went to a small Shoshone American Indian reservation by Ely, NV. I didn’t expect to be anything less than depressed in a reservation, but I wasn’t prepared to see three or four houses with American flags waving from the porches. That’s like a rape victim cheering her rapist on at a high school football game. Yuck. Part of the problem is that the military seized on the proud warrior traditions in these cultures and put forth an "American soldier" to fill the gap left by the more noble battles of the past, including the AIM movement.

Like a lot of the USA, the towns were sad and the space inbetween more gratifying. At least the long stretches of rocky canyons and red rocks can admit of no classism, except I guess for the fact that the working class can scarcely afford the gas it costs to cross this area! In desolate parts of the country like central Nevada, you can find state and national parks with no one in them—it’s just you, the ghostly whistling wind, and the thousands of years old petroglyphs that predate even the American Indians as we know them. One set of petroglyphs was in such an unlikely place, in a fiercely hot ravine accessible only by very bumpy dirt road, with only one sign and a couple of picnic tables, that it altered the definition of ‘tourist spot’ for me. Only the hardiest tourists would camp here (for free). We saw no one. The petroglyphs were oddly avant-garde, with humanoid shapes boasting strange and indecipherable geometric additions. These were drawn a few thousand years before Homer dreamt up the Odyssey. We’re not so young a land, after all.

HOME AGAIN! I LIKE TO BE THERE WHEN I CAN

After two days of unfathomably unfamiliar territory we pulled into Reno, our yearly launch point on the way to Burning Man. From there on out we were in the beautiful Sierra Nevadas, which for us by now means either excitement about the Burn to come or excited processing of the Burn that just happened. It was a good lesson in keeping our senses and critical skills attuned and working together, now that we were in familiar territory. And that is how we ended Hell of Road Trip pt. V, at my parents’ house in Los Gatos, CA, after picking up Lindsey in Berkeley: determined to continue to act, even at home, like we were on the road, talking with ‘locals’about their labor and leisure practices, noting the city planning or lack thereof, finding the quirky spots, and overall training our senses for the most important truth: there is nothing you've already seen. Nothing repeats. All is new every time, every glance, every moment. After all, we are in route, always changing, always moving, and doing it best when the destination is not held dogmatically in the mind like a guard rail. Here’s to the perpetual road trip, at home and abroad.

ADDENDUM: FAMILY REUNION IN BIRMINGHAM, AL

The day after we returned, my wife and I flew to Birmingham for a family reunion of the Israel clan. Plenty of interesting people there but I think if I heard one more person insinuate how bad unions are for America I would have blown up. Lindsey winning a freestyle MC battle at a downtown bar was a highlight, as was the Birmingham history center, and the Civil Rights Institute (which was mysteriously missing communism and Black Panthers), but I think the top moment was when the whole clan was performing a string of karaoke numbers, mostly country with a little Vanilla Ice and Bon Jovi thrown in. We were all white and the servers were all Black. I went up to one of them and said: “I would pay a large sum of money if would put Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” on this Karaoke list so I could perform it tonight.” We both laughed hard and long. Let’s end on that note: Ice T.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP pt. V USA PT. 5


MISSOURI, KANSAS


Missouri contains some of the best drives we’ve ever seen. I didn’t tell you last blog about one of the other amazing drives: through the backcountry of Pennsylvania. Always leave the interstate if you want interesting stores, people, roads. This particular road took us through towns called Desire, Panic and Paradise. In desire, we saw a sign for ‘local honey’ that lead us to a private property. We couldn’t figure out why such a poor-looking house owned four horses until we saw the buggies in the shed: Amish! The 7-year old girl rocked a baby on the porch as if she was a mother, not a child. Other children played with homemade toys. The father wore a long beard, Jim-Carrey-in-Dumb-and-Dumber haircut. Everyone had dirty clothes. He brought out honey in repurposed salad dressing bottles, for only two dollars a generous bottle. Delicious. We could see the bees buzzing in the hives across the yard. My phone went off during the transaction and the little boy looked at is as if a UFO had landed in my pocket. The drive took us through towns with populations under 100, where we pretended to shop for bunnies, bought cinnamon rolls from an arrogant Israeli (“What country do you think I’m from?! The country that doesn’t take shit from anyone.” OK, thanks Israeli Steven Seagal), and wondered incessantly what the hell people do for money in towns out here without any stores, plants, factories or tourism.

Missouri held its own with Pennsylvania and Louisiana in the beautiful drive department. We once again left the interstate and followed the Missouri river, through rolling hills of surreal bright green. We passed our fair share of racist landmarks, such as the Daniel Boone home (not to be outdone by the Pony Express stations that glorified the brave riders who had to put up with “hostile Indians”). The air was hot and wet and hung on you like a giant jellyfish. Not just in Missouri but everywhere. We chose one of the hottest Julys in recent history, and the heat followed us around the entire country like a determined child molester until the first bits of relative cool (by that I mean temperatures in the nineties that actually felt like the nineties, since the humidity was gone) in Denver.

Time and space bent every which way on this trip, as we tried to ignore the maps and trust our senses, so you won’t mind if I discuss St. Louis after I discuss the drive which succeeded it, will you? St. Louis has my favorite monument in the entire USA. It’s called the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, but since the last thing I want to pollute such an amazing work of art is the memory of our genocidal ‘expansion’ (a euphemism for invasion), I will simply call it THE ARCH. It’s surprisingly big. It’s surprisingly abstract for something so big. We in the USA like our memorials to be more obviously referential: big presidential heads carved into rock, big statues of Lincoln or Washington, or a massive cock (the Washington monument) to symbolize how Washington tries to penetrate the rest of the world, contemptuous of consent. But the arch is magnificently unique. Shiny metallic and higher than the whole city, it’s the antidote to our usual border symbolism: gates, fences, walls, buildings. The arch is open. It goes both directions, a liminal space between east and west United States. Vanessa and I stood below it, watching the Mississippi river flow), and promised to make an arch of our families, marriages, work, bodies, and, if possible, country. Amen. No wonder the one of the most brilliant tours of all time, U2’s “Popmart” featured a massive arch as its centerpiece, and ended with a big bleeding heart on the screen under that arch.

St. Louis is the murder capital of the USA. Not the metro area, of course—just one of the areas where we like to shove the people of color. It has some of the smallest houses in a United States city I’ve ever seen. We stayed at the Congress Inn for 30 bucks, with its two dollar key deposit and four free channels of porn. I respect a motel with free porn. It’s the least we can do in a country that insanely outlaws prostitution. Vanessa called the premiere strip club, Centerfolds, and was invited to work there, but got sidetracked by the arch and its bizarre museum with animatronic American Indians and settlers. St. Louis hasn’t had a Republican government or Mayor since the forties, so it makes sense that the museum was less brazenly racist and revisionist than some of the shit we saw in Texas, Kansas and the Carolinas. We read about the various American Indian resistances, all of which end in defeat. It is mind-boggling the number of treaties that the U.S. government broke, lied about, changed, etc. Every time a tribe made a deal, it seemed like it couldn’t possibly get any worse than this. But in fact it did, every dishonest and broken deal by dishonest and broken deal, for two centuries, until the last real glimmer of hope in the 1960s and 1970s, the height of the American Indian Movement (AIM). This land was in better hands when its people believed in spirits rather than a single improbable and ridiculously cruel God.

KANSAS

After a stop at the astoundingly good Gates BBQ in Kansas City, where the waiters are so nice you think they are going to walk you home and tuck you in, it was into the great void of Kansas. A motel in Abilene, KS, right next to a ramshackle trailer park, replete with friendly Mexican-American roofers from Pueblo, CO who were shipped here to work for three weeks. In the morning we ate at a café with literally no décor (it was like eating in a cardboard box) except for dire signs about teenage drinking. I like to read local papers, especially editorials, so I picked up a Topeka paper and read an editorial about how disastrous it will be for the working class (they didn’t use the word ‘class’, of course, because they like to participate in the United Statesian whitewashing of all issues of class) if Obama made good on his promise to diminish the tax breaks for corporate jet owners. Yes, seriously—corporate jet owners. The plane industry is big in Kansas, but it was yet another attempt to perpetrate the lie that if rich people (oh, sorry—“Job Creators”) don’t get enough tax breaks they’ll just fire every one and maybe even stop working altogether. News flash: rich people love money. They won’t stop earning it even if the government takes a higher share of it (as in nearly every other Western country). And when they do lay people off to try and scare people into never voting down tax breaks again, that’s a fault of a capitalist system that makes it too easy too fire and manipulate workers. Another example: the most powerful Kansan energy company, Westar, is threatening to drastically raise consumer energy prices because of new EPA pollution standards. Sorry Westar, it’s simply time to earn less money, not raise the prices of the 6-person family living in the shotgun shack in North Topeka.

Ah, Kansas, thanks for adding fundamentalist Christian bigot Pat Roberts to the Senate. Then again, if Burroughs wanted to die there, it’s got to have something. There’s always something brilliant, weird, and unlikely hiding in every state. One of Kansas’s such wonders is the Garden of Eden. Who knew the Garden of Eden was in Kansas after all? We went through a French-Canadian (that’s right!) town, where one of the daughters who spoke no French (only the old people barely do) had repainted all the storefronts’ titles in French . We tried to eat steak at a place googlemaps led us to called “Bill’s Steaks”. We drove through the non-paved streets of this town, whose five businesses were all closed at 3pm, only to be directed to an abandoned schoolhouse where we met Bill, who did not in fact own a steakhouse but rather a place to buy wholesale gigantic slabs of beef. Oops. Through fields set off by rock fences we rolled along through towns that the maps said existed but our senses said did not: everything caved in and vacated. Just when you thought it truly was a ghost town, a mechanic would emerge from a crumbling building with a faded, nearly unreadable sign like ‘Car Repair’ and you’d realize that place is actually open. In rural Kansas I kept wondering—where are the Black people??? Take note readers: that’s a good question to ask wherever you go and see none. Then ask ‘why’? Hint: LINK

The next part of the blog is Colorado, and should be a departure from Kansas, shouldn’t it: Rocky mountains, big important city, thin mountain air. But strangely, once you cross the border from Kansas it still looks like Kansas for an hour or two. I wish states magically changed color when you cross the border like they do on maps. We drove into Colorado still reading about Kansas in a tourist map that included such gems as “What is There To Notice About Fences”. Answer? “Oh, many things!” This brochure told us that although there were many places to get facts about Kansas, what we held in our hands was the only one with “fun facts about Kansas”. Oh, many things.

Have I made it clear yet my main pieces of road trip advice here? (1) Leave the interstate. (2) Talk to the locals (3) Go to the quirky not-so-touristy stuff. Finally, I should add: never believe white people who tell you to stay away from certain areas. Don’t do that. Go there. Remember the Forbidden Forest in Harry Potter, where it turns out that it's so 'dangerous' only because of racist fear/disdain for the locals (centaurs)? Remember the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy? Avoiding people is just taking the blue pill. Those houses that are far from each other so you don’t have to hear or see other human beings except when it suits you—they’re just an illusion in the matrix. Real life, real humanity is only the whole thing, the totality, the manifold. Get in.

Monday, July 25, 2011

USA ROAD TRIP pt. IV


PENNSYLVANIA, OHIO, MICHIGAN, ILLINOIS, MISSOURI, KANSAS

Toledo, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit. A string of broken towns. Would the lucky few doing well be insulted I call them broken? Yes—because like most bourgeois they think of doing well as an individual concept, not a group one. But when this many people in your town are suffering, when this many houses are vacant and dilapidated, when hoods like Slavic Village only have a handful of Slavs left, as everything and everyone flee the dying neighborhoods as fast they can, one by one, well then don’t tell me your town’s not broken. One of the most annoying bourgeois pigs I’ve met was this college student in Youngstown, Ohio whose band played with The Sacred Dice when we played there in 2006. We were singing the praises of Springsteen’s heartrending “Youngstown”about steelworkers there in Northeast Ohio. He said ‘people’ hated it because it made people think Youngstown sucked. By people he presumably meant white upper middle class friends (see the Brooklyn reading segment from my last blog). Son, the displaced working class is more of an issue here in Youngstown than the laughable relationship issues your indie bands sing about.

We drove through the ugly square houses and shops around Youngstown State to reach the Museum of Labor and Industry, and dove into that Springsteen song in earnest. 12 hour days, 7 day weeks, towns ownede by one big company that then paid in vouchers for the company store, ran the entire town like a monopolgy, and murderously fought unions for an entire century. This is the kind of image I have in mind when I stare aghast at flag-wavers on July 4 talking about our proud country and its proud traditions. The immigrants came in wave after wave, in this land of immigrants that is still somehow one of the world's most hateful towards immigrants. I can't believe how pervasive the Italian presence is in the USA. They seem to have reached everywhere, this little country of homebodies who tend to find it difficult to embrace the non-Italian. If you haven't done any research on mining or the steel industry, do a little spelunking. You'll get a little taste of why people like me don't think of the rich as 'job providers', as the rhetoric goes.

In Cleveland we ate pizza at an Italian’s place. He opened it 22 years ago when it was a quaint little Euro-tinged community. Since then, it’s become a ghetto of vacated houses, with prostitution and drug sales as the main career opportunities open to its residents. Welcome to trickle-down economics, where the rich people move the production to wherever they have to avoid even more taxes than they already scandalously avoided, and the poor are left behind with nothing but the Republican’s lie: “anyone with work ethic and diligence can make a good living.” This guy can’t afford to close up shop, but he’s barely afloat now, and he doesn’t recognize anyone anymore. We chatted with a drunk guy talking at no one and a prostitute taking some shelter in the tiny waiting room of the pizza house. We went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and walked into a great blessing from the rock gods: they happened to be screening U2’s excellent U23D (see Vanessa’s blog on it HERE); the room screeing the 3 hour 25th anniversary concert happened to be at its best moment, U2’s set. I marveled like a child at the material artifacts of the greatest tour of all time, U2’s ZOOTV, including the East German trabant cars that hung as spotlights, the neon ZOOTV sign, and Bono’s The Fly and Mr. MacPhisto costumes. There is something melancholy about seeing the artifacts of a great tour such as that. Rock n’ Roll at its best feels like eternity, and one expected Mr. MacPhisto to live eternally, in a succession of liminal moments between night and day, as the line “Midnight is where the day begins” plays on an eternal loop. But there was his retired costume. And now Bono is back to playing the alter ego the naïve call ‘himself.’ The saddest part of the museum? The exhibit on women in rock. Their costumes were less eccentric, brave than the men’s, more predictable. People like Gwen Stefani and Heart just can’t compare to Lennon and Springsteen. Worst, probably the most fiercely unslavish female rocker besides Joplin, Sophie B. Hawkins, was not even represented at the museum. I was left with the feeling that feminism has a lot more work to do in rock n’ roll.

It’s weird how states seem to change scenery as soon as you cross into them. Do zoning laws apply to types of crop and flora as well?! Illinois was all corn, and now Missouri is all a green trance of rolling hills. Ambient green. A much brighter green than California’s green, almost unrealistic. Some lines spoken to us in Missouri: “I don’t think you need to pay parking meters at night in St. Louis, even if it says you do.” “A foreign company took over Annheiser-Busch this year. Such a shame. That was Missouri.” “Well, I like it better here [than Merced, CA] cuz you only have to fight off Blacks for your white girls, not just Blacks and Mexicans.” Of course he’s “not racist at all.” One form of racism is the sense that white girls are a scarce resource that other races are poaching. Either way, most of the sickest human behaviors come down to a belief in property and propriety.

Detroit. I took a lot of photos. I’d like to staple them to the foreheads of anyone I hear telling me that the USA treats its citizens better than any other country. Detroit is the venereal disease the U.S.A. contracted after many decades of unsafe fucking-over of its people. I’m not trying to insult the amazing people we met there, from the anarchist collective house to the friendly direction-givers to the cousins. Detroit is almost a ghost town. Major streets are empty of cars and people. So many houses are abandoned it looks like a science fiction movie after a plague hits. Of course that’s exactly what happened. The plague is called capitalism, in its ugliest form: plutocracy. In areas like this the billboards announcing that abortion is murder are particularly cloying. Apparently the religious freaks would like to bring even more unwanted children into a city that has no jobs or social services by which the teen mothers could support them. Nice move, zealots. There’s nothing like religion for making people completely ignore economic realities in the name of hand-me-down morals.

But you didn’t think the Detroit section of the blog would be only depressing did you?! Not when there’s the Heidelberg Project!. A local artist, with the help of local residents (including a 10-year old kid we shot a few hoops with), transformed a few blocks of a poor neighborhood (kind of a redundant phrase in Detroit) into an art project: houses with hundreds of stuffed animals glued to the outside. Houses painted polka dots. Telephones and clocks glued to trees, anti-drug war messages everywhere, strange conglomerations of abandoned tools. The part that I found particularly brilliant and anti-bourgeois was that it was a functional street, not a set-aside piece of art. Interspersed in the art are actual residences with families living in them. Their children get to play on a street filled with art. It’s an oasis of CARE when it comes to aesthetics in a city and country that usually abandons aesthetics in the name of efficiency and practicality, as well as the ever-urgent late-capitalist imperative to keep everything distinct and separate, lest there be intellectual and class miscegenation. For all of the USA’s small ugly square-building towns with half their stores and houses over and done, there are little oases of hope and inspiration. These are the signs and wonders that point to revolutionary possibility still alive in this country where most slave for the profit of a few.

We met my brother-in-law Spencer Hawkins and his girlfriend-poet Ann Marie and went to bar with the best jukebox in America. Amongst the jewels such as George Clinton, obscure Leonard Cohen and Dylan albums, and Woody Guthrie, was The Coup’s Party Music, which I never see in jukeboxes. I texted Boots Riley, a comrade of all Teds, and he revealed that he lived in Detroit til he was 5. Talk about loyalty to your people! Detroit could use a little Boots-led revolution right now.

We drove across Michigan through a massacre of roadside woodchucks that almost matched the armadillo massacres of the South. Across Indiana in a drive so uneventful I wonder if Indiana is a figment of my imagination. How can I be sure it exists? There wasn’t even a state sign. I can be sure Illinois exists, however, because Chicago looms like a Jungian archetype over land and lake. Chicago is the architectural capital of the USA. There are so many funky, stylish, weird, majestic, nostalgic and many other kinds of styles crushing up against each other, it’s like a more organic and tasteful Las Vegas. It definitely has some Euro charm, but the sheer eclecticism of the architecture makes it unique. Strangle and marvelously, unlike, say, New York City, the confluence of styles doesn’t seem haphazard. It somehow seems perfectly planned out, as if all along the city planners and financiers had aesthetics in mind. Is this a legacy of a city that helped birth the American Socialist party and was hotbed of radicalism for so long?

Lucky for us “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was playing for free in Wicker Park. Despite the usual flattening and deadening presence of hipsters, it was a gorgeous hot sweaty evening watching yet another of George Lucas’ magnificent visions. The film displays Lucas’ usual obsession with holding up a mirror to imperialist USA vis-à-vis the various empires in his films (Nazi, Galactic, British Colonial, Cold War USA, etc.) It also reminded me that one must stray off the path to the university to find the pressing educational experience. They’re ripping hearts out on the road that leads away from the university, even as they rip the heart out of the Humanities in the university itself.

We got to stay in the exceedingly cute basement of the exceedingly cute squished-against-other-houses residence of Gina Frangello, whose five-year old child reminded us that if we’re not looking, talking, smelling, and thinking like we’re five, we’re old and stupid. One of his gems: “I’d like to tell you about myself. I like to think a lot.” We were also told “I’m really cute and lots of girls like me.” If only one of the stars we know in Hollywood would talk so abjectly. Gina talked about trying to get behind the Mommy masks at her Mommy reading group, to the pot-smoking sexual beings underneath. I’m sure her very sensual fiction helps in that cause. Vanessa performed her usual magic on the streets of Wrigleyville and procured us two $75 dollar Cubs tickets for free. There’s something invigorating about going to the local city temple to watch the fallen idols try to win a game in a season that’s already lost, after 103 seasons without a championship. It reminds one of the importance of playing the full game out in life, of supporting your comrades even when the cause is lost. Rooting for the Cubs is like being a socialist. But as longtime Cubs-sufferer Tom Morrello texted Vanessa: “I think it’s likely we’ll see a full scale USSA utopia before the Cubs see a World Series.” Say it ain’t so.

You don’t really want to hear about the rest of Illinois on the way to St. Louis do you? Corn. Corn. So sad all the corn in the Midwest—it’s not very good for you and it’s a racket that keeps us all so cornfed. More to come!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP USA PT. 3


SOUTH CAROLINA AND NEW YORK: SUPERBALL IX!

In the morning, Janet, Lindsey, Vanessa, Max and I drove out of New York City in a crazed podracing scene, shooting over the Manhattan bridge and out into New Jersey. It was as five-hour drive to the remote upstate New York town of Watkins Glen, where Phish and their collaborators (us all!) were to stage a 4-festival called Superball IX. Aaron and Karine drove down from Montreal and we all met outside the grounds. For the entire festival we introduced ourselves only as Ted, an increasingly common practice whenever we are together. Strangely enough, we’ve met two other separate groups of Teds since we started doing this—apparently we’ve given birth to a meme. Soon Teds will be everywhere. We all have Ted jerseys, with different numbers but the same name on the back: Ted. Other times we wear our The Sacred Dice shirts, the name of our revolutionary salon. Everyone has the same name because our chief aim is the birth of a new mass culture of cooperation, collaboration, miscegenation, de-identitfication. I’ve written about Phish on this blog before, so I won’t go into great detail about the show. I will say that I feel like The Sacred Dice and Ted are engaged in an experiment that takes friendship into an art form and a political formation at the same time. There is nothing casual about real friendship. One thing I’d like to encourage in the art of social interaction: political speech. By this I do not mean jumping on a soapbox for a lecture. I mean attentiveness to the kind of crowd you’re in, and changing the subject to the kinds of issues that are challenging for them (or for you, vis-à-vis them), in order to create interactions that are not the route of least resistance but that prize confrontation as the form of communication where something new arrives. Sometimes you can do this simply through dress and casual speech. At this festival for example, we all wore bandanas of the Quebec flag that Karine gave us, and spoke French as much as possible (the majority of Teds speak French). Given that both Canada day and Independence Day took place over the weekend, this led to some interesting conversations. We also moved in and out of the various time periods in American history built by the fabulous artists hired by Phish, role-playing everything from polygamous settlers in the West to guerillas.

During the show Vanessa kept talking about how much Trey Anastasio was fucking her and the rest of the crowd. I got to thinking about something I said on one of her blogs about U2, that sharing an audio-visual-spiritual moment like that with others can be as intimate—if you’re allowing yourself utter vulnerability—as conversation with my uncle over whiskey in Cassano d’Adda, Italy at midnight, as cuddling with friends, as losing your virginity. The indie kid nonsense about U2 or Phish shows being ‘too big’ ignores this capacity for intimacy. Intimacy is not a function of size or number (non-polyamorous people are especially vulnerable to this latter prejudice), but of commitment to connection and communication, to abandoning oneself completely to what leonard cohen calls ‘the holy and the broken hallelujah”. Thanks to Phish and all my comrades for achieving that this 4th of July weekend, even in the face of a bunch of idiots waving the flag proudly not that far from the factory towns where people have been exploited for two centuries.

It’s so interesting that when you run around in jerseys that all say “Ted” on the back at an arts festival, people assume you are part of the show, i.e. that Phish created us. People speculated that we were, variously, a marching band, bocce team, ushers, soccer team, etc. We answered differently every time: “revolutionary salon”, “the winning team at Superball IX”, “Venezuelan spies”, etc. I wish these fans would go back to their various cities expecting and acting like everyone was in on the show. Because we are all in fact in the show right now. That is the theme of the encore of night one, Show of Life.

NEW YORK CITY

Vanessa went with Aaron and Karine to Montreal. The original plan was for me to accompany them, but Canada’s increasing willingness to be the USA’s punked-out prison bitch means that I can’t get in the country with my criminal record. This is of course a post 9/11 measure taken for all of our safety and security. And lame, insecure Anglophone Quebecois wonder why my comrades want to secede. It’s embarrassing how beholden to the USA Canada is these days. I’m surprised they even bother to beat them at hockey.

So I instead took Janet and Max back to New York, dropping Lindsey off at the airport to go back to Berkeley summer school. That meant for me a week and a half in Brooklyn with them. Yes! There’s nothing like actually settling into a city and even getting some work done there. I’ve been writing in various coffeehouses, parks, and libraries by day, Tedding out by night. It’s daunting to write about New York City because everyone who loves cities eventually does. What strikes me most is how many people people are forced to run into in their daily lives. There is no hiding from people here—they swarm the sidewalks, from Queens to Brooklyn to Manhattan; they’re on the subway with you, which sweeps along rich and poor in its perpetual flow; they barbecue and throw parties on sidewalks and stoops, and the parks and playgrounds are chalk full. In short, New York City makes it nigh impossible to participate in the noxious and obnoxious American dream of excessive privacy and separation. In Los Angeles, you can safely tuck yourself away from people—most people drive everywhere and everything’s so spread out every class and every color and every culture can exist nearly self-sufficiently in their own neighborhood. It’s depressing. It’s actually inhuman. Human beings access their humanity most salubriously when they are in constant contact with other—especially The Other—human beings. That’s why it is the best interests of rich capitalists to defund anything free and public that encourages public gatherings, and to stratify cities via zoning and tax schemes into distinct worlds; why there are insane laws such as this one, and why Los Angeles can produce such a large number of inhumane humans: they just don’t see jostle and bump enough human beings in their daily lives.

Of course, there’s that famous New Yorker orneriness, which can lead to your getting yelled at on the subway for waving your hand too close to someone, or for crossing the street at the wrong time, but this is par for the course if you’re Italian, so no (copious amounts of) sweat off my back. Some of my friends come back from New York with tales of the Statue of Liberty and Broadway. I’m sure you guess that’s not where I’m heading. My notebooks (and by that I mean iphone notepad—notebooks is just a romantic word I still use) are filled with everyday meetings and sightings. A conversation with a Palestinian who sold me an excellent schwarma, about the Freedom Flotilla (“The USA would switch sides in a second if the other side suddenly got their hands on their interests.”). Conversations with Hassidic Jews, Senegalese immigrants, a student from Tucson freshly arrived to try her body out in the modern dance world, and a former U.S. Congressman (“The reason Obama isn’t what he seemed is that when you become president you find out things you didn’t know, like how many crazies there are out there trying to hurt us, and so your chief job is to defend us”. Actually, it’s the reverse: it’s our ‘defense’ itself which inspires the greatest number of ‘crazies’—nice technical term there—and their craziest actions.)

I took a five-hour walk with my brilliant friend Jon Cotner, participating in his project of creating unlikely moments of street solidarity through pereptual use of banal one-liner conversation openers or affirmation to everyone who passes. We met with radical publisher-activist, Anthony Arnove to discuss ways of bringing Vanessa and Anthony thoughts to the world. We went to the Native American museum, the Sex Museum (disturblingly unpolitical and lacking anything on prostitution or polyamory), the Museum of the Moving Image (who knew Jim Henson was an experimental filmmaker in the sixties? Not me), and the Tenement Museum. We saw Max Hodes brilliant band, Black Cosmic Mother, which seems to be an attempt to produce a wall of noise and then distinguish faint shapes of resistance, rebellion and love in the distorted Totality. Later Max and I went to the Met museum high and played "be the art". This involved us doing vocal jams to the art we were watching, and filming ourselves dancing in front of the art. A guard told Max: "No singing in the museum." After that we started grunting at the art, and talking like squirrels. Surely, that's not illegal.

But mostly we walked and wrote. The tenement museum was awesome, yes, but mostly the museum of human beings. What I thought was: New York City actually take human beings out of the museum and makes them participate in the regular bowel movements by which the universe shits out the toxins and prepares to receive the new day. In my favorite novel, Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen writes “I am the sealed, dead, impervious museum of my appetite. This is the brutal solitude of constipation, this is the way the world is lost", and for me he is talking about the USA. Talk about constipation and not understanding what the city is all about: I went to a reading in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn that was bourgeious par excellence. I use that word a lot, in defiance of the hipsters who think it’s too old-fashioned and the rest who don’t even know what it means. If you don’t, let me sum it up: it’s middle class white people giving lecture-readings that are supposed to be funny about how ‘people’ are and what ‘people’ like and don’t like. Our resident bourgeois pig started from the premise that ‘people’ don’t want to hear other people, and that one of the main struggles in the city is to get people to shut up: at coffeehouses, in museums, in movie theaters, etc. For one thing, this tool obviously has very few African-American, Italian or West African friends if he thinks ‘people’ value soft speakers so much. You can whine to me all day about whether or not that’s over-generalizing (I will say that the racist white assholes in prison scorned Blacks for how loud they were, and prided themselves on mumbling everything they said inaudibly), but the point here is that bourgeois folk want access to all the goodies in the city while still preserving the sick hyper-privatized isolation of their suburban experience growing up. In sum: they’d like to have the city without the community, the street without the piazza, the feeling that they’re not alone without actually having to recognize the Other. Ask yourself always whether what you think ‘people’ need or like is not actually the people in your particular class, city, country, trade, etc.

Luckily, right after the gathering of people-haters in Brooklyn the Teds and I gathered in Times Square for the opening of the last installment of the Harry Potter saga. Tons of teenagers in full costume and with no desire whatsoever to maintain a quiet street, lobby, or theater. For the 21- and 22-year olds, it was the symbolic true end of childhood, as they had grown up being the same age as all their heroes for 10 years, in a sometimes horrifying parable of post 9-11 USA. We stumbled off the subway at 4am and fell asleep for the last night in Brooklyn, ready to meet Jim Morrison’s challenge and embrace the West again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011



HELL OF ROAD TRIP PT V, Pt. 2.

Well that stripper chickened out and rudely abandoned us without informing us. We were sitting in the parking lot of the club at 2:30am when we figured it out. In all my years of road-tripping and couch-surfing, this was the first person who said yes then chickened out. We must be looking shiftier these days. Or else she figured out that her rigger husband, coming back the next day after weeks at sea, wouldn’t be too happy to find us there? Who knows. In any case, it forced us to rent a should-have-been cheap (we’ve hit a few $30 places, after we figured out what every southerner knows—camping in the summer in the south is impossible. It would be like camping in a steamroom with mosquitos) motel that was strangely expensive. Noone had bothered to remove the children’s stickers pasted on the wall behind one bed. The lamp had no shade, the pillows had mold, and there was no shower curtain, which meant we flooded the bathroom. Nevertheless, the bare light bulb hanging over the bathroom mirror made for gorgeous light and photo, so never stop looking for beauty in the trash.

We stopped for coffee at a tiny diner, but the absurdly friendly locals, tantalizing beignets, and $3 egg breakfast enticed us to stay for more. The beignets were the best I’d ever had, better than Café du Monde, and the 21-year old local boy who made them bragged to everyone who came in: “They came all the way from Los Angeles for my beignets.” This made Vanessa cry. Many things do. This is her strength. David the alligator hunter kept saying what a blessing it was that we were here to talk to them. He had a pet raccoon who liked to shower with him. How did he get it? “I killed the mama.” Then he sold it to Goose from Top Gun. I really can’t believe how friendly everyone is in the south, all races included. In L.A., people size you up to see how much of a threat you are to their self-esteem/status/standing in the industries they are desperately trying to be a part of. In LA (Louisiana), people don’t size you up, they just give you sizeable portions and chat amicably. I remember talking to a Black family from Baton Rouge on the Gulf Coast who were nothing but appreciative and jolly, despite our crazy clothes, strange behavior (they wouldn’t let their kids swim in the Gulf waters because of the oil spill), and white skin. This is not my experience in the Northeast or California. Then again, I imagine if we were Black and chatting up white locals we may not get so friendly a welcome. I am always reminded as we tool through small towns or places where only locals go, that with our California plates and packed-up car, we may have a less sociable welcome, especially from the local law enforcement, if we weren’t white. These communites, after all, can be incredibly segregated. Savannah, GA comes to mind—a colonial house, droopy-treed luscious downtown of little museusm and coffeehouses…and mostly white people. Move 1 mile in any direction and it’s all Black. Same with New Orleans, outside of the French Quarter or St. Charles mansions. Indeed, the most disturbing stop so far was Magazine Street in New Orleans. Why? Because of the hipster takeover. Don’t get me wrong—I’ll take a hipster over a frat boy or out-and-out racist anyday, but hipsters are particularly American in their franchiseability: no matter where you go in America, the hipsters where the same thing and bring the same shops into town. It was depressing to see Buffalo Exchange, American Apparel, Starbucks (in New Orleans?!), Ben and Jerry’s, and overpriced thrift stores with the same tired hip slogans and safe nostalgic ironic T-shirts. New Orleans, after all, like Austin, is distinguished for its plethora of ma and pa stores and unique businesses. I do recommend, once you get past the hipster area, Frankie and Johnny’s, where we ate delicious alligator soup, more spiced-up than Lindsey’s Aunt Jimmy’s southern language.

Louisiana really is another country. A better country. It has everything that for me the rest of America lacks: a distinctive, excellent cuisine; a city to rival the best cities in Europe; a totally unique music scene; and, a little bit of French sensibility (though the Cajun and creole traditions are of course unique) . Notice I used ‘distinctive’ twice. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago are distinctive, of course, but there is so much there that is still so predictably American. New Orleans doesn’t even seem like America to me. (It certainly wasn’t treated like it was part of America by the Bush administration post Katrina. I remember how thankful they were in 2007 for our tourism, and even on this trip one waitress said “Thank you for caring.”)

I really can’t get over the shotgun shacks, totally derelict houses, and the victory of nature over civilization in this part of the country. There is no holding back the rampant, roiling vegetation. The countless armadillos littering the roadside remind me that cars are a relatively new invention that the world still struggles to adapt to. Let me some up the housing situation, though, more forcefully: this country is ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL in what it has allowed to happen to the majority of its citizens, from their health care situation to the lack of tax dollars going to community projects. Suck it Republicans. Suck it Democrats. We need a strong Socialist party. Anyone who thinks America is strong country full of happy people lives in a gated rich community and doesn’t road trip through the small towns of the South. Plain and simple—I’m sick of hearing friends in Beverly Hills tell me what’s wrong with America (our taxes are too high!). Why don’t you get out and see it, before you talk about it, you armchair pundits.

MISSISSIPPI, ALABAMA, FLORIDA, GEORGIA, SOUTH CAROLINA

After days in Texas and Lousiana, we sped through 5 states in two days. It’s all a blur of thick, wet air, a cacophony of nighttime insects, and lush greenery. The panhandle of Florida is particularly depressing. A long tunnel of trees broken by anti-abortion, power of prayer, and tractor sale billboards. Native American names everywhere and Native American presence nowhere. Lots of gun stores. I particularly enjoyed the “Guns and Fireworks” drive through. Savannah, GA is one of the most beautiful cities in the USA. Try to go. Bring an air-conditioned space suit.

Now we’re in Eutawville, South Carolina, visiting Lindsey’s family. Lindsey flew out to meet us, and will join us for the next week of Hell of Road Trip pt. V! We played in the Citrusville Citizens’ Sports Tournament, masterminded by Lindsey’s genius 14-year old brother Raymond. He also gave us an impressive organ concert.

Friday, June 24, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP USA PT. I

HELL OF ROAD TRIP PT. V BLOG

Well, well, well, if isn’t you, United States of America. I grew up calling you ‘America’ like so many others, until some smart people let me know how incredibly, arrogantly, well, American, that is, considering that Canada, Quebec, Venezuela, Honduras and many other countries also comprise ‘America’. “United States” is also a laughable term, once you drive across America and explore its towns. These states are anything but united. You can read billboards in Texas saying “Yes we can secede!”, and maybe that’s ok—Texas can secede and become a new fascist state, and San Francisco can secede and become a communist one. Yay.

I’ve been a lifelong roadtripper. I took my first one with my high school comrade Craig the summer after high school. We took off in a tiny car with no destination or map, winding or way up to Seattle and back. We slept in the car on suburban streets, or else at people’s houses we happened to meet. We ate grocery store food and spent almost no money, and filmed everything in a ‘Furthur’-like movie. The catchwords were ‘aimless’, ‘passion’, and ‘weird’. This is version five. It’s nice to know that this praxis of deterritorialization became the dominant theme of my scholarship later in my professional career.

It’s a long hot desert from L.A. to Arizona. Around three hours into the trip Vanessa informed me breezily that she had brought ALL our drugs with us in the car. And let me tell you, Hunter S. Thompson would be proud of our selection. Smart people would not be proud of Vanessa’s shocking naïveté at attempting to bring them over the border into fascist states like Arizona and Texas. There are dogs. (Poor misused doggies. How would you like to work for a cop?) So, we stopped at a rest stop just outside of Arizona and sadly said goodbye to an eighth of my paycheck, still lying there in a dumpster in case any of you are desperate for free highs. We thus passed safely through the border patrol checkpoint, who are mostly uninterested in white people anyway. They like to use countless taxpayer dollars to satisfy the white people whining about taxpayer dollars used to give illegal immigrants health care and schooling. We listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “The Line” and “Balboa Park” to contemplate the plight of entirely mistreated immigrants. What a joke of a job, anyway, ‘border patrol’. Borders are symptom of a disease called sovereignty, which can only be cured by an opening into a concept of the people as multitude.

What can I say about Arizona besides that? Nothing, except saguaro cacti are sooooo cool. I love their independent spirit. I like the poly ones with one strong base and three-five strong upright branches. Took a long walk through the desert. For all the dessication, it’s soul-quenching. New Mexico? Well, we only stopped in Lordsburg, where we visited the ghost town of Shakespeare only to find that it was closed. Towns can close. A family owns it. A family owns a town. Back in the day it had hundreds of residents and absolutely no law enforcement. My kind of town. Let us police ourselves. Lordsburg, like most small American towns off this stretch of the 10, has been left behind by trickle-down economics and its legacy, continuing through the Bush tax cuts and Obama’s shameful continuation of them. People can work in a Mexican restaurant or in law enforcement (border patrol) or fire management. We met a lady from New York and discussed the ridiculouslessness and fruitlessness of the drug war. Everyone fretting about how dangerous Juarez and the drug trade is, trying to curb corruption and capture gang leaders when all they’d have to do is legalize all drugs. Duh. Duh. Duh. This no-brainer at first sounded strange to the locals, but as they figured out that they were serious,t hey let their guard down and actually agreed. Apparently you have to watch out with views like that around here. They needed a safe space to agree.

TEXAS

Do you know how long it takes to drive across Texas? Probably as long as it takes to drive all the way top to bottom in Italy, during which time (in Italy), you cross though hundreds of languages. There are of course a few languages on hand in Texas—the German/Czech contingent is particularly odd to me. But it’s laughable that the dominant conservative caucus in Texas talks about ‘taking back Texas’ or taking back America, when the white people behind it are the minority, their favorite places all have Spanish names, they could barely exist without immigrant labor, and they stole the fucking land in the first place. If anyone should be ‘taking back America’ it’s the natives, anyway.

We stayed at a trucker motel next to a thinly disguised whorehouse in El Paso. The first Dunkin’ Donuts appearance warmed my soul as always. Then we drove. And drove. And drove. Texas never ends. Across the Czech and German towns, alongside frontage roads, stopping at bars with locals who started out giving us odd looks but soon opened up. (I think my sparkly shorts with the cut-out sides contribute to our initial reception. Or else it’s the communist/atheist/free love Reed College T-shirt. I usually stay away from the tourist areas of big cities, and even from big cities in general when I road trip, but I recommend the Riverwalk in San Antonio to anyone. It’s a bit like Pirates of the Carribean ride. The flora is amazing and if you go late at night are so there are few people, just you and the ducklings, in your short sleeves and shorts sweating at midnight.

HOUSTON

This is a strange town. You’d think any town built on oil would be repulsive, but it has a thriving arts scene, an openly-gay mayor (wait, TEXAS?!), a plethora of unique museums, an irreverent rock n’ roll tradition (“Houston Noise”) , delightfully strange city planning (I like the streetlights), and my favorite venue The Sacred Dice ever played at, Superhappyfunland! That’s where I write from tonight, one of the many couches in this Eastside arts/music happy land that, just as when we played here five years ago, let us crash here for free. I spent the past hour talking to the leader of the Houston insane-rock band Rusted Shut. His girlfriend and bass player of 23 years left him unceremoniously by telephone. Imagine the music industry and your love life falling apart at the same time. And yet he presses on, playing gigs at places like this awesome little multi-color fuck you to capitalism from which I write.

Every great city boasts unique weirdness, and in addition to the weirdest and best music venue, there is an Orange Center for Visionary Art and the Houston Art Car parade. We went and prayed to the god of Orange at the bizarre and tangy house built at the End of Hope (1979), and then to the universal gods at the Rothko chapel over in the museum district. By far my favorite chapel, the Rothko is an unsassuming square brick structure on the outside and a grey and black circle on the inside. There are meditation cushions and benches from which you can contemplate the Rothko canvases, which at first appear to be sheer matte black, but in fact admits of subtle variations in color and pattern. Since black absorbs all light, and since the chapel is organized in a circle rather than the spatial separations between worshippers and holy (wo)men of most churches, temples, mosques, etc, the effect for me is a presentation of the sacred as all inclusive and non-hiearchical—sacred communism! We left feeling very centered.

On the way out of town, my Dunkin’ Donuts locator iphone app took us to what was once a Dunkin’ Donuts but is now “Dunk Donuts”. They kept all the same logos and advertisments, blacking out the ‘in’ in ‘dunkin’ with a sharpie. Dunkin’ Donuts refused to lower their franchising fee so the local owner just took things into her own hands. Hilarious. Everything else was the same, even the donuts and (sacred of all fast food delicacies) the coffee.

LOUISIANA

Just when we were beginning to believe that we were in a sequel to Sartre’s No Exit in which the Texas highway goes on forever, we crossed into Lousiana. Almost immediately everything looks different. Coming from California, it’s always bizarre to see the houses with no yards to speak of—they’re just plopped there on green plots with no fences between each other (I like that, needless to say). Things get junglier, stickier, wetter, yummier, greener, sexier, greasier. We took tiny ‘highways’ deep down into the bayou, bypassing Interstate 10. One is struck first of all by the poverty. We passed through ‘historic districts’ with nearly all the businesses permanently closed (saw this in Texas a lot as well). So many shotgun shacks, cheap mobile homes, and houses falling apart. We stopped at a Waffle House (I love how they’re all shotgun shack-shaped as well!) and heard three stories from three people working the 8pm-4am shift. “There’s nothing here for kids, for anyone, really,” said Crystal, speaking of Morgan City, Lousiana. “There used to be arcades and stuff but that’s all gone.” She overcame a prescription pill addiction (apparently the big drug out this way, after a meth phase half a decade ago) to win her kid back after her husband died. They pay her $3/dollar. We tipped her 40 % but I left with a deep sadness and bitterness about this country and the ravages of capitalism. It’s not just the low wages, poor benefits, and union-busting. It’s the utter lack of money and effort (owing in part to the scandalously low tax rates) put into the kinds of community resources that by comparison are overflowing in Europe. And what you always hear out this way—the cops are corrupt. Of course.

But my god the food. It’s the only food in America that doesn’t make me embarrassed when showing it to European friends. We took a walk through what seemed to us like a jungle today, in the Palmetto State Park, and ran across massive black wild boars and a gaggle of armadillos who, apparently because they are well armoured, did not care how close we got. We’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, mourning the death of Clarence Clemons, and no one besides Woody Guthrie got the United States better. Every sax solo cuts to the heart these past few days, and Phish broke our hearts with a touching, thrown-together and abject tribute to Clarence . In any case, it makes me want to tip everyone 30%. I am disgusted at my rich friends who tip 15%.

We finally went to a strip club here in Houma, LA, off the 90. Vanessa has been wanting to go to a bunch for her research. This one was the size of my garage and featured the most overweight stripper I’d ever seen. She was a marvel to watch as she shook her butt relentlessly for the pleased patrons. We met a dancer named Georgia who invited us to spend the night at her place. She has three kids, the first when she was 17. Her husband is a rigger working off the coast, and is gone for weeks at a time. I’m now at a Waffle House writing this at 1:35am, waiting for her to get off work. See you in Mississippi.

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.