This issue of BLIP Magazine begins and ends with two playlists, created by two of my favorite DJs. First, the one and only Delphine Blue, a DJ who has saved my life many last nights over the years, since I first stumbled upon her radio show, “Shocking Blue,” back in, oh, 1997, shortly after I’d moved to Alphabet City with big dreams of becoming a writer. As they say, In dreams begin responsibilities and ruined credit ratings, but still, for me, it was nothing shy of an epiphany, randomly tuning the dial—manually, yes—stopping cold, hearing Marianne Faithful on the radio.
But it wasn’t just music; it was her storytelling, that music and story go hand-in-hand; they’re one and the same on Delphine’s show. I can think of maybe three or four times in ten years that Delphine didn’t have half a dozen stories and twice as many anecdotes to share, never failing to remind me of the raw power of radio that I’d all but forgotten by the late 1990s, that immediate and intimate connection between a listener and disc jockey. Really, it was love at first listen, and from the moment I heard her playing “Broken English,” I tuned in to Delphine Blue every Friday morning from ten to noon on WBAI, 99.5 FM.
For years, trying to write and make ends meet, I juggled two, three jobs at a time, but I always scheduled my work around Delphine’s show. If I had to run errands, I took my Walkman, may it rest in peace, and I avoided neighborhoods where BAI’s reception was weak, downtown. So hooked, you’d have thought it was the O.J. trial, the way I was glued to the courtroom drama, that time Delphine’s little Cocker Spaniel got attacked by a Pit bull, and half-jokingly, calling friends to share updates, I started referring to “Shocking Blue” as my stories, like those diehard grannies and their radio programs of yesteryear. Because even at my most destitute, when I was literally penniless, having raided the penny jar and every last pocket I owned, for two hours of every week, listening to “Shocking Blue,” I wanted for nothing, and I was home, sweet home.
And speaking of homecomings. At the end of this issue, you’ll find another playlist by Matthew Levin, who started DJ’ing his own radio show this year, the dubiously titled and D.C.-based, “Uncle Matt’s Two-Hour Shower”, but grew up in L.A., in the middle of The Decline of Western Civilization. Talk about a punk childhood, Black Flag played at his Bar Mitvah—no, not really, but it’d make a great story, and close enough, anyhow. I mean, how much more punk rock can you get than interviewing your mom, live, on the air? Not much, if your mom happens to be Sheree Rose, another contributor to this issue who I’ll mention shortly, and who took her nine-year-old son to see DEVO for the first time in 1978.
So, yes, we have music to begin, music to end, and music in between. Not punk, its predecessor, jazz: writer David Ryan, the former drummer of the band The Lemonheads, shares a playlist along with his musical coming-of-age essay, “Thirteen,” illustrated with Ryan’s earliest drumming transcriptions, which were, as David says, “observation, in slow motion, of a human being’s refutation of the concept of a metronome in life. It was the curve of fiction’s tensions and releases compared to the rising and fall of math on a balance sheet.”
The reason I chose these musical beginning, middle and ends for a literary quarterly is because I didn’t come to writing through literature; I came through music, by way of great vinyl, not great books. Growing up, when I was a kid, we didn’t have any books or art to speak of in our house. In fact, we didn’t much of have anything to our names, except for one hell of a record collection, crate after crate, stuffed full of albums, which, with the help of paisley Indian-tapestry-covered foam mats, doubled as couches and chairs. I’m not exaggerating when I say music was religion in our house, that I was reared under the one true faith of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll! I was taught to say my bedtime prayers to the gods of electric guitar—Hendrix, Richards, Page, Zappa, Santana, Vaughn, Townshend—they were our sustenance, our daily bread. We showed our devotion by making cross-country pilgrimages to see The Band, and just about every band that played in the 1970s, our tire tracks—the last year it was manufactured entirely in Germany, 1974, a vintage year for the Capri—crisscrossing the United States like a God’s Eye.
I loved it, too—I vividly remember loving concerts for many reasons, not the least of which was because I always had the best seat in the house, on top of my dad’s shoulders. That’s a child’s paradise, a man’s shoulders, and who can’t remember that feeling, wishing you could stay up there forever? That said, believe me when I say I have been to Purgatory and back, and let me tell you, it bares striking resemblance to a three-day Allman Brothers concert. Maybe it was only six hours, but Christ Almighty, I still can’t believe I made it out of there alive. Anyhow.
On quiet weekends, our home away from home was this outfit called Peaches (“It’s Peachy”) Records and Tapes—what a post-psychedelic crapshoot that was, never knowing if they’d have King Crimson, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, “White Rabbit,” “White Bird,” or “Free Bird” cued up. But soon as we walked through the door, my dad would grab one of their empty wooden crates, and we’d pick a nice section, before Dad’d stand the box on its side, lengthwise, and hoist me up by my armpits, so I could peer into the bins, like all the young dudes. Honestly, I thought I blended right in—I’m the daughter of a dude—I know the rules, the dude code. Please, I hail from a long line of dudes, okay.
Seriously, until my thirteenth birthday, I spent every summer in a small town in southeast Iowa, living with my grandparents and my mother’s seven brothers and sisters and cousins and all their boyfriends and girlfriends and the rest of the town. It was like Mayberry in my eyes, a place lit up by fireflies and a Tasty Freeze and weekend-long softball tournies, a town where people sat on rocking chairs on their front porches, husking corn and waving when you walked by, and our whole family went to church on weekends, given that attendance was mandatory. My grandfather was also my godfather, and I was his pride and joy, wearing my best dress and my hair roller-curled by my aunt Monica, all dolled up for my date with God at ten of five, so excited to be the first to arrive at that brick oven of a Catholic church for Saturday night mass, yay! How that man beamed, as I squeezed his hand, taking our seats, while all I cared about was a front-row view of redheaded altar boy Sean Sipe, wearing that long white gown. Hot.
After mass, in lieu of sitting on my dad’s shoulders at concerts all night, I camped out in my grandfather’s lap at the dining room table, stretching my hands over the rose bouquets of my Great-Grandma Margaret’s ivory lace tablecloth, the mortal coils of crotchet her greatest comfort next to the rosary, warming up for a big poker night, sure to sweep. Always a packed house, too, Friday and Saturday nights, and within an hour of guests arriving, the cloth would be removed, as the festivities got underway.
Hard to say what was more demented, the escalations of tall tales or the poker bets those men placed, goading each other, throwing down their chips: all in, and every man for himself. In the wee hours, that kitchen table was an unapologetic male sanctuary, and like every sanctuary, it had strict rules, spoken and unspoken. As for old boys clubs, well, my grandpa taught me it’s all in how you look at it, because there are far worse fates than being born without a penis. Nah, no use crying about it, child, best just learn the rules, the better to know how to break them.
Well, then. Here’s a Catholic confession for you if there ever was. My grandpa dropped out of high school at fifteen to help support his widowed mother and seven siblings, then went on to have eight children of his own and a granddaughter by the age of forty-one—me, yes. In many ways, he’d had so many children so young, and had been working so many jobs for so long, I was his firstborn, his favorite, and he doted, spoiled me rotten. I was granted special privilege, and his own house rules didn’t apply to me—which all my aunts and uncles made me pay for, every time the man left for work.
And for thirty-five years, he did everything in his power to keep his secret safe, the fact that he worked two jobs, at the USPS, as a mailman, Monday through Friday, and as a janitor on weekends and nights, to make sure every one of his kids had the opportunity to go to college, and all the while, for all those years, he lived in fear that one day, his educated children would think him an ignorant man, illiterate. What breaks my heart is that he died more than twenty years ago, before I ever had a chance to tell him how wise he was, born knowing lessons that no book can teach. Because my grandfather didn’t raise me as a girl: he raised me as his daughter. Vive la difference, and ¡Viva la Revolución!
But god, he loved a story like no one’s business. Storytelling was currency in his house, and in that sense, we were obscenely rich, and that dining room drew adoring crowds. To think of all those salty old men of the earth, armed with clean handkerchiefs and dirty mouths, smoking, drinking, trash talking like they were Larry fuckin’ Bird. Oh, my word, no more than four years old, and as the men gathered, standing room only, that midnight table was one downright sexy place to be, and I wanted in. Deal me in, boys! Then and there, I learned the first rule of the oral tradition: you want in; watch and listen. Just listen, quietly. So I did. Fly on the wall; child in the lap.
I come from working-class, through and through, and what that education taught me is that a man’s hands can tell you his whole life story, without even checking his palm. So there I was, standing on a Peaches crate, and I could separate the men from the boys in a finger—oh, not even—in a single fingernail. Because the devout, a true vinyl aficionado always overgrew the pinkie nail of their dominant hand, and used it like a box cutter, slicing the plastic sleeves off new vinyl, hot butter for the Hot Tuna. Take those lifers working behind the counter, for example.
But some of these guys, man, they’d look down their noses at me, trying to hurry me up, poaching on my prime G-H or P-Q-R territory. So I’d take one look at their hand, right, left, right, and see for myself, clear as day: ten clipped nails: Poser. Disgusted, I’d lock my jaw, dig in my heels, and look back up, giving them the ol’ little missy snake eye: Stand down, civilian.
When I’d find a few new album covers I liked—particularly fond to the 70’s surrealism of Hipgnosis’s artwork—I’d hug them like a life preserver, jump down, and crawl underneath the maze of record bins with my scores—best forts I ever had, too. That’s how I’d spend my time, listening to music, looking at album covers and making up stories about the pictures in front of me. Whenever I got tired, needed a break, I’d crawl out, saunter over to the front counter and browse, back when pharma-musicology retailers provided one-stop shopping: guitar picks, guitar strings, rolling papers, Ozium, incense, vials of oils, patchouli, vanilla, musk, pipe cleaners, pipe screens, an array of wooden and metal pipes, and, naturally, big-ticket items: trophy displays of hand-blown glass bongs.
Standing four feet tall in my mom’s heels, there were bongs taller than I was, and I loved looking at all the swirling, speckled hand-blown glass. Whenever I’d find something special, like nothing we had, I’d go grab my dad. Course, I’d have to tug at his hand with all my weight to tear him away and pull him to the register. Then, peering up, into my father’s blood-shot eyes, I’d lay it on him, full-court press: Isn’t it pretty? I’d say. Look: look at this one: we need it, Dad. Those were the days, alright, because in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona über alles of 1977, there was no such thing as too many bongs. In other words, I reeled that man in, hook, line and sinker, sucker.
What can I tell you? I grew up in head shops and the back seat of a 1968 Galaxie 500 with a 351-cubic-inch Cleveland V8 and beefed-up performance suspension. And long as I live I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on that bitch of burden. Now, keep in mind that in those last couple years of the seventies, we moved around quite a bit, whichever way those desert winds blew. The economy was in the toilet, much like today, and my parents had to take work, wherever they could find it.
Of course the beauty of having no earthly possessions was that we could pack up our whole house, be on our way in a matter of hours, easy; spend a few months here, a few months there, and back again. There were benefits to not being tied down, absolutely, but on the other hand, I was born with a sizeable materialistic bone. Or I was just your average kid, enamored with the newness of things rather than their substance, either way, it’s 1979, dawn of the Reagan Era, so imagine my excitement the day my dad announced that we were getting a new car. That’s right, Dad said we were getting a new car, his exact words, and it was, well, it was this little girl’s dream come true. Oh, it got better, though—if new car wasn’t sequin-sparkly enough, man pulled a rabbit from the hat, speaking the magic words, Just the two of us. Dad said we’d take our new car for a drive, after school, just the two of us. (Sorry, Mom.)
We’re talking Christmas in October, and on the blessed day Dad was bringing our new car home, I thanked baby Jesus for the gifts we were about to receive, returning to our apartment, panting and sweaty, having run the whole way home from school, almost tripping and falling a dozen times, as my backpack sloshed, throwing me from side to side. This was when we were living in a low-rent hood of Albuquerque, and it wasn’t the projects, but it was due east of ghetto, this wasteland of spirit-breaking, non-descript, identical two-story, one-window cement-block apartment buildings—Mom and I got lost all the time, when we first moved in.
Anyhow, I got home, expecting our new car to be parked right under our doorway, but it wasn’t there. Actually, there weren’t any cars; the lot was practically empty—I didn’t know what was going on, looking around. So I opened our door, calling my dad, and he comes walking out, smiling this big old smile, all puffed up and proud, like a new father, and he says, Did ‘ya see it, Court? What do you think? I nodded no, no—by that point, I’m so excited for a ride in our new car, just the two of us, I about wet my daisy-print elastic cotton pants—and Dad said, Baby, it’s right out front, how could you miss it? I didn’t understand, so I stepped back outside and leaned over the rail, looking down at the u-shaped lot, framed on three sides by rectangular apartments and the city’s storm drains to the north, past the ten-foot chain-link fence, and all I saw was this mangy muscle car, gross.
Took me a second, but then I realized what he was up to. Well, of course! Like father, like daughter, like father, Dad was about to tell me to cover my eyes, before he slipped off, and then he’d pull up, honk the horn, and there it’d be, all shiny and new car, and maybe there’d be a big red bow on the hood … And then, slowly, very slowly, the gears in my little head started turning, putting it all together: Dad said our new car was in the parking lot, and there was only one car in the lot, and for some reason, he was smiling at that fugly thing. Because, in my eyes, thing looked like it had had an acid bath, the paint job was so worn and grainy, like a super 8 film on four wheels, and seeing it, parked there, when I first got home, all I could think was, Guess it’s true what they say about life not being fair. Because here we are, getting a new car, and those poor people–wow, that’s so sad, because I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car … Then it hit me, right between the eyes: we were those poor people I was feeling sorry for.
At that moment, on the spot, I christened her Old Red. In all seriousness, I named the car Old Red, in honor of Old Yeller, because I wanted to put that car, my dad and myself out of our misery. Lower lip trembling, staring down at the wildebeest parked beneath our front door, I was devastated. In fact, I ran to my room, threw myself on my bed, or the mat on the floor, whatever, and started sobbing these heaving, inconsolable sobs. Because all I wanted, all I ever wanted was to be respectable. I had a fighting chance too—I could’ve been a contender, and this is what he does to me, my own father? I mean it was hard enough being the only white girl, the lone jueta in an elementary of a thousand kids, my old man went and pulled a fast one, bringing home that cholo magnet. No joke, we couldn’t pull out of that parking lot without some ese or band of vatos trying to pick a fight, right before my eyes, too, they’d shove my dad’s shoulder with a mere cock of the chin, and tell you what, my daddy loved to rumble.
Well. Fortunately or unfortunately, Old Red’s back seat was deeper than our bathtub, so I’d just lie flat on my back, for fear of being seen by anyone from school, or anyone at all, period. I guess it was better than walking, and at least we could get around town. Sometimes, if we had a little scratch, as a special treat, we would go see a Saturday matinée, the three of us. Our favorite was Cheech & Chong—we never missed a Cheech & Chong flick—and Monty Python, of course. I have to say, I remember the first time I heard the line, No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!, and I nodded, no, wrong. Me: I do: I expect the Spanish Inquisition every time my dad opens the door and tells me to hop in, at risk of being deflowered by the errant springs in the back seat, that torturous double-folded hair shirt of the old man’s very own government issue U.S. Army blanket as my only protection, Lord have mercy.
Funny, though, the perversions of time. Because now, all these years later, I remember that damn car so lovingly, longingly—oh, what I’d give to be reunited, just like old times—Dad and me, just the two of us, taking Old Red out for a ride on a deserted New Mexico highway at sunset, see what that baby can do. Because that car didn’t purr, she growled, menacing women and children at intersections across the great southwest. To this day, I can still hear that rabid engine roar, and when I think of childhood, the best of my childhood, I remember my blonde hair flying, head out the window, two-hand-surfing the hundred-mile-an-hour winds of the American desert. No, my family, we didn’t have books, we didn’t have a dollar to our name most days, but we had a fast car, loud music, and we were free.
All of which brings me to another contributor, a gentleman named Jon Patrick, who’s shared a photo essay, a brief visual history of his two-year-old blog, The Selvedge Yard. And what is The Selvedge Yard, you ask? Well, porn, mainly. That’s right, it’s good old-fashioned porn, the way God intended, offering up a little something-something for everybody. What, you got cars, bikes, motorcycles, movie stars, centerfolds, style icons, textile design, punk rock—it’s BMX one day; Jean Cocteau the next. Really, aside from its open embrace of carnal desires and divine inspirations, alike, you can’t pin it down. Even better, it’s such a rush that you don’t want to, and in that sense, it’s a true ride.
Posting at breakneck speed, TSY’s one of the only blogs I read, due in no small part to the fact that Patrick flies the flag: Non-Profit Organization. In other words, you won’t find any post-pubescent girls bending forward, spreading their asses for the camera—or, if there are, at least the images are from Patrick’s personal collection, not bankrolled by bankrupt American Apparel advertising dollars. In all seriousness, what I admire about TSY is its craft, the dedication and the discipline of showing up, day in, day out, with hands on the keyboard and sleeves rolled, reciting the poetry of paralevers, of renegades and speed demons and truth seekers.
At the crossroads of auto-erotica and Americana, The Selvedge Yard is a celebration of that greatest of American tales: the open road. Which is one of many threads of this issue; stories about our cars and highways and the selves with whom we play hide and seek in our rearview mirrors. On that note, I want to mention another contributor, William R. Gilliland. A true man of distinction, Gilliland was a Texas born-and-bred rare book dealer who died last August, at the age of eighty-three. A few days after he died, I had the opportunity to take a peek at his life’s work, several boxes that were so loaded down, so heavy, I had to use two hands to pull them across the floor. Boxes filled entirely with first editions—only two of dozens of such boxes—worth a small fortune in monetary terms; a large fortune in literary ones. I’d say a good half of those first editions were signed by the authors, and some volumes had elaborate book sleeves designed with handmade papers, the likes of harlequin prints and floral designs, genuine works of art.
From those boxes I’ve chosen a random assortment of bits and pieces, literary ephemera, if you will, that I find fascinating. Like the loose slips of paper on which Gilliland wrote dates and estimated values, in pencil, verified by ads clipped from the Times, falling on the ground, or a first edition of Arthur Miller’s The Misfits, for example, one of thousands of books that Gilliland collected over sixty years. History’s enamored with its famous writers, publishers and editors, but what about all the rest who also dedicate their lives to books? Literature’s unsung heroes: the readers, collectors, and lovers, all?
Really, I only know William R. Gilliland through his archive, a glimpse of which appears in this issue, and stories told, but what I can tell you about Gilliland, Senior, is that, in addition to being a brilliant bookworm, he was president of the Dallas Jazz Society and a Beatnik at heart. As a matter of fact, in one of their last conversations, speaking from his deathbed at Baylor Hospital, Bill quotes his father as saying, “I love chick writers.” Classic. A connoisseur, Gilliland had plenty of his own stories to share, having met many famous artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians over the years—Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Dennis Hopper, and Miles Davis, to name a few cool cats. I saved a story about Gilliland and his new bride for the photo essay, but it brought to mind a line from contributor Kevin Spaide’s neurotic and narcotic’ly readable short story “Wake,” “The future sat in the back seat.”
So let’s talk writers. For the record, I didn’t approach any writers I know or know of to contribute to this issue, because I wanted to discover new work, new voices and visions. But still, when I began reading submissions for this issue, a few people wrote to ask what I was looking for, what’s this “The Shock of the Then” business all about, right? (Aside from being a play on the Robert Hughes’s BBC series The Shock of the New, a hundred-year history of modern art, that I found extremely inspiring once upon a time. And granted a bit of poetic license, given that “The Shock of the Old” doesn’t sound very shocking, now does it?) And although I understood their question, I had no idea how to answer without sounding glib. Because no matter what the theme, I have to believe every editor is looking for the same thing: great writing. That is, words that break your heart, blow your mind, pierce your eardrums, and make your spirit take flight, in no particular order.
And like any love affair, you never know when or where or how it’ll happen—sometimes it sneaks up and taps you on the shoulder, and sometimes it gets right in your face and shakes you by both arms. Some stories accelerated from zero to sixty in a sentence, as in the case of “Safe,” Alicia Gifford’s short story. For me, “Safe” was the literary equivalent of being flagged in a car, pulling over to ask what’s the matter, rolling down the window, leaning across the seat, and first thing this story says is, “’I’m horny,’ Rob whispers.” Naturally, what could I possibly say, except, Get in. Matter of fact, I jumped out, and we switched seats, then and there.
Talk about joy rides, the twists and turns and bumps in the inroads of every one of these fictions, never knowing what’s around the bend—not once did I have a clue where any of these stories would lead. Even “Safe”—you think you know where “’I’m horny”’ is going to end, think again. And fair warning, because there are some deranged tales in this issue—damaged goods, indeed—and I mean that as high praise. Seriously, I lost count the number of times in the past few weeks that I heard Peter Fonda’s voice in my head, “We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do! We want to be free to ride!” Wild Angels, yes, and there’s plenty of reaper madness in this issue, as well. All I can say is, Death be not proud or so goddamn funny as Daniel Crocker, “The Big Cross,” (“’I follow God’s law,’ he said. ‘Would you like a drink?’”), or the graveside politics and battling battle axes of W.F. Lantry’s “Lacrymosa,” to the hilarious, morbid and precise storytelling of Erik Smetana’s “Morning Rush” and Andrew Roe’s “This Is What It’s Like.” Mighty and dreadful, indeed, and I’m still laughing.
And there’s more—oh, there’s so much more. Like Douglas Silver’s trans-American tale, “You are not Megellan” (“Have you felt her calves? You can’t fake that, yo.”) My word, reading that story for the first time, second time, third time, I literally held my hand to the screen: Stop, stop! Don’t stop, yo! I am so pleased to say that satire is alive and well and completely demented in the hands of all these authors, from the delirium and frenzy of Nicholas Ripatrazone’s “Gulps,” to that psychosis better known as literary ambition, diagnosed in David Laskowski’s “Anatomy of a Lost Cause,” to the deadly consumption of “(I ATE)” and writer Mel Bosworth’s killer line, “’0 69’ wasn’t in their lexicon of dirty.”
Moving right along, if a rally of high-speed death trips and gender transgressions isn’t enough, how about sex? Because this issue’s got sex on the brain, all right, and a few other places, as well. Let’s be clear: this is not erotica, folks, no, no, no, this is the good, the bad, and the thigh-clenchingly ugly sex. Take, for example, “The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, Relatives and Gin,” in which Rae Bryant writes, “She named the penis Waldo.” Then there’s Shelagh Power-Chopra’s “The Dumb Waiter,” which looks, feels, smells and gropes like a pervy uncle, albeit kissing cousins. Ugh, what can I possibly say except that I love chick writers, too, Mr. Gilliland. Last, but not least, honest and fearless, poignant and pitiless, Kimberly Ford’s “Summer Without Parents,” which tells exactly what it is to be a living, breathing, lusting-for-life American teenage girl. Oh, to be fifteen again, languishing in those lazy, hazy days of August, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, but lather up in Hawaiian Tropic and Trojan talc. (Sorry, Dad.)
Two steps forward, three back. Here’s a question I’ve been asked many times, over the years, and a question I imagine most every writer must field: When did you know? How and when did you know you wanted to be a writer? I can tell you when, or at least how I became a writer—maybe not in my hands, but in my ears, but still. Here’s the moment: it’s January 1985, and I’m fourteen years old.
By then, we’d settled down. My parents got regular jobs; my mom bought nice things for our house; we were even able to afford a new car—a new new car, the kind from a dealer not a dealer. Reagan was in his second term, and storms were brewing, inside and out, as that chronic blood poisoning better known as adolescence took possession of my mind and body. Seemingly overnight, I despised everything about those two otherwise exceptional people I had once called my mom and dad, before I quit speaking to them. Swear, I practically pinched my nose, if one of them walked into the room, and especially incensed by their music: like ohmygod, classic rock is, like, so uncool. I was a full-blown teenager, and like every teenager, I was looking for something, having no idea what I was looking for.
By mid-January, the holiday season babysitting money was burning a hole in my pocket, so I took my wad of ones and fives and saddled up to the counter of All That Jazz, my hometown record store, and this cassette tape caught my eye in their new releases section. The title was New Day Rising, by some band with an unpronounceable name that I’d never heard of. I still don’t know what it was, whether it was those two dogs, the ocean, the sunset, but for whatever reason, the party hats on those umlauts got me all hot and bothered under the collar: sold.
Paid top dollar and ran home to give it a listen. An hour later, having no idea what to expect—and vividly remember being far more interested in posing on my bed in my underwear, lying on my back, bare butt buttressed against the wall, feet in the air, inspecting my nail polish, when I clasped my Walkman and I pushed play. A few seconds later, the sonic boom of the title track, “New Day Rising,” ricocheted through my bedroom, stripping the pink polish right off my toes. I mean, I, I nearly blacked out, experiencing the G-forces of that electric guitar, and at long last, I was home. In my bedroom, all alone, I was home again, but for the first time. That was my musical coming of age, that was my first three-chord kiss, and as true a beginning of adolescence as any.
There’s no way—there’s just no way I would be a writer today if I hadn’t discovered that particular strain of mid-eighties American punk embodied by the Minnesota trio better known as Hüsker Dü. Never heard anything like it, never seen anything like it—after all, these weren’t the hyper-stylized London punks making nightly news, charging tourists to have their pictures taken. No, the most singer Bob Mould got dressed up was the occasional Borg headband; bassist Greg Norton looked like a roadie for the Village People; and Grant Hart, Lord help me, I tried with all my haywire teenage might to muster a sexual fixation, a spark, even, like maybe if I squinted … ? No. Fortunately or unfortunately, those two-and-a-half gay men were a fortress, impenetrable to a fourteen-year-old girl’s insatiable desire to crush and be crushed—oh, Hüsker Dü shut me down. But, at the same time, they turned me on like nothing I had ever known or felt.
After that, I got my hands on everything I could listen to and read about the band. A few babysitting gigs later, I discovered their cover of The Byrds’s Eight Miles High—takes some real cojones grandes to cover The Byrds, and those düdes did, and to this day, it’s the most ferocious cover I have ever heard. That one cover taught me an invaluable lesson, that no one creates in a vacuum, that in this life, you’ve got to use what you have, use what you know, and make it new by making it your own—beg, borrow and steal, by hook or crook, but most of all, don’t just do it, you got to own it. Coincidentally, as I soon learned, Hüsker Dü formed in Saint Paul, Minnesota, hometown of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
With that, one band triggered a punk rock domino effect, followed by Sonic Youth, The Slits, The Ramones, The Stooges, The Minutemen, Minor Threat, The Birthday Party, and X, of course. These bands introduced me to other bands, and equally importantly, to artists and writers, photography, painting, poetry and fiction. They put me on my path, and they threw things at me, right and left, some of which I was ready for, some of which I wasn’t. What matters is that they all trusted me to find my way and decide for myself. That’s what led me, ultimately, to discover the likes of Joan Didion, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, James Salter, Stanley Elkins, Grace Paley, Lydia Davis, Thomas Bernhard, Jane Bowles, Henry Green, Paula Fox, the heavyweights, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Proust (Proooooooost). Each and every one triggered explosions in my brain, that canon fire of synapses, holding their words in my hand.
And, of course, one of the musicians that has most inspired me, the 2010 National Book Award-winning author, Patricia Lee Smith, second only to my childhood idol Janis Joplin. Over the course of the next three years, Patti Smith would introduce me to more artists, more writers, from Rimbaud to Ginsburg—maybe that’s not such a stretch, but still—more than any class I had or would ever take in school. All those times in my late teens, early twenties, when I felt afraid, on my own, unable to get any of my friends to go to a show with me, and wanted to turn back, go home, soon as I walked through the door, I thought of her. And then stood my ground, knowing I wasn’t alone.
Not to be gratuitous, but then again, why stop now? Honestly, I just never got it. I mean, come on, half the reason—at least half the reason teenage boys get out of bed in the morning is in the hope that, in a world of infinite possibilities, this could be the day of days that he actually gets laid. Then you’d see so many of those same boys giving girls such shit at shows, disrespecting us in our own homes. I know, because I saw it, I experienced the double standards of punk rock, first-hand and ass-grab, how often the punk scene treated women like second-class citizens of the republic. Some shows, you’d get physically assaulted simply standing in a corner, trying to watch a band, offer some support. No two ways about it: it was rough, it was sexist, it was hopelessly hypocritical, but the thing is, there was nowhere else I wanted to be. So I kept going back.
Which brings me to another contributor, the quintessential Riot Grrrl, Ms. Sheree Rose. A woman, who, as a thirteen-year-old girl, growing up in the LA suburbs in the 1950s, heard a song on the radio one day, a melody that would forever change her life, and which she described to me in a way that I understood all too well: “When I heard that singer, I didn’t know if he was black or white—I didn’t care—I was just crazy for his music!” It was 1954, and the singer in question was none other than Elvis Presley. When she couldn’t convince any of her friends to join her, because no one knew who he was, that thirteen-year-old girl took a trolley car all the way across Los Angeles, alone, to see Presley perform for the first time at the Shrine Auditorium.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with her or her work, let me tell you about Sheree Rose: she is the very embodiment of traditional American values. She is an activist, an artist, an academic, a libertine, dominatrix, wife, widow, and a Jewish mom. As I mentioned, Matt Levin, her son, has been working on a film script about that punk-rock childhood Rose gave him, and in addition to interviewing Rose as part of his radio show for this issue, the two worked together, editing her photo essay. That handful of pictures, culled from thousands of photos still unearthed, tell the story of how a girl born into a conservative Jewish family in the Los Angeles suburbs in the 1940s went on to become the first crowned punk queen of East LA, not to mention a photographer, filmmaker and performance artist, who, having been married and divorced, mother of two, met the great love of her life, Bob Flanagan, at the age of thirty-nine. Now in her sixties, Rose is receiving attention long overdue for her role as the equal partner and collaborator of “supermasochist” Flanagan, who died in 1996.
Talk about hitting a moment in time, I wouldn’t say that she was there when it happened, because, like all pioneers, she was so ahead of her times, there wasn’t there yet, when Sheree Rose showed up on the scene. Seriously, it’s 2011, and NPR’s still trying to get their liberal-minded heads around the fact that a woman can hold both a Master’s degrees and a whip, and Rose was out there, doing exactly that, more than thirty years ago. I am honored Sheree opened her arms and her archives to me, and I’m not easily shocked, trust me, but I’m still trying to pick up my jaw, having seen what she has to share. Talk about American History X, oh, the stories that woman can tell about touring with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, just for starters, and I’m going to stay on her case to write that book until the fat lady shatters every glass in the cupboard, hitting that wicked B-flat, from Ella’s mouth to God’s ears.
Speaking of famous women, on December 28, 2010, the sixth anniversary of Susan Sontag’s death, we filed an essay written by Sontag’s personal assistant and copy editor, Karla Eoff, about Sontag, renowned for her brilliance, beauty and privacy, equally. Karla was my copy editor, as well, and she was nothing less than a godsend to this first-time novelist, who, along with my editor Adrienne Brodeur, fulfilled that dream every writer has of working with editors who like to get their hands dirty in red pen and prose. In any case, when I approached Karla last fall, asking if she would write a short piece about Sontag, she hesitated, concerned about invading that well-guarded personal life, about tarnishing Sontag’s memory in any way. We talked about it, and I assured her that I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy, I want to honor Sontag’s work, to know just a little more of the life that went into that lifetime of words. Karla responded with an essay that is sensitive, discreet, loving, a candid portrait—not only of Sontag, but one of the most intimate relationships, collaboration.
I wanted a picture of Sontag that had never been seen, because I couldn’t think of a better introduction to a group of my favorite young artists: Tara Violet Niami, Elijah Majeski, Valerie Chiang, Mike Bailey-Gates, Laurence Martel-Olivier and Dale Rothenberg, who are all teenage photographers. The fact is that quarterlies need new blood, so I approached each of them, asking if they’d shoot a cover of a literary classic, to approach the assignment as though shooting a new book cover, give a classic a new and personal spin. (I was definitely curious what they’d choose, and early on, Laurence wrote to discuss the novels that she was considering, and she said, Lolita, is that classic enough? I said, Laurence, it doesn’t get much more classic than that.) These young artists defy everything you hear about kids today, namely that teenagers don’t read, because I can assure you they do, and far more than I read at their age. Which is another reason why I wanted to introduce Sontag to these artists, and on a personal note to each of you, young photographers, I urge you to go out and get a copy of her book, On Photography, and read it as soon as possible.
That said, please keep in mind that the first time I picked it up, the book scared me, and I put it away. Because it brought out a stutter in my nerves, thinking, I don’t belong, this isn’t my place, I can’t understand this … At various points in the past three months, a few contributors—younger and older—expressed concern that they didn’t belong here, in this issue, uncertain for whatever reason, and I have one thing to say: mi casa es su casa, and this is exactly where you belong. And if and when you pick up her book, my young friends, remember that Sontag wrote On Photography for you. Yes, it’s going to challenge you, and you will have to go back and read and reread, many times, as any great work demands and rightfully deserves—and you deserve, as well. Because, see, you are now part of Susan Sontag’s legacy, you carry the torch, and that gives me such hope.
I understood those anxieties, the fear of not belonging, just as I understood Karla Eoff’s concerns, on a personal level. Karla’s hesitation struck a chord, many chords; the protectionism that is part and parcel of love, those we love. So I’ll say it now, at long last. My grandfather was openly suspicious of his third child, third daughter, Jo Ellen, christened in the church, Josephine Helen, who I’ve always called my aunt Jellen, the brains of our family, constantly holing up in a corner, with her nose in a book, and he didn’t like it one bit. The story goes that one Saturday afternoon, in her early teens, my grandpa called to her, asking her to come outside, come out and play with all the other kids, but when she didn’t answer, didn’t hear, he went so far as to storm upstairs, pound on her bedroom door, throw it open and order the girl downstairs, banishing her from her paperback, her reverie, her private world, shouting that she wasn’t right in the head, stop being so goddamn antisocial. Jellen didn’t tell me that, of course, until two years after he died, and she had long since forgiven him for the terrified father’s last refuge, shame. But you see the problem: the man was just trying to hold on to his little girl.
I understand that better than you’d think, because I followed suit. I loved my grandfather like no tomorrow, but then tomorrow came. After days in the ICU, he died of stroke a few days before my sixteenth birthday; he was fifty-seven. Three years later, I still couldn’t let go, so grief became my security blanket, my cold comfort; one constant. Anger, too. There I was, having talked my way into art school, at The Talking Heads’ alma mater, no less, surrounded by the likes of wealth I’d never imagined in my wildest dreams. True story, first day of the fall semester, my sophomore year, heading up the hill, a Rolls Royce pulled over, and a black-capped chauffeur proceeded to get out and ask me directions to the freshman dorms. So I told him where to go—I sent them downtown, which was a little dicey back then. Oops, my po’ bad.
Really, what the hell was I doing, surrounded by eighteen-, nineteen-year-old kids who arranged all their classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, so that they could take four-day weekends in Ibiza every weekend? And somehow, some way, I landed in a historic-preservation house on Congdon Street, next-door neighbors to European royalty, a bona fide prince who had the audacity to park a Harley he couldn’t even ride in the middle of the sidewalk, so that parking tickets collected like fall leaves, fifty bucks a pop. Me, my food budget was forty bucks a month, and I had to look at that sight every day: obscene. We knew bikers, family friends who raised me to revere motorcycles, and never in my life have I wanted to take a titanium bat and beat the shit out of a bike so badly.
It became a daily ritual, standing in that tall window on the third floor, the living room bathed in one of Providence’s spectacular pink-orange sunsets, staring down at that dirty hog and that fortune in tickets, and I’d hold up both fingers in a two-gun salute. Nursing such a grudge, I was practically clubfoot, walking home every day, carrying a chip the size of a cinder block. Quite an education, though, my first run-ins with semiotics. Which, frankly, I found elitist, pretentious and obnoxious, in no particular order, and worst of all, it had nothing, not a damn thing to do with what I most loved about storytelling: the human voice. Trained by men and women—mostly men, true, but still—sitting around the dining table, my Grandpa’s breath smelled of Marlboro Reds, Calverts and 7UP. Allowed to take as many sips of my grandpa’s drink—tasted pretty awful, but if Grandpa liked it, I liked it—as I wanted, just as soon as my grandmother went to bed, I’d be quiet and listen as stories were told and retold, argued, adorned, elaborated, exaggerated: this is the oral tradition. This is my tradition, and I intend to honor it with a daughter’s devotion.
It’s taken me all these years to admit this about him, keeping his secret a secret of my own. As painful as it is to share his darkest fears, because I want to protect him, to safeguard his memory, and I still feel so torn, yes, even now, although I’ve long since come to realize that you never do a man any favors by protecting him from the truth, least of all his own. That’s why, at least partly why, I used to kick and scream, forced to read those writers for class—Barthes, Lancan, Guttierez, all that Semiotext(e) business, forget it—because theory felt disloyal, and on a family-first crusade of my own making, I chose illiteracy over disloyalty. In willful ignorance, I pledged eternal devotion, speaking to a man six feet under, but lodged in my heart, telling him: I won’t let go. I’ll never let go of your hand.
Phenomenal, how a simple book can feel like such a betrayal that the blood boils, and the fear that’s permeating this country, uprooting and undermining the courage and conviction of our founding fathers and mothers, here and now, I know it intimately. The fear of not having food on the table, come Thursday night, before payday. Or how you’re going to clothe and feed your kids, keep a roof over their heads, keep the house warm and the car running, and you can’t even go see a doctor if you get sick. I know that bitterness and resentment and rage, misguided, but so utterly human, because I come from it. Which is exactly why I refuse to accept it. We must choose for ourselves—choose or lose ourselves. And it’s taken me years and years to untie those knots, and yeah, I got here through great vinyl, but it was great books, great writers that taught me there’s no better way to hold on to my family, to keep my grandfather’s spirit alive than with ten fingers and a keyboard.
That’s largely what got me so worked up, reading the interview by a writer who inspires me even more today than the first time I read him, author and musician Rick Moody, who, almost fifteen years ago, gave me the best of advice I’ve ever received about writing: Be honest, he said. Rick conducted an interview with Gang of Four’s original bassist, the multi-talented mastermind and fiercely articulate Dave Allen. I received the transcript of their interview on a Saturday morning in November, tucked between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, and after I finished reading it, my hands were shaking, experiencing thoughts that are so alive on the page, so unique, electric, and so much like his music. When you see Allen’s mind at work, that indomitable bass line makes perfect sense. It’s brainy, to say the least, and wading into those murky punk/post-punk/Marxist waters, Allen cuts to the heart of the matter, the simple, irrefutable truth: “How one’s life is lived makes the difference.”
After all, what’s more DIY than ART? I’m serious, you do it yourself; you do it again; you do it again and again and again, until you scale wall after wall of your own prejudices and misgivings, and then, finally, you stop thinking, and your hands move through the air. Whether the instrument is a keyboard, fret or spray can, what artist isn’t a punk at heart? When I began to understand that, get my head around that truth, the chip on my shoulder lightened considerably. It took the better part of a decade, but, finally, I quit telling myself I couldn’t understand, couldn’t get it, and step by step, page by page, I read all those writers, called a truce. Nevertheless, please excuse my French, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about Derrida, and I’m at peace with that.
Which leads me to the drawings of one of my favorite visual artists, a Philly born-and-bred working-class kid who also found himself a punk rocker in art school, and who, bless his heart, has never let go of the rage that burns bright in art. Whenever I look at one of Buckwalter’s drawings, I can’t help thinking of pop music and the sheer horrors that can be embodied in a pop song ditty, how diabolical pop truly is at its core. Like, say, The Beatles’s, “A Day In the Life,” and in this series, inspired by the bands and lyrics that set him on his own way, Buckwalter flexes the muscle memories of adolescence, the fury, indignation, and love, because, “There is no grace in love.”
Maybe, maybe not, but speaking of furies, film critic Chuck Stephens. Irascible, irreverent, incorrigible, after twenty years in the trenches, Chuck remains one of the precious few critics we have who could care less about corporate, newspaper and/or magazine politics and interests. Which is why, for the better part of the last twenty years, he’s been getting himself blacklisted from critics’ screenings by major studios for speaking his mind in no uncertain terms. Wearing his heart on his sleeve, his fly open, and knowing fully well that the pen is mightier than the sword, Chuck’s slayed countless giants, behemoths and blockbusters. Really, I can’t tell you the number of times I smelled blood on his first sentence; the Irish chorus in my brain chanting, Fight! Fight! Fight! The good fight, freedom of expression, of speaking one’s mind, however deranged that mind may be.
It’s hard for me to get my head around the fact that Chuck’s had enough, and it took some real convincing, some pleading, certainly, but Chuck came out of retirement for this issue—for me, an old friend, and for one of his idols, Bruce Baillie, one of the greatest filmmakers the United States has ever produced. If you don’t know who Bruce Baillie is, you should, you must, and Chuck has done all the work for you. Because when Chuck Stephens gets behind someone, he gives his full support, no holds barred, and there’s no one you’d rather have in your corner, as you will see clearly in his love poem to Baillie, which begins with a quote from the filmmaker, “I want to discover true American themes, the images that lay closest to the hearts of our citizens.”
By chance, six weeks ago, on December 1, the night we closed BLIP’s submission window, I was tired, bleary-eyed, didn’t want to read anything more, not another word, and I was just about to call it a night when I received one last submission. The reason I remember the date is because it was World AIDS Day, as well as the fifty-fifth anniversary of the day a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama changed the course of history by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. And on December 1, 2010, the board of our most venerable American institution, The Smithsonian, bowed down to pressure from conservative groups and religious activists, who, I might add, don’t support the arts in the best of times, whatever times those are, and removed David Wojnarowicz’s film “A Fire in My Belly” from the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” For shame, Mr. Wayne Clough.
In any case, the night of December 1, I received a short story called “The Gay Bomb,” based on a terrifying true story of a plan cooked up by some team of Dr. Strangelovers at the Pentagon to design pheromone bombs in order to convert our sworn enemies to homosexuality—if we can’t beat ‘em, bone ‘em, apparently. Really, people, how American can we get? Suffice to say, author James Russel sets his sights on our industrial military complex, armed with one of the most lethal weapons known to humankind: humor.
On that note, in the first interview he has ever conducted, writer Greg Pierce spoke with his longtime friend and mentor, Edmund White. You know I don’t read interviews with writers much, because, frankly, too often, in my opinion, they’re stripped of a writer’s personal tics, slang and imperfections, grammatical and otherwise, and I never understand that, sterilizing the words of those who devote themselves to writing about that messy state we call the human condition. I just don’t relate to those conversations; they don’t often ring true to any experience I have had or actually care to know about other writers. I mean, really, amongst our lesser qualities, writers are petty, neurotic, jealous, vindictive, covetous and lustful. Well, lustful could go either way, and certainly does in the hands of our man of letters, Edmund White.
In his conversation with Pierce, the author is disarmingly open, frank, funny, insightful, and oh so wonderfully randy. It’s one of the most genuine, real-to-writer’s-life interviews I have ever read, and as White says, “I read sometimes statements like in The Paris Review interviews where writers will say, I write for myself, I never think of the public, and I find that a complete head-scratcher because to me the whole thing is to touch somebody, manipulate somebody, move them towards something, make them think something is going to happen and then give them something entirely different.” Indeed, sir. Now, as for your own head-scratching comment that, “Women … really don’t like cocks and balls in writing,” you think so? Well, the future might be sitting in the back seat, but I very much look forward to discussing this observation with you, in detail, over drinks, the next time I’m in town, Mr. White.
Looking back, now, I just wish I’d been given an interview like that to read when I was in school—might’ve sat up and paid attention for once. You know I had an English teacher in high school, and the one thing I always remember about her class is how she always used to say, God bless the poets, for they shall inherit the Earth. Just so, rounding out this issue, are four death-defying poets, each of who perform the high wire, step-by-step, word-by-word. Heart-stopping, I held my breath, watching the balancing act of Bill Yarrow, who took me down with him, when he fell from grace: “Ghosts hold me to votes I disavow.” Followed by Erin Bealmear, who spares no one, least of all herself, with her speedball of vainglorious and plainspoken poetry, cutting itself off at the knees: “Trust me. It’s all a bunch of crap.” And then, sweet and sly Michael Snediker, with his innocent and ruthless observation that, “sometimes, her poems just break off when they least understand themselves,” daring to undress Emily Dickinson, and the rest of us with her.
To anyone who mistakenly thinks of poetry as soft and cuddly, warm and fuzzy—watch it, you’re liable to get your ass kicked. Because these poets fight fire with fire, raging against the very machine of written language with brutal honesty; they always get the last word, and in those final words, you realize that you haven’t read the poem so much as it’s read you. To that end, from “Refilling Shells for Skeet Practice,” the most timely verse of John McKernan:
If I traced letters
In the powder below
Would it bear the sound of my name
Which part of myself Brain or Heart
Would I carefully aim at?
For what it’s worth, hüsker dü means do you remember? And I do—I remember, and I’ve never forgotten where I come from. Literature is nothing if not a protest song, and I am indebted to Frederick Barthelme and to Rie Fortenberry, the very definition of a class act. They have been my champions and two of the first to publish my writing in print. They were, as I’ve said before, the heart and spleen of The Center for Writers at The University of Southern Mississippi for more than twenty-five years. No, I have never taken a writing class, I don’t have a college degree, and in the past year, I’ve never been so grateful for finding my own way home, having witnessed individuals and institutions of higher learning stoop so low. And I have one thing to say to those who allowed political aspirations and personal ego trips to trump the greater good of creative writing, of storytelling and narrative in its infinite forms, which is, in the immortal words of the winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature, Samuel Beckett: SUCK IT.
Well, I don’t about you, but I feel much better now. With that, dear friends, please join me in raising a glass with one hand and a fist with the other. Here’s to making art, not war, and not war on art, and, without further ado, let us toast the brilliant contributors of this, the January 2011 issue of BLIP Magazine, “The Shock of the Then.”
Thank you, one and all.