Josh Russell ~ Four Essays

For Dexys Midnight Runners

One day after school, on a side­walk in Northern Kentucky, three hicks beat me up. Earlier, in the lunch­room, a cheer­leader named Dawn asked me to smell a jar of Noxzema. When I bent to sniff, she shoved it in my face. Noxzema went up my nose and into my eyes. Unbeknownst to her and to me, the vice prin­ci­pal was watch­ing, and he pulled us into his office. He lec­tured her while she cried and apol­o­gized and I repeat­ed­ly told him and her it was no big deal, I was fine. Almost imme­di­ate­ly a rumor start­ed that I’d got­ten Dawn, the most pop­u­lar girl in junior high, kicked off the cheer squad, and the side­walk beat­down was based on that rumor—which wasn’t true: the cap­tain of the cheer­lead­ers doesn’t get in seri­ous trou­ble for tor­tur­ing a nobody. A week lat­er I changed schools. Every morn­ing for two and a half years there­after I walked a mile of side­walk along Alexandria Pike to a bus stop in an A&P park­ing lot and rode a pub­lic bus to a school in a dif­fer­ent dis­trict. On week­ends I made the same walk and rode the same bus over the Ohio and wan­dered Cincinnati side­walks lead­ing to Soul Train Fashions, which reeked of incense, to the opti­cian on Fountain Square where I tried on Wayfarers I could not afford, to the record store where I bought cassettes—including Dexys Midnight Runners’ Too-Rye-Ay.

MTV was added to my family’s cable chan­nels in late 1983, around my fif­teenth birth­day. I remem­ber going to my new school and talk­ing excit­ed­ly to my friends about our shared dis­cov­ery. I didn’t lis­ten to the radio, so MTV was my intro­duc­tion to pop music. The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first video shown on MTV, was still in reg­u­lar rota­tion, along with oth­ers from the network’s ear­ly days: “Brass in Pocket,” “Rapture,” “A Message to You Rudy.” But what I remem­ber most clear­ly is “Come on Eileen.”

The video opens with his­tor­i­cal context—what looks like news­reel footage of Johnny Ray, an American singer huge­ly pop­u­lar in the ear­ly ’50s in the UK, greet­ing crowd of ador­ing fans—context that frames a back­sto­ry shown in black and white snapshots—the narrator’s par­ents, his moth­er hold­ing what we assume is him as an infant, the nar­ra­tor and Eileen as kids and then as child­hood sweethearts—that sets up a very 1980s present: young love, nag­ging boy who admits to a girl wear­ing noth­ing under her den­im over­alls that his thoughts about her “verge on dirty” (he wasn’t the only one). In some scenes Eileen’s friend push­es a tod­dler in a stroller along the side­walk, the dan­gers of giv­ing in to such nagging—but Eileen does appear to give in, and she and the nar­ra­tor walk off down the side­walk into the night. The nar­ra­tive was—and still is—exciting.

Of course I want­ed to wear cool clothes like the peo­ple in MTV videos wore, do my hair like they did their hair, dance like they danced, suf­fer heart­break and ecsta­sy like they did—oh, Eileen—but I’ve come to rec­og­nize the detail that most con­nect­ed me to “Come On Eileen” was where the action took place. Like me, the peo­ple in the video walked and ran and danced and yearned on the side­walk. Maybe if I’d been even a cou­ple of years old­er the videos that would’ve hooked me would’ve been the ones that involved driving—“Ghost Town,” “Life in a Northern Town”—but I was bare­ly 14. I didn’t even have a learner’s per­mit. I was an exur­ban flâneur. The side­walk was my territory.


For DJ Scott LaRock & Jasper Johns

When DJ Scott LaRock sam­ples Fat Albert ask­ing “What can we get for six­ty-three cents?” on BDP’s “Illegal Business,” he’s pay­ing homage to a TV show that in 1988 was a shared part of the just-com­plet­ed child­hoods of many of those of us lis­ten­ing to By All Means Necessary, and he’s jux­ta­pos­ing our knowl­edge of that inno­cent TV show against KRS-One’s claims that “Cocaine busi­ness con­trols America / Ganja busi­ness con­trols America / KRS-One come to start some hys­te­ria / Illegal busi­ness con­trols America.” (Three decades-plus lat­er there’s the addi­tion­al jux­ta­pos­ing of Fat Albert-era Cosby against rapist-era Cosby.) I came to con­tem­po­rary art via Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Eric B. & Rakim. My high school girl­friend was a vol­un­teer docent at the National Gallery, where I would go on week­end after­noons to meet her after her shift and she would lead me through exhi­bi­tions. It didn’t take long before I start­ed com­ing ear­ly to roam alone before I picked her up. It was dur­ing that roam­ing that I saw Jasper Johns, et al were doing some­thing akin to what DJ Scott LaRock, et al were doing—mixing, remix­ing, lay­er­ing, head­ing Johns’ advice to Take an object / Do some­thing to it / Do some­thing else to it. [Repeat]—saw that Flag and “Illegal Business” are both a very com­plex set of cor­rec­tions.


For Roland Barthes

Quiet Riot’s biggest hits were a decade old when they showed up in Baton Rouge at the live music venue where I worked as a door­man and bounc­er. I knew the band and their songs from early-’80s MTV, back when they toured with Black Sabbath and played sta­di­ums, rather than head­lin­ing Wednesday shows at small clubs in col­lege towns. At load-in, I helped a road­ie get a huge, bat­tered wardrobe case off the bus and into the green room, where he proud­ly opened it to show me rows and rows of Polaroids of women’s crotch­es neat­ly taped to the inside of the case’s door. Each of the many dozens of snap­shots had been framed so that the pic­ture began just below the bel­ly but­ton and end­ed just above the knees. Beneath every woman was a motel bed­spread. I wish I could say I was shocked by the groupies’ nudi­ty. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes explains to me that my blasé response is an exam­ple of studi­um, “a kind of gen­er­al, enthu­si­as­tic com­mit­ment” to the sub­jects of cer­tain cat­e­gories of pho­tographs (war, porn) that “derives from an aver­age affect, almost from a cer­tain train­ing.” I reply that the bed­spreads are the punc­tum, the ele­ment that “will break (or punc­tu­ate) the studi­um,” the ele­ment “which ris­es from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.” I remind him that a “photograph’s punc­tum is that acci­dent which pricks me (but also bruis­es me, is poignant to me).” “Nothing more homo­ge­neous than a porno­graph­ic pho­to­graph,” he harumphs, quot­ing him­self. I can quote too: “Mapplethorpe shifts his close-up of gen­i­talia from the porno­graph­ic to the erot­ic by pho­tograph­ing the fab­ric of under­wear at very close range: the pho­to­graph is no longer unary, since I am inter­est­ed in the tex­ture of the mate­r­i­al.” You mean the bed­spreads? Barthes asks. Yes, I answer, and the fact that every Polaroid includes a bed­spread. Repetition and reit­er­a­tion both studi­um and punc­tum: “sting, speck, cut, lit­tle hole—and also cast of the dice.” Nudity that so amused the road­ie I remem­ber in the washed-out hues of an old Polaroid (prob­a­bly because I want my long-delayed guilt over say­ing noth­ing, doing noth­ing, feel­ing almost noth­ing to fade sim­i­lar­ly) while the pat­terned bed­spreads are for­ev­er bright and weird.


For Elvis

My oncol­o­gist told me he’d run a test to see if I had Lynch Syndrome, an inher­it­ed dis­or­der that great­ly increas­es the risk of colon and rec­tal can­cer. Mainly this would be to see if my daugh­ter was in dan­ger. Is it a blood test? I asked. We test the tumor, he explained. I was con­fused. The tumor was gone from me. You have the tumor? He nod­ded. It’s in the archive. I should’ve asked for details about the tumor archive. Instead, I imag­ined some­thing like a vault in the hospital’s basement.

After World War II and into the Cold War, many kinds of music were banned in Russia. Decadent Western songs, of course—jazz, mam­bo, rock and roll—but also Russian folk music, includ­ing songs from the gulags. Smuggling in LPs was dan­ger­ous, and though there were record lathes—German, spoils of war—vinyl, shel­lack, and lac­quer were hard to buy unless you were pro­duc­ing record­ings of Stalin’s speech­es. Then some­one fig­ured out dis­card­ed X‑ray film could be used as a sub­sti­tute. Trace a cir­cle using a plate, cut it out with a pair of scis­sors, burn a hole into the mid­dle with a cig­a­rette. Onto images of bro­ken wrists, rib cages, and skulls boot­leg­gers record­ed songs by Ella Fitzgerald, W.C. Handy, Bill Haley & His Comets, Elvis.

My oncol­o­gist told me the CT scan showed a spot the size a BB on my lung and “flecks” on my liv­er. When I asked to see the scans, he looked sur­prised. I’m not a radi­ol­o­gist, he said. I just read the report. I pushed, and his PA told us we had to go to anoth­er exam room, one with a com­put­er that could access the images. We fol­lowed her across the hall, and after much click­ing, I saw my insides in gray and black. I’d expect­ed some­thing like an X‑ray, a sin­gle pic­ture of my tor­so tak­en as I lay supine, but a CT scan is a series of hor­i­zon­tal slices viewed as if the patient is stand­ing and you’re look­ing down from above. My lungs were black ovals that changed shape slight­ly in each slide. When he reached the point where the report not­ed the BB-sized spot, he looked for a sec­ond and said You prob­a­bly had a bad cold when you were a kid. He clicked to the image of my liv­er that was sup­posed to show “flecks,” squint­ed, took of his glass­es, put his face near the screen, shook his head. Do you see any­thing? he asked me.

It’s hard to tell if the murky image onto which “Heartbreak Hotel” is record­ed is of a heart. I can see ribs and what look like veins. The orig­i­nal, released in January 1956, is two min­utes and eight sec­onds long, the undat­ed ver­sion on the X‑ray one minute and fifty-four sec­onds. Fourteen sec­onds lost. The stat­icky boot­leg begins and ends in medias res, almost like a door opens to a room where a for­bid­den record is play­ing—it’s down at the end of Lonely Street—then clos­es before the tune ends: Well, they’re so lone


Josh Russell’s King of the Animals (LSU Press, 2021) was longlist­ed for The Story Prize. His essays and sto­ries have appeared recent­ly in Epoch, Subtropics, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, and New World Writing Quarterly, and are forth­com­ing in Northwest Review and Centaur.