It is the most important instrument in rock and roll and far and away the most underrated.
It takes years to finesse and the cruel irony is that just when most musicians start to master its many nuances, their physical aptitude for it begins to diminish.
It is the voice. The vox. The pipes, the golden throat, the mouthy spitter of words. OK, I made that last one up. It’s late. Cut me some slack.
The delusion persists that while you can teach yourself an instrument like the guitar or the piano, the voice is something you either have or you don’t- you spit out of the womb and either you sound like Aretha Franklin or you’re the next Bea Arthur. Sure, it’s understood that talented people might be able to improve their range with a vocal coach but most are convinced that they either sing like a bird or that they can’t sing for shit. Good luck convincing the latter folk that with a little training they could have million dollar voices.
But they could.
In fact, they have.
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
One of the first books released by Red Lemonade, the visionary new press brought to life by ex-Soft Skull patriarch Richard Nash, Zazen by Vanessa Veselka is a powerful, political, sometimes humorous, often frightening portrait of a parallel world that lurks in the near future in all of its dystopian glory. Della is caught in an emotional battle, deciding whether or not she should leave the country that is dissolving around her, or help to bring it down faster. Bombs are going off, but capitalism continues unabated. Unsure of what to do, Della starts calling in bomb threats of her own, targeting the companies and locations that offend her the most. When the threats start turning into actual destruction, she questions the her role in these events, the universe wrapping around her, burning martyrs and rat queens shimmering at the edge of her vision.
Fear of vision.
Fear of wisdom.
Fear of foolish
Fear of witches
Fear of new
and ancient system.
Fear of crow,
Fear of slow
June 29, 2011
The Brazilian government has finally done it. Like a sadistic child with a stick beating a dog to death, it has authorized the Bel Monte dam. We are talking here of a region that functions as the lungs of the planet, the vast Amazonian wilderness. 400 000 hectares will be flooded and in the region of 40 000 people displaced from rich, important land whose biodiversity is twice that of the entire land mass of Europe. It will be the end of the Amazonian basin as we know it. The Brazilian government will authorize, in total, some 60 dams across the Amazon to supply the country with energy.
Energy for what, you might ask? What do we need all this energy for?
I wish the human race could summon a bit of moral energy, a bit of intellectual energy, and stop being ruled by the lowest, cheapest, meanest forces.
An idea like Bel Monte, the enormity of a decision that will kill and harm so many people, is akin to a war crime. It reaches the very depths of depravity, to the level of slavery, human trafficking and ethnic cleansing. I know of course that I will receive enraged comments about this – but in the end, the total number of dead will extend right across the world, people will suffer and die, everywhere, for years and years because the Brazilian government has judged this project to be “in the national interest”. A somewhat narrow definition is being applied, no doubt.
I have written before about the dysfunctional banking and free trade system that is slowly tipping the human race into absurdity. Decisions are based on financial criteria that are invalid. Economic science has failed because it does not recognize true value systems. It is intellectually fraudulent.
Ruut Veenhoven of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam has published her findings on happiness in the so-called “World Database of Happiness” and her findings are startling. For instance, she suggests that “…the appraisal that one’s life is ‘exciting’ does not necessarily mark oneself as happy [either]; life may be too exciting to be enjoyable. A Chinese curse says: “May you have interesting times”.”
The simple fact is that the human race is enjoying a bit too much of the interesting life. Is it interesting watching the ending of things? Yes, very. Also very disconcerting. Who will be able to sleep while all these crimes are taking place?
If America really is a nation of destiny, a nation that will exert moral force in the world, it must stop its fixation with armed conflict and concentrate on supporting environmentalism. Ultimately, while spending close to a trillion dollars per year on armaments, the country is bankrupting itself (just as the old USSR did) and preventing serious engagement with more important ideas.
The developing countries – China, Brazil, Indonesia, India – are captivated by their growing power. They need to be challenged and opposed in their thoughtless expansion.
The world needs its forests to breathe. It is time for enlightened nations to start fighting for the happy survival of all its peoples, not just political supremacy. The people – that is, you, me, and all of our friends – have to start telling our politicians how tired we are of their rhetoric. Electoral boycott would be a very good start.
Let’s get real. Put down your spoon. Don’t finish your dinner. Do something.
Rowland S. Howard wrote the song Shivers as a teenager. It’s an indelible ode to youthful misery and unrequited love paired with a willful, yearning guitar. When he died thirty years later, in December 2009, he was fifty. Liver cancer. Impressive character to the end, Howard played a gig just a month and change before his death. In an interview with New Zealand writer Simon Sweetman, Howard sounded down right relieved to have kicked Shivers off his set-list at last. “When I did use to do it in shows, I was doing a cover of some song that had been around forever. I guess that is a strange way to feel about a song you wrote. But that’s how it felt.”
In another interview Howard refers to the song as his albatross. Howard then goes on to play a stoned out but entrancing version of the song, it comes alive despite his careless attitude, a mournful dirge, a collaborative effort between the then middle aged Howard and the youth who wrote the song.
In the stone courtyard before the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María, three children—2 boys and a girl—take turns with an elm branch, poking a small beige dog who looks about dead. In its eye, the wetness of the doe-eye, the reflection of a coming fly. Its tongue-tip rests on the stone, leaving a dark salival mark, some small oasis of shade for the molecular things we can’t see. The girl kisses one boy on the cheek, who raises the branch and beats her between the shoulder blades with it. The dog’s flank rises just slightly, as if assuring us he or she is still breathing, with us.
1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.
2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.
3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.
I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.
4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.
5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.
6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.
Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.
Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.
Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.
Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).
Execute: when someone shocks you to death
Suicide: when you kill yourself.
And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.
It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.
“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.
Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you. Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”
I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it. My dad said it always went that way.
“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”
He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”
Just like America, I thought.
June 29, 2011
Of all parts of books publishing, there is no element that consistently causes more ambivalence than the publicity program. When we undertake marketing and it doesn’t achieve our goals, at least we have a pretty ad or some other sales material to show for our efforts. With publicity, however, all we’re paying for is someone else’s time and effort. If deployment of that time and effort results in zero publicity hits, the only evidence we have in the end is a lighter bank account.
“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” —Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker
The sky was blue as an Autobot’s eye, and I felt stupid enough without my real car breaking down. I’d been to Target and Toys ‘R Us a bunch of times just to hold these things in my hands, turning them over to see how the light bounced off the clear plastic shrink-wrapping when I moved them, how enticing the packaging made them look. But I hadn’t even thought about Transformers since I was a kid, even though the show and toy line had undergone several alterations since then, since I thought I’d grown up.
My first melon fast began in response to being stalked by Tinley, with whom I had just ended things. I didn’t plan to split up with him so abruptly; in fact, I had struggled with how to break free of this frightening man twenty years my senior, whose mere sleeping presence made me shake in bed next to him with a carnal attraction that stemmed from deep unease.
“Will we still be together in May?” he asked, sultry and southern over the phone. It was February, and the thought of enduring his God complex another few months just for a mercurial vacation to Las Vegas was unbearable. So I said no. And after the first hour of him calling and screaming into my answering machine, I left the house for some clean, desert air.
I had moved to Tucson from New York City to become a graduate student and a new person. I was certain my friendships with eccentric and complicated people were behind me, along with everything unhealthy. Since arriving I had quit smoking and drinking alcohol, coffee and anything sugary, quit eating meat, cheese, and baked goods. I quit going out at night and instead woke up early to practice yoga before riding my used bicycle to campus. At first I was fulfilled by the lack of everything; the hot, dry landscape filled with craggy mountains and pointy foliage. But it wasn’t long before my thirst for the eccentric and complicated grew again with each quiet day, which is how I ended up with Tinley.
I chose the melon as my single fasting fruit based on advice from the plaid-shirted fellow who worked at the Food Conspiracy, the local food Co-op where one could live on a diet of things picked, sprouted, or dried. The anxiety from the breakup sent me in pursuit of dark chocolate, but I ended up being seduced by the luscious honeydew, honest and heavy in my hands. A good one could sustain a body and brain for at least three days, said the plaid-shirted fellow, who unlike Tinley harbored no force behind his persuasion. Tinley had tried to be a good boyfriend, but in the end, his drunken rages and personality shifts made for a freaky communication style. In the kooky quiet of the Co-op I posed in consideration, wishing I could just sit in a basket and join the non-genetically modified produce. A melon fast, I decided, was the next best thing. I was drawn to the idea of creating real physiological emptiness, a healthy vacuum that would absorb the prickly hollow already within me. I returned the plaid-shirted fellow’s approving smile, and plopped three honeydews into a canvas bag. Lopsidedly, I bicycled home.
DAY 1: My eyes saw but ignored the answering machine’s blinking red light. With a carving knife from Target, I procured a dinner of four banana- sized slices of honeydew. The first two went down quickly. Four minutes later I was done. Now what? The red light blinked furiously. I cared just enough to press play.
Beep. I fucking love you and would do anything for you. I love your weird gypsy face and your huge tits and your disappointing ass. I’d wipe your ass for you even if you were in a wheelchair, EVEN IF YOU WERE IN A WHEELCHAIR, bitch.
Beep. I’m sorry, baby. I just lost it. I thank God I even had a chance with you. The Buddha and Mohammed must have known I deserved you, Jesus knows I deserve you and if you open your heart you’ll come back to me, I know you will. I’m the only one who loves you as much as I do. You don’t even love yourself as much as I do. You’re not capable of loving yourself as much as I do.
Beep. Pick up the GODDAMN PHONE.
Calmly, I called a woman from my graduate program, someone also from the Northeast looking to thrive demon-free. She had started AA to stop drinking wine alone at night, but not for her habit of saving up five days’ worth of Ativan for the weekend. Someone I could relate to; someone eccentric and complicated.
I told her about the fast, not the guy.
“I want to do it, too,” she said when I told her about the promised endorphin high. Our chitchat drifted from melon size to rattlesnake and hairy spider size, but not ever the enormity of Tinley’s fury. I didn’t want her to think I was an idiot. Everyone in the program knew this guy—he was statuesque with impressive musculature and unbelievably good looks. He had worked as a runway model in Italy and his Aryan features were impossible to miss. So were his intense, insistent speech patterns and tendencies to compare himself to Jesus. But because his madness was about equal to his intellect, academia had given him the chance that the rest of the world had not.
Our small talk ended with words like lutein and indoles, the green fruit phytochemicals responsible for strong teeth and good vision. My friend hung up believing honeydew was a super drug. I fell asleep hoping to awaken with saber tooth canines and X-ray vision.
Instead, I suffered a fitful night of dreams that I was being watched.
DAY 2: At dawn, I dove into a quarter of a honeydew and a bitter cup of twig tea, grateful to be awake and in the company of fruit alone. The sun poured into my little adobe living room and illuminated its emptiness. A queasiness had begun to ebb and flow through me, like there had been a chemical spill. Juicists would say impurities in my organs were flushing out into my blood. With no digestive process to occupy my body, detoxification had begun.
The phone rang.
“This sucks,” my friend said. “I feel sick. I’m going to the mall to get candy.”
I told her I was sticking with the plan. I didn’t tell her why for fear of sounding too earnest. For me, the fast’s appeal exceeded that of a cleanse or a dare. It provided a chance to make a change and hold on, despite extreme circumstances, for the promise on the other side. It was a walk through fire. It was a transformation.
I drank three glasses of water. I swallowed two teaspoons of honey—the one non-melon food permitted—and sat outside under my orange trees. For years I had longed for something other than the concrete, crowded, New York life. Now here I was, queasily watching hummingbirds flit and listening to geckos chirp. In this moment of peace and nausea was when the note shoved behind my screen door caught my eye.
You’re beautiful when you’re sleeping I read in scribbled script.
The fear that stabbed me—knowing my dreams of being watched were real—burned in my gut and drove me off the porch. I jumped on my bike. Scared geckos scrambled into dirt holes. Where could I hide? The graduate student office– a warren full of singularly focused, intelligent humans– was the obvious haven. The more bodies around me the more insulated I, and the consequences of my poor judgment, would be.
But on my desk Tinley had already left my belongings: a t-shirt I slept in, three thongs, some K-Y jelly, a portable chess set I had bought him for Christmas, the corresponding card, and a brochure for a rafting trip in Big Bend, Texas.
This was going to be our spring break. Thanks for fucking up our future screamed the script.
A handful of Rhetoric and Composition majors, some of whom I knew, others whom certainly knew me because I was dating the foxy crazy guy, looked to be busy. I tried to chat them up, improvising a conversation about unreliability in ethos-based arguments. But as I encountered snubs and cold shoulders, I knew my unpopular position wasn’t the culprit. Tinley had gotten to everyone first. I felt like a pariah, a weirdo, and damaged goods instead of the smart, independent and adventurous person I had started out being. I was pissed. And worse, I was hungry.
But I swallowed my woes and continued on my bourgeois high road, empty stomach growling. I wrote my reply.
I’m sorry this is hard for you. Harassment won’t work, I’m afraid. We’re just not meant to be.
I rode down the mountain to his house, note in hand.
Now, conventional wisdom advises steering clear of someone undergoing a potentially violent episode. This I know. But Tinley had never been exactly violent with me. There was the time he left me in the woods in Colorado, without the map or much experience maneuvering on the cross-country skis he talked me into wearing. I actually enjoyed the two hours it took me to find my way back to the lodge, didn’t mind navigating through low temperatures and a blinding snowstorm alone, because I knew I was safer in the vast pine forest than with him when he was angry. But since then I’d come to see his rage as unsustainable, like a desert blaze. I reminded myself of how often his quick temper smoldered and blew away in the wind, perhaps because he was pushing fifty or because I had stopped offering fuel to stoke the flames. Either way, by now he’d probably be on the other side of his mania. I believed my even-tempered note would bring sobering finality.
But the scene in his front yard gave me pause. The giant cross that had hung creepily over his bed was now stabbed into the sand as if marking a grave. The front door was open and Mariachi music blasted from inside. A few Budweiser cans littered the doorstep. I didn’t see him anywhere, but half expected him to pop out from behind the Bougainvillea, shirtless and hot from heartbreak. I taped the note to the cross and pedaled away as fast as I could.
Everything through the lenses of hunger and terror looked different, now. My reply: bait. My home: a trap. I rode on until the sun reclined behind the mountains, as if in a chaise lounge. The sky shifted through all shades of cotton candy before the clouds speared their way into the night. I have not admitted to anyone, until now, that I cycled away feeling somewhat entitled to this crazy experience, almost proud of this horrible mistake of character. Everyone, I heard once at a cocktail party, has one lunatic in their past. I used this reasoning to erase any lingering shame. My error was just a bit of dust on this endless landscape, wasn’t it? It would blow away with a strong wind like everything else left unfastened in the sand.
Later at home I guzzled water, ate four spoonfuls of honeydew and passed out, exhausted from my choices.
DAY 3: The phone woke me, but I didn’t get it in time. I braced myself for a screaming voicemail. It was my AA friend, eating her way through a second bag of Swedish fish on her way back from the mall, and I could barely understand her. I didn’t call back. I wanted to, but was too weak. I sipped twig tea in bed and started to doze off again, when I heard a scratching sound outside my door.
It was no coyote.
I recognized the joyous Indian music—my favorite, I had told Tinley one night in bed—but the treble-heavy boom box reduced the chanting to howling. I parted the curtain to see a can of Bud on my windowsill. A navy blue camping chair had been set on my porch. In it with his back to my window sat Tinley in his plaid pajama bottoms, no shirt. He held a cup, which I knew was to catch his spit. He chewed tobacco when he was upset.
“Now I know you can hear me, darlin’. I know you’re there and I know from your note you are willing to admit, even just if it’s a teeny tiny bit, that there’s still a chance for us. I know we have a chance, baby. And if you just come out and talk to me we can work it out. I’ll just sit here until you come out on this porch.”
My first response was to pretend I didn’t see him. I covered myself with the blankets. But in the dark my stomach growled and the Indian chanting floated in the window along with his babble, a terrible symphony.
Through the locked screen door I screamed, “Please leave.”
“I’m not leaving ‘til we work this out.”
“If you don’t leave I’m calling 911.”
He laughed. “Honey, this isn’t New York. You don’t call 911 on someone who loves you.”
And this is when the horror of the situation struck me. No amount of melon would make him disappear. I was kindling for his fire, and I both loved and hated my dry, flammable power. I called 911 from my kitchen, crouched between my stove and my sink. I army crawled to lock each window and door, then back between the stove and sink. I waited behind the pipes where scorpions lived.
A full 20 minutes later I called the police again.
“Where are you?” I said to the dispatcher. “I could be dead by now.”
The howling music and babbling Tinley droned on like voices from two opposing Gods. And then: another voice and a knock at the door. A stern-faced man in blue held Tinley by the shoulder, who wore mirrored sunglasses and a dirty smile.
“Tinley tells me you locked him out of the house. You’re having a domestic dispute?”
“That is not correct,” I said, “he doesn’t live here.”
“Oh sweetie,” Tinley chuckled and shook his head. “This happens all the time, officer.”
I gasped and protested and swore like a Bronx resident than this did not by any means happen all the time.
The officer looked bored. “Now Tinley, I bet she’d talk to you if you went home and showered and got dressed, sobered up and looked more presentable. Wouldn’t you now?” The man in blue persuaded me to answer. I longed to be in conversation with the Co-op fellow, quiet and plaid and virtuous about his diet. I must have answered the question sufficiently, because soon I stood alone in my living room with nothing but a heavy head and an almost imperceptible sense of my body. At the time I remember thinking I had adopted what seemed like the quality of a melon: sweet, passive, a little bit oblivious.
When Tinley returned clean with slicked-back hair, he asked quietly through my screen if he could collect his things. The music and the camping chair were gone. Though he left carrying books and a desk stool without another word, I spent the duration of my fast imagining the reconciliation that might happen next, which was a whole other high in and of itself.
This story isn’t really about fruit. It’s about risks you take just because you can, even though and maybe because they aren’t good for you. It’s also about substituting all your guilty pleasures with healthy alternatives, as if changing really is that easy: ginger chews for cigarettes; desert for city; melon for mayhem.
Transformation is slow and often un-thrilling. Sometimes, memories of what you left behind float by enticingly; the bad choices, the chaos, whatever almost killed you. They provoke a funny kind of nostalgia. Ask any addict.