Monday, April 4, 2011

Breaking News: I won't have Joe Sweeney to kick around anymore

Literally the very moment I was driving to Phoenix to catch a flight back home after a wonderful stay in the Old Pueblo, Joe Sweeney, the perennial old crank, one-issue candidate for office in Tucson, died! That issue: illegal immigration. (Joe was very much against it.)

Joe's message and politics were utterly repellent: anti-immigrant, anti-gay, racist, and bitter--he was a sort of one man tea-party, where absolutely no one was invited. What impressed me about Sweeney--and it's not a kind thing to say--was that he just may have been as physically ugly as his political convictions.

In all of his campaigns for the House, there were two constants: anti-immigration vitriol and this ridiculous picture.

Joe Sweeney: "This country: an ideology worth repeating!"*

I knew nothing of his politics the first time I saw the poster emblazoned with this image, but I soon saw it everywhere I went, and it became a constant nagging presence on my daily commute during campaign seasons. After a couple of even numbered years, one of my friends gave me his business card, which carried the same photo. I even acquired one of Sweeney's campaign signs, which I kept where no one would ever see it.

Over the years since I left Arizona, Sweeney's fortunes soared. He renewed his campaigned every election cycle, hosted a public access call in show, and by the 2000s, despite his 3rd party affiliations, explicit racism, and belief in UFOs, he was being taken seriously as a republican candidate, winning GOP nomination in 2006, but losing the election.

So goodbye, Joe. I hope your immigration to the other side was legal and abrupt.

AZ Daily Star news item

Tucson Weekly RIP Joe Sweeney

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Community Theatre Review

And so, last year, I went to a theatrical event that I did not much enjoy. I will not name the play or the venue so that I can liberate my tongue. However, I believe that the empty feeling it left with me may well have been the most productive thing that to ever happen to me in a theatre.

There is something positively post-apocalyptic about community theatre. That is to say, no other art form more adequately creates an impression of a world that can only vaguely remember what entertainment is. The whole experience with posits "entertainment" as a distant, past-tense thing, something long gone that can only be recalled through empty restaging. The experience is one of scavenging, with a death knell still echoing in your ears.

The actors' every gesture is in pastiche of something imprecise: dull recitation of stayed dialogue delivered between sitcom mugging ("Mugging"--the only thing they're stealing is dignity) and the varied contortions of body desperately unsure of its performance. Everything from the form of the spectacle--curtain, stage, seats--to the name of the event calls up notions of entertainment, the verbs "to entertain" or expection of "being entertained", but these ideas quickly vanish like smoke ring traces wafting away into the impossibility of what is delivered.

It is imitation so barren, so lacking cue to its source, that it forestalls any attempt at constructing even the vaguest of genealogies: Neil Simon's name may be on the programme, but one gets no sense from the play that a Neil Simon, Brooklyn, or Jewish comic tradition ever existed.

Leaving the theatre, I had the feeling of a world raised of purpose, but carrying on in spite. It was like church without God. In that instant--standing in the eeriely quiet empty wet street in distant part of town, holding half an egg salad sandwich that had been served to me from tray held by a member of cast after the show--there was the odor of pure possibility in the air: an infinite "what-now?" that in its very persistence can only amount to some kind of liberation. I was truly free.

All this comes to mind as I learned, that the same theatre is staging another production soon. Anyone interested in joining me?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

POSTCARDS FROM THE HEDGE: Visiting Canada 1939


As newspapers around the world continue to fold, one paper product for the most part resists being folded: the postcard! In the coming weeks, I'll be offering up a few for your greedy eyes.

First, the Queen. Not this queen. Her mum. The Queen Mum. From her pre-war visit of 1939 to Canada, here in a card mailed just under a month after the start of the war in Europe.

Visiting Canada - front

Postmarked 12 Oct 1939
Sent to Illinois

Visiting Canada - back

The message:

Well I suppose you'd begin to think I could not write but I'll be back in Dec. if I can make it.

The innocuous image of His and Her Majesty's stately visit to Canada belies the story of a man named Harlan somehow detained in Canada a month after the start of the second World War. I found it at an antique shop in Tucson, Arizona. No word on what became of Harlan.


Thursday, May 14, 2009

DAY TWO: Mediated Memphis

Keeping with the times, this is a heavily mediated trip. For at least as long as the motels have WiFi, I'll regularly be making twit of myself.

Today, we got to Memphis proper late in the afternoon.

The air here is thick, hot and wet.

We saw the mighty Mississippi and many of the city's sociable homeless population. Beale Street was an interesting mix of crash commercialization (W.C. Handy is brought to you by Pepsi) and dire poverty (homeless + tourists + drinking on the street). A friend told me that there was only one business open on Beale Street in 1982, but now it's wall-to-wall blues clubs and souvenir stands, but it still has an air of its former rundownedness.

Of course, it's America so everything is humongous, puffed up with an odd mix of pride, insolence, sloth and decay. At the same time, it is full of wonder and surprises. The world-famous Sun Studios (home of the first recordings by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and many others) looks isolated, standing on a sharp corner across from a park that has a statue of Confederate hero and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Even Graceland snuck up on us, its trim immaculately-landscaped plot smack in the middle of a bleak strip of 25c carwashes, chicken shacks, discount liquor stores and coin-op laundries. (We will take the formal Graceland tour tomorrow and wash our clothes in another town).

I hope the Google earth/world people document everything here. I would actually enjoy just reading the Memphis phonebook for the names of local businesses, which to an over-educated semi-Waspish Canadian city boy seem downright exotic (lots of Catfish, Chitterlings and other Southern food names).

In that vein, and in the words of Noel Coward, I like America.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Day One: Go! Go! Go!

TODAY begins the research trip I've been promising myself and putting off since 2006 or so. The Big Bucolic Buford Pusser Road & Air Show will take us through Memphis TN > Selmer TN > Adamsville TN > Tupelo MS > Birmingham AL > Montgomery AL > Phenix City AL > Columbus GA and beyond. I know not what to expect or which distractions to avoid or which to embrace (e.g., Conway Twitty's Twitty City is just north of Nashville, near Dollywood, the International Rock-a-Billy Hall of Fame, Jackson Tennessee, etc).

The beginning leg of the trip will be rain thunder down from the sky. A rain-soaked rural south might have a primordial quiet violence to it. It would be appropriate, as the thrust of the trip will be to investigate what remains of the cult of Buford Pusser.

As for now, we're trapped in the wiles of Burlington VT and their charming little airstrip. There are aeronautical delays and I'm downloading 20 versions of Del Shannon's Runaway from a music blog and wondering why people shout into cell phones in moments of extreme idleness.

Monday, September 22, 2008

David Foster Wallace

I found this cheerily infuriating.

The Best Mind of His Generation

This was written by the sometimes Roeper aislemate and NYT film critic, A. O. Scott. I guess it's written from the perspective of gen-Xer writing to about and at the wicked boomers who took all the good jobs, lived the good life and got everything the slacker generation never could. Boomer privilege and entitlement is old hat, but if Tony Scott thinks there are no vacancies at this point in history for great men of literature, I recommend he check in and see how someone born in 1980 or 1990 feels about our prospects. In all honestly, perhaps what is meant by literature itself--that stodgily stuffy edifice and its leather patchwork of hierarchical brows (sub-simian to brainiac)--has outworn its usefulness as a cultural form. It certainly has faded as a worthwhile distinction--this I know from experience.

I studied Creative Writing where David Foster Wallace got his MFA.

In the institution's hallowed halls, Wallace was revered, if sometimes begrudgingly so (I'll get to that). The reverence was grad-student driven, but it did reach the top. Wallace was one of them/us, or had been, and seemed like the prototype of someone who made good of this wickedness.

The first time I heard his name, I was young and impressionable and eager to believe that there was good writing out there, but not seeing it anywhere around. I'd submitted a fantastically mediocre poem to a poetry workshop headed by an energetic young grad student called Julian with frosty hair and Buddy Holly spectacles. On reflection, there was a quiet mentoring going on there, the closest that I would ever get, artistically. He good poet, and seemed to have his life together. It was hard not to see him as the image of what I might wind up being, and I think he respected my clumsy cynicism and earnestness. He didn't really help me out anywhere specifically (Lord knows I could have used it), but he told me I was good and he let me get away with trying to remain as anonymous as possible while giggling my way through the semester.

Julian did his best with what week to week proved to be a lousy group of writers (myself included). A few times, he would bring in friends and local writers to our little section during critiques to give us some sense of occasion. One time, he brought in this really smug and serious writer with a small ponytail, the kind of guy who spends a set amount of each day mugging for a dust jacket photo, trying to capture just the right supercilious turn of the nose. This guy read everyone's poems and at the end of the week he chose a few people for critique. I was among those selected, and when he called my name I answered sheepishly, having heard him tear people to pieces. When he got to me, he only asked me, "Have you read David Foster Wallace?" I hadn't and said so. "You might want to." And that was it.

It sounded like it was intended as a compliment, it was enough to set me off through Wallace's oeuvre--penance for escaping without the nicely worded verbal abuse everyone else got. I read everything I could get my hands on, and despite the circumstances of our introduction, and as testament to Wallace's skills, I enjoyed most everything. It was immediately accessible and familiar and miles ahead of anything I might ever hope to do.

Later, I got to see him read. It was one of the more sensible and dazzling moments in my university career. Wallace's reading was blank, he read very straightly and simply.

The evening's power was entirely in the text, which somehow had been written by the imposing figure at the front of the room. The auditorium was filled with enthusiastic admirers, clutching copies of his books, which I had to that point only checked out of libraries. I approached him afterwards and merely told him that I liked his work and thanked him for coming. He was quickly distracted by a more exuberant fan, but seemed to acknowledge it. By this point a queue was forming for autographs, but I stood by and watched him interact with people. He was shy but gracious as people lavished praise.

The next day, I was trapped in an insipid fiction workshop taught by a dinosaur who thirty years earlier had written a book about going blind, imaginatively titled Going Blind. He was an unpleasant and demanding man with cruel hair and wrinkles that told me he only smiled through sheer force of will. Worse, he graded harshly. He clearly detested undergraduates, and to explain his arcane view of literature, he would frequently trot out another of his mouldy scribblings: a piece on the importance of the distinction between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction, he explained, was about outsides. Literary fiction had the singular gift of being able to give us insides. To prove his point, he then had a series of strawman examples drawn from the 1970s when it was written: Jaws versus The Old Man and The Sea; Clan of the Cave Bear versus The Inheritors, etc. He also detested the cinema (which he said could only show outsides), women and anything else that might be considered fun.

(When he got into it, I usually distracted myself with the thought of one day getting inside one of my fellow classmates.)

About half-way through class, someone asked him what he thought of Wallace's lecture. He paused, measuring how his words would be received--as if endorsing Wallace's playful genius would open the floodgates to hollow imitations, as if his words could carry such weight with a room that feared and hated him--then he said, "Oh, I liked it." This was followed by a string of qualifying buts that amounted to nothing all. He basically said that Wallace was really good at what he did, and we were and could not. Fortunately, I was distracted by the fact that the girl sitting across from me appeared to have forgotten to, or wasn't wearing underwear.

I've never had a teacher who tried impose his point of view on me as strongly as this blowhard. Still worse, he used grades for leverage. He only gave out one A-, and only because he'd misread one girl's story to have depth beyond her design. I worked my ass off to get a B, and by the time I did, I was less sure of myself and less capable of putting my ideas into words than I had been when I'd started out writing as a teenager. The material suffered. I forgot how to be playful and clever and it stopped being fun. I stopped being fun. I stopped giggling on the page. I walked away from the whole experience never really writing seriously again. (Well... one time, but that launched the biggest fiasco of the personal underwear-based kind.)

He had not talked about Wallace with admiration. He merely condoned that what had been read was indeed literary (he failed to explain how, suggesting we re-read his essay). This is the nature of the praise that is available in this dark coven of self-important twits in creative writing. And Tony Scott is playing right into this dinosaur's hands! By essentially writing David Foster Wallace off as a casualty of some post-boomer world, in which there's no room for him in the pantheon of literary genius and the only aspect of the human condition left unexamined is that of pitiable exile, Scott makes Wallace's life and death seem all the more hollow.

I don't quite buy it. It doesn't seem right to evaluate Wallace along any grand continuum, even if that is where he saw himself. It distorts Wallace's significance and short-changes his generation. The fact was that he was able to remain relevant and hip to his peers and people who came after him, becoming the index of what good writing at this moment in history would look like, while still begrudgingly gaining acceptance from elite. That's what he was to me anyway. It's no small feat. It seems clear that Wallace's suicide was a tragedy of circumstance and the unfortunate treatment of mental illness. Scott's dim epitaph almost makes me want to not read the few remaining things that I do, on account of the company that it puts me in.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Standing on the jetty as the steamer moves away: Frankie Laine = my Sex Pistols

I've never really understood how or why tastes change with the fashions. More often than not, I love the same things forever. Chalk it up to pigheadedness or nostalgia, but this persistence has served me well enough. There are very few records I've been embarrassed to have bought, namely the Cocktail soundtrack and a NKOTB Xmas cassette from the school store at my elementary school (both were misguided, youthful attempts to impress a girl; needless to say, neither worked musically or romantically).

As with most romantic delusions and other mental infirmities, this might be genetic. When my mother was a young and impressionable girl living on the East End of Montreal, a much older first generation Elvis fanatic noted all the signs of a preteen crush on Elvis Presley and decided to give all of her old albums to the little-girl-who-would-grow-up-to-be-my-mum. Over thirty LPs. All from the late 1950s, early 1960s. These were mostly film soundtracks and compilations, but they were bright and colourful and definitely left the impression on a young me that this Elvis was probably an important guy--if only to my mum.

Sometimes, I would splay them out in the living room and pour over their covers, trying to figure out what made them my mother's only luxury. I didn't know what I was holding, but I knew they were special. Sideburned or jumpsuited, Elvis always looked friendly enough. He liked Hawaii, apparently.

Elvis was a lot to process as a kid, but my mum's records taught me two paradoxical things about fan culture and music. First, that music was something you passed down, something that could be passed around from one person to the next, something that should be passed on. And second, that it was always deeply personal, so personal, that you might not quite understand why one person may love it, where another may not.

There are only couple of times in my life, that I've found something similar for myself. Something I thought no one else in the world would have. Certainly, something that no one else would cherish in the way that I did. One unlikely such item was Frankie Laine's 1956 Command Performance LP. I got the record in a whole collection of records some older person in Arizona gave me (I inherited a lot music that way--lounge music, Henry Mancini, records with JFK's portrait on the cover, the Moon landing, etc.) and I was immediately drawn to the cover:

Beneath the titles--an arrestingly blocky arrangement of image and text--the jacket showed Laine smirking, half-genuflecting as he shook hands with... the Queen--Queen Elisabeth II.

(A wider cropped version of image shows that Laine was standing next to Bob Hope.)

Used to seeing the QE2's face on Canadian money, her expression here--bemused, demure but slightly condescending--was uncharacteristically human to me. For one, I didn't dare fold or part with it. More imprtantly, the play of facial expressions between the bespectacled Western pop singer and young monarch locked in a fleeting clasp and awkward glance was an image that I would unwittingly restage in my many halting and hilarious misadventures with the opposite sex.

More importantly, this image was like my own personal Sex Pistols. Looking at the cover, it was clear to me that whatever the hell this was, the people around me who filled their ears and wardrobe with echoes of Garth Brooks, grunge and gansta rap wouldn't like it, and that little iota of rebellion appealed to me in a way rock'n'roll never could at that moment in history. It was rebellion on my terms--wryly, dryly, and above all, squarely.

I couldn't wait to actually hear the record. I wouldn't be disappointed. A compilation of Laine's early fifties full-throated hits, three songs stand apart from the rest: HIGH NOON, JEALOUSIE, and ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU. The first two were vaguely familiar (I believe JEALOUSIE was Hollywood's go-to tango song), but I'd never heard anything like ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU.

Quite simply, I love this record. Like the best punk music, it is deliciously politically incorrect. The song's questionable racial and gender politics have a sailor tell of a Malaysian girl he has fallen in love with that he has to leave her standing on the jetty because "East is East and West is West our world's are far apart, I must leave you but I leave my heart." Its "romance" depends on the impossibility of the love it depicts, which is predicated on the incommensurability of the two lover's cultures. If you listen closer, it's a melodrama of racial difference, but here it tells of something far coarser, far more nakedly exploitative: sex was great, but we're kinda different, gotta run, but the sex was great. This would be kosher--if provocative--for contemporary audiences if it wasn't the same sexist schlock at the core of Ricky Nelson's Traveling Man or any number of the blues or folk songs about Rambling. But to me, ROSE seems deeper than its parts.

The song's imagery is rich and redolent of travel and of having traveled. The melody and texture seems to possess a qualitative difference from the other songs I mentioned. It's foreign, if only slightly--like glancing over a foreign language newspaper--the images and conventions of the layout are familiar, but something is off. Better still, the chords and time signature are slightly unusual for Western pop.

So, it shouldn't have surprised me to learn that it was actually a rewrite of a Mandarin folk song that an Australian disc jockey picked up in Hong Kong in the 1930s. I won't try to unpack the multicultural feedback loops and cross-pollination involved here, but its paths across the various channels of global cultural exchange certainly left their mark on the song.

The original song, MEI KUEI, was popular hit in China for singer Yao Lee. Her version in Chinese was released in the US after Frankie Laine's version was a hit. The original subject matter is unknown to me, but MEI KUEI is Mandarin for "Rose," and in a crude Anglicization, ROSE ROSE I LOVE makes a lot of the phrase "Make way."

I carried the song around with me for sometime, when soon after learning of its origins, I happened upon a Chinese girlfriend. Then soon thereafter, I found the song among the few English language songs at a karaoke booth with my girlfriend's family, who were shocked and pleased that I seemed to anything in Chinese.

Laine's version dated to 1951. He re-recorded it a number of times, to lesser effect. I've spent years tracking down other incarnations, but none approach the version stuck in the grooves of my personal command performance.

(I even paid a small fortune ($8) for the sheet music on Ebay, it is reproduced below.)



Rose, Rose I Love You
Frankie Laine and the Norman Luboff Choir, with Paul Weston and his orchestra, 1951

Mei Kuei
Yao Lee, 1940

Time magazine story about MEI KUEI/ROSE ROSE I LOVE YOU, c.1951,9171,935240,00.html