What Is News?

Aquarian Weekly 4/22/09 REALITY CHECK


Okay, this is rarely a subject I write about, but talk about incessantly with friends, colleagues and family: What is news? In other words, what should be something we know about nationally or as we used to say in bullpen sessions in bare-bones weeklies, what is newsworthy? Should there be a national litmus for defining news, as opposed to a random happening that might be interesting if examined ad nauseam. Local news is exempt from this discussion. It is always going to be loaded with stuff like brush fires and community drives, the odd burglary and the always-popular weather anomalies. Then there is the obligatory cute story about kittens or a guy breaking the state record for sitting in a tree. Because it’s extremely difficult to fill print and air space anywhere, especially in say Omaha, Nebraska, local news doesn’t count. Neither does morning television or radio count, which are both chockfull of banal absurdity. But national news needs to have some standards of coverage, which I argue it has abused beyond repair.

Tea Party '09I was reminded of all this when a debate began over the coverage of the so-called TEA Party protests, which were dubious in their construct for several salient reasons, not the least of which was that tea was not literally involved and of course its falling short as an homage to the original Boston Tea Party since it was not over “taxation without representation” but just taxation. I get people don’t like taxes or the government to spend money, even if they ironically love entitlements, a large military, infrastructure, air travel, and the entirety of the monetary system. But really, who is in favor of taxes? This is what I call a slam-dunk issue and thus no need for heralding the protest, like anti-war rallies. War is bad. We get it. Give me something I can work with like the fight against cat juggling or Mother’s Against Kicking Babies.

But nevertheless a protest is definitely news, even if it is cringingly promoted by a major news organization and as a result almost completely ignored by others. This usually reeks of a staged event, like something out of Citizen Kane, so then how much of it was an actual story as opposed to another in a random string of barely interesting human endeavors kick-starting another news cycle?

News Cycle, which means a 24-72 hour period when one story becomes the most important thing in the civilized universe and then disappears completely, is also a major culprit for jamming odd events or arbitrary tragedies into a form of celebratory voyeurism. There are too many of these babies to recount, but you know what I mean. One is going on right now. Pay attention to see if it lasts the week. I doubt it.

To put to bed current events and get to the universal argument of what is news and what isn’t, we go to the Pirate/U.S. Navy story, which absolutely is news. In fact, it is big time news. When an impoverished nation bores outlaws of the high seas and holds up the greatest navy in the history of human kind, it is a cranking story. It has international intrigue, national security interests, life and death outcomes, and may ultimately affect the nation’s health and well being. This compared to say a kidnapping of a ten year-old in Bucks County, Pennsylvania is not newsworthy outside of Bucks County. Maybe if the kid was the offspring of an inaugural transcontinental flight pilot or perhaps if the ten-year old were the kidnapper, then we’d have something, otherwise, if Mr. And Mrs. Smith loses their kid to a crazed neighbor for a few weeks, I don’t need to know about it.

We are the world’s drug; the true opiate of the masses. We’re the dangerously mercurial lover that is untrustworthy and vindictive, but so goddamned fun.

This kind of thing has been a problem since the 1980s in broadcast/network news. It is a terrible epidemic of what I call the “Kid Down The Well Syndrome” – my own spiteful homage to the Depression Era penchant for struggling radio news outlets to bring the drama of small town fire departments’ attempted rescue of stupid, unsupervised children after they were stuck somewhere.

Today the advent of 24-hour news has taken KDWS to another level of minutia. This does not include dime-a-dozen opinion scream-fests hosted by pasty middle-aged men in desperate need of blowjobs and access to history books, but does include marginal stories that have been dragged out for literally weeks. Good examples of this is the death of Princess Diana, which has since taken on this queer Elvis revisionist disease or the JFK Junior airplane crash, or even the demise of someone who was on a constant deathwatch like Ronald Reagan or Gerald Ford. The reason I forgive talk-hosts from this breakdown is that I believe it important that pre-teens learning civics to see that even grown men have a difficult time understanding the stark differences between socialism and fascism. I include the marking of dead major celebrities or political figures as marginal for it is not an on-going event. They are dead. Tell us, and move on.

Everyone knows it was the OJ. Trial that put cable networks on this course. The ratings were nuts, the national furor over the rainbow, and the opportunity for career-building and book deals too good to pass up. Shit, the only reason Greta Van Sustren could afford to reconstruct her face and muck up the airwaves with endless pabulum on desperate boyfriends who prostitute their missing sisters or deadbeat dads smuggling dope from Indonesia to sate a gambling jones or the latest KDWS was Orenthal James Simpson, another reason The Juice should get the juice.

All right, sorry about the bad pun, but this is a particularly galling subject, these missing kids in hotels and abused animal stories do not compare in the newsworthy department to a lunatic Asian guy in Binghamton shooting up the neighborhood because a black guy is president or something fairly wacky like that. That’s news, because lone gunman with a shoulder chip is America’s news bread-and-butter. It’s tradition, so it gets precedence.

I shan’t belabor the point another sentence, but to leave you with a short list of what is news and not news, so if you see it, you can quickly identify it and either be well-informed or turn the station/page. If you stay with the story, you’re going to have to admit that even though you do not buy the National Enquirer and do not consider yourself a nosey rubbernecker, you’re either completely bored with the concept of your own existence or simply too lazy to turn away from Headline News and the ear-piercing claptrap coming out of the angry woman with the retro haircut.

News/Not News Top Ten

1. The president’s choice of pet is not news. Dog rips out president’s jugular is news.

2. Anyone saying something really dumb like “Hitler was a fair diplomat” or “So-and-so likes to hump squirrels” is not news. Government either spying on its citizens or its officials voting on bills they have not read or understood is news.

3. Any law broken on a cell phone camera is not news. A law broken that costs you money like banks being run like casinos is news.

4. Internet scams on the elderly and kids are not news. Internet viruses that infiltrate our international spy network are news.

5. Any domestic squabble, violence or general bad behavior, unless it becomes serial and spreads throughout a fairly large region of the country is not news. Raul Castro poisoning his brother’s cigars is news.

6. Someone famous announcing any new revelations about their sexuality is not news. The homosexual community gaining their civil rights is news.

7. In fact, anything about someone famous, unless they are running for major office, saving the Third World (not talking about it, actually saving it) or firebombing a village – this includes sports celebrities, who are dumber than dirt and even less important, is not news. Fuck celebrities. This is never news.

8. Nothing a former civil servant has to say, especially those who will be dead much sooner than later and thus have no stake in the issues being decided is not news. An Al Gore vs. Dick Chaney pheasant shoot at the equator is news.

9. Dumb ass boyfriends of defeated candidates dumping their pregnant teenaged girlfriends are not news. If dumb boyfriend takes on almost future mother-in-law for Alaskan governor’s office, then it’s news.

10. Any jackass mauled by bears at the zoo is not news. Same bears being awarded custody to jackass’s children is news.

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Stewart vs. Cramer

Aquarian Weekly 3/18/09 REALITY CHECK

SEND IN THE CLOWNS Satire & Bluster Tap Into Nation’s Anger

Jon StewartFor two consecutive weeks, the shenanigans of a radio talk show commentator and a Comedy Central satirist infused their will on the vox populi. What is business as usual in the world of fringe insights primped up in mockery became at first fascinating oddities, then frantic topics of debate, and finally the exposing of some pretty serious ills.

During the first days of March, right wing radio master showman, Rush Limbaugh made an appearance at the CPAC convention in Washington D.C. A rabid gathering of disenfranchised hardliners, the Conservative Political Action Conference has welcomed heads of state, former and future presidents, old-world brainiacs, influence peddlers, religious loons, and corporate land rapers, all movers and shakers inside what until recently has been the rock solid base of the nation’s conservative movement. Ostensibly, Limbaugh was to rally the troops and continue to defend his assertion that any conservative and/or Republican worth his salt should root for the current president to fail. However, the black-clad jock spent most of his lengthy address bashing the current environment in the Republican Party as weak and its leadership misguided, making a final stand against what is at best a designer buffet of worn-out ideologies, the origin and authenticity of which he claims to hold dear.

Love him or hate him, deny his influence or bask in his megalomania, one thing is certain, Limbaugh’s hard-ass assault on the sinking vessel of conservatism is warranted and perhaps needed more than ever. And this became patently obvious in the days following the liberal fallout, media backlash, moderate recoiling of Limbaugh’s diatribe.

Many Republican members of congress, holdovers from the spend-thrift days of George W. Bush, who’d enjoyed years casting anti-war sentiments as un-American, began immediately denouncing the notion of “wanting the president to fail” as defeatist. Having spent the previous weeks appearing either fiscally responsible or politically petty, they were in the throes of stridently defending unanimous votes against any and all versions of the federal government’s massive stimulus bill. It was not the time to appear as merely spoilers or a blockade to the mad attempts of the Democrats to enact what has been for over a year now the will of the people to do SOMETHING/ANYTHING.

Then for reasons only known to he and his shrink, RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who fancies himself something between Kanye West and Henny Youngman, while appearing on yet another in a seemingly endless array of variety shows, demeaned Limbaugh’s influence on his party and called his act “incendiary” and “ugly”. When Limbaugh excoriated him the next day as an empty shirt and a myopic vaudevillian, Steele curled into a fetal position, meekly apologized and disappeared into the ether. This pathetic performance by the “de facto” head of the GOP was on the heels of Georgia congressman Phil Gingrey making an appearance on Limbaugh’s show to kiss his sizable but formidable posterior.

This is how the system, screwed as it is, works best.

Limbaugh proved, albeit in an inimitably fractious and juvenile way, that there is a voice in the Republican Party that has been lost; the fiscal straightjacket wing; the wing that had been, and in many recent cases by Limbaugh himself, hijacked by misogynistic social marauder homophobes from the God Police. In a few well-placed tirades and verbal jousts Limbaugh vividly exposed the gaping maw in the Republicans’ damaged flanks, something the timidly inarticulate car salesman approach of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal wildly failed to accomplish after Barack Obama’s wiz bang address to congress last month.

Filling the vacuum of Rush Week in the news cycle, Daily Show host, Jon Stewart all-but dominated the pop culture wing of the news this past week with a scathing rip-job of the dog and pony shtick known as CNBC. After Stewart brilliantly deconstructed the now infamous Howard Beale wig-out by Rick Santelli, in which the network’s exchange floor reporter derided “deadbeats” who bought homes above their means as the true culprits in the nation’s housing meltdown, CNBC’s most visible voice, Jim Cramer crisscrossed the media circuit belittling Stewart and his “funny little show”.

Stewart’s “funny little show” is Comedy Central’s golden nugget, a mostly progressive satirical look at the day’s news that has been trumped into must-see college stoner television, and a damned hilarious pounding of all-things hypocrisy. Stewart, a once journeyman comedian cum actor, cum host de jour, has helmed the Daily Show’s gaggle of fiendishly intelligent goofiness for over a decade, during which time he’s given birth to the equally witty Colbert Report and more than once playfully taken on other over-hyped cable pundits like Bill O’Rielly, but never to this much fanfare and spitefulness.

Before long the Daily Show began gleefully hammering Cramer in a game of old-fashioned dozens, playing clips of the maniacal prognosticator demonstratively unfurling one monumentally wrong prediction after the other for months. This brought the high and mighty NBC family into the war of words, which continued to make the once proud news organization look defensive and amateurish, engaging morning show hosts, nightly anchors and commentators into the fray. All the while providing delicious fodder for Stewart and his band of cut-up savants and the facility over each and every show to pull out what Stewart finally exclaimed were “inept at best and criminal at worst” flippantly proffered suggestions for investors to entrust their hard-earned money.

The story ended later in the week when Cramer, fresh from an ironic appearance on the Martha Stewart show, visited the Daily Show, where he stammered like a guilty school kid in the principle’s office as Stewart and crew played streamed online video of Cramer admitting to an embarrassing series of insider trading malfeasances.

Stewart’s smolderingly vicious and brutally honest surgery of the nonsense that passes for sober reviews and previews of the volatile nature of stock market play was both frightening and illuminating. Cramer, for his part, perfectly played the exposed Wizard of Oz as the stuttering, befuddled man behind the curtain. Cramer, Stewart most assuredly pointed out, is the unfortunate but indisputable face of an unfathomable monster known as speculative market trading which could no more bring vast riches to the lazy dreamers of our nation than it can be a thermometer of our economic solvency or strategic governance.

The Republican Party is still mired in ridiculous mud slinging over culture wars and fiscal mishaps, and the world of financial journalism is still blank stares sold as unblinking certitude, but for two straight weeks a pair of clowns – one from the Right and one from the Left – took the best our American free speech and blessed dissent could offer, wrapped it up in an entertaining brand of fisticuffs, and ultimately brought to light that which must be illuminated.

This is how the system, screwed as it is, works best.

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The Bogus Battle For Christmas

Aquarian Weekly 12/24/08 REALITY CHECK


Santa ClausThis just in: Christmas has nothing to do with religion. Around here, and by around here I mean America, it is the granddaddy of consumer holidays; so much so that in this nation’s penultimate financial meltdown, story after story, report after report since the final hours of All Hollow’s Eve has been on the Bottom Line: “Black Friday Figures Down From ’07” or “Cyber Monday Drags On Consumer Fears!”, etc. Therefore, this uproarious canard being perpetuated on the mainstream from the purportedly outraged anti-Christmas protest is as absurd as its target. In fact, in the grand scheme of religious and cultural crimes against humanity this whole Battle For Christmas furor is a silly as complaining about the mosquitoes during the Jonestown mass suicide.

The very idea that in this current culture, this current society we live in today — not the Make Believe hoo-hah that passes for recent or even ancient history — Christmas is considered anything but a holiday based on tradition is nonsense. December 25 is one of those goofy myths we choose to honor, like our constitution’s preamble phrase “a more perfect union” as a prophetic tribute to the ultimate possibilities of man and not merely a typo. Problem is there is no such thing as “a more perfect” anything. It’s either perfect or not, akin to the impossibility of being kinda pregnant or sorta dead. But we accept it, repeat it, and celebrate it every July 4; which is also a ridiculous demarcation of our eventual liberation from Britain, since that was simply a “declaration” and not a victory. The date for that celebration would be October 19, 1781 when The Articles of Capitulation were signed. Also, the “a more perfect union” thing didn’t even show up until seven years later in the U.S. Contitution.

But where were we?

Oh, right, Christmas. We no more celebrate December 25 as the birth of the actual Jesus of Nazareth, who was likely born in the spring according to most astronimors and historians, than we celebrate Super Bowl Sunday as the NFL championship game. December 25 is a natural extension of a pagan celebration established by the Romans to mark the Winter Soltice, which, of course, is not even on the 25th, but four days earlier. The date, officially called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “The birthday of the unconquered sun” was to honor the Sun God. Back then, a few hundred years after the murder of the aforementioned Jesus, the honorary Christian observance of his birth was January 6.

Christmas, the actual date it’s observed, and the historical veracity and religious significance of which is completely built on one fabrication after the other, should not threaten anyone. It is a ritual observance for some, a warm and fuzzy tradition for others, and let’s face it a spectacular consumer orgy for the rest.

This is the intelligent, reasonable way to look at Christmas. And isn’t that what all these people who get up in arms every December argue when they rail against its overtly Christian overtones? Of course. This renders a “protest” to lesson its impact or to “even the field” somehow feeble at best and stupid at worst.

I shall not, now or in the near future, take down my motorized masturbating Santa. He’s goddamned jolly and the neighborhood kids love him.

Granted, Christianity in almost any form or denomination is annoying and in some cases dangerous and mostly oppressive, but name anything you’re not on board with that isn’t. You can’t. Hell, I’m the first to back any dismissal of purely religious iconography, no matter how historically or even spiritually inaccurate, in public forums, federal buildings or public schools. But then there is the recent case in North Carolina where some self-righteous idiot tried to force a grammar school to strike “Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer” from its holiday recital purely for the “Then one foggy Christmas Eve…” line. The tender term “eve” was the issue, which the idiot denoted as religious-based. Again, arguing semantically, the word “eve” refers only to “the night before” an event, as mentioned earlier with All Hollow’s Eve, which was later bastardized into the modern Halloween. All of which is hardly religious and innocuous as it gets.

It only gets weird when you forget all the anti-religious rhetoric and realize the protest itself is a subtle form of fascism.

To wit: “Rudolf The Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a song, therefore a work of art. It is a fairly effective fairytale scenario based almost entirely on an early nineteenth century poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” or “”Twas The Night Before Christmas” (which could have easily but less dramatically been entitled, “Christmas Eve”), wherein all of our modern concepts on the Santa Claus myth derive. By denying the inclusion of these creative works falls under the guise of ignoring first amendment freedoms of expression, and who is for that? Besides radically charged Christian zealots, of course, who are for expunging every other work of art.

But that is a separate insanity for another time.

This week’s insanity surrounds the always-thorny term, “sensibilities”, which are often used, along with other debate crutches like children, society, obscenity and (gulp) God to keep people from doing perfectly harmless activities that hurt no one. In a supposed free society there are going to be loads of activities, images, and overall goofiness that’s going to impinge on one or more sensibilities, but you know what? Too fucking bad. That’s how it goes. The same jackass that fights to ban gay marriage or censor rap music or protest art exhibitions and march for all manner of meaningless falderal turns right around and makes noise about another equally vapid activity as “impinging on rights” or “attacking the framework of decent morality” or you name the predicable banality.

So have a Merry Whatever and a Happy Whoozzits, but know this; I shall not, now or in the near future, take down my motorized masturbating Santa. He’s goddamned jolly and the neighborhood kids love him.


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Hazy Reflections In Mexico

Aquarian Weekly 12/10/08 REALITY CHECK

WE’RE ALL FINE Hazy Reflections On America’s Economy South Of The Border

“We’re going to be fine,” I told a young exporter from Cincinnati, as we sat with our wives in the cramped bar of a dilapidated restaurant on the Westside of downtown Cabo San Lucas. It had been another warm later-November day and the wife and I decided to interrupt our Mexican Booze Marathon to charter a sailboat at Puerto Los Cabos and watch the sunset. It was on route to a port along the Mar de Cortés when we offered passage to Mr. Cincinnati and his wife. I hadn’t so much as seen a JC & EM in Mexicosober American since being accosted by a round-faced Oklahoman at the pool bar fourteen hours earlier, but these people were different. They looked desperate, claiming to have been forced to dock an ill-conceived marlin expedition when two local fishermen brandished a pistol and summarily ordered the Gringos to “hand it all over”.

I was responding to a conversation that began when Mr. Cincinnati, drawing hard from a bottle of cheap Chablis, repeatedly bemoaned his doomed trade and the sinking American dollar. “I’m afraid,” he stammered. “I go to sleep with CNBC scrolling disaster every goddamned night and I am fully convinced my children will starve.”

“Don’t watch that miserable crap,” I told him. “Those people are programmed to peddle hype. It’s the first thing you learn in broadcasting school, how to pronounce “W” and pitch hype masked by news-speak. Fuck CNBC. All is well. You’re children may starve, but it won’t be a result of the American economy.”

“The stock market is killing my future!” he shouted.

“Future? It’s a myth,” I counseled him. “Live in the now!”

“Jesus, we forgot to cancel our stolen credit cards,” Mrs. Cincinnati interrupted.

“No problem,” my wife told her. “The people have controlling interest in the goddamn banks. I read it in my husband’s column.”

“Are you two with the press?” Mr. Cincinnati blurted, his sagging complexion turning a greenish alabaster as the ocean began to go haywire.

“Take that back,” my wife sneered, holding fast against the crash of erratic swells. “Just because my husband slums, does not implicate me as media.”

As we veered into the Pacific, a sudden bout of seasickness caused Mr. Cincinnati to violently disgorge what he said was once a fine platter of Chili Mariscos. A fair amount of it grazed my khakis and part of my wife’s sandals. She had ample opportunity to avoid the surge, but was transfixed by how Mr. Cincinnati’s weird combination of odd facial hues mixed with the crimson sunset. As he doubled over in retching convulsions, she clicked away on her Pentax K2000D proclaiming madly, “This is why you must always bring a fast-action shutter when boating!”

Appalled, and still in post-traumatic shock from the heist, his wife proffered a conciliatory dinner engagement if we “made it back alive”. Moreover, there were serious overtures to having an “in” with a select eatery only a few blocks from our hotel. “We’ve been coming here for over a decade,” Mrs. Cincinnati explained, as she frantically ushered her heaving spouse into the tiny bathroom below deck. “We have a 30-year timeshare.”

“I would sell that,” my wife chuckled, still clicking away. “The economy is screwed.”

“Fuck China?” my wife asked. “Fuck this hideous feed-shack! How long have we been sitting here?”

But safely back on terra firma, Mr. Cincinnati’s appetite was approaching ferocious, as was my beloved’s insatiable lust for stronger Tequila and a halt to our endless harangue on the Death Of The U.S. Dollar. She took to growling, “I swear I’ll open my wrists if someone mentions ‘fiduciary tailwind’ one more time.”

“Aren’t you the least bit worried that things are beyond repair?” Mr. Cincinnati asked.

“Fuck that noise,” I said. “America was never in a better place while crippled. This is not the Depression. Do you know anything about history, son? After ’29 the world closed its doors on us, and we recoiled in horror at the thought of international aid. Those days are over. In 1930, we hadn’t done a fucking thing for anyone. Shit, World War I? We came in for land grabs in the last seventeen months. Before that it was stealing this and colonizing that. Since then we’ve dumped billions upon billions all over this globe, not to mention bloodless coups and weird assassinations. Hell, we went to war for god-knows-what from Indo-China to Grenada, Lebanon, Kuwait and Nicaragua in order to drag the Third World into the 21st Century. We won’t be allowed to go under, not now, not ever.”

“What about China?” he argued. “They will eat us alive!”

“China? Shit, do you have the slightest inkling of what the average American citizen spends a year on crap from China? Our demise would be suicide. They’ll keep lending us money and we’ll keep spending it on their crap. We’re like a deadbeat junky to a dealer. No matter how deep in debt, he cannot afford to lose him. Fuck China. They need us. Everyone needs us.”

“Fuck China?” my wife asked. “Fuck this hideous feed-shack! How long have we been sitting here?”

“Nine Modelos, five Margaritas and one Tequila Sunrise ago,” Mrs. Cincinnati quantified.

“Holy mother of Christ, we need service here!” my wife yelled in the direction of the chubby waiter, who sprinted over to slam an entire tray of Pacificos on our table. He was sweating profusely from the heat and breathing dangerously hard. “On the house, señorita,” he exhaled.

“We don’t want this piss, bring us four more Modelos until a table opens,” I said.

“No table, amigo. We are overbooked.”

“I don’t care about food, four more Modelos!” I said.

Obviously frightened, the panting waiter whispered, “No more Modelo. We’re out.”

“Corona then,” the wife said. “Bring us four Coronas with limes, and no chincy curved slivers, real chunks of lime this time!” “Sorry, señorita…”

“No Carona?” my wife shouted. A hush fell over the bar. “Aren’t we in Mexico? Can you go into any dive in the U.S. and scare up a fucking Budwieser?”

“I’m going to pass out if I don’t get sustenance soon,” Mr. Cincinnati said, bolting from our table to confront the perpetually angry Maitre D’. For nearly two hours we watched in utter fascination as she physically evicted six patrons without explanation.

“That woman looks like a pissed-off Frida Kahlo,” the wife observed. “She’s going to kill that poor schmuck.”

“What the hell is wrong with him?” I asked his wife.

“Aside from being trapped in Los Cabos for Thanksgiving Weekend with a lousy time-share, robbed at gun point of everything he owns, and waking up in cold sweats for a solid month with the sound of his financial advisor repeating over and over that three weeks ago the Untied States fiscal stability hung by a thread, he’s pretty chipper.”

“You’ve got to ride this stuff out, take the blows and keep coming,” I instructed.

“I know,” she said, keeping an eye on her husband, who was raising the ire of the scowling Maitre D. “We’re weak.”

As she let “weak” escape her lips Mr. Cincinnati’s hapless recon mission had succeeded. Waving us over, we followed Frida through the crowded entranceway into a tunnel festooned with cheap jewelry and trinkets out to the main room. It was too bright, too loud, and reeking of dried sweat, stale beer, and soiled children. The sound of nervous laughter was oppressive. Mr. Cincinnati looked woozy, so we sat him down at an oval wooden table, where an imposing gray-haired waiter stared us down. “You are in a rush, no?” he asked.

“Rush, yes,” my wife told him. “This man here is dying; he is living in fear…an expatriate who has suffered a grave injustice at the hands of pirates. He needs refried beans and guacamole immediately or there could be an unpleasant incident.”

Looking perplexed, the gentleman smiled, “Who told you we served refried beans and guacamole here, señorita?”

With that the wife and I got up from our chairs, and walked briskly to a waiting cab and back to our corner table at La Guadalupana Cantina. Before the door closed we could see Frida smiling broadly.

We never saw the Cincinnatis again. They’re weakness was not needed stateside. This is the Land Of Survival. We would be there soon to weather any storm. But first, Cohibas, refried beans, guacamole, and two Caronas, please.


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The Summer Of Survival 2008

Aquarian Weekly 7/23/08 REALITY CHECK

THE SUMMER OF SURVIVAL A Realist’s Guide For A Doomed Economic Future

Mad Max RevisitedAnything which is a living and not a dying body will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant – not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power… ‘Exploitation’… belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will to life. – Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil

To those still fiscally solvent enough to cobble together a buck-fifty for an arts and culture weekly or have not already hocked your computer or chosen to disconnect your high-speed to feed your family rather than receive my thrice-monthly wisdom, I say it is high time we panicked.

The American dollar is a sick joke. The stock market is at best a three-team teaser. The banking system hangs from a thread. Food prices are at record highs and the price of fuel or any energy for that matter has taken the form of abject thievery. The job market is so desperate recent college graduates are burning diplomas like draft cards. The government, both federal and local, laughs at us.


But I don’t mean cold cocking corpulent housewives at the gas lines like in the late seventies, or shoving sticks of dynamite into ATM machines, which was all the rage during the terrible summer of ’02, or even attempting the wildly effective communal leaps from Fifth Avenue high rises in the autumn of 1929.

This is the year of change.

Let’s get creative.

I say from this moment forth, let this be known as the Summer of Survival.

Give the Summer Of Love and the Winter Of Discontent a run for their money.

Let us cast aside decorum and scoff at the rule of law to better embrace our simian roots; the deepest part of our humanoid id — the feral, bone-gnawing, knuckle-dragging ancestral primate who managed to best nuance the vagaries of this Darwinian treadmill we bi-pedal daily.

Thus, I humbly offer that we listen to our president’s call to stop driving so damn much. Traveling, the great 20th century American chime of freedom, celebrated in song and story from Woody Guthrie to Chrysler jingles, must cease. Stay home. Lock the doors. Reject all forms of energy. Live in the monastic style of the Rabbi’s of Masada. A sedentary life will gain you savings in the here and now and earn you important self-flagellation/denial points in the hereafter.

We must assume the supine. Breathe as slowly as possible. And for the sake of God, do not answer your phone. Unplug the damn thing!

Blackberries and other forms of mobile texting and e-mailing should be used sparingly and in many cases only when sending messages of dire consequence, like when celebrities give birth or monthly magazines depict presidential candidates as cartoon terrorists on their covers.

Next, we must stop eating so much.

We’re the fattest nation on the planet. The tier of southern states alone consumes half the planet’s food supply. The spike in sugar carbs has rendered its populace incapable of making reasoned decisions on matters of philosophy, religion or politics. Let their terrible epidemic in mind-numbing obesity be a lesson to us all.

The gorge stops now. If nothing else it will cut down on the rash of salmonella poisoning ravishing 80% of the contiguous United States.

And no more spending. Period. In fact, ignore all debt. The authorities will bail you out. The free ride is coming. All aboard!

And no more spending. Period. In fact, ignore all debt. The authorities will bail you out. The free ride is coming. All aboard!

Why not? You didn’t try and get rich on bloated property grabs. Why should the rapacious hordes get all the breaks? Fuck the banks, the lending institutions, and lord knows, the greedy little shitheels demanding a monthly stipend for your land. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, whatever the hell that means. Damn, let’s find out. Let ’em come and kick us out.

In fact, burn all your bills, especially credit card and mortgage statements, utilizing the blaze to heat your water and cook your meager game.

Up here in the mountains we’re back on the gold standard, off the grid, and boycotting the super market teat already. Beneath the fluttering majesty of our Don’t Tread On Me flag we’ve taken to the foraging of berries and edible plant life for sustenance. This has caused a nasty civil war with the black bear and wild turkey, which has allowed the carnivorous among us to utilize the fatalities for our dwindling dining choices.

It is just as well we face the call of the wild. We’re already deep in the midst of hunkering down, as if a devastating nor’easter were nigh. We’ve begun to manifest our destiny by stock piling weapons and old 78’s of Knute Rockne speeches, which we blast dawn to midnight from a loudspeaker mounted just outside of the second floor hay bale window of The Desk’s headquarters. It livens the blood of the hearty souls digging trenches and constructing crude barricades, which began when the clock struck twelve on the summer solstice.

We, of course, in the great American tradition of ingenuity and opportunistic foresight have been using slave labor to cut costs. Children, particularly of the pre-teen/middle school variety, make excellent beasts of burden; just old enough to huck but not savvy enough to whine, fight back and/or take up litigation.

Soon we will fortify our numbers by capturing the older ones, who foolishly speed their cheap cars past our fortified compound at all hours of the morning with little regard for rationing of gasoline or feline noir pathways. Following another American tradition during times of national crisis, we shall suspend habeas corpus and detain the zit-addled potheads in holding pens until their wills are broken. Then, and only then, will we remold their undernourished and newly propagandized teenaged brain matter to do our bidding.

Teach the next generation what patriotism and sacrifice is all about; enough mucking around with glue sniffing and video games. It is time to carry the weight and defend the territory. Young hormones can work in our favor during the Summer Of Survival. I should know; I was a disillusioned youngster during the ugly malaise months of 1978. Back then we took crisis as a challenge to exploit and pillage and we will expect nothing less from these lazy, sexually-depraved temperamental pissants.

This will not be easy, but it has long passed necessary.

Design the bumper sticker, call Philip Morris, find that bleating symbol of Pollyanna madness, Phil Gramm and string him to a rail and ride him out of town.

It is the Summer Of Survival.


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George Carlin 1937 – 2008

Aquarian Weekly 7/9/08 REALITY CHECK

GEORGE CARLIN 1937 – 2008

What’s all this favoritism towards the dead? Why should the dead get a moment of silence? Fuck the dead! Let’s have a moment of muffled conversation for those who were treated and released.– George Carlin

Saint GeorgeFor over a half century George Denis Patrick Carlin was the standard bearer of the principles on which this space was founded: Nothing is Sacred and Truth Need Not Apologize. He stomped that terra without fear; took names, laid waste and left volumes of incredible material to prove it. Only Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Lenny Bruce, Hunter S. Thompson, Dick Gregory, Kurt Vonnegut, Randy Newman, the first four years of Saturday Night Live, or those wonderful maniacs who pen The Simpsons have tread the same plain of his satirical mastery.

For my money his passing is a true American tragedy; a significant loss to the alternative voice, a rare and dying breed.

I love and treasure individuals as I meet them; I loathe and despise the groups they identify with and belong to.

George Carlin was the patron saint of the wayward radical without a home politically, spiritually or philosophically. It was Carlin who made sense of taking the thought less traveled — possessing an intrinsic ability to detach and reform from weird angles — then make it sing. He had what the bodhisattva might call The Third Eye. Carlin viewed life through a prism of individuality, and like all great artists, baring its results became the universal language.

By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth.

Language and words were Saint George’s tools, his play toys — the penetrating microscope into the human condition. He massaged their beauty by deconstructing their gruesomeness, regurgitated their nuances, idiosyncrasies and then exposed their inaccuracies like a mad poet street troubadour bip-bopping megaphone. Language was his instrument and the words soared like notes from it.

You can prick your finger — just don’t finger your prick.

The truly magical times came when the words would possess him, contort his face and jangle his lips, his voice raising and dipping, his timbre guttural and hoarse, eyes bulging, teeth gritting maniacally until you could no longer breathe with laughter. He would blurt out “There is no blue food! Where is the blue food?” and you were gone. Only Carlin could use everyday musings as machine gun concussion to make you cackle until you could no longer draw air. He did it to me all the time, since I was eight years old.

I will never forget the first Carlin. It woke me up, bub. It gave me a sense that there was true grace in this world if you were willing to uncover the deeper regions. Knowing Carlin (Class Clown, Occupation Foole, Take Offs & Put-Ons, Toledo Window Box, AM/FM) meant survival was not having to be the strongest, coolest, most popular; only funny — funny and witty and ready to bring the goods, funny as a defense, hypotheses, elixir. But you had to have the inflections down, and the timing. You had to hit the marks like the master, and only then were you cruising.

Language and words were Saint George’s tools, his play toys — the penetrating microscope into the human condition. He massaged their beauty by deconstructing their gruesomeness, regurgitated their nuances, idiosyncrasies and then exposed their inaccuracies like a mad poet street troubadour bip-bopping megaphone. Language was his instrument and the words soared like notes from it.

The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Sharing Carlin meant friendships. If you knew Carlin, then you were in. If you saw him on Flip Wilson last night, stayed up for his Tonight Show appearance for the new rant then you could recite it the next day and be the hero. My good friend Ken Eustace called it “releasing crucial endorphins”, extending your life, or extending the child in you who could see in all things humor. Another long time friend Chris Barrera said it best when he left an honorary voice message which concluded with “Man, did we laugh.”

The sun did not come up this morning; huge cracks are appearing in the earth…details at eleven.

Before books or protest songs, before causes and ideologies there was Saint George around my house. We celebrated his absurdity because Carlin was the neighborhood kid. Born and bred on the corners of New York City. He went to my dad’s high school, talked about the same lunatics and recounted all the same shit. He had the NYC madness in him; something the cursed can understand immediately when we hear it. It is a rhythm, a cadence, a parry and jab resolve, metaphysically unable to surrender. Fight on for no other reason but joy. It makes noise. It makes trouble. Most of all, it is damned funny.

The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.

I was watching an old Carlin thing a few days before he died. He was doing the riff on the Seven Dirty Words, the one that made him famous, the one that went all the way to the Supreme Court. And he was jamming like Coltrane or Monk or Charlie Parker. It was like jazz, I told my wife a few days later; a few days after that he was gone.

It got me thinking about what my friend, a damned killer satirist himself, Dan Bern wrote about my work in the preface of my last book, how I had this “bullshit meter”. And I thought about how I was given the keys to it by Saint George all those years ago.

So I bid farewell to another of a dwindling circle of influences who’ve molded this voice into the lovable cynical, ball-breaking hack jockey he is today.

This country was founded on a very basic double standard: A bunch of slave owners who demanded to be free. So they killed a lot of white English people in order to keep owning their black African people so they can wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to drop their weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what our motto should be? “You give us a color, we’ll wipe it out.”

Half a century will have to be enough.

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John Waters Interview

EC ROCKER 12/12/07 Cover Story


John WatersJohn Waters has made a good living challenging the parameters of our social landscape. He is arguably the most controversial, provocative, entertaining, and influential filmmakers of the past half-century, running the gamut from underground cult hits shot with unknown talent and bizarre extras, distributed in guerilla style with little to no money to Hollywood niche favorites boasting star power. His most famous work, Hairspray has become a huge Broadway hit musical, followed up by a successful Hollywood movie starring John Travolta in the corpulent, cross-dressing Devine role. There is another, Cray Baby, on the horizon. But no matter the canvas, one element remains constant in a John Waters’ production, its subject matter will be anything but mainstream, and it will apply humor, irony, and subversive imagery to hammer home its theme.

This is also true of Waters’ one-man shows, which he’s been staging for thirty years, and now entering a fifth year of his critically acclaimed “A John Waters’ Christmas”, winding its way into Asbury Park this month.

We recently discussed all things filth, film, and the underground.

jc: Christmas is a perfect foil for you. Do you like to play with some of the traditions, not only religious, but exploitive traditions of Christmas in America?

Oh, sure, to make fun Christmas in a way that I like Christmas but I can make fun of its extremes and the different moods it brings on. You have to know the rules, though, the basics of what you’re satirizing. So, I do like Christmas, without irony, if you want to know the truth, but at the same time there are terrible things that happen in Christmas. I also try and look at it from every person’s viewpoint, like for instance thieves are very happy at Christmas. You have more money in your wallet. There are presents in your car they can steal. It’s a happy time for them too.

I’d like to talk about the evolution of social commentary through art and literature, specifically the use of wit and satire, which is a specialty of your work. Can you discuss what you refer to as “trash art” and your role in using it as commentary on or a rebellion against social mores?

I don’t call it trash. I call it filth now, because I think it needed a new word. Trash seems to be so embraced now. They talk about “trash tv” and that doesn’t mean the same thing to me. I always used “trash” as praise. Filth has a little more edge, is a little more punk.

But certainly “filth”, which started out as the real “trash”, the great “trash”, was not filled with irony and didn’t know that it was funny and was serious about it. And for its real audience it was sexy and scary, but then hipsters and intellectuals came in and discovered it. Some of them loved it for what it was, almost as “outsider” filmmaking, but it was mostly forgotten by my generation, but then rediscovered now by young people that hold some of those movies in great esteem. They are getting the final respect that they deserve.

You’ve talked about the importance for art to provoke or even disgust to engender a response or challenge, and your films have certainly done that. How meaningful do you think it is to create societal shifts through underground art?

“I’ve gotten through my life using humor as a weapon, as protection, and politics. I think every joke is political in a way.”

Well, you have to surprise people in order to get them to listen. People are always saying I’m trying to shock people. I don’t know. I get why they say that from Pink Flamingos, but basically I was trying to surprise you and make you laugh at things you’ve never laughed at and that way you’ll listen. You could never argue with somebody by ranting and raving. No one wants to hear that, they’ll just walk away. But if you can make someone laugh, they’ll stop for a minute and they’ll listen to you. I’ve gotten through my life using humor as a weapon, as protection, and politics. I think every joke is political in a way.

Do you think it’s harder now to shock an audience or say challenge them with irony and humor?

I don’t try to shock! I try to make people laugh. It’s easy to shock. It’s not as easy to surprise people and to make them laugh at something they’re shocked they’re laughing at.

How about compel or provoke, to use more specific terminology.

It’s odd. Even though there is more craziness on the Internet or even on television, there is always an angry backlash for real edgy, thought-provoking stuff. It’s as if we are supposed to accept shit as appeasement for this insatiable need for human nature to test boundaries. Partly, I guess. Television’s the freest it’s been. Pink Flamingos plays on color television. I’m shocked at that! You get co-opted easier. I mean, at the last Republican Convention in New York George Bush Sr. and Barbara came to see Hairspray and he was out front twisting with drag queens. You don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s very confusing.

There was always honesty in the subject matter in your films. It reminds me of early American literature’s take on taboo subjects, which were also not done ironically but with the utmost seriousness, but may have been co-opted later as a wink and a smirk at the establishment.

The first thing I ever wanted to be was a Beatnik when I was eight years old living in Lutherville, Maryland. I used to wear Levis with bleach on them and laced-up Ben Hur sandals. I really looked ridiculous. I would go to coffee houses with the bongos and meet up with the girls wearing berets and black nylons. I remember that was really a shocking thing. And I remember going to see foreign films where they served espresso coffee and you’d read. Of course! You’d read Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, along with all the Beat books. I loved that! But then they turned into hippies and they turned into punks and the punks turned into grunge, and grunge turned in gangster. All just new ways to rebel.

Do you think any of your earlier films were as far outside the Hollywood mainstream in subject matter, specifically Mondo Trasho, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, than say Hairspray or Cry Baby?

John Waters ChristmasIf I hadn’t changed, I wouldn’t be here today. You’ve got to re-invent yourself. You don’t repeat doing what you did when you first get famous or it will be over. There were no more midnight movies, video came out, so you have to keep changing with the business.

My last movie got an NC-17 rating. I had huge censorship problems: Cecil B. Demented, a movie about terrorism. And Hairspray is probably the edgiest thing I ever did, because it’s playing in every country in the world, where regular families are sitting there not realizing it’s a film encouraging their white fifteen year-old daughter to date black guys.

What about more mainstream Hollywood films that followed, like say, Porkies or on a grander scale Animal House. I’m not sure those film get made without your films displaying that it’s not only okay to dip into the tasteless or bizarre in movies but that there is a pretty wide audience for it.

I don’t have anything against those movies, I’m jealous of their grosses, but they were much broader than my films were. My films were always exploitation films for art houses, not exploitation films for real exploitation. They bombed in real exploitation theaters. And those movies were for a more male-orientated, macho audience, the same audience for Knocked Up! But I’m happy those movies are hip. It makes it easier for me with censor boards. I wish my films were that broad, but they never have been in a way because mine are somehow considered more elitist and more ironic.

In a way Hairspray is the most subversive kind of art to be able to get into larger markets and infuse the same themes you’ve hit upon from your earlier films.

Well, you just keep going and you try to figure a way to make things work. I’d been through a whole thing where I started trying to make underground movies and then it was midnight movies and then it was independent movies and then I had a Hollywood period, and then I made Hollywood independent movies, and I think now I make Hollywood underground movies.

Could a young filmmaker today make the kind of films you made in the sixties or seventies and get them to an audience? I know you also said once that it’s easier to get films made now and even distributed now, but if they bomb on the first weekend, you’re gone.

Every movie made today has a harder time staying around. Even Hollywood movies only last three weeks, and that’s considered a long run. It’s because of DVDs and videos and home theaters. None of that existed then. When I was young, films could play a year in one movie theater, but today that could never happen because in six weeks you can get it on DVD. But, however, way more people see it. Now you can live anywhere in America and you can see any movie in the world. You don’t have to worry about where you live to see great obscure art films. It’s actually much better now.

I see you’re doing your show out in Asbury Park.

It’s hard to imagine how great and scary Times Square was. You look at Dianne Arbus pictures and you look at people who photographed it lovingly and you see it was really exciting to see exploitation movies in that perfect theater.

I’ve never been there, so I’m looking forward to it. I love to come to somewhere that I’ve never been. I heard you have good hairdos there.

I’m not sure about that, but okay. At least I’ve heard the town’s having a bit of a renaissance?

Real Estate porn is everywhere. But good! I think mostly if yuppies or guppies come in and fix up places it’s good for the neighborhood. It makes it better. I have nothing against yuppie restrooms. They have great restrooms.

There is a preponderance of friends and colleagues, many of them artists or writers that are always going on about how they enjoyed New York City more when it was grungy and more dangerous. I always disagree. I grew up in New York and worked there most of my adult life on and off. I love New York. I was never thrilled about fearing it.

No, God, I remember when every night you could get mugged in New York. I can’t get mugged now. I mean, do I miss days of on Ninth Avenue when you could see a hooker in broad daylight taking a shit? No. But I do miss the sex clubs that were pretty amazing. They will never ever come back. AIDS ruined everything. Never in anyone’s lifetime that may read what you’re going to write are going to see that again. That will never come back. It’s hard to imagine how great and scary Times Square was. You look at Dianne Arbus pictures and you look at people who photographed it lovingly and you see it was really exciting to see exploitation movies in that perfect theater.

Do you think your films have captured a period of time that won’t be returning?

The next underground sensation will be on the Internet and it will surprise me! Working on anything new? I have a sinister script before the (writer’s) strike even happened, and it’s a terribly wonderful children’s Christmas adventure called Fruitcake, which I’m hoping to shoot in February.

Have you decided whose going to be in it?

Well, Johnny Knoxville is the dad, but it’s mostly all children in it and you really can’t cast that ’til the last minute because a child can grow a foot in one month.

Good point. I understand you’re touring this Christmas show with a band, right?

Oh yeah, I’m touring with a band who opens for me called Lavender Diamond with Becky Stark as the singer. I also have my Christmas album, A John Waters Christmas, and I have other records – uh, records, you can tell how old I am – musical collections that came out the past couple of years.

How did you choose the songs for these?

Oh, just songs that I figured you haven’t heard and I thought you should. It’s what I would play if you came over my house and we smoked pot or had a martini.

What about the future of filmmaking? You mentioned the Internet. And I’m referring here not to the big time film industry, but the independent stuff, the edgy stuff.

Eventually, they’re all going to be on the net, because everyone is going to have a home theater. People will still go to the movies for a shared experience, but everybody will have a little art cinema in their house eventually.

Do you think every film, or every piece of art; every creative experience should have something in it that’s provoking in some way?

No! No! You have to make a movie for the audience that’s it’s intended for. Certainly my mother doesn’t want to see any edge in movies.

Do you believe that most subculture or art movements tend to make its mark on society, even if slightly?

Well, I always joke that I think I’ve made trash one percent more respectable and maybe that is what I was put here to do.

That’s a contribution.


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London Recalling

Aquarian Weekly 11/21/07 REALITY CHECK

LONDON RECALLING Musharraf Sweats, Mailer Dies & The Genius Poet Tails

It was sometime in the early hours of an endless bipedal drinking marathon, slumped in a cramped hotel room at the edge of the literary Bloomsbury district, that my traveling companion, Jersey Pedro and myself watched in relative horror as General Perves Musharraf, the acting president of a crumbling government, spoke to his nation and the world beneath a sheath of Nixonian flopsweat. His stuttering pleas for sanity seemed to ring hollow as the BBC cameras captured apathetic shoulder shrugs and glares of disdain from the heavily armed members of his cabinet, who were recently forced to beg the foreign press to shed light on the president’s suspension of all laws, allowing him to systematically jail dissidents in and around the powder keg that is now Pakistan.

Carolyn Cassady & jcThis was nothing worth processing either mentally or spiritually while working on little sleep with nagging back pains and creaky knees. London is an unforgiving town. It moves at a snail’s pace and closes well before midnight. You must be drunk by noon and brandish your own steak sauce or escape is futile. The real action happens beneath the ground, something Musharraf will fast be learning soon, when he is likely deposed by his government and sacked by his military chieftains.

Pedro, for his part, was angered over the lack of cricket highlights and football scores, making it his business to sing the same incessantly cruel Ringo Starr song over and over, as if he were recovering from secret shock treatments. I tried in vein to decipher Musharraf’s vague references to martial law and terrorist coups, and recalled, if only for the briefest of moments, a piece I penned for this paper in late May of 1998, when the Indian/Pakistan border war escalated into its current nuclear parameters.

I wrote then: “Iran and Iraq is a tea party now; a second-rate, five & dime whiz bang of a blip on the ass of this horrible development. Not even Hussein’s babbling psycho-rhetoric can rival the impoverished and enraged populace due east.”

I was busy paraphrasing the above paragraph when Pedro, hoarse-throated and clearly hung-over, reminded me that years before I’d gotten it on pretty good authority from my baby brother – knee-deep in human feces on the streets of New Delhi trying to train dumbfounded Nortel representatives – that Indian newspapers were rife with misinformation about how much nuclear tonnage the government had acquired from the Chinese, and that “nuking was imminent”.

I drowned out the terrible memory by turning up the television. Musharraf was sounding more and more like a puppet of the United States government by promising another round of free elections, easing the “state of emergency” and complying with international demands to release embattled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

“To hell with that army thug, he’s doomed,” Pedro said, before gasping towards his lap-top sitting beside him on the bed.

“What is it?” I asked, glued to Musharraf’s increased levels of perspiration and weird stammering.

“Remember yesterday near the Thames when I concocted a plan to buy up volumes of nearly deceased authors to sell at increased rates years from now, and used Norman Mailer as a prime example?”

“Was that before or after the Genius Poet Incident?” I asked innocently enough.

It was then Pedro grew tense. His eyes glazed over and he swallowed hard. “Don’t speak of that again,” he whispered. “Not now. Not ever.”

I had attended the event as a proper representative of American authors, shuffling confidently past the make-shift ticket stand wondering aloud if we could just drink quietly and listen to the faint echoes of poets plying their trade downstairs. The young patron waved us through to the main bar.

He would get no argument from me. I was there. The newest incarnation of the legendary Marquee Club on Upper Saint Martin’s Lane, where for nearly two hours London’s pretentious cross-nagging underground poets made transparent attempts to impress the aging Beats who’d come to sell books while still appearing vital. I had attended the event as a proper representative of American authors, shuffling confidently past the make-shift ticket stand wondering aloud if we could just drink quietly and listen to the faint echoes of poets plying their trade downstairs. The young patron waved us through to the main bar.

No one seemed to mind the two yankee interlopers perching themselves on the winding staircase taking in “Ode To My Cunt” and “My First Blowjob” sonnets delivered with stunning power from angry middle-aged female scribes, and then, a short interlude with former Beat Queen, Carolyne Cassady, who I’d chatted up earlier in the evening when a glowing Irishman was challenging the fragile 84 year-old to a drinking duel. She laughed in his face. I laughed too. No one who could take on both Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac would lose her bravado to a soused barfly.

“Jack said to always drink at home,” I reminded her, feeling somewhat proud.

“And in hotel rooms, sonny,” she winked, punching my shoulder.

After Cassady was done trashing Kerouac for seventeen uninterrupted minutes on stage – “If not for my husband, who mister Kerouac painted as some kind of beast, there would be no On The Road” – I retired to the upstairs lounge to find an effeminate black man dressed conspicuously in a brightly colored motorcycle body-suit sitting at my table.

For long minutes we said nothing to each other until Jersey Pedro sat down and sparked a bizarre conversation that began with the destruction of the human race. I startled our visitor for a moment with my predictable, “Yeah, sure, there should be more genocide and abortions” routine. This usually defuses the issue. This time it did not.

“People scare me and I despise them,” he said. “I cannot suffer them any longer. I’m a genius.”

“I’m an idiot,” I responded. “Glad to meet you,” and shook his hand.

Soon thereafter we sussed his plan, as he brashly slid a hardback edition of his collected poems across the table and demanded we work as his American agents. This succeeded a Q & A session on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Charles Bukowski and more bullshit about he being a genius.

“I have my own fucked career to contemplate,” I told him.

“I’m merely a highly motivated unemployed musician,” Pedro added.

But the Genius Poet would not quit: “You must represent me. Don’t you want to be rich? I’ll give you twenty-five percent!”

We excused ourselves and bolted towards the door. The young lady from Lousiville, who had engaged me in a delightful discussion on Hunter Thompson only hours before now yelled “Run!”

“Jesus, this guy is crazy!” Pedro remarked.

I refused to look back, but I knew he was tailing us out into the street. We sped across Oxford and down towards the closest Tube entrance, beyond the crowd of braying youth stumbling from the pubs en masse as the bells struck eleven.

“Guess who just died?” Pedro aasked me back at the hotel the next morning, snapping me out of my funk.

“Who?” I asked.

“Norman Fucking Mailer!”

“Shit, we’re too late.”

“He was a self-proclaimed genius, you know.”

Musharraf was now taking questions. Still sweating. Doomed.

“We wasted ten billion dollars on this asshole and he’s going down like Custer,” I said.

It was a tough day in the grand old town for generals and geniuses.

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“On The Road” At 50

Aquarian Weekly 10/3/07

Jack Kerouac’s Peripatetic Ode Comes Home

You’re not really writing a book till you begin to take liberties with it. – Jack Kerouac

On The RoadJean-Louis Le bris de Kerouac wrote the above in a 1949 journal two years removed from his first of three free-wheeling cross-country road trips, considerable portions of which were spent beside a human dynamo named Neal Cassady, the hero and focus of his most famous and influential work, On The Road, to be published eight years later and now fifty years ago. The passage resonates as a confession for its author, whose public sermonizing about the priority of “spontaneous prose” led to the mythology behind the book’s bizarre crafting, but it also serves as a prophecy for generations of its readers, who have taken many and varied liberties with the novel’s compelling content and in the process perhaps twisted its original themes.

The book’s narrator, Sal Paradise could well have been talking about the legacy of On The Road when he muses; “I realized I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy.”

On The Road and the image of Jack Kerouac have led several lives in the past half-century. Both art and artist, as inseparable as the two get, have become icons to decades of youth and culture movements, soundboards for freedom through itinerancy, and an overt call for social rebellion in alternative lifestyles forged through experimenting with drugs and sex. The novel, like all of Kerouac’s work, has been required reading for those emerging from innocence to experience and the trading of middle-class illusions for a wide-open breath of American madness.

But is that the book the man the Beat Generation anointed Saint Jack, and the media labeled its King, intended to write? Is it possible there was more to On The Road than good times and weird friends who burn “like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “AWWW!”? Could Kerouac, a reluctant figurehead of an ensuing counterculture movement, who remained a devout Catholic and political conservative until the day he died, have been grossly misunderstood?

Viking Press, the novel’s original publisher, has released two new books which provide insight into these questions; Why Kerouac Matters – The Lessons Of On The Road (They’re Not What You Think) and the On The Road: The Original Scroll.

The Original Scroll is quite simply the Holy Grail to fans of Kerouac’s lasting imprint on American literature; literally a 120-foot scroll cobbled from eight sheets of tracing paper taped together and run through a typewriter, allowing the heavily amped author (some claim Benzedrine, Kerouac claimed coffee) to spend three solid weeks regurgitating his frenetic tale without interruption. Appearing in one long and sparsely edited paragraph and revealing the actual names of the participants, including, among others, the impassioned Cassidy, Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg and author, William Burroughs, it is far more graphic and vicious than its published successor and a must read for fans of the work.

Why Kerouac Matters is the exhaustive work of NY Times reporter, John Leland, who recently told me, “Many begin their assessment of On The Road with the idea that it laid the groundwork for the sixties counterculture, which might seem like a reasonable assumption, but the second they make it they’ve lost Kerouac, because he was heading in a completely other direction. And whatever complaint he had with the fifties, and this book includes a lot of them, his solution is not the sixties; it’s this kind of timeless spiritual quest.”

Kerouac’s most underrated gift as an artist is that he had the guts to take us there.

Part of Kerouac’s spiritual quest, accordingly to Leland, involved profound suffering, a search for emotional boundaries, religious epiphany, and most importantly, becoming a man. It is all played out on a wing and a prayer across a post-war American landscape that would soon evolve, much to the author’s chagrin, into a soulless monolith. Through that prism, On The Road becomes less a social manifesto for a boundless future filled with unbridled promiscuity, senseless excess, and a blatant rejection of a moral fabric than a sober longing for an innocence lost; both to the author and his country.

On The Road is, among other things, a search for the old hobo, which is a thirties character,” says Leland. “I think to a great extent Kerouac remained true to the period of time when he grew up, the twenties and thirties. He was nostalgic for a more authentic American character, the vagabonds and the hobos and the drifters, and the working guys who carried the lunch pail.”

The book that so many of us in raging puberty turned into the ultimate escape pod filled with incredible episodic eruptions could well have been a solemn nostalgic prayer for the collective soul adrift.

“There were two statements that Kerouac made about the book that really struck me,” Leland notes. “Before he’d really gotten too far along in the early drafts, he said, ‘It’s going to be a profoundly sorrowful book, …but good’. Now that’s not the way we think of the book. And the other is after it was a success and he was asked about the themes of On The Road, he said, ‘It’s two Catholic buddies going out in search of God and we found Him.’ And that’s not the way so many of us think about the book either. I wanted to find that book or see if that book was in the text. And I found that that book was hiding in plain site.”

Revisionist history and the deconstruction of public figures are dangerous games. It has become an early 21st century art form which often devolves into out-and-out hokum, as in the dubious outing of Abraham Lincoln’s homosexuality or the painting of Joseph McCarthy as a misunderstood American hero. But when it’s done with Leland’s exhaustive research, captivating scholarly dissection, and an obvious reverence for the book, and placed alongside the long-awaited revelations of The Original Scroll, it is downright gripping.

Many argue, including Leland, that Kerouac brought any possible misinterpretation of his book upon himself, by producing a vaguely poetic, cryptically musical prose that while breaking literary ground and capturing his transient nature, belabored a vibe at the expense of key story devices.

“Kerouac aims for climaxes and doesn’t know how to deliver them yet,” cites Leland, who admits the author’s later work such as Big Sur comes closer to achieving goals set in On The Road. “And that’s why so many people don’t see a book about two Catholic boys in search of God, because Kerouac sort of backs off when it is time to really deliver that climax. When it’s time for God to show himself, Kerouac backs off.”

Disciples of The Original Scroll, of which Ginsberg and many Beat writers and poets are in lock-step, argue that timid publishers and over-zealous editing muted Kerouac’s mad tale of spiritual longing and an endless highway of revelation. Too much homosexuality? Too much substance abuse? Too much racial tension? Too much failure and degradation? Too much jazz? Too much raw honesty? All of these subjects and the damaged soul of a brother in arms eventually lead to the center of the On The Road mysteries.

Kerouac’s most underrated gift as an artist is that he had the guts to take us there.


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“On The Road” At 50

Aquarian Weekly 10/3/07

Jack Kerouac’s Peripatetic Ode Comes Home

The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye. – Jack Kerouac

Cassady & KerouacJack Kerouac’s On The Road may be one of the more misinterpreted literary works of the 20th century, but that’s only where its contradictions begin. It is more widely read today than ever, while also being ignored as a seminal literary benchmark. It is celebrated as vehemently as a groundbreaking effort as it is vilified for being an overrated mess. Stories of its creation and influence are in many ways more intriguing than the book itself, and the shadow of its most worshipped character has forever enshrined its author as a pop culture immortal.

At the epicenter of all this is Kerouac’s hymn to “Beat”, a secret “hustler culture” of social outcasts, hipsters, transients and jazz cats who are literally “beaten down”, immune to rehabilitation, and most importantly, protective of its hobo freedoms. And while On The Road spawned an unlikely “beatnik” movement, which gave way to a hippie counter-culture yearning in generations to follow, the book’s solemn and reverential themes refuse to be buried beneath spicier scenes of unbridled exploits.

Kerouac’s adventures across America with nary a penny to his name and no sense of coherent direction or purpose seem to embody a sense of itinerancy as sacrament, a rolling stone gathering no moss, the spiritual wanderer as rejected inhabitants of Eden looking for a home. As long as the characters keep moving, specifically Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), they will enact an almost physical return to divinity. Through the very act of perpetual traveling, the peripatetic existence becomes the holy journey through life; growing, maturing, and abandoning the fantasies of youth for the harsher but more meaningful realities of adulthood.

For most of the novel the insane pace and erratic tendencies of Dean Moriarty represent for Paradise the purest soul of an America once wild and free, but now wounded by economic tragedy (The Great Depression) and reborn in glorious victory (World War II). Moriarty is, like real-life friend and companion, Cassady, an angelic “holy goof”, a man without boundaries, inhibitions or guilt, who embodies the seductive jazz rhythms that cannot be tamed. But by novel’s end there is only a hero’s shell. Abandoned by his best friend and left to flail alone, Moriarty literally disappears into the fog. Paradise cannot keep up, but, instead, must grow up.

“There is that wonderful Dean Moriarty character and that ode to cowboy freedom that Dean represents,” notes John Leland, author of a revealing new book, Why Kerouac Matters. “But there is also the book of Sal Paradise, the narrator, that follows a different course. And as much as Sal falls in love with Dean the way we all do, he outgrows him over the course of the book and puts some distance behind him.”

By ’57 the highway system would eradicate our mysterious back roads and the quaint towns they led us through would begin to die out, leaving an homogenized nation bloated with malls and fast food chains, stripped of individuality and geographical pride, and a vast underbelly of furtive wanderers would be left to fade like the ghost of Dean Moriarty to haunt the pages of this most extraordinary book.

In a very real sense On The Road is a warning for those who Kerouac later despised when the book’s success made him a famous guru for the desperate runaway baby boomer romantics, who refused to see the damage of Moriarty’s trip into the unknown and the scars left by brothers adrift. They chose to ignore the visage of a resolved Paradise (the name is no coincidence) shuffling off into the womb of domestic bliss, arm in arm with his new girl to sip hot tea in her inviting upstairs apartment where he (Kerouac) will mature into the writer he longs to be.

And that is, beyond all else, On The Road‘s lasting legacy; the naked force of the writer’s vision. The bold leap for a post-war, relatively unknown novelist to challenge the structure of his art in order to express the forgotten faces of a burgeoning American Century; the dark faces, the soft faces, the young faces, the failed faces, the wild faces, and ultimately the face in the mirror, strung out on fractured dreams in steamy gin joints and lonely highways and endless nights teetering between revelry and misery – thrashing it together in one long scroll over three weeks, after several painstaking revisions, to finally rescue the honesty in the experience, warts and all.

This is why the feral call of jazz music reverberates as the central theme in Kerouac’s travels. His uniquely spastic descriptions of the music and its emotional affects move the narration along as if swept up in a wave, giving credence to Kerouac’s beloved “spontaneous prose” and its concussive affect on the reader.

But tall tales of Kerouac jacked on speed and controlled madness whipping off phrasing and imagery in Herculean spurts in mere weeks are greatly exaggerated. While he did unfurl his “scroll version” of the novel in 1950 (released this summer as On The Road – The Original Scroll) the final published version we know today was carefully revised several times and in many voices.

“Kerouac’s often been accused of having a rather shallow view of jazz,” Leland explains. “That his idea of jazz is some primitive guy blows whatever’s in his head and gets off the stage. But if you look at the way jazz musicians really put together their solos, with tremendous wood-shedding beforehand, working out phrases or connections or ideas through hours and hours of practice and then putting them together in some kind of spontaneous way onstage in a solo, but not inventing everything whole cloth, that’s the way Kerouac wrote On The Road. He’d written a lot of these scenes in his journals or his letters, and even in previous drafts of the book, but he cranked them all together fast in ways that probably felt new to him in the composition, so that draft becomes a performance, and that gives the book its pace and feel.”

Still, as Leland puts it, the book’s staying power in the American consciousness, whether selling khakis for The Gap or an escape route for youth, is rooted in a deeper “longing for a place in this world and a direction, a sense of meaning, an idea – and that questioning of how you are going to get on as a man in the world, what type of man are you going to be, that will allow you to live an authentic life. I think those questions are as elusive to us and as relevant to us today as they ever were.”

On The Road wasn’t the first “road” story, and it certainly won’t be the last. Homer, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and many others have hit the mark – some of them an obvious influence on Kerouac’s winding tale. Hell, I even wrote one that unabashedly heisted from those guys. But there is something eminently penetrating in the American spirit that Saint Jack tapped into 50 years ago. When he hit the road in 1947, a decade before the novel’s publication, this was a very different country to travel. By ’57 the highway system would eradicate our mysterious back roads and the quaint towns they led us through would begin to die out, leaving an homogenized nation bloated with malls and fast food chains, stripped of individuality and geographical pride, and a vast underbelly of furtive wanderers would be left to fade like the ghost of Dean Moriarty to haunt the pages of this most extraordinary book.


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