We may be adrift in a vast angry ocean, but at least the stars are out.
We may be adrift in a vast angry ocean, but at least the stars are out.
It makes me happy.
A couple weeks ago I was standing on a mountain and I really did feel sunshine on my shoulders. It was about 20 degrees but the sun was ablaze and the sky was going from periwinkle to ultraviolet to deep indigo. I know I should have been cold but suddenly my shoulders were ablaze and the rays found its way through two or three layers.
The sun was in my eyes too, but it didn’t really make me cry except to feel joy. I never knew what John Denver meant by that second line
“sunshine in my eyes can make me cry”
But in that moment I did understand. Sunshine is so beautiful it makes you cry. Beautiful as to be blinding. It was too bright to see beyond my tracks in the snow. But I could feel an ethereal love starting as a tiny pinpoint and ending in an infinite ray. A love that came from a million miles away, a singular white light love that only a burning star can send to a slowly spinning planet. As I stood there in my tracks on the trail that led into the sky I thought of one thing only.
I belong here.
I belong in the bright light, in the sphere of the now and the know.
I will stay here as long as I can.
That is what happiness is.
It’s being killed.
This is a quote from author and naturalist Paul Rosolie on the rain forest which is burning.
I came upon this photo in a travel magazine. It kindles dreams of visiting the rain forest someday. I’m not sure it will still be there when I get there. If it’s not there, it will be the least of my worries.
Green is the dream, you can’t get back from black.
Something down there stinks.
like a backed up bus station toilet in Toledo at three in the morning
like leaking pipes dripping on
food from the school cafeteria
like a closet full of modern day Nazis
getting their freak on now that the clown is in town
brown shirt invasion
canonized in bronze
because it’s a superfun time to be a villian
Something down there stinks
from 400 years of festering and suffering and war and taxes
is it dead people or do I smell orange
I want to smell roses but there’s a hand holding my face to the stench
I would like to create something good
About good, borne from old fashioned beauty, but
My outrage has threatened my voice and my soul. To be outraged is to be paralyzed. To feel hatred to such a degree is a threat to my own humanity.
We are tossed into the void with nothing to hold. There is no one to lead us through this morass, not this time. You are on your own. Never in history has it been more vital to know who you are and what you are about. Define yourself and act accordingly. Do not complain that you don’t matter; that you won’t be heard. You will be heard if you scream. Scream.
Only a few months into 2016 and I’ve realized all the major inspirations of my creative life are slowly passing on. Must I tack on yet another broody tome reflecting on the death of David Bowie? Yes.
It was David Bowie that taught us kids it was good to be different. Zesty and zany. The lifelong interwoven mystery of Major Tom. Pink monkey birds. Pappamamas and rock-and-roll bitches. Diamond Dogs and Cat People. Peoploids and Starmen. Vaudeville space rock meets Kibuki theater.
“Let the children boogie.”
And they did. David Bowie was a pioneer, someone who sets the stage and rages it, constantly reinventing himself in such a way that made it clear that there would only be one David Bowie.
And how true it is that there is only one of each of us. We should express ourselves as freely as possible, borrowing a little nectar from this bloom to that, taking what we know and expanding the universe as we wander into the unknown.
What is yellow and goes, slam, slam, slam, slam?
A four-door banana.
Speaking of autobiographies—another page-turner is Keith Richards’ Life. It’s a satirical title, considering all the blather about how he never should have survived it. Reading autobiographies have a way of flying celebrities back down to earth. They seem so larger than life and then I read about them and realize they’re just monkeys like the rest of us. I’m thinking back to another autobiography where John Lennon explained to a fanatic who camped for days in his yard, hoping to meet him:
“I’m just a guy who writes songs.”
The colorful blobs are my take on sound. Ever since The War of the Worlds, I think about the aliens in the story who could sense things we could not. What if we could smell colors and see sounds?
For anyone who wants to go beyond the American History textbooks of seventh grade, read The Grapes of Wrath. If you’re searching for a metaphor for your uncertain future, read The Grapes of Wrath. (If you prefer a metaphor for the Book of Genesis, read East of Eden.) If you still think the middle class really exists, read The Grapes of Wrath. When you reach the last sentence, ask yourself if anything in this country has really changed. It’s true that history repeats itself, because although we insist otherwise, people never really change. Some are virtuous, others are greedy. While it’s true that Americans have certain freedoms that others do not, I never forget we are always free to starve. This is common knowledge for the masses, yet another truth that one half of one percent cannot understand.
Travels with Charley is one of the greatest classics of the travel genre. It is an autobiography set in 1960, when Steinbeck loads up a trailer and circumnavigates the United States with his dog Charley. One of my favorite things about Steinbeck is his honesty. If he never sugar-coated American History, he certainly didn’t sugar-coat his own reactions to the people and places he encountered. There is a favorite excerpt of mine in Travels with Charley. After driving all day, he rents a room where everything is sterilized, covered in plastic. (“Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.”) He goes to the hotel restaurant and meets a waitress, also adorned in a plastic apron. He finds her demeanor so dull and cynical (“Some people spread a grayness in the air about them.”) he goes into a spiritual tailspin and ends up in the hotel bathtub with a bottle of vodka. Thankfully his dog Charley, who is well-documented as having a personality all his own which sustains his owner, coaxes him out of his funk by making him take him for a walk under the night sky. He sees the stars and he is cured. I’ve been cured by the stars too many times to count. They never fail. Knowing that Steinbeck had that same muse bonds me to him forever. It doesn’t matter he’s been dead almost as long as I’ve been alive, we are kindred spirits. If he came through the filament in plasma form and we had a brandy old-fashioned together, I’m sure we’d get along fine.
I hate to say it, but seeing Steinbeck with a cigarette smoldering between two typewriter-worn digits makes smoking look cool. Phillip Morris should have been paying attention. It’s not the cigarette, but something about his expression that tells me—with all his smoke breaks, the man has had some time to think. I wonder—especially now, when smokers are banished not only out of society, but at least ten feet away from it: what do they think about whilst huddled in a far frozen corner, taking another drag of nicotine between their blue lips? (Smokers, you have been prompted to comment on this blog!) Reading great authors like Steinbeck makes me understand that honesty is the hallmark of a great author. Great writers frame the truth; they know the truth is beautiful. They draw from their own experiences—they don’t presume to be something they are not, or try to write about things they know nothing about. Honesty is the best policy, anything less than the truth is propaganda at best. At the worst, it’s a shit sandwich.
My aspirations for the new year:
Join a bead challenge. Honor Martin Luther King. Learn more science. Get older. Nourish my bones and soothe my synapses. Fix the flat tire on my bike. Listen to Harry Nillson.
There will be a lot of plates to spin.
I’ve science-fictionalized a picture of two high school wrestlers featured in the local paper. This is a classic example of when I pick up something realistic, pass it through my turning wheels, and it emerges as something completely different.
I’ve learned to not to expect anything to turn out completely the way I imagine it. No matter how thorough I am in my planning, it never does. It’s a good thing I’m not a civil engineer. This is why I like impromptu mock-ups like this—there’s no expectation, just a glimpse of an oddity.
So who do you think wins the fight? Will it be the red guy or the blue guy? Does it matter? Is there an equation based on how many times you’ve watched Star Trek in your life? Is it possible that all the stories you’ve heard can be condensed down to one or two stories?The first story is the good guy wins, the bad guy loses. The second story is the bad guy wins and the good guy loses. Win, lose, lose, win. Is there anything else? And yet, there are as many stories as there are stars. It’s the post-modern era blues.
In the quest to support myself as an artist, I once answered an ad looking for a tattoo apprentice. I don’t even have a tattoo, and now that I’ve been behind the scenes, I doubt I ever will. It’s not that drawing on skin with an ink-laden needle startles me. It does. It’s the realization that the best tattoo of all is the one that only exists in the imagination. In my mind, the ultimate tattoo takes over the entire body and beyond, a complex menagerie of animals, monsters, people, philosophies, and history. Like most Librae, I’m a chameleon constantly changing colors. I’ll never stay in one room, most likely I’ll live in every one I come across. I’ll finally make up my mind when I’m dead.
My excursion into the tattoo world took place for two months one summer about three years ago. Apparently, a good tattoo artist can make a fair sum of money. But like a hair-dresser, you have to be fairly social. Being too quiet is suspicious to most humans—who is this silent psycho drawing on me, anyway?
I suppose being the only tattoo apprentice without an actual tattoo could potentially arouse suspicion. But everyone was nice to me anyway. It is surprising how many people would line up for a free tattoo from someone who never tattooed before.
I worked as a gardener by day, then reported for duty in the evening—cleaning, sterilizing, tracing, observing. No sleep to be had with that schedule. Notwithstanding, there was always drama in the background. By the umpteenth time I noticed the red lights of a squad car flashing on the wall one Saturday night, I began to think maybe the tattoo game “wasn’t my bag.” I like drawing on paper. Paper is quiet, low-key. Doesn’t need to be peeled off the ground in handcuffs.
I did admire my mentor for his talent, although I can’t vouch for his temperament. When it came to apprentices, he had the philosophy of an army drill sargeant. Not that he spit epithets in my face, but he was often belittling and snarky towards me, which made his criticism unconstructive to me. He did have an extensive library of art books which he used for reference and inspiration. My homework” was to draw the same thing over and over constantly until the subjects were sunk completely into my memory and I could draw without thinking. He also suggested layering different medias so the work appeared rich and opaque. To his credit, he did more to influence my drawing style than any professor I ever had.
My last day at the tattoo parlor came without my knowledge. I put in a good two hours of outlining Japanese waves on an arm who had to go to jail the next day. I did my absolute best, executing with the same precision hitherto my teacher would often glance at and declare I “would put him out of business.” When I finished, the guy was turning around in front of the mirror, gushing. He loved the tattoo, sung arpeggios of praises. In walked the mentor, late for work as usual with car trouble. He proceeded to bash all the work I had done, because my waves weren’t Japanese enough. In my mind’s eye, I saw a ghost of myself pick up my bag and walk out the door. But I didn’t leave yet. I spent a couple of stormy hours cleaning, prepping stations, sterilizing, tracing. The next customer walked in, I set up the station and sat down to observe. Mentor again deconstructed my Japanese waves, then my character. Not to me, to my face, but to the customer. Customer blushes, says uhhhh.
I, the real me, the flesh me, pick up my bag and walk out the door. Not my bag.
I’ve been squashing my yen for portraits. I painted people from 2000 to 2005, and then found myself in a room full of stares. Portraits used to be the thing to have before daguerreotypes came to be. In every tasteful dwelling, there hung an oversize oil painting of Crusty Old Ancestor scowling over the fireplace. Now we have thousands of pictures on our computers never to be printed, although we swear we’ll print them someday.
This is Gram Parsons, inventor of Cosmic American Music. His life could have come straight out of a Tennessee Williams play, or at least the Twilight Zone. His family owned the largest citrus plantation in Florida, thriving in rapidly rotting opulence. Raised a true Southern gentleman, he was reported to have always pulled back chairs for all the ladies. Gram was both blessed and cursed with the bad combination of unlimited wealth and a hereditary addiction to alcohol and drugs. Growing up, there were numerous toys and gifts, wild bourbon-fueled parties, a giant swimming pool. His father committed suicide when he was 12. His mother drank herself into oblivion and died the day he graduated high school. His stepfather had a pet ocelot and drove a Jaguar convertible.
Gram had a talent for music early on. There was no doubt his playing and song-writing provided a catharsis for all of his painful experiences. In the late 1960s he moved to Los Angeles and dove headfirst into the hippie music scene, fiercely defending country music to his peers. He took rock and roll, stirred in some country and called it “Cosmic American Music.” With his hair hanging in his eyes, he took his creation to the old honkytonks in Los Angeles. The rednecks would have beat him up in no time, had he not played so well and sung so earnestly. (Actually, he did get beat up, never was able to keep his mouth shut.)
Gram played with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He turned out two brilliant solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel, then died of a heroin overdose at the age of 26, on the verge of hitting his stride and making music history. He not only sang sad country songs, he was a sad country song. Like so many other musicians of his time, God only knows what he could have accomplished had he lived. But with a life so complicated with tragedy and hereditary addiction, it seemed destined to be short.
Perhaps Gram himself puts it best:
“It was a dream much too real to be leaned against too long.”
( Thanks to David N. Meyer for Twenty Thousand Roads, a great, in-depth biography of Gram Parsons.)