Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Memory Hole

Though it's not immediately apparent from the front page, I've recently added maybe ten thousand words to this site. Blogger now allows you to backdate new posts, and I've been using this functionality to update my online Gig Diary, reconstructing the paper version electronically.

This sort of back-filling gave me all sorts of ethical fantods, I must admit: It smacked of Orwell's Ministry of Truth literally rewriting history to support the current line that we have always been at war with Eurasia Eastasia. But if this web log is to be a resource (at least for me) and a place of records (ditto), then I'll need proper chronological ordering of events in the Archives.

It's a hard thing to tell the Truth as it happens. If I've got to fudge the timestamp on my entries, is that not worthwhile in the cause of telling my story straight and with the benefit of hindsight?

You tell me. In the meantime, enjoy some thoughts on returning to the gigging game, musings on the process of performance planning, lyrics and notes for three original songs, and four new show reports.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Trifecta


As of today, I've been blogging for exactly three years. I'm not sure exactly what that is in Internet Years—which are telescoped, like Dog Years—but if I'm not a crusty oldster then I'm certainly not some bloggie-come-lately, exploding onto the scene with the start of the War. (Pornography and the military—the two great engines of technological progress.)

I'd hoped to mark the occasion with something witty, insightful, or at least coherent.

No such luck.

Maybe next year.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Up The River

More thoughts on The Phantom. I'm not one of those comics readers-slash-wannabe writers (or wannabe slash-writers, for that matter) who seemingly cannot read any comic without nattering on about how they would have done it better: it's just that, when I look at The Phantom, I want to strip away all the elements that don't work—of which there are so many—and strip the thing back to a manageable core, so that I can know what I'm looking at, and what it is that keeps bugging me about it.

My key came in the way the Billy Zane movie depicted The Phantom's jungle kingdom. The comic is set in Africa, but the movie's tribesmen seemed vaguely South American. Turns out, though, that the movie's jungle scenes were shot on location in Thailand.

This, quite naturally, made me think of another movie that moved its source's African setting to Southeast Asia—and I realized this about the Phantom:

He's Kurtz.

The Ghost Who Walks is Kurtz triumphant, a dynasty of Kurtzes; the white freebooter who comes upriver into the jungle and sets himself up as a god-king, ruling his native subjects by mystery and terror; a vortex around whom a hundred supernatural rumors swirl; a colonialist nightmare of white man's magic and superstitious dread.

The Phantom sits at the Heart of Darkness, and neither cheerful purple suit nor embarrassing fanboy devotion can mask the stink of patrilineal corruption and madness that pulses from him like a fever.

Mistah Walker—he dead.
Long live Mistah Walker.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Menace

Watching Billy Zane prance and skip through 1996's Phantom movie set me to thinking (again) how fundamentally stupid the character is. Honestly, I find it inconceivable that the strip has lasted long enough to become an institution: the concept is a hopeless muddled mess.

Oh, the individual components are promising enough. But there are so many of them, in such a seemingly random combination, that the character is left with no clear center. Dig:

  • The Phantom is "The Ghost Who Walks," believed to be immortal, because he's been active for some 400 years. In fact, however, it's a family business, passed down from father to son for twenty generations.

    That's a pretty cool hook—cool enough for William Goldman to steal it for The Princess Bride's Dread Pirate Roberts. But moving on...

  • He wears a ring that leaves the imprint of a skull when he socks a villain in the jaw...

    Neat! Okay, so it's stolen from the pulp hero The Spider, but still...

  • ...lives in the jungle and is served by a local tribe...

    Uh... aside from the queasy colonialist underpinnings, it's, ah, uncomfortably similar to Tarzan, isn't it? and how does that jibe with the ring and the...

  • ...is a crack shot and rides a super-intelligent white horse...

    Now wait a minute...

  • ...has a trained wolf...

    ...in the jungle? What in the...

  • ...and fights pirates...

    ...you WHAT? Isn't that a little—arbitrary? Why not "lives in Sherwood Forest and fights ninjas," fa chrissakes?

  • ...oh, and he wears a purple body-stocking and a hood. And a mask.

    To those unfamiliar with the character: I swear I am not making this up.

Jon Morris has talked about the characteristics that make for a bad superhero. He uses Bee-Man as an example of a character who just too tightly focussed —(from memory) scientist Barry E. Eames, an expert on bees, is attacked by radioactive mutant bees commanded by extraterrestrial bee-people and becomes a humanoid bee able to communicate with bees, and he lives in a hive, and eats honey, and steals gold because it looks like honey... you know, there's only so much you can do with a character like that.

The Phantom has the opposite problem: because he's such a crazy-quilt of secondhand attributes—aside from the Spider and Tarzan, there are bits of the Lone Ranger, Doc Savage, and even Sgt. Preston in the mix—that in the end he fails entirely to make an impression. To me, he was a perpetual third-stringer—just something fill space between Hi & Lois and Marmaduke. The strip has become "beloved" simply by refusing to go away.

I mean, apparently The Phantom does have fans. Admittedly, as Chu says, "You could write a comic called 'Piece of Shit Comic' that starred a turd that sat there for 6 panels doing nothing, and you would have 100 'fans' of that comic suddenly materialize to start complaining should it be canceled."

But there's supposedly a big European following for this character. I don't understand it. Then again, I never understood how, say, .38 Special could be someone's favorite band. You wouldn't change the channel if they came on the radio, but neither would you rush out to buy the record.

The Phantom, though, has an actual fanbase, to the point that some folks feel hard-done-by re: the Zane movie—witness this Swedish guy on the IMDb, sniffily intoning that "This is not what Lee Falk intended... I have always regarded The Phantom to be kind of a 'serious' super hero adventure."

Which can only lead me to think that they don't get many American comics in Sweden.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Not To Be Taken Personally:

The bare trees. The bleak sky. The slush in the streets.

The bland professional smiles. The unwarranted familiarity, all things casual to the exclusion of dignity, as if emergency has made you a child again, everybody's child; and a slightly dim child, at that.

The bare-assed johnny, still scratchy after innumerable launderings. The linoleous pastel tedium. The ghosts of a half-dozen unpleasant odors, faint and miasmic at the threshold of perception.

The intermittent sounds of violent retching from the alcoved room before you. The continual sound of agonized moaning from the alcoved room behind you. The thick liquid coughing from behind the flowered curtain beside you.

The awkwardness of the narrow bed where you sit, hands dumbly at your sides, longing yearning begging to be made useful.

The single-player Pong soundtrack of cardiac telemetry.

The silence: constant din, but heavy with the waiting for answers, a silence like the silence of God.

Don't take it personally.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Due Process

Sainted William Burroughs, the Junkie Sage of Lawrence, wrote that there would be "no more Stalins, no more Hitlers."

We have a new type of rule now. Not one-man rule, or rule of aristocracy or plutocracy, but of small groups elevated to positions of absolute power by random pressures and subject to political and economic factors that leave little room for decision.

They are representatives of abstract forces who have reached power through surrender of self. The iron-willed dictator is a thing of past.

And indeed, the Great Man Theory of History has been steadily losing credibility in the West for many a year. It still gets some play in the developing world, of course—one of the many cultural divides that make diplomacy in the Arab region so tricksy. Khadafy, Khomeini, Saddam Hussein—all presented themselves as Great Men, will all the attendant iconography and state-sponsored hagiography.

And Saddam Hussein, at least, seems to have believed his own hype. How else to explain the way that, dragged from his hidey-hole like a stewbum rousted from Penn Station, he announced in broken English, "I am the President of Iraq—I want to negotiate"? It'd be funny, if it weren't faintly pathetic.

A headline at a progressive news feed solemnly warns "Arabs Share Little of World Joy Over Saddam's Capture." Ah, yes. So sad, no? I am sorry, but try as I might I cannot bring myself to feel bad for those whose hearts are broken by this turn of events. As with Paul Robeson, Doris Lessing, and so many other old lefties whom I love and by whom I am exasperated, I cannot muster sympathy for those whose heroes seem great of stature only because they stand atop a mountain of bones.

This is not just about backing the wrong horse, friends—this is about shaking the Devil's hand, and about what you do afterwards: you can spend the rest of your life trying to wash the stink off, or you can claim, loudly and unconvincingly, that it smells like roses.

Will this capture make a blind bit of difference in the democratization of the Middle East—in our last, best chance to vanquish Islamofascist terrorism, by making it irrelevant? Hard to say. The key is to remain focussed on the process, not on any arbitrary set of progress-markers.

Watched with mounting irritation last night the conclusion of HBO's film of Tony Kushner's play Angels In America. There were a handful of good lines amidst six hours of grad-school blather, but what galled me about the whole exercise was its epic narcissism: its insistence on conflating the end of one way of life with the End Of The World, and Kushner's own politicization with the Birth Of Politics, full stop. The film's final moments are flesh-creepingly smug as the protagonist addresses the audience, informing us, with desperate self-importance, that "now, the Great Work begins."

Well, no. The Great Work began long before Tony Kushner deigned to give it his imprimatur: it begins anew with each new day since the morning of the world, and will begin afresh long after all we now living are dust. That's the essence of a process: always starting, never ending.

What can we hope for, in Iraq, in the Middle East, in all our broken, freak-ridden, cruel, crazy, beautiful world? The great work begins now.

Just like always.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Sweet fancy Moses.

Make one passing reference to Need To Know, and all of a sudden I've got four hundred additional readers.

Hello, new fish. Come for the parodies: stay for the florid prose.

Like All Other Times It Passed

This last in the series of retrieved writing exercises began as a joke between D and me: I was in the living room, extemporizing a Goreyan alphabet, and realized I was never going to make it to "Z".

From this developed a simple brief: literary parodies that cut directly to the heart of the matter...

from In Which The Author Loses Patience

The Ignoble Fantod
by Edward Gorey

A is for Alex, who perished of measles
B is for Bette, who was savaged by weasels

C is for Clarence, who trod on a mine
D is for Dora, who was lynched from a pine

E is for Ernst, who was shot in the head
F is the Fucking rest, dead dead dead dead.

Our Claire (who is seven), by the way, detests The Gashlycrumb Tinies. Developmentally, she is not yet equipped with the proper sense of irony: plus, as a young child herself, she objects on moral grounds to the gruesome destruction of small children for the amusement of adults.

She may have a point.

One more, this for the Lone Wolf and Cub fans...

The Two-Hundred and Fifty Ninth: Iron and Chrysanthemums

Edo-era Japan. In an isolated country temple, a large assemblage is gathered. There are priests, and prostitutes, ronin, yakuza, peasant farmers, imperial soldiers, ninjas, acrobats, hard guys from the local prison. All sits in silence, eyeing each other suspiciously. A middle-aged bureaucrat, Fukui-san, stands and addresses the crowd. He carries an armload of scrolls and documents—diagrams, inventories, maps, imperial decrees—and turns to face the assemblage.

Fukui-san: Well, this a complex situation...

In the crowd, a man who has been sitting silently suddenly stands up. He is Ogami Itto.

Ogami Itto: Not complicated at all.
Fukui-san: Huh?
Ogami Itto: Assassin! Lone Wolf and Cub! I come for your life!

Ogami Itto kills the entire assemblage.

Fukui-san (dying): But—I'm the one who—hired you...
Ogami Itto: . . .

Ogami Itto leaves the temple, and retrieves his son Daigoro from his hiding place—hanging upside-down by his ankles from the clapper of the temple bell. The baby carriage rolls slowly away. From the highest bough, a cherry blossom falls.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Porkpie

Another Hat Fiction, this one for Whisky Priestess, who backed off on actually participating in the exercise on the grounds that she was "saving [her] creative juices for the forthcoming orgy of blood in the Mafia thread." Fair enough,I suppose: but where would the Mafia be without hats?
Little Enzo is holding a porkpie hat. It's cold in the parking garage, and he wishes he could put it on his head instead, but he can't: that's not why he has it. Wind whips 'round his ears. Goddamit, something, a stocking cap, anything: but wearing one hat while holding another is a sure way to attract attention, and Little Enzo does not want attention.

The porkpie is not Little Enzo's own hat—he's got a couple of nice fedoras, but he didn't want to sacrifice either of them for this job. The porkpie is, frankly, not a good match for the suit and topcoat he's wearing, but it's all that was lying around the club, and damned if he was going to go uptown and pay actual money for a hat he's only going to use once.

He sighs. He could've gotten hats by the armload, back in the day. He had to go to Milan for the suit he's wearing now—but his father, Big Enzo, well, those were different times. Big Enzo may have been small potatoes, but he had a closet full of suits no less fine, and he hadn't had to pay for no plane ticket, neither—fine silk-lined gabardines that had fallen off the back of a truck. As they used to say.

But business changes, the stakes get higher, the niceties and the perks fall away. The elevator dings, the mark exits, and Little Enzo moves forward, absurd porkpie hat over his hand, hiding the pistol in his fist.

Monday, December 08, 2003

nø • ro brân më • shínz

Five microfictions, each self-contained, springing from this singularly unpromising starting point: "The first three words of every paragraph are 'Neuro brain machine,' and that these three words aren't used anywhere else in your portion of the story. ... and you've gotta use these things: (*) to divide paragraphs so things will look cooler." (You know, love la Hinewater though I do, I've got to wonder just how damaged by drugs a person would have to be, for hir to think this was a good idea...) As is my wont, I started looking for loopholes immediately...
from Far * Outing : yet another writing game

"New roe & brains, Machine," he said, settling his monstrous fleshy bulk in his hover-chair. The whine of the servo-motors mingled with a sibilant bubbling, as sensors in the cushions, detecting the redistribution of weight, activated micropumps in the body of the chair that adjusted the liquid cushioning system. He wriggled, inasmuch as he could, lowering a meaty arm to pick idly at a pressure sore on one vast thigh. The voice-activated food-prep unit cycled with a whirr and a jolt, then served up his steaming platter of fish eggs and headguts—along with a note, typed in monospace font on a small square of cardstock: YOU SHOULD NOT EAT SO MANY ORGAN MEATS, SIR: IT IS BAD FOR YOUR GOUT.

*

Nero-Brahma sheen: the Empire never fell because it was never confined; Augustus never dictated its boundaries. And so through generations of Caesars (Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) it expanded—until, in the day of Clodius Pilchus, the first garrisons were established in the northern edge of the Indian subcontinent. As was customary, the Emperor proclaimed himself an avatar of the local deity: idols were carved in his image, and the priests were ordered to keep them highly polished.

*

New Rose Bahrain—mission control for the illegal movement of information and materiel throughout North Africa and beyond, and named in homage to the work of William Gibson—was ideally situated for its purposes: the ready petrodollars made for a high standard of living, and the archipelago's central position in the Gulf simplified the logistics of transportation and distribution. Most importantly, though, its proprietors had on their side the simple truth that it is astonishingly easy to move contraband in a society that has fetishized female modesty. A woman in the company of her brother could pass unchallenged in the souks, and the Bahraini cops (even the ones that hadn't been bought off) would never dream of searching such a woman—even if the bewitching dark eyes behind the hijab belonged in reality to a thirteen-year-old Thai ladyboy with microchips sewn into the lining of his burqua, a bellyful of smack-filled condoms, and two saline bags swimming with illegally harvested stem cells stuffed into his brassiére.

*

New robe. Rain. Ma chine soie—my China silk cassock, the last one I owned—had been ruined in a sudden downpour like this one. Too bad, but really: I'd never have gotten the stains out. When I was a boy, my maman took me to a fortune-teller: the gypsy told me I had the hands of a priest. And years later—ah, God has been so good to me. I laugh to myself as I stroll in the rain, from Sacré Coeur (where I left the boy, weeping, in the confessional to do up his trousers in privacy) across town for Evensong at the nunnery: the sisters will be so glad to see me. I laugh, and the rain from Heaven is a baptism, washing boystink from my priest's hands, and I am born again.

*

New row, bran. My jeans stick to my legs, wet with labor sweat. My shoulders ache. I am walking heavily, guiding the plough. There is no horse, there is no ox—only the earth, and the plough, and the seed. The small field for bran oats, thirty rows, and the rest of the property for corn. The seed cost me dear. Reach the fence, lean against it for a moment, then turn. The day is hot. The plough bites the earth, and, step by heavy step, there is another new row.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Gunfighter

Another from the archives. True story, this one.
from Writing Exercise: The Hat

It's a good gig, as these things go, thinks the bass player: the crowd is well-oiled and receptive to their off-kilter cowpunk, he's locked in with the drums, and the mix is punchy and pleasingly loud. He turns to glance over his shoulder: from under the broad brim of his battered gunfighter hat, he can see drumsticks cutting arcs in the air. He swings away, looking down at his bass, at the cheroot smouldering between the fuck-off and ring fingers of his pick hand, at his foot stomping time. He does not look at the singer, only four feet away from him but too close to the crowd for his comfort: his hatbrim is pulled low so none can see his eyes.

They're opening for a national band tonight, which is some comfort—the crowd, however enthusiastic, isn't there specifically to see them. That will make it easier to get away afterwards; to push through the terrifying throng with a mask of indifference, to sprawl on the backstage sofa feigning sleep, hat over face siesta-style, counting the hours until Last Call, until the room clears out, until he stumbles out to collect his pay and go home.

Alone at last.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Strolling Through Watts In A Red Black & Green Liberation Jumpsuit

From the archives. Wrote this one just as the bombs started dropping on Baghdad, with fear in my guts and a too-wide smile on my face. What's amusing to me is how dated many of the references seem already, nine months on. Part of that was by design—obviously "All Your Base" was a year past its sell-by date at the time of writing, but it seems positively Mesozoic now; roll on, the inevitable acceleration of media obsolescence...
So I've been listening a lot to Gil Scott-Heron's fabulous "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," and it strikes me that it's very much... of its era, let's say. A time capsule of a certain time and a certain place.

Thought it'd be fun to do a piss-take / pastiche / update / homage, keeping the same funny / apocalyptic tone and cadence and shoehorning in as many ridiculous in-jokes and flash-in-the-pan internet culture references as possible...

The Revolution Will Not Be Webcast

You will not be able to do it from your keyboard, sister.

You will not be jerking off over green-tinted nightsight military porn footage on your monitor, brother. Because the Revolution will not be webcast.

The Revolution will not be webcast. The Revolution will not be Slashdotted: the Revolution will not be Need To Know. You will not read about the Revolution in the Onion: you will not read about the Revolution on CNN, MSNBC, BBC dot co UK or Reuters, because the Revolution will not be webcast.

You will not see pictures of Tom Coates splitting a pig's head with his iPod: You will not see pictures of Mighty Joe Flyboy sodomizing Paul Wolfowitz with a flagpole at high noon on the Capitol steps: You will not see pictures of theory bitches in full-on drag lashing John Howard with Woomera razor-wire, because the Revolution will not be webcast.

You will not hear the Super-Friends screaming "Wazzuuuup!" as they dance around a bonfire of US currency: You will not see Mahir strutting through the smoking ruins of a Turkish mosque, wearing nothing but his tiny red Speedo and playing his accordion: You will not see Salam Pax as kneeling in the rubble, alternately laughing and weeping as he pulls off a Scooby-Doo style rubber mask, revealing the face of Tariq Aziz: All the Revolution's base will not be belong to you, because the Revolution will not be webcast.

The Revolution will not let you make thousands of dollars a week working from home: the Revolution will not show you farm girls gone wild: The Revolution will not give you the lowest prices on Viagra: The Revolution will not increase your penis size by up to three inches, because the Revolution will not be webcast.

Andrew Sullivan will not have six column inches to rebut the Revolution: Warren Ellis will not be blogging lo-rez Handspring Visor JPEGs of burned-out armored personnel carriers on the streets of Southend: Jason Kottke will not unveil a stunning redesign of the Revolution, because the Revolution will not be webcast.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Rattlesnakes

This grew out of a writing exercise that Nick started. Doing it all in dialogue was accidental, really—it just seemed like the best way to address the remit of the exercise, and to go it one better—to eliminate description altogether.

I was thinking about Richard Avedon's portrait series In The American West, in particular of this picture...

Imagine that kid grown to leathery, arid manhood in the relentless white light and heat of that image...

from Protagonists Without Adjectives

"Hey. Hey, Boyd. Whatcha lookin' at?"

"Rattler. Gotta be a six-footer."

"Where?"

"There. Under the shed. See? He come in outta the yard to get cool."

"Daaaaaaamn. Good eye. I never woulda seen that. You gonna take him?"

"Fool if I didn't. That's two pair of boots right there. Old Hank'll gimme a hunnert bucks for a skin like that. Get me my knives. "

"Hunnert bucks. Christ Almighty. Whatcha gonna do with the money, Boyd?"

"Dunno. Open the case, willya? Can't work the locks with these gloves on."

"Shit-fire, makin' me thirsty just thinkin' about all the beer I'm gonna buy with my half."

"Your half?"

"Shee-it! Look out, Boyd!"

"He's fast, ain't he? Watch me, now..."

Thunk.

"Go-o-o-o-o-oddamn, Boyd, you got blood all over my shirt!"

"Quit yer moanin'. And you can forget about that beer, you useless son-of-a-bitch. I ain't bustin' my ass skinnin' rattlesnakes so's you can drink the profits away."

"Well, that's just fine. Next time, get your own damn knives!"

"Aw, shut up. I'd a left him live he'd only ended up down the cellar-hole and got you in the ankle some night you gone down for a beer."

"Yeah, well, there ain't gonna be no beer, now, is they?"

Thursday, December 04, 2003

What Comes Through When We're Not Paying Attention

Browsing in search of something entirely other through Barbelith's Creation forum—the writers' collective that thinks it's a message board—I kept running across little fragments I'd posted and forgotten: bits of verse, microfictions, sketches. Most of it I barely remember writing, but some of it seemed worth preserving here. I'll be presenting chunks of it over the next few days...
from Return of the Base Canard

My tenure as electric-zither player for the pioneering folk-funk band Flanagan's Peascods was tumultuous. Arising from the ashes of the Bozeman, Montana "flunkie" scene (literally—the Lazy i Club, epicenter of the scene, was burned to the ground during a concert by local flunkie stars Withered 'n' Dyed, in what was later discovered to be a fire started when an overheated amplifier tube ignited the cattle farts permeating the building: the future members of Flanagan's Peascods were the only survivors of the blaze), Flanagan's Peascods melded cowboy yodels and phat beats to the plaintive joiks of lead singer Kaigal Fluugi's native Urkutsk. With our flamboyant look (furry goatskin chaps, Beatle boots and fezzes), Kaigal's dynamic overtone-singing, and the supafly rhythms of drummer Flex McKechnie, we began to make a name for ourselves across the frost belt and were quickly signed by Bodean Records after an intense bidding war: our debut disc Steppe Lively debuted at #37 with a bullet.

The crowds got bigger, the booze got louder, the drug dealers' breasts got firmer, and the pressure to be more and more spectacular began to crush us. Our unscrupulous manager, Dunkirk Dunharrow, contrived a fantastic publicity tactic: doing Def Leppard one better, he would arrange for our drummer Flex to lose both arms in a horrific car crash, and then return in triumph, aided by new technology. If only he had told Flex before that fatal night... if only I hadn't borrowed Flex's Jaguar to head out to the Shop'n'Save to buy Kaigal fresh pantyhose...

...if only I had known, then I wouldn't be sitting in a double-wide trailer, wearing a urine-stained bathrobe and typing this with a pencil between my teeth as I watch (again) a well-worn videotape of Flanagan's Peascods collecting their six Grammy Awards... with a brand-new zitherist. Computers may be able to play the drums, but the zither requires the human touch, and that, alas, I am no longer able to give.