October 1, 2010

DEATH ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON AND THE WHINE OF BLOWERS OVER THE PACOIMA ARROYO

by Cole Coonce (excerpted from Top Fuel Wormhole)

photo by Dave Wallace, Sr.

I remember the whine and the zing of the Top Fuel cars. It was the sound of metallic machinery wound-up to the point of breaking into magnesium quarks and positrons. I’ll never forget my Grandmother cursing the sound of the fuel cars on Sunday afternoons in the 1960s, hearing the blowers spin up into a glorious glissando and then the reverberation vaporizing instantaneously.


I remember playing in the street in San Fernando, catching footballs tossed by my grandfather, spryly huffing and puffing past parked cars and conifer trees, while abruptly pivoting on a buttonhook pattern and catching a spiral in the solar plexus or futilely extending my hands at the denouement of a post pattern in hopes of sticking the pigskin on my fingertips, and hearing the sounds of the nearby drag races— WWWHHHHHHAAAAAHHHHH – UUNNNNDDTTT —every few minutes while I ran back to huddle with my quarterback and we pretended he was Roman Gabriel and I was Jack Snow.


Yes, I knew what all of the high-pitched racket was, the din my grandfather tried to ignore and my grandmother cursed. It took me years to marvel at the irony of my grandfather passing mute judgment on the noise pollution from San Fernando Raceway.  He was one of Kelly Johnson’s metallurgists at the Skunk Works adjunct at Lockheed in Burbank, and his role in the development and manufacture of various black-budget supersonic spy planes led to all the sliding glass door windows in the city of San Fernando rattling whenever one of Lockheed’s Cold War babies did one of its faster-than-sound hole punches in the sky… Continue reading

September 15, 2010

TOTTENHAM LAUNCHES NEW INERTIAS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

September 17th, 2010, Los Angeles, CA—Kerosene Bomb Publishing is proud to announce the release of the 2010 edition of The Inertia Variations, John Tottenham’s epic and ever-expanding poetic cycle on the subject of work-avoidance, indolence, failure and related topics.  Despite existing in a medium that should automatically doom the book to obscurity, and despite (or perhaps because of) the morbid subject matter, the Inertias are a work of entertainment with universal appeal.

Everybody relates to the Inertias, even those who lead active and healthy lives.  They amuse people: as evidenced by the author’s numerous rapturously-received appearances at book stores, art galleries, punk-rock bars, classical-music venues and comedy clubs.  They speak to the underachiever in all of us and appeal to people who don’t like poetry.

After graduating from London’s worst art school in the mid-‘80s, John Tottenham moved to the United States, where he has resided ever since, mostly toiling upon the lower slopes of journalism.  After many years of resistance, he finally sold out to the lucrative, fast-paced world of poetry.  The Inertias are the fruit of many fruitless years.  Tottenham, to his eternal discredit, has lived the life of which he writes with such wit and insight.

A multi-media interpretation of The Inertia Variations by English musician Matt Johnson (otherwise known as The The) is currently in production and a series of short 16mm films based on the work, directed by actor Adam Goldberg, will soon be making the rounds at film festivals.

The first edition of the Inertias was published in 2005. It was hailed as “a terrific collection” in the Guardian, “quiescent genius” by Mojo Magazine, and “comedy gold” in 3AM Magazine, and turned Tottenham into a minor celebrity within a two-block radius of Echo Park. The new edition, packed with fresh material and including a robust addenda, is twice as long and satisfying as the original.

Like all K-Bomb works, the new, expanded Inertia Variations can be ordered from kerosenebomb.com –30-

(Sample verse from The Inertia Variations follows)

ANOMIC OTIOSITY

Dulling my senses with baths, naps,
Assorted languishings.  For many years
I have sat down to do the work
That the world will be no worse off
Without, and I have not done the work.
And the world is no worse off.  Just because
I haven’t done anything with my life,
Does that make me a lesser man?

September 10, 2010

CLOUDS OF STAR FIRE (Bonneville, 1962)

by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments)

 

Moment before his catastrophic crash, Glen Leasher ponders Infinity.

 

September 10, 1962. It is a hot, gloomy Monday morning with a mercury sky. Everything is the color of a bleached and buried coin. Or a bullet left in the sun. During the past few days the Infinity team had been chipping away at various stress and leak tests, ensuring that the sleek machine that resembled nothing if not an avant-garde Russian MIG fighter plane was in superlative condition to claim the Land Speed Record. Many teams had espoused the notion that surpassing the 396 mph mark set in 1949 by Englishman John Cobb was a matter of patriotic pride, as for once the Americans would showcase their Yankee Ingenuity as well as its hearty guts and determination in a manner arguably not showcased since Henry Ford.

It had been such a bizarre trajectory to this moment, from “Dago” Palamides’ shop on the outskirts of the Oakland Airport to the boneyards of Tucson (Vic Elischer remembers the liberation of a J47-33 out of an F86D Fighter/Interceptor while Che Guevara scavenged for spare parts for a “Globemaster” cargo plane for use in the overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba—this is a year before the Bay of Pigs!) to Boeing Field in Seattle to the Bonneville Salt Flats.

The Untouchable had barnstormed up and down the West Coast with a coterie of drivers, first with Archie Liederbrand, next with Glen Leasher, who was fresh out of the cockpit of “Terrible Ted’s” Gotelli Speed Shop Special, Chrysler-powered Top-Fuel Dragster.

With Liederbrand driving, the Untouchable debuted in April, 1962 at Fontana and goes 209 mph, a track record. But this vehicle was really just a rolling test stand for the team. The real glory, prestige and payoff was at Bonneville, all they needed was another race car designed specifically for that task, as well as fresh bullet.

While fabricating the race car at Boeing Field in Seattle, Palamides and Leasher continued to match race the jet car and generate cash. Concurrently, airplane mechanics Loyd Osterberg and Jeri Sorm shaped and riveted the aluminum bodywork around the clock in attempt to have the car ready for Speed Week at Bonneville at the end of August.

One of the locals who grew up around Boeing Field tells me that Sorm is “a master tin man and aeronautics wizard. He grew up in Czechoslovakia before WW II and lived there during the war and when the Nazis held the country. When the Communists were in power, he escaped in the mid 50s — he flew out in a stolen plane. Continue reading

August 27, 2010

BEFORE THE FLOOD

 

photo by Ted Soqui

 

Weird prophecies of the ‘mother of all storms’ and how New Orleans was gutted way before any home-wrecker named Katrina

(excerpted from Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments: The Cole Coonce Reader, Vol. 1)

On a muggy Thursday night in August, I waited for Meisner at a hotel bar in New Orleans, absently watching a teevee screen mounted above the bar. Some squall known as Katrina was still a swirling micron of abstraction there, not yet powerful, a burbling blobular protoplasm on The Weather Channel. I finished my drink, we walked up Poydras to St. Charles Avenue and jumped on a trolley headed uptown, to a restaurant called Jacques Imo’s. The sticky heat wafted into the cable car and attached itself to our clothes. The air tasted of molasses.

Out in Carollton, a weird little slice of Americana where St. Charles ends, we got to Jacques Imo’s around 8-ish, went into the bar and asked how long the wait for dinner would be. “About three hours.” What time do you close? “10 o’clock.” Meisner ran the numbers, scrunched his brow and shook his head. “It’s New Orleans math, dude. Just go with it.” I ordered mint juleps.

By the time we were done with dinner, a passing thunderstorm had dampened the streets and the air was dense as a bag of feathers, and the trolleys had stopped running. A middle-aged white dude picked us up in a beater Ford taxi, we got in and he gunned it. The driver was a laconic man in flannel, asking only our destination. He drove with one hand, which moved with precise economy, like moving the steering wheel any more than necessary would cut into his already-slim profit margin. Most of the motion in the vehicle came from our driver habitually working a toothpick between his lips. In the dank hush of being and nothingness, the smear of headlights passed us sporadically and weather reports droned on the radio.

We passed through a blurry panorama of squalor and crime. It was all fairly depressing, actually. To mitigate the malaise I started up a conversation with the Toothpick. We passed a sign that read: “Garden District.”

“Isn’t this the Garden District?”

“No, this isn’t the ‘Garden District,’” the Toothpick said, forming air quotes with his free hand. “The Chamber wants you to believe it’s the ‘Garden District’ because you are tourists.”

So where is the real Garden District?” I refrained from using air quotes.

“Closer to Magazine Street. But I won’t even drive my cab down there, because of all the … criminal elements.” Continue reading

April 15, 2010

HIGHWAY STAR

Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments, The Cole Coonce Reader Vol. 1

The ghost of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar
laughs over the road home


It was after one in the morning last Sunday, and somewhere between Riverside and San Berdoo, graveyard-shift freeway construction had closed all westbound traffic on Interstate 10 except for the slow lane, leaving thousands of purple-haired Radiohead fans bottlenecked in their automobiles for 10 miles or so, back toward Indio-way and the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival we were all trying to leave in our rear-view mirrors.

Even from the VIP seats, it had been a long Saturday in the desert, watching 50,000 or so twentysomething indie-rock ravers vomit out Red Bull and ketamine in an audience holding area that resembled a concentration camp somehow tele-transported into the parched playas of North Africa. As the kids danced, whooped, and threw elbows to new-wave nostalgia acts like the Pixies, Stereolab, and Kraftwerk, dust storms towered over the proceedings like the dinosaurs at Cabazon. By the time Kraftwerk and their laptops sang “Auf Wiedersehen,” right around midnight, the gypsum dust of the desiccated high desert Empire Polo Field capped my teeth like the Devil forgot his Astro-Glide. Oy. After a day of insanity, I was in no mood to sit in what, essentially, was another parking lot masquerading as a freeway.

“This is bullshit,” I muttered, and Tara stirred in the passenger seat as I punched the throttle and gave ’er plenty of rudder. Directly behind me, a big-rig tractor-trailer driver had the same idea—i.e., rip-cording on the silliness of sitting in traffic six hours after sunset—and sucked my draft onto the freeway’s off-ramp, his headlights blasting my rear-view mirror like a low-beam Hiroshima.

After my retinas adjusted, I found an AM/PM open on the frontage road and decided it was the right moment to gas up, get caffeinated, and re-think getting back to Los Angeles County. Maybe buttonhook back to Route 60, take that west, then grab the 15 north. Or maybe use surface streets as our own personal express lane, blow by the stalled caravan of cars to our left, and eventually hit the Foothill Freeway in Fontana. I knew if we just stayed off the 10 for a while, eventually I could really lean into it and tickle the speedometer’s triple-digit mark all the way home.

At the convenience store, I inquired about the frontage road and Tara did ladylike things in the loo. As I paid the longhaired mustachioed cashier, I got rather existential in a space-time-y kinda style-e and asked the hirsute Riverside rocker-type a question.

“Is it just me, friend, or did you ever have the feeling you were hit by flying debris off of Ritchie Blackmore’s broken Fender Stratocaster at Cal Jam 1 and knocked unconscious for 30 years?”

“Brother, it ain’t just you,” he nodded. “I know just what you mean.”

As I left, he began playing pulmonary-mouth guitar, grunting out the opening chords to “Smoke on the Water” through bristling upper-lip hair and a couple of missing teeth.

As I eased onto the frontage road, a freshened-up Tara asked what the mini-market mullet-man and I were talking about.

“Umm, we were trying to reconcile Bertrand Russell’s Liar’s Paradox with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.”

“You are so full of poo.”

She was right, of course. So I told her what we really talked about.

“Who’s Ritchie Blackmore, and what’s Cal Jam 1?” she asked. Her blissful ignorance of useless pop-culture arcana is one thing I really like about her.

“Ritchie Blackmore was the guitarist for Deep Purple. He smashed a bunch of television cameras with his guitar at this rock festival put on 30 years ago at the old Ontario Motor Speedway.”

“Where’s Ontario?” Tara asked. She is a Westside girl.

“We passed it on the way out. I’ll show it to you in a little while. They bulldozed the speedway 20 years ago. Now, Ontario is just a bunch of methedrine labs in trailer parks, buttressed by some wholesale retail outlets for Liz Claiborne shoes or something.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“You’re not mad we’re not going to stay for Day 2 of this Coachella festival, are you?” she asked as she slowly closed her eyes again.

“What for? So we can watch the singer for the Cure’s mascara run in 100-degree heat? On a Jumbotron?”

“So you’re saying this Ritchie Blackmore fellow had the right idea 30 years ago?”

“Marshall McLuhan still wants to shake his hand.”

I am not sure she heard me. But I had us home an hour or so later. –Cole Coonce (from LA CityBeat 5/04)

Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments, The Cole Coonce Reader Vol. 1

April 6, 2010

THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY (SHILOH, 1862)

(excerpted from Cole Coonce‘s forthcoming novel, THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY)

artwork by Jack Logan

IN SHILOH, TENNESSEE, the night was a muted grey and the murkiness made it difficult to visualize the aftermath of the first day of a fierce battle. The smoke of artillery and muskets wafted slowly and fought with the gloom of a steady rain. The sound of the heavy drizzle underscored the sporadic sotto voce moans of the wounded and slowly dying. A chorus of animal grunts created a disturbing, bestial rhythm. Lightning cracked and thunder boomed and the brief rod of light cast a glimpse of the carnage and suffering.

The whistle of artillery would follow a distant, muffled boom of cannon. The whistle would get louder and change pitch as it approached its target. A brief blast of light flashed as the artillery hit the battlefield. As dirt, turf and human limbs flew into the air, wild hogs squealed and stopped their feeding on the dead and ran away from the point of impact. As the black of night consumed the dying vestiges of light, the hogs resumed squealing, grunting and fighting each other over human flesh.

Under an oak tree next to cloth tents stood two Generals of the Union’s high command. Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman smoked cigars and listened to rain amidst the sporadic shelling.

“Well Grant,” Sherman proffered, “we’ve had the devil’s own day, haven’t we?

Grant puffed on his cigar and thought for a moment. “Yep,” he answered. “Lick ‘em tomorrow though.”

Across the battlefield, next to captured Union cloth tents that have now become a Confederate camp, Nathan Bedford Forrest entered the quarters of General Bragg, who is in council with two Generals of the CSA high command. Bragg—a stiff angular man with crow’s eyes flanked by straw hair and thick, wiry muttonchops—smoked and listened to the same rain and sporadic shelling that interrupted Sherman and Grant.

“General Bragg,” Forrest said. “I have been to the river and I have seen Grant receiving troops at the landing.”

“Colonel Forrest,” Bragg wondered. “On whose authority did you go forth on your little scouting mission?”

Forrest was flummoxed. “Authority?”

“Yes, authority. Johnston is dead, so it couldn’t have been him. Beauregard perhaps?”

“No suh,” Forrest answered. “I have been looking for Beauregard to tell him about the arrival of the Union troops, but…”

“It is not your place to tell your superiors anything,” Bragg scolded. “I am your commanding officer, Colonel Forrest.”

“Yes suh. But Beauregard must know that if’n we don’t keep up the skeer into the night, they’re gonna whip us tomorruh’.”

“Colonel Forrest, if there is anything to tell Beauregard, I will tell Beauregard.”

Forrest is livid. “If the enemy come on us in the morning,” he seethed, “we will be whipped like hell.”

Bragg dismissed Forrest with a wave of the hand.

“Suh!” a startled Forrest protested. “I did not lead my men into battle to surrender!”

In the morning battle began again, along green, rolling hills lined with magnolia, oak and pine trees, in a clearing known as Fallen Timbers. As an ineffectual Confederate artillery squad struggled to fire a shot, much less find its target, a slightly chaotic cavalry charge is in full effect. A ragtag ensemble of Southern horsemen galloped in the shadow of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The cavalry riders wore a motley assortment of clothes and uniforms, mostly gray and sundry earth tones whose unifying feature was a distinct lack of anything blue. Saber out, Forrest stood tall out of the saddle and led the charge.

From an adjacent ridge General Sherman watched Forrest outrun his support. “He’s attacking without any artillery support. That half-cocked Secessionist sonofabitch is either fearless or has bats in the belfry.”

Forrest twisted his torso towards his trailing cavalry and shouted, “Put the skeer in ‘em! Keep up the skeer!”

Amidst the growing voluminous smoke from a repetitive barrage of Yankee musket volleys, confederate soldiers pulled back on the reins of their mounts or are knocked off by the impact of gunfire. Oblivious to the carnage and the cowardice of his own troops, Forrest leaned forward and vaulted over the detritus of fallen timbers that served as earthworks for the Yankee infantry.

Forrest was in hostile territory. Alone. He had no cover fire from cannons. He had outrun his own troops. The Federal infantry was stunned at its good fortune, as it had a Confederate Lieutenant General within close range. They began to shoot at Forrest, and the adrenaline-charged barrage of close range musket fire created even more confusion. Forrest and his horse were both hit by Minié balls, Forrest in the left hip, and the force of the explosion momentarily lifted Forrest out of the saddle.

A startled union soldier shouted as he reloaded his musket, “Kill ‘im! Kill ‘im!”

Another union soldier joined the chorus, firing, reloading and shouting, “Kill the goddamn rebel! Kill ‘im!”

Forrest fought for control of his horse, tugged on the reins and turned the horse around. He cleared a path amidst the mass of dark blue-clad enemy soldiers with his saber, and reached down and grabbed one of the soldiers by the collar, swinging him onto the rear of the horse. The hapless Yankee soldier became a human shield, and recoiled from a friendly fusillade of Minié balls. Forrest and his quarry galloped over the fallen timbers back towards safety. Out of range, Forrest let go of the dying bluecoat and trotted on up to a ridge where his stunned men watched with their jaws dropped. Among the witnesses was a young Negro, who had read Forrest’s advertisement in the Memphis paper and heeded its call for volunteers, signing up as a blacksmith.

Forrest’s eyes were ablaze and saliva streamed from his lips. “Goddammit!” he shouted. “War means fighting, and fighting means killing. I will never ask you to fight anywhere I would not fight myself! Now if you follow me boys, I will always lead you to glory!”

The colored blacksmith asked Forrest for permission to check his wounded animal’s shoes. During the examination, the bleeding horse made a pained whine. The two men locked eyes, briefly. There was a flash of recognition as Forrest realized where he has seen this colored boy before. Forrest brushed Young Dobson aside and galloped off.-30-

(from THE DEVIL’S OWN DAY)


September 27, 2009

The Poet Upstairs (Paris, LA)

Anh Do of Paris LA interviews John Tottenham, author of The Inertia Variations

ThePoetUpstairs_1


The Poet Upstairs, John Tottenham converses with Anh Do

I have a neighbor who happens to be a poet. I like to say we’ve been trying to steer clear of each other since I moved to Angelino Heights a year and a half ago. Although he’s just right upstairs–I can hear him enter and exit his house (and likewise I’m sure)–I thought an email conversation was apt considering our inclination for mutual avoidance. This conversation mode was actually perfect for both of us as we both isolate ourselves.

In the sun drenched setting of Los Angeles, John’s subjects find bleakness and inertia…

Anh Do: Although we’ve been neighbors for a while now, I wasn’t really aware of what you did, but then I read your essay “British People in Hot Weather” recently and had a good chuckle. There seem to be quite a few British expats making art, writing, playing music and just existing in Los Angeles right now. How conducive is hot weather to being an English writer? Does it make you more or less productive? Your subject matter generally leans towards the morose and slothful, your recent book of poems is titled The Inertia Variations. Is that symbolic of Los Angeles itself?

John Tottenham: Yes, quite possibly. The constant sunshine was refreshing at first. It has a seductively deadening quality, which I probably sought out as an antidote to the more bracing climate I grew up in. But it’s unnatural, it numbs you out, and these days I’m very conscious of being weather-deprived… and numbed out. Reality seems to lie elsewhere. At the same time, I do prefer writing when it’s sunny outside: it seems to enable the subject matter you refer to… a vicious circle.

AD: I’m glad you described it as “unnatural,” as I’ve been compulsively using that word when describing this physical environment over the last year. It is unnatural here, preposterously so, but if reality lies somewhere else how do you make your own reality? You’ve been here for 20 years (correct me if I’m wrong) so you must to some extent like it here. Is it all that great here or are you just being complacent? And if you were to live in a more “real” setting, would your work then be brighter?

JT: Yes, I’m definitely being complacent. I worry that after a while (i.e. 20 years, though I did leave for five years in the middle) one begins to suffer from Hotel California-syndrome. Other places I’ve resided in this country – New Orleans, Portland, NYC (briefly) – I didn’t seem to meet as many kindred spirits, never felt as at home. Living here seems to somehow build character. Until recently, at least, it was a much harder place in which to lead a marginal existence, unlike the cities further up the coast, which cater more to a bohemian lifestyle.  But nowadays there’s not much difference between Echo Park and the Mission district in San Francisco, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the nicest things about being an Angeleno is that once you get outside the city limits nothing but disdain is heaped upon the place. No other city inspires as much animosity. San Franciscans, in particular, seem to regard it as their civic duty to hate LA, although, curiously enough, the feeling is not reciprocated. New Yorkers are none too fond of us either. A case of empire envy, perhaps. As far as “reality” is concerned, I’m not sure if I’d want to deal with it on a permanent basis. I’d probably be even more of a miserable bastard elsewhere, living here takes the edge off.

AD: For me, existing here seems to degrade my character. Is it because I grew up here that everything is too easy for me, even pedestrian? San Francisco hates us because we perversely mature and New Yorkers envy our space and privacy. But let’s delve into your writings. What drives it?

JT: I’ve always written compulsively. Nowadays, I write more out of a sense of urgency. With the poetry, I only address subjects that haven’t been exhausted and that I am able to speak on, for better or worse (usually the latter) with a degree of authority. Most of the stuff I dredge up has been poisoning my system for a long time.  Now I’m interested in poisoning other people’s systems.

I like to think that I’m performing a public service, but the public, of course, couldn’t be less interested.

AD: “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is performing a public service.” I think a British philosopher said that once.

JT: I’m going to send you a complete version of The Inertia Variations. Don’t judge me too harshly. I don’t want you to think a complete degenerate wastrel lives directly above you. The funny thing is that everybody relates to this stuff, and is amused by it, even people who appear to lead healthy, active lives, because everybody thinks they don’t fulfill their own potential. And don’t feel you have to read all of this, for Mercy’s sakes. The published version contained the first seventy, there are now almost twice as many. A cursory look-over should give you the general idea.

AD: After a quick glance, I wanted to ask you about your use of language. Each word seems exact. When I read your poems, I see what you are saying; you use words as precise visual images.

JT: I hadn’t written poetry before, at least not since I was a teenager. I was more of a frustrated prose stylist. I write rather slowly and I’m not particularly interested in telling a story or creating character. Initially I had planned on writing a more autobiographical sort of novel on a similar theme and struggled with various attempts over the years, but I could barely even finish a short story. Finally, I gave in to the poetic form. It was obviously ideal. But I’d resisted it for a long time: It made me squeamish, owing to the unseemly stigma attached to it. I regret now that it took so long to embrace it. Each short poem is a monument to reams of discarded prose.

AD: I just read the first 28 Variations. You are an entertainer! I’m already poisoned, is that why I find them so delightful? And you’re right, even the most ambitious, as well as the socially driven, will relate to them in some way. I think you have to come from some sort of autobiographical perspective in order to make anything authentic, for it to be strong, to make people believe it.  So tell me how this book came about.

JT: It was the fruit of many fruitless years.  More than anything, I write out of a sense of duty, and experience a corresponding sense of guilt when I don’t do the work, which was the case for many years and is one of the themes that runs through the Inertias: that of work-avoidance, thwarted promise, guilt-wallowing, self-wrought blockage. It’s definitely not a celebration of indolence (though some people, strangely, interpret it as such), more of a lament.  I felt I had to report back, hopefully in a way that others could relate to and be entertained by.  Yes, it’s true, I’m ashamed to say, I put in all the empirical drudge work.  I’m not going to win any awards for time management.  As a result, however, I have become much more disciplined.  I’ve done a lot more work since then.  And I’m no longer capable of napping.

AD: Clearly you haven’t been suffering from any sort of intellectual laziness all these years. How are you managing your time now that you’re free from napping and chronic indolence?

JT: I have a new series that’s more or less finished: The Antiepithalamia.  An epithalamium is a classical poem celebrating a marriage. These are the opposite: basically an evisceration of the concept of romantic love, with particular respect to the institution of marriage, focusing on some of the less exalted aspects of the enterprise. A few of them have been published here and there. I’d like to see them printed in their entirety at some point. They seem to strike a chord with people. The problem is that it’s poetry. A futile, masochistic exercise. In the time it takes to write a short poem, I could probably execute a painting, and sell it. Yet I have become addicted to this moribund form of expression.

AD: I don’t think of poetry as being futile or masochistic, I think it’s pretty badass to be a poet in today’s world.

JT: Too many people have given it a bad name. Anybody who scribbles on a napkin is allowed to call themselves a poet, whereas if you’re a musician you at least have to learn to play an instrument. As Robert Frost said “free verse is like trying to play tennis with the net down.” Another thing, it’s very difficult to get published and even when you do get published, nobody notices, and there’s no money in it. It seems that unless you’re in tight with the incestuous world of academic presses and literary magazines, you don’t stand much of a chance. There is no “supply meets demand” dynamic such as exists in the arena of music or art where middlemen are perpetually scurrying around attempting to satisfy the appetites of an ever-expanding audience hungry for whatever mediocre rubbish is thrown at them. There is no recognized criterion of quality because there isn’t much of an audience, which allows the powers that be to perpetuate a closed system. A few months ago, I took the unusual step of sending out some unsolicited work to about twenty publications and, curiously enough, the only submission that was accepted was the one that went in ‘over the transom’ thanks to the recommendation of a friend who was on good terms with the editor, at a fairly prestigious magazine, as it turned out, which somewhat added fuel to my paranoid theory that nepotism just might exist in the world of letters. I’ll send down a selection of Antiepithalamia. I hope these bitter words bring you solace.

AD: Thanks. Being a recent divorcee, these really touched a nerve. Companionship, loneliness… Aren’t they the same thing? There’s only you at the end of the day… and no one else. When I think of poetry, I think of beauty, compassion, the search for true meaning; perhaps that’s the naive idealist in me. But your Antiepithalamia are beautiful, compassionate and truthful. Like the Inertia Variations, the subject matter hasn’t been done to death and you seem to have a firm grasp on the theme. I love the cadence of these poems. I want to know more about how they were developed.

JT: There doesn’t seem to be much point, at this point, in penning another love poem or song. There are already far too many, and most of them aren’t very convincing. I remember, as a six year-old, being keenly aware of the nauseating preponderance of love songs, and vowing then to do something about it. At the time I thought I’d write songs about fighting and war. But things turned out somewhat differently. The hypocrisies inherent in romantic involvement have turned out to be a surprisingly fertile and relatively untapped field of inquiry. I’m glad you view them as compassionate. Some people find them mean-spirited, can’t imagine why. It just doesn’t seem that the selfish underside of love gets much of an airing.

AD: I’ve been wanting to ask you about music and how it affects your writing. I’m sure it’s a huge part of your life, as it is mine, and I’m completely positive it consumes you as it does me.

JT: Yes, it’s unfair, the advantages music has over the other arts.  I almost resent it.

AD: How truly necessary is it to you and how does it affect your writing?

JT: Probably not to the extent that I’m guilty of: consuming entire genres in a retentive, completist-type manner. It disturbs me to consider the amount of time that has been devoured by the pursuit of collecting. The bug, thankfully, has somewhat faded recently. There doesn’t seem to be as much point in holding on to things as there used to be. I’m still very attached to vinyl.  But at least I listen to it. And without music I wouldn’t be able to remember anything, it has soundtracked my life to such an extent. Every road trip, every romance can be recaptured by replaying what one was listening to at the time. Regarding my own listening habits, I’m obsessed by old blues records, mostly the pre-war stuff. I’ve pretty much listened it around the clock for the last twenty years. Around that time my tastes began to recede into the past and they’ve never really resurfaced. I had to work my way through a lot of other music to get there. It was a long haul. I like to have music playing softly in the background while I write, mostly old blues or John Fahey or chamber music, it helps to create a mood.

AD: I don’t know much about blues. Is it more about the music or the lyrics for you? Collecting is quite pleasurable. How to you collect?  Do you also have CDs? CDs are disposable but not records, which are very tangible, there is real meaning behind them. Have you gotten around to digital music? What do you think of file sharing?

JT: I started collecting records at a young age and have kept it going ever since, never really embraced CDs – a shabby substitute they seemed – and still haven’t got involved in mp3s, file sharing, etc. Used to own a lot of 45s and lament having got rid of most of them. Collected 78s for a while, junked some very desirable ones when I lived in the South: a Charlie Patton on Paramount, various others. But I stopped. The fun’s taken out of it when everybody has access to eBay and the price guides. As far as getting into blues was concerned, I guess I worked my way down to it through other music. I was always attracted to the blues and country elements in the rock music I listened to when I was growing up. I have many lonely passions and when I get interested in something – be it music, literature or a murder case – I study every root and branch of it. I could, perhaps, have been doing something more useful with the time that was thus consumed. But it’s given me a lot of pleasure. Blues lyrics are a kind of whole poetic field of their own, the imagery is extraordinary: “So cold in China the birds can’t hardly sing”; “Blues came across Texas loping like a mule”, just to use Blind Lemon Jefferson’s first record as an example. Admittedly, I find the morbidity, fatalism, anomie and sense of rock-hard resignation very attractive. It serves as a fine aid to contemplation.

AD: Nowadays, anybody who claims they are a musician can be a musician. And anyone with a laptop and Serato (not even vinyl!) can call themselves as DJ. Isn’t this absurd? It doesn’t take any talent or skill whosoever (well perhaps knowing how to use a ‘puter) and this has been proven over and over again in music lately. It’s the standard now. Art as artifice, it’s a total joke. What do you make of the state of contemporary music?

JT: I’ve never even heard of Serato. I’m horribly jaded, of course, but it seems to me that one of the problems with R&R music nowadays is that far too many young people seem to view it as an avenue of self-expression when they have absolutely nothing to say. They like the idea of being “in a band” and living out the R&R dream; they enjoy the lifestyle and the attitude it permits them to exude but they bring nothing new to the form. It doesn’t even occur to them that they could be doing something inventive. There are some questing performers out there but mostly they’re confined to the margins, which is probably the best place to be, anyway.

AD: I really do believe that when it is good, it’s good and there’s no denying it. And yours is good. Perhaps you will be celebrated posthumously? Cult classic or best seller? Which do you prefer?

JT: When artists complain that they only have cult followings, I’m always amazed by their naked greed and vulgar ambition. Mass appeal usually signifies artistic worthlessness. To be understood by everybody would be very disturbing. At this point I would happily settle for posthumous acclaim but it’s difficult to arrange these things in advance. Maybe if I killed myself… that might enhance my legacy.

AD: Since we’re leaning towards what could possibly happen after death, do you think you’ll continue living in LA? Has living here been what you had imagined it to be?

JT: That’s not a very nice way to talk about your hometown. I romanticized the place in advance, from afar, at an impressionable age. It met my expectations.  I stayed here. Then it got stale, as places will, as one does. I’d like to live in the country, watch flowers grow, listen to birds sing. That’s the life I fled to begin with, having grown up in the most idyllic bucolic surroundings imaginable. But it’ll probably never happen. I’m in my element here, much as I sometimes get sick of my element. I can’t imagine being as comfortably uncomfortable anywhere else. -30-

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….

March 19, 2009

IOWA HIGHWAY PATROL

(excerpted from COME DOWN FROM THE HILL S & MAKE MY BABY)

After spending a couple of nights crisscrossing the Midwest, we conclude a gig in the roarin’ podunk of Iowa City. We leave the gig and hit the road. Our destination: Chicago.

Due to every other member of the Soundmachine mistaking our tour across America as a 3-month holiday (thus their constant imbibing of any libation and/or pharmaceutical they could inhale down their gullets), yours truly was voted the only member cogent — and sober — enough to guide our tour vehicle into Chi-town.

Reality tells me later that his descent into chemical depravity had been a reaction to my liaison with the Lebanese Lounge Singer. Her function was merely perfunctory and utilitarian, and her self-absorption was beyond insufferable. My sleeping with the enemy was a betrayal that he took personally. Looking back, he was right.

Cut back to I-80, Eastbound, I haven’t slept in damn near two days and all I want to do is get to the Windy City, get a hotel, draw the curtains and hibernate. Before we can make time on the interstate, however, we must appease the appetite of the Lindy, which contrary to the wisdom of Glen (the owner of the RV Emporium where we got the vehicle), consumed far greater than a mere 10 mpg.

In Tipton, Iowa, I find an exit with a convenience mart/petrol parlor; everybody in the Soundmachine entourage is either playing possum or is truly zonked, so I grab my traveling coffee mug and exit through the side door of the motor home, give the lady behind the counter a couple of twenties and commence dispensing with the fossil fuels.

After topping off the tank, I drag ass back and get my change from the portly clerk, refill my coffee and retrace my steps back into the Lindy. I turn over the motor, put ‘er in drive and SHIT!

In my haze, I neglected to disengage the fucking hose from the vehicle. The kiosk itself is completely thrashed… FUCK… As band members begin to wake up, I truck back into the convenience mart, humbled and completely apologetic. The counter wench is completely FREAKED and hysterical — “You’re the second asshole this week to ruin one of our pumps, yadda, yadda, yadda.” I’m calm in comparison, I offer my license, the insurance papers, and a copy of the rental agreement but she’s having none of this. “I don’t care about the paperwork, you’re gonna’ have to wait until the boss lady gets here.”

(It turns out that the boss lady lives over ninety minutes away. It’s now 1 AM — I need sleep! I tell the gal, “Look, call the Highway Patrol, I’ll fill out an accident report, here’s the paperwork…” “I don’t care about no paperwork, you’re gonna wait until the boss lady gets here.” “Look, I don’t how you handle traffic accidents in Iowa, but in California we show our insurance papers and the officers fill out accident reports.” More hysterics on behalf of the counter wench, she refuses to call the HP, so I leave.)

So there we go, EVERYBODY in the Soundmachine is wide awake as we motor for about one hour towards the Mississippi River, out of Iowa and into Illinois and Freedom! We get to Davenport, I can see the fuckin’ muddy-ass river and BHHWOOOPPP — it’s the law dogs.

I am asked to step out of the vehicle as Fingers and Reality are stuffing more pills that have long passed their expiration date into the crevasses of various analog, monophonic electronic keyboards.

“I understand you had a little trouble back there in Cedar County. The clerk at the Jiffy Stop said you fled the scene of an accident.”

“No, not really,” I say, “I offered her my license and proof-of-insurance, but she was having none of that.”

“That lady is my neighbor, she lives right down the road from me; Are you calling her a liar?”

“Umm, no not exactly, but she did refuse to listen to reason,” I backpedal.

They haul my ass back to Tipton, Iowa in the squad car, with Reality and Fingers in tow. We get to the Big House and the bailiff decides not to throw me in with the drunks, but with the felons who are waiting there until the State Penitentiary can create some more room for real criminals. Great. It’s about 5 AM at this point and I still haven’t slept. I decide to sleep on my back because if I’m going to be violated, at least this way I’ll see it coming.

I’m awakened at 6 AM — “Getup!” — for a meal of flapjacks and coffee. I refuse the coffee, because I am going right back to bed (or so I think) after some carbo-loading and a phone call to my lawyer. I am told I’m in for “criminal mischief.” Worst case, according to Lolita’s Mom’s Attorney in Los Angeles: “Ten years.” But that’s worst case, he assures me. Until the phone call, I have refused to make eye contact with my fellow cons because I was sure I would be released at any moment. Wrong. After a morning of cleaning the jail bars with a tooth brush (I actually didn’t want to interfere with the other fellows routine, it kinda’ looked like I would just get in the way — ironically, these guys really knew how to work a toothbrush, although you would never know it from their smiles) and putting Field & Stream magazines in a stack (“They’re already in a stack,” I tell the trustee, “Put ‘em in another stack,” he counters), I am finally shuffled off to the Courthouse to see the Magistrate around noon.

Handcuffed, I pass Fingers and Reality in the corridor as they take snapshots of me with their Instamatics. Their goddamn cameras have flashbulbs popping and I feel like Frances Farmer on her way to the Funny Farm. Two hours later — after sixty minutes of shuteye in the last two days, I am led into a small office with the “magistrate.”

The judge is in a wheelchair and his hands are all sclerotic and discombobulated. He immediately tells me that he was interrupted from a luncheon and a golf game (!) to come review this matter. He then feebly attempts to turn the page in the police report concerning my arrest. Great, I think to myself, I’m going to jail for the next ten years because I put a crimp in social calendar of the Stephen Hawking of Jurisprudence — who apparently golfs.

At this point the Magistrate’s phone rings. And rings. I’m new at this: I don’t know whether to help him left the receiver off its cradle or whether that will piss him off more. I decide to let him struggle with the telephone. He finally gets it positioned in the groove of his shoulder blade and tells the party on the other end: “Yes, I’m reviewing it right now; I’m really disturbed by this.” Ten Years.

He wrestles the phone back into its holster. “It says right here you accidentally destroyed a fuel pump at the Jiffy Mart out on I-80.”

“Uhh, yeah, I accidentally destroyed the fuel pump.”

“If it’s an accident, then how could it be mischief?”

“Uhh, yeah,” I say.

“I suggest you get Iowa in your rear view mirror as soon as possible — like now.” Not a problem…

+++++++++++++++++++++

March 12, 2009

Come Down from the Hills & Make My Baby: Second Edition

Due to popular demand — and the fact that used copies of the book were fetching nearly 50 clams on Amazon.com — KBP announces the release of a second edition of Cole Coonce‘s Come Down from the Hills & Make My Baby.

More details are here: Second Edition Available Now!

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Next up (and coming soon): A Kindle edition of the book!

January 20, 2009

McCarthy And Son And The Usual Suspects

by John Tottenham

Paul and Damon McCarthy’s Caribbean  Pirates received its Los Angeles premiere at REDCAT recently: a visual and aural multi-screen feast/assault that covered all four walls of the theater. The audience, many of whom sat on the floor, were surrounded like the victims of the raid taking place onscreen(s). The only way out was through the exit door, which guilty-looking art lovers frequently resorted to, smiling awkwardly as they fled.

Paul McCarthy, famed for his shit sculptures, chocolate butt plugs and other artistic inquiries that are lauded as forceful critiques of consumerism, has now plundered the pirate tradition in a style that is surely closer to the seafaring realities of yore than the Disneyland ride and movie franchise it cruelly parodies.

As soon as the industrial-sized cans of Hershey’s chocolate syrup came crashing through the hatchway, the audience knew it was in for a McCarthy-style barrage of blood and shit on the high seas. Swollen-bellied, bulbous-nosed, giant-eared old salts squirted chocolate syrup from prosthetic phalluses, simulated masturbation with broom handles, sawed through noses and generally had a roaring good time. Blood was flying everywhere, pouring down the lens to a deafening soundtrack of drilling, screaming and obscene Yaaars and Aye-Ayes.

Upon any one of nine screens at any given moment one was greeted with such sights as a naked woman crawling around on a carpet in front of a ship-shaped bar, caressing herself with pained, imploring looks; a man with a freshly hacked-off leg being ridden by a droopy-nosed harpy in a blood-soaked scullery maid’s outfit; and the figure of the pegboy, famed in maritime lore, evoked by a sporty nautical gent in blazer and seaman’s cap who danced around a bottle of Morgan’s rum before frigging himself on a giant peg (the pegboy was a selected crew member who was obliged to keep his anus dilated in this fashion for the pleasure of his shipmates while on long voyages). Somewhere in there a parody of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was apparently being played out, but it was impossible to keep up with all the references. The playfully tasteless mayhem continued for the standard theatrical 90 minutes, descending eventually into such popular piratical pursuits as cannibalism and torture (despite their cartoonishness, the bone-splintering amputation scenes were not for the squeamish).

It was fun to watch and it was obviously fun to make. To those of us unfortunates unable to draw upon an arsenal of critical theory in order to make the work appropriately rigorous, it was an old-fashioned bloodbath, an unabashed extension of the work of Herschell Gordon Lewis. This was cinema divested of such tiresome niceties as plot, character and dialogue, focusing exclusively on filth and gore, which, after all, is what most people go to the movies for. Visually stimulating, it therefore possessed value as entertainment. Only the crowd, strangely, did not seem entertained.

One would think that such a scathingly visceral overload might provoke some sort of reaction. But looking around the audience — whose expressions it was easy to gauge as everybody was obliged to continually twist and crane around in order to view the different screens — there was no laughter, no smiling. It looked like an uncomfortable experience for many, especially those who were on dates. Most people wore looks of tolerant amusement or puzzled seriousness. Resistant to the notion of mere entertainment, they seemed unsure of how they were supposed to react. They knew they were supposed to like it because it was supposed to be art, but appeared uncertain about whether many of the depicted acts could be morally sanctioned.

It seems a shame that a work of such crazed vitality should be the exclusive province of an audience that insists upon extracting or impressing meaning upon it, when the multiplex crowd would surely get a lot more pleasure out of it. The average moviegoer, quite forgivably, might fail to interpret the sordid merrymaking on view as a critique of the Hollywood dream factory and a metaphor for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In years to come, Caribbean Pirates will probably serve as a worthy corollary to these times, but the only people who are likely to make that connection now are the chosen art house set, who made up their minds about Abu Ghraib long before McCarthy went to such excessive lengths to tell them what they already knew.

This is a work that lends itself generously to the possibilities of audience participation. It isn’t being marketed properly. Why not release it to a less discerning audience: one that would actually enjoy it?

(originally published in Artillery Magazine)