Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Prayer for all women who ever ...

This blog post is for mature audiences only. Please stop reading if you're not one for frank discussions of adult themes. If you keep reading and you are offended, blame yourself and not me, okay? Thanks.

So, the other night, I got off work and went to the bar. I saw some friends. They were enjoying the company of some people I don't know. I joined them. We talked of poetry.

One of the folks I don't know offered me a french fry from his plate. I accepted his offer - never met a french fry I didn't like - and I did enjoy it, though the fries had gone cold.

Another person in the party remarked that he didn't like the fries in this pub. I said I never met a french fry I didn't like. Someone agreed with me, so I carried on to say it's the same with pizza and oral sex: there are no bad examples of any of these things.

General agreement. Ensuing conversation about oral sex. The group was mixed by gender, yet the conversation was comfortable - adult, rather than adolescent. Since this same group had started by talking about poetry, I said hold on. I'd like to read you a poem.

I rushed out to my car and grabbed a copy of my chapbook of poetry, A heart I carved for a girl I knew, and I read this poem to the group:


Prayer for all women
who ever gave good head
then woke to a bad man

By Chris King

Curling your toes
from the other end
of your legs ... warmth,

warmth, darkness, dawn,
damn, shame, shunned, your morning
-after-mouth heart.

To think I fumbled
at your buttons, belly,
the way boys like girls to do ...

You got more than your
back scratched and left me
with my itch and more

hungers. As sins against eternity
go, God knows your betrayal
is one mean misdemeanor,

hot groin and cold
shoulder, arched back and

I rode your cock
like a rocket,
made you see stars.

You left me
all alone
in outer space.


My chapbook is available at independent shops in St. Louis and wherever my car is parked. It's not all this nasty.


Photo by Monstromo.

Bootblogging #2: Three elegies for local musicians

I'll say farewell to 2008 with some local examples of the ultimate farewell: the elegy. All of these elegies, I am especially sad to say, remember local musicians who died by their own hand.

Two are by Mark Stephens. His "Prayer for Max Potts" tried to "bury in the words of a song" a local jazz pianist. "Cobalt Waltz" remembers the drummer for Johnny Magnet, Lori Blue.

"The Girl Who Played the Saw" was Chris Johnson's farewell song to Hunter Brumfield III (who plays bass, if I am not mistaken, on The Highway Matrons' recording of "Cobalt Waltz"). This song has a little local controversy attached to it that I should go over.

Lindy, who was dating Hunter, played musical saw on this recording in a rushed session before she moved to Russia. When she had more time to listen to the song, she objected to it, thinking it suggests that she was the motive for Hunter's suicide. In fact, Hunter struggled against bipolar disorder and was fighting the urge to kill himself for a very long time.

I can see Lindy's point. The song does say, "All he did was love a girl who played the saw." That phrase "all he did" could be construed as saying that was the only reason he killed himself - that loving Lindy (who isn't named in the lyrics) and losing her was "all he did" to arrive at the conclusion that life wasn't worth living.

As I explained at the time, I don't think the song implies that. I think the lyrics are meant to be more evocative than conclusive - the song is not offering an argument for why Hunter (who isn't named either) killed himself. It's a fable about suicide, and like all fables, it oversimplifies the facts and leaves much up to the imagination of the listener.

Lindy reads this blog from time to time, so if I hear from her and she wants me to remove this song, I will, just as Chris Johnson and I took the song out of circulation upon her original objections. But I hope she hears it now as a beautiful fable about a terrible thing, the "old folk song" of suicide.

Free mp3s

"Prayer for Max Potts"
(Mark Stephens)
Recorded by Fred's Variety Group
From the album Bells & Buzzers
(Beautiful vocal by Sunyatta Marshall.
Beautifully recorded by Liam Christy.)

"Cobalt Waltz"
(Mark Stephens)
Recorded by The Highway Matrons
From the Pajama Party Rooster Lollipop sampler

Unreleased, at Lindy's request

Previously bootblogged here:

This is the second in a series of posts where I bootleg the songs of my friends. The series will focus on unreleased recordings. Though Bells & Buzzers and Pajama Party were both released, I doubt they are very widely available, and both of the bands that released them are defunct. I am trusting my friends will be proud to see me sharing their work, but if anyone hollers at me, I'll remove their music right away. Also, note I don't accept any advertising on my blog, so I'm giving this stuff away, which was always my preferred method of distributing music.


The image is Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 57 by Robert Motherwell.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I will love Lyndsey Scott even more next year

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Yeah, that's the way to end a novel. And for me, the way to get ready to begin a new year is to look back on old ones.

I'll look back two years ago, to New Year's Day 2007, when I was enjoying a holiday to revel in a batch of artwork recently sent to me by a new friend - the one and only Lyndsey Scott - whom I admire and enjoy so very, very much.

At the time I would have told you I don't like or read blogs, mostly because I dislike so much the ugly word "blog," sort of "blob" but only uglier. So not reading or keeping a blog, I wrote a fake press release and sent that to my friends with scanned images of the art.

It went like this.

Jan 1, 2007

On a glowing New Year's Day in the Meramec Highlands of Eastern Missouri, The Skuntry Museum, Library & Beer Cellar began to curate a major gift from the artist Lyndsey Scott, currently of the suburban prairie sprawl of Rantoul, Illinois.

The gift was a bundled assemblage of assemblages, drawings, translations, maps, and meditations. It arrived some time ago via U.S. Mail but is only gradually entering into curated status because of its wealth of detail and its arrival in the busy period just before the holidays.

"Not to demean in any way the value of contributing to the museum or Lyndsey's sincerity in doing go, but we seem to have benefited from a slow day at her father's legal office in Rantoul," said Chris King, museum curator, noting one piece in particular, "Secretary Booty," a contemporary American medicine bag consisting of two paper napkins fastened together to enclose a selection of as yet unknown gifts from the desk drawers of secretaries in the office of Mr. Scott, Esquire.

The curator also spent part of the morning patching together a song using for its lyrics bits of images from a homemade book by Lyndsey included in the bag of goodies.

"It felt inevitable that I would create something in call and response to Lyndsey's gift, because her gift was consciously referential, at points, to a book of my poetry I had sent her, along with a check and our thanks for contributing to the Blind Cat Black art invitational," King said. "And it was indeed an auspicious pleasure to begin a new year in the throes of collective creativity."

Now that Three Fried Men is a working group again, we'll have to do something with the song I wrote using only Lyndsey's images, "Come as a child": for it's a poetry score!


Lyndsey Scott at The Skuntry Museum: selected works (above)

> Assemblage with Bob Reuter (detail)
> Female figure
> Contemporary aboriginal map
> Lotus figures on rice paper (detail)

#1 song: "Creepy Part of Town" (free mp3)

We all have some holidays we like more than others, though I value play enough to say I never met a holiday I didn't like at least a little bit.

I have always liked Thanksgiving for the celebration (and abudant availability) of food. I like New Year's because I like the number 1 - only as lonely as you make it - and I like a fresh slate and a reminder of origins.

So, as we peer forward toward another New Year, another first month, first day of the year, another numero uno, I'll give those who want it one of my numero unos, the first song I ever wrote alone on a guitar, chords* and all. I personally think it's my best, still.

Free mp3

By Eleanor Roosevelt
Song by Chris King
Recorded and mixed by Meghan Gohil
From the record Walker With His Head Down

Wherever independents sell stuff like that in St. Louis
And wherever my car is parked

* Chords = F, C and G

Photo by Monstromo

Monday, December 29, 2008

Skuntry acquires sketch by Art Museum guard

In my days before blogging I used to Spam my friends with mock press releases. I just found this one from November 2006 and liked it enough to share.

Today the Skuntry Museum, Library & Beer Cellar acquired the first-ever drawing by one of the museum guards at the Saint Louis Art Museum, whose name is being kept secret ("anonymous donor") because she is not supposed to talk to museum guests, and the gift was an outgrowth of a pleasant conversation she shared this afternoon with Skuntry curator in charge of acquisitions, Chris King.

The piece, an untitled sketch (after Rembrandt) of the Virgin Mary and an angel, joins the museum's Drawings collection. Also featured in that collection are a batch of convict sketches of jailhouse tattoos from the Kentucky State Penitentiary, a pen-and-ink portrait of Fred Friction by the late Hunter Brumfield III, "Heavy, silver boots on his feet, smiling" by Jason Wallace Triefenbach (from the Hoobellatoo Art Invitational for Blind Cat Black) and any number of the cartoons Bob Reuter used to sit and do as he worked the door at the late Frederick's Music Lounge.

The artist who made the piece donated today was gazing intently at a piece in the Rachel Puryear show "Word and Image," which opened recently in the little upstairs space in the Saint Louis Art Museum, when the Skuntry curator entered the room. Puryear's show consists of seven etchings that correspond with seven poems by African-American poets, which are printed alongside the etchings.

The woman scrutinizing the show in the otherwise empty exhibit space was very pretty, with classic West African features, so the curator did his best to start a conversation with her. Only when she turned to him, to answer her question about the show, did the Skuntry curator see her uniform and realize she was on-duty as a guard.

She had a classic, but soft, black St. Louis accent, and she referred to her interlocuter as "sweetie," with no hint of flirt. Her art criticism was heartfelt and perceptive, as she pointed out connections between images in the poetry and the etchings Puryear had made in response.

The conversation developed a bit. The curator pointed out she was in a good position to come back and study Puryear's show again, whenever she wanted. The woman said maybe, maybe not, since she never knew where she would be working and had no control over it.

"I was just working in Rembrandt," she said, a phrase that gave the curator much pleasure. He asked, "How was Rembrandt?"

It was then that she produced a tiny, folded piece of yellow paper, with sketches of two faces on it, and said, "Look what I just did. I never did this before. That's Mary, and that's an angel. I figured, why not give it a try? When I got this job, I never knew I would start to understand art or like it."

At this point the curator moved swiftly into acquisitions mode, and Skuntry is that much richer for it (see above).

"She said other guards work there because they are artists and want to be around art," King said, of the anonymous donor. "That's not the case with her, at all. She was just an everyday citizen literally driven to make art by the presence of Rembrandt. That is so damn cool!"


Untitled (After Rembrandt), by Anonymous

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Eleanor Roosevelt does Jackson Pollock (free mp3)

St. Louis artist Tony Renner makes it a habit of making paintings - paintings that I tend to like an awful lot - dedicated to musicians: Derek Bailey, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Charlie Haden, Olivier Messiaen, Sun Ra, Charlie Parker, The Rats & People - and that seems to be pieces executed in the last, oh I don't know, week.

My band Eleanor Roosevelt did just the opposite: we wrote and recorded a song - "Sleeping Effort" about a painting - Jackson Pollock's Sleeping Effort (1953) - in the permanent collection of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University.

If you look at the painting - the tiny reproduction of it, above, or all 50 x 76 inches of it (give or take one-eighth of an inch) at Wash. U. - it's fair to question how much our song or any song could be "about" such a painting, which isn't as disassociative as Pollock's splatter paintings, but hardly tells a coherent story.

I don't really remember writing the lyrics, but probably all I took from the painting was a wonderful and evocative title that opened up a path into the world of dreams, since a dream is the most likely kind of effort you can offer in your sleep.

The Kemper is free and is open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday (11 a.m.-6 p.m.), Friday (11 a.m.-8 p.m.) and Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m.-6 p.m.). I'm due for another visit, if anyone wants to go take a look.

Also, we have only until January 11 to see Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976 at the Saint Louis Art Museum. As a member of the press, I received a free ticket to see this show for the holidays (it's one of those special exhibitions that costs $6; the rest of the museum is free), so I guess I don't have any excuse for missing it.

Free mp3:

"Sleeping Effort" by Eleanor Roosevelt
From the album Walker With His Head Down (2007)

Available in independent shops in St. Louis
wherever music is downloaded
and out of the trunk of my car!

Bootblogging #1: Three by The Lettuce Heads

What do you call bootlegging on a blog? Bootblogging? This post initiates a new series of bootblogging the unreleased recordings of my friends.

I'll start by stealing from the best: The Lettuce Heads, my favorite-ever St. Louis rock band, which is either enjoying a quiet revival or never quite called it quits despite never getting their due and never getting off their duffs to release their exquisite recordings.

Let me get to the bootlblogged recordings now, so you can be listening to them while you read on about these humble, inward, talented dudes. Between now and their next gig - 9 p.m. Friday, January 9 at The Schlafly Tap Room, 1221 Locust - or until I receive that "cease and desist order," I plan to upload most of their best unreleased record.

These promotional geniuses were calling this record, I think, "demo" when I got ahold of it. I think I convinced them to let me release it under the title When You Blink, but then they never produced a finished master and, if they had, I probably wouldn't have had the money to release it anyway.

Here you go, the first three songs from "demo" or When You Blink, one each by each of the three songwriters, with the writer taking the lead vocal, in the time-honored rock & roll tradition:

* Love Lead (Mike Burgett)
* When I Plant My Garden (Carl Pandolfi)
* Rose (Jon Ferber)

The fourth player in the band is drummer John Marshall.

For all of those community radio producers out there who are downloading these tracks with plans to play them on your show, the artist name for all three tracks is The Lettuce Heads; I have just specified the songwriting credits because it seemed like the thing to do.

If you don't know nothing about these boys, the bio their pal Danny Hommes wrote for the band website is the place to start. And I ought to know - it was my job to write the bio, and I stiffed them, even though I was returning Carl Pandolfi's favor of playing on the poetry score to Go South for Animal Index.

But I did write a preamble to the bio I never wrote. Goes something like this:

First, a little philosophy of local rock musical history (yeah!). Then, the story of one of the best rock bands you have never heard of.

Because the music industry is yet to discover St. Louis – and St. Louis is yet to discover it has a music industry – our musical history remains largely untold. This is especially true of our rock music.

When a history is unwritten, for it to be passed on older people need to talk to younger people, and the younger people need to listen to them. There are obstacles to these things happening in a rock music scene, because the older guys quit going to clubs and the younger guys think they are too cool to listen to the older guys.

Of course, this is all bound up in the ethos of rock music as a young person’s game, "it’s better to burn out than fade away," "I hope I die before I get old," etc. It doesn’t help that the people who do self-consciously keep in memory the history of St. Louis rock music, like Beatle Bob or Jay-Jay, tend to be dismissed as eccentrics who know too much about trivial things, rather than genuine historians.

Surely the fact that The Lettuceheads – a St. Louis rock band most active in the early 1990s – are playing together again will not be enough to shatter these deeply-held cultural values. But, if those values are at least slightly cracked, and a younger audience (along with its resident musicians) checks out these old-head rockers, it will be a great thing for the transition of musical history in a city that hardly knows itself.

Also, said young people are going to get their asses rocked off.

The Lettuceheads must have been surprised to see themselves slip into old-guard status in the past 15 years. They were always well-aware of already coming after the really great rock music. These guys are Beatles and Kinks buffs who understand that most of the things you can do to expand, disrupt, or perfect rock music had already been done by The Beatles and The Kinks.

But, they weren’t paralyzed by the example of their overseas elders, and they certainly didn’t imitate them slavishly. The amazing thing about The Lettuceheads is that they wrote a sufficiently diverse group of dynamic rock songs and performed them with such a groove, with so much style and energy, that you could compare them to their historic musical idols without humiliating them.

Melodic, smart, strange, surprising, constantly evolving rock music: The Beatles did that, The Kinks did that, The Lettuceheads did that. And, now, The Lettuceheads are doing it again.

That's it for now. More between now and that Friday, January 9 gig, which will be prefaced from 7-9 p.m. by the 1st St. Louis Indie Rock Swag Swap Meet, a free event catered musically on cassette by Thomas Crone and myself, where everyone who was ever in a local band (working or defunct) is encouraged to bring some swap to swap (or, if you must, sell; suggested price ceiling $5).

The event is free and, God help us, there is no "vendor fee" or any such stuff, though we'd love to know you are coming and what you are bringing so we can bid you up and make it sound like it's going to be a party, and not just Crone and me getting drunk and playing cassettes of dead bands. Though, come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty fun Friday night in St. Louis.

And I hereby swear I will take down these free recordings if the friends in question ever get up off their musical derrieres and print some commercially available copies of these recordings. When they do, I'll be the first in line to buy one.


Artwork from the band website. No telling which one of these multiply talented loonybirds drew it.

New Pornographers videos, but no porno videos!

I'm a bit hesitant to post about the great Canadian rock band The New Pornographers, because of the reach of Google and my almost complete lack of interest in the perversions of other people or in attracting those perversions to my little spot o' blog.

Not that this point needs confirmation, but one does learn about human perversity when you start a blog and track your visitors with a stat counter. This summer I posted a detailed piece of personal cultural archaeology on the source of a song I had written, which is based on a poetic sparring contest between two Tlingit Indian men, which I characterized (in the interest of a snappy title) as "a pissing match."

And that is how I came to know something that I really didn't want to know, that I don't want to know, and that I would like to forget: that someone, somewhere (usually, but not always, in India), Googles the phrase "Indian pissing" - every single day of the year.

And they find me talking about putting poetry to music! I'd say, "Serves them right," but I don't even care enough about this peculiar taste to wish a comeuppance for the people who are into it. I just don't want to know or be reminded about it.

So, anyway, The New Pornographers are a rock band, not a group of pornographers (of, if they are also pornographers, I don't know about that and don't want to know). I like their music an awful lot, and I spent a few hours over the holiday looking them up on YouTube. Let me save you some search time and point you toward some cool videos.

Music, not pornographic, videos.

My Rights Versus Yours. Live on the Letterman Show. Jealousy alert, for gigging musicians: Never in your life will your live harmony vocals sound anywhere near as good as this. Lots of Neko Case leg action here. Maybe showing one of my own personal perversions there (sorry).

Sing Me Spanish Techno - A bona fide narrative video, directed by Michael Palmieri. It's a gender-bending narrative video; I think I know a little something about that.

Letter from an Occupant - Cool conceptual video. Can't find the name of the director. You must hear this song if you like power pop and have not yet heard it.

The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism - Far and away the most hilarious in a trend of goofy New Pornographer videos, this one is directed by Michael Dowse and features the two characters from his film FUBAR. A must-hear quirky rock song for fans thereof.

Challengers - Yikes, what a gorgeous song by Neko Case. Director Darren Pasemko seems to have seized on the line from the lyric "we are the challengers of the unknown" with his concept; matter of taste whether or not he was up to the challenge.

Myriad Harbour - An animated cartoon in which director Mark Lomond has endless fun with the curly hair of songwriter Daniel Bejar.

The Laws Have Changed - Directed by bandmember Blaine Thurier, this starts like a narrative video but becomes pretty girls dancing in the club. I like the pretty girls dancing in the club.

Bleeding Heart Show. Goofy, but funny fan video.

Snow Party. Goofy. Funny. Video. Directed by? Video directors getting no repect on Tube of You.

Use It. Goofy. Funny. Video. By Thurier.

And, just so the perverts that find this page via Google get something for their clicking and their patience, here is a picture of SARAH TRUCKEY IN UNDERWEAR. Men's longjohns. But, still. Truckey. Underwear. From her own Flickr site, so blame her, not me. All I did was notice.


Photo of Neko Case by Amanda Hatfield from a band fansite.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Squeaky Fromme, Katie Couric and I have been to West Virginia

I think if you're interested in America, you have to be interested in the Manson Family. I'm not aware of any invented American storyline that is better than what actually happened in the Charles Manson story.

Poor Appalachian petty criminal becomes Southern Californian messiah. The Summer of Love meets cataclysmic race war fantasy. Beatles album gets construed as battle signals in starting the race war. Race war is plotted from old movie location ranch. Pregnant vampire movie actress succumbs as sacrifical victim. A place called Death Valley provides the setting for the final showdown.

You can make this stuff up - it's just that the madeup stuff isn't half this good!

I come to this story very belatedly, after recently reading The Family by Ed Sanders, which inspired posts about horseflies on the lips of killer hippies and how the Manson gang nearly stuffed out an ambitious Wilco album before it was ever in the embryo.

I still find myself combing the internet, looking for dribs and drabs about this amazing cast of characters and the incalculably stupid decisions they made in the desert and in the beautiful hills above Los Angeles. And that is how I came across this clip of the young Katherine (not yet "Katie") Couric, reporting live from West Virginia .

The story: Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme has escaped from federal prison in Alderson, West Virginia, just before Christmas 1987. Squeaky was soon captured and sent packing to other federal houses of confinement (long before Martha Stewart would check into Alderson in 2004 for securities fraud and obstruction of justice).

I find it interesting that Squeaky Fromme, the most devoted of Manson's disciples - she is in prison today for bumrushing President Ford with a gun in 1975, obscurely pursuing Charlie's program of saving the Redwoods - would end up in West Virginia, where Manson was (in his words) "razed" in the towns of McMechen and Wheeling.

I have been keeping an eye on West Virginia for longer than I have been a Manson Family watcher. My rock band Enormous Richard used to play Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia as routing gigs on our East Coast tours. We developed a pretty good following there, particularly in Huntington, a very strange town at that time.

It sits at a tri-state juncture (of West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky), and in all border areas there is a sin city where the clubs stay open later and the cops are more corrupt than in the neighboring states, allowing markets for narcotics and weird sex to thrive. This was the situation with Huntington, West Virginia in the early- to mid-1990s, and it made for really interesting (if frequently disturbing) gigs.

Like all border towns, Huntington also harbored runaways, and I met a beautiful teen refugee from Kentucky at a gig there. I used to go out to West Virginia and stay with her between band tours, amazed by the beautiful hills and the strange little town. Eventually I moved her to St. Louis and married her - a marriage that ended badly. Not "Manson Family" badly, just "musician marriage" badly, though she and I did go through a murder trial together, where she was the motive for the murder and the star witness for the prosecution. Maybe that's why it made sense for me to find the Manson Family all mixed up with the hills of West Virginia.

You will find some of these personal experiences buried in the lyrics to a song I wrote, "Been to West Virginia," that I recorded with the band Eleanor Roosevelt. We released it on the record Walker With His Head Down, which is out there on the pay-to-play digital download sites, though here's a free mp3 of the song, for now. Handle with care.


I snapped the Polaroid on the property of primal rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins in the hills of West Virginia. That's another story altogether!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Chloe Day at Pop's Blue Moon Saturday at 8 p.m.!

We have here Chloe Day, one of her original works of art, and a detail of that work. The work in question is chalk on concrete on the floor of my basement, otherwise known as The Skuntry Museum, executed about this time last year (or was it the year before?) during one of Chloe's annual swings back home from Los Angeles, where she lives now.

She is coming home again and has a gig tomorrow night (Saturday, Dec. 27), an early show at Pop's Blue Moon, 5249 Patterson on The Hill. She goes on at 8 p.m., and it's a two-hour show.

I could carry on at great length about Chloe's music, but she works with my dear friend Meghan Gohil of Hollywood Recording Studio and together they have one of the more professional operations I have ever seen, which means there are readily available documents of what she does.

Try this video of an acoustic performance, and this video of a techno performance. I spoke with Meghan today (he is back in L.A.), and he said Chloe has had some trouble on the road with her gizmos, so I would expect more of an acoustic set at Pop's Blue Moon.

Chloe also has a MySpace page that is nearing a million profile views, which is a testament to the power of her music and (I'm going to go ahead and say it) the fact that she takes some promotional photos that verge on soft porn. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Chloe, I don't think I'll make it out tomorrow night (Saturdays belong to my five-year-old), and I'm sorry you won't make it out here to freshen up your chalk work, which is fading, as you can see, but not altogether past-tense faded. Next Christmas, let's do a guitar circle while you're in town, okay?

An Eleanor Roosevelt song about leftovers

I suppose today is one of the two or three biggest days for leftovers in this country, so this is an opportune time to point out that my band Eleanor Roosevelt has what I assume to be the rare distinction of having written a song about leftovers, "In a Pinch," from our (best) album, Walker With His Head Down.

The song is based on a riff that Lij (pictured above, in a classic Polaroid, picking on Al Robbins' farm on the outskirts of Cheyenne, Wyoming) learned from a banjo book. Maybe some old-time or Irish musician will hear the song and tell me what traditional tune underlies this song of ours.

The lyric, like I said, is about leftovers, or rather the want of them. We had been penniless on the road for years when we wrote the songs that appear on this record and the next one, Crumbling in the Rain, and both are absolutely crammed with food imagery. These are definitely the thoughts of a bunch of young men who are not quite certain where their next meal is coming from.

Thanks to my new best friend,, you can hear "In a pinch" and even download an mp3 for free. Though I suppose I should point out that Meghan Gohil of Hollywood Recording Studio manages our online distribution and has both Walker With His Head Down and Crumbling in the Rain out there on all of the major pay-to-play digital download sites.

Finally, for readers of the late (lamented) 52nd City magazine, double click on the Polaroid of Lij, take a long look at Al Robbins' farm, then get out your copy of the Stuff issue of 5nd City and read my story "Inventory of an old Mohawk Ironworker." It's about Al and his outlandish farm.

Survival tip #1: hide your knives

Yesterday I tried to be as helpful as possible during the preparation of the holiday meal, which mostly means "do no harm" - stay out of the way, don't make any messes not necessitated by the logistics of cooking, don't eat directly out of any of the simmering pots - but also includes fetching things and lugging stuff from here to there.

One of the things I had to fetch was a sharp knife. I even was commissioned to use said sharp knife, in the mincing of smoked salmon for inclusion in a dip, that was delicious. But I couldn't find a sharp knife in the silverware drawer.

That's because we don't keep our sharp knives in a silverware drawer anymore. And therein lies a survival tip, provided here as a Confluence City community service, in the hopes that we all make it through the rest of 2008 and all of 2009 healthy and alive.

My wife works at a large employer in the city of St. Louis. Yes, believe it or not, there still are one or two places that fit that description. Her employer provided a seminar on personal safety free of charge to anyone on staff who wanted to attend. In this seminar, the personal safety expert provided the surprising insight that a large number of people injured or killed during interrupted home burglaries are injured or killed by their own kitchen knives.

Survival tip here: Don't keep your knives or other sharp objects in plain sight or where an intruder would expect to find them.

I know, I know, you'd expect a home burglary to be a BYOK (bring your own knife) type of party, but that's what the expert said; and my wife and I, as parents, adopt the strategy (parenting tip coming here, as a bonus) of always taking the most conservative view held between us when the safety of our daughter is at stake.

That means if she thinks we need to keep the steak knives in a locked vault in the basement, then I'll be fetching the steak knives from a locked vault in the basement from now on. As it is, and as this breathtaking news photo makes clear, we are keeping them down there with the vinegar and stuff.

More safty tips: when the bad guy says, "Don't scream or I'll kill you," start screaming! When he says, "Give me your keys," throw your keys as far as you can and run in the opposite direction.

I hope none of us need any of these tips, this year, next year, or any year, but it's not always an especially nice or safe world out there. One may as well be prepared.

Just ask our friend John Eiler, who got an amazing and sad poem out of a survival tip he wished he had given to his daughter Sali, who is no longer with us, one we lost in 2008, rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fred Friction, baby Jesus, with his little baby dreams

The Fred Friction solo album, Jesus Drank Wine, is an official, commercial reality now, by the evidence of a stack of them on the counter at Euclid Records, hyped on a handscrawled note by Darren Snow as the sort of album that might have resulted had Paul Westerberg attemped to keep up with Bob Stinson's drinking rather than ostracize him from The Replacements.

It's a great thing, this record. It has the full-throated, frontal-assault hilarity and self-lacerating sarcasm suggested by Darren's comparison, but like the best Replacements records (or the best records of any kind) it also has moments of bottomless pathos, hurt, and wonder that just kind of make you go, "Holy shit, I wish I had come up with that."

I have been listening to a bootleg of the record sent to me by Fred for some weeks now. In his handwritten note, on Fred Friction stationery (now curated into the manuscript collection of The Skuntry Museum), he acknowledges that his handlers, such that they are, would likely make him chop up the 12 songs into 12 tracks on the final CD release, but his bootleg version represented the record as he experienced it, as one thing - one song, one story, one life, one man.

This means, among other things, that my version is sort of a pain in the ass for hearing songs over again, which is helpful in getting lyrics exact, and my one attempt to quote from the record (on a FaceBook comment) was tartly corrected by the artist himself, so I'll wait for any extensive direct quoting when I have the commercial release with its 12 fragmented tracks in hand. This note is mostly to say, "Holy shit, I wish I would have come up with that."

And to confess that, in a sense, I tried, and, in another sense, I had my chance and blew it.

I tried. I was one of what must have been countless people over the years who encouraged Fred to make a record of his own. Especially when I was living in New York and would come home, I would be a little disturbed by how Fred was becoming something of a local rock star, running the hippest club in town and partying until dawn with the twang glitterati of the world. Which was well and fine for a minor talent, but not for a major talent, who should be writing songs and making records. And I never thought the records Fred made with The Highway Matrons quite did his songs justice.

So I would buttonhole Roy Kasten (again), and say, "We've got to make a record for Fred" (again), and Roy would say, "Let's do it" (again) and I would call Fred and Fred would have a reason for why now was not the time (once again).

Fred is, to understate the case, not a petty man, so I know he wasn't punishing me or withholding the pleasure I sought in midwiving his record. It just wasn't the time. But, still, it's true and I know it: I had my chance and I blew it.

It was 1988. I had thrown together a graduate student rock band for a pro-choice benefit concert that ended up getting press in the Post-Dispatch, thanks to Rene Spencer and Steve Pick, on the strength of one wacky gig. So we decided to keep it going, one more gig at a time, that lasted 10 years (and in a sense continues until today).

That band, Enormous Richard, often rehearsed acoustic on the street, on Delmar Boulevard, which was still pretty shady in the late '80s. One of those days on the street this raggedy man came running down the Delmar Loop, playing spoons against his skeletal, tattered-bluejean-clad leg, with a massive folder of song scraps folded under his arm.

That was Fred. Those were Fred's songs. They were ours to finish with him and record, if we wanted them, he said. But we were a young band of energetic songwriters, we weren't looking for another writer in the band, and at least one of us was on holiday from the middle class, slumming for fun, and Fred struck him as a little too street, a little too slumming not for fun.

So we declined the offer from Fred. He joined us onstage for spoons, many times - even at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago the night Operation Desert Storm broke out over Baghdad - but we turned away his songs.

In late-night guitar circles in Roy Kasten's apartment, I would start to understand just what we had turned away. These are some of the best songs I have ever heard anywhere. It was sort of like the baby Jesus offered no room at the inn, and turned away to wander. But the baby made its way and it got born on its own, in a South City manger, I suppose. And it is here now to bring good news to the world, to illuminate us and give us hope, and despair, with its little baby dreams.


Drawing of Fred by the late Hunter Brumfield III, from The Skuntry Museum, gift of the artist.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Jason Wallace Triefenbach thinks of death, often

I have been thinking lately about Jason Wallace Triefenbach, because I have talking to the guys who made the movie Blind Cat Black with me (Aaron AuBuchon and Chizmo) about doing final color treatments to the final cut and mastering it to DVD and finally putting the project out - and behind us.

This leads to considerations of packaging. Though I adore the stills that Chizmo's buddy Mathew Pitzer shot the one day he did lighting for us (especially the picture of Toyy coming down the bartop at CBGB that I used for the movie's MySpace profile shot), I want something more simple and bold for the cover - and something even more Toyy-centric, since she has the star role, that of The Absent-Minded Tightrope Walker.

I think I'll go with one of the sexy portraits of Toyy shot by Wiley Price of the St. Louis American that we used as the basis for the sex ad for her character that instigates the film's plot, such that is, not that much of anyone who has seen the movie has been able to follow that plot!

Jason being the costar, The Flower Shop Boy, I want to use an image of him somewhere in the DVD art. I sort of like this picture of him in character I shot one very cold winter morning in front of Sam Light Loans (the pawnshop that marks the spot where T.S. Eliot was raised!), though a picture of him posed opposite Toyy might help spark the idea that their characters are intended as alter egos or shadows of the same twingendered person.

With Jason much on my mind lately (Toyy is always on my mind - always), I received an email from him yesterday. I'm fortunate to have landed on the distribution list for his musings from Los Angeles, where he and his wife Julie live now. Here is some of what is on the mind of this talented young man ...


Bleeding to death in the street

By Jason Wallace Triefenbach

A car was stopped and at first we thought he had been struck by a vehicle. Julie asked me if there might be something we could do to help? I pulled over, opened the door and began walking to the small group gathered around. Two people on phones, someone running, then I saw blood.

His shirt looked like flesh - deeply stained, almost purple under the streetlight. His legs were out in front, sprawled over the pavement; shoes shining brightly crimson. And streams of blood, rivulets streaking away from him. Exiting; searching for earth, finding gutter.

At thirty feet I heard the word "tourniquet". A delivery truck pulled alongside.

Sirens in the distance.

I don't remember hearing the word "shot" or "shooting", but I reacted to it so it must have been said. I turned as flashing lights echoed on the black trees and walked back to the car.

Julie standing there on the passenger side.

"Let's go."

Her eyes wet, questioning. Brow furrowed like broken riverbed.

"He's been shot."

Concern for the victim became concern for her safety - my own - and we drove home. Our voices broke the silence, sporadically.

We bickered in the bathroom, both realizing the stress compelling us. Then we slept.

I didn't dream.


I think about death often, I suppose. Probably not much more or less than most of us. Trying through poetry and such - "succumb to the illogical terminus of one's mortality" - to chart a gentle way through the fear. An old friend died this past summer of gunshot wounds. He seems OK. Less fear after that- sporadic moments when the ridiculous temporality of all this rises in me like a swirling wave... Bataille helped recently, taught me to welcome the moments of terror - let the sweat wash over me. Cherish the silent command of the grave echoing back upon me from my future / your future / wormhole / ancient future.

At such intervals the making of art seems to me more than simply the simple incline littered with money and disappointments. At such moments I feel so very blessed indeed to have been impelled by nature and ego to undertake these clumsy constructions - the attempts to become a prism filtering and projecting bits of the Complexity back into itself.

When we sing it is the Universe giving voice to its own continuous unfolding. When we dance we are making love to Godhood. When we die we deny death

Monday, December 22, 2008

Surrealist opens antique toy store in Sunset Hills

"What's a poor boy to do," sang Mick Jagger, formerly of The London School of Economics, "but sing for a rock and roll band?"

And what's a St Louis surrealist to do but open a storefront to sell antique, misfit, and forgotten toys?

Welcome to Andy's Toys; proprietor, Andy Tolch, otherwise known as the Surrealist painter Andrew Torch. The store is located at 11624 Gravois Rd. in the Sunset hills, ZIP 63126 and telefono 314-503-5869.

I'm not one to foist Christmas shopping upon folks, except in a former life if someone paid me to dish out some special section holiday copy for a choice price, but if you have that cranky eccentric antique toy collector on your list, I think Andy's Toys is a good place to look.

Faithful readers, God help you, of this blog may recall that Andy bought my sketch of astrophysicist to the stars Neil DeGrasse Tyson, that Andy contributed to the 2008 Poetry Scores Art Invitational, that Andy had a short story published in a book of Surrealist tales, and that I sketched Andy drinking beer with Greg Edmondson, aka Ichobod Crane The Lizard on the High, High Rock.

In the spirit of Torchian Surrealism, I wish you an aarvdark paring hyena nails upside down in a waterfall of molten Pez dispensers Christmas!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Why I bailed on the bailout

This cartoon by John Callahan, which I was overjoyed to find on his MySpace page , sums up just how I feel about deeply intractable problems. It's a widespread feeling. I think it's why a lot of people give up on keeping track of their local politics.

I have a job that requires me to follow local politics. Once you know some of this stuff, it frustrates you to see people ignore the evidence of corruption and mismanagement right in front of them, though if my job did not require me to watch this cesspool, would I? Maybe I wouldn't.

As it is, I take my byes on big issues that aren't local. I can honestly say I bailed on the financial bailout before it even happened.

I review a fair number of books published by the wonderful University of Texas Press, enough to stay on their reviewer comp list, I guess. From this last list, one of the books I asked to consider for review was Deception and Abuse at the Fed by Robert D. Auerbach.

Not very far into the book, I was convinced of the premise that the highest federal financial officers in the land have a virtual free reign. I also instantly recognized that a small group of federal bankers and wonks who have a virtual free reign and who share a revolving door with a small group of fabulously wealthy private sector bankers and wonks were out of my league.

Whatever hustle they had going, I wasn't going to be able to gather enough information to understand it and enough muscle to expose it and make a difference.

I thought of this Callahan cartoon. "Next problem, please."

Same thought on the financial bailout, which has a lot to do with the premise of Auerbach's book, with the largely unregulated upper echelon of the financial sector. Financial bailout, hmmm. Taxes paid by a middle class that is disappearing into poverty being passed up the financial food chain to bail out the gamblers and good timers at the top?

Who then brazenly refuse any sort of accountability as to what they are doing with billions of the disappearing middle class' tax dollars?

Callahan cartoon. "Next problem, please."

I'm looking for one I might be able to fix. Surely, we at least can replace a police board that can't keep an eye on the police, and the public assets and money seized by the police, in a middle-sized Midwestern city?

The new governor appoints all of the St. Louis police board except one slot - Jay Nixon needs to be encouraged to make a clean sweep - and the mayor is the city's lone representative on the board.

Mayor Slay is up for reelection, with a primary in March and a general election in April. He needs to swept off that police board and replaced with someone with a sincere interest in overseeing those who are sworn to protect the public - but given a lot of power to wield in protecting us, and all power is prone to abuse.

Guitar circle founder to return to St. Louis in February

Save the date type dealybob: founder of the St. Louis guitar circle, Michael Shannon Friedman, has agreed to take his next break from teaching in North Carolina and spend it in the confluence city making music with his friends, because he just can't wait to be on the road again.

Dates: Monday, Feb. 16, for more of a happy hours guitar circle, 6 pm to 10 pm or so, at the house/garage/back yard/ firepit animal flesh roast of John Eiler.

: Wednesday, Feb. 18 for more of a venue experience (somewhere or the other where they'll have us), a Michael Friedman and friends kind of thing, with anticipated performing artists Michael Friedman, Michael Friedman with his Rough Shop friends, Roy Francis Kasten, maybe Sunyatta Marshall, and the Three Fried Men poetry score orchestra (if we can pull together a short set by then). Who knows who else.

If you have ever been to a guitar circle before or think you should have been, then you're probably invited to this one as well, just check in with me, John, Roy, or one of those type people.
If you are just now encountering the concept of a guitar circle, first of all you don't have to play guitar, you can contribute anything (it doesn't even have to be music, per se; we have had poets and concertina players; a clogger; a koto player; a spoonsman; a Kelsey Lapoint, whatever on earth it is she does).

It's a jam session without, for the most part, the jamming; an open mic without the mic; a salon without the bitter Gallic superiority complex; a Quaker meeting where you get to talk and drink and don't have to pray (though people have prayed); a strictly circular focussed listening session where, once each time around the circle, you get to do your thing. Other than that, why don't you pay attention, unless you have to pee or get a drink or something.

It will be great to have Michael back in town for a few days and maybe even record it for posterity. I'll be talking about him and these events more and more as the dates draws nigh. Michael is one of those rare people of whom I can actually say, the more I got to know him, the more I liked and admired him, more or less on a consistent gently upward curve, after the abrupt and shocking initial jerk straight up.

The surprises that are pleasant are the ones you least expect.


The illustration by me is not of the oft-depicted Michael Friedman but guitar circle host and animal flesh roaster John Eiler; looking forward to seeing an old friend being a definite improvement upon dread.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Truckey and King on Meehan breakdown, river sunset

Last night I saw Sarah Truckey at the Hoffman LaChance Christmas show, which included a painting by Tim Meehan (titled after cold rain). I was reminded that I have one final batch of my bad sketches from our group trip to Calhoun County that could be paired with Truckey's far superior photographs of that day, which belongs in my imaginary and ever-burgeoning Book of Big Days.

Meehan's car broke down on the Calhoun side of the ferry. I sketched this disheartening moment. Two young lads from Meehan's car - one of them, I learned later, his son - broke out acoustic guitars and busted out some songs, including a spirited cover of "London Calling" by The Clash. The line "I live by the river!" never sounded better than performed veritably on the banks of the Mississippi. (These kids play out in the punk band Armatron.)

I had Anthony Brescia, that beautiful and grouchy man, in my vehicle. He and I both lack mechanical skills, and a small male army seemed prepared to tackle the problem of the Meehan breakdown after our repast at Wittmond's Hotel, so we crossed the ferry alone and headed back to civilization.

Truckey, a passenger in Sam Coffey's magic green bus, was left behind on the banks of the Mississippi. While the menfolk tinkered, she sized up the world and took pictures of it, mostly of a gargantuan orange sunset that looked like an immense orange eye as Anthony and I drove into it.

To you, Truckey:
* Sunset, river, bird
* Sunset, river
* Bird, river, sunset
* River, tavern signage
* River, ferry.

Meanwhile, sample dialogue from that fascinating drive we took into that selfsame sunset ...

Me: "Jesus! Christ! Shit! Hell! That sunset! God! Look at it! It looks like a giant orange eye in the sky!"

Anthony (Grumbles. Growls. Turns over in seat, restlessly. Grumbles. Groans. He is ignoring me and trying to sleep. He can't sleep. He sits up.): "Jesus! Look at that sky! Did you see that sky! It looks like a giant orange eye!"

Last night at the art show, Truckey reported that she was being tempted to try to stay in St. Louis, after meeting more and more people, like Brett Lars Underwood (birthday boy on the Brussels journey) and me, who love St. Louis.

"We love you too, Truckey," I said, and we do.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Merry Christmas to The St. Louis American

Holiday office party today for The St. Louis American. Weekly paper in the Midwest, 70,000 circulation. One paper, one owner, Donald M. Suggs. An African-American owner, an African-American focus, a largely African-American readership, a diverse but almost entirely African-American staff.

As far as I know, the only publication in St. Louis that made it through 2008 without downsizing in staff, going down in circulation, going down in pages, or publishing less often. Nobody noticed but us, but that's okay, we're used to it.

This year one of our trade associations, Suburban Newspapers of North America, judged us to be the best weekly in our class in the U.S. and the second best in North America. The only better paper, in their judgment, is published by a company that also publishes the largest paper in Canada (Toronto Star) and Harlequin fricking Romances.

Nobody much noticed but us, but that's okay. Joe Edwards, one of the most visonary businessmen in St. Louis, noticed (see attached letter). But that's about it. We oppose the current mayor of St. Louis, who sits on the shameful St. Louis police board, so he ignored us and if anything used his office to attempt to turn our advertisers against us.

That's okay, we're used to that too.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch covered the fact that one of the mayor's paid publicists, Gentry Trotter, finally assumed responsibility for helping to publish the smut and thug rag that is the St. Louis Evening Whirl. But made no mention of our award or any of our accomplishments.

Used to that too.

Still love my job and applaud our publisher for his honesty and courage. There is not much of that in St. Louis public life. Believe me!

Good office party, by the way. Still going on. Back to my Sierra Nevada Porter. Pick up the American every Thursday at Walgreens, Schnucks, Shop and Save, and here and there on streetcorners.

What's so funny about peace, Egypt and education?

When Ray Hartmann owned the RFT and I wrote for them, I used to get my editor to let me do brainy community news items about stuff like this. Now I'm blogging the press releases - in this case, from UMSL.

A new book by Judith Cochran, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Tutorial Education at UMSL, explores the origin of education in Egypt and how that has shaped the educational core of the entire Middle East. The book, Educational Roots of Political Crisis in Egypt, examines the country's educational influence in the Middle East.

"Egypt provides teachers at all levels of education in the Middle East," Cochran said. "Therefore education is transmitted throughout the area through the Egyptian teachers and their knowledge, professionalism and attitudes. Education shapes the future of the region through the instruction in beliefs and appropriate actions of all men and women."

Cochran traces the educational allocation of the $60 billion in U.S. foreign AID given to Egypt since the 1979 signing of the Camp David Accords. She profiles educational programs funded from 1979 to 2010 describing the purposes, development and results. Her original research is unique in a country lacking easy access to government, World Bank and Presidential documents.

Cochran earned a J. William Fulbright Scholar award in 1980 to study in Egypt. While there for three years, she served as the director of the English Language Department at the American University in Cairo. Cochran received her bachelor’s degree in English and speech from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She directs the E. Desmond Lee Regional Institute of Tutorial Education at UMSL, an educational collaborative of six universities and 10 of the largest youth-serving agencies and public school districts in the area.

The 227-page book was published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. and internationally redistributed by the American University in Cairo Press. "Educational Roots of Political Crisis in Egypt" was released last month and retails for $65.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Roadying for the dead drummer

I feel like the roadie for a dead man - for a dead drummer.

I am in the process of packing up the drum kit abandoned by Hunter Brumfield III when he killed himself to be used in yet another version of the band Three Fried Men.

I will be taking it over to Robert Goetz's house, where we have been working on the poetry score to The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray. Hunter was playing with Robert and me in a previous version of the band when he snuffed himself.

Moving drums that are not being used to a rehearsal space and home recording site where they can be used is a very rational thing to do. But still, there is something odd about this. Let me try to explain.

Mike Burgett, who also played with us in the version of Three Fried Men that featured Hunter on drums, makes a living as a handyman. My wife is one of his clients. Doing some duct work in our house recently, Mike had to take apart the shrine to Hunter I had built around his abandoned drumkit and then didn't have time to put it back together before he had to meet his kid at home after school. This led to my being thoroughly haunted by Hunter - not for the first time, and I'm not the only person who has experienced similar strange things.

As consequences of this most recent haunting, I reconfigured his shrine to be more visible and I reassembled all of the drumkit he had left behind. (Parts of it had been sitting in storage in another part of the basement.) As one new touch to the refurbished shrine, I stuck the novel The Robber by Robert Walser between the drum pedal and the kick drum. I have an extra copy, it's the sort of thing I would give Hunter to read were he alive to read it, and he did have elements of a thief, or trickster, to his character. After all, he robbed himself of life and us of him.
Robert and I worked on the poetry score late one night. I left my satchel behind. When Robert was moving my satchel to return it to me, the book I was reading fell out, a new book of short stories by Robert Walser. Robert Goetz liked the looks of the book and asked me about it in the email exchange devoted to returning my satchel to me.

Based on what Goetz liked about Walser from his quick online researches, I recommended that he start with The Robber because it is the most fragmented and postmodern. Goetz said he would get a copy. I told him I always have an extra copy to hand off to the right person, I'm a Walser evangelist. He said he would take it.

So of course I grabbed the extra copy of The Robber from the Hunter shrine and took it to Robert when I went to pick up my satchel. I pointed out that in addition to the book I was handing a piece of the new shrine I had built after the old Hunter shrine had been disturbed, apparently loosing his spirit into my basement, briefly. Robert doesn't think much of my ghost stories, but he was happy to accept the book.

It occured to me later, as we decided to reform a working band for the purpose of the score, and to move Hunter's old drumkit to Robert's home to save our new drummer(s) the hassle, that we were essentially completing the move of the shrine started by delivering The Robber to Goetz's house. It was like we were roadying for Hunter - roadying for a dead man.

Without question, before Mike disturbed the shrine, there was no Three Fried Men, and Hunter's abandoned drumkit was in two piles in my basement, one as a neglected shrine, the other simply as a pile. And now we are rebuilding a band and putting his drums back into circulation.

You can call that nothing but a set of coincidences, if you like, I don't mind.

Thomas Nashe, see what thy bounty erst planted

When I was young rocker in the old Cicero's scene in St. Louis, the guy who booked the basement bar started a little 'zine, The Subterranean (nice pun on the basement space and a Jack Kerouac novella title!). Smart, quirky people ran the club, and they put together a decent 'zine for a minute.

It had a regular column called Babette & Lulu, a spoof on tean beat columns idolizing pop stars. It was a Q&A with a local rocker, redolent with over-the-top words like "dreamy," and the first interview subject was me. Among much more sexy fare, Babette and Lulu asked me what was my favorite book, and I gave then the same answer I might give now: The Unfortunate Traveler by Thomas Nashe.

When I ran away from graduate school to play in a traveling band, I was writing my dissertation on Nashe and the other British prose pamphleteers of the 1590s - Shakespeare's rough-and-tumble contemporaries; the lewd, dangerous fathers of the bastard that is journalism.

I still read Nashe. There is a crazy online compendium of his work that I discovered after I had one of my less productive high school interns type in an entire pamphlet of his (The Terrors of the Night) for possible copublication with The Firecracker Press. (Long-dead men have no copyrights.)

I emulate Nashe. I want for my fiction to have his antic humor, his intense point of view, his runaway metaphorics, his historical sweep, his lyrical departures, his bite. For as long as I have been writing fiction I have been working on a novel that has changed names many times before arriving back home at Thomas Nashe, "The Painful Travels of Larry Lane."

I want for my journalism to have his capacity to unsettle the pompous and embarass the corrupt. One of my staff responsibilities at The St. Louis American is to edit an unbylined political column, The Political EYE, which some professional journalists dismiss as an aberration of the black press, when in fact it keeps alive the very roots of the form, the anonymous pamphlets put out for sale in St. Paul's Churchyard or nailed up as broadsides in the byways of the first English city, designed to cry out publicly some disguised evil.

These days, the Nashe I am toting around and reading in snatches at bartops is Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Devil (1592), in the Bodley Head Quarto series that exactly reproduces Renaissance pamphlets. Pierce Penniless begins (unforgettably, to me), "Having spent many years in studying how to live, and lived a long time without money," which is how I preface in my mind everything I write.

Two nights ago, I pulled a fast one on my little bitty skinny kid. Instead of reading her Dr. Seuss or a Bearanstein Bear title, I curled up with her and starting reading her Pierce Penniless. She didn't object, which amazed me. When I started getting drowsy and drifting off, she exhorted me, "Read!" just as she does when I am reading her Winnie the Pooh.

She even found herself so caught up in his 516-year-old phrases that she repeated one back to me.

Nashe's Pierce was hymning Sir Philip Sydney. He was saying, "But thou art dead in thy grave, and has left too few successors of thy glory, too few to cherish the Sons of the Muses, or water those budding hopes of their plenty, why thy bounty erst planted."

Leyla said, "Thy bounty erst planted," sort of, and asked what it meant.

Since she was asking me about something Thomas Nashe wrote about Philip Sydney, and my traveler novel is about a son who grew up on the road reading Sydney's Arcadia aloud to his dad, who was a traveling salesmean, I was very happy about this.

"'Thy bounty erst planted'," I explained, after breaking down the unfamiliar terms, "means all of the good things you did made all of these other things possible."

I'll give that love back to Thomas Nashe, this morning: thanks for all that thy bounty erst planted.


The image is a notorious woodcut of Nashe in chains one of the times he fell afoul of the law.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

King and Truckey on Calhoun County landscapes

Last week I was part of a mad but peaceable traveling feast up to the pensinsula of Calhoun County, village of Brussels, hotel of Wittmond's, birthdays of Brett Lars Underwood and Tony "Black" Diamond.

In between the eating and drinking, just about all of us were getting some kind of covert documentary act on. I kept a sketchbook. This barn is in a series of still lifes of mine drawn in the absence of something or someone, in this case, the blackberry pie I was waiting on for dessert. Previously, I have drawn still lifes without Barack Obama, without Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, without local pop star Bradd Young, and without my neighbor.

Sarah Truckey was not there with me on election night, in the circuit attorney's office, at Bradd's surprise birthday party, or in my driveway to take better pictures of what I was sketching, but she was on Calhoun with us. She took better pictures of whatever I was sketching, be it the characters on the journey, or the birthday boy clowning.

I have been following the photographs of the Truckey one, who seems to continue to labor under the illusion that she'll one day get paid for her spectacular photographs if she doesn't let guys like me lift them for free off her Flickr site.

Since I can't poach and post Truckey's photos in the key of my barn sketch, which I am trying to pass off here as a landscape, I am forced to link to them. Herrrrre's .... Truckey! On landscape!

* Water tower in the sky
* Wired little town
* The land is a woman is the land
* "Transients at speed"
* Little Portapotty on the prairie.

Regrettably, we near the end of the King/Truckey series, until we travel again. But stay tuned for: Truckey shot the sunset, but I sketched the malady that kept her on the peninsula until the sun set.

Thoughts toward a Self-Publishers Commons

Some thoughts on publishing and self-publishing here, including a promising suggestion from a smart and widely published fellow down Navajo way ...

One of the more painful pages of the internet I've stumbled upon, and I'm not one who goes looking for the bad stuff, consisted of every rejection letter the guy had ever received from a publisher, paired with the malevolent rants he had directed against all the editors who had cruelly failed to recognize his genius and its vast market potential.

I have a very different take on my rejections from commercial publishers. I have now weathered a number of rejections of three different kinds of manuscripts: creative nonfiction about a homeless man with a three-legged dog; a memoir of playing indie rock and collecting amateur folklore; and a novel about the disintegration of a reality TV show about an obese black rapper. Unfortunately for my commercial potential, they are all long, somewhat challenging and weird books.

One of these - the creative non-fiction book - enjoyed a little life of rejections before I had signed a contract with a literary agent, and all three were rejected repeatedly with the services of a highly competent and dedicated industry representative shopping them on my behalf.

The pattern with my work, roughly, has been as follows. Series editor really likes the manuscript but doesn't have the final say. Senior or even executive editor likes it, but not quite as much, and has doubts as to its commercial potential. The manuscript then goes to a third editor (or outside reader or editorial committee) with the final say, and the final say is no - sometimes because the work is judged to be flawed, and sometimes because the economic risk is judged to be greater than the potential reward.

As to the flaws, I must admit that I have come to agree with every detailed rejection letter I have ever received, usually after a period of bitterness and grief (glad I wasn't a blogger during those downtimes!). As to the limited commercial potential, I tended to agree, right off the bat, as I guy who has always worked for newspapers because I couldn't make any money off the records I made. Why should I expect someone could make money off my books?

What is interesting - and what moves us toward my friend, Paul Zolbrod, in the Four Corners - is the change that has come over my agent in the seven years or so he has been reading my manuscripts and pitching them.

When he first recruited me, after I wrote a New York Times profile of a friend of his, he warned me that it might take years for him to sell a manuscript of mine, but when he eventually placed something for me the advance would be better than I could get on my own if I published all of the books he had rejected on my behalf, because he only pitches high in the market. If I wanted to publish books that didn't make any money, he said, then I didn't need him and should represent myself.

Good advice. But it changed.

It changed, as the internet continued to transform how books are bought, sold, read, shared, marketed - and, last but not least (the industry is always the last to know), how books are published. More recently, his advice has been: if I had come along five years earlier, he would have known what to do with me in the industry, and if I had come along five years later, we would have copublished my books together and executed a marketing plan. Unfortunately, I came along at a time when long, quirky, artful books by unknown writers don't have a mass market, yet the micromarkets are not yet in place to be profitable.

(My ego knows that there are any number of long, quirky, artful books getting published these days and possibly even making money; and, yes, I am jealous of those authors. But I am reporting something that has been told to me, not making excuses for myself.)

Enter Paul Zolbrod.

I first sought him out as an expert on Navajo (Dine) culture, when we were scoring Stefene Russell's poem Go South for Animal Index and I wanted to better understand the Navajo underpinnings of her work. Paul was a sharp critic of the poem, and started Stefene off on a raft of new poems reflective of his insights. We then stayed in touch with Paul as one of those smart, well-meaning people it is good to know, and through whom good things come.

Last year, I believe, he self-published a novel, Battle Songs, and sent me a copy (which I've yet to read). I thought it was interesting to find a highly accomplished and widely published writer putting out his own book. It reminded me of what my agent had said. So, even while I start to shop my novel to the smaller presses that won't pay me any money (and which my agent wouldn't trifle with), I figured I should consider self-publishing it. So, I reached out to Paul Zolbrod to ask him about his experience with self-publishing.
And look at what he said:


Towards a Self-Publishers Commons
Paul Zolbrod on publishing and self-publishing

As a published author of several books - none of them fiction - I'm pleased report that from an editorial perspective I was very impressed and very happy with the way I was treated at iUniverse (a subsidiary of Barnes and Noble). I'd never received better attention nor felt that I had as much control as I did with Battle Songs, my Korean War novel. The result was a much better book than I feel I might have received from a conventional publisher.

The down side of that, however, is that I wound up spending considerably more than the original cost for the optional line editing and the copy editing that I elected to additionally purchase. On the other hand, in both cases I was entirely happy with the results and do not regret spending the extra money. It became apparent to me that the line editor in particular was well selected.

As for marketing, however, I was less pleased, even though I had been forewarned that I was chiefly responsible to promote my book, something that I haven't been very good at, largely because my teaching gets most of my attention. For an additional cost, iUniverse will place ads and even hire publicists, but those services are not cheap, and the purchases I did make never materialized.

The problem is compounded because conventional outlets do not want to review a self-published titles. Even bookstores are reluctant to schedule readings. As a result, I've managed to sell very few books so far, although I'm still hopeful that I can figure out a strategy to get more readers, which is what I mostly want. What frustrates me is that those who have read my book like it, including a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette who wanted to review it but was told by his editor that he couldn't.

As a result, I'm pretty discouraged when it comes to finding readers beyond the confines of my network of friends and acquaintences, most of whom I gave copies to.

But here's an idea that you might want to share with the folks you know with an interest in self-publishing. I continue to believe that Print on Demand (POD, as it's sometimes called) is the wave of the future in trade publishing, especially with quality fiction, since the commercial publishers aren't very attentive to the editorial process and are blind to anything but the potential blockbusters. More and more folks are self-publishing, and those I myself learn about produce worthwhile books but experience the same frustration.

Why can't those of us who do self-publish use the internet to establish some kind of marketing syndicate? We could review each other's books, for example, seek out bloggers who can broadcast their work, or develop other strategies to promote what our colleagues have done? Because I am an old geezer still ignorant of the way the technology can be utilized, I myself lack the savvy to expand the idea, but I'd certainly be happy to join with others to see if self-publishers couldn't form some kind of cooperative.

I'd be happy to "chat" with anyone who might be interested in pursuing it, and for whatever modest contribution I might make, I'd put an effort into helping to get this idea off the ground (if it doesn't already exist). Above all, as someone still pretty badly unschooled in using internet technology to expand an enterprise, I'd do my best to to roll up my sleeves in an effort to make it happen. What do you think?


You can contact me if you'd like to get in touch with Paul Zolbrod or visit his website. Dude also has been hiding a blog from me!

Image from an Associated Content story about self-pub.