Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yes I will finish 'Ulysses' this time Yes


I am gearing up for Bloomsday (June 16) by taking another, no doubt futile, stab at reading James Joyce's novel Ulysses all the way through - or, for that matter, appreciably past the sparkling opening section, which holds my attention so much better than anything that comes after it does.

I picked up my battered, old 1984 reprint of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, the one with Lawrence Mynott's Cubist portrait of the author on the cover. This thing has been everywhere with me. I can see it even has been to a Sun Dance ceremony on a Lakota reservation, because the flyleaf bears the signature and address of a man I met there.

I sat down this morning to tell his story - it's an amazing story; a terrible story - but now I'm thinking that it's not mine to tell.

For this morning, as I was looking up the word "flyleaf" to make sure that is the right word, my web browser froze. When I restarted it, we had lost internet and phone service. When we got service back this evening and I returned to finish this post, I saw that none of my friend's story, which I had started to tell, had been autosaved before the web connection was lost.

It was probably just a coincidence, but one never knows. I met this man at an ancient, sacred ceremony, and we shared some remarkable, indeed unearthly, experiences. I am just respectful enough of spiritual power - or "superstitious," if you'd like - to take a hint when I think a hint has been given.

I will tell a different story, however, about Ulysses and my first trip to a Sun Dance ceremony. I got religion at this ceremony, which was the last thing I expected to do (I attended simply to drive someone else home). I had a number of experiences on the reservation I had to classify as "spiritual," never having had any experiences anything like them.

I ended up, soon after the ceremony, on the eastern end of Long Island, at the summer house of a friend. I was still living in a strange private world, tinged by what I had experienced on the reservation, and it wasn't allowing me to sleep much. One long fitful night in the Hamptons, I found myself wishing I had not left my copy of Ulysses (which, once again, I was trying to finish) back at my friend's apartment in the city.

Only partly joking, I asked the spirit world to go fetch my copy of Ulysses and bring it out to East Hampton. "If you are really still with me" (as I had reason to believe), "and you are so powerful ..."

I drifted off to sleep feeling ridiculous, and woke up feeling even more ridiculous. Though I admit I did look around the room for my copy of Ulysses. No surprise: No spirit courier had come to my rescue.

My friend ran an errand to the post office that morning, and I tagged along. As I was walking into the post office, someone was walking out and he almost ran right into me. I remember the man's large, shy smile as he apologized. Then, I saw what was printed on his T-shirt:

I said yes I will Yes
This is the last line in Ulysses.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Reginald Clemons files stay of execution in 8th Circuit


This afternoon counsel for Reginald Clemons filed for a stay of execution in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit.

Clemons is one of several inmates on Missouri death row who have filed a consolidated appeal to the constitutionality of their being executed by the State of Missouri.

The appeal pending before the 8th circuit argues that because the Missouri Department of Corrections has a history of hiring incompetent staff for its execution team, whose errors result in excruciating pain for the condemned at death, there is reason to believe proceeding with execution would violate the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

The filing today argues that rejecting Clemons' request for a stay and proceeding with the execution would result in "irreparable harm" to Clemons should he be executed and the pending consolidated appeal subsequently be upheld by the 8th Circuit.

Clemons' counsel also requested time for a "modest" process of discovery in pursuing their appeal, such as deposing current Corrections staff and investigating their record.

Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected a stay of execution for Clemons based on the pending federal appeal. Two attorneys who work for the State of Missouri, speaking on background, considered it more likely that the court considering the appeal - the 8th Circuit - would grant a stay based on the pending appeal.

Clemons, who was convicted in 1993 as an accomplice in the murders of Robin Kerry and Julie Kerry and sentenced to death, is scheduled to be executed on June 17.

Clemons claimed two days after his confession in 1991 that the confession was rehearsed and coerced by St. Louis Metropolitan Police detectives. This allegedly rehearsed and coerced confession was to rape, not to murder. Clemons was charged with rape in the case but has never been tried for it.

Clemons has long claimed he is innocent on all charges. For many years he has requested that the State of Missouri try him on the charge of rape, as it has never done, although jurors were instructed to consider the charge of rape as a sentence enhancer when they condemned Clemons to death.

"There was no evidence of rape, yet it was used to enflame the passions of the public and the passions of the jury," Clemons said today in a phone call from death row.

"The best thing I can do is try to push the rape charge to trial and try to void the premise they are using to push this execution."


Thursday, May 28, 2009

You can’t call her, don’t call her, she isn't answering


I don't recommend doing this, but I read a poem over the phone to a friend this morning while I was driving to work.

He is separated from his wife, her decision, and he wants his family back. He knows if he pushes too hard he will push her further away, though, so he is spending a lot of his lonely time trying not to call her.

We have all been there. I wrote a poem about it. I published it in my chapbook, A Heart I Carved For a Girl I Knew, which I had handy. So I read it to him as I drove down Lindell:

I take not calling her like a pill,
one a day, I can beat this thing,
one day at a time, I don’t need to
call her, it won’t do any good,
it will only make it worse,
she isn’t answering my calls.
I accept this truth like a pill,
I take one once a day, all day long,
you can’t call her, don’t call her,
she isn’t answering your calls,
shut up, you sad, stupid man,
put down the telephone, take a pill.

"That's what I need to do," he said. "I need to take that pill."

And then we put down the phone.

*

My sketch is of a "turn of your phone" sign at Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon, part of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Portrait of Jay Bennett, in Wilco's rock heyday


When I heard the musician Jay Bennett had died at age 45, I remembered I sketched Wilco live in New York City at Irving Plaza during the band's heydey as a melodic rock unit. This is a closeup with Jay and bandleader Jeff Tweedy. (I couldn't get my camera to focus up close on just Jay without getting blurry.)


Widening out, we bring in then drummer Ken Coomer. Jay was part of the band that fired Ken before the band later fired Jay. I'm only a passing admirer of the band, but every rock fan somehow knows the personnel vicissitudes of Wilco.

Pulling out further, we let bassist John Stirrat into the picture. I remember first hearing of John around the St. Louis music scene when he was with Blue Mountain. I assume that was when and how Tweedy met him. When Tweedy split from Uncle Tupelo, where he had played bass, to form Wilco, he jumped on guitar and nabbed John Stirrat as his bassist and has stuck with him.

Here is the whole band that night. Wish I had dated the damn thing. I'm assuming the other guy is Max Johnston, who (again) the indie scene in St. Louis knew as "Michelle Shocked's brother" when he first started tagging along on Uncle Tupelo gigs.

I have known most of these guys, to some extent, at one time or another, but never Jay Bennett. It's almost weird that I didn't get to know him. My musical partner Elijah Shaw knew him well. We were together that night at Irving Plaza and were expected to visit with the band backstage (which was really upstairs, as I recall), but we never made it. I can't remember why not - something better to do than visit with a band that was buzzing on that loopy gig adrenaline, I guess.

Jay later formed a duet with Edward Burch, who is married to an old friend of Lij's and mine from college band days. Our band was first called Enormous Richard, and an early live favorite of ours was a portrait song called "Tribal Rachel". That's Rachel Leibowitz, who married Edward Burch. I sent Rachel a note of condolence to pass along to her husband via an old email address she may not even be checking anymore. I haven't heard back yet. I am truly sorry for their loss.

Jay Bennett was a vastly talented musician. He had a talent for adding parts to songs that sounded like they had always been there. I am not saying his parts were predictable - they were essential and sounded effortless, though I know they were carefully wrought.

I would say I always wanted to work with him, but it's not true - only because Lij has so many of the same musical qualities, and I still (thank God) have access to Lij and his many talents. Like Jay, Lij can play any instrument he picks up, he can always imagine a part you wouldn't want the song to live without once you have heard it, and he can also record, mix, and master the song while he is at it.

When I think of the enormous emptiness I would feel if I couldn't work with Lij anymore or enjoy his company, then I can imagine how Edward Burch must feel to lose Jay Bennett. I am sorry for their loss and I wish Jay Bennett were still alive.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Three Turkish poems for America's Memorial Day


Somewhat unusually, I suppose, on this Memorial Day in the United States I am thinking of a Turkish poem by Orhan Veli.

FOR THIS COUNTRY
By Orhan Veli

What didn't we do for this country
Some of us died
Some gave speeches

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King

This wry little poem gets right at the way I feel about so many public displays of patriotism.

Some of us died
Some gave speeches
The ones with the most to say are seldom the ones doing the most talking. This basic fact of human experience is especially true of war. Witness the previous U.S. presidential administration, with a Pentagon run hawkishly by civilians with an almost unanimous history of dodging military service - including the commander in chief.

Another Orhan Veli poem that I co-translated with the great Turkish actor Defne Halman speaks beautifully to the anguished feeling of sending off a soldier.

BLONDE BOY GONE TO WAR
By Orhan Veli

Come back as beautiful as you are
The smell of sea on your lips
Salt on your eyelashes
Blonde boy gone to war

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King

I have had the smell of the sea on my lips from the U.S. Navy. I was in Navy ROTC for one year at Boston University, bookended by a bootcamp at Fort Devens and a summer of active duty aboard the USS Saipan in the Mediterranean. It wasn't much of a tour of duty, though it taught me as much as anything else I have ever done.

I learned - as anyone who has ever been ranked as an enlisted man (as I was, aboard the Saipan) learns - that the typical serviceman feels mostly neglected and forgotten. Police officers tend to feel the same way for the same reasons. There is the feeling of being used by the political right for its crass purposes and scorned by the political left based upon the wicked misdeeds of a few, but not properly understood or rewarded by anyone.

This Orhan Veli poem gets to that abandoned feeling.

EPITAPH III
By Orhan Veli

They put his rifle in the depot
They gave his clothes to someone else
No bread crumbs in his bag anymore
No lip traces on his canteen
Such a wind that it blew away
And not even his name remained as a souvenir
Only a couplet remained
Handwritten above the coffee stove:
"Death is God's decree
If only parting wasn't a part of it"

- Translated Defne Halman and Chris King
By the way, I wish President Obama would use some of his substantial political capital to push for compulsory military service in the U.S. That is the only way the American people will ever genuinely understand this complex, expensive, dangerous and valuable military we are paying for - and that is, in fact, risking lives to pursue our foreign policies and protect our nation.

*
Orhan Veli's military I.D. card from a Dizifil forum.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bridge over troubled prosecutions


My day job as editor of The St. Louis American has knocked my blogging temporarily out of commission, what with Reginald Clemons being handed his death warrant by the Missouri Supreme Court the same week Paul McKee Jr. made his most public presentation of his proposed development in North St. Louis.

Two big, and very different, stories for St. Louis. I did say the stories are very different. I'll pass on the metaphor of McKee as rapist of the North Side (thanks).

Our paper has been following the Chain of Rocks Bridge rapes and murders since 1991, when the tragedy transpired. In the five years I have been at the paper, Marlin Gray - one of Clemons' co-defendants - was executed. We have all been waiting for Reginald Clemons' number to come up next. His number, it turns out, is June 17, 2009.

We got the news on Monday, and between running my brokenlegged wife to doctor's appointments along with every family errand, I managed to put together what I consider a very newsy and thoroughly sourced story about Clemons' legal status, even reporting the grounds on which his lawyers were filing a stay of execution before they had filed it.

A friend of mine, who knew the Kerry girls who were raped and murdered that April night in 1991, read my story and sent me a note. He said he understood that there are different standards of justice for black men and white men in St. Louis and Missouri, but wasn't there a more important question: Did Reginald Clemons rape and kill those girls?

I wrote him back to say my story was a news story about what was new. What was new was that his execution date had been set and his lawyers had apparently good grounds for requesting a stay - namely, that Clemons had an appeal pending. I reminded him that, unless Clemons' conviction for murder were reversed and a new trial date set, his guilt or innocence was beside the point, in terms of the disposition of his case. His problems were procedural now and his solutions were procedural, and a news report on his case that had any juice would have to be procedural.

I later called my friend to point out that I had been thinking and responding as a journalist when I answered his question. I also happen to be a human being and (like my friend) the father of a little girl, and yes, I do understand, the question of guilt and innocence in matters of rape and murder do matter dearly.

As I noted the last time I had the presence of mind to blog, there is evidence that Clemons' confession was beat out of him. As I now read the appeal his lawyers prepared for the Missouri Supreme Court in 1996 (which the court rejected), it suggested Clemons confessed to rape before the alleged beatings, adding a murder confession afterwards. I look forward to interviewing Clemons face-to-face on camera next week and giving him an opportunity to come clean, once and for all, about what happened that night (a fantasy all journalists entertain regarding people with disputed convictions, I know).

I have posted up his lawyers' appeal, for all to read. I don't understand why this document didn't convince the Missouri Supreme Court that Reginald Clemons deserved a new trial. The presentation of prosecutorial misconduct on the part of Nels Moss seems clear to me. Though I don't present myself as an expert on Missouri case law, the legal precedents are laid out along the way and seem to be compelling.

This following bit alone is amazing to me. I reprint from the appeal verbatim, taking out only citations. Antonio Richardson was another of the four co-defendants. He is serving life in prison. "Daniel" or "Danny" was Daniel Winfrey, the fourth co-defendant (and the only one who was not black). He cooperated with the prosecution and is out on parole today.

*

In Clemons' trial, Moss argued that Clemons was the criminal mastermind and the prime actor in the murder of the Kerrys. The prosecutor frequently referred to the diminutive size and youth of Antonio Richardson, and minimized Antonio Richardson's role in the events on the Bridge, while maximizing Clemons' culpability:

[Referring to Antonio Richardson] This massive five-foot-five, one-forty pound teenager, and his buddy, this massive hulk, he's the mastermind. He's the planner, is that really true—honestly—who has been to the bridge before, and Marlin who has been to the bridge before—not Daniel. And who led two out of the three people to the hole. Was it Marlin? No. Was it Tony? No. Was it Danny? No. Who led two out of the three people to the hold? He did [indicating Clemons].
But in Antonio Richardson's trial, the prosecutor stated:

Who's the person, and listen to this, please, who's the person that led this first
young lady to that killing hole like leading a lamb to slaughter. Who? Who?
Was it Marlin Gray? Was it Reginald Clemons? It was him [Referring to Antonio Richardson]. It was him who did it. No one else.
Moss further described Antonio Richardson as "...five foot five, a hundred seventy pound or a hundred sixty pounds," as opposed to the mere one hundred and forty pounds ascribed to Antonio Richardson during the Clemons trial.

One of these statements was simply not true. And Moss, who made both of them, knew it. The State cannot manipulate the facts to suit an overwhelming desire for a conviction. That is what happened here; it violated Clemons rights under the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

*

I know for a fact Julie and Robin Kerry are dead, and their parents and families were robbed of many years of joy. I doubt that we will ever get a truly clear and convincing picture of what happened on that bridge that night and who played precisely what role in their rapes and murders.

I am also certain that the public record of events as handed down from the trials is terribly flawed and points to errors in criminal justice that deserve to be corrected, if we believe in the rule of law. Or, if the reasoning is that two black men should die because two white women were killed, regardless of how the prosections are arrived at, I would rather that be admitted and not obscured under tortured readings of crystal-clear appeals.

**

View from Chain of Rocks Bridge from somebody's Flickr site.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Appellant claims the police beat him


I am reading the Missouri Supreme Court's 1997 ruling when it upheld Reginald Clemons' conviction for murder and his death sentence. In this passage, the court is reviewing Clemons' claim that his confession should not have been considered because St. Louis police beat it out of him.

*

Appellant claims the police beat him, rendering his confession involuntary.

At the suppression hearing, appellant testified that the police officers conducting the interrogation beat him about the head and chest and slammed his head against the wall. The detectives involved categorically denied that any physical contact occurred. Appellant's initial attorney in this matter testified that he visited appellant in a holding cell at police headquarters the afternoon of April 8th, some 14 hours after appellant's interview had concluded, and observed that the right side of appellant's face was swollen.

However, Warren Williams, a friend of appellant's family who is employed as a police officer, visited appellant at the request of appellant's mother and saw appellant literally minutes before appellant's attorney arrived. Williams testified that he did not observe any sign of injury.

The next day, April 9, at appellant's arraignment, the presiding judge ordered that appellant be examined at the emergency room at the Regional Hospital. According to the hospital records, appellant was diagnosed with myalgia [pain in one or more muscles], mild myositis [inflammation of the muscles] and a swollen right cheek.

Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to the trial court's ruling, we find sufficient evidence to support the trial court's finding that appellant's confession was voluntary. The trial court had the opportunity to judge the credibility of the witnesses and obviously found the state's witnesses' testimony more credible than appellant's.

While there was additional testimony from appellant's family that appellant's face was swollen, all of these observations were made some 48 hours or more after appellant's interview and confession. The evidence, including the hospital records, simply does not demonstrate either when or how appellant incurred any injury. Nor does it establish that an injury actually occurred at the hands of the police officers conducting his interview.

*

Did you get that? The judge arraigning this guy the day after he was interrogated thought he looked so bad he sent him to the emergency room. And there is reasonable doubt that he sustained those injuries during the interrogation?

Nowhere in Clemons interrogation is he asked where he got any injuries - because if he had injuries going into the interrogation, that would have been used against him as evidence that he had been involved in foul play on the Chain of Rocks Bridge. But the Missouri Supreme Court ruled his having injuries coming out of police interrogation does not establish "that an injury actually occurred at the hands of the police officers conducting his interview".

The State of Missouri has scheduled an execution for Reginal Clemons on June 17.

Inflaming the jury with a gory, hypothetical crime

I am reviewing the Missouri Supreme Court's 1997 ruling that upheld Reginal Clemons' conviction for muder and his death sentence. Yesterday a warrant was issued for his execution; he is scheduled to "suffer death" on June 17.

Clemons' case has long been covered as a textbook example of prosecutorial misconduct and the miscarriage of justice. The following excerpt from the 1997 ruling includes a choice quote from prosecutor Nel Moss. Check out the over-the-top, inflammatory language he uses as an exmaple to the jury.

The girls who died fell to their death from a bridge, they were not knifed; and there is no physical evidence that they were raped at all, let alone at knifepoint.


*

Appellant claims that the prosecutor discussed a hypothetical crime in order to inflame the jury, and that defense counsel should have taken steps to prevent this highly prejudicial hypothetical from reaching the jury's ears. The prosecutor [Nels Moss] said:
MR. MOSS: The man (Clemons) was co-equal with Mr. Antonio Richardson who pushed them off and Mr. Gray who organized it ... If you look at the evidence, that's what it is. Let me give you an example. What would you do if you had these ... two girls and the fellow outside of a room, and he raped them, both of them, he robbed the guy, and the other guys raped them, and it's at night, and so they send the girls into the dark.

MR. MOSS: Save my time.

MR. CONSTANTINOU: Just a minute, Your Honor, he's mischaracterizing the evidence, it's not something that's been introduced.

THE COURT: Proceed. Overruled, proceed.

MR. MOSS: The rape is outside this room and then you send them into a dark room. Okay? All of these three -- of these people in a dark room. And Mr. Antonio Richardson goes into that dark room with a knife. And Mr. Clemons goes in there with a knife, and Mr. Gray and Mr. Winfrey stand outside; and the door is closed; and it's dark, nobody can see anything

And when all is said and done, you open the door, and Tom Cummins is not dead, but he's laying there knifed.

And Julie Kerry is laying there dead, with ten stab wounds in her; Robin Kerry is laying there dead with ten stab wounds in her. Okay? What do you know? Tom Cummins can't say, because it was dark, who put the ten stab wounds in Julie, who put the ten stab wounds in Robin, or who put the stab wounds in him.

But you know darn good and well the only two people who walked into that dark room with a weapon and the knives, you know, in fact, were him and the other guy. So what are you going to say? Okay? You got a bonus if you had a light bulb on, it would have made a difference. But we're going to distinguish now because we really don't know. It don't piecemeal out like that, when these fellows work together like
that.

Appellant argues that this argument rendered his trial unfair because it misstated the basic tenets of accomplice liability; it was not remotely based on the evidence at trial; and was irrelevant to any issue presented at trial. While appellant correctly observes that his counsel did object early on in the particular argument at issue and was overruled, appellant contends that this objection was constitutionally insufficient, and that counsel should have continued to object as the prosecutor's hypothetical grew more egregious.

*

Image from Jamie Voetsch.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Warrant of execution issued for Reggie Clemons


The Missouri Supreme Court today handed down an order setting an execution date of June 17 for Reggie Clemons.

It then issued a warrant to that effect.

On June 17, the warrant says in the notoriously stiff diction of legal language, Reggie Clemons "shall suffer death".

Clemons' advocates have established a website that details his dubious experience of the justice system in St. Louis and Missouri.

*

Lethal injection setup image from Death Row Speaks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

'Death certainly would soon close the scene'



Still making my way through the transcipts of the military trial investigating a possible conspiracy behind the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, was called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution. His primary burden of proof seemed to be identifying the bullet he dug out of the dead president's skull and tying it to a pistol that also had been introduced into evidence.

But his entire testimony is of interest. It shows the primitive state of health care in 1865, when even the president of the United States was "treated" in a private home after being shot in the head. When you read what was done for the dying Lincoln, you'll see why I scare-quote "treated".

Compare in your imagination the minimalist "treatment" Lincoln's blown-open skull received to the medical hysteria surrounding a contemporary president, say, choking on a pretzel!

Dr. Robert King Stone takes the stand.
I was sent for by Mrs. Lincoln immediately after the assassination. I arrived in a very few moments, and found that the President had been removed from the theater to the house of a gentleman living directly opposite; and had been carried into the back room of the residence, and was there placed upon a bed. I found a number of gentlemen, citrzens, around him, and, among others, two assistant surgeons of the army, who had brought him over from the theater, and had attended to him. They immediately gave the case over to my care, knowing my relations to the family.

I proceeded to examine the President, and found that he had received a gun-shot wound in the back part of the left side of his head, into which I carried my finger. I at once informed those around that the case was a hopeless one; that the President would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life; that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could; but that death certainly would soon close the scene.

I remained with him, doing whatever was in my power, assisted by my friends; but, of course, nothing could be done, and he died from the wound the next morning at about half-past 7 o clock. It was about a quarter past 10 that I reached him.

The next day, previous to the process of embalmment, an examination was made in the presence of Surgeon-General Barnes, Dr. Curtis, and Dr. Woodward, of the army. We traced the wound through the brain, and the ball was found in the anterior part of the game side of the brain, the left side; it was a large ball, resembling those which are shot from the pistol known as the Derringer; an unusually large ball that is, larger than those used in the ordinary pocket revolvers. It was a leaden hand-made ball, and was flattened somewhat in its passage through the skull, and a portion had been cut off in going through the bone.

I marked the ball “A.L.”; the initials of the late President, and in the presence of the Secretary of War, in his office, inclosed it in an envelope, sealed it with my private seal, and indorsed it with my name. The Secretary inclosed it in an other envelope, which he indorsed in like manner, and sealed with his private seal. It was left in his custody, and he ordered it to be placed among the archives of his department.

[An official envelope, sealed with the official seal of the Secretary of War, was here opened by the Judge Advocate in the presence of the witness, from which was taken a Derringer pistol and an envelope containing a leaden ball in two pieces.]

This is the ball which I extracted from the head of the President; I recognize it from the mark which I put upon it with my pen-knife, as well as from the shape of the ball. This smaller piece is the fragment which was cut off in its passage through the skull. The ball was flattened, as I have before described.

[The ball was then offered in evidence.]

This bullet now is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.
*

Image of Dr. Robert King Stone from The National Archives.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Confederate bioterrorism back in the good old days


I would fully expect for the professionals to cringe when a hobbyist historian like me goes back to the original documents.

For a newspaper editor, it would be like sending a rookie reporter, fresh out of J-school, down to City Hall to cover a Board of Aldermen meeting, knowing they could not possibly understand the subtexts, backstories, orchestrations and alliances that make it all genuinely meaningful.

All that said, last night I took a leap back into the primary documents on John Wilkes Booth and the putative conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.

I was sent back into the past by two local people I like and admire, Niyi Coker and Barbara Harbach, who have written a musical titled Booth! that is set to debut in New York. I'm excited for them and plan to do some straightforward newspaper journalism on their behalf.

But I also wanted to come up with something more quirky for Confluence City, so I cued up a good beer last night and went out browsing on the internet. Soon I was downloading the pdf of transcripts of a trial investigating an essentially Canadian conspiracy to snuff Lincoln.

I was struck right away by the testimony of what seems to have been a double agent, Sanford Conover, that the Confederate cooling their heels in Canada had plotted bioterrorism against the United States!

The Dr. [Luke Pryor] Blackburn to whom I referred in my previous testimony, is the same that packed a number of trunks with infected clothing, for the purpose of introducing pestilence into the States. [...] In June last, I knew of Dr. Blackburn s trying to employ Mr. John Cameron, who lived in Montreal, to accompany him to Bermuda, for the purpose of taking charge of goods infected with yellow fever to bring to the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and, I understood, Washington. Cameron declined to go, being fearful of taking the yellow fever and dying himself. Compensation to the amount of several thousand dollars, he told me, had been offered him, which I understood was to be paid by Dr. Blackburn, or by other rebel agents. [...] I heard Blackburn say that he went from Montreal to Bermuda, or some of the West India Islands, about a year ago last June, for the express purpose of attending cases of yellow fever, and collecting infected clothing, and forwarding it to New York, but for some reason the scheme failed.
Small wonder the scheme failed. As none other than the Central Intelligence Agency reminds us, "It was not yet known that the disease was spread by the bites of Aedes aegypti mosquitoes." The Confederate terrorists were trying the old measles blankets trick on yellow fever, but there are different vectors of transmission for the two diseases.

Sanford Conover testified that this apparently deadly doctor had another trick up his bioterrorist sleeve:

Dr. Blackburn proposed to poison the reservoirs, and made a calculation of the amount of poisonous matter it would require to impregnate the water so far as to render an ordinary draught poisonous and deadly. He had taken the capacity of the reservoirs, and the amount of water that was generally kept in them. Strychnine, arsenic, prussic acid, and a number of others were spoken of as the poisons which he proposed to use.
I gather that this one is still in the bioterrorist's working playbook. It fascinated me to find it in play in the 1860s as an imagined act of domestic terrorism - or international terrorism committed by someone born in the United States who had seceded from the U.S. and was plotting destruction from our nearest northern neighbor.

When I go far enough south in Missouri, I can't ever quite shake the feeling that these bad old days could come around again, if things get bad enough in this country. Maybe I am just one of those journalists who knows enough about hidden motives and covert operations to be paranoid. But, then, consider this from Sanford Conover, who was a freelance journalist as well as a spy*.
While in Canada I was a correspondent of The New York Tribune. I communicated to The New York Tribune the contemplated assassination of the President and the intended raid on Ogdensburg. The assassination plot they declined to publish, because they had been accused of publishing sensation stories.
How is that for the best freelancer gripe of all time? "I could have saved the president if my damn editor hadn't spiked my story pitch"!

The problem is - and here is where the shadow of the professional historian frowning over my laptop intrudes - Sanford Convover was really somebody else and most historians agree that he was an unreliable, perjurious witness. I'm going to flirt some more with the primary documents, and then go see what the pros have to say.
NOTES

* "freelancer and spy": Conover may have known, and advocacy journalists of today may be pleased to learn, that the roots of journalism lie in espionage. Before there were international pages of newspapers, there were royal contract workers who traveled to distant nations to gather information and bring it home to the king and court.

* Photo of yellow fever virus from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I'm an award almost-winning investigative reporter now


I have a smartass remark I have made often in my career as a journalist: that I don't put much faith in any awards except the ones we win. I'll have to amend that to include the awards we (or I) almost win.

This morning a woman at New American Media called me and said a story I wrote last year for The St. Louis American had been awarded Runner Up in Best Investigative Reporting in NAM's 2009 Ethnic Media Awards.

New America Media describes itself as "a multi-channel news and communications agency serving ethnic news organizations in the U.S. and overseas. Founded in 1996 by the nonprofit Pacific News Service, NAM is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C."

In 2006 Hillary Clinton described their awards as "the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize," which may mean something beyond the fact that she was speaking to a room of journalists and knew she would be running for president soon.

My story that almost won the big award was "New beginning? Promotions under Jenkerson heavily favor South Side whites". Jenkerson was the then-new St. Louis fire chief, Dennis Jenkerson, reported to be a personal friend of Mayor Francis G. Slay. Jenkerson replaced an interim chief who briefly had replaced the city's first-ever African-American fire chief, Sherman George. George was demoted because he refused to make a set of contested promotions based on a test administered by an agency he had advised the City against using.

My story was based on the list of St. Louis Fire Department promotions pushed through after Chief George's demotions. I obtained the list from a confidential fire department source and then cross-referenced it with a directory of department personnel I obtained that listed everyone's address and ethnicity.

Add up the average increases in salary associated with each of the promotions, and the numbers are eloquent. Computed by region, in our radically segregated city:

Overall, the transfer of wealth is $592,000 gained by South Side neighborhoods annually, while only $28,000 annually was gained by North Side neighborhoods, a difference of more than a half-million dollars ($564,000) per year. That boost to the South Side climbs to $589,000 per year after adding Jenkerson’s annual raise of $25,000 from his unprecedented promotion from battalion chief to fire chief.
And by race:
The “new beginning” represented by Jenkerson has seen $386,000 in annual salary increases handed to the families of white firefighters, yet only $122,000 in annual salary increases for the families of black firefighters. Add in Jenkerson’s $25,000 annual raise, and the annual advantage to whites becomes $411,000 to $122,000.

The city of St. Louis has a slight numerical majority of black residents. In 2006 the U.S. Census Bureau projected city residents to be 50.5 percent black compared to 45.7 percent white.
I guess I put stock in any award I win, or almost win, but this one is a pleasure for a few reasons.
Working for a black-owned newspaper in a region like St. Louis with a dense fog of residual racism, we often feel our stories get overlooked or downplayed. I am especially galled by the sneers we hear from time to time that we "make stuff up".

The City Hall reporter from our weak daily paper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, actually followed one of my stories from our recent mayoral race, but first he called me to ask if I "stood by the quote" he wanted to use, something inflammatory that had been told to me by a mayoral challenger.

Stand by the quote? What on earth did he expect me to say? "No, busted! This is the Black Press! We just make stuff up!"

Almost winning a national award for an investigative story is a welcome recognition of all the hard work we have done in recent years at The St. Louis American based on documents and data, just the opposite of "making stuff up" - the kind of gritty, difficult, tricky reporting associated (once upon a time, anyway) with well-staffed investigative teams at daily newspapers. This particular story was just me and a firefighter who didn't like what was going on and trusted me to tell the truth.

Finally, I wasn't even hired to be a reporter. I am the paper's editorial director - the assigning editor, line editor, copy editor, fact-checker and (on a bad day) shit-catcher. I do my own reporting and my writing on my own time, mostly late nights and early mornings, often to the chagrin of my wife, sometimes of myself.

I am looking forward to going to Atlanta and collecting my almost-award and meeting the person (people?) who beat me. I'd like to think it's an investigative team of two or three paid to do nothing but dig and write, but I suspect - this being the perennially understaffed ethnic media, in the great advertising drought of 2009, no less - it will be one other exhausted person who does everything at the shop this side of scrubbing the toilets.

*
Image is of Joseph Rouletabille, a fictionalized investigative journalist created by Gaston Leroux, from The Europen Wold Newton Universe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Museum curates warped arm armor from hurt artist


I have a museum in my basement, neglected at the moment, where I archive, among other things, artifacts connected to my friends, many of them now dead, though not only.

This is the latest artifact I am curating into the collection. It most recently belonged to my friend Heather Corley, who is not dead, though she could be, and by virtue of the incident that turned this circular metal bangle into this sad shape.

But you should see what it did to her big armored tank of a car!


Looking at this devastated car - literally run over by a bigass trcuk - and then back at the terrorized, bruised, and burned (from the airbag) girl, the paramedic seized upon a piece of good news, in addition to the evident good news that she was alive, not dead.

"You got some good armor on, there," the paramedic said, referring to a sheath of some thirty-five bracelets she wears on her forearms.

The force with which her arm hit the driver car window upon impact shattered the plastic bracelets and warped the metals one, and all that absorbed and transformed energy is what kept her from breaking that arm.

Here is Corley in happier times:

I think we'll get that smile back, before too long. Right?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Dumpster-diving salonista salvages vampire scripts


I'll put this one out there as released. I have calls out to the salon owner in question and her attorney. If she is African-American, this is an interesting story for us at The St. Louis American. Either way, the mainstream media is likely to take a bite. After all, this is yet another chance for someone to say that GEORGE CLOONEY ACTED HERE!

*

ST. LOUIS SALON OWNER FINDS MOVIE SCRIPTS AND LANDS A DEAL

A young and hip female owner of a St. Louis beauty salon has found herself the focus of attention by one the nation’s hottest motion picture studios.

Casey Ray, the owner of Salon K, a small beauty salon located in St. Louis’ trendy Loop area, found the movie scripts for New Moon and Memoirs, the sequels to the overnight vampire sensation, Twilight.

The scripts had evidently been left in St. Louis by actress Anna Kendrick, who had been in the Gateway City shooting the latest George Clooney film, Up in the Air. The scripts had been discarded and wound up being exposed in a Dumpster outside the Tony Hotel at which Kendrick was staying during the St. Louis shoot.

Ray spotted the scripts while waiting for her fiancé to get off work and recognized their potential value as collectibles. Having coiffed actors and actresses before performances in St. Louis, Ray was familiar with the look of a script.

After "shopping" the script to an "extremely interested" national tabloid, Ray consulted with her attorney, Albert S. Watkins, to address the legal issues which may arise from a deal of this nature. After evaluating the options, Watkins contacted Summit Entertainment, LLC, the studio producing New Moon and Memoirs.

In short order a deal was finalized. Ray returned the carefully guarded and undisclosed scripts to Summit and, in return, Ray and her guest will be invited to the premiers for both films, the after-parties, and, following the release of the films, she will receive the scripts she found, certified by the studio for authenticity, signed by the writer and lead actor and actress.

"Ms. Ray desired to take the appropriate steps with the scripts and not compromise the integrity of Summit’s motion pictures," said Ray’s attorney Albert Watkins. "Her honesty has been graciously rewarded by a grateful studio," he added.

"I am extremely excited and hope the films are blockbusters," concluded Ray.

*

Dracula Dumpster image from Johnny Cup Cakes.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The only thing worse than love is hate



This past Tuesday was an important day in the life of our little family. It was the first night our daughter, Leyla Fern, spent without her mother. I travel alone from time to time, and stay out late making music at least night a week, but not Karley, my wife: she has always been there for the girl. Always. Every night.

Until Tuesday night. It was not a good night for little Leyla. Wednesday was worse. She came home early from school on Wednesday, and I kept her home again on Thursday. She had a stomach ache and was vomiting, though she had no fever and I couldn't think of anything she had eaten that might have triggered an illness.

On Thursday afternoon she saw her doctor. He couldn't diagnose anything. We started wondering if maybe the girl was so shook up to be left without her mother that she was sick with sadness.

"I want Mommy," she said, a lot.

The little girl loves her daddy too, and she is a kind and respectful little person. She didn't act out, and she often told me she loved me this week. It's weird to say, but she did her best not to hurt my feelings, to make it clear that I shouldn't take it personally. But she really missed her mommy and she wanted her mommy back.

Leyla was asleep when Karley finally came home Thursday evening. Karley joined the girl on the crouch and cradled her. When Leyla drifted into consciousness briefly enough to register her mother's presence, this comfortable smile slowly spread across her face. Then she drifted back into sleep.

The little girl was not instantly well in the morning. At the moment we are awaiting the results of bloodwork, and I must admit the possibility that this story may not in the end be a motherlove story. This story could take a different turn. But I do think the shock of separation from her mother affected the little girl physically, and it is taking some time for those physical affects to disappear completely.

My aunt Dorothy cared for her mother, my grandmother Pansy Fern Sans Souci, until the day she died. They had a very close bond, one of the closest I have ever seen between two people. Dorothy explained to me one day that she had been a difficult pregnancy and birth for her mother, and that the more difficult it is to bear a child, the tighter the bond once the child is born. It is the children who almost kill us who are closest to us while we are alive.

Karley really suffered when she was pregnant with Leyla. We had been through miscarraiges before, and it looked for a long time like this could be another. Karley spent most of her term in the hospital, unable to eat or even drink without vomiting. She was fed through a vein with some goop that looked like wallpaper paste.

I slept on the windowledge at New York University Hospital, wondering if at the end of all this I might be alone. Would our baby die? Would the pregnancy kill my wife? I would get up on the cold windowledge, walk to the subway, take the subway to Queens, drive to Long Island, work all day as a journalist, wondering if our lives would be joined by new life, or by death.

It occurred to me this week, when our daughter couldn't even hold down water in the absence of her mother, that she was showing the same symptoms her mother went through during the pregnancy. Bearing Leyla almost killed Karley, and being without her mother looked to be almost that hard on the little girl.

Karley and Leyla are so very fortunate to have one another. I would say I envy their bond, but I really don't - it's terrifying enough, this burden of love I carry, which I know is not equal in depth or intensity to the love they share. We are all so very fortunate to have another.

Love is terrible. The only thing worse than love is hate. I love you, Leyla. I love you, Karley. Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The black saint, the sinner lady, and Brian Adkins


Every so often I remember Archive.org, and then that is all I listen to, for a long while. I am in that phase again, now, and the other night I searched the Archive for one of my favorite composers and bandleaders, Charles Mingus.

A playlist came up, titled "Charles Mingus 'The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady'". As I will tell anyone who will listen, Mingus' record of that name is first on my desert island list. For reasons I could never explain, it speaks more plainly to me than any other music about the mysteries of identity and consciousness as I experience those mysteries.

I hit "play" on the archived program, posted by someone named Brian Adkins. From the introduction, it seemed to be a podcast, maybe even a genuine radio show. After an opening tune by Miles Davis, the announcer (I took him to be Brian Adkins) said each week he was "going to try to showcase" a classic record, which suggested this was a brand new show, the archive of an inaugural broadcast, since he was talking about intention, something he was "going to try," rather than a pattern, something he does.

Then, sure enough, he said "for the first week" he would play this Mingus record, the record that best explains me to me, or at least best reminds me why I can't fully understand myself or anyone else in their complete complexity.

This guy - let's decide he is Brian Adkins - speaks pretty well about this complicated composer and this intrictae and challenging piece of music. He says, though Mingus is a bassist, "he was known for his orchestrations," which certainly is true. Orchestration is the facet of Mingus' art that first grabbed me, and that still stays so close to me.

And, then, there is this that Brian Adkins said of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady: that it is "constantly interesting, always changing, always beautiful": and that is an apt and unpretentious summation of the power of this music.

Something else about Brian Adkins. He sounds like a kid. And, not only a kid, a rural Southern kid, an Appalachian kid. He has used the phrase, "Anyhoo ..."

The Mingus tune from The Black Saint, "Group Dancers", comes to a close. And Brian Adkins says, "Whoa!" I liked that! That is how that music always leaves me feeling, or reeling - Whoa!

And then, check out where Brian Adkins, this Appalachian kid, takes us in his mind:

Every time I get to hear that song it's a treat. Anyways, whenever I listen to it, though, you just sort of get into it, you know?, because it's so frenetic and such. But, every time I'm listening to it, it's always, like, when I'm at work, or when I'm in the library or something, and somebody will always come up and tap me on my shoulder - and I'll jump out of my chair! It's ridiculous!
Whoever he is, this kid actually lives Mingus the way I live Mingus.

And, then, my head begins to spin. He goes right from his giddy account of disappearing in the frenetic nature of Mingus' music while working or burying his head in the library (which, by then, I would have guessed was a college library, and this was a college kid, with a new show on a college station) into a public service announcement ...

... and he is reading some text about "Marshall students and the Huntington Area Food Back" - which wouldn't mean much to most people - but, you see, I once fell in love with a student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, with a black girl, it so happens, I met on the road, one of very few black girls in that little Appalachian town, and loving her taught me so many things about the identities of black saints and sinner ladies, the same mysteries Charles Mingus is teaching in his songs ...

And I just about jumped out of my chair. It was ridiculous. It made me remember so many things ...

{To be continued}

Friday, May 8, 2009

Inferior manuscripts by dead Beatles come to light


Maybe the eyeglasses give it away - maybe not - but this is a bad sketch of John Lennon, executed by me and by my kid, Leyla Fern, who added the extremities when I wasn't looking.

Our bad sketch is modelled after an earlier work, not much better, in Lennon's own hand, sketched onto a piece of paper that also included a real rarity: something that John Lennon wrote that has not yet been published.

I didn't bother copying down the words, I recall, because they really weren't very interesting. No insult to the dead man. They are not all triples into the right field corner. Sometimes you hit a routine dribbler back to the mound.

The only reason I am publishing this inferior effort by Leyla and myself is because new light has been shed as of this morning on another C-list or D-list product by a dead former Beatle, the late and lamented George Harrison.

On the information IV-drip of Twitter this morning, I am told that "a previously unseen George Harrison lyric, found by author and collector Hunter Davies, goes on display at the British Library today (8 May 2009). Written in early 1967 when George was aged 23 or 24, the untitled song was penned at a time when The Beatles had stopped touring to spend more time in the studio to work on what would arguably become their most famous record, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

I know, that's more than 140 characters, all you can edge into a Twitter post. I like the Twitter posts that are links to longer stories. In the British Library press release, a well crafted artifact in its own right, complete with an audio component of the collector yarning about his find, Davies tells us that he saved many such discarded lyrics from the cleaning ladies at Abbey Road Studios.

Here is the text in question:

Im happy to say that its only a dream
when I come across people like you,
its only a dream and you make it obscene
with the things that you think and you do.
your so unaware of the pain that I bear
and jealous for what you cant do.
There's times when I feel that you haven't a hope
but I also know that isn't true.


The collector, Davis, says that George wrote this when he was a teenager. Kind of sounds like it.

According to Jamie Andrews, Head of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library, this is now the only manuscript in George's hand in the collection of the national library.

Leyla and I sketched John Lennon's self-portrait, by the way, in that same space, a very beautiful new modern library facility. We were waiting for Peter F. Alexander, the biographer of Les Murray. I was putting the make on Peter to write an essay about Les' poem The Sydney Highrise Variations, which we are scoring this year.

He consented, and Peter's essay is now in the digital archive of Poetry Scores, awaiting us to finish and publish our score.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

How I am learning to love Twitter, despite the hype


There is nothing quite as pointess, nor pointless in quite the same way, as forming an opinion about something before you have experienced it.

I am a widely experienced person, and I have earned a living my entire adult life as a journalist, reporting on my experiences and the experiences of others.

I also go through life reflexively asking people who tell me things, "What's your evidence?" or "how do you know that?", always trying to get past the crust of opinion to the kernel of experience.

And yet, I am humbled to confess, I still am capable of doing this stupid, uniqueless pointless thing: I still at times form opinions of things, and even express those opinions, without adequate experience of the subject - almost invariably, when the thing in question is trendy and comes packaged with the degree of advance hype that usually accompanies fraud.

That is the only point in my favor, that I am relying on experience when I do this - namely, the experience of finding hype wrapped around fraud, as it so often is. But still, really, it is uniquely pointless to think you have an opinion about anything, even something that is hyped, when you have not experienced this thing for yourself.

Take Twitter, for example - a subject of almost universal hype at this very moment, a moment which may last as long as twenty status updates, before the next social media platform of the moment comes along and usurps it.

See how I do that? Already I am backing into snark and condescension, even when I am trying to say that, now that I actually have experienced Twitter - for 32 of my own updates, and for six days - I see all sorts of value in it.

Unforeseen value - certainly, unforeseen by me; and largely, judging by the patter I have heard and read about Twitter, undiscovered value - or at least those who have discovered this value are not the ones talking about Twitter in the tsunami of its hype.

I have discovered that, for me - a guy who has been on media lists for half his life, and who depends upon news reports and press releases to earn a living - Twitter is an exceptionally efficient and satisfying way to follow the news, particularly before it becomes "the news" by being reported by someone else in my trade.
In fact, Twitter provides a model that is better than the traditional media model for receiving press releases and news reports. In the old world, the old way, they basically find you (the journalist) and promote you to death, quite often regardless of how many times you asked them to leave you alone.

With Twitter, you go out and pick the people you want to talk to you, and if you don't like what you are getting, or if you get more than you had bargained for, you can drop them as easily as you picked them up.

As a journalist who has asked countless publicists to always put in the subject line of the email a description of the precise subject of their email (novel idea, isn't it?), I learned to love, right away, Twitter's brevity. No prefacing every damn notice with boilerplate - PRESS RELEASE: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - you got 140 characters to make your pitch. Make it good. Make it matter.

I also love the egalitarian nature of it all. I have had the experience of being a media darling; I have written features for The New York Times, reviewed books for The Washington Post, edited a travel section of a magazine with the enormous reach of 1.1 million readers. I know what it's like to get the A-list treatment from media sources - and it can make the job much easier.

But that isn't really who I am or how I roll, in my essence. I am basically a self-taught journalist who fell into the trade as an accident and found, as a working musician, it was a way to pay the bills - an infinitely more reliable way to pay the bills than playing music was!

As such, I have always believed that journalism, like poetry or bread, is for everyone. Twitter recognizes this fact, or at least enables it along with every other kind of use of information.

I have signed up for Twitter alerts (not sure I can get all the way over to using that weird little "tweets") from ... looking at my lastest updates, here ... The American Journal of Nursing, Yale University Press, Pew Research Center, U.S. Sen. Caire McCaskill, the F.B.I. ... and though in fact I do edit an impactful newspaper and do contribute to any number of other impactful publications, most of these people sending me information on Twitter don't know that or don't care.

I could be a gay teen in North Dakota who knows there is a bigger world out there somewhere and wants to listen into it, or a homeless woman using a computer at the public library, or what I actually am, a mid-career journalist for an impactful publication who has interviewed Barack Obama and gotten some good people noticed and some bad people fired. The information is there and it is freely available, for all of us. I like that. I love it.

It's funny, because I know so many print journalists of a certain age (I am 42) who continue to resist Twitter, as I resisted Twitter, and who have no idea that, if used in a certain way, it does nothing but make their job easier. It also gives us a lot more competition, sure, but that citizen journalist horse has left the barn and it ain't coming back.

Let's face it. There is no information priesthood anymore, no more robed monks dispensing the news to the masses in a language they can't access for themselves. Now the news, like the world itself, is an open book, available in all languages, to all people, at all times. It's piling up in my Twitter account right now, and I can't wait to go back and see what I've been missing.

*

Want to see how far I have come on this subject? Then read my opinion about Twitter before I had any experience of it, Chris is comparing Twitter to a faded old Polaroid, in which I reduce this polyvalent information system to only one of its uses, the self-absorbed status update. At least I am glad I thought to add this caveat:
I won't rule out Twitter, though. I got over my aversion to cell phones, email, MySpace and FaceBook, so I wouldn't put anything past me.

Yes indeedy.

*

Image adapted from iJustine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Dead, stuffed, plumped, primped animals made to look alive



Even as we browse the internet or gaze outside the window at the day, the masters of death are gathering forces at the Saint Charles Convention Center.

The masters of dead animals, that is: of dead small game birds, dead fish, dead lions, dead buffalo, dead giraffes, dead sharks, dead elephants.

The masters of death, and the combatants in their deadly art: for this is The World Taxidermy and Fish Carving Championships, brought to you by Breakthrough Magazine, the official publication of the taxidermy profession.

They are masters of death and the art of making it look like life, but they respect the feds. "The United States Fish and Wildlife Department has seized birds not properly permitted in prior shows," warns the rules and regulations.

No dead endangered species allowed, yo.

Taxidermists from all over the world, representing 20 nations and all 50 states, will exhibit and strut their stuff in pursuit of more than $25,000 in prize money.

The show will be open for public viewing on Friday, May 8 from 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. and Saturday, May 9th from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for children.

For children, too, revel in death and death made to look like life.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Bootblogging #15: Four more from The Funhouse (Seattle punk rock)


Four more free mp3s from The Funhouse Comp Thing, assembled and edited by Seattle superproducer Jack Endino for Brian Foss, who runs The Funhouse, "Seattle's oldest surviving Punk Club," and produces the show Sonic Reducer on KEXP 90.3 FM.

"I Love You"
26,000 Volts

Image from the 26,000 Volts MySpace page.

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"Rat Hotel"
Charming Snakes

Image from the Charming Snakes MySpace page.

*


"Come Out and Play"
Dead Vampires

Image from the Dead Vampires MySpace page.

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"Turncoat"
Old Haunts

Image from the Old Haunts MySpace page.

*

Thanks to Jack Endino for giving me the compilation CD in the first place, when I visited him in Seattle, and to Brian Foss for letting me post up these tracks. I hope to visit him in Seattle. More like this stuff on the bands' MySpace pages, no duh.

*

Monday, May 4, 2009

How Celia saved Poughkeepsie from Colombine


From my hotmail archives, dated April 20. Jenna Bauer writes from Poughkeepsie:

As part of her visit/residency at the campus in Poughkeepsie, NY, Celia was scheduled to play this Monday morning in the meeting room of Oakwood Friends School during a study break from 10:25 until 10:55 a.m. Students had the option of coming to listen to her play - it was unclear how many students would attend.

She and I walked to the meeting room around 9:55 a.m. We noticed police cars on campus.

As we were setting up her merch, the dean of students came to us and told us that there was a "situation", and that all the students, including the middle school, would be on their way to the meeting room shortly.

Apparently, the police had arrived on campus and notified administration at Oakwood that two teenagers were seen getting out of a minivan down the street from the school with duffel bags that suspiciously looked as if they contained firearms.

(Keeping in mind that it's the 10th year of the high school shootings at Columbine.)

All 200 students, staff and faculty were told to come to the meeting room immediately for "security reasons". Meanwhile, police were at the entrances of the campus and building, and maintenance was scanning the grounds.

Students and faculty were clearly concerned and upset at this sudden and mysterious security measure. However, a woman from administration explained that we were all safe, and after a few other annoucements, I was able to introduce Celia.

There was an intense energy in the room - so many questions, a lot of concern, yet Celia rose to the occasion and kept the kids' and our adult minds off of what was a unknown and potentially bad situation for 25 minutes.

Eventually, an adminstrator approached me and asked if Celia could keep playing for the students (and their teachers). I said, "Of course she can!" I let Celia know about the request and she contintued to entertain.

She took a student's request for "I Love Myself" and my request for "You Just Gave Your Love Away". She played "Curly Hair", "Ghost Riders", "Big Brother" and several others. These high school students were way into it.

Eventually, eight or so administrators walked in, smiling. It's an understatement to say that everyone in the room was falling over to hear an explaination for what was going on.

Anna Bertucci, the head of the upper school, explained that the administrators had been in constant contact with the police, and the suspects were discovered to have air rifles in the bag. The campus and surrounding areas had been searched and deemed safe.

The timing of Celia's informal entertainment and this security measure - one that confined the entire school to the meeting room - is and will remain priceless and impossible to forget.

Celia came to our rescue ...

I thought you'd appreciate this story, and I also thought you would appreciate this photo of Celia's costume for this morning's performance. She spraypainted this outfit, a la SCOSAG style, during our Spring Forward Momentum Retreat on Saturday.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bootblogging #14: Four from The Funhouse (Seattle punk)

When I visited awhile back with Seattle superproducer Jack Endino, he was kind enough to send me away with several rare CDs he had produced. One was The Funhouse Comp Thing, which he had assembled and edited for Brian Foss.

Brian Foss runs The Funhouse, "Seattle's oldest surviving Punk Club," and produces the show Sonic Reducer on KEXP 90.3 FM. The Funhouse Comp Thing compiles one track each by 32 bands that have played in his club. It rocks pretty damn hard!

I contacted Brian and asked if I could bootblog some of my favorites and (in the niceness that seems endemic to Seattle, even its punk scene) he said, "Feel free to, thanks for asking!"

Here are four from the Fun House, with pictures; the above picture of the trio of feet goes with ...

The Unnatural Helpers
"Your Way Back Down"
(Dean Whitmore)

Picture from The Unnatural Helpers MySpace page.

*



The Trashies
"Get Daddy a Chicken Sandwich"
(The Trashies)
Picture from The Trashies MySpace page.

*


Head
"Sno-King Kung Fu"
(Head)

Picture from the Head MySpace page.

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Gas Huffer
"Midnight at the Apollo 13"
(Gas Huffer)

Picture from the Gas Huffer MySpace page.

*


Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Goddess of Illusion in Louisville on Derby Eve






These details from a poster left for my band Enormous Richard at our safe house in Louisville on Derby Eve in the early 1990s shows the local underground's view of their town's biggest annual party.

For the scenester who drew this poster, Churchhill Downs was the "center of hell for the next 2 days". Theo, our hostess, would be "selling beer" on the street, along with the rest of the Louisville service economy, populated as always by rockers and artists and fellow travelers.

The extent to which the Louisville underground had disappeared into their paying gigs in the service sector is made evident in note 4. "If for some strange reason you cannot find Theo, or the keys never reach Uncle Pleasant's," Rhonda Rah noted, "then you are screwed unless Tracy decides to stop by after work. Jane is most likely never going to be off work."

Theo was my temporary girlfriend at the time. She also was the temporary girlfriend of Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs, when he was in town, and no doubt the paramour of any number of other itinerant rockers who knew a good time when they saw one.

I wasn't the only guy in our band who knew a good time when he saw one, and Theo quickly moved on from me to the guitar player, as I recall in a couple of chapters from my musical memoir devoted to our Louisville days and nights.

Please note: these are the memories of a twenty-five-year old singer in a rock band, me at the time. I'm not him anymore, though I learned a lot by having been him and I wouldn't trade those experiences for much of anything, even if I no longer live like that guy and wouldn't choose to now even if I had the chance.

Adult themes - sex, drugs, rock & roll - follow. Stop reading now if any of that is not for you!

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From And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore, an unpublished memoir by Chris King.

41. A One Nighter in Kentucky with the Goddess of Illusion

The van we had rented for the Metro show in Chicago was a luxury we could not afford. There were no savings, band or personal, to plunder for a van of our own. It was caravan time. We had entered a fascinating phase when we spent more time comparing the shapes of musical instruments to tiny open spaces in crammed car trunks than we ever spent onstage.

Skoob's packing task for our next gig, at Uncle Pleasants in Louisville, Kentucky, was eased considerably by an absence: Guitar Karl and his space-hog amplifier. Cell phones were in existence, and had appeared in our bowdlerized lyrics for "Dogs With Their Heads Out the Window", but they were not yet standard equipment for touring musicians. Calls to Karl's home phone failed to turn him up. So we hit the road to Louisville without him, as a trimmed-down five piece returning to our acoustic roots, with the addition of one large ruddy flower in the shape of an accordion: Chris Bess.

There was an amazing transmogrification that day on Highway 64 between St. Louis and Louisville. Richard Edwin Skubish, an individual I had been watching since fourth grade, finally grew into the size of his head. Skoob stepped into my car in St. Louis as a chipmunk, and stepped out of it in Louisville as a grown, proportioned, handsome man. Suddenly, it was Tom Cruise standing there in Skoob’s gig pants.

The rest of the band was amazed by our reception at Uncle Pleasants, which bordered on the fanatical. People screamed, hooted, hollered, brought us trays of drinks, insisted on an encore, shoved marijuana cigarettes at us. The bookie for a rival club left long enough to buy one hundred White Castle hamburgers, which he showily distributed to the packed house, starting with us. Between songs, after a crazy hamburger parade, he handed five belly bombers up to the stage and asked if we would play his Derby Eve show across town, the biggest local night of the year - the first time we had ever been offered the next gig in the middle of the current one, and at a rival club, no less.

It was all very difficult for any of us to understand. Absolutely none of it registered with me. I was too busy looking over at Skoob, the man. The chipmunk was gone. Our childhood was over. When he stepped down from the stage, the most gorgeous woman in the bar, a ravishing, fleshy blonde, immediately swept him away into the night. The last I saw of Skoob was a strange grown man handing me a phone number scrawled onto a piece of paper, next to a name - Maya - Maya, for Christ's fucking sake, the Hindu Goddess of Illusion.

Through fogs of illusion and booze I watched the headliners, The New Duncan Imperials. They were a countrified trio of theme show shitkickers named after a yo-yo. It began to make sense - the bonanza of crowd affection, that is.

These guys were rowdy rockers in straw hats and baby blue tuxedoes, who sprayed silly string at the crowd and sang nothing but joke songs. Naturally, a crowd that came to see three guys with stupid gig names like Pigtail Dick, Good Time, and Skipper singing songs about Jaegermeister and poking Pocahantas had a terrific head start on enjoying our songs "Hanging Out with Jesus" or “Steady Dick”. Yo-yos, dick jokes, accordions. That made sense. But nothing made sense. The Hindu Goddess of Illusion, a busty blonde from Kentucky, had scooped off Skoob, my oldest friend, the second he shed his chipmunk pelt.

Once illusion was on our side, all things became possible.

Guitar Karl actually showed up, waltzing merrily into a crowd that held us on its shoulders. There was, briefly, competition over who would get us stoned, over who would give Karl acid, over who would put us up for the night. Uncle Pleasants closed, not at 1 a.m. (Cicero's time) but at 4 a.m., and at 4 a.m. the speakeasy opened. When the speakeasy closed, an actress in a local porn film, Call Me Rod, insisted that we stay at her house and play at their cast party the next afternoon.

I woke in the bed of a character actress in an independent Kentucky porn film. (She played a hotel clerk who, in one comic scene, measures Rod's rod.) I took my morning coffee and bong with the male lead, none other than Rod, a drifter the director had met on a Greyhound bus. The director himself, a towering gay man, appeared by noon. His enormous frame cast approving shadows on Matt playing Hang Ups songs by the keg.

Johnny Death was there, and Screaming John, and at some point Johnny Scum appeared, in the more colorful of his only two known outfits, his Domino's Pizza uniform, which he shed down to his underwear. Johnny Scum power-lounged in his skivvies, drinking a beer and smoking a joint while everyone ate his bad free pizzas. Louisville was tilting again and so was the empty keg when Johnny Scum came back to the party, many hours later, off his delivery shift, in his only other outfit, head to toe black leather.

Even Skoob, the man, the stranger, appeared, cradled in the bosom of the Goddess of Illusion, lighting a cigarette off her cigarette, smoked down to the nub.

42. A Farewell to an Honest Wife

[This chapter describes my breakup with my graduate school girlfriend. Skip it for now.]

43. Alone with Lucifer on Derby Eve

She is fickle and unaccountable, the Goddess of Illusion. She lured us back to Louisville with one hundred White Castle hamburgers and an entire porn cast of the most deliciously creepy friends. When we got there, we were alone.

There was a sign on the door of our crash pad. "Theo is selling drinks on Bardstown Road. Make yourself at home. We'll see you at Uncle Pleasants." No one saw us at Uncle Pleasants. The new toast of the town performed at 2 a.m. on the biggest bar night of the year to an empty bar.

Out of loyalty, we had turned down the offer from the rival bookie who did the crazy hamburger parade. We stuck with Uncle Pleasants for Derby Eve. Unfortunately, the rival club, Tewligans, had booked Firehose, the remnants of the Minutemen without d. boon. That was the show to see and everyone, including our new deliciously creepy friends, was across town seeing it.

The highlight of our set was that Guitar Karl fell asleep during one of his own solos. A tape exists of this event. You can hear a very messy guitar solo. And then, suddenly, silence from the electric guitar, followed by the thud of a falling man hitting his own amplifier, which called him back to life long enough to finish the song.

There was one beautiful woman at Uncle Pleasants. She wasn't Maya, but she, too, grabbed Skoob, handed me her phone number, and swept him into the night. That part was not an illusion. Skoob's chipmunk days were gone forever.

I woke alone in Theo's bed. After finding my gig pants, a tattered and patched pair Marine Corps trousers, I picked my way through the chaos of the house. Sleeping members of Enormous Richard and the Call Me Rod cast were intertwined with empty liquor bottles and assorted pieces of garment and garbage. No Theo. I went back to bed.

There was still a tape spinning in her jambox. Her little stereo had a function you could select that kept flipping sides on a cassette and playing it forever. It was a new record by another band that crashed at Theo's house when they passed through town, a nasty post-punk band from nearby Cincinnati named The Afghan Whigs. I remembered Theo's drunken words of wisdom the night before, when she started this tape, Up In It, on its non-stop ride. "I love bands. But most of their music sucks! Not the Whigs!"

As I found a nest in Theo's dirty clothes to listen to those furious symphonies of electric guitars, which were seeping into my system like alcohol, I noticed a leg extending from the closet. I sat up. It didn't look like Theo's leg. I got up and looked. It was Guitar Karl's leg. The rest of him, and what was left of Theo, were collapsed deeper in her walk-in closet in tangles of hair and nakedness. I shuffled back to the bed and let the Afghan Whigs scream me back to sleep.

Television's gone
I'm alone with Lucifer


I woke back up in the middle of a blow job in which I was the featured participant. Theo was back. But not for long. When she had finished the job, she said, with a kind of shyness, "Sorry, Chrissy," and went back to the slumbering Karl. I watched as the last of her bleach white leg slid back into the closet, then let the Whigs scream me back to sleep.

Television's gone
I'm alone with Lucifer
What a drag

Matt had to work a shift back home at Blueberry Hill that night. That meant there could be no afternoon acoustic set, no thrift store tour, no more creepy sleepovers for now. Just coffee all around and bongs for the potheads.

When it was almost too late, someone thought to collect Skoob. Fortunately, his latest fling's phone number was still legible on the tiny wad of paper in my sweat-soaked gig pants. When I got him on the phone, Skoob was climbing the walls. "Get me the fuck out of here!"

He had woke up alone in Maya Number Two's apartment, with no clue how to get a hold of us and no idea where he was. She still had not come back home. Skoob had been watching TV and obsessively looking at clocks and beginning to wonder where was the bus station in Louisville.

Television's gone
I'm alone with Lucifer
What a drag
Motherfucker lied to me

Two Louisville gigs, two consorts with goddesses. We never saw either one of them again.