Desultory Notes on Shit and Beauty

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A text message from Rafael Miller. He’s in Berlin; time for a little walk? I don’t see him often. Don’t take that as a tragic lament. Rafael only likes to see me in order to brag or complain and he starts in on the bragging before my hand can fall out of the first handshake we’ve shared in six months. In media res, as they say. Things are going so well in his new job that he’s thinking about opening a business of his own, soon. He’s living in a modest flat in Bristol, England, selling men’s suits for his generous German boss. The boss, says Rafael, promises to finance a second shop that Rafael, himself, will be running. The big money will finally be his. Which way should we walk? I nod in the direction of the Ku’damm and we’re off.

It’s a not-too-chilly, intermittently sunny day in March. Rafael is very tall. I’m tall but he’s a head taller. An athletic-looking, very handsome black American I first worked with years ago, when I was new to Berlin and looking for a male singer to front a commercial project. Rafael can sing a little, models here and there and can claim to do several other unremarkable things, besides selling men’s suits, to earn his money. He’s an astonishingly-preserved fifty years old, appearing to be in his mid-thirties. The problem with Rafael, if it can be said to be a problem, is his profound stupidity.

Rafael sometimes shows unexpected flashes of wit, as though fleetingly, mockingly, possessed by intelligent demons, between the bragging and complaining and the clumsy efforts to impress. He has an off-putting trait of habitually working out his angles and options via whoever he’s facing at the time, without the necessary ability to mask these calculations, which are always displayed quite plainly on his face. He’s usually torn between the need to brag about having plenty of money and the urge to borrow some.

As a former American soldier, he is allowed to own a gun in Berlin.

One grasps that American Society has invested time and money into creating and maintaining Rafael’s stupidity. Why?

Rafael is a likeable fellow. But it can be excruciatingly embarrassing, strolling down a busy street with him while he’s holding forth on some topic he’s ignorant about in the confident voice of the ignorant. I remember him holding forth on “the Jews” a few years back, on a summer’s day, in a crowded Berlin shopping district, with the bell-clear tones of a hiker discussing bad weather. He gestured at the German banks, boutiques, cafes and cinemas and announced that greedy Jews owned all of it. Surely, relatively recent German history contradicted this claim? I tried, with a smile, to get him to lower the voice, if not to change the subject, but why should he? As he put it, he was telling the Lord’s truth and therefore had nothing to be ashamed of.

Just as American celebrities of a previous era had a tendency to speak in the third person (I’m thinking here of Jerry Lewis referring to Jerry Lewis as “a Jerry Lewis”), Rafael Miller favors the second-person narration. This can be more distressing, for his walking companion, on a crowded street, than when he’s pontificating about the Jews. He was complaining to me about his girlfriend; a tall, beautiful, status-obsessed Muslim of Eastern European descent, no Erasmus herself. Rafael and I walked on a day that was warm enough to fill the sidewalks, and he entered into the spirit of his complaint.

He shouted at me, “I show you all my damn love and give you a damn place to stay and put damn food on your plate and the best damn clothes on your body and shoes on your damn feet, you gonna pull this selfish shit on me?”

            *****

Anyone who takes writing seriously, who wasn’t clever enough to have been born rich, must put some thought into finding the kind of job that will pay the bills without sapping one’s writerly will to go on. Early I discovered that I had two talents ( “talent” defined as the ability to produce steadily) , one musical, one literary. It took years to come to the conclusion that if I prostituted the former, I could pay for the luxury of the latter, destroying the former completely. It’s possible you’ve heard some of this shit on the radio.

            *****

There was a quaint era when young men without steady jobs spent most of every day being unreachable by phone. Answering machines soon mitigated this freedom, before cell phones eradicated it entirely. The young men I see on the streets and in the U-Bahn, now, look hunted. The young women look like section heads for a vast, data-gathering-and-disseminating network; like bureaucrats sitting on a mountain of information. The old people look out-of-it; the old people look like corrupted data; none of these incessant phone calls are about them.

            *****

The nicest guys tell the smallest lies. Constantly.

            *****

I once spent a weekend in the supposedly ritzy city of Munich, attempting to collaborate with a sinewy, weathered expat American songwriter named Bradley Rankin, with material to his credit on Tom Petty and Celine Dion albums. Rankin claimed, on the second day of my visit, that his clairvoyant German wife had detected thirteen spirits, among them the shades of John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, hovering around the recording studio. He asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. He didn’t ask me if I was afraid of strangers who make ridiculous claims. He didn’t ask me if I wanted to punch him, destroy the studio with a fire axe and take the cost of my round-trip ticket out of the cigar box he kept his cash and his pot in.

            *****

If you can’t be a star in the heavens, be a lamp in a chamber

-Arab proverb

            *****

The Germans call their celebrities Prominente. These Prominente are engorged as ticks on their fatty super-suppers of self. And why should anyone care? It’s clear to me, as I flip through the pages of various magazines, that America’s idols are proportionally even more absurd; an even bigger prank on a planet which foolishly thinks of these human logos as old friends or moral compasses or arbiters of style. As an expat, I see the con with fresh eyes.

Look into a stranger’s shopping cart if you want to see how terrible your own diet really is.

            *****

I was fronting a four-piece avant garde rock group called Tin Tin Tin Tin at a party I’d helped to organize for a Czech Theater group, singing my spectacularly strange composition, “The Ancient Fireman Song.”  As I walked offstage to confused applause a permed booking agent named Frank Gagne handed me his card and posed a rhetorical question about whether I wanted to make real money playing music. He told me, in his rented car, in an effort to bond with me, that he’d married his wife for her tits and further because he could fuck her in the ass and come in her mouth immediately afterwards. It was as he was telling me all this with glittering eyes that I realized that I would never make real money playing music. So I became a composer.

            *****

I slept with a fetching Duchess (with a dilapidated family castle to brag of) who, before performing the oral sex, sniffed my penis like a hound, her nostrils flaring, forcing me to laugh too hard to maintain an erection.

            *****

My father, a neo-Fauvist painter, had his Korean War rifle confiscated by the Liberian government, because it was more powerful than any weapon in the army.

            *****

A Literary Critic who introduces us to otherwise neglected work is performing a valuable service. Everything else is a matter of taste and generally suspect as back-scratching, score-settling, band-wagoning, hackwork or envy.

            *****

A British pop-act-manager (with an advanced degree in History) once presented me with the schnapps-fueled theory that Bobby McFerrin had written and performed the most trenchantly satirical, socially-conscious number-one pop record in history, but that the American inability to grasp sophisticated irony had doomed McFerrin to be forever associated with the ethos of the Reagan era he had set out to excoriate, rendering him a great martyr, second only to John Lennon, in the minds of the cognoscenti.

            *****

There’s no real reason a lottery contestant isn’t every bit as likely to win once as win ten times in a row. What argues against it happening is the Narrative Field. Statistics are a narrative. Statistics pre-suppose some kind of connection from one moment to the next.  Without consciousness, which supplies the narrative, what connects the first coin toss to the fiftieth? As far as the inanimate coin goes, each toss might as well be its first: there’s no physical reason why there shouldn’t be a string of 5,000 heads (or tails) in a row. It’s only the Narrative Field that prevents it.

            *****

I walked into a MacDonalds in Stockholm, off Kungsgatan, with a sheepish grin on my face, as though I expected the fourteen year old  Swedish girl in the paper hat who took my order to sneer, Oh, suddenly you’re not too good for us.

            *****

The commonest greeting in Vienna is “Grüß Gott” (Greet God!) , a tendency which the Viennese are without a doubt averse to being told is remarkably Muslim in character. Walking up and down that small city and having its straight-spined citizens greet one relentlessly in that fashion is very much like being at sea on an immense Christian warship. The waiters in Vienna are square-jawed, crewcut and tall, like elite soldiers. There’s a table-waiting academy they are obliged to attend and a very long apprenticeship they must complete before being allowed to serve. When a waiter in Vienna hands you your menu and orders you to “Grüß Gott” you forget your hunger and do it.

Sipping a Kleinen Braunen (espresso), in a mellow block of spring sunshine at a restaurant which lies just beyond the chilling jurisdiction of Saint Stephen’s midday shadow, it occured to me that my body’s blasphemous transubstantiation of a heavenly Sachertorte into reeking lumps is a reminder that human cultural evolution is the chronicle of a protracted battle between Shit and Beauty.

The middle-European word for ‘novel’ is Roman, as in romance, and what better non-chemical form of escapism could exist for the literate, aristocratic dreamers of the 18th century than the virtual immersion in a book’s compression of time and omissions of  odor and its structural beatifications of Death and Sex?

            *****

This is the thing about Bush: people who voted for him knew it was wrong…they were pre-teens smoking cigarettes behind the garden shed…the transgression that feels so giddily and foolishly like empowerment. Europe of course was the stricken parent.          

            *****

No: Bush is that lying, thieving, physically abusive son-of-a-bitch that a woman (America) just couldn’t bring herself to break up with.  Everyone warned her, until the inevitable finally happened. Was it low self-esteem, in the end, which killed her?

            *****

I started writing my own songs before I had learned anyone else’s and formed a band, DaVinci’s Lips, before I could properly play. Astonishingly, the best drummer I ever had left me in order to join Prince. He was an extremely fat drummer known to wear attention-getting hats. He was well-read and very bright and seemed somehow able to package his fatness as being a direct consequence of such unwieldy intelligence. What I remember, fondly, is how he fell through a heating grate one afternoon and got jammed in the circular hole in the floor of the rehearsal space.

            *****

I performed oral sex on my girlfriend on one of the principal sets of the film Purple Rain. I was guarding the set overnight, alert, to the point of distraction, to every sound in the cavernous night club. The club was/is called First Avenue, a remodeled bus station. I was licking my girlfriend like a not-entirely-famished cat guarding a bowl of rather too much clotted cream. Being very young and naïve I was disappointed at the cheapness of the materials on the set: the tinfoil and plastic, the Styrofoam and cardboard; the terrible script, a copy of which we had found and read through, taking the parts of various characters as if it were Ibsen.

           *****

Germans sometimes chide me for my imperfect German, unaware of the fact that my original inability to speak the Fatherland’s language was what made Berlin so attractive to me in the first place. A day’s worth of any language is nothing but data, with no intrinsic style, meaning or value. Imposing elegance on the bulk medium requires the strenuous premeditation and/or good habits of verbal hygiene that most citizens can’t bother with. Overheard small talk is nearly as pleasant as second-hand smoke. The only thing worse than overhearing it is being forced to participate.           

            *****

For some reason, the sectarian warriors in Belfast got bored with their hatred. Someone should analyze this. Making hatred boring may be the only hope for the planet. Or, examine the demographic shift. The hatred hurricane probably requires a critical mass of young men to feed it. Or maybe the girls of Belfast have gotten a little easier to sleep with?

            *****

One of the loveliest public spaces I’ve ever spent an afternoon in was an abortion clinic in London, out on the Richmond line. Sitting on the end of my girlfriend’s bed in a room full of beds of chatty Irish girls, passing around their chocolates.

            *****

I auditioned a singer who turned out to be a high-end prostitute who begged me for three months of free singing lessons, which I consented to give her. At the end of the three months she begged me to be the father of the unborn child she’d been carrying since the week before she’d auditioned, to which I said no.

            *****

Austrian super-misanthropist (and great writer; do the two go hand in hand?), Thomas Bernhard, was the scourge of his country. He often referred to Austria as a land of six and a half million idiots full of unrepentant Nazis and murderers. The Austrians, in turn, considered Bernhard somewhat of a Nestbeschmutzer (a bird who shits in his own nest) while he lived, though the country now celebrates the very dead Bernhard as one of its greatest products. Bernhard did his best to preempt this hypocritical plaque-making by stipulating, in his will:

My material – whether published during my life or made public after my death – shall, for the duration of its copyright not be performed, printed or recited within the borders of the Austrian state, wherever the borders of this state may lie. (I wish to underline that I don’t want anything to do with the Austrian state and I reject not only any interference but also any approach by this Austrian state towards me and my work in the future.)

Bernhard’s last wishes are being jocularly disregarded by his survivors. The dead, as we know, are always at the mercy of the living, and not just the worms and the weevils. It can be said that Bernhard the living writer fucked with the corpse of the dead novel with as much rude glee as the Austrian state (or any state) fucks with the dead writer, as he is famous for his grandiose deformities of style. His book Correction, for example, is two paragraphs long: the first paragraph is 140 pages long; the second is 131.

            *****

From human personality to insensate animal to object to substance: it seems impossible in anything less than a thousand years. How can it be that the same system that requires millions of years to transform a chunk of carbon into a diamond only needs a decade or so to turn Duke Ellington into a few kilos of mud?           

            *****

The difference between an Artist and a Hack is that an Artist knows the difference between an Artist and a Hack.

            *****

I was thirty minutes into the walk with Rafael Miller when a slightly heavy, middle-aged woman with a sensible haircut and the ghost of blonde beauty haunting her cried out his name from a distance of ten meters. We all then stood on the corner chatting. They were old acquaintances who hadn’t met in fifteen years, I gathered. I also gathered that Rafael couldn’t remember who she was and therefore failed to introduce us. I studied her solid, ruddy face; her blue eyes and straight nose; the thick blond hair and even white teeth. I saw her as she saw herself: clinging to the shreds of once-formidable powers of seduction. I was glad, all over again, that it wasn’t necessary for me to seduce anyone anymore, unless initiating intercourse with my beautiful wife by touching her shoulder can be called a seduction.

           *****

Suzanne Verdal, a French-Canadian dancer of great gypsy beauty, casually mentioned that she was looking for a Flamenco guitarist. I felt inspired to claim I could play: a very young man’s endearingly foolish bravado. She asked to borrow thirty dollars and made a hesitant, contingencies-probing attempt to seduce me the next day when I delivered the money in fresh bills to her borrowed flat, where she was lying in bed, rumpled and moistly warm. Leonard Cohen had written a famous song about her, though she had never once offered to seduce him and they are no longer friends.

            *****

Why is Black music so far ahead of Black Literature (as far ahead of Black Literature as it is of White music) ?

            *****

I recently re-read an interview with Vendela Vita in which the interviewer remarks that Flannery O’Connor once said there are “too many writers.”

Ms. Vida responded: “I completely disagree with that. There can’t be too many. At our writing lab, 826 Valencia, we’re trying to raise all these kids to believe that they are writers–and indeed they are–and convince them that they can go around and say, ‘I am a writer,’ or, ‘I am a poet,’ at age twelve, and hopefully they will take that conviction with them the rest of their lives. So I don’t think there can ever be too many writers.”

Awful and foolish. Makes me think of a five-storey smiley face logo on some future Ministry of Culture in which even the buttons in the elevators will correspond not to numbers but pictographs of dullards performing simple tasks.

By tricking these kids into proclaiming themselves as writers at the age of twelve she robs them of the pleasure of the infinitely more magnificent declaration, I want to be a writer when I grow up.

            *****

The word bed looks like one.

            *****

I was enlisted by a man named Owen Husney (unflatteringly nicknamed, by, who knows, perhaps the worst sort of disgruntled and mendacious nobodies with unfathomable motives, “Owe Me, Hustle Me”) to write songs for his next big discovery: a lanky blonde guitarist who looked and sang like David Bowie. Owen’s first big project had been Prince; Prince owes his start in show business to Owen Husney. Owen therefore hyped Zane Travers as the “white Prince”. The problem with Zane being that while he looked like Bowie and he sang like Bowie, his material savoured overpoweringly of Jethro Tull. Even hippies, who preferred, sensibly, to dance, eschewed his performances.

There was a brief period in History during which young men believed that guitar virtuosity, hierophantic sects of antiquity, and cutting-edge particle physics… in some way overlapped. This period deserves careful study. 

Zane Travers was the best guitarist I have ever known: a useless distinction, as it turns out. What he had going for him, in even greater abundance than the similar sine qua non that makes Prince not only famous but also unmarriageable, was the aura of sometimes-helpless, sometimes-threatening and always presumptuous nuttiness we commonly associate with great artistic gifts. He called the unadorned mattress he slept on rent-free in the corner of the living room of a hippie-infested household his sanctuary and turned white the time he caught me sitting on it.

I was drafted by Owen Husney to help Zane come up with commercial material, though I considered myself a strange choice for the job. In the manner of all Artistes who disdain the mainstream while believing they can milk it, the tunes I composed for the Zane Travers Project were even sappier than the most hideous Top 40 junk then stinking up the charts. I had fallen into the worst artistic trap: condescension.

            *****

I once spotted Zane Travers at another band’s record-release party, squatting upon a stovetop, his long blond hair like Lauren Bacall’s, hiking his kaftan in order to shit a glistening turd in a souvenir ashtray.

            *****

Rafael Miller and Zane Travers taught me everything I know about music.

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