Nothin’ but time

Cat Power recordsuned a song with Iggy Pop. It’s a great song, sort of a slant cover of Bowie’s “Heroes.” The arrangement and themes are very similar but it also stands on its own. It’s got that same sort of slow, steady, driving propulsion and Chan sings about how it’s up to you to be a superhero. For as much as I’m always going to love her earlier work, this might be the best song she’s ever done. It’s a long song, and I’m usually on board for long songs. Every time I listen to it I get lost inside it, and then just when it passes the six-minute mark and I feel like it should be about to fade out, Iggy comes in. It’s so amazing. Chan has been singing her heart out for twice the length of the standard pop song, and her voice is as powerful and mysterious and beautiful as ever, and then right there at what ought to be the end of the song this croaky old man’s voice joins in on the harmonies and it should be jarring or derailing but instead it’s just the opposite and the song keeps on going for almost another five minutes. That Iggy appearance gives you exactly what you needed even though you had no idea you needed it until that very moment. It makes a great song into a perfect song.

You would love it. I think you would, at least. Knowing you, you might disapprove of the whole second phase of Cat Power’s career, the bigger sound and the soul-influenced production. You might have rolled your eyes at everything from The Greatest on and just cued up Moon Pix or Dear Sir for the thousandth time. I remember being annoyed when Modest Mouse had their big hit record and you dismissed them and said Isaac Brock had forgotten how to write good lyrics. Maybe it would have been the same way with Chan Marshall, but I doubt it.

I don’t think we talked much about these past few Cat Power albums, if we ever discussed them at all. That’s a shame. I remember when You Are Free came out and I got an advance copy from the magazine I was writing for. The first thing I did was drive over to the coffee shop we worked at to show it off to you. We popped it into the CD player and did our best to soak in “I Don’t Blame You” while customers bobbed in and out of the periphery. It’s still one of my favorite albums by anyone, even though the live show we saw her play later that month was maybe the worst show I’ve ever seen by an artist I loved. Even that felt kind of special, though, you and me and Myra standing in the front row at The Howlin’ Wolf, staring in confusion as Chan and her band slugged back whiskey and played sloppy, mumbly renditions of all the songs we came to hear. It may not have been good but it was memorable. Sometimes I think that counts for more.

It’s a funny thing. Every now and then I’ll be out at a record store or driving home from work or in the kitchen making dinner for my family and a song will come on that I remember listening to with you, something that we talked about and bonded over years ago. “Papa Was a Rodeo,” or “Grandma’s Hands,” or “Hang on St. Christopher,” or “I’ll Be Yr Bird.” Or something from You Are Free. I’ll hear those songs and of course it makes me think of you and miss you and miss me and miss us back when we were young dummies with the time and inclination to talk about our favorite songs for hours on end.

But what happens more often than that is that a song comes on that you never got to hear, and I’ll think about how much you would have liked it or hated it or been unimpressed by it at first but learned to like it once it had time to grow on you. And suddenly it will feel like the most tragic thing imaginable that you’ll never hear that song. And I’ll think that if I could get you back for just an hour I wouldn’t even need to speak to you, just sit you down in front of a stereo and play you some of the songs you’ve been missing and then send you back to wherever with a brand new tune stuck in your head.

Cat Power recorded a song with Iggy Pop. I’ve read that she asked David Bowie to be on it first but he was unavailable. It came out two months too late for us to talk about it. I think you would have liked it. One of its refrains says, “You ain’t got nothin’ but time, and it ain’t got nothin’ on you.” I think about that a lot, how it could mean either that you have all the time in the world or that time is the only thing you truly have in this world. I wonder what you would have made of it. I suppose I always will. I think you would have liked it.

Minnesota, Year Zero

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Window of Blue Bicycle Antiques, Saint Paul, Minnesota. April 27, 2016.

Hello. We’re Minnesota. Prince lives here.

Or rather, he did. As you all know, Prince departed last Thursday. It has been a long week here. A long, mournful, celebratory, confusing, contradictory week. Minnesota has turned out in force to pay tribute to our favorite son, flocking to Paisley Park, to First Avenue, to jukeboxes and message boards and anywhere we can tune in The Current.

Now it is time to start trying to get back to normal. But we no longer know what normal is. Prince was our normal. And now we have no Prince.

This is not to say that Prince defined us. That would be giving us too much credit. Prince elevated us, whether we deserved it or not. Born in Minneapolis and at least a part-time resident of Minnesota for more than five decades, he could have gone anywhere but opted to stay here. He loaned us excellence. He should have been a living rebuke to white Minnesota, those of us of the Prairie Home Companion persuasion and convenient ignorance of most Minnesotans of color who weren’t playing at Target Center or the Metrodome. He could have moved along and left us lusting pitifully over his every sidelong glance, the way we do with Bob Dylan. Instead he not only stayed, but wove himself artfully into our DNA until it became impossible to imagine Minnesota without Prince or Prince without Minnesota. Other artists came from Minnesota. Prince lived in Minnesota.

For years, whenever an art-rock legend would die, people would make the same joke about how it was at least reassuring to know that David Bowie would live forever. And then David Bowie died and everyone made the same stunned comments about never thinking he could die, even though the jokes about his immortality were an obvious shield against the awful knowledge that he would, and possibly soon. With Prince it was different. Perhaps we did not truly think that Prince was an immortal, but the notion of him dying never even entered our minds. Prince would live to be 100, or something near it. That was simply a given.

There are many parallels to be drawn between Prince and Bowie beyond them dying in the same accursed half-year. Both achieved a near-flawless decade of artistry, Bowie in the 1970s and Prince in the 1980s. Both trampled over established gender norms with abandon. Both spent memorable time in the company of Muppets. But when Bowie died, I told my son about the songs that he wrote, the brilliant arrangements and clever lyrics and what they had meant to me in my life. Since Prince died, I’ve found myself telling my son about who Prince was, the things he did not just as an artist but as a risk-taker, an innovator and a human being. How he waged a battle against the record companies and won, how he changed his name to a symbol just to mess with the people who tried to control him, how he showed up on stage wearing things he was Not Supposed To Wear, how he dominated the basketball court in a blouse, how he lived his art on his own terms but maintained his basic human decency.

And, of course, how he remained a loyal Minnesotan who every now and then invited us all to come hang out at his place and watch him play music. He’d seemed to be in a good mood these past several years, throwing impromptu bashes for the public out at Paisley Park, playing the ambassador and inviting visiting artists who impressed him out to the estate, hosting a private celebration for our perennially undervalued WNBA team when they brought another championship home to a largely indifferent public. Going to Paisley Park felt momentous for the average Minnesotan, certainly. There was no question that we were in the presence of greatness, party to something special that people who didn’t live here could never experience or understand.  But it was also something friendly, intimate. Prince seemed comfortable moving among us in these past few years, right at home in every meaning of the phrase. I won’t call it a perfect symbiosis, because I believe we needed him more than he did us, but it was certainly a mutual support system.

And now part of that system is gone and the rest of us are left here trying to keep a delicate structure from collapsing. When the mourning has passed and the shops have taken the purple balloons out of their windows and the midnight screenings of Purple Rain have made way for another round of The Room, we will still be here, and we will be all the lesser for his absence. Yes, we still have an astonishing network of in-state artists, one that I would put up against nearly any metro in the nation. But for all of the Lizzos and Doomtrees and Rhymesayers and Mark Mallmans and Black Diets and Maria Isas and Mujah Messiahs and even 3rdEyeGirls keeping our clubs jumping and our hearts pounding, none of them compares to Prince. They’re brilliant Minnesota artists, but they’re not Minnesota’s Artist.

There’s a great old Atmosphere song extolling the virtues of Minnesota living where his pitch to outsiders boils down to “Prince lives here / We’ve got 10,000 lakes.” And that is how people outside the Midwest see us: It gets super cold and Prince is from here. Certainly there are blips on the radar now and then – Jesse Ventura, Fargo, Michele Bachmann – but for the past three decades we have been defined by atrocious winters and Prince. And now we have only the winter. We’ve been left standing alone in a world that’s so cold.

The legacy will live on to be sure, but no more will we keep our weekend plans tentative in case of a surprise Paisley Park party. There will be no more ecstatic tweets from music lovers who spot a lithe and unmistakable figure slipping out of Electric Fetus. We will read no more interviews with visiting celebrities still starstruck after being invited to a private audience with our most desirable dignitary. And of course, no more will we try to convince our skeptical friends that this new Prince album is really, really good. We’ll still shiver through the winters and head up to the lake in the summers and enter each sports season with a sense of optimistic dread, but there will be an undefinable hollowness lurking behind all of it. We’ll smile when the lilacs begin to bloom every April, and then sigh a little as we watch them turn the landscape purple.

Hello, we’re Minnesota. Prince lives here.

In a way, he always will.

But only in a way.

Mr. Bowie Has Gone Elsewhere

earthlingMr. Bowie has gone elsewhere.

Not gone to space with Mr. Ra, expanding and contracting along with the rhythm of the universe, omnipresent and insensate. Love it though he did, he was but an emissary and advocate, a friend to the spaceboy and the starman and the lost soul drifting blissfully in his tin can bound for oblivion. For all his stellar affectations, Mr. Bowie was proudly, profoundly terrestrial, an Earthling to the end, steadfastly staying here with all the madmen to serve as a blinking beacon of oddity in a world gone sane.

Not fallen to Earth with Mr. Lennon, lying helpless on the rocks as chameleon comedian corinthian and caricature bleed into impotent icon, a failed Lazarus to be measured and framed and hung upon your wall. Mr. Bowie drew too many breaths, led too many lives, wore too many faces to ever be damned to misguided martyrdom, to become a totem to be excavated and archived until even his small affairs become the stuff of myth. There is no triumph so indelible that it cannot be overwritten by tragedy.

Not preserved in amber with Mr. Bolan, wedged in a crack in the past, finite and time-stamped. Is it a victory to have never let us down when one never truly had the chance? Mr. Bowie had the time to blunder, to build a faulty machine here and there, to dance like no one was watching when in fact everyone was. Better to be a bendable, breakable man than some Sisyphean superman condemned to spend eternity crashing in the same car.

Not lashed to the stage with Mr. Jagger, strutting and fretting his way again and again through an act long since cracked. Mr. Bowie gave of himself gladly but would not be slave to the grind, branded bundled packaged and paraded through the coliseums, jumping when they say jump, jamming only as good as the paycheck afforded as his own voice became little more than white noise to his ears. Better to maintain the mystery, speak for the sake of saying and not the sake of speaking, stay deep enough in the shadows that the regular never begins to outshine the star.

Not gone to Heaven with Ms. Simone, towering over humanity as a pillar of perfection, holding hard against even the wildest wind. Heroic though he could be, Mr. Bowie did not aspire to godhood nor would he have it thrust upon him. Pushing through the toasts and tributes and venerations, he remained ever that dapple-eyed boy from Brixton, possessed of a soul that grinned and gimbled with the gods but stayed rooted in the firmament even after the angels had gone.

Not gone to Hell with Mr. Reed, wallowing in his own gravy, seeking out ugliness in hopes of mining a few granules of ruined beauty. Mr. Bowie indulged his darkness to be sure, lurching through the realms of broken men and scary monsters and things that suck you while you’re sleeping, but he did not stay in a bad place for too long. Hovering just outside a fantastic abyss of his own creation, he held his slashers and suicides and savage jaws and shoes shoes little white shoes at arm’s length. Not a demon, not a saint, merely a cockeyed kook with a tooth for the macabre.

Mr. Bowie has gone elsewhere. He will not be returning and he has left no forwarding address. He has left you a message. You may decipher it at your leisure. The message is for you and you alone. It may not be an easy code to crack but the effort will be worth it. The moment you know you know you know.

Mr. Bowie has gone elsewhere. There is nowhere else he’d rather be.

Jesus he was a handsome man. And what I want to know is how do you like your blueeyedblackeyed boy, Mister

The Pictures


Look.

Because we do not want to see them. Because it is easier not to show them. Because we will have nightmares. Because we will cry. Because months from now we will find ourselves on the brink of sleep and we will be snapped back to consciousness by a sudden image of her fear-stricken face. Because we will toss and turn for hours haunted by impotence and frustration and a gut-chewing guilt for which we cannot quite determine a root.

Because we have tried everything else. Because photos of the smiling dead, beaming oblivious from happier times, celebrating now-moot milestones and triumphs, nestled in the bosom of friends and families and lovers who could ultimately do nothing to save them, are not enough. Because photos of the survivors, faces wrenched and wrought with despair or rage or worst of all nothingness, the blank numbness of creatures who have lost all but cannot yet comprehend how that loss will swallow them and digest them painfully for the rest of their existences, keeping them sloshing and writhing in slow-acting stomach acid that never stops burning but will not be hurried in its grim work of skeletonization, are not enough. Because photos of stoic police officers and milling crowds and chalk outlines and shattered glass and scattered school books and yellow tape and teddy bear memorials and crosses and flowers and crimson smears on dishwater grey pavement are not enough.

Because she is young and pretty and thin and blonde and white and in our all-enveloping nihilism these are some of the few values we have proven ourselves to hold dear. Because we look harder when people like her go missing. Because we have commodified her long before this became her legacy, built for her an archetype and wedged her into it without her consent, forced her into an unspoken contract that we would assign her value and elevate her above the others so long as she agreed to remain young and pretty and thin and blonde and white. Because we have always looked at her even when she did not want to be looked at and to look away now would be the basest of hypocrisies, a disservice both to her and to those who we have told ourselves are not worthy of being looked at in life or death or memory because they did us the discourtesy of not being young or pretty or thin or blonde or white enough. Because she was she. Because she is she. Because we would not save her. Because we would not help her.

Because it is not merely a headline or a screen capture or even an image. Because it is a dual portrait of all of us. Because we are all the assailed, content and calm until the moment we are not, until the instant of hideous realization, of our faces contorting in grotesque masks of fear that reveal both our searing disbelief and our complete comprehension of where we are, what we are, how we end. Because we cannot shield ourselves behind the pretense of respecting the families, as though there was any possible disrespect we could visit upon them greater than allowing this, facilitating this.

Because we are all also the assailant, stalking insensate through the quiet corners of the day-to-day, armed with tools of ultimate judgment bestowed upon us not by any deity or authority but by ourselves. Because upon receiving these self-granted fragments of omnipotence we did not recoil at our hubris but instead devised means to make their power uncontainable and our possession of them unassailable, convinced ourselves that this was a noble and just and worthy cause for which we would die and kill and kill and kill and kill and kill and kill and kill. Because we thrust that tool into his hand. Because we pulled that trigger. Because it is no accident that we see these images from a first-person perspective. Because we would not stop him. Because we would not help him.

Because we must do something. Because there is nothing left to do. Because we cannot accept that this will never stop, that this battle is over, that this is our reality. Because we need to believe that maybe this is the thing at long last that shocks our senses and is not discarded in our rancid pit of rotting memories atop the corpses of black teens and white schoolchildren and churchgoers and movie-lovers and mall-shoppers and highway drivers and noisy neighbors and good samaritans and co-workers and wives and husbands and lovers and brothers and sisters and strangers and cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians and innocents and heroes and stars and nobodys and somebodies somebodies somebodies somebodies.

Because we know before we try that we have failed. Because even those who have worked and sacrificed and suffered tirelessly for it have nothing to show but bruises where their heads have banged against the same walls over and over. Because we are numb. Because we know we will see it again soon and shed the same tears and move along and forget until we remember and call it a shame and sigh and continue. Because we are tacit, complicit, sinful by omission, comission and inaction, a parade of impotent generations shaking our heads in unison, tsk-tsking our way toward oblivion.

Because we are doomed.

Because we are damned.

Because any sane God would laugh if we asked him to have mercy on the souls we long since sold to someone or something dreadful whose shape we no longer remember.

Because it will never change.

Because we will never change.

Look.

Elegy for J.W.

JWA phalanx of teenagers, dull-eyed and dreamy, shambling in circles around the pavement as the shadow of the Dairy Queen sign grows long across the parking lot. Some rolling slowly on sloppily taped decks, practicing ollies and attempting kick-flips that never quite land, others sitting on the curb talking for the sake of talking. Cars meandering through the lot, rust-eaten pickups and decaying minivans and thick-bodied remnants of the last days of Detroit, Caprices and Regals and Galaxies and Fairmonts, disgorging red-eyed teens with permanent grins and Wednesday night working moms on exhausted grocery runs and little league teams eager for ice cream. We perk up slightly every time a familiar teenage vehicle comes rattling into view, hoping for some blessed deliverance from routine but invariably our peers are only rolling through to see if we’ve heard of any action, knowing full well that we would hardly be here in the parking lot if we had.

I sit beside you on the sidewalk, both of us perched precariously on our boards, me sipping a Snapple while you smoke your cigarettes. We talk. We don’t say a lot of words but we talk, really talk, and it’s satisfying, nourishing. I love all these people, these skaters and punks and earnest fuck-ups, but most of them never entertain a thought about anything deeper than where their next six-pack is coming from. Sometimes we have to spiral off into our own universe, the four or five of us who need some space to talk about music and art and philosophy and what the world might look like beyond the borders of this parking lot. It doesn’t take many conversations for me to realize that you’re the best kind of smart, the kind that most people will never recognize and you never feel the need to bring to their attention. You’re content to let them write you off as another skater kid burn-out, with your sunken eyes and skull-skinny face and shredded t-shirts. The philistines don’t deserve a peek behind the curtain. They wouldn’t know what to make of it if you gave them one.

But we know. We who have sat on this curb and talked with you. Who have been in the pit with you and witnessed your thrashing, spider-limbed intensity as you carom off of dozens of other flailing, sweat-soaked bodies. Who have seen you on the stage, spilling your innards in a deluge of throat-shredding vitriol, your body writhing and bony and angular like the second coming of Iggy Pop. Who have seen the wounded defiance flutter across your otherwise stoic face as the pop-punk dilettantes file out of the beer-reeking basement and leave you to unburden yourself for a smattering of Hardcore hardcores and comatose drunks. Who have driven deep into the night with you in an Econoline van full of unwashed and overcaffeinated punks, deciphering lyrics, uncovering insights and screaming along with Jello Biafra and Al Jourgenson and En Esch on every chorus. Who have seen the spirit and sensed the pain and wordlessly acknowledged that this is a fellow traveler who shares our struggles and fears and joys whether or not any of that ever registers on that long, lean, unforgettable face.

The skaters rolling in and out of our peripheral vision as the overhead lights come humming to life, a passing woman pointedly avoiding looking in our direction as she stalks toward the grocery store. A squad car makes a slow turn into the parking lot. You take a last pull and grind out the butt under your heel. It’s the officers’ second swing-through of the evening, a cyclical game to which we know all of the rhythms. The cops half-heartedly tell us to pack up the boards and move along, we roll our eyes and wander off toward our cars or homes or Dairy Queen, all of us knowing full well that we’ll be back in the same spots within the hour. We have nothing better to do and we’re too young to understand that there is nothing better to do. It’s Wednesday night at dusk and we’re bored and miserable and rudderless and we’ll spend the rest of our lives pining to be right back here.

The last time I see you you’re miles away, barely visible behind the veil of battles and traumas that I was fortunate enough not to witness, but still unmistakably, fundamentally you. My mother meets you for the first time that day, only for a brief moment but long enough for her to tell me later that you have a gentle soul. And it is then that I realize why we have always connected. For those who can see past the scars and the ink and the sneers that serve as a shield against those too small-minded or empty-headed to attempt an understanding, that gentleness shines through, manifesting sometimes as a warming sun, sometimes as a distant constellation but always radiating life and hope and energy to those within its orbit and leaving an aching, gaping void when its light is unduly extinguished.

We knew. We saw. We remember.

Are Podcasts the Future of Public Broadcasting?

Photo: Brett Levin Photography, reproduced under Creative Commons license.

It’s always fun to watch the domino effect of a new technology across the spheres of business and media. In the ’90s it was all about companies setting up websites, whether or not they had any idea what to do with them. In the past decade it’s been brands launching social media accounts, often with little motivation beyond, “We should probably be on Twitter, right?”

The latest push for media companies is podcasting. In the past few years the form has grown from an underground, nerdy pastime to an entertainment genre that’s eating up time consumers previously gave over to TV and radio. As streaming media becomes more and more ubiquitous, Serial dominates the nation’swater-cooler conversations and touring productions of shows like The Thrilling Adventure Hour and Welcome to Night Vale sell out theaters, it’s only natural that “Hey, maybe we should start a podcast!” has become a popular refrain.

On paper, it might not make a lot of sense for American Public Media (APM) to enter the podcasting fray. After all, the company’s bread and butter is the sort of over-the-air radio broadcasting that seems redundant to the concept of podcasts. But this is 2014, and companies like APM aren’t limited to what makes sense on paper, or on the radio.

“For American Public Media, we have a history of making great content that a lot of people love,” says program director Steve Nelson. “The great thing about the podcast space is that it lets us try out all kinds of new programs at the same time.” That was the philosophy that led to this fall’s launch of APM’s podcast network Infinite Guest, the brainchild of producers Peter Clowney and Hans Buetow.

“The idea behind it was to work with talented people who make great stuff already and have a great following, and give them a new way to express their ideas,” Nelson says. As the literary pun of its name suggests, Infinite Guest is very much aimed at the public radio listening audience, but maybe not quite the same one tuning in for Marketplace or A Prairie Home Companion. “Our goal, always, when we create something is how can we serve more people? And in this case, we’re specifically trying to serve people who might be interested in podcasting: a younger audience, a more diverse audience, people that public radio doesn’t traditionally hit all the time.”

The Infinite Guest roster includes more than a dozen podcasts on topics ranging from food to music to sports, with more shows in the works. Each podcast is hosted by an expert in a particular field, many of whom probably don’t match the common conception of a public radio host. The most recognizable titles – John Moe’s comedy and music variety show, Wits, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s food celebration, The Splendid Table, and Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam’s factoid festival, The Dinner Party Downloadpredate Infinite Guest and, in fact, had significant cachet on public radio before the podcast network launched. Those shows may draw in an initial base of listeners, but there’s at least as much focus internally on growing audiences for the slate of new material.

______________________________________________________

“I want it to feel like like you’re just talking sports with your pal,
e
xcept I do all the talking. You have to just listen.”
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“When you look at the people in our network,” Nelson says, “they’re authors, they’re musicians, they’re people who talk about etiquette. There’s a real lifestyle focus. Most of the people in the network are people who already have a following in one or more other venues. For example, Open Mike Eagle had a great article written about him where he was named L.A.’s best rapper — which is saying something. What he’s doing with us is this great podcast where he talks to comedians and other music performers, and we think it’s a great chance for him to expand what he’s already doing into a new medium.”

Eagle’s podcast, Secret Skin, is a prime example of how Infinite Guest allows APM to explore avenues that traditional public radio formats couldn’t or wouldn’t pursue. Eagle’s loose, laid-back hosting style allows the show to unfold organically and travel down roads less taken. Any given episode might feature Mike spinning anecdotes from his extensive touring history, explaining his creative process, or digging deep into underground hip-hop history with the likes of P.O.S., Blockhead and Yoni Wolf. A moving recent installment found him trying to make sense of the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri as he worked his way through a European tour. Secret Skin is the type of podcast that allows both host and audience room to reflect on and digest ideas in a way that time-sensitive radio programming never could.


Image courtesy of APM and Infinite Guest.

Eagle says he greatly appreciates that freedom as he continues to work out what, exactly, Secret Skin is going to be, especially the way APM has given its hosts a wide berth where content is concerned. “I was talking with some people who speak very freely, not only [in terms of] curse words but also subject matter,” Eagle says. “And the notes that I got from the people at APM, for the most part, were just to do it, just get a genuine representation of what it is to be around the people that I’m around.”

Sometimes that genuineness gives the podcasts a raw, even ragged feel – as when Eagle’s interview with indie producer Blockhead ran more than twice its alloted time, for instance. But that’s part of the new podcast network’s charm. Nelson says letting hosts steer their own shows is a key part of the Infinite Guest vision. “We worked with Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter, two best-selling authors, to make [A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment]. They’d been friends for a long time and they wanted to try something together. So, we’re able to lend some of our expertise to them on how to make great audio content, and they’re able to be who they are — their charming, funny, thoughtful selves. And we can make something that’s, hopefully, going to resonate with our audiences.”

Of course, there are a few ringers in the mix too, notably John Moe, a longtime radio host and humorist whose sports show, Home Dunk, allows him to flex some of his less-used comedy muscles. “I’ve done a little bit of sports reporting on the radio here and there over the years,” Moe says. “I wasn’t going to hold my breath for a big public radio, on-the-radio sports show to be launched anytime soon. But it seemed to be a really good match with podcasting.”

Moe is no stranger to podcasting, but the talk-heavy format of Home Dunk is a very different animal from a live variety show like Wits. “Normally if I’m going into an interview and I know it’s going to be on the air, I’ve done a ton of research,” Moe says. “I’ve prepped questions, I’ve just really gotten ready for it. But for [Home Dunk] I tend to be talking to people I already know and who I’m comfortable talking sports with, so I go in without any notes. And the same with the monologue – I just think about something that’s been on my mind lately. If there’s a particular name, or something I should remember, I’ll jot that down, but I want it to feel like time spent with a friend who follows sports and comes at it from a kind of unique angle. Like you’re just talking sports with your pal. Except I do all the talking and you have to just listen.”

So, is podcasting the future of broadcast outlets like APM? Is it a complement existing alongside more tried-and-true formats? Or, is it just a misguided attempt at capturing the zeitgeist? It’s too early to tell with Infinite Guest, but the insane popularity of shows like Serial and Radiolab and networks like Nerdist and Earwolfsuggest there’s a serious audience for quality podcasting that expands well beyond traditional radio listeners.

“The thing about a podcast network is it’s super flexible,” says Moe. “You’re not worried about what a station in Tulsa has on at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. You just pursue the ideas that you think are cool.”

If enough of the public radio audience agrees on what qualifies as cool, Infinite Guest might just be the beginning of something big.

Leaving the Building

Originally published by Rivet Journal, September 9, 2014.

In those final seconds, feeling His consciousness ebbing, watching the bathroom tile hurtling upward angry at His face, did He perhaps return to two rooms of Tupelo squalor, the only hot water that which He or Mama or Vernon when he was free and sober would boil up on that rickety wood stove, and that not happening often unless they were heading to church or the dinner table; the burn in the cheeks when the boys at school talked of Vernon the jailbird, Vernon the paperhanger, sent off to Parchment Farms for three-odd years and leaving Mama and Him destitute, charity cases to be taken in grudgingly by Vernon’s family at cost of cheap household labor; His first glimpse of Roy, looking so weird and wonderful with that jet-black pompadour that inspired a drastic dye job on His own bland blond locks and singing with a voice that was haunted with spirits that made a pudgy little man in a sequined suit seem like not only the equal but the surpasser of all the chisel-chinned matinee idols whose ranks He would one day join in uneasy company; fleeing to Memphis to escape Vernon’s shame only to find Himself quivering under the fists of big city toughs who found an easy target in a shy prettyfaced country hick who lived dirtpoor with a con for a Pa in the Negro part of town, the part of town full of the old black bluesmen who didn’t mind preaching their gospel to an eager white boy, filling His body and well-a-bless-mah-soul with their music, that same music that would someday earn Him that moneyfamesexlove that every man is taught to crave, that music that would inadvertently make of Him a prophet to the white youth of America, spreading the message of those brokendown old Negroes and preparing the way for millions of light-bringers like an unwitting John the Baptist and at the same time just as inadvertently alienating those very Negroes to whom He knew He owed so much, the ones who would later call Him a thief and an impostor and even a racist (but some of His best friends were…) and make Him the symbol of all they hated in His people, stand Him up as a pale-faced cardboard cutout as the establishment, the enemy, ironic for a man who was ten years prior reviled as a corruptor and a rebel for doing the exact same thing that now made Him such a square?

As He crashed panting to the opulent tiles (most of His friends hated those tiles, He knew, hated the whole place for its overwhelming ostentation, the very garishness that made it unique, made it home), struggling to collect His thoughts, trying to focus on calling for help, did He see Mr. Phillips and the beaming sun and the funny little studio where His heroes had worked, men with bigger voices and wilder guitar licks and harder luck but never with more charm, more flair, and certainly nevernevernever with better looks, men from the country, men of the radio age, hardscrabble farmers’ sons from Arkansas and Missouri and Louisiana and Kentucky and Mississippi and Alabama and Tennessee and even a few from all the way over to Texas, men with faces as rough and beaten as the fields they’d plowed throughout their youths and that most of them would return to when Memphis had exhausted its use for them, men who should have brushed aside this babyfaced pretty boy as a soft-featured go-nowhere rube but didn’t, welcomed Him instead, gathered Him up and made Him their own like they were pulling Moses from the reeds, and when He was full-grown He paid them back by leading a good number of them into the Promised Land; and Parker, very briefly because the thought of it still made Him shiver with the familiar loveterror of the hound dog who never knows if he’s getting a bone or a beating, but unmistakably Parker nonetheless, proud and vain and barking like some backwoods ringmaster parading his exotic beastie for the yokels to see; or perhaps the legion, the mad throngs who trailed plagued elated Him, tracing His moves and filling His pockets with a devotion that sometimes shook-a-shook Him sugar but always warmed His soul; the perennial blond sprawled under His bedsheets, forever young even as He aged, one consolidated and quickly consummated little sister doing exactly what her big sister done, and sometimes doing it again and maybe even once more yet in the same night; and the hordes that followed, a sweaty morass of banging guitars and wriggling hips achieving eventually and undeniably that same obscenity He had been falsely accused of; those ragged and overcaffeinated Englishmen ricocheting onto the scene stealing His limelight (which by then of course He was glad to share while still being unavoidably dispirited), singing His praises and cribbing His moves until they finished their Tower of Babel and decided to keep on building to see who lived upstairs from the God they themselves had created, and the one they called The Smart One, the one among them who He had thought understood it all as well as anyone ever could, said rock and roll had died the day He joined the Army and He wondered how it could be that if rock and roll was not birthed by Him alone (and He had been needlessly scolded many times that it had not) how could He alone take the blame for killing it?

There on the floor, the coolness of the tile seemingly engulfing His body as the lights began to fade, feeling the drugs prescribed by that butcher of a doctor rippling through His veins (fourteen different kinds, the coroner would say, a veritable buffet, and lethal levels of at least two) was there a fleeting vision of the future, of weeping and rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, of already tenuous romantic lives forever retarded by the sudden conclusion of a ludicrous pipe dream; the shock, the scorn, the outrage, the winking irony of those who would recall that misbegotten trip to the seat of power with the stated intention of combating narcotics abuse in the music industry, a mission that even He had had to admit would have seemed surreal to an outsider and was eventually fruitless but for the equally bizarre photo, a counterculturalist’s dream image of this rapidly thickening former Adonis clasping hands and sharing a camera smile with this jowly paranoiac who would soon enough be reviled above all things; but the shame too passing quickly and giving way to something altogether new, something that would supercede any of the precarious heights he had yet witnessed and transform a living legend into a deceased deity; the pilgrims starting to arrive almost immediately, rolling in off I-55 in campers and station wagons and rusted beetles, coming to see exactly what they could not say but knowing all along that it was something that must be done, for Him as much as for themselves, and eventually they would pour in in such multitudes that the home on the hill became an attraction, a destination that would not only ensure the perpetual well-being of those He loved and those they loved, but also that of Memphis itself; and the first anonymous man to don the sequins and slick the hair and curl the lip and rock the hips and growl and gyrate and drive ‘em wild all over again, and the myriad who would follow in that man’s footsteps, building the oddest kind of cottage industry until the imitators became as much a piece of the culture as was He Himself, rousting about in movies better than Parker had ever let Him have a chance to make, turning up from Presidential palaces to state fair hog pens and trailing always a crowd of believers who could look past cardboard sideburns or buck teeth or a Yankee accent and be content to be graced with the presence of even an unreasonable facsimile of their dearly departed; and the whispers, the rumors, wholeheartedly believed by a credulous few: faked it all, empty coffin, still walks among us to this day healing the sick and multiplying loaves and fishes; and of course the money, the stacks and stacks of money, the albums that kept on selling, the movies that kept on running, the new wave of t-shirts and neckties and figurines and collectible plates and wall clocks and postcards and even a stamp with which to mail them?

And finally, in that last split second before the cold overtook Him and His body became one with the overpriced tiling, the last instant when He could have possibly mustered the strength to call for help, was there another vision of another future, a future in which help arrives and the resuscitation succeeds; a vision of fifteen years later, of a fat old man in a dingy jumpsuit singing to a mostly full room of beehives and suspenders, sweaty and obsolete in a bright light city that long since ceased to set His soul on fire, a man still rich and iconic and beloved, to be sure, but also visibly, depressingly mortal?

And as His fevered final thoughts gave way to one of those fabulous, raucous gospel songs Mama used to sing on Sundays and the heavenly stagehand commenced to bring the curtain down, did a flicker of that famous smirk perhaps cross His face, jerking his lip upward and transforming Him for all eternity again into that soft-spoken boy from Tupelo, full of dreams and songs and a charisma the world might never again witness?

“We On Some Nonstop”

Originally published at MNArtists.org, November 13, 2014.

I didn’t go see the Replacements in September. Don’t get me wrong, I like the Replacements, but I’m a casual fan. When the reunion show at Midway Stadium was announced, I considered trying to grab a ticket but I didn’t want a more hardcore fan to miss out on the show of a lifetime just so I could sate my curiosity. And besides, it wasn’t like the Replacements were the only gig in town. In a stellar bit of counterprogramming, Doomtree member and local hip-hop hero P.O.S. managed to book a fantastic lineup of underground rappers, DJs and vocalists from across the country for an event the same night modestly known as The Fucking Best Show Ever. Any other weekend, this would have been the premiere entertainment event in the Twin Cities, and to the credit of the local press, P.O.S.’s showcase did get a fair amount of coverage. But given the big-ticket competition, on that particular day it was decidedly a page-two story.

Even so, you wouldn’t have known that rolling up to the Fine Line parking lot late that Saturday afternoon. I got there around six in order to catch Open Mike Eagle and found a considerable mass of people already crowded around the stage. The audience continued to swell through the evening — lines for the beer vendors snaking around at crazy angles, the makeshift skate park at the back of the lot humming with the sound of wheels on concrete. And by the time P.O.S. took the stage, it was a shoulder-to-shoulder affair, and the audience was worked up to a fever pitch. These weren’t just casual downtowners who’d ducked in to see why the street was shut down. These were rabid fans. When P.O.S. called out, “They on some nonsense,” the audience’s response, “We on some nonstop!,” echoed off the steel and glass of the cityscape. At the rear of the crowd, I spotted one of the greatest sights I’ve ever seen at a concert: three boys, about 12 years old, standing on a parking barricade, pumping their fists and rapping along to every line, lost in the ecstasy of seeing their hero perform live for what I assumed to be the first time.

In the midst of all of this celebration, I was struck by the sense that this kind of thing doesn’t happen just anywhere. Sure, every metro has its beloved local musicians, but how many towns can pack a stadium for a group of returning legends on the same night they’ve shut down a city block for a rising star? How many other cities have a 24-hour radio stream dedicated to local music? How many can boast more than a dozen clubs hosting high quality regional and national bands every night of the week? Or have a dedicated audience sufficient to blow up local Twitter trends when a hometown artists like Lizzo, or Jeremy Messersmith debuts on The Late Show with David Letterman?

From a fan’s perspective, the Minnesota music scene sure feels like a uniquely supportive community, but I wanted to see if that’s a viewpoint shared by artists who have come here from other environs. TakeAstronautalis: he was an up-and-coming rapper on the Jacksonville, Florida scene when he befriended P.O.S. during a Warped Tour stop in 2004. He eventually relocated to Minneapolis and has since built a dedicated following as one of the top talents in local hip-hop.

According to Astronautalis, the Twin Cities scene really is as special as all that. “There is a stark contrast in the size of the crowd here and everywhere else I have called home. My crowds in Minneapolis are literally about eight times as large as they are in Jacksonville.  But that would, I think, not be giving enough credit to Minneapolis. It’s not just that lots of people come out to my shows here. It’s how quickly this city embraced me and my work — from the stage to the street to the radio to the press.”

The super-duo behind Four Fists,  Astronautalis and P.O.S. Photo: Graham Tolbert

Part of that warm local response, I suspect, is due to the openness of Minnesota’s performers themselves. Collaborative projects abound in the Twin Cities, from benefit concerts to musical collectives like Doomtree to all-star albums like Absolutely Cuckoo and the annual Minnesota Beatle Project. Astronautalis has seen the benefits of that communal spirit. He’s worked with a diverse range of local artists, including Bon Iver, Culture Cry Wolf and Marijuana Deathsquads, and he’s currently teaming with P.O.S. as the hip-hop super-duo Four Fists.

“It’s why I moved here,” he says. “In all the great music towns I’ve had the pleasure of living and working in, none of them have the sense of camaraderie or the love of collaboration that flows through the veins of everymusician working in this town.”

Former Pennyroyal singer-songwriter, Ethan Rutherford, agrees. After paying his dues on the Seattle and New York City circuits, Rutherford relocated to Minneapolis a few years ago and was struck by how quickly he felt accepted in his new hometown. “I came to the Twin Cities for graduate school. I had been living in New York and had never once been in the Midwest. But almost as soon as I got to the Twin Cities – seriously, about a week after moving there – I met Angie [Oase, co-founder of Pennyroyal], and we decided to start a band.”

What stood out to me immediately was that it was a very open and welcoming community,” Rutherford says, “Which goes for booking as well. I mean, everywhere else I’d been, you couldn’t even get a foot in the door, couldn’t even sign up for an open mic. And in the Twin Cities, it seemed like a lot of venues were willing to let you play, even if they hadn’t really heard of you. I know that booking can be a really tough job, and it can be thankless (there are a lot of dick bands out there). But it means the world, when you are starting out, to be treated kindly and openly by venues who, even if they don’t book you, get back to you to say, ‘Can’t do it, here’s why.’ Then when you do get up there on stage, you realize that this is a city full of people who just love music: hearing music, seeing bands, including bands they’ve never heard of. The bar scene is unbeatable. We played mostly bars for years, and it always felt like people were listening. But much of that had to do with Angie Oase, who everyone listens to, because she is amazing.

Rutherford recently moved to Connecticut for work but says he sorely misses the Minnesota scene. But he also posits some less high-minded explanations for our close-knit performance community:

 I can’t say for sure, but I think part of it is weather-related. It’s so cold, you kind of go, ‘Let’s spend the night at the 331 and just see what happens, because we are not going to hop bars when it is 30 below.’ You end up seeing a lot of bands that way, bands you wouldn’t otherwise go out of your way to see. And everyone is so miserable in the winter that there is this, sort of, frozen bonhomie – we’re all in this together! But I also think that music is just something that a lot of people in the Twin Cities do. It’s in the air. If you live anywhere in the greater Midwest and are into music, eventually you’re going to hear about that and get pulled to the Twin Cities, because that’s where a music community has already established itself.

Whether it’s cold weather, an incomparable infrastructure or just plain Minnesota Nice in action, the Minnesota music scene does seem to be an especially hospitable environment for artists and fans alike. And Astronautalis says that’s nothing to take for granted:

 Beyond the fact the concert-goers here actually go to, and actively participate in shows, there is a network of [professional] support in the Twin Cities that doesn’t exist elsewhere.  I think many people – especially musicians – in this town have no idea how good they have it. Even much larger cities than ours don’t have the options we have when it comes to independent radio, music and culture press. And on top of all that, we’ve got a populace that doesn’t file noise complaints when a 20-year-old night club can be heard from the bedroom of their two-month-old condo.

He continues:

On the whole, this city cares about art and culture in a way that most towns do not.  We are one of the few places in America where record stores are still in business, radio stations play local music, the press is genuinely enthusiastic about and supportive of local bands. On any given Friday night, you can have some pop star selling out the Target Center, some indie darling selling out First Ave, some punk legend selling out the Triple Rock, and some up-and-comer packing out the 7th Street Entry. That does not happen in other towns. Ever. I have the good fortune of having a job that allows me to live anywhere (anywhere with an international airport), but I chose to move to thisplace – so far from my home, so different from my roots, and so goddamned cold – because this place, this town, this culture, is truly magical. I am lucky to call it home.

And so am I. And so are those three boys bobbing their heads to P.O.S. And so are all of us.

Keeping the Dive Alive

Originally posted at MNArtists.orgTurf Club, August 2014, August 11, 2014

I’m nervous about Turf Club. The venerable Saint Paul music club has been closed for renovation for a couple of months now, with a re-opening slated for August 28. For Midway residents like myself, the club’s absence has made for an unsettlingly quiet summer on the local music scene. In the five years I’ve lived here, I’ve grown accustomed to strolling up University Avenue to catch a set at Turf Club at least two or three times a month, and often more frequently. Even when I don’t know any of the bands on the bill, it’s a comfortable, casual place to hang out, grab a Surly and take a gamble on finding a new favorite.

That casual comfort has always been a big part of the Turf Club appeal for me. I wouldn’t call the place a full-on dive, exactly, but it certainly had some divey aspects: the rickety furniture, the dingy interior, the giant men’s room poster of Frank Zappa using the toilet (complete with a largely ignored “Please do not tag Zappa” sign). The downstairs bar and secondary performance area, known as The Clown Lounge, was farther still down the dive bar spectrum. With its crumbling booths and vintage decor of antique beer cans and hunting trophies, drinking in the Clown Lounge felt like having a few beers in your friend’s grandparents’ basement.

When First Avenue bought Turf Club a couple of years back, I was relieved that my favorite hangout would remain a going concern for the foreseeable future (I’d gotten pretty frantic when the place closed down for a few days in 2011 during a management shakeup). But I was also nervous that the change in oversight would mean a change in the spirit of a place I loved above most others. I venerate First Avenue and appreciate how much the place means to the Minnesota music community, not only as a venue but also as a paragon of competence and constancy. Even before they purchased the joint, First Ave frequently presented shows at Turf and brought bands to Saint Paul who might otherwise have stayed on the other side of the river. Still, no matter how many times they’ve partnered up, seeing a show at First Avenue or Seventh Street Entry has always been a very different experience from seeing a show at Turf Club.

I took my concerns to First Avenue General Manager Nathan Krantz, who was able to allay some of my worries about the dive atmosphere.”If having mechanicals that are up to code makes it less divey, then it’s definitely going to be less divey,” Krantz said. “The roof won’t leak. We’ll be able to store things in the basement. If people really liked the old bathrooms and things they’re going to be disappointed. Those are already torn out. The bathrooms are going to be nice, they’re going to be handicapped-accessible.”

“I think the entire vibe of the place will continue to be the same. It’ll be cleaner. In general that building was in very poor shape. We’ve upgraded all the electricity, the plumbing and all of that. The basement won’t be collecting water anymore. The heating and air conditioning is now going to work properly so it’ll be the right temperature at the right time of year. The bar is the same, the floor is the same, the rooms are the same. But I can definitely say it’ll be less divey than it was before.”

Krantz also assured me that the Clown Lounge will still operate as both a second music stage and a hangout spot, albeit with a number of similar upgrades. Turf Club is also getting food service (restoring an old kitchen area behind the stage that’s been used for storage in recent years), an accommodating green room (replacing a spare, dingy space in the basement) and a functional office, among other things.

______________________________________________________

“If having mechanicals that are up to code makes it less divey, then it’s definitely going to be less divey.”

______________________________________________________

Obviously most of these changes were necessary from either a physical or a financial standpoint. Dive or not, I admit I like watching bands in a venue with as little chance as possible of falling and/or burning down mid-show. And making upgrades that enhance the comfort of customers and performers – functional sitting surfaces, say – is definitely a sound move for any place that relies on repeat business. Still, part of me can’t help being a little sad that things are going to be tidier down at my local joint. I’m reminded of a classic exchange from The Simpsons episode where Moe the bartender decided to class up his tavern:

Moe: Everybody is going to family restaurants these days. Seems nobody wants to hang out in a dank pit no more.

Carl: You ain’t thinking of getting rid of the dank, are you, Moe?

Moe: Eh, maybe I am.

Carl: Oh, but Moe! The dank. The dank!

In the interest of accepting the things I cannot change, I’ve been trying to sort out why I cling so fervently to the dive aesthetic. It isn’t as if a grimy setting enhances the music in any way; as sound quality goes, it’s actually more likely to be a detriment. If I’m honest with myself, my taste for seedier venues smacks of privilege. It’s fairly obnoxious for a guy like myself with the means and access to attend top of the line performances to be complaining that the environs are too nice. Maybe I’m just a slumming hipster on a quixotic quest for “authenticity.” But the heart wants what it wants. Given the choice between seeing a band at a respectable joint like, say, Triple Rock or seeing the same band up the street at a dive like Palmer’s, I’m going downscale every time.

Sadly, that’s getting harder to do. I’m ultimately fine with a bigger player like First Avenue reshaping Turf Club however it sees fit, because I know that without that intervention Turf Club might well cease to exist altogether. Just look at the local music dive casualties in the past few years. Station 4 shut down, leaving a swath of displaced headbangers in its wake. Big V’s continues as a bar but its stage is rarely occupied these days. The 400 Bar is shuttered and slated for a rebirth at the Mall of America of all places (forgive me for presuming the new incarnation will be somewhat less divey than the old one). Even saving a nice-but-niche space like the former Artists’ Quarter required intervention from the bigger-name Dakota.

All of this is understandable, I suppose. There’s a lot of overhead involved in hosting live music. You can raise the cover charge, but once you get up in the $20 range, a lot of customers will understandably expect a certain level of nicety. That adds up to a no-win situation for dive venues trying to book touring bands, as many acts prefer to do their pre-show preparation in a space with as little visible water damage as possible.

Still, it isn’t as if the Twin Cities music scene is totally devoid of options for those of us who like our shows with a side of grime. The Hexagon Bar remains a splendid showcase for local rock and punk acts. Well-weathered spaces like Palmer’s, Shaw’s and the Schooner Tavern, among others, offer genres from folk to roots to R&B. There’s still plenty of dive to go around, and there probably always will be. As for Turf Club, I’m certain I’ll adjust to the alterations before too long, even if the changes are jarring at first. The fact is it’ll continue to be my hangout so long as the doors are open and there are bands onstage.

But deep down inside, I’ll always miss the dank.

Katrina Sketches: Vera, Kanye, Dream

Times-Picayune Archives

Times-Picayune Archives

1. Vera

The bottle is already in place, standing stoically on an end table beside her chair as I step into the room. I can tell that the bottle and its brethren have seen heavy duty in the six weeks since the storm. She takes a seat alongside the bottle, pouring a tall tumbler for herself. She does not offer any to me. I am not certain whether I would accept it if she did. The room is dim and stuffy. Her paintings peer down at us from every angle, sallow portraits of aching people, or perhaps that is merely the mood I am imposing upon them.

She talks about the storm, about the fear and the heat and the sounds and smells and not-quite-sights she took in from her vantage point overlooking Magazine Street. She talks about wind and rain and standing water. She talks about people passing by and the uniforms they wore both official and unofficial and how those uniforms were little help in deciding who might be friend and who might be foe.

She talks about Vera.

Vera, who became the most iconic and ironic non-face of the storm. Vera, who died because too many people could not see her in life but who was seen by millions in death. Vera, whose tomb was both a passionate prayer and a confirmation that prayer itself was futile. Vera, who was her neighbor.

She says she did not know Vera well but saw her around the neighborhood. They said hello to each other in passing. She knew Vera well enough to recognize who she was when she saw her lying dead in the street.

She says there were National Guardsmen stationed a few blocks up Jackson. She went to them, told them about Vera, asked if she could be taken somewhere, given a decent burial. She says she received some vague assurances and little else.

She takes a sip from the tumbler and stares quietly for a moment. She looks as weary as any person I have ever seen. Her eyes are cold, stony. Her face is drawn, expressing no discernable emotion because there is none that can convey what is going on behind those eyes. She looks not broken but tired. Battered. Hollow. Tired.

She says the neighbors who stayed realized that if anything was to be done for Vera it would fall upon them to do it. They acted not only out of sympathy for their fallen neighbor, not only to restore some dignity to a life laid bare, but also out of grim necessity. A body left in the Southern sun for days becomes an issue for all those around it. She says it was evident that no one with the credentials or capacity to deal with Vera was going to do so. And so they built a mausoleum out of the stone and brick strewn about the neighborhood, created a private cemetery on the corner of Magazine and Jackson, placed poor Vera inside as tenderly as the situation allowed. She painted an epitaph that may not have been the eulogy Vera deserved but was at least a signpost the world required: “HERE LIES VERA. GOD HELP US.” And then they went home.

She drinks again from the tumbler and stares at nothing and everything. Vera is gone now, off to St. Gabriel’s and the crematorium. The pile of bricks remains, bereft of function now, just another heap of rubble in a city abounding with the same. Magazine Street is returning to life, bleary-eyed homecomers lining up for pizzas and coffee and t-shirts emblazoned with slogans of protest. She sees them pass Jackson and Magazine in somber silence and ignorant chatter, each as noisy as the other.

Vera is gone. But she is still here. And the city is still here. And the bottle is still here. And the paint and canvas are still here. And the bricks are still here. And she is still here. She is still here. But not the she that was here before.

2. Kanye

Not yet become what he would be, the prophet punchline provocateur, voice and shame of a generation, scapegoat savant and savior. For now still a Hot New Talent and an Angry Young Man recruited to spread the word and speak the lines and maybe lend a touch of that ever ineffable street cred to the mission.

Boiling before the cameras, the sad clown to his left dutifully playing his part, parroting the heartfelt nothings of Red Cross copywriters. When his time at last arrives bursting out, ejaculating anger, unable to tamp down the fury any longer. The venom flowing forth not with the telltale volume and violence of the attention addict but with the frigid fury of the justified.

The sad clown frozen in the klieg lights, struggling to maintain his mask of grim sobriety in the face of his increasingly evident terror. Fueled by the toxic slurry of apocalyptic images and imbecilic commentary scrolling across the nation’s televisions, sounding his yawp with a focused righteousness born of an all-too familiar impotence, calling to task those who would damn his family with pity, defame them with empty judgment, condemn them for a litany of crimes that man and god and nature had in fact committed against them.

“I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family it says they are looting. If you see a white family it says they are looking for food. And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are black.”

His body fairly blazing with indignation, speaking a piece that demanded to be heard on a stage that bristled against broadcasting it. Raking the scourge across his own back, owning up to a hypocrisy and a cowardice that barely merited those honorifics.

“And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation.”

The stunned sad clown a picture of pitiable professionalism, returning to his script and scrambling to reestablish the scrubbed, comforting horror intended to effect nothing more nor less noble than an opening of hearts and purse strings and perhaps inspiring the folks at home to indulge in an extra prayer or nightcap before bed.

He not having it, punctuating the sad clown’s well-intentioned appellation with an epitaph so blunt so honest so blessedly ugly that the sad clown’s jaw dropped at once, the sturdy veneer finally shattered as the cameras cut to a second sad clown blanching in the spontaneous spotlight.

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

The bluntness resonant, repeatable, remembered, necessary even if reductive – for who had ever seen evidence of that particular potentate truly caring about anyone of any color creed or catastrophe – but ultimately less important than his overlooked preamble, the blistering excoriation of business as unthinkably usual.

The set jaw, the searing eyes staring out unblinkingly into the lights and cameras and action of Hollywood, defiantly into the living rooms of America and helplessly tragically mournfully into the soul of a drowning desperate city, the unexpected uncensored undeterred avenger seeking justice with the only tools at hand.

3. Dream

We’re in the city a few days after and we’re pleasantly surprised to see it doesn’t look all that bad. We take a walk to survey the damage. Myra says it doesn’t look much worse than it did after Lily. Yes, there is water, yes, a lot of trees are down, but everything looks salvageable. We stroll up Magazine Street, under the overpass where four years ago we watched a whole family – mother, father and four little children – in identical Spider-Man costumes marching to the Fat Tuesday festivities in the Quarter. Now the overpass is wet and wind-buffed, but it is still standing. The city is still standing.

We push on up Magazine, stepping over a fallen magnolia branch here and there. The pastel-painted shotgun shacks lining the side streets are smeared with mud, shingles torn asunder, but it is not as bad as they said on the news. It seems silly now, to think that we so recently believed all the dire declarations spilling out of the mouths of panicky anchors with their vaguely Midwestern non-accents. We laugh to think how we quavered before Ted Koppel, Brian Williams, Shepard Smith – what were they really but glorified tourists? The Yankees never really understood how this city lived. Why should we have trusted them to tell us it was dead?

As we slosh along there is more water, sometimes lapping at our ankles, but still it is not so bad, not so bad. Moving west, crossing Antonine, Magazine Street seems to shrink. Yes, it is getting smaller, narrowing down until it resembles the main street on that island where we stayed in Honduras, a street wide enough for only one car at a time to pass, but that didn’t matter because everyone on the island drove a moped or a golf cart. Here, though, there are no vehicles of any kind. There are no people either. We don’t think much of it. The people are all in the Superdome, aren’t they?

The sun starts to drop a little in the sky. We decide it’s time to head back. Even though we aren’t sure we can trust the reports of rampaging marauders patrolling the streets after dark, it isn’t something we want to take a chance on. The hike back seems harder somehow, the water not getting any deeper but not getting any shallower either, much more water than we saw on the way out. The street stays narrow, low-slung storefronts looming over us, threatening to squeeze themselves into a blind alley. And the sun sinking faster than we’ve ever seen it, the dark galloping up behind us with astonishing speed.

We spot a tavern with lights on, Dixieland jazz blaring from within. We rush to the door but find it locked. We bang on the windows, call for help, but no one responds. Through the frosted glass we can see silhouettes, dark figures leaning back to empty tall bottles into open gullets, pool cues cocked and released with lazy grace, swirling skirts and bended knees. It’s exactly where we want to be.

But we are locked outside, growing cold in the wet and the dark.

And somewhere in the night we hear whispers.

NOTES:
Section 1 is based on an interview I conducted six weeks after Katrina with a resident of New Orleans’ Uptown neighborhood who stayed in the city throughout the storm.  It was intended to be part of a publisher’s compilation of Katrina stories from  eyewitnesses, but after a week of surveying the devastation of my former home I had something of an emotional collapse and never submitted the tapes I’d recorded. (This is also when I knew for sure that I would never have what it takes to become a genuine journalist.) For years I’ve felt guilty about that. I think of this piece as some manner of penance, but it doesn’t assuage my guilt over leaving the original assignment unfinished.

Section 2 is, of course, based on Kanye West’s powerful extemporaneous diatribe during the Concert for Hurricane Relief benefit concert on September 2, 2005. Here is the video if you want to refresh your memory.

Section 3 is adapted from a dream I had in the final days of August 2005. 

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