Saturday, April 20, 2013
I walked out of the office on Monday afternoon to blow a hole in my stomach with a bag of jalapeno potato chips, and when I got back to work the television set was on and everyone was watching a public emergency. Bombs had been set off at the finish line to the Boston Marathon.
I work in journalism -- local community journalism in St. Louis -- so this was not my problem, professionally speaking, and I have a lot of problems to solve every week as managing editor of a high-performing newspaper owned by a high-expectation publisher. So I went back to work and tried hard not too think too hard about what was happening in Boston.
It didn't work. I kept paying attention to the bad news. And I was really sick that night. I was sick from eating jalapeno potato chips, sick from the Boston Marathon getting bombed, sick from people getting killed and maimed at a positive public event in a beautiful city. And I was sick from everybody I know saying the same two or three things over and over and over and over and over and over and over on the social media I follow, on and off, all day, out of habit and professional necessity.
I was sick that this happened in Boston. I left home in Granite City, Illinois in 1984 at age 18 for U.S. Navy bootcamp in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and after bootcamp I reported to the NROTC Unit at Boston University. Boston was my first town that was not my hometown, the first town that felt completely mine. I still love it fiercely and mentally compare it to every place I visit. I tend to talk more about other places, the way we'll talk more about our interesting friends than we do about the siblings we come to take for granted, but that is my city that got bombed.
With our small staff charging through the usual assortment of challenges, we put out another newspaper on Thursday. It was full, as usual, of positive local community news -- personally my favorite kind of journalism, though I have reported for a major metro daily (The New York Times) and reviewed books for a gloomy radical weekly (The Nation). I have come to the conclusion that bad news will find people, or they will go looking for it fearfully, but what people need served to them is good positive news.
I tried hard not to think too hard about what was going on in Boston. The bad news always finds me without any effort on my part. But Boston is my city, so in fact I kept poring over national news sources when I wasn't working on the next week's paper, or mentoring a journalist who came to St. Louis for a few days to study how I manage a weekly newspaper, or going to my band rehearsal, or taking care of family errands.
I got up in the middle of the night on Thursday, which is to say very early Friday morning. There was no good reason for me to be awake. I usually sleep soundly through to the morning (unless I have eaten a bag of jalapeno potato chips, but that was Monday). I drifted to my laptop in the dark and looked for bad news in Boston. I quickly saw the shit had hit the fan in Watertown.
The journalist's instinct of finding the most direct source kicked in, so soon I was following a Reddit post where someone was reporting on the local police scanner and on a number of Twitter users who happened to live in the neighborhood where the shit was hitting the fan. From Reddit I found links to the Boston police scanner and Twitter reporters, and very quickly I left behind the traditional bad news media. The professional reporters seemed to be waiting for official announcements at Arsenal Mall, whereas I was getting raw reports from the front.
Alongside those raw reports, I was also getting bug-eyed speculation. None of the bug-eyed speculation was any more far-fetched than the official report that would emerge later in the early morning. In my sleep deprivation I came to believe one preposterous theory about the identity of the younger bomber. And while my experience as a journalist (who has made every possible mistake as a reporter) kept me from posting my new received opinion publicly, I did wake up my spouse and told her the news I thought she would be hearing in the morning.
When I woke back up, I was reminded why people follow the bad news. It's so full of surprises. The culprits were not the kid the Reddit crowd had focused on but a 19 year-old-wrestler from Cambridge and his 20-something big brother, a Golden Gloves boxer, both from Chechnya by way of Kyrgyzstan. None of us saw that one coming. The nerds on Reddit weren't going there. Most of the cops talking logistics on the Boston scanner probably couldn't find Chechnya or Kyrgyzstan on a map.
The other shocker was that the younger bomber -- known on Reddit the night before as "White Hat," after the color of the ballcap he was wearing backwards when he bombed Boston -- had escaped. When I went to sleep, according to the raw reports from the front, it seemed like a whole lot of armed and armored cops had the kid cornered with his bigger and older accomplice dead. How the hell did he get away?
Though I certainly was not rooting for this kid, far from it, I had to admire his pluck and luck in the dark of the night. He was a cold-blooded killer and a coward of a covert bomber, but he also outran a mob of the much better armed and longer arm of the law. America has traditions of respect for the outlaw and the vigilante. However little he deserved our respect, White Hat seemed to have escaped into those traditions.
I was thinking about these things as I picked up the young journalist who came to St. Louis to study my moves. His name happens to be Jihad Hassan Muhammad. I know, it comes across as a bit much in this age of terror with the evil Other being a Moslem jihadist, but that's the man's chosen name. Jihad is a very devout convert to Islam, and he holds very dear to his heart the devout Muslim principal of jihad, of spiritual struggle with the forces of darkness within us, and the Prophet Muhammad was the Messenger of the faith that saved his soul.
That day, Friday, I made sure Jihad learned from other people at our paper with more to teach him, our publisher Donald M. Suggs and web editor Kenya Vaughn. After all, I had only been teaching him Suggs' model of community journalism, and as a good journalist he needed to hear from the direct source in Suggs himself. And while I manage the challenging operations of a still-thriving print platform, Kenya deals with what people are really reading in the increasingly online real world.
I still had lots of copy to chop and photos to track down if we were to keep moving toward our next deadline, but I kept an eye on Boston. The bad news reports were starting to sound like a not very believable movie. Boston was basically under martial law so that authorities could find one 19-year-old-kid who had escaped on foot. I'm not sure I could have suggested a better idea, given the stakes, but still I was ashamed for our country. Our freedom seemed so fragile. A teenager with a crockpot bomb can paralyze an entire city and put it under temporary martial law.
I bid goodbye to Jihad, whose fiancee was coming to visit, then went to the Missouri History Museum to participate in a fiction reading. When I arrived at the museum, I told one of the other readers, my friend Virvus Jones, that I had not been able to promote our event all week. It just didn't seem important enough, with everything else that was going on. He agreed. He said it had been hard to tear himself away from news coverage to come do the reading.
"Now they got him trapped in his boat," Virvus said.
This was the first I had heard about the teenage terrorist crawling into someone's drydocked boat in the back yard and being discovered there. Virvus had seen the bad news more recently than I had. I more or less raced through our reading without paying much attention to any of it, and then rushed home to read up on the bad news. That's when I learned about the authorities admitting defeat and lifting martial law with a public pronouncement, which freed some yacht club guy in Watertown to step outside for a cigarette. Then he saw the tarp ripped on his pleasure craft, peeked inside and saw the bloody kid hiding there.
This struck me as another gruesome American irony, like the bad man being a kid in a white hat and an entire city going under martial law because of one teenager who escaped on foot. The Boston bombers, if they have identified the right people, are immigrants, and for most of our history immigrants came here on boats. Of course, all of this nightmare was going down in the cradle of the American Revolution, in the old New England founded by settlers who came by sea on ships. And now this little immigrant crock pot bomber was coming to the end of his journey in a boat in a backyard in Watertown.
The American Dream has turned into a really crummy nightmare -- a nightmare in which I wake from sleep in the middle of the night and sit up all morning listening to a police scanner in Boston, when I am supposed to be gathering and distributing good news in St. Louis.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
I was living in New York on September 11, 2001, and still two months later when I attended a schmooze lunch in Midtown Manhattan. It was a time when the grisliest speculation about terrorism and death was mixed up at all times with everything else. I tried to capture this feeling in a disoriented little poem. It's going to be like this in Boston for awhile. Very sorry about that.
SCHMOOZE LUNCH MEMOMidtown Manhattan
it’s the only Rembrandt still for sale, you know,
kudos on your ad deal, your
people are so smart! professional bug blue
eyes, fidgety, fancy room,
shortcomings of my Haitian tailor, relief
from tattoos, sequined choker
of motorcycle mama shredding extra
bread into her vagrant pursed
lips and declining cleavage in a thermal
shirt – Amsterdam! only Old
Master! cell phone talk, table to table,
talking up his talk – no match
for the latest from the price-fixing trial – did you
feel sorry for him? I did,
until I saw him, father kindness, the kind
you can’t tell from predation
until he doesn’t try to take you home – I
think a lot of the bodies
are pulverized; I think some of them are parts.
-- Chris King
Sunday, April 14, 2013
For whatever reason, I have been slow to read most of the American counter-cultural classics. I only got started on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) this winter when my friend Lola van Ella scored it for interactive burlesque, giving me homework to do.
I've not been able to finish that book (there's more in Tropic of Cancer about being famished in Paris than anything sexy), but it did make me pull down from my shelf a later and lesser-known work by Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). I've had a battered Panther Books paperback in my collection for many years without even flirting with reading it.
Yesterday I had four young girls in my care on roller skates at a roller rink, which freed me to sit up in what might generously be called the lobby and do some pleasure reading. And I came across some fascinating stuff in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. The book is basically a venomous anti-American travelogue, Steinbeck's Travels with Charley except where the sidekick is not a dog but a fellow jaded expatriate who fled Paris as Hitler's war was hitting there. Miller and his road buddy miss Paris and France so hard they'd almost rather be back there ducking air raids than driving from state to state on American highways that make Miller see blood red.
He hates just about everything and every place about his native country, but saves special scathing scorn for my city, St. Louis, Missouri, which he sees for the first time in the early 1940s. Henry Miller writes of "the tomb of St. Louis which is called a city, but which is a foul, stinking corpse rising up from the plains like an advertisement of Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'."
The St. Louis of my experience (1985 to present, with interruptions) is very beloved by architects and architectural aficionados (or, as I like to call them when trying to be a rascal, the building huggers). So it really shocked me that Henry Miller found our city to be an architectural monstrosity:
".. this great American city creates the impression that architecture itself has gone mad. The true morbidity of the American soul finds its outlet here. Its hideousness is not only appalling but suffocating. The houses seem to have been decorated with rust, blood, tears, sweat, bile, rheum, and elephant dung."
This makes me want to get out my copy of Bill Streeter's St. Louis documentary Brick by Chance and Fortune to see if he uncovered this quote. If not, maybe it can be included in a second edition, because that sure sounds like an evil-eyed description of our beloved brick houses.
I'll also have to thank Lola for scoring this sourpuss' classic novel for interactive burlesque: for summoning Henry Miller's spirit back to a place he couldn't leave fast enough: "One can imagine the life which goes on there - something a la Theodore Dreiser at his worst. Nothing can terrify me more than the thought of being doomed to spend the rest of my days in such a place."
Love you back, Henry Miller!
There is hope, if Lola conjured Henry Miller's spirit to her interactive burlesque score of Tropic of Cancer, that the author would have taken a more charitable view of St. Louis in 2013, roughly seventy years after his first and presumably only visit to our river city. For in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare Miller begrudgingly praises another Mississippi River city, New Orleans. N'arlins evokes his beloved Paris, of course, but there is more to it: "here at last on this bleak continent," Miller writes of New Orleans, "the sensual pleasures assume the importance which they deserve." Certainly, the same can be said of St. Louis any time Lola is running the show!
The image is Albrecht Durer's 'Melancholia'.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Three St. Louis novelists (all better known for other things) will read excerpts from their work 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 19 in the Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum: T.D. El-Amin, Virvus Jones and Chris King.
The reading is free and open to the public and should last a little over an hour. It will be followed by an afterparty at The Royale public house, 3132 S. Kingshighway.
TD El-Amin will read from his newly published novel, Mia Farone: Lost and Turned Out. A daughter of Italian and African-American parents, the heroine is uprooted from her native Tivoli to the streets of St. Louis, where she falls in with a hustler ten years her senior. The novel tastefully expresses intimacy and sexuality while tactfully combining suspense and intrigue. El-Amin will sell and sign copies of his novel at the reading and afterparty.
Virvus Jones will read from his unpublished novel The Stalking Horse. This autobiographical novel follows a streetwise young black man from North St. Louis as he outgrows his parochial environment and begins to ask questions of the wider world as the Civil Rights Movement explodes around him. It veers in style from the folkloric intimacy of Zora Neale Hurston to the hard, plain speaking of Richard Wright.
Chris King will read from his unpublished novel Big, Black & Good. His novel follows the disintegration of a reality TV show about an obese black rapper named Big Carb. The show's casting call is for a rapper who is "big, black and good," but the young man from North St. Louis who wins the competitive audition turns out to be a little better -- at heart -- than his blaxploitative coproducers bargained for.
TD El-Amin is a former host of the radio program Touching Base with TD and former Missouri state representative. A U.S. Navy veteran, he joined the service in the late 1980s expecting that the world travel would widen his perspective as a writer. Mia Farone: Lost and Turned Out is his first book.
Virvus Jones most recently managed the successful campaign of his daughter Tishaura O. Jones for St. Louis Treasurer. He is a former Comptroller, Assessor and Alderman of St. Louis. He was cofounder of the Political EYE column in The St. Louis American.
Chris King is a producer, filmmaker, musician and journalist. He is creative director of Poetry Scores, which translates poetry into other media, and managing editor of The St. Louis American. His most recent book is a chapbook of poetry, Shape of a Man (Intagliata Imprints, 2012).
For more information, email Chris King at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Poster from a rock & roll safehouse,
Louisville, Kentucky, ca. 1991 (detail) by Rhonda Roberts
Anyone who has ever lived dangerously and loved deeply at the same time has friends whose death would come as no surprise. Theo was always one of those people in my life. I met her more than twenty years ago when we were both what I would now call kids, and even then I wouldn't have been surprised if she had turned up dead. I would have been horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. Theo was courageous, candid, often fearless, and she loved with a wild abandon many things that are very dangerous, even deadly: booze, narcotics, band guys, sex with band guys, a good dare.
Theo has died at age 44. I am horrified and disgusted, angry and profoundly sad, but not surprised. It always seemed like she could go away from us at any time. When social media threw old friends and lovers into each other's arms a few years ago, and Theo and I found one another online, I'll admit that I was pleasantly surprised to find her still alive. I probably would have been less surprised if I had found one of the other girls from the Louisville scene of the early 1990s alive instead and she had told me Theo was no longer with us.
I totally loved Theo. Theo was one of my great teachers. I ran away from graduate school in literature to play rock & roll on the road in 1991 and ran smack dab into Theo and all of her creepy and fabulous friends in Louisville, Kentucky. It's a long story that only matters, at this point, to a few hundred people. We lived the rock & roll dream, playing our music in bars, going home with strangers, waking up in the middle of house parties that turned into unexpected adventures in strange cities. We took each other on the road, from town to town. We evolved shared vocabularies with a widening circle of friends who stayed in touch through original rock & roll music traveling from town to town in battered vans. Media was much less social back then, so it was left to socially gifted people like Theo to connect people and to keep us that way.
We all did a lot of things back then that we probably aught not to have done. But we did them anyway. The problem is these things can be very fun to do when you are young and discovering yourself and have no one else to care for but yourself. Most of the people I know from those days slowed way down and, at some point, began to take care of people other than themselves who needed them to stay alive. So we have stayed alive. I am told that Theo never slowed down very much and, from what I could tell, she seemed to remain her only (considerable) caretaking problem until the end.
I want to be 25 again, and for Theo to be 23. I want to do it all over again and once again to learn from Theo about rock &roll and all those exciting and dangerous things that travel with rock & roll. Because I want to go back there so badly, despite all of the nourishing and thrilling things in my life today, I forgive Theo for never slowing down or completely growing up. If it didn't kill you, it was one hell of a way to live. The rock & roll party all night (and into the next day) journey that Theo took us on was an ecstatic experience. Everyone truly alive that I have ever known was looking for some equivalent of that ecstatic experience. Theo was an expert at creating and freely sharing ecstatic experience. It was, and is, so worth living for.
We owe you, Theodora Collins. We miss you, Theo.
Monday, March 18, 2013
|Photo from Thinksquad.|
War Baby and the Great American Father
A Labor & Delivery Journal
By Chris King
It was so late there was nothing on TV, except the war. So we were watching the war, and my wife Karley was having contractions, coming closer and closer together. When she was down to one contraction every five minutes, it was delivery room time, according to doctor’s orders. It was dawn in Baghdad and the cable news stations were reporting the latest rumor that Saddam Hussein had been bombed to death when we shut off the television set and got on the road.
It had snowed all day – freakishly, because it was April in New York. The day had just barely turned to April 8th as we drove through the Midtown Tunnel into Manhattan. The roads had emptied of traffic in the middle of the night, so I had less of that horrific feeling that a terrorist would detonate a bomb while my pregnant wife and I were driving under the East River. An empty tunnel on a snowy night just didn’t deliver much bang for the buck, if killing infidels was part of the plan.
As Karley writhed in pain in a hospital bed, it was beginning to look like April 8th would be the birthday of our first child. My wife does not like someone hovering over her, especially when she is in pain, so I took a seat nearby and prepared to read a book I had brought along to the hospital. It was a new, scholarly selection of The Journals of Lewis and Clark, the report commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to document the westward expedition that explored the newly purchased Louisiana Territory in the early days of the 19th century. With April 8th on my brain, I paged through the dated journal entries, looking to see how the captains and their men had fared on April 8th, our first baby’s birthday-to-be.
I turned, by chance, to April 8th, 1805. Meriwether Lewis kept the journal that day. The scholarly selection of the journals I had brought with me made no attempt to clean up or modernize the language in the captains’ field reporting, so it reads kind of raw. Captain Lewis noted, “I walked on shore, and visited the black Cat, took leave of him after smoking a pipe as is their custom, and then proceded on slowly by land about four miles where I wated the arrival of the party, at 12 Oclock they came up and informed me that one of the small canoes was behind in distress. Capt Clark returned fou[n]d she had filled with water and all her loading wet. we lost half a bag of bisquit, and about thirty pounds of powder by this accedent; the powder we regard as a serious loss [...]”
Sounds like a pretty crummy day: a canoe full of precious, soaking-wet stuff, of spoiled food and ruined ammunition. At least, confiding his thoughts to his journal, rather than to (say) a journalist embedded with the Corps of Discovery, Captain Lewis didn’t feel compelled to add, “But we are still on pace, according to plan” – the sort of platitude appearing daily in American newspapers carrying reports of journalists embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are rightly remembered as brave explorers, hardy travelers, historic precursors of anyone who ever went overland on a major Western vacation. But they were also captains of a United States military expedition, and 19th century American history is an unbroken story of regime change in Indian country, aided by primitive biological warfare – blankets contaminated by smallpox and measles, handed out freely to tribes with no resistance to those wasting diseases. I couldn’t help but think of the U.S. military of today, openly embarked on violent regime change to oust a latter-day, more highly technological biological warrior in Saddam Hussein.
Unlike the U.S. military leaders moving through Iraq, who didn’t have much time to stop and smell the desert wildflowers, Lewis and Clark were their own embedded journalists. As part of their commission, they were field reporters of geography, plants, animals, and Indians. On April 8th, 1805, the Corps of Discovery was just breaking winter camp at Fort Mandan in what is now North Dakota. After grousing about those thirty pounds of ruined gunpowder, Lewis worked up his winter birding notes:
“The only birds I observed during the winter at Fort Mandan was the Missouri Magpie, a bird of the Corvus genus, the raven in immence numbers, the small woodpecker or sapsucker as they are sometimes called
the beautifull eagle, or calumet bird, so called from the
cicumstance of the natives decorating their pipestems with it’s plumage and the
Prairie Hen or grouse.”
I typed these notes into my handheld gizmo as Karley slumbered, numbed and knocked out by an anesthetic. I was struck by this hasty catalog of birds, how the “beautifull” golden eagle appears wedged in between an unknown woodpecker called the sapsucker and the common grouse. Lewis recognizes the golden eagle’s beauty, he knows its native name (the “calumet bird,” named for a ceremonial pipe), and he has seen and even smoked from pipes bedecked with its “plumage,” which mark them as profoundly holy items. In fact, that was his morning business on that day, April 8th, 1805: he smoked a sacred pipe with a Mandan named Black Cat. Yet all this beauty and holiness is presented as just another logistic. It gets lost in a list between a sapsucker and a grouse.
When the hospital medical staff was hitting Karley up with the epidural anesthetic, I prayed. I was itching to be helpful, and it was the best I could do. Sinking an epidural is a harrowing procedure, involving a needle injecting into the spinal column – one false move and she could get a wicked headache, or worse. If she sat still, though, her wracking labor pains would soon go away. “Tree of life and light,” I prayed, over and over again, in the manner of a mantra, “Tree of life and light, please ease her passage.” It is a fragment of a prayer that I developed one burning hot July at a Sun Dance ceremony in Lakota country. I arrived at the reservation as a creature of logistics, a mere ride home for one of the Sun Dancers, and I left there praying, powerfully swept up in that old-time religion. I drove home from the reservation smelling of sage and tobacco smoked from a holy pipe adorned with eagle plumage.
“Plumage.” I was getting sick of that word, or one of its cognates. I didn’t have much stomach for watching war on television, but I did follow The New York Times’ coverage of the war in Iraq. Embedded journalists don’t have much more time to rework and freshen their prose than Meriwether Lewis did when keeping his field journal in uncertain Indian country, but they do have editors working in the relative safety and comfort of New York City, and I wished their editors would flip off the imagery switch on “plumes.” Iraq was on fire, bombs rained down by the hour, and every one of those damned fires and bombs seemed to be sending “plumes” of smoke into the desert sky.
With the epidural anesthetic in her system, Karley was enjoying her first peace in twenty-four hours. Before the needle, contractions had doubled her up like kicks in the gut; now, she had to ask the nurse to consult a machine to tell her when she last had one.
I hadn’t slept, and I didn't want to sleep. Coffee seemed to be the answer. I made the trek down from the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, to the cafeteria, where I was overjoyed to find hot, strong coffee. It was labeled “French roast,” which brought to mind a new linguistic idiocy – the movement to rebrand “French fries” in the U.S. as “Freedom fries,” because the French government had not opted to join the United States in its pursuit of violent regime change in Iraq. I wondered if one day they would be serving “Freedom roast” coffee in this country too.
Tisch Hospital, operated by New York University, is a prestigious teaching hospital. The place makes you feel like you are getting the most elite health care on the planet. Our private delivery room was enormous. It was bigger than the tiny apartment Karley and I first shared in Queens, which was barely big enough for her alone when I came bumbling along, calling her on a payphone from an Indian reservation in Nebraska. I was taking a break from a brutal religious ceremony, calling everyone I hoped to see at my next stop, in New York City – including that French African woman I had met on the plane.
The elevators and hallways of the hospital were bustling with young, energetic residents and medical students. At age 36, I was having a new feeling when I saw people like them. It was the same feeling I had when I watched professional soldiers on TV. I was just old enough to legitimately feel like matters of life and death – even my own life and death, even the life and death of my wife and unborn child – were left in the hands of kids who didn’t know anything about life or death.
We had a window room for labor and delivery, facing north into the teeth of the Arctic front that had brought us snow in April. The icy wind cutting into the cracks of the windows had the faint sound of a baby’s squall.
Another cup of French roast coffee. “Could you hit ‘8’ for me?” I said in the elevator, on my way back up, and a beefy security guard smiled. “Having babies,” he said, warmly. Even hardened hospital workers brightened when they came across an anxious man bound for the 8th floor, Labor & Delivery, as I learned during the six months we lived in this hospital during the nightmare phase of Karley’s pregnancy. She went a month without eating anything, was fed paste intravenously through a tube: we were a persistent worry on one floor in the hospital reserved for life, not sickness, damage, and death.
A nurse came in who had tended to Karley in the sickbed days. Karley’s blood pressure had spiked, which put her at risk of seizure during labor, so they were adding magnesium to her I.V. to reduce that risk. The magnesium would slow her contractions, so they were starting her on pitocin to counteract that effect and keep her labor moving on schedule. Not for the first time in this pregnancy, I thought of war. I couldn’t possibly count all of the machines tracking and assisting Karley’s progress in delivering this child. Yet many people, in many places, would deliver a baby today with no help other than a pair of hands to catch the infant on the other end. Just as the American military advancing across the desert looked almost ludicrously tricked out with gear and weaponry compared to the Iraqis, who seemed to be wearing nothing but sandals and rags.
With labor on slow idle, and Karley out of pain, I had time to think about other things. Like, who was this Black Cat character? The Mandan guy Meriwether Lewis smoked a sacred pipe with on April 8th, 1805? That was the highlight of Lewis’ day on the date that will be our baby’s birthday, and I have always felt a kinship with Meriwether Lewis, the explorer with the enchanting name and the more personally touching journal entries. Meriwether Lewis always struck me as the moody soul of the expedition, with William Clark its stolid reality principle.
I paged back in the journals, looking for when Black Cat first entered the scene. The captains first encountered him in late October, 1804. He was chief of a Mandan village on the Missouri River that Clark spelled phonetically as Roop tar-hee. By mid-November, Black Cat was consulting earnestly with the captains, sharing the minutes (so to speak) of his tribe’s war councils and listening to Clark’s advice for his people “to remain at peace.” Pacifists will love many such moments in the journals, though it’s a mistake to see them as evidence of a less than hawkish approach to “the Indian problem.” The captains counseled peace because they were not trying to divide the tribes to occupy their land (that would be a later phase of westward expansion). Rather, they were business agents, trying to keep liquid the flow of goods, with the U.S. now installed as their new supplier. Here is Clark’s advice to Black Cat, with motive included: “we advised them to remain at peace & that they might depend upon Getting Supplies through the Channel of the Missouri.”
The Corps’ competitive commercial edge is laid bare later that November, when Black Cat paid another visit to the captains. After receiving “a fiew presents of Curioes Handkerchiefs arms bans & paint with a twist of Tobaco,” the chief got a frank sales pitch. (Of course, this comes from the journal kept by Clark, the square, dull suit.) Apparently, a “British Trader Mr. Le rock” had been “Giveing Meadils & Flags” to the Mandans. Black Cat was ordered by Clark “to impress it on the minds of their nations that those Simbells were not to be recved by any from them, without they wished incur the displieasure of their Great American Father.”
In February of 1805, the Corps of Discovery was still camped with the Mandans when Lewis first took note of Black Cat. True to form, Meriwether meditated on the human being – “this man possesses more integrity, firmness, inteligence and perspicuety of mind than any indian I have met with in this quarter” – before getting down to business: “and I think with a little management he may be made a usefull agent in furthering the views of our government.”
Later that month, Black Cat’s son spent the night in the captains’ camp. I like to think that this Mandan man of intelligence and perspicuity had figured out that the future, for better or for worse, lie in the hands of these Americans, and he wanted his son to study them up close, to see the future for himself.
I worked up these notes on my portable email gizmo at a small table in our Labor & Delivery room, with frequent glances at Karley’s blood pressure and the baby’s heart monitor. My medical interventions, such that they were, consisted of telling Karley to roll onto her side when the baby’s heart rate dropped, which was something I had heard the head nurse tell her to do, and it did seem to do the trick. Not that the hospital staff needed much help getting babies born today. The low pressure system that brings storms also seems to drop babies out of pregnant women, and the ward was swamped with women moving swiftly through labor.
When I found my way back to April 8th, 1805 in the journals, I learned that, browsing for the birthday of our baby, I happened to meet Black Cat just as Meriwether Lewis was saying good-bye to him. That sacred pipe they had shared was actually a going-away smoke, one for the road.
Our final glimpse of Black Cat comes during the Corps’ return journey a year and a half later, when they were high-tailing it back to St. Louis. That’s my hometown, and the ultimate secret of my fascination with Meriwether Lewis, since the Corps of Discovery set forth from St. Louis and the town is steeped in history of the expedition. When the Corps touched down again in Mandan country, briefly, in the spirit of a follow-up call to a new potential client, Black Cat was one of several chiefs who expressed interest in voyaging with them to Washington. In the end, though, he bowed to flinty realism. His people had been lost in the hell of war while the Corps of Discovery tramped its way to the west coast and back. Their primary enemy, the Sioux, “were on the river below and would Certainly kill him if he attempted to go down,” Clark noted, and though Clark promised that the captains “would not Suffer those indians to hurt any of our red Children who Should think proper to accompany us,” Black Cat wasn’t buying any of it. He stayed put. Perhaps he had his doubts about the Great American Father’s ability, or even desire, to protect “his little red children” when Great American Father was doing his own business.
Karley had so many tubes sticking out of her she took on the appearance of a machine. The nurses carefully checked her fluids and her pressures, like skilled mechanics anxious about the machine’s ability to perform in the clutch. The analogy showed its limits, however, as the head nurse bent down to admire the sharp curves of Karley’s cheekbones and the dark almonds of her eyes, and expressed hope (this American father hoping right along with her) that faithful copies of those features were inching from her womb toward the future.
Because I didn’t want to dwell morbidly on Karley’s high blood pressure, I kept thinking about that British trader in Mandan country, and how Clark had warned the Indians against doing business with him lest they anger their Great American Father. It sounded so familiar. I paged back to late November, 1804, and found a passage in Clark’s journal where he actually confronted the competition, the trader Mr. La Rock, who was in-country at the same time as the Corps of Discovery. Clark noted of La Rock that “we informed him what we had herd of his intentions of makeing Chiefs &c. and forbid him to give meadels or flags to the Indians.” Wait a minute. Making chiefs? Sure enough, paging back farther, there was Clark gathering intelligence about the various local leaders, and there he was handing out medals, bestowing his vision of rank among the Mandans. So his message to Mr. La Rock was: run along, now, we’ve already decided who are the chiefs and who are the Indians around here – and they are our captive market. That speech hasn’t changed much in 200 years. Now the Great American Father is picking himself some new chiefs to help him topple the old chief in Iraq, where he’s trying to hold an oil market captive.
April 8th didn’t mean anything to me before today. But April 7th did, and not only because that was the date our baby had been predicted to appear. It is also the date on which my father was born, though I didn’t know that until I told my mother the due date of her grandchild. And that’s because I never really knew my dad, who wasn’t such a great American father.
But I couldn’t help noticing that April 7th, my father’s birthday, was a much better day for Meriwether Lewis in 1805 than April 8th was. In fact, Lewis wrote a very famous passage on April 7th, 1805, one that shines with all the eloquence he brought to the journals:
“We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves. entertaining as I do, the most confident hope of succeading in a voyage which had formed a da[r]ling project of mine for the last ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as among the most happy of my life.”
His very next journal entry was his farewell to Black Cat on April 8th, a day of soggy biscuits and ruined gunpowder, the first day of the rest of his life, a life that ended violently, in apparent suicide: pulling the trigger on a gun aimed at his own head.
I worried about having a war baby. What would I say? “I remember the day you were born. Your countrymen were applauding the 21st century’s first colonial war. We were taking over a distant stretch of desert because there is oil buried there.” But then, I was a war baby, born in 1966 in the throes of Vietnam, and I don’t remember any of its images, though they must have flashed many times across my infant face. Karley’s home country, Togo, was torn by military coups in the years of her earliest childhood. It’s probably true that we are all war babies, thrust with agony to she who nurtured us into a world of chaos and violence.
The doctor said the baby’s head was a little lower now, a little further from warmth and comfort, a little closer to the future. Already with a plastic stick the doctor slit the baby’s bubble of fluid, its first supportive ocean now a bloody stain in a dirty hospital hamper. The opening that would let this life into the light was a little wider, now, since the last time anybody checked with rubber-gloved fingers. Karley, drugged, whistled with a tiny snore. April was weird and cold and white outside the window. A baby’s heart was knocking, knocking, knocking on our door.
Leyla Fern King at birth
Saturday, February 2, 2013
The Kind Artists opened a group show at Mad Art last night. I follow most of these artists pretty closely in social media, so sort of thought I knew where they all are. That's not a bad thing about social media, getting to share your friends' artistic process very casually.
So I knew Jay Alan Babcock has been doing repetitive, detailed drawings and paintings based on school Yearbook photos from a more socially conformist era. That didn't make his work any less exciting to see in person and to scale, since a couple of these paintings are just enormous. I found myself transported mentally to some offbeat public space, like a gym at a monied private school or a cafeteria at Google corporate, where someone had the sense to invest in one of these giant pieces and leave it standing there in front of people all the time.
I have seen Deb Douglas' work in person fairly recently (for an overcommitted parent like me) so knew what to expect from her, but enjoyed seeing a long line of these pleasing mixed-media pieces she is doing that mix archival images with her own drawings and then titled in ways that often introduce a conceptual component. I was personally gratified to see her showing again my favorite in this line of hers, "We have no quinces," which Deb did for the Poetry Scores invitational to Embirikos. That piece is the first sight when you enter the show, so I felt a part of this kindly community.
I also get out of the house to see Jeremy Rabus shows better than most, and he engages with his process fairly openly in social media, so I wasn't surprised by his part of the show either, but was again delighted to see it played out to scale. He had what must have been dozens of small, oddly shaped, brightly colored paintings arranged in a scattered way on half of Mad Art's long western wall. I thought of Guided By Voices and all of their endless, brilliant two-minute songs, all of them somehow different than the others -- and beautiful -- no matter how many you hear. Jeremy's little paintings were like that.
With Timothy Meehan, I was less sure what to expect. What I see from Tim's work at a glance on social media is all over the map, and I don't think I have seen a good grouping of his art in person before last night. I just loved his work in this group show. These blunt paintings had compositional elements from some of my favorite printmakers -- Melina Rodrigo kept coming to mind. His titles tried a variety of conceptual approaches to what seemed to my eye a very connected body of work with primitive, natural, earthen patterns and tones. If I had $400 to spend on art and a wall to hang something on, I was a Meehan buyer last night.
I didn't know what to expect from Amy Bautz either. I have known her for years and collaborated with her for the first time when we were both what I would now call "kids," but we haven't been as closely connected in recent years and, from what I have observed, she seems to change things up a lot as an artist. In this show she has intricate, eccentric drawings of natural forms, though when she happens to be drawing a natural form that hangs suspended from a plastic clip, the plastic clip gets the same electric, kooky, adoring attention from her.
The scale of Mad Art, I appreciated last night, is great for a small group show, because everyone really gets to stretch out. In their own ways, each of these artists stretched out in this ample space and aggressively demonstrated what they were up to. That's exciting of itself, but there is the added dimension that they are pointedly doing this as a group with a brand, as it were, that suggests kindred spirits who are kindly disposed. That suits me, and the St. Louis creative community, just fine.
They even went so far as to pose for a really handsome portrait, in matching suits and obviously made-up for the camera. They treat themselves as the early Beatles. And why not? Why should musicians be the only artists who get that unique kick that comes from being in a band?
Imaged, poached from Jay Alan Babcock's online photos, is I think one of the pieces in this show.
Thursday, January 31, 2013
I seized a rare night out recently to reconnect with some buddies from the burlesque scene. My friends Lola and Kyla, and their friends who became my friends, skyrocketed not long after we started hanging out and now there is just no keeping up with them (especially if you're a parent with a day job).
Hanging out with them on Cherokee Stree the other night, Lola gave an eloquent pitch for why my road dog John Parker and I needed to see the elevation of their act in the Naughti Gras 6 show, where they have been allowed to completely reconceive the Koken space for their sexy (and hilarious) theatrics.
I'll admit I'm the guy who was there in the early days but then didn't keep up as the showmanship developed and then exploded, and Lola was giving me the business about this, going so far as to jab me in the chest as she made her points and to address me by my first and my last names.
I was kind of being put on notice. I was expected to see the new big show!
Then she added a personal persuasive note by pointing out a key role in the new production for Dewy de Cimalle. "I know she's your favorite," Lola said.
So that was that. Talked me into it. Put aside some time. We're going to go see the new big show!
Speaking of Dewy de Cimalle, the above image of Dewy is by Carrie Meyer of Insomniac Studio. A beautiful canvas print of this naughty librarian portrait is available at St. Louis Curio Shoppe.
Monday, January 21, 2013
On Friday night I went to the inaugural release party for the new Tower Groove Records singles club. By paying up front for a year of once-monthly releases, you get twelve new vinyl 7" records, each a split single between two local bands, for a bargain basement $5 per record.
I'm taking the trouble to post this hoping I can drum up some subscriptions for these guys. You can do that over on the Tower Groove website. I operate my hobbies on a cash economy basis, so I had lunch at Mangia and handed Jason Hutto $60 in cold cash for my subscription. Tower Groove printed up some carbons, so I even walked with a receipt which I have kept as a sort of badge or ersatz membership card.
At the record release party on Friday at Off Broadway, they had my name at the table, sure enough, so I collected on my first Tower Groove 7". This one pairs Old Lights, a personal local favorite, with Demonlover, a feisty, unpredictable trio.
The Old Lights song, "Blocking out the Sun," was written by bassist and co-frontman Kit Hamon, who sings like a power pop angel. It's hook-laden rock & roll in the legacy of Revolver, with that tuneful two-electric-guitar sound that never gets old. Beth Bombara's keyboards add an additional melody line and tasteful punctuation. The song itself is of that enviable sort where every part of it would work as a hook ... and it has four or five parts, four or five legitimate hooks, with dynamic, surging changes between them. The closest equivalent from my era of the St. Louis scene (the late '80s, early '90s) would be The Lettuceheads led by Carl Pandolfi.
Demonlover's song, "MC5 U in My Dreams," reminds me of my favorite Butthole Surfers records, like Locust Abortion Technician or Cream Corn. It opens with this abrasive but catchy punk song that turns into a meandering noise improvisation. I don't mean noise like hideous loud, I mean noise like Sad Lewis or Eric Hall, where the character of the sounds is what is being played. I liked these guys enough to look them up and read on the KDHX blog where they fretted that the instruments they are writing on will be audible at a live gig. I can see why, listening to the noise part of this song -- chimes, keys, sousaphone, glockenspiel, and vocals sung as from a warbling victrola.
The live show on Friday was full of surprises. I had never seen Old Lights, though I have one LP, Every Night Begins the Same, and their contribution to the Tower Groove double record, "We Laid Down." I was interested to see that both of their Tower Groove songs thus far are written and fronted by Kit Hamon, because the other front man, David Beeman, has such absorbing frontman charisma. He was dressed like a grunge rocker, flannel and jeans, but had his jeans cuffed like a rockabilly dude and wore the indoors ski cap of the 21st century hipster. Then an instrumental break hits, and suddenly he's is pogoing and swishing his guitar around the stage like a Mod -- or like a man who is very secure in his masculinity. This guy is a true new hybrid of the rock band frontman. Best of all, he is unpretentious and likeable in doing so. "Come in," he said to the people standing half-way back on the dance floor. "Come in." And we came in closer to the stage.
Demonlover also has a peculiar and fascinating frontman in Andy, as he is credited on the 7", though I gather from Dana Smith his last name is Lashier. When Andy isn't plunking around and making noise, he is a left-handed bass player who sings in two mics, one of them wildly inflected and distorted. He is one of those guys who has a very personal relationship with his instrument and the process of performing -- he's so possessed, it's hard to take your eyes off him. He is also flat-out goofy. He sort of jogs in place in these battered black workboots when he is stuck there in front of one of his mics for any stretch of time. I only regret to report that Andy seemed to have forgotten his belt or prefers not to be thus restrained, and as the gig wore on he took on a new southside rocker variant of saggin', which is not the sort of unique frontmen hybrid we want to promote here at Confluence City. Andy is backed by Rage, as per the 7", who seemed to be the short-haired incarnation of JJ Hamon, who can do no wrong on any instrument, ever.
Image is of my new Old Lights / Demon lover 7" on the portable record player my buddy Jocko gave me. No excuses for not listening to vinyl when you can still buy these guys for $20, though Tower Groove records also come up digital download codes.
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
I grew up in the St. Louis media writing for The Riverfront Times when Ray Hartmann owned the paper. That RFT always ran a media column that I thought did a good job of stirring up the proverbial and reminding us what we were talking about and how we were talking about it.
If St. Louis still had a good media column and it was handing out media persons of the year awards, Thomas Crone would merit an award for something. Crone had a Zelig-like ubiquity in 2012, he was everywhere doing everything, and it was some of his best stuff.
I won't pretend to have kept up with all of it, but there was a Second Set series on The Beacon where Crone got nostalgic in public, but he had so much to say and said it so well that his nostalgia was well worth sharing. He also seemed to be always blogging about good things for our mutual friend Stefene Russell who keeps the gate on the St. Louis Magazine arts blogs.
I thought he did his best work of all -- in 2012 and to date -- on his own project Half Order Fried Rice, a multimedia mockumentary project. Crone invented a series of fake lists where St. Louis placed, as the city always does place in real life on assorted national lists of cities with (for example) the best drinking water, most violent crime and worst racial segregation.
A Half Order Fried Rice episode comes with a brainiac prose piece by Crone, some seriously witty and insightful post-modern banter, that eventually introduces a piece of improvised sketch comedy. Like the rest of us amateur directors in St. Louis, Crone casts his friends as amateur actors, to uneven but frequently totally hilarious effect.
In Half Order Fried Rice, however, Crone developed a problem that is new for him (but painfully familiar to me). He had so much going on that it was difficult to figure out at a glance what was going on and who should take the time to experience it.
I volunteered production advice to him, as an old friend and creative partner. I thought he should keep the brilliant title "Half Order Fried Rice" for his production company, such that it is, and retitle this web series "St. Louis: City of Lists." I thought that series title would really draw in the sizable regional audience that would appreciate what he was doing.
Alas, as usually happens when I or anyone else volunteers unsolicited production advice to anyone else, Crone kept right on doing what he was doing the way he was doing it.
I acted in a couple of episodes of Half Order Fried Rice and especially enjoyed acting in and then watching the Mumblecore episode. I thought Crone got some pretty good improvised sketch comedy out of Kevin Arndt, Amy Broadway and me playing a Mumblecore moviemaking unit.
In what was a very good year for the Crone, he also gave me probably my single most satisfying experience as a working amateur artist in St. Louis in 2012: acting in this Half Order Fried Rice episode, on the same day the great improv actor George Malich went in for his second, and final, brain surgery, in a hospital about a mile from where we were shooting on the Hill.
Photo is of Crone as Capt. Buster Jangles in the Poetry Scores movie I directed, Go South for Animal Index (which will premiere June 16, 2013 in Istanbul). Yes, Crone was all over the media map as an actor as well.
Monday, November 5, 2012
I am really excited about this new song from St. Louis rock band Fire Dog, "Prelude," featuring The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which appears on the new Fire Dog record May These Changes that the band is releasing tomorrow, Tuesday, Nov. 6, with a 7:30 post-election show at Sheldon Concert Hall, 3648 Washington Ave.
"Prelude" by Fire Dog by Poetry Scores
I heard "Prelude" on a five-song sampler of the new record, leaked to me by a friend of the band. The other songs are totally different -- they have lyrics and vocals and are more standard local rock band song fare, though really good stuff in that vein. (Except for "M.A.N.," which is white rap and space soul, and not so good stuff in that vein.)
My link to the band is Rebecca S. Rivas, the supremely gifted staff reporter and video producer I was fortunate to recommend to my employer, The St. Louis American, for employment. Rivas, who is the spouse of Fire Dog frontman Mark Pagano, has produced a video to the song "Transformer" from the new record.
I appreciate Rivas for turning me onto the new Fire Dog record. It took a little courage for her to do so, since Fire Dog is one of the running jokes in our newsroom. I have been in some bands with stupid band names, so I aught to know, but I find it hard to take the band's name seriously. As a result, when I ask about her husband's band, I ask about Water Emu, Earth Sloth, Air Hyena, or Fire Aardvark, but never, God help me, Fire Dog.
I am sure much more about that there new record and that there record release show is to be had on that there Fire Dog website.
Image borrowed from Bring Fido.
More in this seriesBootblogging #1: Three by The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #2: Three elegies for local musicians
Bootblogging #3: Michael Shannon Friedman
Bootblogging #4: Three more by The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #5: Chuck Reinhart's guitar circle hits
Bootblogging #6: The silly side of The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #7: Songs for "Divorcing God"
Bootblogging #8: More songs for "Divorcing God
Bootblogging #9: Adam Long presents The Imps!
Bootblogging #10: More Michael Shannon Friedman
Bootblogging #11: The Adversary Workers
Bootblogging #12: The May Day Orchestra
Bootblogging #13: Solo Career live in Santa Monica
Bootblogging #14: Four from The Funhouse (Seattle punk)
Bootblogging #15: Four more from The Funhouse (Seattle punk rock)
Bootblogging #16: I will be your volunteer! (for Bob Slate)
Bootblogging #17: Yet more The Lettuce Heads
Bootblogging #18: Four by Russell Hoke
Bootblogging #19: Krakersy (is Crackers in Polish)
Bootblogging #20- Four by Grandpa's Ghost
Bootblogging #21: Eight by Jaime Gartelos
Bootblogging #22: Five by Bob Reuter
Bootblogging #23: Three by the Heebie Jeebies