“Every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.”
-Sofia Serrano; Vanilla Sky
“Nothing is more horrifying than the possibility that you will just fade away into obscurity. The idea that I would just fall off the map was paralyzingly horrifying, and it was a real possibility.”
-Marc Maron; Interview in The Believer
There’s nothing quite like the peculiar, giddy haze of sleep-deprivation, an early-morning flight, a return to home soil, the Thanksgiving holiday, and a drive up The Great Highway toward the Golden Gate on a crisp, sunny November Thursday to give you a new lease on life.
Of course, I would never claim that is the absolute exact formula, in this case or any other. If you take a holistic view of such things, as I try to, there are a thousand unseen ingredients at work in any concoction worth its salt (itself an obvious and essential ingredient in just about any recipe, literal or figurative). It’s alchemical, metaphysical and astrological. Magical, illogical, bio-chemical and astrophysical. Innumerable striations, interstices, and minutiae all factor into the precise shape and trajectory of any particular body through space. Around us, a cosmic wave of elementary particles, sorcery, luck, synchronicity, Newtonian law, and God drives the infinite, ungraspable apparatus of fate.
Or maybe it’s just fucking random. I don’t know.
What I’m getting at here, is that regardless of the particular shadow-shapes on our ontological wall, sometimes we arrive somewhere, and even in hindsight, it’s not always easy to determine exactly how the hell we got there. But somehow it still makes complete sense.
The last time I wrote anything like a column, it was just over three years ago, a serial piece called Empty Hands, for the late, great Wordsmoker (R.I.P). Fresh on the rocks from a devastating breakup, I plunged into booze and zen and rocknroll for the cure, and poured it all into a stream of words that I hoped just might form some elixir that would effectively numb the pain. What gushed out was verbose and tortured and barely sane, with maybe a few accidental wisps of grace– the mutant wannabe spawn of Alan Watts and Lester Bangs. I was at the end of my existential rope, dangling over a deep and terrible chasm, with no other rope in sight. So I howled into the vacuum of cyberspace about history and art and suicide, lost heroes and heartbreak, the end of the world and what I saw as a rapidly fading hope for redemption– through meditation, gospel music, self-immolation, self-deprecation, and drugs. My (not so) secret plan was to burn to dust in the atmosphere, before the age of forty– tragic and unsung, a legacy of tears and wreckage the best I could muster for loved ones to remember me by. At my funeral, beautiful women I’d never even realized had loved me, on their knees, faces streaked with tears and fists to the sky–
He was so passionate, so misunderstood, why didn’t we love him more?!
Egads. An utterly atrocious and unoriginal plan, I know, and I’m sure at least 9 out of 10 life-coaches would agree. Fortunately, somehow I was able to abandon it. Just as the final threads were stripping away beneath my sweaty grip, through some miracle, I found a way to swing to another rope and on to some semblance of safety and sanity. Which is sometimes the best you can hope for in this bloody, bewildering, bile-swilling, ball-busting, bass-ackwards life we’re born into– to pull yourself out of the quagmire. That old adage about getting knocked down seven times and getting up eight. Sometimes just merely surviving is the most glorious thing you can do. Your personal K2 might only be a foot high, in the shape of a whiskey bottle, but it’ll choke your blood and freeze your soul just as treacherously as any mountain.
They say you can drown in two inches of water. Well mister, lemme tell you, you can sure as hell drown in two inches of Jim Beam.
Now here I was on the Marin Airporter bus, about two years hence, sober as a samurai, when the lightbulb flickered on.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but something about the annual holiday trip home has a stirring effect on me. Last year at Christmas, I watched an amazing YouTube video of Louis CK performing for troops in Afghanistan, doing his material from Chewed Up, and he brought such joy to that crowd, in the self-deprecating, irreverent, beautiful way that he does; just twenty-five minutes of non-stop laughter in a room full of people whose day to day lives are filled with more tension and dreariness than most of us can fathom. What a gift that was, to be able to do that for people, and I couldn’t help but be inspired to put my own chops, whatever they might be, to use in a similar way. Not necessarily through gut-busting laughter, or the same articulate observational genius, but with the same generosity of spirit, the same sense of heart-piercing wonder and gratitude; fearless, feisty, no-bullshit… Give ’em the gin-u-wine article.
This time around, Thanksgiving Day 2013, looking out at the cold, grey waves crashing onto Ocean Beach, and the joggers, strollers, stragglers and bums ambling through the breezy California sunlight, I was thinking about Robbie Robertson and Marc Maron. For unrelated reasons, as it were, but still, some easy similarities could be found — both fiercely intelligent hipster storytellers with alliterative names and innumerable second lives, ever overshadowed by their even more brilliantly illuminated contemporaries, yet nevertheless, grizzled iconic veterans in their respective fields.
Robbie Roberston, via The Last Waltz, is never far from my mind on Thanksgiving Day. I was thinking about the show I had coming up back in Portland, and I fantasized about dressing just like him, the coolest cat in rocknroll– flared slacks, open-collared white shirt, dark blazer, and the requisite dandy touch– a long silk pink scarf. I’d read an article about him on the plane, and the man just keeps going, keeps answering the call. In it he discusses his innumerable current projects– the soundtrack for Wolf of Wall Street, a book about great musicians, a children’s book, the re-mixing of The Band’s record Live at the Academy Theater 1971, and the new house he just bought so that he could hole up and finish his autobiography.
It made me think of an older article about his last visit with Levon Helm in the hospital, as the latter was nearing death from cancer, two estranged friends and former partners at the tail end of an epic feud that had lasted nearly forty years. Back in 1976, Helm was so pissed about Robertson allegedly breaking up The Band, and what he saw as crooked financial arrangements orchestrated by Robertson and the owlish, notoriously tight-fisted manager Albert Grossman, that he only committed to The Last Waltz at the insistence of his attorney, who advised him: “Do it, puke, and get out.”
Helm, as the record shows, did anything but phone it in. It’s one of the most searing musical performances ever committed to film. Amidst so much coke-jazzed camaraderie and star-studded glitz, his passion and talent and tightly subdued animosity make him both the quiet, autonomous anchor and frothing centerpiece of a legendary musical maelstrom.
The article divulges few details about what was said between the two in that hospital room, but one can speculate with his own heart. So many years of memories, bitterness, laughter, madness, resentment, music, collaboration, jealousy, and whatever else transpires between two such people over fifty plus years, now all just a quiet murmur in a room where breathing is shallow and the air is sterile, machines pump and crank and churn with vain efficiency, and life is ever so short. All regret subdued, every hard word left unsaid, and all that is left is love and the sustained, earnest prayer for the best that can come from every second of this strange, wild, heavenly life…
As the bus wound past The Cliff House, I was listening to Faces on the Radio, the just over a year old podcast, a chummy pop culture chat helmed by Arya, Yousef, and Hollister, good friends and PDX men-about-town. The weekly show features a topic and a special guest, and that week it was irascible poet and former Backspace (R.I.P.) fixture, Johnny No Bueno, jabbering amiably about the history of what is, and more importantly, if such things matter to you, what is not punk rock. On the whole, the show is insightful and casual, giving you the feel that you’re in the room with the hosts, part of the conversation. The coverage is broad and thorough, delving into music and other media on both a global/national and micro-local scale, and the fellas bring to the discourse the jostle and verve of something akin to sports talk radio.
October 2012, the three friends were sitting at the Doug Fir during The Crocodiles show, shooting the bull about music– dropping dimes, dishing zingers, spinning opinions on the sorry minions– when they decided it was finally time to share the conversation with the world at large. The idea had been long gestating, and suddenly the time to finally manifest it seemed clear. As Arya said during the one year anniversary episode, to the inevitable question “Why another podcast?” the answer really was “Why not another podcast?”
Why not indeed? The podcast is a scrappy, tenacious little beast, the natural evolution of the radio show, plopped right into the unregulated wilds of the 21st century cyberscape. It is a medium no longer under the powerful thumb of the “gatekeepers”– those shadowy monoliths, corporate and otherwise, that under the guise of taste and quality control, curate not art or entertainment, but power and profit on the grand scale. Of course, a world of free, unfettered expression, especially within a culture that glorifies the specialness of the individual, can be a swamp of narcissistic self-glorification and a sickly hive of people’s worst neurotic, fetishistic and criminal tendencies. All the more reason for more savvy, genuine souls to enter the fray. A million voices speaking in monologue do not make a democracy make, yet any voice charged with passion and humanity will turn heads, even if it never manages to rise above the din of Me Me Me Me Me...
Marc Maron, the man with whom the entire podcast medium is often associated, started his show WTF at the bottom of a deep mid-life gutter. Twice-divorced, desperately lonely, feeling alienated from most of his comedy peers, and recently laid off from his Air America show, Morning Sedition, he claims he “just needed to talk to people again.” So, still in possession of the keys, he hijacked his empty Air America office and recorded some interviews with old friends in the comedy world and broadcast them on the internet, inadvertently spearheading what was fast becoming a cultural phenomenon.
His characteristic style is earnest, neurotic, soul-baring, self-deprecatingly self-involved, jaded as hell, and shot through with a clear and abiding love of comedy, his guests, and the culture at large. He records in his garage, dubbed the Cat Ranch (after his three cats, natch), where guests flip through his books and records and old photos, and in unkempt hotel rooms around the country, informal places where heavy hitters and also-rans alike can sit down and give interviews that often end up as unguarded, one-of-a-kind, off -the- record type confessionals. Maron is smart and easy-going in conversation, and has history and rapport with a lot of his guests. He is completely willing to lay his own guts on the table, and he invites the same from those sitting across from him. Comedian Todd Glass came out of the closet on the show; The Onion‘s Todd Hanson detailed his struggles with depression and attempted suicide; Carlos Mencia copped to his widely-loathed habit of stealing jokes; Robin Williams gave a sweet and personal interview about addiction and relapse, and on and on through hundreds of episodes.
The most striking thing about the show is that in addition to being a window into the creative and personal lives of so many amazing guests, it is clearly a soul-saving resurrection for the host himself. He and his old estranged friend, the great Louis CK, over the course of their 2-part conversation, had what gradually became an on-air reconciliation. Just by talking for a few hours, for the first time in in a long while, they were able to transform years of misunderstanding, resentment, and envy into something more like acceptance–perhaps even forgiveness– and through shared memories and experience, unearth the deep well of love and respect between them. The experience is prickly at times, and not always easy to listen to, but in the end, the result is something raw and human and beautiful, unlike any interview I’ve ever heard.
During the excellent Judd Apatow episode, Maron points out that his favorite scene from Freaks and Geeks is the one where Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) comforts himself during a certain adolescent crisis by snacking and watching Garry Shandling on television, and in the course of The Who song “I’m One,” goes from sulking morosely to laughing so hard that food is falling out of his mouth. Said Apatow:
“After we made [that scene], [director and series producer] Jake Kasdan said to me ‘That’s the most personal thing you’ve ever done in your career, and it’s the best thing you’ve ever done.’ …That was probably the turning point in my career, when I realized that the little moments, that I thought were boring or just not interesting to other people, are actually the things that people would be most interested about in my work…. These little things that happened to me are what people connect with.”
I have never really agreed with Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American lives. How can I? I’m a 41 year-old recovering alcoholic, never married, with no kids, writing checks at the grocery store for $.69 like The Dude, sans one iota of his stoned-out, zen-freak, bowling-bum, it’s-all-good (except for The Eagles) cool. There better be a goddamned Second Act! Amirite?
Regardless, I think the quote is generally misconstrued, as quotes so often are. It’s usually trotted out as a naive miscalculation, a bit of half-baked cynicism, used ironically to introduce the profile of some notable American (like Maron, perhaps, or Robertson, or Helm), who has, by all appearances, begun a second act of some sort. The line is taken from the notes for his unfinished last novel, published after his death in 1940 as The Last Tycoon (later changed to The Love of the Last Tycoon), where it stands alone, without context. However, he had actually already written the following several years before, in a 1932 essay entitled “My Lost City.”
“I once thought there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”
So, it would appear that this was a concept over which he had long been deliberating. It is difficult to tell exactly what he meant by it. Perhaps that from early on, we Americans are too easily lost in the singular sweep of our careers and marriages, prone to live out thoughtless, automatic trajectories through a graying landscape of missed opportunities and gnawing regret. Or that in the American Life, with its surging pace of progress, there is no middle act, where the fruits of early labors can be expanded upon and enjoyed; rather, at some point in the midst of it all, ground down by incessant labor and repressed dreams, we merely slip straight into old age and decline. Somehow, the common implication, that there are no second chances whatsoever, seems too pessimistic for even the jaded tragedian he’d become in his latter years.
Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44, his nerves and internal organs long-ravaged by the spirits he had been gulping with feverish desperation since his Princeton days. Still, it can be argued that in his short time he himself had pulled off a rather significant literary Second Act. After a sensational debut in the 1920s with his early “Jazz Age” novels (This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby), which made him an immediate star, coupled with an unprecedented commercial success from a steady stream of short story masterpieces, within a few years he plunged into a decade-long psychic and financial spiral, spurred by alcoholism, self-doubt, the progression of his wife’s schizophrenia, and his infatuation with another woman.
Nine years after the universally acclaimed Gatsby, he finally published Tender is the Night, over which he had been toiling ever since he’d finished the former, and which was his most nakedly autobiographical novel, based as it was on his own chaotic marriage and infidelity. In 1935, when the novel appeared, it was greeted by critics with a host of raised eyebrows and pained sighs, mostly for what was perceived as a lazy narrative and a glut of aimless wallowing. Even so, most critics couldn’t help but acknowledge that his unearthly command of language was as compelling as ever, as was his unrivaled gift for crafting radiant, breathtaking turns of phrase. Since then, the book’s reputation has grown, and has earned its rightful place in the American canon, but at the time its lukewarm reception was a devastating blow to the author’s already fragile peace of mind.
In 1937, Scott and Zelda settled in Hollywood, where he began earning more than he ever had, churning out dozens of stories and film scripts. Though the alcohol and mental illness continued to erode their inner lives, his income had at least returned to a level that could sustain the outward opulence they’d become accustomed to after his early success, and which had subsequently, during the fallow period that followed, driven them to accrue mountains of debt. This financial resurgence, especially given that it was right in the middle of The Great Depression, was a remarkable feat; yet it was never enough to appease his artistic vanity. His old friend Hemingway’s vicious ribbing about his “whoring” tendencies had never quite left his conscience. During the last two years before his death, he wrote a slew of stories for Esquire about Pat Hobby, a washed up, downtrodden, alcoholic screenwriter; essentially a stand-in for himself, whom he put through the ringer again and again in recurring bouts of self-mocking penance.
Every writer strives to write sentences like this (from Tender):
“It was a pleasant drive back to the hotel in the late afternoon, above a sea as mysteriously colored as the agates and cornelians of childhood, green as green milk, blue as laundry water, wine dark.”
“And as the moon began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Even the purest, most ascetic artist would, at the very least, be tempted by his level of financial and critical success. Still, Fitzgerald the tortured genius, can be for me merely another cautionary tale. He is the old model, a wayward tragedy straight out of Empty Hands. I can no longer emulate that kind of artist, even if I wanted to. That mode ground me down to within inches of oblivion, with not a speck of genius (or scratch) to show for it. Just the torture.
Still, every now and then, it’s hard to not miss it all just ever so little.
The Airporter pulled into the parking lot of the Larkspur stop at about 11 am. As I stepped onto the bright, cool pavement of my hometown, bags in hand, I knew right then and there that I was going to start this website. I felt like I had been warming my hands in the clay for a long while, kneading, scraping, mulling, and suddenly I knew exactly what shape it wanted to take. I wanted to write about Robertson and Helm, and to channel Maron, to give FOTR a shout out. I also wanted to discover other places and things along the way, things I didn’t know I wanted to know, and I knew the way to do that was by doing it right here, right now, exactly the way you are reading it.
I spent that holiday weekend catching up with my family and friends, being hypnotized by my baby niece’s ridiculously beautiful eyelashes, and tramping along Andy Goldsworthy’s massive eucalyptus log serpent in the Presidio, all the while pondering how this would all come into being.
Why another blog? had already been answered. What remained was where to go from there, and how to do it. I didn’t want it to be just any blog. In fact, I didn’t want it to be a blog at all. So then… it would have to be a blob! If 1999 was the Year of the Blog, then 2014 would be The Year of the Blob. Most importantly, I didn’t want this to be just me blabbering at you endlessly about all of my own obsessive nonsense. What I really wanted was to be surrounded by the beautiful, talented people you see above and below me. Take the drunks from a bunch of different choirs and put them all together, each singing loudly and off key, in our own grand, barbaric, proudly dissonant Rite of Spring.
The ideas continued to germinate, and were in full flower when I returned to Portland. The day after I got back I was shooting the breeze with Tommy, and we were discussing the uncanny relationship between the Muse and the Zeitgeist; how when you’re really onto something creatively, it will start to show up in the world around you, and if you aren’t diligent about manifesting it yourself, it’s likely that someone else will beat you to the punch. It has happened to me countless times– simmering, misshapen ideas usurped by people with more talent, more vision, more resources, more passion, and of course, they’re doing it all wrong! Tommy had been seeing exact scenes from his unfinished screenplay pop up all over the place, to the point that he was going out of his way to see any movies that might have thematic similarities to his, just so he could see more of these scenes unfold before him. The lesson we both took from this was that when you feel like you’re onto something, you probably are.
We started talking about the blob, and when he told me he’d once helmed his own blog, with what sounded like a comical, surrealist-provocateur, meta-guerilla slant, I quickly roped him into my evil plan, and he agreed (for the sum of 1.5 million dollars) to help with the site. The next day we ran into each other in the lobby after a matinee of Nebraska, realizing we’d both just sat in the same theater without knowing it. Nebraska, with Bruce Dern playing a Midwestern, mildly catatonic Willy Loman, had a number of elements in common with his script. The next night, I watched Lawless, and the opening scene, where the boys force their younger brother to shoot a pig, was exactly the same scene he had described two nights before, without mentioning what movie it was from. I wrote him an email the next day and mentioned how fortuitous the series of consequences seemed. I could almost see the sly grin when he replied:
“[That’s] what Kesey called The Big Sync.”
* * *
“It’s not the violence that sets a man apart.” says Forrest Bondurant to his younger brother in Lawless, after the latter was viciously pummeled by Rakes, the slick dandy weasel and Chicago Fed played by a nearly unrecognizable Guy Pearce. “But the distance he is prepared to go. Jack, look at me. We are survivors. We control the fear.”
That’s your burly moonshiner pep talk folks, delivered by hulking Englishman Tom Hardy (Bane) speaking Australian Nick Cave’s words in a Virginia drawl, echoing Scotsman Sean Connery playing an Irishman Jimmy Malone, performing David Mamet’s “Chicago Way” speech in The Untouchables. Malone’s last words to Eliot Ness, after he’s gunned down by similarly greasy dandy psychopath Nitty, reprise from that speech the phrase “Now what are you prepared to do?!”
That’s the question, isn’t it? What are you prepared to do? What will it take to survive? To thrive? Can you be compassionate and just at the same time? Are you willing to kick in some teeth in the name of peace? The truth is, it probably takes more than you ever imagined. That’s life, isn’t it? It’s monumentally, painfully hard, sometimes merciless, sometimes chaotic; yet thrumming with mystery, rife with unexpected beauty, powered by depths of love and magic you didn’t even know were possible.
Forrest doesn’t look like a guy who laughs too much, but he’s fearless and loyal and nearly invincible. He gets his throat slit from ear to ear, and within days, he’s able to talk again. He’s a bull of a man, all that thick flesh and brooding carriage just more armor for the soft, dark heart he, like every one of us, carries inside. Slinky fox Jessica Chastain orbits him cautiously, her own lovesick yearning buried beneath a pile of inner wreckage, the two of them like confused creatures trying to grasp at some warm, slippery liquid with their hands. It’s not until she comes to him stark nude and crawls into his bed, ignoring his vain protestations, that they are able to consummate what had long been an obvious inevitability.
It’s the younger Bondurant brother Jack, played by Shia LaDouche™, who despite his propensity for getting the shit kicked out of him, has all the fun; parading around the backwoods in tailored suits, drinking himself stupid, and wooing the daughter of a Menonite preacher. These two brothers, bonded by blood, seem like mutually exclusive types of men; yet perhaps they are incapable of existing as they are without the gravitational pull of the other. Incidentally, LaDouche™ was reportedly, in the name of The Method, such a nightmarishly drunken reprobate on and off the set that his co-star Mia Wasikowska, who plays his love interest, nearly quit the film. “I was really aggressive about it,” he says, “but not in any kind of weird, strange way…”
If there is a secret to life (and I would posit that there are as many such secrets as there are lives), some would say it’s that you are precisely who you think you are. You decide. Are you strong, are you funny, are you sexy, are you creative, are you rich? That’s a pretty American way of looking at things, I know. We have the luxury of that kind of spiritual optimism. But aside from our relative material freedom, there is a deep and infinite spirit at the heart of the American experience. The dark side of the American dream is its insatiable urge to occupy every front, from your uterus to global politik. This is the legacy of Manifest Destiny, puritanism, mega-capitalism, slavery, imperialism and genocide. Here in Amerika, you can live your entire life at the surface, lost in the fluorescent stream of shopping malls and 24 hour cable news and celebrity tweet wars, and you’ll pay for what they’re selling, whether you buy it or not. You can live and die there, thinking you’ve seen it all, unaware of the vast ocean just beneath, the rich inner life available to all of us– our Twain-ish wit, our Mingus-esque genius, our Google-y ingenuity. There’s a potent history in our soil, and hope painted into those sprawling vistas; the great hum of our polyglot rhythms, our wild, exotic flavors, the fruits of our backbreaking labor, our medley of unchained melodies, our fearless sense of discovery, and the intrepid march toward justice, truth and the fabled pursuit of happiness. There’s a life that connects us, of serendipity and blood, shared history and loss, memory and prayers, and it is the music we carry, and the code we live by, out in the wild yonder.
Welcome to the Big Sink.
“The price was high,because there was a little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it is gone and I am just like you now.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald; Notebooks