Archive for January, 2007

Reckoning

January 17, 2007

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A cold wind ripped the miserable vinyl siding from houses on my block last night as winter, driving a stolen green Taurus with Nevada plates, finally returned to New Jersey.

Yesterday morning smelled like spring. This morning, odorless. It was curtains for faked-out crocuses. The old guy who sits all day on the bench outside the Rainbow Diner could actually be seen through steamy plate glass sitting inside at the counter this morning, drinking coffee and watching Regis Philbin or some such horror. Forgotten pain came hack to my hands. By now they should be crazed with red cracks around white-shingle knuckles. My engine burbled on start-up as if from under some gelatinous goo. It, too, had forgotten about winter. But everything is catching up with itself this morning.

We’ll put paid to the woozy disorientation that last week caused me to mistake a momentary snow flurry on the Parkway for a dirt storm. Had I subconsciously eliminated snow from the set of all possible occurrences? I think so. It came down from a cloud no bigger than my Tercel, moving at about 60 miles an hour directly overhead as I tried to get into the right lane in time for exit 131. The flurry triggered a brief, behind-the-wheel wake-up call, after which I rolled over again in my September-grade jacket.

My daughter couldn’t sleep upstairs last night. She said the slam of vinyl siding against her bedroom window kept her awake. Maureen was on the nightshift again. I ceded the master bedroom to Maggie and slept on the couch.

I arrived at work this morning with my fly up. Couldn’t say that yesterday. Shoes matched–everything. There was that troublesome red light on the telephone, though. Maureen, knocked-out tired, had left a message while I was driving in. She said she arrived home this morning to find Cookie, our hamster, sitting in front of the heating vent in the living room. Did I leave his cage open last night? No, I think. I left it open this morning. Last night was when I forgot to put the clothing in the dryer. It’s all coming back to me now.

Still Life with Iron Kettle

January 16, 2007

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Dissipated Artists Week

January 14, 2007

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I thought I’d try to get some kind of return on my Netflix membership last week. By Wednesday, I recognized a rather obvious thread connecting the movies I’d rented: Modligliani; Bukowski: Born into This; If I should Fall from Grace: The Shane McGowan Story; and Factotum, a film based on Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel. Running through all of them, like a river of whiskey, is a river of whiskey, lots of wine and beer, and art from the fringe that showed-up the mainstream art world.

Watching these movies raised that old chestnut—do alcohol and drugs enhance the creative process? For Modigliani, Bukowski, and McGowan, alcohol consumption is/was an inextricable part of painting, writing, and performing, because alcoholism is/was essential to their existence. It is unlikely that Shane McGowan could ever clean-up. If he does, he’ll have suffered irreparable damage. The other men died addicts who never stopped drinking.

It’s all very romantic, the stuff of really bad movies. And Modigliani is both. It focuses on the love affair between Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew among the great starving painters in Paris at around the time of World War One, and Jeanne Heburtene, a French woman from a fairly well-to-do Catholic family. They had one child, whom Jeanne’s father would not recognize because of Modi’s being Jewish, and another on the way when the two heroes died—Modi of drink and tuberculosis, Jeanne of throwing herself out a window. The portrayal of Modigliani as an artist (not to mention the treatment of Picasso, Soutine, Utrillo, Rivera, and other painters in town at the time) goes beyond what might be a tolerable level of historical inaccuracy to serve narrative. There is nothing on painting worth watching, and a lot that I’d hope newcomers to this world would not take away as true to what went on or what these people created. There is a lot on the trap of alcohol, however, and the tendency of particularly brilliant people to shine through behavior that would put most people’s lights out.

The Bukowski documentary and Factotum are much better movies. Bukowski, who worked as a mailman after a storied life on the bum as a teen during the depression, wrote constantly. He wrote stories utterly lacking in sentimentality. He wrote poetry void of all the formal elements of poetry. It was a raw kind of writing that at times could be brilliant, though most of it was level spew about a life of drink, fornication, and gambling. It was published in various non-paying and paying formats in reams. It lacked the consistency and sublimity of Modigliani’s art, but that might be because Modigliani’s every scribble was not published in broadsides. The French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet considered Bukowski the most important writer in America. So did Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (though Bukowski was as anti-Beat as he was anti-Disney), rock star Bono, and singer/songwriter Tom Waits. The latter three tell you all about it in the documentary.

I started reading Bukowski after college, during my short residence in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. It was the perfect setting and time in my life for an introduction to Bukowski. I wanted to like him a lot more than I did. Part of the problem was my discovery that there were only so many hours in the day and that there were American writers who do stark, real, and dark much better. I discovered Cormac McCarthy at the Chlesea. I dropped Bukowski and never picked him up again with any serious intent (I still have yet to read enough Faulkner, for one, and the day has far fewer hours now). I get my Bukowski at the movies, I’m afraid (see Factotum–Matt Dillon at his absolute best).

The first argument I every had with my English friend Andrew Wood was over Shane McGowan. Wood said McGowan was faking it. I said McGowan was really drunk. It was the only argument with Andrew that I ever won.

I have to say that Bukowski carried his alcoholism better than McGowan—unless, of course, Bukowski was faking it, which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. Still, McGowan achieved something phenomenal. He brought traditional Irish music and balladry not only into the rock idiom, but into the Johnny Rotten punk rock idiom. And he did so with striking legitimacy. He wrote with phenomenal ease and heart—an Irish trait, I must say—and sold it on stage to the point of self-sacrifice. Ditto.

Like the rest of the Pogues, McGowan was an Irishman living in London, though he spent much of his time with family in Tipperary. I’ve read that he had an aunt who introduced him at the age of five to alcohol as a means of keeping away the devil, or some such blarney. He wasn’t a pretty boy, like Modigliani. He was more like the acne vulgaris-stricken Bukowski in the looks department. His teeth, many of which are now gone, whacked out in strange trajectories and his ears made his head look like milk truck with both doors open. McGowan is a classic case of someone being so ugly, by conventional standards, that he ends up cute. This could have contributed to his alcoholism.

The hard life of the drunk certainly contributes to his writing. He wrote, what I think, is one of the best Christmas songs of all times—Fairy Tale of New York, which opens with these beautiful lines:

“It was Christmas Eve, babe—in the drunk tank”

And there’s the opener of Dirty Old Town:

“I met my love by the gasworks wall”

McGowan wasn’t the only drunk in the Pogues or on the punk rock scene. But he’s one of very few—right now I can’t think of any—who made it without coming to terms with addiction. His friend, the songwriter Nick Cave, comments in the documentary that there came a time in his, Cave’s, life when he faced a choice between being a singer and songwriter or being a junkie. This came after a year, says Cave, of the piano in his apartment taunting him, untouched, from across the room. McGowan never faced that choice. He did everything perfectly drunk. I read an interview in which McGowan advises that very few people are able to do this and that nobody should try it at home. Leave it to the chosen.

There, I think, is the answer to whether substance abuse enhances creativity to the point of it being a prerequisite. The answer is no, unless you happen to be addicted. In which case, you had better have a very supportive life partner. In the case of these three artists, those partners were women, a topic about which Bukowski and Modigliani, especially, had a lot to say. Bukowski, who could be pretty brutal in his treatment and description of women, makes a very good point in the documentary—one of his brilliant moments. He says that a woman’s love is a beautiful thing. It asks very little compared to what it bestows. A man blessed with a woman’s love has to pretty much work at f***ing things up for himself, Bukowski notes.

Jeanne Heburtene going through a window, Linda Lee Bukowski’s adding ten years to the life of a frequetnly abusive man by getting him off of skid row and making a home for him, and the recent split between McGowan and his long-time partner, Victoria Clarke, all attest to the truth in what Bukowski says.

Painting: Jeanne Heburtene in a Black Hat by Amedeo Modigliani

Tough Times, Good People.

January 13, 2007

Roger Pitcher at the Broadway Comedy Club, New York City

This guy’s my pal since high school. He isn’t making any of it up.

Soutine’s Ray

January 12, 2007

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A hectored dream, this hanging skate,
Its sagging breakfront entrails
And tomato paste
Stigmata of the stoneware jug
Where ghostly hunger rises
From a leaden, long-dead poverty,
Hovering as lovecraft
Over rot and shattered color,
Shadowing the reek of sultry fate
In bottom-wash and mud-damp cellars,
Rayfish taunt, bedeviled Christ,
A slow-revolving shroud
At banquet.

Painting: Still Life with Rayfish by Chaim Soutine.

Thought for the Day

January 11, 2007

I’m too busy to write much here today. So we’ll watch a short motivational film instead.

De-lurker Week 2007

January 11, 2007

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This is De-lurker Week. I don’t think I have any lurkers, but just in case I do…Have a nice week!

The Elements of Style

January 10, 2007

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This is Michele, my one-time copy editor and a good friend. It’s the second portrait I painted of her.

The first was painated shortly after her successful bout with breast cancer. She commissioned a painting of herself sitting on a couch in front of the window of her sunny apartment on Prince Street in Soho. It was a portrait of a peaceful, beaming survivor. The painting above was done a few years later. I’d asked her if she wouldn’t mind posing again—I was in a portrait phase, painting any friend who agreed to sit still (I would spread out canvas tarps in people’s living rooms on which I knelt and painted them, fast, on 9” x 12” canvases). She agreed to sit, but only if I let her wear her Halloween costume. My instinct, of course, was to withdraw my request until she told me she had a dominatrix costume with a red wig. I suddenly became very interested in painting her again. For one thing, she was a pretty tough copy editor, and the costume seemed appropriate–it was kind of a fun idea, given the copy editor’s role at a weekly magazine. When she mentioned that a riding crop would be involved, I really had no choice.

I see a lot less of Michele these days—she moved to Brooklyn and I work in New Jersey now. About a year ago, we went to the theater to see a way-off-Broadway production of Einstein’s Gift, a play more about Fritz Haber. Then she took me to dinner.

Michele, who has long brown hair, is a great model, an incisive editor, a beautiful woman, and a wonderful friend. We get each other’s jokes and finish each other’s sentences. She corrects my sentences. I found this picture in the basement last night in a pile of the 9 x 12 portraits. I also found my living room tarp–I may soon be back on the lookout for people who can sit still.
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Now—speaking of things editorial, I am finishing a cover story under pulverizing deadline pressure. Above is a portrait of me—I found this drawing of a cassowaryesque journalist via a Google search for journalist images. Most of the others that came up were a lot uglier. Where I’m working now, by the way, there are four people who do the job Michele did single-handedly. Yep. She’s that kind of tough.

[Editor’s note: No, I don’t smoke like the cassowary scribe (I know, it’s a vulture, but close enough). And despite various items you’ve seen in my studio photographs, I do not have a severed human hand on my desk at work. Where, oh where did this cartoon come from?]

Pandemonium

January 8, 2007

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I lean into the black keys,
Catastrophe of hasp and nail,
To underpin these plaits of rhyme–
Accordion contrails.

I built it in the back yard
And waxed it in the shed,
I mixed the soundtrack in the sink
With hardware from a sled.

And now, replete with H-VAC pipe
And stools of many sizes,
I roll my sleeves and squeeze the bag
To Song of the Assizes.

Trot, Trot Back Again…

January 7, 2007

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I mentioned the city of Boston loosely regarding my trip to Josh’s wedding on Saturday. It actually took place in Worcester, Mass, about twenty miles west of Boston.

In classic sloppy-blogger fashion, I forgot to bring the camera–hey, I remembered my good shoes, and that’s more important, right? Not to fear, however. Niece Erin from St. Louis will send me some of the photos she took, including a bunch of the little kids dancing and one of Josh and me. I’ll post a few when they arrive. It was pretty much the most I ever danced at a wedding. Great fun.

I can show you the picture above right now, however. I found it at the Worcester Art Museum. Josh’s mom, my sister-in-law Laura from Syracuse, and her husband, Tom, were on their way from brunch at the hotel to the museum just as we arrived. My three daughters immediately ran off with their cousins, Maureen got sucked into the brunch scene, and I, as you would expect, tagged along with Laura and Tom for the two-block walk to the museum.

It’s fairly sizable institution with a wonderful collection. I found a Soutine portrait just inside the door to the European paintings. There is also a glowing Rembrandt portrait of Saint Bartholomew, The Repentant Magdalene by El Greco, a Goya portrait, and a strong representation from most of the big-name impressionists. I was most thrilled to come across the painting above, a small, typically cracked Albert Pinkham Ryder oil on wood in the American Paintings gallery. It’s called Pegasus (The Poet on Pegasus Entering the Realm of the Muses). It was painted by Ryder, a late 19th century American mystic, for an editor, critic, and poet named Charles de Kay, who gave it the longer parenthetical subtitle.

Ryder often drew from classical mythology, as well as from Northern European legends and biblical texts, eliciting images that glow from an essential darkness. His habit of constant over-painting, using less-than-high quality materials, resulted over the decades in the kind of brick-work crazing or cracking evident in this picture. The blemished surfaces of Ryder’s paintings are a blessing, really, giving them a timeless, even ancient quality that matches their subjects. It’s as if he designed the work to age quickly in this way. He was, it seems, a man out of time, not unlike his contemporaries Poe and Van Gogh. An anti-social recluse in New York City (I’ll try to find one from another city to write about soon), Ryder also is said to have used his smallish paintings for beer mug coasters, which may have aided in the cracking process.

I’ve seen Ryders in smaller collections, such as the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. I’ve seen good ones in the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well. They are hidden treasures—embers glowing from dark spaces between the big-name-artist pictures. I enjoy finding them, and I remember where they are. My fortuitous hook-up with Laura and Tom served to broaden my cracked web of known Ryders.