Friday, December 18, 2015

Messages from the Other Side

I don't believe in certain aspects of the paranormal because I find the various books or TV shows on the topic so wonderfully convincing, I do because people I trust have told me about their own experiences with powerful and unusual phenomena. 

For instance, I knew a lot of people when I was young who had first or second-hand experiences with hauntings, for instance. It probably wasn't everybody, but it sure felt that way at times. New England seemed to be a hotspot in the 1970s. Some of the stories still retain their numinous potency.

Before our own (clear and unambiguous) sighting this summer I knew a handful of sober-minded people who had UFO experiences, which they were able to report with clarity and without undue agitation. That personal connection goes a long way on my ledger. Longer than the testimony of some creepy debunker who spends all the time he's not indulging god-knows-what paraphilias talking about things he claims not to believe in (seriously, who does that?).

That doesn't mean I dive into the paranormal deep end without my discernment floatation device. Or that I give equal weight to all phenomena. No way; that's an express ticket to Nowheresville, Jack. 

It means that I take serious reports seriously and don't toss out evidence simply because I refuse to accept anything beyond the reach of naturalism and materialism, which are religious philosophies whether they cop to it or not.

In the end result we're really looking at data- whether it feels that way or not- and making personal judgments from a preponderance of such. One event, or even a series of events, is never going to move the needle. It's the accumulation of data over time that determines your attitude towards the paranormal, however you choose to define what is a rather annoyingly nebulous and badly-abused term.

I bring all this up because of a series of strange events that have arisen within the past couple weeks following the recent death of my father-in-law Charlie. To be perfectly frank, I was more than a little hesitant to blog about them since not only can't I provide evidence these events occurred (my history has given me a bit of a hangup for evidence), I only witnessed one of them personally.

But Mr. Gordon White, whose wisdom I always value and usually defer to, thought it was important to blog about it precisely because other people have experienced these kinds of phenomena and would appreciate whatever validation I can offer by reporting what's been going on in the aftermath of Charlie's death.

His passing was unexpected but not exactly shocking. He lived a long and interesting life and passed away suddenly in his bedroom at the age of 85. No long, excruciating illness, just a relatively painless exit at home with his family. We should all be so lucky.

He'd been in relatively good health and in good spirits prior to his death. What's interesting in light of some of the phenomena in question is that he was involved with computers very early on, working on mainframes in the 50s and was a very early adopter of personal computers.

Indeed, the weirdness seems focused on computers. The one event I witnessed was straight out of a Hollywood remake of a superior Japanese horror movie- my wife's phone (a Samsung smartphone) started flashing on and off and started calling up totally random pages and images. She said nothing like that had ever happened before. It hasn't happened again since. Words don't do it justice, believe me.

The kicker is that her sister reported the same thing with her phone. Well, it must have been a problem with the phones or the network, right? Um, wrong. They have totally different phones and use different carriers.

My wife also says that she was getting random email notifications but no email and equally random friend request notifications but no friend requests. Again, she said she'd never experienced this before.

Other strange things happened. She and her sister were scanning and printing photos for montages for the wake but kept having certain photos go missing and reappear. Of course, this could be the ever-popular alternate universe phenomena that all of us deal with when it comes to your car keys and important papers, which you deliberately and consciously put one place only to have them show up somewhere else. Much, much later.

My younger son, who was helping Charlie with his autobiography, had some bizarre problems with his relatively new laptop last night. He'd talk to Apple, think the problem would be fixed and then some totally random text screen would show up. It's still up in the air as of this writing.

The other day a Christmas tree ornament showed up in the middle of the living room. Big deal, it's Christmas, right? Well, sure, but we still haven't gotten the ornaments out of the attic yet.

The strangest thing happened at the wake. My nephew placed a glass on a table, several inches from the edge. No one was near the table. No one was moving around, no one doing jumping jacks or Karate forms. Somehow the glass fell from the middle of the table to the floor. Everyone stopped their conversations to look at the glass.

There were other occurrences, but that was stuff that got my attention. I told my wife and her sister to write everything down. Maybe most of it will have a rational explanation, maybe not. The thing with the wife's phone was truly weird. Neither of us had ever seen it before.

Gordon tells me that these kind of things aren't unusual, that many people have experienced them, they just don't talk (well, write) about them. He believes- and I agree- that it's important to discuss these things when they pop up. 

I'm presenting these anecdotes as they were reported to me but I do think it's important to stay tethered while wading into these murky waters. If there are indeed otherworldly communications at work you should know which are genuine and which are not. If the dead are taking the trouble to contact us they probably have something important to say. It might be a good idea to work out what that is exactly.

I remember that the clock that belonged to my great-grandfather stopped upon his death and was never able to be repaired, even by an expert clockmaker. That's practically a cliche. The arch-skeptic Michael Shermer reported a similar event with an old family radio, and it made such an impession on him that he was willing to risk excommunication from the Church of Suicidal Nihilism by talking about it publicly.

Let me just say that I'm not presenting any of this as definitive because to tell you the truth, I don't know what to make of any of it myself. But I'm willing to bet a lot of you out there have similar stories that you'd like to tell. We might get somewhere interesting if we had a body of compelling evidence of this sort to pore through, especially if we could get some documentation in the mix.

The irony is that this is the kind of thing Charlie would have scoffed at. Maybe that's the whole point, if indeed any of this was genuine communication. Hey kids, look, I was wrong. Joke's on me.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Muses Love Broken Vessels

Some of you are probably wondering why I haven't published a book in 5 years, despite the fact that I have a number of projects in the works. The primary reason is I simply haven't had the time. 

But there's also the fact that the publishing world is is going through some hard changes these days, and I usually can't put aside paying work to concentrate on writing, which I've never done more than break even on (and I consider myself phenomenally lucky in that regard, mind you).

There's also the hard choices to be made when bringing a book to market. You can either self-publish or go with an established house. Self-publishing offers total freedom, but also total responsibility. You're on the hook for every step of the process, from conception to marketing and every stop along the way. It's a lot of work and most writers aren't cut out for it.

I self-published my book on The Clash and it was a ball. But it didn't sell all that much because I wasn't motivated to go out and plug what was essentially a glorified fanzine (and I mean that as a compliment- I created that book as a tribute to the underground punk press that put such a fire in my gut as a teenager). 

I also self-published because I felt so incredibly burnt by my first publishing excursion, the comic series that was collected into a graphic novel, which was  supposed to be a 120 page story until I was told to gut 24 pages out of it. I should have walked away rather than tear the heart out of my story. If you find yourself in that situation be sure you do. 

The Secret History of Rock n' Roll was a situation in which I told the editors I needed at least 100-120K words and if I didn't get it the book would suffer for it. So of course I was initially offered 50K, the size of a long journal article. I bumped it up to the mid 60s after a lot of pleading. I knew I was dead but soldiered on. It's complicated.

I did the absolute best I could with the space I was given. And I think the final product stands on its own, even if I felt like I was typing with handcuffs on the entire time. Ultimately, it's the beginning of a discussion. It's all I could do given the space I had to work with. It's basically an introductory text to a thesis most people have no concept of, so maybe it's for the best. 

I thought I was making a simple argument- the ancient Mysteries organized themselves around certain archetypes and personalities and the revival of the Mysteries- the classic Rock period from roughly the late 50s to the early 90s- did the same. I didn't think I would have to constantly remind people of these parallels throughout the book. And by people I mean "critics."

Unfortunately there was an avalanche of research that never made it into the book ( I read through a enormous pile of books working on this project), side issues that needed to be explored to fill in the gaps. I just didn't have the space.

One of the issues I wanted to explore in the book kicked up again with Scott Weiland's death. And that is how the most gifted musicians are often the most fucked-up. How the most shamanic performers have terrible pain and trauma in their CVs.

Johnny Rotten- who launched a revolution- suffered from a particularly excruciating case of spinal meningitis in his youth and then watched his mother- who cared for him while he was ill- rot away from cancer shortly after the Sex Pistols' first breakup. Joe Strummer and David Bowie both grew up sharing close bonds with severely mentally ill brothers (Strummer's brother committed suicide in public when he was 19). 

Ian Curtis suffered from depression and was diagnosed with epilepsy just as Joy Division were taking off (the epileptic in "She's Lost Control" is Curtis himself, a classic example of poetic dissociation). The epilepsy may have manifested itself in hallucinations, as Curtis sang of dead souls beckoning him to join them shortly before his suicide. He certainly didn't sound like he was being emo.

Elizabeth Fraser and Jeff Buckley shared trauma in their past, Fraser was the victim of longterm sexual abuse and Buckley lost the father he never really knew when the elder Buckley died of a drug overdose. Roger Waters lost his father in the war, a trauma that replayed itself over and over in his work. 

John Lennon came from a troubled home and lost his mother when she was struck by a car when the singer was 17. Paul McCartney lost his mother when he was 14, and her memory inspired one of The Beatles' most iconic anthems, "Let it Be." 

Jimi Hendrix grew up in a troubled home, marred by poverty, violence and alcoholism. Michael Jackson- and the entire Jackson family- suffered under the tyrannical rule of father Joe. They were denied the luxury of childhood as they were carted from one performance to another. 

The Beach Boys' Wilson brothers also suffered under a tyrannical father, resulting in substance abuse, mental illness, and early death. Tina Turner suffered spousal abuse for years under the yoke of her husband Ike. Ozzy Osbourne ended up joining the band of the bully who made his school days hell. Talk about dysfunctional.

And then there's the endless litany of psychological damage, substance abuse and burn- outs. That seems to be the rule, not the exception. People don't understand the kinds of pressures successful professional musicians are put under; the touring, the personal appearances, the meetings, the ass-kissing, the photo sessions, the video shoots, all of the crap that has nothing to do with writing and performing music. 

Artists will freely volunteer that drugs are such a part of the process because it's nearly impossible to function in that pressure-cooker world without them. Stevie Nicks nearly burned out her nose and throat with cocaine, which she got into to cope with the brutal schedule the band was thrown into when they became superstars. 

I do wonder what deeper streams are at work though. I've seen hundreds of "serves him right" or "he had it coming" kind of comments rise in the wake of Scott Weiland's death. It certainly seems that he was a difficult person to work with or be in a relationship with. Musicians are difficult enough, really good ones are worse, and damaged ones are nigh impossible.

His second wife nurses a serious vendetta against him, and the increasingly odious Rolling Stone gave her a soapbox to trash his memory mere days after his death. (I love these women who shun nice guys and chase after bad boys only to discover that they're called "bad boys" for an actual reason).

But she herself admits to bipolar disorder and drug addiction in her autobiography, two of the demons that Weiland copped to. But I always sensed a much deeper injury in Weiland's jacket. People who don't know his work don't understand how pained and confessional so much of his lyrics and vocals were.

The narrative goes Weiland went out a trainwreck but he was giving 
powerful performances like this the week before his death

I am beginning to believe Weiland was self-medicating to cover a history he could only ever refer to obliquely. He offhandedly mentioned being raped in his semi-coherent autobio (written during one of his darker periods) but I think was more candid in the 2001 track "Long Way Home":

Leave me out, get away I gotta go
Long way home can't see through the trees

Leave me alone, get away better run fast as I can

From the man dirty man the old man

The controversial lyrics to "Sex Type Thing" also raise questions. Weiland explained that they were about a girl who'd been raped by a bunch of jocks but the voice isn't that of a young man, it's the voice (and the vocal performance) of an old redneck. Was the song actually another example of poetic dissociation?

If Weiland suffered serious and/or longterm abuse when he was young- particularly if it was violent abuse- then the arc of his autodestruction makes more sense. 

Whatever the irrelevant critic class thinks, there's a serious argument to be made that he was the most gifted frontman and vocalist of his generation. A recombinant Jim Morrison/David Bowie chimera. Which is to say that he had everything to live for, every reason to keep his shit together. But something was eating away at him, something too raw and deep to ever come to terms with. In the end, it was etched all over his face.

I can't help but think of Maynard James Keenan and "Prison Sex." Keenan has always been very coy about the song's real meaning, begging off that it's about his hatred of his stepfather. Or something. But the lyrics speak for themselves. They're too explicit and directional for ambiguity. He's not singing in character, he's singing a pure revenge fantasy in the first person, addressing something that ate away at his guts for a very long time.

But that's Tool, who trade in darkness, violence and sexual transgression. Stone Temple Pilots were a totally different vibe, increasingly offering up traditional party rock in the Led Zeppelin model. Maybe Weiland wanted to exorcise his pain but a suit told him it would be bad for sales. Here, have some of this, it will make you feel better. I promise.

The legendary A+R man John Kalodner insists that antidepressants killed rock and roll, since they numbed out a generation who would once channel their pain into art. What he's saying is that there are fewer broken vessels for the Muses to channel themselves through. 

They rarely seem to choose anything but. I'd like to think suffering is over-rated but hearing the endless tapeloop on my radio (both the same old songs here and endless regurgitations of them there) seems to argue against that.

I keep hearing people tell me how great this or that band is you just have to search them out, but who can argue the great rock and roll culture of the postwar era is not dead? It wasn't suicide, it was a deliberate campaign on the part of insurance companies, local governments and real estate developers, to name just a few of the conspirators. But there's also the pharmaceutical companies and video game makers, numbing out young minds so all that pain is no longer available as Muse food.

I don't mean to diminish your favorite new band I'm just saying the ecosystem that nurtured the truly great artists is gone. What new one will take its place is an open question.

Music is a relationship between the musician, whatever baggage he or she bring to the table and Forces Unknown. I know this for a fact having pursued music seriously for a number of years in my teens and twenties. 

It was actually playing music that convinced me that there were layers of reality and being far beyond that wafer-thin layer of conscious attention we mistake for our selves. 

I had actual out of body experiences while playing (I even caught one on tape- it kicked in around the two minute mark ). It's no big thing, any musician worth their salt has them on a periodic basis. I experienced genuine psychic communication while playing, and that too comes with the job description. Fully formed compositions would emerge out of the ether during jam sessions.

It was the singer in my old band- who could summon fully-formed melodies over chord progressions he'd just heard- who introduced me to the reality of the Muses and the magic they work. A reductionist would insist this is just the subconscious or some shit but what do they know about it? It's like listening to a virgin lecturing about sex. Hopeless. Go fuck yourselves, reductionists.

I have great faith in the Muses- whoever or whatever they are. They've lived through worse times than these. Faith in rock 'n' roll? I don't know. We'll have to see how it goes. It's a very limited form as currently understood. I think it needs to grow some wings and break out of the limits we place on it. 

There's still a universe of sound and rhythm you can explore with guitars and drums, and musicians today should be building their musical EMdrives and doing it. Four to the floor has been done to death. It's time for something else.

The Muses love broken vessels but they also love intrepid explorers. And that goes for more than music, I might add. 

Friday, December 04, 2015

Haven't You Heard? Bacchus is Dead.

I'm not nostalgic for the 80s, when I was in my teens and twenties. Actually, that's not entirely true; my high school years were pretty exciting and there were lots of good times afterward as well. But I went from a year in art school straight into a high-pressure work world, back when a cocky 20 year-old could walk off the street and get a job with a decent salary and health insurance if he or she tried hard enough. 

But that was back before NAFTA and GATT and all the other salvos launched against American workers, especially young American workers.

The 90s though, the 90s are another thing altogether. I can't quite explain why. I suppose it was a question of my generational cohort discovering their potential and learning how to make things happen. Computers and the Internet had a lot to do with it, back when some of us were naive to believe they could be used as tools of personal liberation and not just tendrils of the global Panopticon. 

But the 90s were also a time when my cohort- Generation X- made their mark on the culture and came into its own, in a way that hadn't really happened since the late 60s.

The 90s started early, maybe as early as 1988. Music was a huge part of this, particularly the driving New York hip-hop you seemed to hear bursting from every corner. Jane's Addiction's Nothing Shocking was the first album of the 90s in many ways, followed by Nine Inch Nail's Pretty Hate Machine the following year. Those two albums marked out the territory, erasing arbitrary distinctions between dance music and hard rock that had been calcifying since the mid 70s. 

1990 was the touchstone, though. Especially in New York. In my mind, 1990 Manhattan is forever a landscape of dark beauty punctuated with the erotic, phosphene bursts of otherworldly intrusion. It wasn't a safe space. It was a very dangerous city but also a city alive with possibility.*

I prowled the streets with the zeal of a pilgrim after work or during lunch breaks, hellbent in digging out every cache of hidden treasure, every hidden record shop or second hand book or magazine store I could unearth. Though I had exoteric goals in mind, I realize now that was really out there to soak up the city's arcane energy, plugging straight into its sorcerous heart before its last gasp of magical possibility exhausted itself, which it most certainly did by the decade's end. 

Of course, I was surrounded on all sides by sigils, icons and totems, most placed there a century prior by men well versed in the esoteric sciences. These were all playing on my unconscious, as they did everyone in the city. I was just a little bit more tuned in than most,  so maybe they were driving me than I realized at the time. 

So much so maybe that a strange kind of New York eventually became the venue for my secret sun dreams and remained so for a very long time. (I should also mention I spent most of this time working in the Big Daddy occult obelisk of them all, the Empire State Building).

There were also the places like East West Books, which served every conceivable spiritual or occult interest and other, edgier shops where you could find all kinds of books on weirdness, conspiracy culture and underground politics. These places were usually stocked  with all other types of arcana and contraband; tarot cards, drug paraphenalia, fringe porn. 

Friday nights were spent with friends in Bacchus' embrace, at places that served up ten-dollar pitchers of Budweiser for NYU students on a budget. Later, I'd fall in with a different crowd and we'd set up at fancier places, specifically The Slaughtered Lamb in the West Village.

And in the middle of this came the last great cresting of the Rock n' Roll wave, the alt.rock explosion that followed in the wake of Nirvana. All of that music was dropping like cluster bombs during this whole period. It all came so fast it was hard to keep up with.

My last job in the city was in an art department on the 47th floor of the Empire State and it was like an urban treehouse. There were no suits around our little outpost and the radios blared in every room. And right on time; one instant classic after another dropped in our laps while we listened to the Long Island alt.rock station WDRE and later Q-Rock when it (ever-so-briefly) existed as an alt.rock station.  (We got artier sounds from Delphine Blue on WBAI, Trip-Hop out of England, neopop out of Europe).

Most of this the new rock music seemed to burst forth from the West Coast, Seattle most famously, but also California, which was once was the great laboratory for rock and pop, both as producer and consumer.

Of course, one of those classic West Coast albums was Stone Temple Pilots' 1994 sophomore effort, Purple. I was initially skeptical of STP, since their first album was hit or miss with me. But Purple felt like an instant classic, and plugged into the ferment of the time, the birth of the Internet nation and of course, the rise of The X-Files (many of the bands of the alt.rock explosion would contribute tracks to the various X-Files soundtrack projects, like Songs in the Key of X).

STP was part of a wave of bands who bypassed cornball 80s metal to return to the late 60s and 70s roots of hard rock, leavening the batter with punk/postpunk attitude and economy. STP was like many of the big acts of their time in that they had a great singer in Scott Weiland, who understood the value of light and shadow in hard music.

Weiland was also like many of his contemporaries in another, less fortunate way. Drug problems were almost de rigeur for big name rock stars (legend has it that record company publicists would even invent drug problem rumors for artists who had none) but Weiland's generation came out of the cauldron of punk rock, whose thermonuclear intensity tended to deaden one's responses to normal stimulation. It was a major problem for a lot of people I knew.

Weiland's addictions shortly overshadowed his considerable musical talent, at least where the press was concerned. At first vital, lithe and aggressive, he came to seem increasingly fragile and brittle as his demons had their way with him.

His bandmates reached the end of their ropes more than once, forming ersatz STPs with new singers (Talk Show and Army of Anyone) before finally sacking Weiland for Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington for the short-lived MKII incarnation of STP. But all they accomplished was prove how much they needed Weiland to hammer their often-obtuse riffing into actual songs with proper melodies.

Weiland formed a new band and began working the third-tier circuit, where he died on Thursday. His performances were famously erratic, with videos of disastrous misfires circulating on YouTube. But he seemed just as often able to summon some of the old magic, most recently a New Jersey show I wanted to attend but missed. I'll never have the opportunity again.

It seems all too fitting that this Californian golden god would die the day after California was murdered. California has been a terminal patient for a long time, the longtime American promised land now the land of the nation's worst poverty and inequality

In the early 80s San Bernardino was the setting for the Us Festivals, ersatz Woodstocks thrown by Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak. He used his millions to hire every rock band of any importance at the time, presenting the festivals as a showcase for his vision of a brave new future driven by an embrace of Globalism ("unite us in song") and technology. Today San Bernardino a notoriously high-crime city in which even the shooting of 31 people wasn't seen by locals as overly shocking. 

But it's not alone in its misery. California's once mighty middle class has been decimated or sent packing and the state is now populated by a feudal elite lording over the poor, its very landscape cursed and forsaken by the gods, who smite it with fire, earthquake and drought, not to mention more mysterious afflictions.

So it's all too fitting that California's last great Dionysus finally succumbed to the years of self-abuse and heartache. These are terrible times for most working musicians, no matter how much propaganda you might hear to the contrary from the pirate lobby. No 48 year-old man wants to spend his life on the road, traveling from one small theatre to another mid-sized club, remembering the glamour and good times of the gravy days. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Another shaman with deep roots in both New York and Southern California also succumbed to the lifestyle around this time of year some thirteen years ago now. Although the press had it that Joe Strummer died of a faulty heart valve, one of his biographer's discovered that the coroner's report told a different story. 

Strummer (who played at the Us Festival with the Clash) was playing the same game Weiland was, working the third-tier circuit and offering up a mix of new songs and old. He was famous for his all-night blowouts while on tour, and his much younger band later complained of his endless partying. Of course, middle-aged men can't stay up for days on end without chemical augmentation and doing so plays havoc on your cardiovascular system. 

Like Weiland, Strummer  was probably bipolar (one of STP's greatest songs is called "Bi-Polar Bear") but could take audiences out of their heads on a good night, even into middle age. The last time I saw him (in Brooklyn in 2002) was one of the most intense performances I'd ever seen from any artist. I'm amazed more and more with the passage of time.

Strummer's rebirth bookended the collapse of the Generation X dream, as he returned in 1999 (just as the dotcom boom began to crack) and died in late 2002, as the post 9/11 economic order dug its teeth in.  

Strummer and The Clash had become icons to the wave of punk and ska bands that emerged in the wake of Grunge's collapse (many GenX veterans of the first wave punk wars like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) and his death seemed to presage the passing of another era, as Generation Y would rise soon after and a new sensibility took root. 

Meanwhile, Scott Weiland joined forces with members of Guns n' Roses for the Velvet Revolver supergroup, disappointing many STP fans who thought he was slumming with glorified bar band hacks. The project ran its course before the curse of Dionysus did what it does and Weiland was fired or quit, depending on whose story you believe.

Make no mistake, the new order has no place for Dionysian ecstasy. A wall of darkness is descending across the world as the chessboard is arranged for the next Great Game of Nations. There is no free expression as the term is generally understood, there is only provocation and reaction. A new generation begs to return to the safety and certainty of the daycare environment that formed their consciousness, such as it is. There's no place for Dionysus anymore. 

Not even in the timeout chair.

 For all its over the top violence, Abel Ferrara film King of New York takes a snapshot of that very unique moment. There are other artifacts that do as well even if no one has ever given it a name. The films Flatliners and Jacob's Ladder also give you a taste of the times, if not the place.