Friday, September 30, 2011

The Lehigh Maneuver

Way back when I was an undergraduate in college, I used to frequent these things called parties ... semi-often. (Those that know me: stop rolling your eyes.) I couldn't help it I went to a supremely dodgy, astoundingly cruel institution for my learnings; it was just the culture to drink, drink, drink (the infamous chant of "Drink that drink" still keeps me up at night). So on Thursday, or Friday, or Saturday or whatever other day something was going on, I'd be there, Solo cup in hand, standing or sitting around, watching the inanities unfold. There was drinking, there were retarded beer games, there was blaring, awful music, there were my classmates fighting against time and the call of adulthood.

One friend of mine, "Derek" - name changed because he's now a professor of philosophy at a prestigious university in the South - was one person who used to (sometimes) accompany me to these 'festive gatherings.' You see, these 'gatherings' used to, in the best (or worst) of cases, get supremely out-of-hand. Like, violent and ridiculously out-of-hand. Not always, mind you: sometimes they would fade out and die peacefully and everyone would stumble on their merry way. But in the case of the Bad Ones, alternative measures needed to be in place.

Derek and I got trapped a few times in some bad situations, enough so that simply talking our way out of whatever shitstorm brewed was becoming stressful and there were certain 'locations' and individuals we learned to steer away from. We've seen girls "pushed" off balconies, guys thrown off balconies, people vomiting blood, people tossed in pits of chocolate (and, as it turns out, feces), sparkling wine dumped in Jacuzzis (not a good idea), bricks thrown through car windows, bottles thrown at locals and other things it's best to keep repressed. Now, I never got hit by any objects (... intentionally) or tossed anywhere or gotten slammed with a bar stool (I know someone who did) and the worst things I ever got involved in were shouting matches with strangers (some of whom went on to become half-decent acquaintances ... and investment brokers) and a precious few tasteless shenanigans. The reason why neither Derek nor I got into any major trouble is that we learned how to figure out when That Precise Moment was going to take place in which things were going to take a turn for the worse and it was time to Run ... Like Hell.

You see, That Precise Moment is the Exact Time in the evening when The Mood changes from fun and pleasant to something more dark, ominous and potentially hazardous (or, conversely, crushingly mundane). Don't get me wrong, danger in small doses is quite thrilling. But there are those (cough, cough, my father) where the level of danger is simply never high enough: the threat of physical harm, police intervention or a messy brawl with neighborhood thugs, for them, is where True Bliss is at. For those of you that delight in anarchy, God Bless. But for Derek and myself (not to mention a few other people we knew), that became tiring and, frankly, stupid.

Derek was an obnoxious Philosophy major and I was an obnoxious Psychology major, and together we thought we had it figured out. See, parties generally don't just start off batty (and for those that do, do a 180 and find someplace else to go). It's the environmental factors that play into it: what kind of people are at the party? Who will eventually show up at the party (invited or uninvited, it doesn't matter)? Did two (or more) people enter the party already arguing? Is there some sociopath at the party who has a history of stirring the pot and causing problems? Exactly how much alcohol is there? What kind of drugs are there? What time of year is it? Is it cold outside? Is it warm outside? Is it exam week? Is there a serious rivalry underway between two fraternities or sororities? Is the school cracking down? Are the police out and about? Are the locals/neighbors pacing around outside with nothing to do?

Factoring all these elements in, Derek postulated The Lehigh Maneuver. It's based on intuition and experience, and can technically be applied to any number of situations. The Lehigh Maneuver basically states: when the official Mood of the Vicinity changes, it's best to find the nearest exit and excuse yourself from the place because once The Mood Changes, the Maximum Potential for Pure Fun diminishes when compared to the Maximum Potential of Ugliness (or, in select situations, Deadening Malaise). You think things will get "way more fucking cool" when they most likely will not. A night ended talking to the police or dragging a friend to the hospital or seeing a half-naked young lady run from a room and claim she was raped puts a damper on things.

Now, I learned ... and this was reinforced in other ways a little later in my life ... about always being aware of the exits in any location you are ever in. You walk into, say, a house, and there's a garage, a back door, a front door. There are windows. There may be a raised balcony/patio with steps. In an apartment, there's a main door but there's also (usually) a fire escape. In a fraternity, there's the pig chute (if you don't know, don't ask). Some bathrooms have windows you can squeeze out of depending on your size. Once you're aware of the exits, you will know which ones to get to should you need to.

I can tell what you're thinking. "Matt, you putz, why worry about ways to get out? It's a party! Sometimes things get out of hand, and that's all right! If you leave early, you might miss out on good stuff! Leaving is rude!" To this I say: I'm sorry you went to a liberal arts school. I hope you enjoyed your strawberry daiquiris and potluck and Carole King albums. And you apparently haven't been where either Derek or I have been. If you're afraid of missing something, you will find out about it later. People chatter. If you screwed up when you were there and feel compelled to just Get Out, time will pass and tempers will subside and the alcohol poisoning in the people you offended/irritated will have gone away and they will be in a much more civil mood. Derek, being the philosopher, always applied Bentham's rule: it's about maximizing enjoyment and minimizing drama and conflict and unhappiness.

Someone shows up high and carrying a crate full of pellet guns? Unless you feel like getting shot at (and you very well might), get out. Someone opens the front door and chucks in a (cheap) bottle of whiskey that smashes on the nearest wall and the ladies present yelp? Get out. You're bored as all get out and you can't stand talking to the same people about the same dumb crap over and over again? Pure Fun is over: excuse yourself to the bathroom and then make a hasty retreat. Someone outside crashes into a neighboring car and everyone inside runs out and starts yelling? Get out (or view the proceedings from a safe distance). Some pathetic drunk girl is leaning on you and burping uncontrollably and worried about the small-time issues in her life? Lean her against something else because she's a Fun Exterminator. The campus police arrive? Who cares if you're over 21, get out.

This maneuvering has led me to being something of an oracle nowadays to my (somewhat younger) friends, who are always amazed whenever I, out of the blue, say, "I'm leaving." Or just leave without saying anything. I can't tell you how many times, after I bid a hasty exit, they say to me the day after, "Oh man, you won't believe what happened after you left! It was ... awful. So-and-so got into a fist-fight with so-and-so over [Something Moronic]." Many, many, many times.

So if I'm at a dinner party I'm sickened with (for lack of Pure Fun and mandated Pleasant, Fake Interaction), I know when to leave. If I'm at a wilder gathering with caustic substances and a stressed and irked idiots, I know when to leave. Make yourself seen, then make yourself un-seen; maximize Enjoyment and leave when that Enjoyment is under threat by outside sources. Maneuver your ass out any available door. "But how do you know when to go?" I've been pressed. I just do. If you pay close enough attention to The Mood, you will too.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nobody Gives a Shit About Your Band

So please stop talking about it. And making posters for it. And making t-shirts for it. And creating various websites promoting it. And asking people to pay for hard copies of your albums. And turning every conversation we have into the music you're making. What is it with almost every new and upcoming "band" or "solo artist" that took one course in marketing and another course in composition and turning into a virtual one-trick, one-dimensional droning pony? I don't know what it was like in the music scene of the '60s and '70s - because I was still in the process of being re-incarnated from my former life as an SS Officer - but the United States couldn't have humanly been flooded with this many poseurs.

Let's get a few things straight: you can't sing, you have great trouble playing an instrument and you own an iMac loaded up with pirated music software. You live in a town so small that a tree falling not only makes a sound, it kills 3/4 of the local population. Your Mom has kicked you out of the basement and the attic and your bedroom and moved you and your asshat friends to the shed, where you keep tripping over the lawnmower to get to your pedals. Your bassist can't remember any of the chords, can't remember to shower and thinks weed is a profession. The drummer you found on Craigslist is middle-aged and not allowed around children or the elderly.

So what are you going to do? Well, if your genre is some kind of rock, you're going to scream like there's a bamboo shoot being rammed into your pee hole. You're going to turn the amps up and make everyone forget you have no idea what you're going on about. You're going to make up a lot of the words because you left the Post-It note you scribbled the lyrics out on in your used Volvo. For the ten of your incredibly supportive friends that you robbed of $8 to watch you "perform" (when they were just hanging out with you hours before), you're going to shake and sweat. Somewhere in your twenty-minute set, you're going to play a shitty cover of some decent song from a reputable band but put your own "spin" on it by making it "ironic," i.e., making it completely unrecognizable. Someone in your band will be wearing plastic-rimmed sunglasses. Another will probably be in drag. It doesn't matter: it's gonna be loud. And loud is good, right?

Or, instead of the obnoxious, you can take the mellow road. You can brood. Oh, Christ, you can brood. Tired, disheveled, wearing soiled corduroys and a bracelet you stole from your dead Grandfather's casket, you can sing about hurt. The beard you sport makes the hurt look worse. And you can play your odes on an acoustic guitar you stole from a thrift shop while your former drummer shakes a tambourine and your former bassist holds your Pabst and nods along. Everyone in the slim audience will be waiting for your next deep proclamation, waiting for you to say the words that everyone thinks they experienced but really haven't because they still have their parents drive them to softball practice. You can talk about love. And remorse. But keep it Hallmark card simple. A C chord and a line like "you have the simplest head of hair / like a macaw ascending toward hope" will cause everyone to disintegrate emotionally. The ladies will swoon. The guys will swoon. The doorman will swoon. The girl at the service counter will be playing on her cell phone.

If the mellow road isn't for you, and you consider yourself more danceable and techno-friendly, you (and your pals) can do what Richard James and Daft Punk and the Fuck Buttons dudes did: gather as much equipment as possible and hook all that gizmo-y gadget shit together. There's a plug? Find a hole. See a hole? Find a plug. Just shove everything together. Hide behind it if need be. And then, after you've taken three and a half hours to set-up, start playing pre-recorded loops. Keep pressing buttons because that really gets people jumping. It doesn't matter if the loops and sound-effects are in sequence. It doesn't. But make sure it's loud. Add in an electronic drum-beat. Girls love a drum beat. And it doesn't matter if any of the sound clips go together musically: the few people in the crowd will be so loaded up on pills and grinding their teeth so hard it won't make a difference. Also, don't forget strobing. God yes, strobing. Strobing is God's way of keeping epileptics away from concerts. Remember that the strobes and the beats and the sound effects don't have to be timed together or anything like that. If people collapse from exhaustion, that means you're good.

Once you've decided what kind of musical hack you're going to be, you're going to have to remember to always play the part of the hack. And in being an expert hack, you have to advertise yourself with the aforementioned swag and handouts and flyers and websites. You need to pump up your band to such an extreme degree your friends will want to set your shed on fire and delete your number from their phones. The talentless are generally full of braggadocio; the meek are the ones you wouldn't know ever conceived of a song. For example, arguably the most thoughtful actual musician I know personally is currently huddled in his room wearing a cardboard box mask and a lab coat. He has Styrofoam shoved against the walls to keep out the "hum from the refrigerator." He doesn't perform in public, because that would involve leaving his bedroom. He doesn't record anything, because the very act of recording "murders the shape of the notes." When I inquired as to what he was working on just last week, he shook a piece of ripped crepe paper in front of my face and asked me if I thought it properly simulated the sound of a man with polio shuffling through a wheat field. He won't tell you he's in a band. He won't give himself an alias. He'll tell you about the celestial rhythm of millions of human breaths exhaling in divine harmony. Then he'll take his medication and sleep for fourteen hours.

In other words, all of you "musicians" need to start fazing yourselves out and you definitely need to delete SoundForge and Cakewalk and ProTools off your hard drives. Asthmatic Kitty and Warp and Matador aren't going to sign you. You need to recognize you don't have a voice (literally and figuratively), you can't just mash on buttons or chords and make something lasting and nobody wants a black size XL tee with your face silk-screened on it. You know what I really want to hear about? I want to hear about people doing the old-fashion-y kind of art that requires time and dedication. Tell me about your pottery wheel. Talk to me about ceramics. Making mosaics and tribal masks? Kitsch, but I'll take a peek. Video art? I'll view it (just please don't ask me to review it). Don't hand me a CD-R or a glow stick or a cup of hot tea to absorb my sorrows, hand me a hand-made ashtray decorated with a decal of a rotting lung. Or you can paint a picture. Get some goddamn watercolors and remind me what a fucking sunset looks like.

For the record, just make sure you keep your art in the shed.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pinsky & Me, An Adventure Waiting to Happen

I have this strange, surreal connection to arguably the most important American poet currently working and writing, Robert Pinsky. People unfamiliar with his work most likely know him best as That Guy who was on The Simpsons in the one episode where obnoxious goody-goody Lisa Simpson pretends she's a college student and attends one of his readings. Animated Pinsky, all yellow and austere, spouts off some of his work and the audience swoons. His public persona doesn't even stop with his guest appearance on The Simpsons (itself a high honor): he's been on the Stephen Colbert show, he's worked for Salon.com, he's done tons of radio interviews and seminars on poetry and he's a professor of creative writing at some bullshit school in the most lame Metropolitan Area in America, Boston (don't worry Miami, you're still #2). He's even the former Poet Laureate of the United States, which may or may not be impressive since this country hates anything complex or intricate or full of big words. Our current Poet Laureate apparently doesn't wash himself and is legally married to his sister ... but he's never been on an animated program so he's not relevant to anyone.

Mr. Pinsky and I have had two noted near run-ins within this past year alone, and should there be a third, he can fully expect to be physically tackled by me and forced to go on a weekend-long bender (and no, I'm not above tackling seventy-year-olds). Sure, the man can channel the soul of Bashō and name drop über-obscure Fulke Greville, but what about a massive borderline illegal descent into madness and excess?

My fascination with Pinsky's body of work started, of all times, when my father - not exactly big on anything poetic written after Tennyson ("a real man's man," quoth Dad) - gave me a scribbled copy of "Samurai Song" on notebook paper (that he copied when he was in Barnes and Noble) back in 2001 and instructed me to "retype it and print it out so I could paste it into my locker at work." Before I even turned on my computer, I made a special point to really and truly examine the piece he was handing me. Normally my father only makes me type up complaint letters to Green Giant grousing about the "shit-awful broccoli" in their frozen veggie packs, but this poem - surely one of the great poems of the 21st century (mark it, historians!) - is so beautiful and simple it made me get choked up inside. It says so very much about self-sufficiency and independence, about dealing with loss and making the most out of a situation. It is, in its own way, infuriatingly perfect and beautiful. In awe, I decided to track down all of Pinsky's collected works and tore through them. Few of his works match the directness of "Samurai Song" and most are more heady-intellectualism than deep-feeling poetry (i.e., they're the product of years spent sheltered in academic circles instead of years of yearning and suffering and starving hysterically naked), but the man's still produced an impressive collection over his years on Earth.

Cut to this past year, when I was ready and prepared to take filmmaking classes at the aforementioned bullshit school in the most lame Metropolitan Area in America. My main goal, within the first couple of days there, was to find Pinsky and shake his hand and thank him profusely for his poems ... but specifically, "Samurai Song." Alas, he was unavailable. I trolled through the building they house him in, and asked around as to his whereabouts. He wasn't in an office, he wasn't in class, he probably wasn't even in town. To be Pinsky means to be in high demand. I requested the dummy undergraduates doing work study (read: sitting on their hands) to help me find him. They made phone calls, shrugged a lot and told me to return the next day. And when I returned the next day, they still couldn't locate him and told me to try back the following week. Due to issues with the horrifically inept financial aid office I booked out of the school as quickly as possible, belongings in hand, and never did stop back to claw at his (closed, locked) office door.

As luck would have it, I enrolled in a creative writing program at yet another school a few months after this debacle and was told (who'd have thunk it!) that none other than Prof. Pinsky would be there to do a presentation of his poems. Egad, I thought: here he is again! I had both my video camera and my still camera ready and on my person: who knew I'd have yet another opportunity to at least 'see' (if not necessarily meet) this slippery poet. But the following day - a Saturday - I was told by one of the heads of the creative writing 'program' - a man who looks like Oddjob from Goldfinger and who has more of a passion for popcorn chicken than prose - that Pinsky wouldn't be making it; he canceled because of either (a.) weather concerns (it was snowing like a mother wherever the poet was at) or (b.) he found out I was there and didn't want my foul, critical spirit infecting his innocuous cloud of postmodern splendor. Hopes dashed and dreams shattered, I started feeling resentful. Pinsky 2, Matt 0. He was dodging me. I don't like being dodged.

I sent Mr. Pinsky an e-mail explaining our near-encounters and how I just wanted to thank him for writing such a goddamn beautiful poem and how I, like wide-eyed Lisa Simpson, desperately needed to hear him lecture on something ... anything. He could talk about getting a grease-and-oil change for his car or how he dislikes wool sweaters. How he once bought a microwave from Wal-Mart. Anything. But a week later, I received no written e-mail response. Mr. Pinsky could not even acknowledge my adoration with a quick text response. Not a "ROFL" or "TTYL." I would have even accepted a copy-and-pasted canned response along the lines of "Sorry I can't write you a personal note, but I'm a genius and you're a dipshit."

So that's it, I told myself, I'm going to create a super-deluxe plan for our (eventual) third encounter. There will be no three strikes against me by the same artist ... I simply will not have it. I started planning the Dream Weekend I will spend with R.P. ... a weekend to knock the preening pretentiousness from his psyche, to shake the academia out of him. So here's what I came up with so far: I'll sneak up to the Pinsky on his way to work one Friday morning and I will kidnap his lanky ass and drive him way the hell back to my neighborhood. On the long drive home, I will have an experienced hypnotist put Pinsky into a trance to allow Pinsky to follow my orders without question (brainwashing never hurt anybody, really).

After a nice, casual dinner of sushi (and more brainwashing), the festivities will begin: we'll drive to a dive bar in the seedier part of the doldrums I live in and we'll both spend several hours there, shaking off the local prostitutes and pimps to drink 18 straight whiskeys ... the same number that did in Dylan Thomas. While drinking the whiskeys, we can empty pack after pack of Nat Sherman MCDs, which I will charge to Pinsky's expense account. The bartender, who knows me by name, will ask me who the glazed-over stiff I'm hanging out with is, and I'll tell the bartender he's my new friend, and he's a carpet salesman (because that's a lot more honorable and realistic). I'll nudge the Pinsk-ster to go along.

Following the whiskeys, we will then go shooting. Nothing sobers one up like heavy artillery. Pinsky was never in the military, and neither was I, but Heinrich von Kleist was. We'll show Kleist a thing or two about aggression by firing off several semi-automatic shotgun rounds in the woods, hoping we knock out a couple of deer and/or the windows of houses. The whiskeys, still running through our blood streams, will empower us as Americans ... and being an American means having a love affair with guns. Unlike Kleist and Madame Vogel, however, Pinsky and I will not shoot each other: the bullets are strictly reserved for objects that need exploding. When the police show up (as they inevitably do), we will bolt for the car and then drive to a safe-haven for a few hours. Hopefully the cops won't have identified my car or license plate (no doubt both on file already).

After hiding away for a while until the coast is clear, Pinsky and I will get a heavy breakfast somewhere to help sober up. We'll share several pots of coffee and, on the back of the place mat, scribble out revolutionary poems together - the kind of incendiary, heavily-political tomes that Brecht would smile upon ... the kind if, when published, would cause people to riot in the streets. We'll leave the restaurant once fully sobered up and then head to our next location: the boxing gym.

Nothing brings real men together like a little fisticuffs. Surely this would please Papa Hemingway and Ezra Pound: Pinsky and I will put on the gloves and start wailing on each other. I'll take a few swings at his temples solely to knock out the preening austerity found so often in The Want Bone, and maybe get a gut shot in there for his denouncing Shakespeare's sonnets as "over-rated." "The Bard will still be read in one thousand years, you ass," I'll shout, "but Gulf Music will have long since been turned to ash." And then I'll make sure to get a few swings in at his writing arm, so the black and blues ache when he raises his Cross pen to write anything. Pinsky needs to be consistently reminded about physical agony.

A little fun needs to follow our strenuous boxing match. We'll swallow several dozen pain pills (in honor of Lord Byron) and then go to Chuck E. Cheese or Bounce U (the good professor can choose) and intentionally crash a children's birthday party. Pinsky, a little weary but still cogent, can sneak us into the place with a soothing ode to Hart Crane and/or a parable about finding one's way through life with the aid of meditation. There, we will be on a mission not only to see who can make the most number of children cry in terror by both screaming lines from Artaud at them and mashing birthday cake in their faces: first one of us to get into an actual fist-fight with an irate parent wins the game! As we run out of the building, I imagine a thrilled and fevered Pinsky kissing one of the staff workers on the cheek, telling the worker that fortune will be his means.

We will cap off that night with more drinks and more cigarettes, and I will probably try to slip some sort of opium derivative in Pinsky's beverage, which is what Coleridge would have done to himself. We will flip a coin and let the fates decide what next to do: heads, rob a liquor store (in honor of Bukowski) or tails, steal a car (to remind Pinsky of Rimbaud's lament that every poet is a thief). Should we rob a liquor store (and successfully escape), I will make sure to drink my winnings; if we steal a car, I will aim to nab a Mercedes Benz.

Regardless of what the coin decides, I promise to get Mr. Pinsky back to his home in good time and relatively good health, even though he may be frothing at the mouth and/or nearly-ruined by fear and madness. When the poet sobers up at his house (after I throw him into his front yard) and the hypnosis and all those chemicals he ingested eventually wear off and he can finally, finally return to his actual office he's rarely ever inside of in the first place, I know - just know - that his own writings and his own teaching style will be greatly affected - for the better! - by our Weekend Adventure. The almost constant brushes with the police, the physical beatings and the cruel Soviet-style brainwashing will only heighten his already impressive talents. Audacity will become his roof. And I hope - no, I pray, to the heavens, to the celestial night - that he will be cautious to never, ever - in the future - dodge adoring fans either consciously or unconsciously again.