Phantom in our Paradise

Paul and the Phantom

Paul Williams. You know him. Hai Karate aftershave, Lancer’s sparkling wine. His name and brand are adrift back there in the soft-focus, Foster Grant 70s, mingling pleasantly with hanging macramé planters, red shag carpet, Fondue parties and lapels large enough to bear one aloft on a breezy day. And my neighbor Cathy and me in my room at night, holding hands by black light and sitting stock still on the edge of the bed, staring at my glowing St. George and the Dragon poster like congregants, the room awash in Karen Carpenter’s crystalline expression of the gorgeous Williams/Nichols hymn Let Me Be the One, with that brilliant horn syncopation I was sure nobody else in the world had noticed. In the 70s Paul Williams freaking ruled. His songs were all over the radio and in the movies, you couldn’t watch prime time TV and not see him cracking up the host with his deadpan delivery, then taking the stage in his tailored suit and just absolutely killing some soaring pop masterwork he’d written or co-written, tucking in his chin and emoting his ass off in song. He owned the 70s; the good 70s, not the shamefaced 70s. And the fact is he never stopped ruling; his Kingdom just got reframed for a little while as the Second Happiest Place on Earth.

“The Carpenters were very clean cut kids, and I was on my way to becoming a hard core addict,” he says matter of factly. “I did acid and psilocybin in the late 60s, developed a huge cocaine habit in the 70s and 80s…”

Not Your Father’s Icarus

Icarus, in his vainglory, flew too close to the sun. The wax that bound his wings melted and he plummeted. Paul Williams’ problem was more prosaic. He needed attention and he needed dope, and he received both in killing doses. “I spent decades defending my mistakes and hiding my addictions,” he now says. He’s seated opposite me in the otherwise bare McCune Founders Room at the Granada Theater on State Street, where later tonight he will introduce the classic film The Way We Were and do a Q & A with dynamic American songwriting duo Alan and Marilyn Bergman, who with a young Marvin Hamlisch wrote the unforgettable title song. “How can you go from doing 48 Tonight Shows and walking down the street and everyone knows who you are, and being happier now that nobody necessarily recognizes you? I don’t want fame, I’ve done fame. And I really did it, too.”

Williams and his co-writers churned out hit songs seemingly at will in that decade, and everyone wanted to sing them; Sinatra, Kermit the Frog, Claudine Longet, Three Dog Night, Elvis, Willie Nelson, and yeah, The Carpenters. Williams was the Me Generation’s Minstrel, the diminutive variety show fixture with Veronica Lake hair, Dorothy Parker drop-deadpan wit, and a selection of unusually tiny sweater vests which he wore without irony on the Mike Douglas Show. He made Carson laugh till he couldn’t breathe, guest-hosted the Merv Griffin show approximately as high as a kite, and between televised bons mot sang some of the most intelligently beautiful popular songs in the American catalog, HIS songs, center stage; often in a suit impeccably tailored to the specs of a 13 year-old boy. When he was singing you could often see the show’s host (you name the show) watching carefully from the peripheral half-light of the panelists’ riser. This is the Paul Williams we gauzily remember, and he was at the summit. The good times came bundled with the usual toxins, though, and by the late 80s he had effectively disappeared.

Daft Punk ❤ Paul

In 2011 a weirdly charming documentary about Williams quietly hit the theaters, aptly titled Paul Williams: Still Alive – a loving if sometimes hard-to-watch record of the fall and rise of a pudgy, Phoenix-like songbird who turned his scarifying mistakes into raw power of the sort that can be shared around like a ring of keys in a jailhouse. Williams is alive all right, and he wants to spread the goods; 25 years sober and as fleet-of-foot as anyone who has shaken off spiritual chains and a two-decade hangover. Enter Daft Punk.

Following a successful concert tour with Melissa Manchester a couple years ago, Williams’ longtime pianist and musical director Chris Caswell (Cas to his friends) was tapped to come into the studio and lay down a few piano overdubs for the helmeted pop gods. Williams picks up the exceedingly unlikely tale.

“Chris is there and he hears the guys talking about Paul Williams, talking about Phantom of the Paradise.” Phantom. Where to start? Brian De Palma’s evergreen midnight goth opera of 1974 concerns a caped, helmeted figure who haunts the shadows of a rock palace called the Paradise. The gold-hearted creep is also trying to protect the girl he loves from the machinations of the evil owner of the place, Swan, played by a baby-faced Paul Williams, who also furnishes the movie with some of the most gorgeous songs of his career. As it turns out, In their pre-helmet youth the D-Punks had bonded over the movie, had grown their friendship around it, had each seen it 20 times and could recite it as a Shakespeare scholar does Hamlet. Now, like a couple of fanboys they were quietly chatting each other up in a corner of the studio, talking excitedly about Paul Williams and the movie, all within earshot of Williams’ old pal Caswell. Williams takes a slug of cold bottled water and continues. “And overhearing them talking, Cas says, ‘Um, I was just on the road with Paul’.” In the studio a pin dropped.

“….do you know how to reach him?!”

Daft Punk came down to the little house along the canal in Naples Williams was renting (not Florida), and they talked. One of the guys handed Williams a book about life after death and asked Williams to read it. This is what the album is about, Williams was told. Not life after death per se, but a journey. “The first thing we wrote was Touch. In our first working session he played me the melody and I thought it was beautiful. I took the music home and wrote the lyric.” Williams sings on the track and is in terrific voice on what could be described as a multi-chapter prayer you dance to. The song has been likened to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took the Grammy for album of the year, and a varied group of smiling, fashionably underdressed hipsters and record company cognoscenti clustered around the dais to accept the award. Included in that odd throng were two nodding white robots and the co-writer of The Rainbow Connection. It doesn’t matter where or how fashionably you are tattooed, what world-conquering band you’re in or what celebrity demi-goddess you are publicly feeling up. If you’re alone in a room with Paul Williams, you are the square.

Roger Nichols and World Domination

Initially he’d set out to be an actor, and by 24 Williams was taking roles in movies, playing much younger. A well-meaning injection mishap in his childhood had shut down his bone-growth, cold. In his 20s Williams could be seen playing precocious, well-spoken kids. The roles were small, the hours between takes long. He began killing time on the set by fiddling with a guitar. “My first movie was with Jonathan Winters, and when I moved up here to Santa Barbara in the 70s I bumped into him again and we had the same manager.” Williams began experimenting with writing his own tunes, and that combined with his comedic instincts landed him a gig on the Mort Sahl show, the stand-up political commentator who set the 60s on its ear. Introduced to A & M records by his friend and erstwhile songwriting and improv partner Biff Rose (it was their very early songwriting effort Fill Your Heart that appeared on Bowie’s seminal Hunky Dory album), Williams was quickly snatched up by the label and paired with a contract tunesmith in need of a bard. Roger Nichols and Paul Williams would soon find their feet and begin papering the radio walls with their hits.

“If you’d asked me at the time I’m sure I would’ve said I was much more into rock and roll, but I’d grown up loving the Great American Songbook. I mean, Jimmy van Heusen, Here’s That Rainy Day, George and Ira Gershwin…my favorite song to this day is Someone to Watch Over Me, my two favorite songs are that and Don Maclean’s song Vincent.” (he sings the final line of the only radio hit inspired by doomed modernist Vincent van Gogh). “That song goes places most songs don’t go.”

The day they were introduced, Roger Nichols wasted no time giving Williams a melody. “He gave me a cassette, I took it home that night and I wrote it and came back the next day with a lyric. It just rolled out of me, you know? I hear music and I get words. And Nichols became sort of my music school. He taught me a lot. And Roger wrote note for note. You know, he didn’t want a note changed. He was a great disciplinarian that way.” Their many collaborations include Rainy Days and Mondays, Let Me Be the One, We’ve Only Just Begun and many many other hummable little ditties the world is likely stuck with until the sun explodes. “But different writers have different approaches.” Williams is currently co-writing, with Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, a stage adaptation of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. This collaboration is a bit more freeing. “With Roger at times it could feel like cross-hatching,” Williams laughs. “This, though, is the most passionate collaboration of my life.”

What About Phantom?

And what of the oddball cult rock musical that provided the early Daft bond? And how on Earth did horror auteur de Palma choose Paul Williams to write the songs for this thing? We’re doing rock and roll horror, people; dismemberments, electrocution, blood-soaked mayhem – a Faustian orgy with the lights on. Get me the guy who wrote We’ve Only Just Begun. And make it snappy! Maybe like that?

“Initially I wasn’t going to be acting in it – I have no idea why de Palma chose me for that movie. I was probably the worse choice, of all the rock n’ roll singer songwriters and rock acts that he could have gotten to do that, there’s nobody whose bio is more against the grain. This genre-jumping glam rock movie…why did the guy who’s writing for the Carpenters get this?” Williams himself wonders aloud.

Then as De Palma started hanging around Williams and observing his writing process, the way Williams worked with the musicians, he started seeing something in the cherubic Williams, a surprising Svengali streak? “He saw what he described as a Phil Spectorish quality, is how he described it,” Williams says, referring to the legendary rock producer who gave us the Wall of Sound, the Ronettes, and Paul McCartney clutching his hair at the layers of honey Spector ladled onto Macca’s The Long and Winding Road, a simple piano and voice outing when left in the producer’s care by four former friends who couldn’t wait another minute to depart each other’s company. Spector is presently serving life in prison for shooting a woman to death in the anteroom of his mansion. Again – get me Paul Williams!

Gratitude and Trust and Karen

Today, Paul Williams, writer and co-writer of more terrific and indelibly stamped Great American Pop Songs than most people will ever realize, is giving back. He and Tracey Jackson have written a volume called Gratitude and Trust and he is traveling tirelessly to get the word out (gratitudeandtrust.com), using his own dark experiences and missteps and catastrophes to make light, and to show that the climb back is not only doable, it’s energizing. A new podcast is aimed at spreading the love even further. And even now he wonders if he isn’t dancing too close to the Me Me Me fire. He is also president of ASCAP, the songwriters’ and publishers’ consortium since 1941, and its most ardent spokesman for fairness in compensation for music creators in this era of piracy, downloads, and the lust for free stuff. But he does occasionally worry about a renewed vanity attack. “With my ASCAP role and the podcast I wonder sometimes if I’m not getting a taste of the thing I shouldn’t be nipping at. But then I see the potential for good. I’m only speaking 20 or 30 times a year, the book and the podcast are a way of reaching a lot more people; IF it takes off. We’re only into our first two weeks of the podcast.”

And apropos of absolutely nothing, does he recall where he was when he learned of Karen Carpenter’s untimely passing? “Yeah. I was in Washington D.C. doing a benefit for Wolf Trap (National Park for the Performing Arts) with Elizabeth Taylor, Rod McKuen, a bunch of us were there. It was just….so sad. You know, her weight concern, it gave her a focus. it was like her weight was the only thing she finally had any control over. Somebody wrote in a review or something that she looked a little heavy, and it deeply affected her.” He pauses. “I often think, if she’d run off with the drummer, done a lot of drugs, just gone crazy, I think she’d be alive and sober now. I didn’t think that then, but I wonder now, sometimes.”

The publicist walks politely into frame and gives us a five minute warning. I have to ask this one last, possibly threadbare question. Does Paul Williams ever step back and consider how many individuals around the globe have, over the decades, been emotionally stirred by his songs?

“Well…when somebody hears something that says another human being feels the same stuff they’re feeling, there’s a relief to the loneliness. And if you’d talked to Harry Nilsson or to Jimmy Web, Randy Newman or Leonard Cohen or Tom waits – what we’re doing is chronicling a human emotion we all feel. It’s that commonality that creates our success.”

“That’s a great way to look at it,” I remark, almost to myself.

“It’s a little healthier than it used to be!” Williams laughs loudly. “I’m a work in progress.”

elizabeth and bob

bob

Elizabeth (not your real name)
we were kissing
by the blanched light of a cheap floor lamp.
three-way bulb dialed down to nearly useless number one
i say nearly useless
the room was lit as if by candlelight
so, useless but for kissing by candlelight
you call that kissing
sprawled on a bean bag chair
faces dulled with rapture
no sale all purchase
wee hours.

through the window
occasionally glimpsed stars
shimmied in a desert sky
arrayed over an oleander hedge
and glowing backyard pool
my parent’s house
my house and my parent’s house
in truth more their house than mine
I didn’t know from amortized
but its stucco and wood
surrounded and held me
cast a spell on me
in my unreliable memory
every room and every hour
are suffused with midday sunshine
people places and things
i can’t hold any more
though i didn’t care
to hold them then.

this tv room in near-dark
a display diorama at the Smithsonian
my teen feeling
of surreal gravity
wondrous and unrecognizable
is this happening?
our first dislocations
always at the behest
of sexual fumbling and half-light
you were on top
my 1977 shorty-shorts
working overtime
this was our first kiss
and would be one of our last
fueled by stars
in science class they’d said
we’re made of stars
or ‘star-stuff’
shut tf up we’re not ‘made of stars’.
well.
your hard breathing
made me breathe hard, and so on
the feedback loop
had my heart flopping wildly
i could picture it ululating in there
i had concern
is this a heart attack?
is it supposed to vibrate like that?
can it be moving any blood in this state?
will this tear my heart muscle?
i actually wondered these things
through feverish
shorty-shorts tenting
chambered slosh-muscle
crazily on the move
in its little calcium cage
making of the moment
an oven I felt
would consume me.
is it possible
to feel ones heart
abrading the sternum?

My dad walked into the room.
I’d heard him approaching
but like the startled
watchman on the Titanic
couldn’t believe my senses
nor the abject, impossible horror
of the immediate
and unavoidable cataclysm
my systems at full boil
registered movement in the periphery
is my father coming down the hall
at this hour?
Right now?
iceberg
iceberg
I said iceberg
iceberg. iceberg.
full astern godammit oh my god full astern
iceberg godammit oh godammit
this can’t be
it freezes the blood
iceberg
iceberg
oh no
what an emergency
it freezes the mind
and the blood.
strips the gears
i had feared an unchoreographed
burst of telling semen
now I fear I’ll vomit
where shall I turn my head
I can’t lie here
and turn my head and vomit
Elizabeth and I freeze
like sparrows
she clutches my forearm to signal.
‘I know’, I clutch back
iceberg
iceberg
‘oh fuck don’t you think I know?’ I clutch back
dread-clutching
‘oh my good god’ I clutch back
he’s in from the hallway
he’s in from the hallway
he’s in from the hallway
elizabeth, let go of my arm
he’s in from the hallway
he’s in the room with us
he’s in the room with us
what’s he doing
he’s looking right at us
he’s stopped in the murky lamplight
looking right at us
elizabeth let go of my arm
oh good god almighty oh my dear god
he’s in from the hallway and in the room with us
he’s in the dimly lit room with us
elizabeth let go of my arm
elizabeth you are cutting my arm
don’t make me cry out
oh god he’s standing right there
he’s like a golem in the room
and us on the bean bag chair,
frozen and clawing forearms

i see him in the very dim light
he is an indistinct
unmistakable figure
shirtless and out of shape
in baggy boxers
that tell a lifelong tale
two lifelong tales
my laissez faire dad
my vaguely loving but fecklesss dad
my do-nothing dad
my orphaned unwanted dad
my insecure and pitiable dad
my dad in the next room like a kindly uncle
my dad who never threw ball with me
my dad who played cowboys with me once, in 1966
my dad who couldn’t say i love you
my dad who secretly drank
my dad who feared much
my dad who never took us on vacation
my dad who was scarcely a dad
my dad with his prematurely gray hair
my dad with his easy smile
and this adored young girl in my arms
a juxtaposition that compels vomit
I love her I adore her
so this is how one grows love
so this is that heat
heat like a sauna
so this is where sex and love intersect
now I believe it
clothed bodies throwing heat
my tiny 70s shorts struggling.

dad looked at us
a vaguely visible silhouette
in really baggy boxers
in my memory
a talking cat, a specter
a man alone in the other room
watching sports
wanna sit and watch sports with me Jeffry?
no thanks
wanna sit with me and watch this?
no thanks, I gotta go
you sure? come sit with me
no thanks, I gotta go, dad
come on, just sit with me
naw, I gotta go
ok, Jeffry
always Jeffry with him
a helpful distancing formalism
disguised thinly as bemusement
now in his enormous boxers
by phony candlelight
I see the boy in my dad
I see the boy in my dad
iceberg iceberg

‘what’re you doing out here?’ dad said
I remained frozen and silent
why? why? why? silent again
in five more seconds he said
‘oh!’ in a tone I’d never heard come from him
revelation
he walked on to the kitchen
turned right into the family room
went back to his bed.
i saw the boy in my dad
as if all the lights were on.
it struck me and then it left me
Elisabeth said
‘i’d better get home’
yeah. let’s go.

Zeus or Apollo
whatever titan runs this place
take me back
i won’t ask again
when dad comes into the room
i’ll run to him this time
throw my arms around him in the dim light
all the way around him
the man in his oversized boxers
will see a startled kid jump up
his skinny kid-arms thrown wide
it’ll really surprise my dad
just take me the fuck back.

space flower

Blossom the Dynamo!!

If there is anyone cooler than Blossom Dearie, for gawd’s sake let me in on the secret. And I don’t mean post-irony-cool, like Tony became after his manager-son paired him with k.d. Lang those years ago and rebranded him as a hipster-cred New Lounge Badge. <note: I worship Tony and am truly grateful for his autumnal renaissance>. Blossom is an element on the True Periodic Table; a building block. Blossom’s relentless pursuit of melody as a life/art theme floors me. Her style stands my hair on end. From her standards treatments to her own gorgeous oddball compositions (“Hey John” lovingly documents her crossing paths with Lennon on a talk show. “Sweet Surprise” lives up to its naif title every single listen, year after freaking year, and her beautiful fugue-state paean to “Dusty Springfield” is as happy-making a tribute to anyone or anything you’re likely to hear), Blossom ruled the Elliptical Artist Orbit. In this clip she follows the ageless gumdrop “I Wish You Love” with a four-handed improv session alongside her quietly excited French host. Adoring and adorable. Naturally Europe hugged her with airport greeting-lounge-strength at a time when to be a ‘jazz’ artist in the U.S. often meant you couldn’t afford a loaf of bread.  She’s ours, though, baby!! Now Blossom’s gone, but you wouldn’t know it. Begs the question yet again (to my mind) – where does the love go? Whence the warm energy of this lovable sprite? Answer: the Hubble Deep Field.

exodus

birds march grandly

bright blue-breasted bird
with a laughable mohawk
jumps from branch to branch
to branch to branch to branch
to branch to branch to branch
to branch to branch.
stopityouidiotcantyouseewhatyouredoing!!
up the worn steps i go
as mechanically as the jumping bird.
i carry an outsized valise
that worsens the climb.
gears turn
a breeze dutifully blows
trees waver and rustle.
not fooling me!
Minutes are on the march,
a dusty endless column of the dispossessed,
they trudge along with their carpets and pans
one turns to me in passing
and says matter-of-factly
“your village is emptying
and there is naught to do.”

forgive my politics

calgontakemeawayaway

We mobilized early.
I’ve learned, though.
my bible study leader
has been diagnosed.
the headaches are a tumor.
Krishnamurti,
who taught us to see
through the veil
and lectured musically
and at length
on our embrace
of the infinite,
parted his hair
straight sideways.
this morning
you are an insufferable
happy-mouth
and tempt the cosmos.
the toaster
is so full of crumbs
it may combust,
and that would be of a piece
with the sublime. so be careful.

Broad Stripes, Bright Stars

Broad Stripes Gene en Donald

July 2, 1776 – A dozen or so kneesock enthusiasts gather in a large darkened room and bolt the door. These nascent Giants of Liberty, our Founding Fathers, are about to change the course of human events, put shoulders to the massive Hobbesian wheel of history, and in a fever of invention redraw the Rights of Man, actualize the Magna Carta and alter forevermore the intertwined destinies of all people everywhere. They will be performing these feats wearing inept doll’s hair wigs that appear to have been hastily glued together in a school for the blind, clunky buckled shoes bought for a song at Pilgrim Thrift, and those ass-hugging revolutionary trousers that so unnerved the French when old Ben Franklin was ambassador there. Despite these setbacks, the architects of our national sovereignty solemnly adopt the resolution to cleave the 13 American colonies from the British Empire. The momentous meeting concludes with the murmuring handshakes and hubbub that in those days passed for celebration. They realize there will surely be war now; a Revolutionary War, the birth pangs of a great nation. What they don’t know is that the English will sneak back in, conquering us anew via the maddened Revenge-Anglophilia of the mid-to-late 20th century; the Arthur Treacher Fish-and-Chips plague, Benny Hill’s unexpected classification as a ‘comic’, the lung-crushing Merchant-Ivory steamroller with its endless gauzy tape loop of Colin Firth in lace cuffs staring dolefully at his lipless, stick-figure girlfriend across an airless drawing room, and the mop-top tea party that swarms ashore to suckerpunch Elvis and slap around a stunned Connie Francis. Worst of all, our great nation will thereafter suffer at least one nattering anglophile per tormented office, he who regales you with his perfect ‘accent’ in the lunchroom every noontime until you want to crush your congealing Sloppy Joe against his bowl cut. Thanks, Founders.

Two days after the voice-vote Resolution to leave Mother England in a huff, a bunch of the Founding Guys in their Jiminy Cricket tailcoats get around to signing the hard copy, which has by now been promoted from Resolution to Declaration. But not before this fateful missive is dispatched. “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” a wildly mistaken John Adams writes to his wife, Abigail. Thereafter his blood descendants will miss, by two days, every July 4th hullabaloo till the end of history.

September 14, 1814 – An American lawyer, blueblood and amateur poet named Frank rises with the dawn aboard the British flagship HMS Tonnant, dresses and heads topside. The frustrated British had a couple years before come roaring back across the pond to holler some more in a long nagging engagement later known as The War of 1812. The previous evening Frank had dined shipboard with the gracious British captain and crew and then watched helplessly from the deck as, through the long night, the British lobbed wave after wave of cannonade and corkscrewing rockets onto the beleaguered Ft. McHenry, the outpost a would-be guardian of the strategically important Baltimore Harbor. Frank had been trapped on the Tonnant during a friendly and pre-arranged prisoner exchange at whose conclusion the British declined to return him to shore – realizing the American was now aware of the disposition of His Majesty’s warships off Baltimore and might blab to his compatriots along the Maryland coast. He would have to wait until the conclusion of the battle to be put ashore with his freed colleague. Now after a night of deafening violence, morning on the water is utterly silent. The British have run out of ammo. The lawyer leans over the deck amidships and stares hard at the shoreline through a peaceably drifting scrim of smoke. After a minute or so the curtain of mist parts somewhat, and he can just make out the enormous American flag flapping serenely over the smoldering fort – a stubborn, striped, burned rag on a stick, waving like a sonofabitch; two fingers and the back of a hand raised to the British Empire, the victorious archer’s salute. Not as exclamatory a gesture as its colonial counterpart, the singular raised finger. But still. “The flag is still there!” he says aloud, pissing off the British sailor who has arrived to summon him for breakfast. Francis Scott Key heads belowdecks to join his weary hosts. On the way he stops in at his cabin and grabs his pencil.

July 4, 1986 – I’m prancing (there is no other way to describe it) across another shore, Leadbetter Beach, my pitiful little sunburned arms delicately aloft and flapping as I hippity hop and zig-zag through a fusillade of bottle rockets, Whistling Jupiters, cherry bombs, and roman candles. The good people of SB have come down to the water in their hundreds to ring in another national birthday with kegs and ordnance. According to a longstanding tradition, pits have been dug into the previously picturesque shoreline and the patriots are tossing fireworks at each other with beer-infused abandon. I watch with momentary interest as a pot-bellied guy in board shorts and a top hat proffers a colored cone of some kind, waving a font of sparks in front of him like a man watering a lawn, eyes closed. Leadbetter beach this day is a sun-drenched scene of mayhem, the stink of gunpowder commingling with that of hot dogs and spare ribs. The 4th of July. This is not the war-torn dystopia foreseen by the grousing post-Industrial naysayers, Wells and the other reflux Luddites. The world has changed, massively. The hopeful, bewigged guys in their embarrassing buckled shoes and gigolo pants were on to something, and the naive promises made in that room, the handwritten promises, have found their way, have found traction, through the succeeding centuries of war, privation, avarice, greed and hypocrisy – the human race’s unavoidable party mix.

More to the point, I’ve just met a girl. And isn’t that the way these things always wrap? Juud is visiting from Holland. I met her at the club the other night and we’re meeting again later in the day. She promised! And though I can’t know or even imagine it this July afternoon, we’ll fall, she’ll leave the country, and then she’ll return to the U.S. to stay. This young woman whose siblings all live within a mile of the family homestead on the Dutch channel coast, she’ll come back to the States and plant roots. In time she’ll bring me my Stella, my Sam, and through her dazzled eyes I’ll see things for the first time, by degrees I’ll begin to grasp how strange, exotic, musical, loudmouthed, and frankly batshit this country is. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, for instance, America personified and already persons of interest to my burgeoning id, will be made actionable Ideas in the new pantheon Judie’s happy fascination conjures.

This afternoon I’ll flee the beach at fireworks apogee, the crossfire becoming worrisome. Later, Judie will actually show up at Dave and Susie’s condo on Bath St., to my mild surprise. Just like she said she would. I’ll spend that afternoon beginning my 27-year-and-counting freefall into the sunniest, most beautiful green eyes I will ever see. By that evening I’m still at it, as SB’s explosives experts put on their yearly show, launching colored fire over our own harbor in a display meant to mimic that of the assault on Ft. McHenry, the Bombs Bursting in Air that Frank Key was so anxious to note. Enormous blossoms of light periodically illuminate the scene, throwing into momentary, strobe-like relief the thronged, lucky recipients of all the largesse the guys had struggled to articulate on that carefully inscribed parchment those centuries ago, the vivid starbursts this evening accompanied by the quaint, concussive pops of this purely liturgical artillery barrage.

My new Dutch friend is there beside me. She sees all this stuff from a new window, and she adores what she sees here. In time she’ll throw light on everything I might otherwise never have apprehended with this clarity. The U.S. isn’t a police action or a drone strike. The U.S. is Georgie Gerschwin massaging a Steinway and glancing coyly over his shoulder – Someone to Waaatch Over Meeeee – the grand, straight unbrowed nose, the slight underbite. The U.S. is Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., Henry Fonda, June Christy, Steve McQueen, Doris Day, Paul Robeson, Ann Miller, Dana Andrews. Gene Tierney, Jimmy Stewart collapsing atop a paper-strewn table and sliding to the floor, Cary Grant walking off into a snow-filled evening, Frank O’Hara jamming his hastily scribbled poetry into dresser drawers, Saul Bellow’s flight from Canada to Chicago to begin his pointillist, heart-seizing chronicle, and surely Steinbeck’s analog for the United States of America – lumbering, well-meaning, puppy-crushing Lenny. And at the center of the American Experiment, and of my patriotic id, a distinguished clique of tuxedoed figures are standing around a brilliantly underlit emerald swimming pool in the dead of a desert night, pinching martini glasses and tossing heads back congenially, in laughter, free hands in pockets, backs arched, knees bent slightly. A many-splendored thing.

This light-filled evening – July 4, 1986 – we’re just getting acquainted, Judie and I. Hoo boy. I’m seeing all of this for the first time! I’ve got a lot to learn about this place. But there is puh-lenty of time. Tonight I find I’m just staring at Judie as she stares, smiling like a fool, at the sky.

sadness of the animate

laika in a relaxed state

It’s as if there were a cumulus of sadness adrift through the floor plan, a cloud of melancholy filling the rooms and hallways, swirling around the appliances and inhabiting the corners and interior architectural niches like a….cloud. It’s not terribly literary. Maybe it’s just pity.

“for the human condition?”

I just got done telling you it’s not literary! It’s not a malaise, or whatever! It’s not that French guy on Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ dust jacket with his hand on his gut. All I can tell you is that the bad feeling, when it shows up, emanates from my daughter’s guinea pigs. It moves out through the house from there.

“your – “

yeah. Maybe it’s just pity. I said that. Anymore I’m beginning to think it’s simple pity, but the pity or sadness radiates out from their little cage on the floor at the back of the house. Their utter helplessness has real power; radiant power. It colors the whole house some days. Like the old animation of an atomic blast radius, which starts from ground zero with the illustrator’s naïve and almost playful little cartoon spark, because despite the horrid magic of what follows the viewer needs to understand the catalyst is just a bomb going off. The spark is followed by a red swelling ball, and it quickly swells outward from ground zero in a perfect circle, filling all the irregularities of the doomed city; the alleyways and schoolrooms and churches. I think this ‘swelling bubble’ atomic blast radius illustration was informed more by the technical limits of that day’s commercial art than by atomic science or the observed practice blasts they’d conducted in the field, but it makes the point with an unintended accuracy. And the guinea pig sadness is like that, or feels like that.

So sometimes (every time, actually) when I feed the guinea pigs I watch them eat and I feel a nearly debilitating sadness. It seems related to the sadness I felt one weekend afternoon as a teenager, watching a man lean over the glass at JC Penney, carefully poring over the wrist watches. The guinea pigs’ names are Chloe and Buffy, they’re two little girls. Their food is fancily packaged hay. The hay neatly fills an elaborately printed plastic bag, but is clearly just dead grass swept up from some field somewhere and jammed into these bags, bits of thoughtless meadow, minutely parceled out to those whose interrupted Darwinian lot was to roam the meadow. Now we bring the meadow to them. I raise the hinged top of the cage and the hay is stiff and comes out of the bag in longitudinal clumps that have to be smashed down into the dumb little bowls, two bowls, one for each guinea pig. Per the human conceit the meadow has to be eaten from bowls, so the straw and bits of dried flower get jammed down into the bowls and all the while the guinea pigs are making their whistling sound of joy or excitement and raising themselves up with their forepaws on the horizontal bars of their cage. Then they run in to the eating section of the cage, over a little ramp, as lithe as you please. They eat with their grateful but, honestly, expressionless little feminine faces, looking askance at me like I might take the food. Me, the giver. I’ve stood there for 15 minutes, 20 minutes. They’re completely unconscious, unenlightened, pure id. They don’t know they’re captured. What will they do after they gratefully eat? They’ll crap and then eat again. They don’t know they’re alive. What are they for? Why are there living things that don’t know they’re living things?

“We’re at the top of the food chain.”

shut up. every little scrap of meaning isn’t defined or explained in terms of what eats who.

“Life is an end, not a means.”

wrong.

“Well. You mean being alive is a state that is only available so that the living can see themselves.”

yeah. it sounds buddhist or whatever, but it’s not.

“What’s so great about knowing? What’s THAT for? You want to ascribe a purpose to everything. Try that one.”

i’m working that out.

“The animals are fine. Their cognitive darkness is a salve. They don’t know enough to be sad.”

The guinea pigs are a pillow pressed over my face. Eat sleep eat eat sleep. Like the JC Penney guy. He wanted just the right watch.

“He probably got it, too!”