On Art and Intoxication

I.             Chilled Aristocracy


All of a sudden the chill of November arrives here in my Rhine River studio like an old, cold, wet Alsatian Wolf-Dog. The autumn gloom makes me want to wear black all the time. Romantic. Like Johnny Cash, Bela Lugosi, Lydia Lunch.


These days I got a thing for Lydia. I’ve been listening to her ‘70s band, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, and I also reinvestigated her ‘80s rant-recordings. Using her marvelous Rochester accent, she wraps deliciously venomous poetry around the ankles of the unsuspecting.


Watch ‘em lose their balance. Watch ‘em fall.


For me, this kind of art-aggression isn’t about feeling “empowered.” It’s about feeling free. Liberated. Shoes tied or untied, fame or obscurity: it don’t matter. I am literary royalty, baby. Sometimes I go through periods of producing nothing but bad art, and sometimes I’m to lazy or indifferent to care about making anything. But a stumbling aristocrat is still an aristocrat.



II.            Free Lunch


If you don’t know who Lydia Lunch is, here’s me telling you.


When, in the early ‘80s, Patti Smith moved from New York to a quiet house in Michigan to raise a family, Lydia took Patti’s place. That last sentence is oversimplified and only partially true, but it suits the flow of this essay.


Like lots of other New York City art people in the 1970s and ‘80s, Lydia did it all (remember: painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was in a noise-rock band and even did some acting). The main thing she did, and what she did best, was what we used to call “spoken word,” which is, basically, poetry readings with elements of theater and performance art mixed in.



III.            The quick and the dead


The world of the spoken word is the world I come from—the world that shaped me as an artist. At the time all this was happening, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I wasn’t aware I was being shaped by anything. I was having fun and enjoyed watching other artists have fun. But now, looking back on it all, my favorite art people were damaged and half-insane poets and gifted story-tellers who, though beloved and encouraged by intellectuals and academics, chose to ply their trade outside the confines of academia: Henry Rollins (a hyperactive punk-poet juggernaut), Gil-Scott Heron (tender-hearted drug addict and songsmith supreme), Roger Manning (SoHo “anti-folk” poet, guitar-hero and rabble-rouser), and Spalding Gray (disarmingly charming monologist with suicidal tendencies), to name a few.


Gray finally succeeded in killing himself, an ugly story.


Lydia Lunch: “The dead are glorious, mysterious and respectable.” Lydia once wrote/spoke about how we don’t speak ill of the dead ‘cause we’re afraid of ‘em.


I do not fear the dead. The central European landscapes that I navigate daily are liberally sprinkled with castles and cathedrals and monuments and spiky, craggy graveyards. Here, we are constantly reminded that the dead far outnumber the living. Landscape as scar tissue. Landscape as a kind of memento mori tapestry made of grass, trees, water and stone.



IV.            “Pleasure is the ultimate rebellion.”


This is Lydia Lunch’s motto. Her definition of pleasure: just say NO to cell phones and tablet computers … be silent … watch wild birds flying at dawn. I say YES to all of that.


I’m gonna have some pleasure tonight when I recreate the meal James Bond enjoys with Vesper Lynde on pages 60-62 of Fleming’s Casino Royale: a carafe of “very cold” vodka, caviar, veal kidneys, pommes soufflés, wild strawberries, artichoke hearts, and champagne. Then I’ll share this meal with a beautiful woman, some friends, the gods. . . .



V.            Rebel rebel


Another pleasure: forsaking the twentieth-century fixation on “rebellion” in favor of what R. W. Emerson, Hanford Henderson and even Henry Miller called “an aristocracy of the spirit.”


An enslaved man can growl at its captors and proudly proclaim that this is an act of rebellion—a gesture which expresses the man’s displeasure with his present circumstances and his will to be free. But if the man remains a prisoner, his growling is meaningless. Even if he manages to escape his captors, he’ll never be truly free if he continues to identify himself as a “rebel.”


VI.             Bartleby: a new paradigm


Notes from Self to Self:


(A)     Twentieth century: “rebellion” as a kind of intoxication. Dadaists, Bolsheviks, corporate raiders, Jackson Pollock, Jean-Luc Godard, Steve Jobs, Sex Pistols, Niggaz Wit Attitudes, NRA, Bansky, Fidel Castro caps, Lou Reed.


Defining characteristics: noisy, confrontational, infantile, potentially destructive, vastly entertaining.


Theme song: “Rise Above” by Black Flag


(B)      Twenty-first century: “aristocratic Bartleby” models for newer, fresher modes of intoxication. Marcel Duchamp, New Agrarians, Andy Warhol, Robert Altman, Bill Mollison, The Residents, Lil B, Quaker quilting circles, Office of Universal Consultation, Ltd., Commes des Garcons neckties, Lou Reed.


Defining characteristics: dress code to be enforced in the main dining hall.


Theme song: “Thumb” by Dinosaur Jr



VII.             Very high frequency           



On Sept. 21, 1966, six days after I was born, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sang “I Put A Spell on You” on the Merv Griffin show. This song was transmitted via VHF (very high frequency) electromagnetic waves from a Houston TV station to my parents’ TV set. The song landed in my ear like a spaceship landing on the surface of a virgin, tabula rasa brain. Jay screamed and I howled along with him. That howl was my first poem.



VIII.             Paradise


Aspiring-poet-turned-filmmaker Jim Jarmusch made a movie in 1983 calledStranger Than Paradise and “I Put A Spell on You” played intermittently throughout the movie. I was 17 years old when went to see it at a Houston movie theater. There was only one other person in there and I think he was asleep. I was awake … and in the process of awakening. I was becoming a poet and was intoxicated by the prospect of discovering—somewhere, somehow—some form of artistic truth. In Paradise, I witnessed that wondrous and mysterious amalgamation of malaise and hope that characterizes an enduring work of art.



IX.             William Blake           


Twelve years later, Jarmusch made a movie called Deadman, in which the main protagonist’s name is William Blake. Johnny Depp played Blake. Depp’s an accountant, not a poet. But he becomes a killer and his killing becomes a kind of poetry—the poetry of outlaw-freedom, beauty, pain, wonder and destiny. “Whatever is destined for you in this play, in this body, it will come to you,” says Mooji, the great Jamaican guru. William Blake, the accountant, was destined to become a killer and, in the eyes of a friend, a poet.



X.             Passive recipients


Intoxication and obsession are often thought of as modes of expression as extroversion—of pushing from the inside out. But withholding expression, or accepting the notion the we are all expressions of a cosmic principles beyond our understanding, are also legitimate forms of intoxication. Ultimately, intoxication is a form of possession, and passive. We artists become passive recipients of the strange fluff of cosmic delirium. And then we sing. And some resonant something out there answers the song.




© Brett Davidson, 2013



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