Revisiting “The Twilight Zone”

Zen PathReading, of late, about one Rod Serling. Writer. Producer. Creator. A man who seemed to have everything going for him. And then….

Yeah, well…and then shit happens. Apparently, he pretty much worked and smoked himself to death, and he died early. Just like his father. A fate that always haunted him. There’s an object lesson for you: sometimes you can’t see the obvious because you don’t want to see the obvious. Or because it scares you too much. And, because you can’t see it, you doom yourself to it. The kind of thing that happens in…the Twilight Zone.

Man. That’s one hell of a voice the guy had. Every writer follows a different process, but, once I hear a character’s voice, a door opens into the story. I can’t explain it—that’s just how it happens for me. And if you hear Serling or watch his work, that voice sticks to you. Pretty soon it won’t let you go. And then people wonder why you’re talking so weird. So ironically. Snapping off every word. Holding for dramatic effect. Like…this.

Which is a kind of genius. It’s a brand. If you like Rod Serling and the strange world he became associated with through his remarkable television show The Twilight Zone, then you know what you get when you hear that voice. The poignant side? With time, that’s all anyone wants to hear. You’re stuck with it. They won’t let you change it and grow. It can also become cruel when your audience tires of that voice. If it becomes too familiar. Some in the audience just wait for Dylan’s old songs. Some won’t listen to the Stones because they don’t sound as good as they used to. Why? They repeat themselves. And because the listeners themselves aren’t as young as their memories.

It’s a tough choice: give people what they want or risk repeating yourself and burning them out. It seems the artists who transcend that operate with very good compasses: they know who they are, and part of their brand is trying new stuff. You like them because you don’t know what you’ll get, but it’s likely to be good. It’s said Picasso could own anything he wanted if he could paint it, but he continually tried new forms, excelling at them and putting his “Picasso” stamp on them. Part of Tom Waits’ genius seems lie in the continual search for new sounds. It doesn’t always work, but, a lot of times, it’s very, very good. And there’s always that little bit of that Tom Waits DNA that keeps you coming back. There’s magic, and there’s tragic magic, and you have to risk one to achieve the other.

The Twilight Zone was wondrous. I don’t even think we knew how good it was at the time. I was too young to remember its debut seasons, but I grew up with it in syndication. I was not, however, too young for Night Gallery, Serling’s kind of reboot of The Twilight Zone. By the time that came out in the Seventies, Serling’s outlook had darkened, and the show reflected that darkness. He wasn’t entirely in charge of the program, as he was with The Twilight Zone, and sometimes it slipped into camp. But I can’t tell you how much I looked forward to Night Gallery evenings. (They always seemed to be rainy.) You didn’t know where you would go, and sometimes you went to very dark places indeed. Very dark. Which, to me were the coolest, most mysterious places to be, and very different than…than being a geeky kid in a small town. In the Pacific Northwest. Where it seemed some winters that the sun never made it all the way across the sky. Where the rain and the fog blurred the edge of everything. Blunted the colors. You didn’t realize how fabulously beautiful everything around you was until the sun came out, but sun didn’t last long. I came to like images with a little blur to them. Where you couldn’t quite be sure of what you were seeing. You had to guess, relying on your imagination to complete the picture.

What did the Night Gallery look like? Like an actual gallery, it varied. They hung a lot of paintings in three years. Sometimes, they didn’t turn out that well, and, looking at them now, you kind of shrug, shake your head. Yeah…well, they tried. And they were on deadline. Sometimes they retain their power and mystery. If that sort of darkness interests you (and it’s okay if it does), take a look.

Somewhere in there, Night Gallery stamped me with its mark, and I came to enjoy diving into that deep place where it really gets strange and frightening. I don’t give a damn about slasher pics or much of the stuff that passes for horror. But the fantastic, the uncomfortable, the…haunted, where the hero doesn’t always walk out in the sunshine at the end: it took ahold of me. In some ways, I’ve been writing about ever since. A writer friend says my work is haunted. (Maybe it’s me that’s haunted.) But that darkness, that blur, seems to distinguish my writing and photographs. Maybe that’s my brand.

To me, it just feels like beneath the surface of ordinary life, things remain hidden. Jung called it the unconscious—he was a scientist; so that’s kind of antiseptic. But there’s nothing clean or classifiable about the genuine intersection of the hidden and the ordinary, between dreams and reality. Some pretty good stories happen there. And maybe they show us that the world is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know.

That’s paraphrasing Einstein, whose brand became synonymous with genius. He died four years before The Twilight Zone went on the air. Would he have watched it? I like to think he would have. Marking Twilight Zone nights on his calendar. We’ve come to find that when you take apart the smallest operating particles of reality, they don’t always act as suspected. Sometimes they’re here, but only for the briefest moments, and, in those nanoseconds, they don’t play by the rules. It appears that a twilight zone occurs within every thing. Within all of us. All the time.

There’s something to walk away with…Serling. You did good.



That Last Waltz

Thirty-four years ago, tomorrow, four Canadians and a wiry guy from Arkansas played their final concert as The Band at Winterland. Martin Scorcese made a magnificent concert film of the proceeding—perhaps the best rock’n’roll film ever. The Band played their own funny, heartbreaking songs (“It Makes No Difference”; “The Shape I’m In” (pouring out of Richard Manuel); “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (maybe Levon Helm’s finest moment); and a transcendent “The Weight” along with The Staple Singers, who inspired The Band’s multipart vocals), then blithely served as some of the world’s greatest sidemen to a parade of defining voices of the era: Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Van Morrison, Paul Butterfield, and others, including a guy named Dylan, who gave The Band a break when they were billed as The Hawks, having split as Ronnie Hawkins’ backup band.

Not too long ago, a four-CD set from the concert was released, and it’s filled with wonderful pieces never included in the film or the original, three-LP concert album. Listening to it now, with distance and time, the choice of material is striking: nearly every song can be viewed as a reflection on time’s passing. The Sixties were done, consciousness expansion gone in a blur of Quaaludes, coke, and smack. The world had certainly changed, but the revolution failed, done in by Nixon, Vietnam, oil shocks, recession, and its own, inherent contradictions.

Even the music, once so high and wild, had degenerated into shadows of itself; the same year The Last Waltz celebrated what had been, The Ramones were busy burying it three chords at a time.

What you do hear in The Last Waltz is the blues. Blues and R&B underlies most of the cuts and The Band’s sound. Muddy Waters’ time onstage is all too brief. The Sixties may have been a bright flare that had burned itself out, but the blues are forever, relevant, and timeless. And the blues still have the power to cut through rock industry bullshit and coked up egos.

Still, just a look at the song titles, played in addition to The Band’s songs (which gloriously reflected the past as in a funhouse mirror), carry the sense of an era’s closing: “Such a Night”; “Down South in New Orleans” (one of the simplest, best songs ever written: ‘my ship’s at anchor/my suitcase packed/got a one-way ticket/ain’t comin’ back’); “All Our Past Times”; “Further on Up the Road”; “Helpless”; “Furry Sings the Blues”; “Tura Lura Lura”; and “Forever Young.”

And the closer. Everybody came out to sing it. Ringo sat in on drums, Ronnie Wood on lead guitar—respectively representing the Beatles and the Stones. You don’t get much more iconic than that, unless you could drag out Lennon and Jagger (not bloody likely). It was a song from The Basement Tapes, when Dylan had dropped off the circuit and holed up in Woodstock, New York. Informally, he would get together with his neighbors, The Band, and they would have a few drinks, roll the tape, and see what happened. It’s amusing to wonder what Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Garth Hudson thought one apocryphal evening when Bob Dylan unfolded a piece of paper and said something like: “Uh…I got this thing called ‘I Shall Be Released.’ Wanna’ try it?”

It was, as they say, a long time ago. A lot of those folks—Muddy, Butterfield, Bill Graham, Bobby Charles, Danko, and…oh man…Richard Manuel—are no longer with us. Everything had gone to hell and was fucked up. Everybody was fucked up. Everything’s still fucked up. But, if you angle your head just right and look down into yourself, you can still see your reflection somewhere so high above that wall.

The Best of Old, Weird America

William S. Burroughs once wrote that America is not a new land, but rather is old, cursed, and strange, which resonates with me, given my taste for the old, cursed, and strange. In college, I well remember a lecture by Professor Barbara Mossberg which lodged in my head like a barbed arrow: she put forth that an intrinsic part of the country’s nature is that we’re both blessed and damned: blessed with what we’ve been given (or, in the case of the European Boat People, taken) and what we’ve done with it. That the rich, verdant woods of New England offered game, birds, and new plant foods, but also harbored dark spirits and demons ready to draw us astray: the kind of demons that can, say, lure a Bible-thumping, holier-than-thou Southern politician and suddenly immerse him in a train-wrecking affair with a lonely Argentinian and a public fall from grace so spectacular that it boggles our already over-boggled minds.

Griel Marcus wrote a book on American music that’s steeped in this tradition. Mystery Train, which is ostensibly about The Basement Tapes, a weird and righteous collection of uncategorizable music that Bob Dylan made with The Band in a pink barn in Woodstock when Dylan was recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and which simultaneously removed himself from a star-making machinery that was increasingly frenetic, out-of-control, and destined to make Dylan yet another pop culture martyr.

Dylan, one of our most wiley artists, feinted left and cut right, escaping his fate and delving into a deep well of folk/Americana, revamping it with electric instruments and an outlook shaped by what he called “medicine.” (“Drugs are bad for you, but medicine–beer, wine, dope, opium, acid–that’s good for almost everybody.” Subsequently, everybody did get stoned.) Until 1975, the only hints of what happened in Woodstock (which is more or less a sleepy Catskills town, despite its ties to the gigantic Woodstock Festival), emerged in The Band’s magnificent album “Music from Big Pink” and a few stray live Dylan performances where tunes like “Nothing was Delivered” and “Down in the Flood” emerged. There were, however, so many bootleg copies of the music floating around that Columbia Records finally talked Dylan and The Band into releasing “The Basement Tapes,” which still sound pretty damned good on a warm summer night…with a little medicine.

Marcus drew a connection between the strange, antique but forward-looking music that came from that session–which could arguably be seen as the genesis of both country rock and alt rock–and the supremely odd, little known music of Dock Boggs, Charley Patton, and Appalachin murder ballads–a music both blessed and damned.

These themes have stuck with me and, I think, carried through to a number of my plays–“Malaria,” “Farmhouse,” “Bombardment”–but especially to the two “music plays” I’ve written: “Lost Wavelengths” (a piece about outsider musicians done at JAW in 2006 and winner of the Oregon Book Award last year) and “Bluer Than Midnight” (a piece about the Civil Rights Movement, the Blues, and the Afterlife, written last year and yet to have a public reading…I’m waiting to hear back reactions from a number of friends and colleagues who are reading the piece–you know who you are–but an earlier draft was well received in Portland Center Stage’s late, great PlayGroup playwrights workshop). After the JAW reading of “Lost Wavelengths,” a fellow playwright clapped me on the shoulder, laughed, and said, “What are you? An audiophile?” I’ve never thought of myself that way, but I said, “I guess I am now.”

Fast forward to…well, the week before last, when I was browsing at Powell’s on a summery afternoon, and found a neat little book called The Best Music You’ve Never Heard,” which is, pretty much, what the title says: short pieces on terrific bands and musicians who, for a myriad of reasons–from bad business moves, self-destructive tendencies, and abject weirdness–never broke into the mainstream. I was surprised to see some names I was completely familiar with, which either means the book was more inclusive than I would expect or that I’m more of a music nerd than I suspected…probably a bit of both. Nobody, for example, who’s lived in New Orleans considers Professor Longhair obscure. There were, however, a wealth of splendid people I’d never heard of, and the book has been opened a terrific treasure chest of wild sounds.

I haven’t made it though the entire book yet, as a band will catch my attention, and then I track them down on the Internet, but the one band that especially blew my mind was The Handsome Family, a husband-wife duo from New Mexico, who write achingly gorgeous melodies matched with some of the strangest, most surreal lyrics imaginable, about whispering plants and invisible birds singing on ends of tree limbs. I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of description of their work, and closest I can come up with is “Johnny Cash Sings Edgar Allen Poe’s Greatest Hits.” It’s music that takes you to a strange, head-spinning place and then walks icy fingers up your spine. In a word: sublime.


So naturally, I had to track down The Handsome Family’s Web site, and, lo and behold, their tour schedule shows they’ll be playing Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge on July 21st. If at all possible, I’ll be there. If you want to hear something remarkable, I suggest you are too.

Now, if you ‘scuse me for a minute, I got to play my guitar.

Talkin’ Sam Beckett Blues

I haven’t had a chance to pick up the new Bob Dylan album; so I don’t yet know what sort of horrors Bob has in store for us. I understand, however, that there’s some stuff about being sick set to Mexican music. You can derive from that what you will.

In the meantime, I thought I’d channel Bob a bit, see what I could pick up. I put on a denim jacket, slung my guitar around my neck, and walked around strumming E minor and talking through my nose long enough that I received the following transmission. Warning: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.


Down in the bunker
It’s cold and it’s clean
You know what you need and you say what you mean
You’re thanking the gods for an artesian well
‘Cause up on the surface it’s a quarter to hell

Mistakes were made
By someone or other
Maybe the president or maybe his brother
But the oceans are swimming with a poisonous gel
And the topside winds blow a quarter to hell

Every day is like winter
With the snow ten feet deep
You can’t stay awake and you can’t fall asleep
Like to open a window and breathe fresh a spell
But the air is like kerosene dripping in hell

There’s pictures of yesterday
Fading out in their frames
All your friends and your places have forgotten their names
And the maps are all useless when you’re locked in a cell
Drawn up by architects on retainer to hell

Memory’s a parlour trick
That changes each day
You think that you got it when it just slips away
Was it dream or it real? There’s no way to tell
When you’re watching the clock at a quarter to hell

It’s too late to repent
It’s too late to regret
You can’t get it back
And you can’t get it yet
You can’t count the minutes
That’s gone or to come
All you have now is here
And that’s better than some

I guess you keep going
What else can you do?
The rough patch’ll pass in a century or two
Till then keep listening for a clear, piercing bell
That signals the time is a quarter past hell

Quote of the Day

Sure, we’re doomed, and Bob Dylan’s new album will kill us all, but he still earns the quote of the day. It may sound simple, but you have to have been there to know it:

Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.

Learning from the Movies

A few years ago, I was musing about the usual stuff–writing, Bob Dylan, whether life has any purpose–and I had an odd sort flash into my own writing. Hadn’t looked at it for some time, but I thought about it this morning and went back in the archives, and damned if it was still kind of interesting. I sometimes think on school where students are asked to explicate at heme for a piece by, say, Gogol, and, as a writer, you think: I’ll make you bet Gogol never sat down and said, “I think I’m going to write to this theme.” It just happens. Usually, the last person you want to ask to explicate a theme is an author.

Anyway, here’s the piece:

This morning, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s soundtrack from the Sam Peckinpah film “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” one of those films that has always resonated with me on a level that’s sometimes difficult for even me to understand, and I found myself pondering: who’s the main character in this story? Pat or Billy? Or are they equally weighted?

I finally decided it was Sheriff Pat Garrett’s story as his narrative opens and ends the film, and it is his dilemma whether or not to track down his former friend (Garrett was an outlaw before becoming sheriff) and kill him. Pat changes with the times–the closing of the wild American West–and lives; Billy does not, and, in the end, is killed. Wistfully, these days I identify more with Pat than Billy.

And I thought how, in a way, Billy is a part of Pat that he has to subdue to survive, an aspect of his young, free past, and that they are two parts of the same character. In that way, they sort of represent what Freud called the ego and id, with the ego having to tame the id’s powerful, basic impulses, or–in a model I more readily identify with–Carl Jung’s framing of conscious and unconscious mind, the unconscious being the vast mind that lurks beneath the surface of ordinary consciousness and comes through in drives, neurosis, dreams, fevers, intoxication, etc.

That’s a great theme, I thought. A conflict that I feel in my soul. That’d be a hell of a theme to write about, and I realized it underlies two of my other touchstone films, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “Apocalypse Now.” That’s when it struck me: it is my theme. It runs through much of my work, some of which, like “Delusion of Darkness,” give the advantage to the unconscious, and others of which, like the war plays (in which the characters’ rationality must overcome their attraction to the raw madness of violence), give the conscious mind the winning hand.

To give creedence to the power of the unconscious mind, I was not fully aware of the theme until now.

The Thousand-Yard Stare

This weekend, I saw “I’m Not There,” Todd Haynes’ film about Bob Dylan. Portland has a couple notable filmmakers. Haynes is one of them. He’s made a beautiful film, the kind you walk out of thinking: I wish I’d made that. If you’re out there, Mr. Haynes, thank you.

Growing up, I never paid much attention to Dylan. Knew who he was. Knew “Like a Rolling Stone,” of course. Everybody knew that, along with a handful of the protest songs, maybe “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He just never quite clicked. The Stones fit so much better with all the testosterone I was dealing with.

It was when I got to college and ran into “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for an intro to poetry class that I went: hmm. This is interesting. A friend’s girlfriend (who I was secretly in love with) loaned me “Bringing It All Back Home,” and, wham! I had to hear everything he’d done. Right now.

And I pretty much have. Dylan’s work is hard to like. You have to be flexible. Work on faith. I don’t think he even delights in confounding us–he just keeps moving, following his instincts, and we come along or not. I think he’s had to, so many people trying to fit him in a frame, hang him on a wall. “Poet” is a pretty hard brand to market. Almost as tough as selling poetry.

Other musicians, I like their sound or lyrics or the mood or time they take me to. I like some songs from almost every genre. A few bands–the Stones, the Airplane, the Doors, the Clash, REM, Nirvana, U2–are inextricably woven into places and events of my life. But I think only Dylan’s work has gone as deep, reached down and become one with my personal history.

“Blind Willie McTell” says pretty much everything I feel about America: bountiful, damned, mysterious. Haunted.

A lone tree in an empty field erupts in flame. Burns. Silently falls to the group. Smoke rises through dusk. Then all is dark, save a red moon rising.