Category Archives: old weird America

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.

 

 


Whistling Through the Graveyard of Forgotten Vinyl


In downtown Grants Pass, Oregon, not far from Dirty Bird Sporting Goods (notable for the cartoon vulture in its logo and advertising), where you could purchase most firearms known to man, was the Trading Post, but a few long blocks’ walk in the rain. A narrow, slightly stooped building with weathered siding that gave it the look of an old west outpost (very popular in the new west of a certain period), mostly it was a junk shop. They’d also sell you a firearm or two, of mostly untraceable origin, but I was a regular for the used records. Rows and rows of plastic mike crates full of orphan vinyl.

Long before there was an alternative anything, the Trading Post offered up a parallel history of popular American music: the formerly known, also rans, third-tier, never heard from agains. Radio-only pressings never broadcast. Small-label bankrupters. Vanity projects with cover art done by a relative. Just out of the law of averages, a gem or two could be had for a dollar or less, which was pretty much my budget.

Maybe it was just one or two songs—the ones that probably clinched the contract—but someone had poured their aspirations into those recordings, and you could find wonderfully weird music you’d never hear on the radio. That is, unless you’d tuned into some alien AM signal reflecting back broadcasts sent a couple decades earlier.

I particularly fell for the swinging bachelor pad music, the best know purveyor of such being Esquivel (one name long before Cher or Sting), but the real magic came from those trying to make their mark by ripping off Esquivel. I suppose it made sense at the time, at least for 15 or 20 minutes. The covers always looked like a Jetsons outtake, wrapped around a come-hither catalog model with a mid-thigh skirt, hair a half-undone beehive, and a martini in each hand. (One for me…and one for you.) If you searched through the Trading Post’s clothing and accessories sections, you could probably find the quilted smoking jacket, cigarette holder, and chrome-plated ashtray to go with the record. The ladies would no doubt follow, though, when I attempted to sway young women friends with Esquivel’s pre-synth swoops and whooshes, the humor didn’t make the translation, and they’d ask if I owned any Pablo Cruise. I did not. If we couldn’t bridge the distance with The Doors, the evening was pretty much over.

After awhile, the scratches and pops became part of the sound—you memorized the songs with surface noise intact—and you would wonder who had so well played such obscure records. Cowboy songs, swingin’ hep jazz, generically handsome crooners, and doo-wop groups no one had ever heard of, but someone still managed to gouge a skip or grunge up the vinyl with unknown substances that had to be carefully scraped off with a fingernail. Drop the needle, and suddenly it was all orange western skies and ten-gallon hats and neon cocktail signs (the martini glass flashing back and forth) and backyard barbeques with fireworks and folding nylon-webbed chaise lounges and huge convertibles with fins running red lights and empty longnecks flying out and shattering on yield signs and satin sheets and TV dinners and rabbit ears and Brownie cameras and yellowed family pictures with serrated edges, and a country of the upwardly mobile losing altitude—the blood barely dried on their uncles and cousins who never came home from Guadalcanal or Inchon.

The Dirty Bird’s gone now, replaced with a furniture store or something equally forgettable. So’s the Trading Post, refinished with appropriately vinyl siding and turned into some business no one needs. But it once served as an assisted living facility for lost American dreams, and I prefer to remember it with an ill-fitting wig and a martini in each hand. Come up, sometime, and listen to my hi-fi, baby.

All in brand-new, glorious stereo.


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 alt.country 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.

THE HANDSOME FAMILY STANDING IN A CORNFIELD

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.