38 – 10 Songs That Made Me Love Pulp

This article appears on Pennyblackmusic.co.uk. Check it out in its original form.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
“It’s not chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s something darker/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night”. Jarvis Cocker’s memorable assessment of the titular emotion in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (surely one of the Top 10 most awkwardly titled songs pop history) is a perfect epithet for the bands’ oeuvre.

The magic of Pulp is the mingling of sharp, danceable guitar pop with lyrics that veer from cynical to downright sinister. Their most radio-friendly hits are rife with violence (‘Joyriders’ “Mister, we just want your car/ ‘Cos we’re taking a girl to the reservoir”) and voyeurism (“I wanted to see as well as hear and so I hid inside her wardrobe,” in ‘Babies’). Love songs in Pulp world include lyrics like: “You are the last drink I should have ever drunk/ You are the body hidden in the trunk” (‘Like a Friend’).

Studying the arc of their career, it’s clear ‘Different Class’s’ arrival in Cool Britannia was coincidence; the subsequent lumping of Pulp with Britpop a music journalists’ convenience. Pulp never shared Blur’s mockney smuggery nor Oasis’ apolitical performance of working classness. Pulp was on a different trajectory: one that began in Sheffield in 1978, contained more than a decade of obscurity, and survived Britpop notoriety to deliver an acerbic welcome to the new millennium.

Its curve is marked by a rare, unflinching insight into the human psyche. Pulp takes love as a subject but, unlike most pop confectioners, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Cocker sees love as a slippery amalgam of baser needs: status, self-worth, revenge, amusement, actualisation, to see the darkest parts of ourselves reflected in another. Attraction doesn’t lead through flower-dappled fields at sunset but down gnarled alleys stale with fag smoke, booze and latent violence.

Rarer still, Cocker understands that society is an echo chamber of our dark hearts: it isn’t just individuals who behave in warped, self-defeating ways, but our whole culture.


1. ‘I Want You’ (‘Freaks’, 1987)

Released almost a decade into their existence, this marked Pulp’s unsteady progress from post-punk acolytes to popstars. Early on, they could have been The Fall’s slightly more socially adept younger sibling. While this is still true of ‘Freaks’ portentous opener ‘Fairground’, ‘I Want You’ has all the raw material of a lo-fi pop hit, laced with Cocker’s cyanide romanticism. Melodic guitars provide a distractingly pretty backdrop to the declaration: “I’ll break you because I lose myself inside you… Yes, you’re all that I ever desired/ Still I’ll kill you in the end.”

2. ‘Do You Remember the First Time’ (‘His ‘n’ Hers’, 1994)

What saved Pulp from permanent obscurity was a realisation (conscious or not) that matching the music to the dissonance of the lyrics made them inaccessible, to say the least. Polished pop chords were the Trojan Horse that could carry Cocker’s devastating aperçus into halls of residence and suburban discos. The diatribe of a man watching his ex-lover (?) go home to someone else (“You bought a toy that can reach/ The places he never goes… At least you never have to face up to the night on your own”) comes wrapped in layers of chiming guitar and a danceable groove.

3. ‘Mis-Shapes’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The opening track of ‘Different Class’ is Cocker spitting the accumulated bile of a decade and half of Tory rule. The opening phrase: “Raised on a diet of broken biscuits” attests to his talent for evoking the circumstances of a life in a single stark image. The embittered, bright working class protagonists of the song “learned to much at school now… We can’t help but see that the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about.” Tellingly, the words still speak for Britain’s (young) people struggling with debt, gutted public services, and the crass Conservative war against social cohesion.

4. ‘Common People’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

Pulp’s biggest hit, the evergreen indie disco floorfiller ‘Common People’, drips with Maoist levels of vitriolic class consciousness. The (presumably autobiographic) account of a working-class kid who becomes the object of an art school student’s urge to slum it reeks with pent frustration, envy, longing and a paradoxical sense of superiority. “Everybody hates a tourist,” Cocker sneers. “Especially one who thinks it all such a laugh/ And the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath.” But he still drinks the rum ‘n’ coca cola.

5. ‘Pencil Skirt’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

It is a testimony to Pulp’s genius that a song that disturbed my mother when I was a teenager is as tantalizingly twisted two decades later. (It is also supports the strong argument that the first five tracks of ‘Different Class’ is one of the greatest sustained opening album sequences in 20th Century pop.) Cocker renders scenes with novelistic precision, using simple statements and objects to evoke dark knots of emotion. From the moment “You raise your pencil skirt, like a veil before my eyes” through the point where the adulterous lover declares “I’ve kissed your mother twice, and I’m working on your dad” the whole greedy, sordid, ignoble (in other words, ordinary) affair unfolds like exquisite tapestry.

6. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ (‘Different Class’, 1995)

The original single artwork was a premeditated equivalent of Cocker’s subsequent bum-wagging stage invasion of the Brits in 1996. That the cheeky ‘Here’s how to make a wrap kids’ got the predictable response from the red tops, merely affirmed the incisiveness of Jarvis’ social sensibility. ‘Sorted for Es and Wizz’ is so relentlessly specific that it attains to the universal. You don’t have to have ever “Lost an important part of your brain somewhere in a field in Hampshire” to appreciate the youthful recklessness and yearning it evokes.

7. ‘The Fear’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

Other bands might have clung to their moment in the sun, retreading the formula, but not Pulp. As the ‘90s waned they released the ultimate comedown album (the only one I know, anyway, that reeks with the jaded wisdom and lack of regret of those who are able to give up chemical indulgences without disavowing them). Cocker isn’t naive enough to think repentance will buy off The Fear. He studies it, inviting the listener along with the minor-key reassurance: “When you’re no longer searching for beauty or love/ Just some kind of life with the edges taken off/ When you can’t even define what it/ is that you are frightened of/ This song will be here.”

8. ‘Glory Days’ (‘This is Hardcore’, 1998)

The apotheosis of Pulp’s genius for making the borderline tragic sound bright, ‘Glory Days’ is a sing-along anthem that captures ‘Mis-Shapes’ broken-biscuit eaters a decade later – undefeated but far from triumphant. “We were brought up on the space race/Now they expect you to clean toilets/ When you’ve seen how big the world is/ How can you make do with this?” Cocker rails. Then adds: “If you want me, I’ll be sleeping in.” It is righteous outrage against The System tempered by the mature realisation that The System is also us. No one is innocent. (We never, were. Were we, Jarvis?)

9. ‘Weeds, (‘We Love Life’, 2001)

Arguably, every song he’s ever written was a protest song, but ‘Weeds’ is a rare example of Jarvis tackling capital-P politics with his usual lacerating observations. Narrated from the perspective of refugees, it snarls with frustration and a loathing of smug privilege. “Make believe you’re turned on by planting trees and shrubs/ But you come round to visit us when you fancy booze ‘n’ drugs.”

10. ‘C**ts are Still Running the World’ (‘Jarvis’, 2006)

Technically not a Pulp song but possibly the greatest Pulp song ever written. Jarvis’ censor-baiting analysis of modern ‘meritocratic’ Britain is par with Leonard Cohen’s ‘You Want it Darker’ as a coda for our times. The only thing tarnishing the splendour of his cutting couplets (“The working classes are obsolete/ Surplus to society’s needs/ So let them all kill each other/ And get it made overseas”) is the fact that the song is more documentary than fiction.


It would be unfair to end on a down-note because Pulp is a fundamentally joy-making band – but I don’t believe Jarvis would see ‘C**ts…’ as a downer. The world may be, to put it politely, screwed but Pulp proved it can’t steal our spirit unless we let it. Be dumb, be furious, be disappointed, be fatalistic; even if you never set your sights higher than avoiding the dog turd outside the corner shop, be proud. As Henry David Thoreau advised: “However mean your life is, meet and live it.”
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37 – Atropos

A short story originally published on Medium. Atropos is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, the one whose decision is final — her name means ‘inflexible’.

“First, I want to thank you for the invitation. All the invitations. Thank you for asking until I said yes.

“The first year, I was too angry. The second year, I was too angry. Last year, I was afraid of what I might say. My gratitude to the faculty and administration — especially Dr. Harnett and Dr. Walsh — who persisted in asking without expectation. They were close friends of my father, meshed in their own grief, but they reached out again and again.

“I didn’t appreciate it to begin with — and by that I mean, for years. I was angry with this school, with them, with the students who survived, even — a little — with the ones who didn’t. I wanted my father. If I couldn’t have him,
I wanted to hoard all the grief in the world.

“But the world is adept at delivering low blows. Even in my depths of my deepest wallows, it was hard not to know how easy it is to be sucker-punched by fate.

“It has taken four years since that day, which some of you remember all too-vividly, for me to be able to stand here and hope to say something that is not untrue. Many of you, mercifully, only know what happened second-hand — as do I.

“You didn’t see the gun. You didn’t hear the shots. Didn’t smell — as I’m told they would have — the propellant. It wasn’t your hair that stood on end, or your body that shook with the adrenaline rush. You didn’t have to make a life-or-death decision, without knowing which was which.

“Dammit. I’m still angry. At everybody, everything, every minute that added up to the moment my Dad died because some warped asshole had a bad day.

“Forgive me, fellow family members, survivors. I mean no disrespect. But let’s not give what happened more credit that it deserves. We lost our loved ones to an act of madness. I don’t want to credit their killer with reasons.

“Sorry — I should stick to my notes.

“I thought hard before saying ‘yes’. I didn’t want to come here and pretend to have reached a resolution. Yet, it was time. Those of you who were lucky enough to know my Dad, to study with him, know the only thing he loved more than making wine was teaching future winemakers.

“He treasured education and when he retired from his first career as research scientist to start the winery, it was the teaching he missed. This program gave him a chance to combine the two great loves of his life. I wanted to honor that. It’s what he would have wanted.

“So I said ‘yes’, not knowing what came next. Knowing what to say was one of Dad’s gifts. It’s not one of mine. But my mind kept turning back to one story — one pivotal moment.

“Most of you know the winery, or will have at least driven past and seen the acres of vineyards spread across the hills. If you can, erase all that. Picture those hills with nothing but brambles and stones. Picture a decrepit clapboard house with clothes on a line out front, and a tractor parked next to a beat pick-up truck. Picture my Dad, humping that rusty machine along those hills ten hours a day. My Mom tending hundreds of tiny scraps of vine nestled in cardboard milk cartons. After school, my brother and I put to work planting, watering, propping, tying.

“It takes about four years to get a crop, as you know. I was 15 by then, sick of the dirt, convinced nothing was going to come of this stupid experiment. That first year changed my mind. We didn’t get a lot of grapes but they were good. And the wine Dad made was great — award-winning, in fact. Suddenly, my pea-sized teenage brain saw the potential.

“I was almost excited for the second harvest. A handful of friends from schol were coming to help pick at the weekend. The Friday night was warm and hazy. Sunset hung on forever — the sky turning from fuchsia to rose to powder pink. Mom and Dad were on the porch, drinking wine. Toby and I were playing checkers, which is this weird old thing that was invented before the internet. I was completely content — a rare emotion for me at 16 — everything was right.

“The next morning I woke up to Dad shouting, crying really, roaring. I was terrified, I’d never heard anything like it. There was something else, this sort of whirring, rustling noise in the background. Running out of my room, I collided with Toby, and we both staggered into the living room.

“That house overlooked the main, the only, vineyard. Through the open front door I saw this dark thing — this moving mass. Dad was running towards the vines, arms flailing like a Laurel & Hardy skit. Mom on his heels. After a confused minute we realized it was birds.

“Hundreds, thousands, who knows. More birds than we’d ever imagined. Hitchcockian levels, swarming our ripe grapes.

“That was break point for Dad. He had an academic job on offer. He had no harvest. We were broke. You’re familiar with the taut economy of wine-making so you can imagine…. I, in my adolescent wisdom, was convinced, determined this was a sign. Like, “Dad, we tried, we failed, now can we please go back to the city and a job where you can afford to buy me a car?”

“Instead, he remortgaged the property on terrifying terms, and went back to planting and pruning. I was furious, livid. What was going to stop it happening again? What were we going to do then?

“‘We can always start again,’ Dad said.

“It was a few years before I forgave him. My last two years of high school I wore clothes from Salvation Army and ate packed lunches. If a person could die of embarrassment, I wouldn’t be here.

“By the time I went to college, though, things were on an upswing, and just kept swinging. Suddenly, it was the coolest thing in the world to bring friends and boyfriends to visit. Mom and Dad built the new house and I had this huge, beautiful room and studio space overlooking the vineyards. They were winning awards, hosting dinners, giving lectures, appearing in magazines.

“They threw me a 21st birthday dinner at the newly built winery. I sat at the head of the long oak table in the library, surrounded by my friends, drinking amazing vintages Dad had saved especially for the day. I remember hugging him and saying, ‘Daddy, I was wrong when I told you to quit. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.’

“Rightfully, that should be where the story ends. The triumph of courage over cowardice, optimism over pessimism, fortitude over adversity.

“I lived with that smug, comfortable morality tale for my whole adult life — until four years ago. When I heard the news, I literally fell over. My legs gave out. Lying there, howling, I thought, ‘Why didn’t he just quit?

“Once again, I was furious with Dad. If only he’d heeded the warning, if only he weren’t so stubborn, if only he’d given up. I didn’t give a shit about the winery, his accomplishments, his pleasure in it, I just wanted him back.

“I still want him back. But I’m no longer sure he should have quit after the birds. However, I’m also not sure he shouldn’t have.

“God knows, I’ve tried to weigh it up. Tried to find some scale to balance my Dad’s pride, joy and satisfaction in the winery against the fact of his absence. Increasingly, I don’t think such a scale exists. His life was infinitely precious. Missing him is wound that doesn’t heal. But his life was inextricable from what he loved, and how he chose to live.

“Would he do things differently, if he could have seen the future? I don’t know.

“Not knowing, I can’t offer you a comfortable morality tale. Doing what you love can save your life. It can also cost your life. Every day, you make life-and-death decisions without knowing which is which.

“So you may as well follow the deepest, truest impulse of your heart. You don’t know when or where the journey will end, but you can choose your path…”

36 – Audre Lorde

This brief tribute to poet and activist Audre Lord was originally published on Medium.

Image for post
Lorde’s essays and non-fiction

Bio:

Audre Lorde blazed into my consciousness, a star whose light reached my world after she was dead. Only, she’s not dead. Lorde lives in her resounding words; lives in her multiple consciousnesses as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”; lives as an embodiment of unflinching personal and political courage.

My first approach to her was slant — the final line Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Acting French” in which he declared “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” I scribbled it down, the pearl amidst the sludge of half-developed ideas.

Months later, when I realise he’d cribbed Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” I was ashamed of my ignorance, ashamed I had accidentally attributed to a man the words of a wiser and more powerful woman. I was angry, too. He should have acknowledged her, not assumed (or pretended to assume) that a white audience would recognise the words of a black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.

It’s the kind of slight (mine, his) that Lorde knew all too well. The kind of diminishing by accident or design that she wrote about with immaculate precision and righteous anger.

Lorde knew all about injustice but never let herself accept or become accustomed to it. This shines in her writing and the boldness of her life. She refused categories, as an artist or a human being. She married a (white) man, had two children, left her marriage and had a long-term partnership with a (white) woman. Her poetry can be excoriating, her prose comforting, her voice demanding.

What remains, along with her words, is the sense that she was a whole woman — undivided from herself, despite the complexities that other, less aware (less courageous?) people compartmentalize. Humming like a live wire through her work is this message: live your life, as yourself.

Image for post
Lorde’s poems

In her own words:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

“A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn’t notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too.

Today that 37 year old white man
with 13 years of police forcing
was set free
by eleven white men who said they were satisfied
justice had been done”
– from “Power

“The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes we hope to bring about in those lives… As we learn to bear the intimacy of scrutiny and to flourish within it, as we learn to use the products of that scrutiny for power within our living, those fears which rule our lives and form our silences begin to lose their control over us.” — from Sister Outsider

“I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.
– from “A Woman Speaks”

Further reading:

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
The Cancer Journals

35 – Is Marrying Absurd?

An unpublished essay.

Photo: CW

The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?

“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”

His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?

On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.

I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”

Sure, I said, why not.

A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.

“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.

Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.

Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.

Photo: CW

Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.

Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.

Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.

Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.

Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.

Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.

And.

Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.

Photo: CW

Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.

Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.

Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.

Chris and I took forty-eight hours.

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?

The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.

My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.

“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”

“I will.”

Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.

‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”

Photo: CW

Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.

Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.

33 – Married Folk Blues

This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.

Photo by Hannah Dean on Unsplash

Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.

Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.

He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.

Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.

Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.

Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.

“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”

Click to continue reading

32 – PDX Photography Tips

These interviews were conducted for and published on Frugal Portland in 2017.

We all want that fabulous Instagram photo. The snap that speaks volumes about our good taste and creative sensibility. Two of Portland’s most photogenic facets are the landscape and its diverse food scene. Because picture perfection requires more than luck, we asked two local photographers how to capture the best of Portland outdoors and dining.

Jess Selig: Landscape

Photo: Jess Selig

Web: www.jesspdx.com IG: jess_pdx

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting landscapes? 

JS: Taking landscape photos helps me to slow down and really see what’s in front of me. Sometimes I sit for quite a while pondering the landscape in front of me before I shoot. It’s a very meditative exercise.

FP: What is the best time of day or setting? 

JS: I like low light, so mornings and evenings are best for me. If it’s cloudy, and especially if it’s foggy, I go into the forests. I love a good foggy forest so you’ll see a lot of those scenes in my work.

FP: What makes a great landscape photograph?

JS: Shoot what is pleasing to you, even if it doesn’t follow certain “rules”. Your own artistic touch or edit is what will set your photo apart. Be curious, not rigid, and most importantly, have fun.

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

JS: Snapseed is by far the one I use the most. 

FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?

Taking photos of what you love, engaging with other accounts by leaving likes and meaningful comments, and engaging with your followers helps keep people interested. If you do what you love, you will get recognized for your work and opportunities will follow.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland scene or location you love to shoot?

JS: The Wildwood Trail in Forest Park any time it’s foggy. Get me up there in October during a heavy fog, when the autumn colors are peaking, and I’m in heaven!

Top tip: When shooting landscapes always take in the view from several angles and never forget extra batteries!

Aubre LeGault: Food

Photo: Audrie LeGault

Web: www.aubrielegaultphotography.com & www.portlandoregonfoodphotographer.com 
IG: @aubrie.legault

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting food? 

AL: Food is a lot of fun to photograph because it’s full of different colors and textures and you have complete control over your composition. The subject always sits still and does as it’s told. Well, usually. Ice cream tends to melt even though I tell it not to.  

FP: What’s the best time of day or setting? 

AL: Beautiful soft light is best for food so think “side light” or “diffused light.” If you’re outside this means sunrise or sunset time. Those two times of the day will have nice side light with a softer warmer glow. If you’re inside, shoot your food by a window. 

FP: What makes a great food photograph?

AL: It makes the viewer want to eat that dish right then and there. The goal is to make them salivate. A great image has interesting light, strong composition and accurate color. Filters and funky presets are fun but I don’t think they add to food images. 

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

AL: Snapseed is my go to app for quick editing.  

FP: What’s the secret to getting that perfect Instagram-blowing-up shot?

AL: I wish I knew! I have an image of some waffles that’s decent but nothing spectacular and it has the most “likes”. My guess is people really like waffles! So if it’s a cherished item, like pizza, and a cool image you’ll probably receive a lot of love.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland food, dish or restaurant you love to shoot?

AL: I have to give a shout out to one of my clients, Quaintrelle. Camille is the head bartender. Her cocktails are amazing and a lot of fun to photograph. Their food is wonderful too.

Top tip: When shooting food always choose the perfect angle and never post a photo that is out of focus. 

Sarah Willey: Family & friends

Photo: Sarah Willey

Web: www.sarahlynnphotographypdx.com 

FP: What’s your favorite thing about shooting families & friends?

SW: Getting to know them. It’s awesome to interact with new people and ask them questions. You get a little piece of everybody’s story.

FP: What is the best time of day or setting? 

SW: Fall. I love all of the colors. If you are going to shoot around, try to do it early in the morning or later in the evening, the softer light is more forgiving.

FP: What makes a great group photograph?

SW: Real emotion. I love candid moments such as people laughing, running around, and being goofy together. 

FP: What’s one app or filter everyone should try?

The best app on the market right now is either VSCO or Facetune.

FP: What’s the secret to getting everyone to face the same way?

Tell funny jokes. I love being weird at shoots to get smiles out of everybody. My jokes are so dumb they usually make people laugh.

FP: What’s an iconic Portland scene or location you love to shoot?

The Pearl District. The little urban area on 23rd always makes for awesome photos. 

Top tip: Always be patient and never have a bad attitude! Go to the shoot with positive vibes.

31 – Fake Writing Gurus

This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.

There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.

Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.

Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.

These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —

1. Do non-writers read their books?

This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.

When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.

2. Do they tell you how much they earn?

The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.

Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.

3. Do they promise you a secret formula?

Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.

This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.

If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.

4. Do they try to up-sell you?

A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.

The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!

The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.

5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?

Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.

Never mind that writer’s median income has dropped by 42 percent since 2009, according to the New York Times, and that royalties and advances are down by 30 percent in that period. Or that more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004. Or that magazines like GlamourRedbook, Cooking Light and ComputerWorld ceased print publication in 2018.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.

Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.

The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.

Where to find the real thing

Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.

Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.


My favorite books on writing include:

  • Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
  • Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
  • Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well — William Zinsser
  • Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin

For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.

Seek the positive

Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.

A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.

“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

30 – Green Velvet

A feature written for Ibiza Voice in 2008, probably. Not one of my finest pieces of writing but Green Velvet is a godlike (and godly) genius. This is for him.

If here ever was a time and place dedicated to stamping out the vestiges of party culture it is 21st century USA. In a nation where you can’t drink till you’re 21, where bottled water is considered drug paraphernalia and where electronic music promoters can be indicted under the same laws as people who run crack houses there isn’t a hell of a lot of leeway for having fun.

Sure, there is Pacha and Cielo in New York City, Chicago’s Crobar & Vision… a handful of big name clubs pulling glamorous crowds and A-list DJs. But what about everywhere else? Despite the obstacles, there are still brave promoters and music freaks who occasionally pull off a coup like luring techno legend Green Velvet to a small-time rave in an industrial corner of Portland, Oregon (pop: 500,000; biggest musical exports: the Dandy Warhols and Beth Ditto). This coffee-fuelled hippie haven happens to be my hometown, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see what happens when techno stars meet barebones raving.

Photo: C Warncke

One thing to know about partying American-style is that you’ll rarely find good music in a legitimate club. You don’t dress up to go out on a Saturday night so much as layer up, because chances are you’ll wind up wandering through freezing cold railway stockyards (or forests, or fields) trying to find the sound system.

After a false start that takes us across the path of a slow-rolling freight train loaded with desert camouflaged military jeeps we finally find a corrugated steel warehouse with a flickering sign outside reading On Air. A pair of guys in black parkas – one fat and bearded, the other rangy and pony-tailed – wave us in and another lanky kid standing behind a folding wooden table takes our 20 bucks entry fee. Even in the ostensibly free atmosphere of a semi-legal rave there are rules in abundance. Half the barn-like space is cordoned off to form a bar (more plywood tables and a cheap metal rack full of spirits) – you have to show ID to get in here, and once “inside” you can’t smoke. You also can’t carry any alcohol back onto the dancefloor, meaning those of us relying on vodka to keep warm have to make repeated trips between the two. Here, having a huge parka comes in handy: I manage to sneak a dance with my drink nestled inside my oversized cuffs.

However, it isn’t the funny little restrictions that are the most striking. It’s the spirit. Never mind the local DJ is busy mangling ‘Heater’ (ironic tune choice, given the ambient temperature is about three degrees), or that the only toilets are a row of port-a-loos on a concrete slab out back; or even that half the crowd looks too young to drive and the other half looks old enough to know better… the atmosphere is crazy. On the dancefloor drug-skinny kids are breaking out elaborate “liquid” moves that went out of fashion in Europe a decade ago. Even if they knew, they wouldn’t care, because here there is still a sense that being a raver is something special, a mark of distinction. One boy in a trilby is soaking up attention, showing off moves he must have spent hours practicing. Around him, girls in tiny skirts and day-glo bangles are dancing with fierce concentration.

Half an hour earlier my friends and I looked around the warehouse and asked, “What the hell convinced Green Velvet to come out here ” Usually, he’s in a DJ booth dripping with the latest high-spec equipment, commanding the world’s best sound systems. Tonight, he’s on a make-shift stage DJing off two decks perched on one of those wire shelves they use as discount racks in supermarkets. But he’s a true professional and, more than that, a man on a mission. Soft-spoken Curtis Jones is a devout Christian who sees his DJing as an opportunity to spread love and positivity, and he’s throwing himself into this set with as much energy as if it were the main room of Space.

And the reaction? Well, it beats any crowd I’ve seen at Space…. There are only a couple of hundred kids here, but their energy is filling up the room. It doesn’t hurt that everyone seems seriously, loopily altered. Whatever they lack in legal access to alcohol they clearly make up for with fistfuls of narcotics. And it’s all treated in share-and-share alike fashion. Absolutely everyone will stop and say hello, offer you something if they have something (even if it’s just a smoke), or simply turn around and holler “you having fun?

Photo: C Warncke

Sometimes this goes better than others. One kid, dancing next to me, turns around with a shit-eating grin and gives me the thumbs up. “Have you ever seen Green Velvet play before?” I shout over the music. He looks at me, eyes like saucers. “Are you speaking German ” he shouts back. When I burst out laughing he grins back, anxious to please. “Whatever you just said, that was cool,” he assures me.

It’s enough to make the most sober head feel twisted, and there aren’t many here. Tall, thin and cool in black leather and Matrix-esque shades, Green Velvet finally drops the tune that he wrote for kids like this: La La Land. He originally meant it as an anti-drugs message, but that seems to go right over the heads of everyone who is shouting out the chorus in un-ironic appreciation. It is a world away from sophisticated, commodified European party culture but looking around the room, it kind of makes sense.

Outside this cold, ramshackle building the train loaded down with military hardware is still rolling inexorably past. Outside a stupid, venal government is too busy scheming to kill other people’s citizens to bother feeding, educating or providing health care for its own. Outside times are tough and probably not about to get better in a hurry. But inside… well, it’s la la land. A place where freedom exists, music matters and people treat each other as potential friends, not potential enemies. Right now it feels like the best, warmest, safest place to be.

29 – Dislocation

The following is a draft of an essay that was later published in literary journal Beatdom in 2010.
Note: my literary fixations have not changed.

Literature and the art of self-realisation

To arrive where you are

To get where you are not

You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy

T. S. Eliot ‘east coker’ from four Quartets

I was lucky. By the time I discovered that personal autonomy is one of those American tropes that gets full lip-service but absolutely no practical respect (see also: “all men are created equal” and separation of church and state), I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and it was too late. Already, tires on asphalt were singing and orange trees bloomed somewhere. There was also a dark undercurrent in Steinbeck’s prose, the murmured caution I might not survive the trip or, reaching an end, find what I was seeking.

The mythic American journey is a quest for self-realisation, a conscious effort to shake off the ties of convention and to seek truth through action. Henry David Thoreau showed the way when he went to Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life”. Note: it is okay to gather moss as you invent yourself. Movement, per se, is not the point. To actively choose a mode of being is what matters.

Hunter S. Thompson put this as beautifully as I’ve seen, advising his kid brother: “Don’t think in terms of goals, think in terms of how you want to live. Then figure out how to make a living”. I first read those words on a bus rolling through the high plains outside Mexico City and they echoed in my head as we plunged south, through the impoverished streets of Acapulco to the wild beaches of Guerrero. It struck me that in all my years of work and education no-one ever suggested it is important to think about how to live. If I wanted any wisdom on that front I would have to find it on my own.

Inspiration is rare because twenty-first century America is obsessed with security. Running away to find yourself is disreputable. The joy of movement, of self-propulsion, is viewed with suspicion because it is antithetical to stability. If even a fraction of the dreamers shrugged off the encumbrance of property, life insurance and steady jobs the social order would collapse. So Americans are allowed Easy Rider and On the Road, while being subtly shackled by 401(k) plans and 10 days per year paid vacation.

Daily life is full of opportunities to behave in familiar ways. The trick is to avoid doing so. This means taking a hard look at what convention has to offer, and refusing it. “This is why I left the States when I was 22,” rock icon Chrissie Hynde once remarked. “I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car.” Like all artists, she understands the vital importance of action, of embracing uncertainty. Such choices are fraught with insecurity; with the promise of bittersweet, intoxicating thrills.

“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street,” Bob Dylan hymns in Like a Rolling Stone, “And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.” Getting used to it is hard. If it weren’t everyone would do it. Death and desperation drive the Joads; in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly runs from the wilderness to the glass canyons of New York City to the jungles of South America, never quite catching up to her dreams. Their journeys are tragic, not triumphal, yet the dream remains – wistful, stubborn – of California sunsets and the glint of diamonds. Travelling your own road requires a fervent belief in the infinite possibilities of freedom, but catastrophe and failure are always among the possibilities.

Vincent Van Gogh, who is unjustly dismissed as an ear-hacking auteur, wrote luminous, philosophical letters pondering his struggles to live with artistic integrity in a material world. “I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and… it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better,” he wrote on his thirtieth birthday. “When I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me… but one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give.” What life, faced square on, cannot give is any assurance of a happy ending. There is powerful literary testimony to the fact that courage is no guarantor of success.

Martha Gellhorn, novelist and war-correspondent extraordinaire, knew this better than most. I’ve dragged her superb memoir, Travels with Myself & Another, across two continents as much for the spine-stiffening effect of her brusque prose as for her mordantly funny stories of ‘horror journeys’. “Moaning is unseemly,” she concludes. “Get to work. Work is the best cure for despair.”

Contrary to popular belief, work matters to the wanderers. There is nothing lazy about going in search of experience. Hunter Thompson scraped, rowed and rolled across the Americas not because he didn’t want to work but because he wanted meaningful work. The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that the idle rich flourish at the expense of hungry, intelligent young men who cannot find honest labour. Hell, even Dean Moriarty, “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world”, pays for his adventure with stints of “working without pause eight hours a night.”

America trivialises the industry and vitality of people who carve their own paths because it needs well-rooted consumers to prop up its web of shopping malls, real estate brokers and HMOs. And because it is afraid of being called to account for broken promises about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck offers a deadly accurate diagnosis of establishment dread:

The Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food…. Whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads.

Photo by Asa Rodger on Unsplash

Land and food are buried deep in the heart of every personal saga. Even rolling stones need a resting place. (Kerouac first uses “beat” in the sense of beat-up, worn out, kicked around. Only later did it become a badge of honour.) Truth is, unhitching yourself from the comfortable yolk of everydayness is difficult business. It is an act of necessity, desperation even, undertaken by those who refuse to live half-lives. If you heed Thoreau’s injunction to “step to the music [you hear], however measured or far away”, you are liable to find yourself lost, cold, broke, alienated, adrift. Getting to California means crossing the Great Divide. Like as not, your only encouragement along the way will be the books at the bottom of your rucksack. And faith the destination will prove worthy of the journey.

Inspirations

  • Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • Dylan, Bob ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited
  • Eliot, T.S. ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets
  • Gellhorn, Martha Travels with Myself & Another
  • Kerouac, Jack On The Road
  • Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
  • Thompson, Hunter S. The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
  • Thoreau, Henry David Walden
  • Van Gogh, Vincent The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (ed. Mark Roskill)