You've probably heard by now about the amazing CD released in 2005 featuring the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, a "lost" recording recently discovered in the Library or Congress. It's astounding, not only in the performance, but in the glossy sound quality - crystal sonic clarity after decades lost in the vaults.
The quartet was playing a benefit show at Carnegie Hall in 1957. And what's especially jarring about the CD is a reproduction of the poster for that show found in the liner notes:
Look at that lineup! Dizzy, Billie, Sonny, Chet and Zoot, Theo and Trane and Brother Ray all on the same ticket! It makes my head spin to consider that an America once existed where this sort of cultural miracle took place. Can there be any doubt that this poster serves to document the Night Civilization Peaked? Even while the beats and boppers were soaking in this glorious happening, Elvis was luring away the next generation with his siren hips, inspiring the hucksters and tastemakers of the pop culture empire to focus all their attention on free-spending teenagers for the next 50 years. As a result, the only music marketed to adult tastes these days are a handful of Streisand records and the Titanic soundtrack.
Long gone are the glory days of bop. And with it went the mid-century dream of modernization. Giddy Googie diners and Danish Modern interiors were soon replaced by Burger King and La-Z-Boys. Jackson Pollock and Ben Shawn were replaced by Jeff Coons and Hanna-Barbera. Rod Serling was replaced by Erkle. And it just gets worse.
So when November 29 rolls around this year, join this bitter old man in a toast to the Thanksgiving Jazz benefit of 1957. And hope that, by some fluke of fate, we may see another Monk in our lifetime.
Above: A portrait of Stardust, whipped up for a tribute thread at the Comics Journal board (www.tcj.com). The Super Wizard is being honored in eager anticipation of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, the very first book ever devoted entirely to the mind-altering works of Fletcher Hanks, sometimes referred to as "the Ed Wood of comics". Check out www.fletcherhanks.com and see why the impending release of this book has given me a reason to live.
I had to take a break from reliving my sordid youth to finish up a little project for Wide Awake Press. It's The Infinite League Versus the Miscellaneous, a sketchbook portfolio of 15 new drawings, all featuring super heroic guys and gals locked in mortal combat with inanimate objects. This miniature miracle will be unveiled at Heroes Con '07 in Charlotte, NC, June 15 - 17. Stop by Indie Island to fetch this and many other fine publications from the bestest and most beautific comics publisher in the tri-county area: WAP!
Long ago – they tell me it was 1973 – the 7-11 convenience store chain released a series of Slurpee cups with images of DC Comics super heroes printed on them: http://www.glassnews.com/images/dcchecklist.gif. These were cheap, plastic cups in which the neon-colored concoction of syrup and crushed ice was dispensed. Usually, the cups featured a never-ending parade of sports stars, which held no interest to an avid indoorsman like me, who spent most of his free time coloring or playing with bugs. Having developed a growing interest in the cartoon likes of Superman and his cape-wearing ilk, I was very excited that this form of merchandising was taking a break from the Aarons and Clementes to serve up a few men in tights. Draw your own Freudian conclusions.
The problem was that the cups were packed randomly. You’d order a Slurpee and the tired 7-11 clerk would pull the next available cup from the dispenser without either of you knowing which character you’d get. You’d have your fingers crossed for a Batman or a Green Lantern, only to be served up a Slurpee in a Wonder Girl cup. I would’ve settled for an Hourman, Sgt. Rock or even Chameleon Boy (whoever he was), but which cup did I get over and over? Perry White.
That’s right, no two-fisted action man for me. I got Perry White, Clark Kent’s boss at the Daily Planet. While the other characters were out combating giant monsters with their laser vision and shape-shifting and such, Perry was sitting at his desk, editing newspaper copy. And I got cups sporting this dynamic pencil pusher time and time again in the Slurpee cup lotto, like some sick, cosmic joke. Once, my father was sent to the 7-11 to fetch Slurpees for me and the neighbor kids and returned with three Perry Whites! It was obvious that the 7-11, DC Comics, God and my father all hated me.
But today, I cherish the Perry White cup as a valuable life lesson. In this world, there are no super heroes, no benevolent ultramen ready to swoop down from the sky to right injustices like these. There is only a never-ending stream of Perry Whites, business-savvy number crunchers, grinding out daily product and obsessing over the bottom line. Not unlike the stodgy, old 7-11 executives who toyed with my boyhood dreams with their cheap, plastic shell game and snickered at my misfortune.
So yes, I blame Slurpee cups for all my cynicism about the modern world. But it could’ve been worse. Imagine my opinion of the Powers That Be had I gotten a few Commissioner Gordons.
It’s surprising to me now that I even found the idea of LSD appealing. I’ve always been a self-control freak and I was already having major anxiety issues with pot by the time I was in high school. I should’ve been able to predict that acid wasn’t the drug for me, but it took quite a number of pulse pounding, panic-riddled freak-outs to convince me I wanted to stay lucid.
The big mistake was dropping the acid at night, which everyone does in keeping with proper “party” hours. You lose a whole night’s sleep in addition to putting yourself through a chemical drenched meltdown that takes all hours to clear up. The end of my acid ritual in those days was always the same. I’d cocoon myself on the couch with the tv on, trying to create a mundane environment to come down in, keeping myself glued to the tube and resisting the urge to run around in circles.
Back then, the only non-cable channel still on 4:00 am Saturday morning broadcast a block of antique Westerns from the dawn of television. They were obviously all cranked out by the same production company back in 1950, using the same actors, same bad guy hideout shack, same horses, probably all shot on the same day. These cowboys became close friends. I depended on their rugged predictability to ward off the night’s insanity. Their theme songs all consisted of a single line, the title of the show sung by a heavily reverbed chorus of earnest studio singers. “Buffalo Bill Jun-iorrrrrr!!” There was also Annie Oakley, Champion the Wonder Horse and Range Rider. The latter was my favorite, simply because the guy was actually addressed as “Range Rider” by any and everyone. “Range Rider! Range Rider! There’s trouble at the crik!”
Watching television was impossible during the peak of an acid trip. LSD strips away the illusion of tv and you see it for what it really is, strips of colored lines being regenerated over and over. Forget about followed the plot of BJ and the Bear in that condition of true awareness. That’s the wonderful and terrifying thing about the drug. Those mental shortcuts the mind creates to maintain sanity, the assumptions, the prejudices, the blind faith, are wiped away. You might recognize your shoes or your fingers or Cookie Monster, but your mind won’t settle for simply definitions. WHY are your fingers? WHAT is the MEANING of your shoes? HOW does Cookie Monster’s puppet consciousness relate to the vast configuration of eternal oneness now evident in the infinite sound waves of the universe ?
LSD veterans would always tell you never to look in the mirror during a trip, so that’s one of the first things I did. I could see my eye rhythmically dilating in and out, which actually made me feel more relaxed as it explained a lot about why the carpet was waving like the ocean and people kept turning into fish and lawnmowers and Popeye. The pulse in my eye was the chemical pulse of my body was the cosmic pulse of everything. Heavy, man. Heavy.
No, the best advice is never to look into the night sky in the throes of an acid trip. Our rational minds, you see, have concocted this force field of self-preservation which allows us to generally ignore the vastness of the universe even as we’re staring right into it. Under normal mental conditions, the night sky appears as a domed roof, a cloak of darkness with a few shimmering pinholes of twinkling light. LSD makes you aware of the true three-dimensionality of the infinite universe and you stare into the night sky fully aware of its enormity, you mind suddenly able to soak up a reality far too huge for your tiny noggin to contain. It can bring you closer to madness than any wavy sidewalk or purple aura on your girlfriend ever could.
One night, my friend Reed and I were hanging around the parking lot of a neighborhood pool, having nowhere proper, as usual, to indulge in our juvenile delinquency. This had been a particularly grueling LSD trip and we hoped for some sort of seclusion to get our heads together. Unfortunately, the trees began dancing exotically to NPR’s blues music and seemed ready to reach in through the windshield to whisk us away to their magical midnight ballroom, so we had to get out of the car. That’s when we noticed what a clear view we had of the night sky.
We dug infinity, as Lord Buckley used to say, becoming aware of ourselves “traveling” through the cosmos. But we realized that gravity had us magnetized to the Earth, the roundness of which was now completely obvious (a little LSD could’ve coaxed the Enlightenment along by several centuries), so we figured out that, as the vastness of space lured us into itself, we pulled the Earth along with us. We were not on a stationary flatland with stars twinkling overhead, this whole planet was moving, hurtling through infinity like a raft on the rapids. Our only choice was to grab hold of imaginary steering wheels and help direct the whole damn planet, lest it stray from its proper course and collide with another star. Believe me, Captain Kirk never had a responsibility this intense.
We steered the Earth until we got dizzy and fell onto the asphalt. As I recall, Reed figured out he had enough money for a room at the El Camino motel down the road and we holed up there, rearranging all the furniture and our personal accessories in artful symmetry ala Pink in The Wall. I became convinced that I could overcome the acid madness if I just had a smaller space to exist in, a place small enough to comprehend. So I took the lamp into the closet and closed myself up. But it was no good, the infinite cosmos was still there, pouring through the paint on the wall, and I was forced to navigate through it. I now knew what I now knew.
I couldn’t take it. I left Reed there in the El Camino to steer the Earth on his own and drove home, eager to settle in with Annie Oakley and her friends, secure in that tiny world of black and white hats and predictable plots. Champion the Wonder Horse rode over a flat plain, neatly sealed in a television set which sat firmly in its place.
Years later, I heard from some of the schizophrenics I know that one of the symptoms that drove them to seek treatment was their constant awareness that they’re inhabiting a planet that’s moving through space. They were unable to separate the mundane from the cosmic realities of their day-to-day existence. They dug infinity all the time.
I know what they’re talking about. I’m still looking for that smaller space to comprehend.
Back then, I discovered a better way to get through an LSD trip, advice that I’ll now pass along to you eager youngsters: drop the acid in the morning and go to school. Far from being paranoid, you’ll be happy to know that so many figures of authority are there to help if your head begins to sprout bat wings or your legs start melting. Better still, you’ve got a structured environment, each classroom more exciting than the last, rather than aimless wandering in a strange neighborhood, trying to avoid your parents. If you’re really lucky, as I was once, you’ll have a school assembly that day in the gym and cheerleaders will come out to create patterns of brightly colored school spirit for your amusement.
It’s like they always tell you, school can be fun if only you change your attitude.