Monday, June 27, 2005

The King

The icon. The hero. The superstar. The one who is everything we desire to be, yet cannot be. Will never be. In kinder, gentler times, we allowed our heroes to scale great heights, saw in their climb some hope for our own victory. We cheered them on, their fame a mechanism for our own transcendence. It was only when we realized that their success would be of no use to us, that our redemption through their stardom was a lie, that we began to throw stones, to knock down those we had idolized only moments before. If they could not bring us up to their level, we'd bring them back down to ours. Then we went searching for a replacement. Now, humiliation is the price of admission. Paris Hilton, Ben Affleck, Jessica Simpson, The Bachelor, The Swan, The American Idol. We demand celebrities we cannot respect. It is as if we finally understand that the superstar will never free us from the mundanity of our own lives. And we hate them for it.

We still create stars, but only after the candidate has relinquished their dignity, something we, of course, would never dream of doing. Unless and until we get the opportunity to take their place. Most of these poor, unfortunate souls will be quickly discarded, their future the final degradation offered by tabloids or scandalous courtroom drama. But for those select few whose stars burn brightly and continuously in the collective consciousness, who can truly do no wrong--for it is not allowed--the price is highest. They must allow us to deify them. For, as Harry Crews has written, "Men to whom God is dead worship one another." The cost is far too steep, the lie far too big to be sustained. The price, ultimately, is death. And in that death comes the greatest fame.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In the House Where Elvis Lived

FROM GALWAY TO GRACELAND: Oh, she dressed in the dark and she whispered amen; She was pretty in pink like a young girl again; Twenty years married and she never thought twice; She sneaked out the door and walked into the night; And silver wings carried her over the sea; From the west coast of Ireland to West Tennessee; To be with her sweetheart, oh, she left everything; From Galway to Graceland to be with The King; She was humming Suspicion, that's the song she liked best; She had "Elvis I Love You" tattooed on her breast; When they landed in Memphis, well her heart beat so fast; She'd dreamed for so long, now she'd see him at last; She was down by his graveside day after day; Come closing time they would pull her away; Ah, to be with her sweetheart, oh, she'd left everything; From Galway to Graceland to be with The King; Ah, they came in their thousands from the whole human race; To pay their respects at his last resting place; But blindly she knelt there and she told him her dreams; And she thought that he answered or that's how it seemed; Then they dragged her away--it was handcuffs this time; She said, "My good man are you out of your mind?"; "Don't you know that we're married? See, I'm wearing his ring"; From Galway to Graceland to be with The King; "I come From Galway to Graceland to be with The King." Beautifully written by the one and only RICHARD THOMPSON.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The City of the Dead

"(St. Louis Cemetery #1) is the mother cemetery...the Vieux Carré of the dead; as confused and closely packed a quarter as the living metropolis." Grace King, author, 1895.

On my last evening in New Orleans I decided to go visit the oldest boneyard in New Orleans, St. Louis Cemetery #1, founded in 1789. Yes, on my last EVENING. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me that the cemetery would be CLOSED at night. Maybe I thought I'd be able to peek through a fence or something (it's actually surrounded by a tall, white wall). In any case, the cemetery was outside the safety-circle the desk clerk had drawn for me, but I wouldn't realize this until I got back to my hotel room. So, I set off, crossed Canal St., and kept going. I soon passed a man who bid me a very hearty "Good evening!" I responded in kind, and thought, "Very friendly folks around here!" About a block later I caught the vibe. Abandoned grocery store on one side, boarded-up building on the other. Very few people on the streets. My antennae went up. Way up. But I was pretty close, so, sun going down, I pressed on. Another guy walked past, and he, too, offered a friendly "Hello!" Only, this time, I thought I detected a trace of amusement in his tone. When I made it to the cemetery it was, of course, locked up tight as a drum. I circled it, just to feel like I'd accomplished something, and found a hole someone had bashed in the wall. It was large enough to crawl through and, incredibly, I actually considered squeezing in. Luckily, I realized that other people may have recently done the same thing and I didn't want to meet them under the circumstances. So, I turned around, kept my head down, and quickly walked back to my hotel in the dark. Failure.

But, if at first you don't succeed, try, try, again. On my most recent trip to New Orleans I went to the cemetery first thing in the morning. This time it was open and there were plenty of tour groups out and about. A very different atmosphere. But I did appreciate the sign out front: "Visitors are welcome but enter these premises at their own risk." The graves are above-ground because the water table is so high that a heavy rain would have buried coffins popping up left and right. When space is needed, a coffin (at least 1 year and 1 day old) is removed, burned, and the remains pushed to the back of the tomb or set in a space below the vaults. Homer Plessy (1863-1925), a black man who sat in a "whites-only" railroad car, leading to his role as plaintiff in Plessy v. Ferguson, is buried there. Remember, Plessy lost his case and the ruling put into law the "separate but equal" doctrine in the US. Also buried in the cemetery is Marie Laveau (1794?-1881?), the Voodoo Priestess. She and her daughter reportedly haunt the cemetery, and return fully to life on St. John's Eve (i.e. Midsummer's Eve), when they lead followers in a wild celebration (i.e. orgy). People requiring a little voodoo in their lives leave coins, stuffed animals, "X"'s--ANYTHING--to get Ms. Laveau to help them. Then, those in need turn around three times, knock thrice on the tomb, and their wishes are granted. Tradition has long held that the Laveau tomb is the one in the middle shot there, but the grave itself has always been unmarked. Did I try to get a little voodoo going on? Wouldn't you like to know. The statue in the top shot is "The Weeping Woman." This last photo features the ubiquitous beads of New Orleans. Thanks to Grave Addiction for providing some info on the Voodoo Queen. They've got lots of interesting photos and facts at the site if you want more. 'Til next time.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The Big Easy

The first time I visited New Orleans the desk clerk at the hotel I was staying at took my map from me, then drew a thick, dark circle around the downtown area. "New Orleans isn't really a dangerous city, as long as you stay inside this circle, especially at night." I appreciated the advice, but he needn't have bothered. If there's a seedy part of town, some place where no tourist has any business being, then I will automatically, magically, find myself there. The first time I went to Chicago I got woefully lost and drove right up to the notorious Cabrini Green Housing Project. (This was before muggers on crack were replaced by joggers who've had too much frappuccino.) In Charleston, SC, I took a few wrong turns and found myself in the only place I was expressly told not to go. As darkness fell, a man trudged down the sidewalk, past burnt out buildings and overflowing trash cans, a TV hoisted on one shoulder, the power cord dragging behind him. My first night in London was spent in a basement hovel in Earl's Court, complete with pre-dawn knife fight outside the window. ("Aw, c'mon, just put that thing away before the police come," one guy finally pleaded. Surprisingly, it seemed the suggestion was taken, and I listened to their footsteps ricochet off in different directions.) And on and on. Trust me, I'm not showing off here. There's nothing particularly fun about winding up on the toughest street in town. You're grateful if all it takes is a little spare change to secure safe passage through some of these neighborhoods. I'm only relating this as a set-up for the next post. But don't get your hopes TOO high--it's probably not what you think. Anyway, the top and bottom photos are from Bourbon St., early on Easter Sunday, 2005. (The guy with the crown wants stuffed animals from the ladies in the carriage.) This middle shot is from the Garden District during a wait for the trolley.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Hotel No-Tell

Sometimes things just don't work out. The interstate is built 20 miles to the east. There's no money coming in. You can't cover your loan. Your wife says she's had enough. Anything. Disaster. Whenever I'm in an old house, particularly one that's still furnished, I can't help but wonder what happened. Death? Disease? Divorce? A litany of potential transgressions and illegalities. But, in each case, whatever occurred had to have been powerful. For this event, or sequence of events, transformed something that once must've meant everything--every hope, dream, or aspiration--and turned it into less than nothing. A rotting shell, the decaying objects inside, once cherished, now hardly the worst of it. A home become a place to flee. When I came across this motel in south Georgia, a little off I-75, I took the broken glass and shattered wood to be proof of calamity. Each room individually decorated, a children's playground out back, a laundry facility. Evidence of plans and passion. Now, nothing of use remained. To understand, to feel what might have been, you have to get close, and risk seeing something of yourself reflected back at you.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Neon Night

I don't know what it is about old neon signs that I find so romantic. Of course, neon is best late at night, in a light rain, the bright colors reflecting off wet pavement. Extra points are awarded to signs with a few burnt-out letters. Bonus-extra points go to signs that blink on and off, molded glass tubes winking ambiguously in the darkness. We're not talking about signs advertising Subway sandwiches or ATM machines. No, we're talking about signs that evoke moods, memories, and movement, somehow flashing the cracked ambitions of generations of Americans back at you. This is a shot of the Prince Murat Motel, Tallahassee, FL. They sell alcohol at the front office in 40 oz. cans. I'm reminded of the Thunderbird Inn, Savannah GA. The Thunderbird is across from the Greyhound station, where the most reasonably-priced accomodations in any town can be found. One night, I was staying at the T-bird when I heard the door to my room open. I sat bolt-upright in bed and immediately my eyes locked with those of another gentlemen, who was halfway across the threshold. He stopped dead in his tracks, whispered a hoarse apology, then quietly backed out. Did he mistake my room for his, the locks on the doors, for some strange reason, the same? After all, I was sure I'd turned the deadbolt before going to bed. Or did he pick the lock, hoping for a free room for the night? I didn't ponder these questions (nor a couple others) for too long, as I quickly fell back asleep. Hey, he seemed like a nice person. Unlike the woman in the parking lot who, later, towards dawn, screamed for a solid hour about her lost comb. Oh, and I'm not disparaging either the Thunderbird or Prince Murat. They beat a corporate chain any day. Hell, it seems everyone I know has spent at least one night at the T-Bird.

Phirebrush, an on-line magazine, has posted 5 photos of mine, which is quite nice of them. The shots are in the new issue, #28, in the photography section. All 5 are from the CSRA, including shots from the Phinizy Swamp, Sand Bar Ferry Rd., and even the spooky honky-tonk/mission. Yup, all the old haunts. Also, the other night, I caught Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys at Lee's Liquor Lounge. Now, I'm no fan of nostalgia or revival, but Big Sandy brings enough personality and flair to rockabilly and swing tunes that they seem wholly contemporary. "Chalk it up to the Blues," a song off the last record, can be found here. It's a good soundtrack for neon in the night, I think. This is Walker Radiator Works, Memphis, TN. It's dark, letters are burnt out, I only regret that a fine mist wasn't falling. But, if you listen closely, you can hear heels clicking down the sidewalk and off into the night.

I feel like I'm cheating a little bit, since this shot was taken right next door to the radiator works. Yup, Sun Studio, Memphis, TN. But, it goes well with the shot from Snaps Magazine, which was taken from inside (during the day, of course). So, yeah, sure, this post was written under the influence of too much Dashiell Hammett, too many Veronica Lake movies, and my apparently unquenchable desire to hop in a car and drive to a city--any city--with no regard for what happens once I get there. I don't know about where you live, but if it's not pouring with rain and you aren't subject to extended power outages, you're better off than I.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Waiting and Watching

Somewhere along a barren stretch of US Highway, between Tallahassee and the Panhandle Coast, a phalanx of battered trucks waits. Wounded sentries standing guard over the hot Florida blacktop, these relics hope patiently for a call to return to service, though the call will never come. One foggy morning this spring, as the mist lifted into the trees with the rising sun, I stopped to pay my respects. We may return in a later post, as I was much impressed by the austere display of rust, torn rubber, and cracked glass.

I'd also like to mention Snaps Magazine, an on-line 'zine featuring a new topic each issue. This edition is dedicated to music, and I was pleased to get a photo of mine included. Yeah, I actually DO have some music-related shots, and they aren't of broken guitars and smashed drums. Although, I would like some pictures like that! My photo is of Sun Studio, Memphis, TN. You know, the place where Elvis Presley was discovered by Sam Phillip's secretary, Marion Keisker. At first, Sam didn't think the kid had anything. But Marion pestered her boss for a year to bring him back in. And the rest, as they say, is history. The shot is of the room where Elvis, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and so many others first did their thing. This is where Rocket 88, the original rock and roll song, was recorded by Jackie Brentson, with Ike Turner playing a mean piano. I won't tell you which page my shot is on--you should flip through and see for yourself. Yup, flip. The format is pretty cool, so take a look at Snaps Magazine.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Minneapolis, Minnesota

I first went downtown sometime early in junior high school. For years I'd peered out the car window as my mom drove down Hennepin Avenue on the way to my grandmother's, fascinated and frightened by the assortment of misfits shuffling down the sidewalk. I was especially struck by Block E, on Hennepin between 6th and 7th, which, for some reason, I took to be the center of downtown. I wasn't entirely wrong. Anchored by Moby Dick's bar, Shinder's bookstore, and the Rifle Sport Art Gallery, with the 1st Avenue nightclub (riding high on the fame brought by Purple Rain) and Northern Lights record store across the street, I sensed an importance to this area that I couldn't yet understand. When I finally did get out on the streets to see things for myself, within 5 minutes of walking down 7th St. I was asked if I wanted to buy some weed ("Uh, no thanks.") and if I could spare some change. I told the guy I only had a nickel (minus the dime for bus fare back to the suburbs). He laughed and said, "Aw, man, I'm not gonna take your last nickel!" It felt like I'd found a home.

My friends and I started going downtown a lot, just roaming the streets on foot or bike. Sundays usually ended at the 7th St. Entry, 1st Avenue's small annex, where all ages punk rock shows were held. But Block E was considered a blight, and shortly after my first visit the whole thing was torn down. In one of those moves that is utterly baffling, yet so common it hardly elicits response, a parking lot was put in. Oddly, the parking lot sorta worked. It kept the area open and provided a handy meeting place. This was not what the city wanted, so some dumb-cluck got the bright idea to pipe classical music into the lot as a way to discourage the riff-raff from loitering. Naturally, it failed. The music only served to add an interesting contrast to the urban life happening all around.

That's the way things stayed until a few years ago, when the much-ballyhooed Block E Development Project finally got underway. Now, instead of a parking lot, there's blight of another sort. Featuring a Border's bookstore, an umpteen-screen megaplex, and a video arcade for adults (?!), this new monstrosity is a sight to behold. Oh yeah, did I mention the 21-story Le Meridien Hotel? The complex is bright and loud and makes the surrounding streets feel small and claustrophobic. When I first saw it, during a visit back from Georgia, I actually became disoriented and found myself walking away from where I wanted to go. And, of course, new bars have opened to serve the crowds that had previously viewed Hennepin Ave. as "too dangerous." Interestingly, police have said that downtown has become HARDER to patrol, as drunken suburbanites beat the crap out of each other every weekend. Girls in cocktail dresses now line the sidewalks at bar close, crying, "Oh my God, I'm so drunk!" before falling to the curb and throwing up. This is probably not the legacy of Moby Dick's, which offered its down-at-the-heel customers only a "whale of a drink", not a popularity contest.

One frigid night this winter I decided to brave the crowds and check out a gig. Only, because it was so cold, there was hardly anyone out. Late that night, after the show, a guy stopped me to tell an old story: His car had broken down and was now at the gas station. Could I give him a ride over there? For old time's sake, I agreed, telling him that with my car's badly leaking radiator we'd be lucky to make it. On the drive over, he proceeded to tell me how I should fix the radiator leak. The advice wasn't going to help me, but I appreciated the effort. As we neared the station he pulled another familiar trick: Could I go just one more block down? It was then that I realized he really wanted to go to Palmer's, a tough bar infamous for an incident years ago during which a patron killed the bouncer. (Further confirmation of the previous paragraph: This just happened again, but at Nye's Polonaise Room, a formerly quiet place that was famous for the elderly woman that played the piano.) After the guy thanked me and got out of the car, he walked over and started shaking hands with his friends out front, a fascinating and frightening assortment of misfits. As I turned around and drove away, I was glad that some things, at least, never change. By the way, these photos were taken in the Warehouse District, soon to be the Lofts-and-Sushi-Bars District. I don't take many photographs in Minneapolis, so this has been a rare post. Whoa.