Wednesday, April 19, 2006

beta plays golf in phoenix

Circa sixth grade, I was sub-suburbed out in AZ, wedged betwixt the Sun City Gals and Ahwatukee kicking it in those inverted trapezoid parks they have out there in the desert. When I wasn't drawing cartoons about our school mascot, the Scorpion, I supplemented my schoolyard bidness of flipping Blow Pops for a quarter a pop by walking to the canals that cut through the desert landscape. Like some cement circulatory system, these steeply-sloped waterways intersticed roads, groves, parks, and of course, the ever-fertile golf courses that grew everywhere out here. Nourishing a pricey oasis, the canals doubled as watertrap on any Phoenician course.

Such immense troughs made me imagine I was in a scene right out of The Martian Chronicles, the channels feeling ancient through the arid wasteland. I would walk these ducts with my step-father, his knees popping with each step (due to a stint as a college QB) as we crunched down these gravel roads buffeting each slope of the canal. Using a tiny wire scoop affixed to the end of a retractable pole, I trolled the sludgy bottom of these wide Vs, scooping out drowned golf balls that could be ball-washed and re-sold for a dollar a pop, allowing me to spring for TurboGrafx video games and comic books. Turning candy-shelled bubblegum into shiny quarters or rubbing the slime off the dimples of long-submerged golf balls and turning it into cash, it was small change, but a way to eke out a tad more allowance as a 'tween than a lemonade stand.

There isn't too much I recollect about such days in Arizona, save that it probably shaved off any Texan accent I might've otherwise acquired. I'm barely cognizant of myself at that time, haplessly unaware of the world or much of anything. The only music I liked then was the Led Zeppelin boxset (who I had never heard previously) and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which soundtracked the downing of Pepsi as my best friend and I played hoops every afternoon after school, huffing and puffing about all the girls in our class that we were "totally boning." Mostly my after-school days were spent bicycling in the desert sun with three squeeze bottles of water as I made my way along the canals and scorching hot sidewalks until I reached the comic book store near the ASU campus.

Somewhere along that route, I came across a newsprint thing called the Phoenix New Times. The comics in this one were weird, far from my tastes at the time (snark all you want about my favorites, Power Pack). Zippy the Pinhead, Bizarro, This Modern World, I laughed at these oddities. I also recall a mean-spirited slam of that impervious teen sensation, New Kids on the Block, only because there was a reference to what surely must be an imaginary band, the Butthole Surfers. Sitting in my physics class, I barely could suppress a chortle at what sort of deviant writer could make up both a band name like that and a "record" called Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis. What body part could that even be?, my pre-teen mind pondered, oblivious in Sex Ed.

When I moved back to Texas, I forgot all about Arizona golf pros, golf courses, golf balls, and finally realized that yes Butthole Surfers did exist, and Cream Corn From the Socket of Davis was tenable indeed, if as inscrutable as Psychic, Powerless,...Another Man's Sac. In Texas, I grew obsessed both with writing and with listening to as much music as possible at this time (meaning lots of Butthole Surfers). Seeing my best friend's father's record collection (he's the culprit mentioned here) wowed me, and I only hoped to learn so much about music as him. Even when I finally graduated and decided to move to New York City, it was with the ambitions of creating music in NYC. I envisioned such projects as "The Suckestra," in which esteemed all-star musicians (I always pictured Thurston Moore, Derek Bailey, Susie Ibarra for some reason) would perform with their floor-cleaning apparatuses, be it broom or shop-vac, in addition to continuing my old band. I would toil in obscurity at some office and ply my trade at night, writing poems and stories never to see daylight while making the improv scene with a prepared guitar jammed full of umbrella tines and struck with massage mallets.

It didn't quite work out that way, and for some reason I found myself working at a computer place with lots of downtime, barely clearing the exorbinant rent. I filled it up writing about music for weird websites, like in Norway and Houston before one day getting in over at the indie salt mines. Realizing I would never support myself writing poetry, I would instead enter that lucrative world of music writing.

Having just been fired for the second time from said salt mines (after arguing for better writer treatment, payment, and not having my words changed in the middle of the fuckin' night without my permission) and having just picked a fight on ILM with Chuck Eddy about whether or not Metallica was indie (knowing fuck-all about either Metallica or indie), I decided I would just hand him something. It never ran, but I had his ear and persisted. Having scratched my head at more than a couple of reviews (like this Don-doodled doozy) I experienced that heady sensation myself of being able to find my jumbled words on any corner of the city.

Always a part of my Tuesday night ritual, ducking out to the street corner to pick up the new Voice and peruse it, reading names like Schaunberg, Ridgeway, Hentoff, Hoberman, etc., I cannot put into words my exhilaration at finding my byline among them (in the teeniest of font sizes, but still). I was part of the tradition. I mean, Bangs wrote there, Meltzer, Tousches, people I had read way back in high school when trying to figure out what fucked-up music I should be blasting out in the school parking lot. Psychotic Reactions and Meltzer's Gulcher were huge, the latter so that I started doing my own ramblings on such quotidian idiotic shit like glow in the dark stickers; growing a moustache (not that I could grow one myself for another five years); Trout Mask Replica as first hip-hop record (in the days of Heavy D and Arrested Development); why "R.E.M. Kicks the Beatles' Ass"; cock-rock sitcoms, as well as a sitcom starring Kim and Thurston. Only in retrospect did I see my own obsessions with music crit all the while, and only as happenstance did I realize I myself had come to fruition. Now I was on the same page as folks I had long read, first in Texas and some eight years on in the city: Chuck Eddy, Robert Christgau, Frank Kogan, Greg Tate, Michaelangelo Matos, Douglas Wolk, Sasha Frere-Jones, Simon Reynolds, Jon Caramanica...

In much the same way as my step-father had a decade previous, Chuck helped me earn a living by giving me a chance to perform that most curious alchemical work: sounds into words, plastic jewel cases into paper checks, dirt into pearls --or to detractors-- bullshit into shineola. So whether I thought about Klaus Schulze's kim chee, erecting neo-psych cathedrals, the sound of Shangri-La-La Land, suffering sunstroke in a surfer community, making bad James Brown jokes or good jokes about the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and Princess Leia, I suddenly had a platform to elucidate such harebrained connectors between disparate items. Growing emboldened, confident, I branched out even further, writing in places I have never even seen (hello MPLS!). Other gigs felt more like work though, fitting into an alt-weekly style, but nothing was as much of a thrill as opening up the newest issue of the Voice and finding myself there among other luminaries once again. It was not just an honor, it was fun as fuck.

Having not heard from Chuck in a week or so (any writer will tell you that NO ONE is more responsive to emails than Chuck) I had a dream Tuesday morning that involved us talking on the phone about all the pieces he couldn't run at the Voice due to space limitations. When I woke up, I had an email from him and we bandied back and forth a few ideas for the future. Come mid-afternoon, the news hit me. Having watched every single one of my editors step down since January, be it in Miami, Seattle, Minneapolis, Nashville, and watching SPIN get gutted like Bambi with a few quick and nasty strokes, I knew it was only a matter of time before something happened to Chuck, and yet even as I consoled Nibs that it was ultimately for the best when he was shitcanned, I was disarmed that this horrible day had finally come for Chuck. My welling up of tears was tempered only by my subsequent nausea and disgust. Granted, my own emergence at the Voice came well after the halcyon days, a half-century since Mailer, post-Murdoch, even after that drastic cutting of space and Draconian word counts, and with the shadow of the New Times umbrella blocking out the Vitamin D, the luster was dulled, dimmed, but it still absurdly enough shone for me regardless.

Foolish gold is all I feel now, undecided if I will ever get to finish up my assignments at "Village Voice Media" and if I will even try to forge ever onwards into the drought of the music crit landscape that has plenty of skeletons already caught in its sands. It's tough to come to terms with the nagging fact that fifteen years later, some 2500 miles away, I am once again simply polishing some goddamned golf balls for middle-aged businessmen in Phoenix. Maybe I should switch to lemonade.


Anonymous J T. Ramsay said...

I've read so many lovely tributes to Chuck (most of which read like eulogies for music...and thinking), but this really struck me.

Even though I didn't follow through on either of my two pitches, it wasn't due to any unwillingness on Chuck's part. His open-mindedness and skepticism made his page the creme de la creme (or Creem?), and it wasn't until I got past the "importance" of street dates and Zeitgeist to realize that if that was all that mattered, then why bother writing at all. Better to leave the heavy lifting to PR firms.

It's a shame that the saltmine couldn't peacefully co-exist with print media and that market focus and penetration weren't the be all and end all. Now it turns out that the "what matters" or "take home message" is just buy it now!

And so while this is an incomplete victory for management, once they realize that people will read about music they dislike or hate if the story's well told, they'll come back begging. Until then though, it's dark days spent furtively drafting and editing copy on the clock.

8:14 PM  
Blogger theblognut said...

I'm glad someone else also owned a Turbo Graphix 16 - we'll miss you Chuck.

8:36 PM  
Anonymous rick smith golf school said...

... :)

8:53 PM  

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