Digression: the trick

So I said yesterday that part of this free idea business was a trick, and that today I’d show you how the trick was done.

Some time ago my genius writer friend Meghan McCarron, who’ll be guest-blogging here next month (Nov. 17 – 21), and whose Tumblr feed Marmalade Chronofile is a seemingly bottomless well of amazingness, found this transcript of Tom Waits, talking between songs during a set at Burbank Airport.

Songs, I think, have to be anatomically correct … I always believe you gotta put a change of clothes in there … and … you know that type of thing … you have to put ahh … you know, the names of towns and … it’s good to put something to eat in there as well … and some weather … you just never know, ’cause folks, you know, you send them out there and the people take those songs, and they do things with them, and they need … you know it’s like a Swiss Army knife … I don’t know, that’s the way I see it … that’s the way they are to me …

… only now that I go digging for the link, it seems like maybe she got it from Matt Cheney — whose name ought to be familiar to Jeff’s regular readers — but anyhow …

Some time after that William Gibson quoted a bit of Luc Sante, talking about H.P. Lovecraft in the New York Review of Books, and after some rummaging around in cyberspace I found the rest of it, or anyway the part that interested me:

Although he was married briefly, and many years later his former wife was moved to state, peculiarly, that he was an “adequately excellent lover,” it is clear from all available evidence that sexuality, procreation, and the human body itself were among the things that scared him the most.

He was also frightened of invertebrates, marine life in general, temperatures below freezing, fat people, people of other races, race-mixing, slums, percussion instruments, caves, cellars, old age, great expanses of time, monumental architecture, non-Euclidean geometry, deserts, oceans, rats, dogs, the New England countryside, New York City, fungi and molds, viscous substances, medical experiments, dreams, brittle textures, gelatinous textures, the color gray, plant life of diverse sorts, memory lapses, old books, heredity, mists, gases, whistling, whispering — the things that did not frighten him would probably make a shorter list.

I came to Lovecraft and Tom Waits in college, and almost at the same time. Oh, I’d been exposed to Lovecraft earlier, probably back in the golden days of role-playing games when there was so little money in the business that Gary Gygax could violate trademarks and copyrights with near-impunity, but it was in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college that I finally got around to checking out At the Mountains of Madness from the Cupertino public library; and it was in my junior year of college that somebody at the Stevenson College (UCSC, not Edinburgh) coffee shop decided that Rain Dogs was the right thing to play every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning before Japanese 101.

Now some of you probably know Tom Waits better than I do, and I know, this being Jeff’s blog, that some of you know Lovecraft way better than I do. Don’t let me stop you from correcting me. But, before we go any farther, do let me just point out that for the purposes of this idea-concocting exercise, I can be wrong as wrong can be about both these guys, and the trick still works.

The early 90s, that was a weird time to come to Waits and Lovecraft both. Historians have been talking about the long nineteenth century for a while, about a century and a quarter long, from the French Revolution to the First World War. In the early 90s they were starting to talk about the short twentieth, from the First World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe it’ll stick, maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll date the “long twenty-first century” from 9/11 — or from the Gulf War — or from 1989, when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan. But at the time, that divide sure felt like the real thing.

And I was on one side of it, the 21st-century side, and Waits and Lovecraft, they were on the other.

Understand, not only was I a video-game-playing, giant-robot-anime-watching, styrofoam-space-colony-building 21st-century kid, by the time I started college — coming back to California after three and a half years in Tokyo — I’d lived almost half my life outside the US. It wasn’t just the past that was another country, it was America, too. Twentieth-century America had — still has — a certain mythical quality for me, idealized, something made out of chrome and Bakelite and painted metal, running on diesel and cheap leaded gas, played in smokey cafés, recorded on vinyl and celluloid. That was where these guys came from, what they were about.

Of course, it was obvious to me even then they didn’t see it the same way.

(To be continued…)

Comments

  1. tim says

    I don’t know much about Lovecraft, only read a few bits here and there, but my love to Tom Waits has only grown since I was exposed to him in college.

    I think the critical thing with Waits is that he is not of the time and spaces he sings about. He tells stories like they are fantasies, whether they be of the Beat, long drunk night of trucks passing cars in the howling night, or the abandoned Southern barns where slaves were once slaughtered. He romanticizes these places, people, and events, but he also stands outside of them, often with a critical gaze. This self consciousness makes me think he is either 1) of that 21st century world and he is looking back, creating a mythological 20th century or 2) he is indeed part of the 20th century, but is engaged with those parts that culturally most Americans have chosen to ignore or were never aware of in the first place. He shows us just how weird that time was, and how strange our time continues to be (if you have not heard it, his latest album of new material, Real Gone, exemplifies this… its all trash-fantastic, carnies and broken trains, rain and war and nihilism, love and murder, ghosts and wine glasses).
    In a lot of ways, his approach is similar to Bob Dylan’s. He uses the detritus of the past two centuries to cobble together narratives and sounds that the underbelly of the present.

  2. David Moles says

    Bill, I’m all about being all about the meta.

    Tim, you’ve nailed it, absolutely. Twentieth century America’s always been mythic for Waits, and when I showed up his songs just slotted me right into their reality picture. You’re right about the critical gaze, too — more about that tomorrow. (And about Lovecraft’s critical gaze, too, though in his case I think we’re looking at some serious ophthalmological problems, maybe fungal keratitis.)

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