Author Archive: Christopher Waldrop

Goodbye, Dummy.

In an episode of Tales From The Crypt, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”, Don Rickles plays a successful ventriloquist whose career was cut short by a terrible tragedy. After years out of the spotlight an aspiring ventriloquist, played by Bobcat Goldthwaite, asks him to come to a performance. After bombing Rickles tells him, “It wasn’t terrible. Okay, it was terrible. You had no technique, no material, no concentration, and you had no idea how to work the audience.” He then suggests that the younger performer consider another line of work. He seems genuinely pained as he says this, as though he really is speaking to an aspiring performer. Watching it I wonder if his performance came out of experience, if Rickles had to be so brutally honest to younger performers or if, when he was young, he’d been told he’d never make it as a comedian. If it were the latter maybe it would explain the origins of his act. Most comedians try to win audiences over. As the original insult comic Rickles was determined to make audiences hate him, and they loved him for it.

It helped that he so often punched up, going after the rich and famous–in particular Frank Sinatra, but other members of the Rat Pack too. When I was a kid I think my introduction to Rickles was hearing him say, “I don’t hate Sammy Davis Jr. because he’s black. I hate him because he’s a Jew.” He also punched down, too, going after minorities and calling out faults of audience members–he was an equal opportunity offender. It started as an accident, as he would say in interviews. One night, doing badly with prepared jokes, he insulted a man in the audience and got big laughs. And yet the insults were never meant to be real, never meant to hurt. As he says at the end of his album Hello Dummy,

“Will Rogers once said, ‘I never picked on a little guy, only big people.’ May I say to this entire audience, on a hectic night, you are pretty big and I do thank each and every one of you.”

And sometimes Rickles was on the receiving end which could be just as funny. Bob Newhart said they hung out together because “Someone has to be his friend.”

A lot has been written about the rise of stand-up comedy in the latter half of the 20th century, but where many of its innovators–Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce–and members of the generation before–Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, Red Skelton–get a lot of attention Don Rickles has barely rated a mention. Gerald Nachmann’s Seriously Funny: Rebel Comedians Of The Fifties And Sixties only describes Rickles as “professionally obnoxious”.

Now that he’s gone I hope he’ll get a fuller, fairer assessment as a comedian and a performer, someone who had technique, material, concentration, and knew how to work an audience, even when he wasn’t in front of an audience, acting on TV shows and in movies ranging from Kelly’s Heroes to the Toy Story films. To simply forget him would be an insult.

Hail and farewell Don Rickles, ya old hockey puck.

 

Hidden In Plain Sight.

Every artist wants their work to be seen, right? Actually if there’s one thing I’ve learned after years of studying art it’s that the one thing that’s true of art is there are no absolutes. There are artists who work in silence, who work only for themselves, creating works that may not be found until after their deaths—obvious examples being Van Gogh who only sold a couple of paintings in his lifetime and for the most part wasn’t trying to please anybody but himself, and Emily Dickinson who, although she tried to publish a handful of poems, did most of her work in private.

And at the other end of the spectrum there are artists who deliberately seek fame and attention; although this is largely a modern phenomenon there have probably always been artists who courted the rich and powerful, even if it meant doing the bidding of the king and his court.

One of the interesting things to me about graffiti is it seems to fall somewhere in between. Artists create works that are publicly visible but they’re usually very personal. Take this, for instance.

Yes, there are a lot of layers to “very personal” art. No artist, no matter how personal their art, is working in a vacuum. They’re influenced by other artists, by history, by the world around them, and by myriad other factors. Why’d you choose that design? It’s sort of what other people do. Why’d you choose that color? Maybe it was all that was available. In fact there have been fads for certain colors because they became available—blue began to appear more in 19th century Japanese prints, for instance, because of the discovery of a new blue pigment, but that’s another story. Every work of art represents a number of choices, but only some of those choices are deliberate on the artist’s part—there are also a lot that are made by circumstances.

To get back to my point about artists wanting their work to be seen, though, here’s a broader view of where that piece is located.

The work is pretty large and the artist deliberately placed it high on a building on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, which is a major street with lots of traffic. But it’s placed on the side of the building, facing a side street that most people won’t take unless they live in the neighborhood or take a wrong turn. And even then you really have to be standing in just the right spot to see it. One of the reasons I didn’t get a closer picture, aside from all the NO TRESPASSING signs and fences and some guy looking at me suspiciously, is I couldn’t see a way to get closer and still be able to see the work, aside from climbing up on the building, and maybe I should have asked that guy, “Hey, could you give me a leg up here, and maybe also a ladder?”

There are a lot of reasons the artist probably chose that exact spot—most of them not really choices but rather a matter of circumstances, but I like to think there was some intention there, that the answer to, “Why’d you choose that spot?” would be, “Because I wanted people to make an effort to see it.”

Now here’s an Emily Dickinson poem.

#930

The Poets light but Lamps —

Themselves — go out —

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Circumference —

 

It’s A Perennial Problem.

Last weekend my wife and I cleaned out a flowerbed in the front yard. It’s where she’s planted irises but over the years it’s gotten overgrown, mostly with honeysuckle which had to be pulled out by hand. I would have been fine with just setting the whole thing on fire, but that would have a deleterious effect on the irises and probably wouldn’t make the neighbors too happy either. And there was something really satisfying about lopping the thick stem of honeysuckle plants or, where I could, tearing out the entire plant by the roots, although it’s not personal. Well, it’s sort of personal. Honeysuckle is an invasive species imported from Asia sometime in the early 19th century and it tends to destroy other plants around it by competing for resources–its longer growing season gives it an advantage in this—and it also changes the soil chemistry to cut down on competition. Sure, I have fond memories of sucking the nectar out of honeysuckle blossoms, and it’s also an important food source for hummingbirds who also have fond memories of sucking the nectar out of honeysuckle, and it also has other advantages. Even though it’s a vine in some spots honeysuckle has grown up so much it forms a natural fence between adjoining yards, and it’s as true now as it was when Robert Frost first said it: honeysuckle fences make good neighbors.

Also I feel like a hypocrite for ripping out honeysuckle just because it’s an invasive species when I’m such an ardent defender of the dandelion, which, in North America, is also an invasive species, something people remind me of whenever I say how great dandelions are, or whenever I blow dandelion seeds all over their yards, which is kind of hard not to do. It’s not just that it’s fun to blow dandelion seeds, but also when you do it you get to make a wish, and who doesn’t wish for wishes? Also usually I’m not purposely blowing dandelion seeds into anyone else’s yard but they have a lot of lift so even if I’m in the middle of my own yard it’s inevitable that a few of them are going to drift over the border, even if there’s honeysuckle in the way, although not even dandelion seeds can cross the Atlantic. Even though the dandelion is spread across the Eurasian continent it probably wasn’t introduced to North America until European settlers brought it on the Mayflower in 1620—which means its arrival predates that of honeysuckle by about two centuries, but being here longer doesn’t make it better.

Still it’s complicated. Are invasive species necessarily a bad thing? The changing of the landscape is a natural process and it can raise complicated questions, like, how the hell did I get poison ivy on the back of my right knee? I was wearing jeans and how could it get back there and not anywhere else? And there are thorny issues, such as, what is that thorny vine that grows up around the honeysuckle? Actually I don’t care what that stuff is or whether it’s invasive or a native species. If it stabs me through my work gloves again I’m going to set it on fire.

Previously on Freethinkers Anonymous…

 

Let’s Go Over This Again.

It must be because the warm weather brings out so many people walking that I feel I have to go over this once more. In front of the building where I work there’s a crosswalk. In Britain they call them zebra crossings, or that thing the Beatles were in blocking traffic for the Abbey Road album. Anyway this seems to cause an immense amount of confusion. I’ve seen fellow pedestrians step right into the street and glare at oncoming traffic which has to come to a screeching halt, and I’ve seen drivers come to a screeching halt when there are pedestrians on the sidewalk patiently waiting for the traffic to go by so they can safely cross the street.

Also “sidewalk” is a U.S. term. According to Wikipedia’s Simple English it’s also called “a footpath (Australian English, Irish English, Indian English and New Zealand English) or footway (Engineering term)”, all of which make sense and in Britain it’s called a “pavement” which makes no sense because pavement is what streets are made of and the Beatles could have walked on it without blocking Abbey Road, but that’s another story.

Anyway here are some terrible and unhelpful diagrams made with the help of Google Earth that I hope will clear up confusion about everything except why the British call a sidewalk a “pavement”.

In this first diagram I am represented by a blue dot in the middle of a tree. Actually I would be standing on the sidewalk because the trees really aren’t that good for climbing. As long as I am on the sidewalk the oncoming car has the right of way and the driver doesn’t have to stop and give me that condescending little hand wave. As you can see in the picture there’s also a bus stop that looks like it’s out in the intersection. The bus really stops right in front of where the blue dot is which I’m sure is convenient for people who want to get out on that side of the street but buses tend to sit there so pedestrians who want to cross can’t see oncoming traffic and vice versa. Thanks, bus drivers!

 

In this next diagram I am again the blue dot on the other side of the street even though I’m not that round and haven’t been that blue since one Halloween. Again the oncoming car has the right of way. Also that redbud tree I appear to be standing in has been cut down so it’s even worse for climbing but Google hasn’t updated the picture yet.

In this next picture I am represented by the blue dot in the middle of the intersection. I now have the right of way but should only step out into the crosswalk, zebra crossing, or Abbey Road thingy when there is no oncoming traffic.

In this picture the oncoming traffic is a triceratops. If you’re riding a triceratops you always have the right of way even though they’re slow-moving and will probably stop to eat the trees.

Twistered.

It was in the spring when I was in sixth grade that I developed this weird obsession with tornadoes. Some might call it “morbid”, but I didn’t think about the death and destruction caused by tornadoes, and even though I really wanted to see one I would have preferred that it not cause any damage. Maybe if one could touch down near enough to get us out of math class I’d be okay with that. It was prompted by one of the teachers showing us the same scratchy old film about tornadoes that we’d all been shown since kindergarten because they thought information that was at least a decade old should be reviewed annually, or maybe it was just a chance for the teachers to skip down to the lounge and have a smoke and a drink before math class and films were a good way to keep us occupied which is why I could recite most of The Lorax, but that’s another story. I didn’t think of tornadoes as destructive natural occurrences but rather really, really, really cool natural occurrences. The film we watched made tornadoes seem fascinating, mysterious, and only dangerous in a completely abstract sense, like Donald Sutherland. My Boy Scout handbook also had instructions for dealing with tornadoes if we were out camping that included getting into a low-lying ditch or, if at all possible, moving to the side to get out of the oncoming tornado’s path, and, interestingly, it had the exact same instructions for dealing with Donald Sutherland.

For a while this obsession even had me thinking I might like to be a meteorologist, to study tornadoes to try and figure out what really powered and caused them. All the film really told me was that tornadoes formed when a cold front and a warm front came together, so sometimes I’d stand out on the playground and try to see if I could feel cold air on one side of my body and warm air on the other, the sure sign of a tornado. I was also intrigued by different kinds of tornadoes including water spouts—tornadoes that form over water—and especially dust devils, which are like miniature tornadoes, but not as intense. Dust devils became a spin-off obsession because while I knew it would be dangerous to get close to a bona fide tornado I thought a dust devil would be safer, that I could get up close and personal with it and study it closely.

And one day while I was out walking around in the vacant lots near my house I thought I saw one. It didn’t last long enough for me to get close but I saw a few scattered leaves rise up, move in a circular formation, then drift back to the ground. I was so excited the next day at school I told my friends who mostly didn’t care but quietly feigned interest, probably in the hopes that if they went along with it I’d shut up about tornadoes. They all agreed that, yes, I probably had seen a dust devil, but Matt had to disagree.

Matt and I weren’t friends. We just had a large circle of mutual friends. Somehow we’d made the same friends over the years but he and I didn’t meet until sixth grade and for some reason we just took an instant dislike to each other. I don’t remember our first meeting or anything about why we disliked each other, and with my friends Matt seemed like a decent guy. The fact that my friends were also his friends says something, so maybe it was me that was responsible for this nebulous animosity between us.

Anyway Matt vehemently disagreed that I’d seen a dust devil because it was leaves. He didn’t deny that I’d seen something that sounded a lot like a miniature tornado but a “dust devil” would be mostly dust. And also strictly speaking in the United States they’re primarily found in the southwest, and what I’d seen was so small and so short-lived there’s probably not really a term for it. And yet this somehow spawned an argument with some of our friends leaning on way and some leaning the other but mostly they were divided over who could care less about the whole thing.

Later that same spring I’d see a real tornado, or at least the beginnings of one, during a wave of storms that swept through the area one weekend. There’d been tornado warnings I was in the basement with my parents, prepared to run for the enclosed space at the back, but of course we were staring out the windows. There were brief hard rain showers, then a few minutes of tiny hailstones like pearls, and then everything got very quiet and still. Over the hills in the distance a line of clouds pressed down, its bottom edge so straight it looked like a piece of black paper, and below that the sky was bright whitish green. I saw a line twisting down from the clouds, mostly solid but dissipating at its end, and then, as though it had touched something foul, it drew back. The sky cleared and after that I didn’t have any more interest in tornadoes.

A Matter Of Time.

There’s a clock on a pole across the street from where I wait for the bus most afternoons.

I’ve never bothered to calculate exactly how much time I spend waiting for the bus, and it varies from day to day. Some days I sit for five minutes, some days it’s half an hour, and it’s a little annoying that I always rush to get to the bus stop but the bus driver isn’t necessarily in as much of a hurry to get to me. There was one driver who was consistently late and every day loudly complained that it was the driver before him who’d been running late causing a domino effect. I noticed whenever there was a substitute that driver would be on time.

Not that waiting is necessarily a bad thing. I used to sit and read books. Some days the wait was just long enough for me to read, really read, a poem. Or I’d pick up the free newspapers like the Nashville Scene which, for a while, published a poem a week.

Now I mostly listen to podcasts which I feel has kind of brought me back to when I was a kid. My father always listened to talk radio in the car. In some parts of the country, some pretty close to home, he could pick up bizarre preachers expounding on their theories of how Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark was really a 666, or how the prevalence of triangles on the show Buck Rogers was a Satanic plot. For more serious fare he listened to public radio, so I’d sit in the backseat and hear stories from the BBC or the news. Some mornings we’d listen to Dick Estell’s Radio Reader, which was both fun and frustrating if we got wherever we were going before the story ended. Or, since Estell tended to read long books, I’d hear a chapter and say, “Yeah, so what happened then?” I also remember when they ran the original radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and an audio adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings, although those came on early enough on Sunday mornings that I could listen at home and never missed an episode, but that’s another story.

So it’s actually good if I have some time to wait, although one of the nice things about listening rather than reading is I can do it while walking. My usual stop isn’t one of the fancy ones with a digital display that tells me exactly when the next bus is coming. It’s just a standard old bench where I can sit and watch the clock.

Except that the clock hasn’t worked in months, maybe even years. It’s permanently stuck at 2:55, so while a broken clock is right twice a day it’s never right at a time when I’m there.

 

Torn.

I’m deeply conflicted about this. On the one hand this is a picture of an advertisement. These ads have started showing up on sidewalks around the city and at first I thought they were an interesting art project, and then I realized, no, they were advertisements. Yes, I believe advertisements can be art, but I also cling to this Romantic notion of ars gratia artis, even though that phrase itself has been coopted by a major movie studio. And I also realize that artists have got to eat and if at least some couldn’t make a living by creating art, even if it often means playing the tune they’re paid to type, there’d be a lot less great art in the world.

On the other hand advertising is supposed to send a single, simple message. It’s supposed to tell you what to think—or rather what to buy—and I believe art should raise questions rather than provide answers. Any art that gives you a simple unvarnished idea is, in my opinion, very bad art.

And on the other hand—I’ve lost count of my hands here—something interesting has happened. This advertisement has been partially torn in a way that subtly changes its meaning. It’s presumably an accident, and that does raise a lot of questions. The tradition of “found art” is one that has a fairly long history—although not nearly as long as Romantic notions like ars gratia artis, but still there’s room for debate about whether art always has to be something that’s made or whether it can just happen. The idea that art is always created with a plan, that artists are in control, can be a source of comfort in a cold and chaotic universe, but even some of the most detailed and crafted works of art started as, or benefited from, accidents. Every artist has more misses than hits, and if every work of art had to start from a deliberately conceived plan there’d be a lot less great art in the world, and the fact that we can sometimes benefit from accidents can also be a source of comfort, especially in a cold and chaotic universe. Creating art, just like living life, means maintaining some semblance of control while at the same time accepting that accidents will happen and adapting to them as best we can. As a friend of mine in high school put it, “When life gives you lemons make orange juice.”

As I was turning all those over in my head and my approximately nine hands I walked past a restaurant where Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner, a song that I remember from high school, was playing. Actually it was the DNA remix that came out after I’d graduated, and which was created without her permission, but Vega liked it. The song sounds simple, even improvised, but is carefully structured. I felt like the universe, cold and chaotic as it is, was pushing me to write this, but on the other hand I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

 

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