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Name: Loon Dog
Bio: A mental health researcher motivated by self-self-defense; has likely dedicated too much of his life trying to define lunacy. Presently travelling through the USA seeking out mental diversity activists to help trace the threads between brilliance and madness.
Photos: Mad America's photo libraries
Mad America: The Great Alternatives Conference: Intro ( 15th Jan, 2010 )
The Beat Gen, 90s Hip Hop legends and Oriental Zen Lunacy ( 17th Dec, 2009 )
Australian Shame ( 1st Dec, 2009 )
Entering the Great American Fruit and Nut Bowl: War Diaries, Inherited Madness and Other Things ( 16th Nov, 2009 )
Stuff in America you don't see on the TV ( 9th Nov, 2009 )
Sierra Nevadas: Clarity, purity, PBJ's ( 4th Nov, 2009 )
Road to Cedar Valley ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
California Dreaming ( 3rd Nov, 2009 )
Library of Dust ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Consumers, Survivors and Mad-Pride: Burrito's and Bears. ( 23rd Oct, 2009 )
Begginings. ( 19th Oct, 2009 )
A late Tuesday night. Walking on my own through SF skyscraper chasms. The whiff of weed sinks like mist over the blocks around the club and I round a corner to its hazy epicentre and find a grin of white kids in Wu-tang getups. I was in the right place. Ghostface Killa was playing a show downtown, along with Oakland hip-hop legends, Sons of Mischief, and former Death Row rappers, Strong Arm Steady. After chatting with the surly ticket seller in a red-patterned bandana I find out the show is gonna run later than the last train to Berkeley. If I fork out for a ticket and wanna get the train home I better be ready to miss Ghostface. BS.
A young bright-faced dude standing out front had all the characteristics I was looking for. Quick impressions: shaggy blonde, flannel shirt, truckers hat, and dress bordering working-class/ educated/ grimey skater. He was a little too unkempt for the downtown courier hipsters so I thought I’d take a punt and guess he lived in Berkeley (or at least Oakland). I put on my friendly foreigner face, asked him if he was planning to head back to Berkeley after the show and just knew, don’t ask how, that he was.
Since traveling I’ve become tragically delighted to risk my integrity for possible gain. But regardless most people are genuinely friendly so asking simple favours of people - especially as a young Australian male graduate who is collectively sanctioned to look like a beardy-wierdy and live like a cheap-arse - usually pays off. One mooch I’ve been using is when I’m being served food; - If I’m hungry, I let them know how famished I am and invariably they’ll pile it right up. Tell them you’re trying to live inexpensively (American’s generally don’t like the word ‘cheap’) and they’ll give you the whole pot. This is a good way to fertilise or exploit, depending on how you perceive it, the latent human impulse to feed people according to need.
But there is nothing subtle about the way I asked this guy, it was brutish. But it paid off. After introductions (his name is Scot) we briefly share love for wu before gabbing about his community college classes and his migration from Boston. His conversation style is sharp and smart-arsey, and peppered with expletives that spill out with blue-collar ease (think Good Will Hunting). His inflection causes the syllable ‘fu’ to proceed with a fraction of a second gap before the ‘kin’ tocs in with no hint of the rolling ‘g’. He regularly adjusts the cap that sits rakishly on his head and he tends to spit on the ground. He is genuine and kind-hearted.
He was planning to drive home after the show and it’d be no goddamn problem to give me a lift to my door.
Without really meaning to I’ve ended up learning a little about SF history and some of the arts. It turns out the Bay Area has produced a good portion of the choice cuts and fatty rind to have gone into America’s cultural meat grinder. The underground comic scene, for instance, was stretched between here and New York in its heyday (the 70s) and pioneers like Spain Rodriguez and Robert Crumb spent quite a bit of time here drawing sophisticated doodles about mostly unsophisticated things (like doodles). In fact Rodriguez was famous for helping ejaculate the first issues of the radical gross-out comic, MAD Magazine, which persists today and with quite a strong progressive political bent. It’s folded squarely into the tradition of American satire that’s more informative than the news itself. (MAD mag readers, depending on your countenance, might appreciate or be sickened by that pun). Art Spiegelman also worked out of the Bay Area for a time. The comic art scene is still real strong here with a massive alternative publishing expo, heaps of rad local comic art (comics, band posters, shop signs, price tags at a Trader Joes Supermarket(?!)), and a really sweet little cartoon museum downtown.
But what really struck me about the Bay Area (aside from more endorphin-tickling tacqueria’s) are the array of influential literary, spoken word, and hip hop scenes. And it satisfies my geeky penchant for tracing connections through time to see how these scenes bubbled through one another and percolated into some of the most important global cultural forms in my lifetime.
Leaving my seedy hostel on the first morning here I skipped through the calamitous rain into a Beat museum two doors from my rooming house. (The drought in my dusty home city, which I often blame for the crimson blobs in my eyes, made the rain in SF a golden pleasant sadness). The museum was the first shop that wasn’t selling cigars or porno and was perhaps better described as the cluttered book-store of an eccentric. Parked inside at the front window was a ‘55 Ford Fairlane with a corn-blue paintjob, matted, chipped in flecks of china-white over liquid-curve fins with kaleidescope glass in the orange red tail lights. Apparently it was the kind of car that Beat icon/muse/outlaw Neal Cassidy would steal from the West Coast (he supposedly jacked over 500) in order to speed through the USA, burning his own neural pathways and life expectancy on benzo-fueled binges of relentless momentum and highway adventure.
Behind the counter of the Beat museum sat a powder faced young woman who was all satin dress and cotton shoes and straight out of a psy-folk 1970s experimental film. She helped me find an old copy of Dharma Bums, which Pat suggested I read while travelling up the Pacific NW. I took the book to an old Italian café where the Baristas spoke Croation, which, incidentally, did nothing to disappoint the boheme patrons who reveled in the European artsiness. Surrounded by ponytails, goatees and battered leather scholars bags resting on the marble floors, I started the book. It was a fine thing to read everytime I got tired walking through those brutal upsy-daisy streets.
The novel was written by Kerouac after ‘On The Road’ and sketches his friendship with a young son-of-a-logger from Oregon who taught Zen Buddhism at UCal. The rambling tale captures Kerouac’s continued exit from the convention grid into the free disorder of hitchhiking, teeming West coast wilderness, and Buddhist meditation (and some bizarre sex act called ‘yabyum,’ with dreamy, naïve, female students). His off-road jaunt sees him searching clarity with gladness through West coast wilderness - from deserts to snowscapes, misty coastlines to icy mountain ranges.
The protagonist, Smith, idolises ‘Oriental Zen Lunatics’, mystics of an ancient world, and is intermittently joined by a motley crew of eccentrics who enter the Californian woods to mimic the ascetic wanderings of fabled Eastern holymen (though they seem far more inclined to rotgut wine). Smith tramps the lines of that other mythical wanderer, the great American hobo (a la Steinbeck), hopping trains, hitch-hiking the back country, riding the Greyhounds, sopping old bits of bread into warm canned beans under bridges, and meditating wherever he plopped his wistful arse.
It’s a pretty leisurely read and if you can hack by the women-as- ‘mystic priestess’ and ‘domestic godesses dusting flour off their aprons in the woods and removing children from their full milky breasts’ then the book is a pretty wonderful tale of gut-spurred spontanaeity, bush/wilderness transcendendence, and a poetic battle of energetic creativity versus oppressive conventions of 'normal'. It’s apt for my Psych-Rights tour too because it portrays a key cultural forerunner to the 1960s and 70s peace movement, self-determination struggles, and community organisation, all of which informed the mad-pride work that I’ll be seeking out in the Oregon woods.
The cynical devil on my shoulder couldn’t help calling me a wanker as I sped-read through Dharma Bums in cafes and bars and bookstores where Ginsberg and all those Beats used to hang out and drink sadness in flagons of wine on skid row. And I couldn’t help copy down the first few lines of Ginsberg’s definitive poem ‘Howl’, which lists the battle scars of the group’s assault on the hyper-rational dollar-cult of postwar America. I found the words of the poem scrawled into the thick acrylic paint of a toilet wall in that ‘Italian’ cafe with its forty years of esspresso mist soaked into the wooden fittings, scratched stone floors, and framed photos of spoken word nights and salon debates.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
ment roofs illuminated,
And as for drawing links between the wandering Beat poets and the more recent American wordsmithery, hip hop (a movement easily mistakable for being younger than 30 years old), well, no doubt the connections are there to be made - and I’m sure The Last Poets and the psychedelic blaze of Parliament have something to do with it. I don’t wanna turn threads to ropes, and as Smith recurrently cries, ‘comparisons are odious’, but there is an interesting shared expressive energy between the Beat generation and a lot of Hip Hop - the prized spontaneous prose, the blizzards of words riffing on lived-realities that avoid sentimentalism, the shared streams of social criticism, and the spirit of fury matched by an equally delirious call to celebrate life. And, of course, the familiar smokes and streams of weed and wine, gin and juice, etc. etc.
So too, the human casualties at each movement’s extremes can be found resting peacefully after deaths that were far from peaceful. (Neal Cassidy left a party one night, drunk and disordered having left children and partners on his life’s trail, only to stumble along a railroad track where he passed out in the freezing cold wearing nothing but a t-shirt and jeans. He suffered a massive cardiac arrest fell into a coma and died a few days later.)
One night after checking out a poetry reading for McSweeney’s in the Mission District (how white am I?) I was chatting to this woman on the train who turned out to be writing a PHD on the far reaching influence of Bay Area hip hop. Her name was Amanda Maria Morrison and aside from telling me that Snoop Dog stole his ‘pizzledizzle’ lingo from Oakland street patois, she also pointed out that Tupac Shakur grew up around here. We chatted as the train rolled noisily under the ear-popping bay waters and clipped into the Oakland stations with a sawing whine. She hopped off at 19th Street and I started listening to a mixtape my sixteen year old brother made me before I left - a spread of hip hop tunes and the soundtrack to his last highschool years, which, disturbingly, are the same as mine over ten years ago (+ J Dilla, Kanye and Madlib). The first tune was ‘Hollow Bones’ by Wu Tang and started with RZA monologuing, ‘aye, everything is everything, peace.’ It’s hilarious, and the Dharma Bums book was in my bag and my mind is spinning with even more connections to the ‘Oriental Lunatic’ brand of hip hop blooming out of the Wu Tang Dynasty - and I realise that I am way too overstimulated by this city and I shouldn’t drink coffee - and then Tupac’s ‘Keep ya head up’ chimes in, possibly one of the most important struggle songs of the 1990s and the overtones to Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ are unmistakable even though the oppressive realities expressed are miles apart (by time and not geography).
And in the end it seems I'm headin for the pen
I try and find my friends, but they're blowin in
Last night my buddy lost his whole family
It's gonna take the man in me to conquer this
It seems the rain'll never let up
I try to keep my head up, and still keep from
gettin wet up
You know it's funny when it rains it pours
They got money for wars, but can't feed the poor
Say there ain't no hope for the youth and the
it ain't no hope for tha future
And then they wonder why we crazy
We ain't meant to survive, cause it's a setup
Given the huge number of people I’ve met without homes and the complaints about job losses and price hikes, and people going hungry, and poor kids being four times more likely to be given neuroleptic drugs than other children, and tent cities and tax returns being withheld, and great writers suiciding, it seems like it is as difficult as ever to keep from falling to pieces in America. Kerouac’s ratbags might’ve had the benefits of middle-class privilege - and being white men - and in as much, they probably had more capacity to take the baboon approach and hurl turds at moral conventions and the nine-to-five strap-on smiles of finger wagging onlookers. But they were still messed up guys and, at least it seems to me, they were deeply unhappy: alcoholism, drug induced brain-damage, and running rabid till they dropped. Burroughs shot his wife in the face for God’s sake!
As for Wu Tang's approach to 'Oriental Zen Lunatics', they used the model to avoid the more gnarly pitfalls of successful artists in modern America and formed their dynasty around a co-operative business plan to support a collective of rappers in New York City in the late eighties/ early nineties. Their management structure was devised to prevent the exploitation and commercial abuse that's commonly suffered by successful musicians generally and, it would seem, black artists particularly. Their take on the Zen Masters, as I see it, matches Kerouac’s attraction to self-sufficiency, stealthy intelligence, and self-actualisation in the face of a hostile and alienating environment.
Moving right along, and for the sake of a shorter blog so I can start writing about the great Mad Conference in Omaha, I'll make one final connection between America's poetic threads and the frays of my own journey here by pointing to a kick-arse spoken word artist I’ve since met: a woman from D.C. by the name of Leah Harris. Leah's story is really hard to hear. Both her parents were severely psychiatrised and as I understand it, died in no small part because of abuses they suffered in the psychiatric system. She also considers herself a ‘psychiatric survivor’ after escaping oppressive psychiatrization as a teenager. Drawing on the Beat tradition, Patti Smith’s punk poetics, constellations of hip hop, and an Ani Di Franco-style righteous rage, Harris weaves poetry to bear witness to the horrendous abuses in the Psych system, to tell tales of survival and wax lyrical on the role of art in empowerment and social change, and also to commemorate those that have lost their lives in the psych system and pay respects to community leaders who've come before us.
The liner notes in her 2009 album, "Take Refuge", offer a sense of the work and where she's coming from, and just maybe, for my sake, her intentions offer a unifying rhetorical platform, a link in the connect-the-dots scrawl, to view the shakey links I've laboured to make between Beat and Hip hop. Leah dedicates the album to the spirit of "creating a world that doesn't drive people to madness," while at the same time, "fighting for a world that is safe to go mad in." While that might seem paradoxical, for me it makes perfect sense. The alienating forces of this strange season in human history are extremely potent at this point: the floods of information we receive minute-to-minute and second-to-second, the crumbling global eco-system, the powerful political/ social/ economic forces compelling us to fit in a more cost-effective and lucrative little square, the technologies that drive us closer yet further apart, are all capable of being severely damaging to our mindscapes. And as a general rule the first thing that crumbles under the relentless pressures of this modernity in hyper-drive is... the human nervous system. (Perhaps the eco-system is vying for top position).
And as inevitable as it is to lose one's marbles, it is simply not safe to do so in most parts of Aus and America. People routinely kill themselves before they break the facade of coping. (Wow. I never realised how hard it is to write without moralising banally. So, back to the GZA!).
So a good thing we have artists like Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Tupac, GZA, RZA, Spain Rodriuez, Crumb and and L. Harris, to use the regenerative power of poetry and music and comic books to let us melt down, or rage, to ponder alternatives, draw pictures of bums and laugh, or bear witness to the global effluent, or find the blade of grass in the concrete and recognise the bullshit, and occasionally stop to see the ice-cream-scoop clouds flecked with passing grackles in the sky at the day's pearl, or to Yabyum to battle ennui, or just to fucking get down to rad music.
The Ghostface show was masterful. He crept slowly on stage through a spleen-humming basswave to a crowd of about 500 mostly dudes (another link btw Beat and Hip Hop, no?) with their arms up and thumbs linked in the legendary Wu handsign. Stealthy about the stage, he was literally draped under a giant red, XXXXL hoodie that fell to his knees and lent robe-like qualities to his drunken-master swagger. His face was obscured in shadow under the digital blue stage-lights which streamed through snakes of weed-smoke that plumed from the crowd. The blunt clouds thickened anytime Ghostface mentioned weed, which may or may not have been 73 times. Scott turned out to have a posse of friends with weed habits that made cheech and chong look like dandy, box-social wieners. And yes, I did the bad thing.
Ghostface drew hits from the whole catalogue of both the Clan and solo records. For the encore: the lulling piano sample of C.R.E.A.M. followed by the chorus sample 'cash moves everything around me, cream...' And that led to my first dissociative internal monologue of the night and it started with how expensive I thought the show was (25 bucks!), segueing to a considered reflection on money spent for the day and how I might save cash during my trip by eating canned beans, and how, one time, when I was a little kid, my parents gave me some gold dollar coins for a primary school fete and I lost it and it broke my little child heart and I wept in panic, and remember how many milk bottle lollies you could buy for a dollar? and then I woke from my neuro-wander and realised the song had finished, folks clapped, Ghostface floated off stage and blunts were hurriedly finished as the house DJ started an outro set.
Scot had somehow managed to make-out with a random woman on the dancefloor so i had to wait at the bar by myself till he finished getting her no. A barman abused me for failing to give him a tip which made me distinctly nervous. I observed the audience and realised they were far more diverse than the frat boy sausage-fest I'd first imagined. Bass pounded over the soundsystem in arse-loosening waves as the fluid dub horns of Outkast's 'Spottie Ottie Dopaliscious' rolled over the crowd. They were a varied group; the working-class looking black dudes with alert looking stares and jumbo tees, and the wiped looking weed-gaze of junk-food-eating poor white kids; the pouty educated music snobs, cool-as-fuck record exec looking black guys in designer clothes, downtown plaid shirt hipster white guys with long beards and 'mom' tattoos on their forearms, their over-it looking girlfriends with dowdy pastel tops and groin-frightening jeans, aggressive macho dickheads, clean shaven hispanic men, and lotsa lotsa colour - not skin colour, but bright flouros in dress; in glasses, shirts, shoes, bags. And I know now, San Francisco is a hyper-color city.
Scot drove me home in a rather large jeep and spun stories of the city. He'd driven that car with a friend over seven days and nights straight from Boston to Berkeley (the east west tips of the US) fueling the car with 400 bucks of gas and themselves with an eye-popping blend of cocaine, amphetamines, and diet coca-cola. He was speaking about as fast as the car was travelling (80 mph) when suddenly, for no particular reason, the vehicle began careening wildly out of control. At this point we were on the bay bridge to Oakland, a really quite long, thin stretch of bridge across a mile or so of dark water. The car began trembling in demented swivels and we actually started getting speed wobbles! Which is a frightening experience when you're going eighty miles on a slender bridge at 2 a.m. with a stranger talking about preferred no-doze narcoleptics.
He cursed the wheel alignment and managed to regain control before resuming his Bay tour by pointing to the shipping docks on the shoreline and telling me in his rapid-fire tongue that George Lucas had once noticed the great autobot loading machines at the wharves, which I saw soaked in a chemical-pink glow, to which George was inspired to create the great Walkers in the Empire Strikes Back. And I could see it! and it assuaged my laser-shot nerves... for a time.
I had a very dry mouth.
Scot couldn't quite find my co-op so he let me out somewhere in the vicinity. I insisted it'd be fine because he had to go make philly cheese steaks at six in the morning and he'd gone far out of his way for me anyhow. I even pulled out a map of berkeley to let him know I could navigate home. I tightened my black hoodie to brace for cold, slunk my bag on my back, and bid the guy farewell. He shouted, "Go to Boston and get fuckin' drunk! No one pahtees drunk like they do in Boston!"
I assured him I would and he told me I looked and sounded like some kind of urban ninja. I darted off into the dark and my brain reeled with thoughts of how happy that last comment made me feel and with the possibilities of where I might fit into the scheme of lunatic oriental wanderer. I assumed I knew where to go and started listing my ninja-like skills while running down dark streets of mansions typical to the upper hills. Before long I was lost. Menacing looking pumpkins glared out at me (it was days from halloween) and before long I started to experience what I call a 'quiet panic' - or perhaps I finally recognised what had started since the bartender abused me, wait, no, I remembered that I don't smoke for a reason and I can remember Scot passing a blunt to me and nodding slowly with his grinning lazy eyes.
A street light blew and I was strangely rattled by the tacky spider webs, bats and witch silhouettes that hung from the fences and bushes around me. I'd like to think it was the ominous cultural vacuity of the bougeois suburbs that frightened me but I'm pretty sure it was the dark and the ridiculous gourdy fangs of the pumpkins. Somehow, ridiculously, I sprained my ankle stepping up a gutter and misjudging its distance from me. I limped around till i found a familiar street and, eventually, my house. My relief was matched only by my appetite (the flipside of the pancake of my anxiety) so I groped my way to the pantry and reached for the freshly ground, organic roasted peanut butter from the local wholefoods. It was fucking excellent. Blissful sadness, I ate it by the spoonful. I fell into bed without washing my face and as I drifted off I'm sure I didn't even consider whether ninjas and zen lunatics where too badass to be beleagured with anxiety and gross appetite every time they puffed the pipe.