Tuesday, October 31, 2006

This Halloween yielded moments of baleful beauty and wonder that need to be preserved and shared, not the least of which was the bright moon wreathed in swirls of cloud candy on a night so balmy that the very air was a ghost's caress against the skin. With a wide open third eye affixed to my forehead with spirit gum (my friend Mike made the eye in his Mattel "Thingmaker"), I accompanied my wife and daughter to Parrott Street in Cold Spring, where a bunch of homeowners conspired to turn an entire block into a wondrous netherplace. Front yards and front porches were transformed into elaborate graveyards and laboratories, winged demons leered from rooftops and monstrous automata lurched to life, capering and gibbering whenever someone came too near.

One driveway was a gauntlet populated with both costumed people and decorated manikins, so that it was difficult to tell which creatures would remain motionless and which would suddenly lunge toward you. A grim reaper even crouched on a nearby roof, bathed in moonlight. In the garage, a strange tableau beyond a tattered curtain beckoned us on. A tiny princess awash in black light sat motionless in a chair, surrounded by a court of monstrosities. She had a fixed gentle smile, and as my daughter walked cautiously toward her, I really grappled to discern whether she was a living child or some elaborate puppet. But then she reached out and gave my daughter a candy treat, and I almost felt foolish leaning towards her to scrutinize her, returning her smile. It was at that instant that another group of costumed creatures lurched to life, screeching and plucking at our sleeves, and we ran howling from that place, pursued by peals of laughter from that curious little child.

The streets of Cold Spring were filled with kids, pelting each other with eggs and taking liberal baths in shaving cream. We saw teens that looked like they had just been plucked from a bubble bath, with crowns of white foam standing up from their hair and covering their clothes. It was pure anarchy -- it was wonderful (especially because we glided through unscathed).

The Sunday before Halloween was Beacon's parade day, and the parade was a mix of hot rods and costumed people. Even the drivers of the cars were in costume, and it made for some great images -- like the scowling pirate storming out of his stalled 57 Chevy to throw open the hood and mutter darkly into the engine compartment. Even better was a 1934 Plymouth coated in an aging enamel paint job, with cracked and crazed windows, and an ancient coffin tied to the roof. The coffin looked like it had been stood up on end in the dirt for a good ten years, with wormy timbers and an old oil lantern with a great round bale tied on next to it. The driver of the car had deathly pale skin, a great black top hat and a gravedigger's shovel over his shoulder, as did his similarly costumed passengers. As they drove down Main Street, with shovel heads tilted out each open window, they gave jaunty waves to the onlookers.

One more story to share, this one from the Holiday House of Beacon. On the eve of Halloween, we drove over to see the house that is luxuriantly festooned with decorations at every Halloween and Christmas. Its front yard, front stoop and roof are crammed with lights, figures, animated gewgaws, sprays of fiber optics, all calculated to make the dials on electric meters spin like crazy and the local power barons count their money with glee! While we idled at the curb across the street, trying desparately to take it all in, the owner ambled from his front yard and asked us if we wouldn't like to come inside. "They probably won't kill and eat us," Jayne said, so we accepted.

Inside the house, the pleasant homeowners and their terrier presided over the largest collection of modern halloween decorations I have ever seen. The bay window in the living room must have held more than a hundred tiny halloween houses, with minature trick or treaters wandering the streets beneath the branches of spooky trees. Every horizontal surface contained decorations, animated figures, lighted sculptures, grinning jack-o-lanterns. The dining room chairs each had a fabric cosy on their backs with a stuffed ghost head sticking up. Even the bathroom had orange lights, a Halloween shower curtain, monstrous soap dispenser, seasonal hand towels, and a gibbering apparition hanging from the ceiling. Fiber optic pumpkins atop the armoire in the master bedroom pulsed with an orangey glow. Other than the fact that there were hundreds of decorations, the house was neat as a pin and its owners gracious to a fault. We left shaking our heads in wonder at this Halloween Americana.

It would have been difficult to say goodbye at midnight on the 31st, if not for the promise of the Day of the Dead to stretch out the holiday until November 2nd, and the wonderful coffin-shaped cookies from the Plaza Bakery, and their delicious Halloween bread, to be left out during dinner for the spirits of the departed, and then finally consumed along with all the other sweet plunder of the season!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A list of books that I have read in the past year and recommend for your consideration:

The Alchemist's Door by Lisa Goldstein
Declare by Tim Powers
The Jaguar Hunter by Lucius Shepard
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Looking for Jake: Stories by China Mieville
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
Superstudio: Life Without Objects by Peter Lang and William Menking
Witch House by Evangeline Walton

The Shadow of the Wind was a real standout, a piece of literary candy. Its beautiful language (I read the English translation -- maybe it's even better in its native Spanish) and gothic elements tickled my brain cells. It is a spooky puzzle of a story set in Barcelona in the 1940s, chock full of doomed love, lost books, forbidden knowledge, corrupt police, secret libraries, ghosts, magic, madonnas, whores, a young man seeking love and the truth and his hilarious, roguish sidekick, Fermin.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

I was playing the Swell Maps for my daughter tonight while I gave her a bath, the sparkling guitar work in "Big Empty Field" ricocheting off the tiled walls from her little Barbie boombox. I told her that a marine setting was the perfect place to listen to a band named after the ocean waves, who wrote songs like "Midget Submarines" and "Collision with a Frogman." We were celebrating the life of Swell Maps guitarist Nikki Sudden, who passed away on March 27th after playing at the Knitting Factory in New York City and leaving us with a one-week-old, gorgeous live recording courtesy of WFMU (you can hear it at http://www.wfmu.org/playlists/shows/18428 -- be sure to check out the acoustic version of "Midget Submarines" -- I had to click on the various links on the page to hear all the tracks). I only have a strange Swell Maps comp cd, "Sweep the Desert," that I believe combines a bunch of their sonic experiments, wandering some borderland between punk and ambient noise, but I love it like butter. Just seems like we've been playing too many send-offs over the last couple of years at our peeling palace, having done in-house tributes to Joe Strummer and Johnny Ramone in recent memory. The Damned are playing two "30th Anniversary of Punk Rock 1976-2006" shows in England this spring, and the incandescent flame of punk rock seems suddenly dimmed by the mist of the ages. 30 lovetrucking years and it's still the only show in town -- Punk Rock is Dead! Long Live Punk Rock!

Friday, January 06, 2006

The week before Christmas found me a very reluctant visitor to Kansas City, Missouri, and one night after dinner, I decided to seek out some kind of experience of the city's jazz history. A helpful bartender directed me to the 18th and Vine district, which proved to contain about three very sanitized looking jazz clubs, a jazz museum, and a beautiful art deco theater built in the early 1900s named the Gem. The Gem is shaped like an astronomical observatory festooned in neon, with a flying buttress of a marquee jutting off the facade, the three lighted-sign letters of its name piled one atop the other in a vertical stack. But architectural eye candy aside, the whole area was dead as a doornail on a Wednesday night at 10 pm, a perfect example of the kind of purgatory that is the blasted landscape of the business traveler.

I started heading back to the hotel and noticed that the neighborhood to the west of 18th and Vine looked like an artists' outpost, empty lots filled with large metal sculptures, loft apartments, custom bicycle shops decorated with giant Alexander Calder-like mobiles made of old rims and forks, and a gallery advertising "finger-painted pet portraits." What initially caught my eye was a used car lot containing a couple of Karmann Ghias, an early 50s Cadillac, an old Plymouth, a Nash fastback from the 40s, and sundry other hulks priced to sell with only faded paint and not a lot of rust visible in the bugkiller glare of the sodium lights. The car lot sign advertised a companion shop with 1950s furniture and pop culture memorabilia, and I had to stop for a moment to run my fingers over the body contours of the Cadillac and work up a good mental picture of the rockabilly chick with severe bangs and full sleeves who probably worked at the store. Somewhere down the street a door banged open, and there was a blare of rock and roll for a moment. I decided to follow my ears, and found a pizza and beer joint called Grinders.

Inside Grinders, a bunch of snotty kids were cranking out T. Rex and Beatles covers - a three piece with a lead singer/bassist dressed to the nines in glammy striped trousers and retro t-shirt and more hair than you could shake a stick at. And I do mean stick -- here's the tale. During the set, I watch ensconced at the bar as some character visually reminiscent of Steven Spielberg saunters in. The regulars seem to know him, and he's equipped with jeans, a sensible winter coat, tweed cap, full dark beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He is brandishing a sort of....well, swagger stick, a narrow wooden rod, about 18 inches long and positioned on the inside of the forearm to great dramatic effect, like he's ready to review the troops. The swagger stick is placed on the bar with exaggerated ceremony as he sits down. Before long, a guy who I sense works at Grinders, a skinny character with some minor facial hair and a leather skullcap, sort of a bike gang lieutenant type, has come over to talk to the man with the stick. I can't overhear every word (to my dismay), but he seems to be presenting the man with the stick with a long-handled, wooden scrub brush with a highly polished finish. I glean that this is a found object, which he thinks will provide some utility or joy to or further accessorize the man with the stick(s). The man with the stick accepts the brush, and gives it an appraisal, turning it over and over, smacking the wooden back of the bristled head against an open palm and smiling. He voices his appreciation, and newly outfitted, leaps up to the mike to belt out a deeply disturbing 3rd stanza to a brief, scatological ditty that the band seems to throw out as they are running out of songs to play. It's a surreal ending to some pretty decent music and stage presence, but who can blame them for wanting to keep those two college girls dancing together?