Probably should have titled it “Between Folk Rock and a Hard Place.” Gord won’t be mad, I’m sure.
Probably should have titled it “Between Folk Rock and a Hard Place.” Gord won’t be mad, I’m sure.
Comic book creator Dennis Eichhorn died. I wasn’t close friends with him, but I would have liked to have been. We were friendly colleagues though when I interacted with him in the late 90s—mostly by mail and once in person. I’m not sure when I first encountered his work. Like Harvey Pekar, Eichhorn was a writer not an artist; unlike other autobiographical comic creators, however, his life was actually interesting. In the pages of his comic Real Stuff, he shared a bevy of stories about his life in the Northwest US (and occasionally beyond) from the 50s through the present day.
Eichhorn was a picaresque figure. Fighting, drinking, getting high, screwing, working, engaging in low-end criminality, getting busted and imprisoned for a time, bumping into historical and cultural figures as well as lesser-known but no less compelling personalities. He shared it all through comics made in collaboration with cartoonists like Peter Bagge, Ed Brubaker, Julie Doucet, Michael Dougan, Chester Brown, Pat Moriarty, J.R. Williams, and others. I’ll let this link speak for his work (FYI sometimes NSFW).
Good grief. I forgot how often he wrote about marijuana.
When I knew him, Eichhorn served as editorial director for Loompanics Unlimited. Being a young weirdo, I was a faithful customer and eventual contributor. At some point I submitted a couple of articles for their catalog and supplements. One piece was about alleged culture-bound disorders like amok and koro, another about literal mythological sex gods. Considering my writing style and subject matter, there were few places where I could get my work published in the form I preferred. Loompanics was one of them.
In my experience, he was a decent editor. He crafted, he didn’t hack, sending his edits for my approval/alterations along with notes for tightening things up and the like. I would send him copies of my zines and he’d always drop me a nice note. The man was a great communicator.
Some time after that, I think, the American Bookseller’s Association held its convention at McCormick Center. My friend Steven of Quimby’s asked me if I wanted to tag along. I did. We made the rounds of the underground and weirdo publishers: Fantagraphics, Feral House, Last Gasp, and the rest. I remember bits and pieces—I hope I’m not conflating it with other conventions. Quite a time, in which I ran into my own brand of real stuff: Running into the ex-husband of a former zine/mail friend—we had a bad falling out—who recognized me from my visit to his San Francisco home five years before. A high-end publisher of coffee-table erotica who looked visibly irritated when Steven introduced me as a writer (Jesus, I wasn’t planning to pitch you, so fuck you buddy). Mr. T, covered in gold chains, posing with people while shouting at a maniacal clip: “YEAH! YEAH! WE’RE HAVING A GOOD TIME! LOTTA FUN! LOTTA FUN!” Quite a time. We ended up at the Loompanics booth where we met owner Mike Hoy and Dennis. Eichhorn was a big guy, in body and personality, and gregarious as hell. I can confirm he had a firm and memorable handshake, as I read somewhere today,
Hoy and Eichhorn were preparing to leave. They let Steven take all their display books back to Quimby’s to sell on consignment while I got a couple of cheap bookshelves out of the deal (the benefit of owning a car when most of your friends don’t). After that we gave Dennis a lift. As we passed through the Loop I pointed out particular buildings until we turned onto State Street.
“And here we have State Street…THAT GREAT STREET!” I said.
“Hey! Hey!” Dennis said pointing out the window, “I saw a man dance with his wife!”
We all went out for drinks afterward. I can’t remember what we discussed. I just remember it was a fun and fascinating talk. What struck me though was that even though he was the Real Stuff guy with the wild stories, freaky background, and incredible past, he was still grounded, friendly, and approachable. Just what one looks for in a folk figure.
For the next year or so I sent Dennis a few more zines and we exchanged the odd postcard, but we didn’t stay in touch. I edited an issue of Lumpen and asked him to contribute a piece. Within a week he had a write-up about his prison experiences, in particular with the captain of the prison guards who he described, quite accurately, as the living embodiment of The Man™. It was a consummate Dennis Eichhorn piece: funny, scary, observant, and interesting.
The world is the poorer for not having time to hear all his stories.
RIP, Dennis Eichhorn.
P.S. Apparently he just released a collection called Extra Good Stuff. Please check it out.
Sometimes I start to write something…and then give up, planning to return to it in the future. Usually I don’t. I feel bad about deleting these bits though, so let’s return to my old habit of treating my blog like a notebook.
Write to Your Good: Making Excellent Brain Talk in Other Humans
Good morning. Or good evening, as the case may be, though the position of the sun in your current locale is irrelevant for this book’s purposes. My powerful words, slowly mouthed in your skull now dictate the course of your reality.
Such is the power of the writing words. And such the power may be yours if you but heed my personage.
If you are reading this, there is a statistically probable chance (87.64%), according to Writerly Underlaboratories’ groundbreaking 1958 study) that you are as capable of writing as you are of reading. You too may write words like these, and indeed anyone can be a writer. The real question is, can you be a writer who is anyone writing?
Not to deal in gross stereotypes, but can’t we agree illiterates make the worst writers? There are exceptions. Southern grotesque writer Flannery McFaulkner wrote two and a half novels and 13,000 short stories before it was revealed that not only could she not read, she could only communicate with others through a series of shrieks, gullet clicks, and diaphragm plungings, And yet, this female-person wrote such masterpieces as Wise Mud, Mobied Dick, and several Cheers episodes.
COULD THIS BE YOU?
Another piece from my stint as a church reviewer with the Chicago Journal. I visited the center and wrote this a week or so after the attacks. My Islam knowledge came from the Internet and a book about salat. Find this and other church reviews/religious essays in my book Hilaretic.
Downtown Islamic Center
218 S. Wabash Ave, #500
J’uma Friday Afternoon Prayer (Salat) Service
Minarets are not apparent at the Downtown Islamic Center. Nothing, in fact, marks the building as extraordinary, or even as the site of a house of worship, much less a mosque. Throughout the city, churches and cathedrals stand at every other street corner, defiantly pointing their steeples skywards, declaring that the Windy City is largely composed of followers of Catholic and Baptist followers of the Nazarene. Chicago has mosques, but these reside in the city’s outlands. If you seek a mosque in the city’s heart, you must look closely, and upwards, several floors above the sidewalk.
The Downtown Islamic Center isn’t much to look at from the outside. Occupying one of the Loop’s many faceless office buildings, it lacks the exotic glory conjured up when one thinks of the word “mosque.” The building face is not gilded in gold, topped by onion domes and weather vane crescents, and tattooed in Arabic script. Arriving, in fact, it took an invigorating (i.e. exhausting) trip up five flights of stairs before I saw the barest symbols of Islam.
Wiping my sweaty brow with my sleeve with much shanty Irish class, I felt my usual sinking sensation of not knowing enough to avoid grievously offending the regular attendees and/or their ancestors and way of life. As a change, while in most houses of worship I feel only a slightly slippery sensation beneath my feet, here the ground wholly disappears.
Well, not entirely. Islam shares several common elements with Christianity and Judaism. Most of the stars of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles—Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus—are respected as prophets of Allah, who, like YHWH, is the one true God with his attendant omnipotence, omniscience, and impeccable taste in worshippers. Where Muslims veer off, however, is in their ultimate respect to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), deliverer of the Qur’an, the final word from God. Jesus is just all right with Muslims, but Muhammad (pbuh) is the loci of the faith.
As for other differences—among too many to list here—while the Five Pillars of Islam feature the usual edicts about leading a virtuous life through prayer and charitable works, Muslims are also beholden to visit Mecca at least once in their lives, fast during the month of Ramadan, and pray five times a day. Friday afternoon prayer, or jum’a, was the prayer service I was interested in most. Muslim prayer can be and usually is performed anywhere and alone, but the congregational jum’a service is an exception—though not by much. The Islamic prayer service or Salat is a series of prayers and movements set since Muhammad (pbuh) first dictated them. Watching these same activities—shared and performed for 1,400 years—re-enacted in the immediate vicinity by 100 men was nothing less than startling.
But as I was saying, all my previous Internet study escaped me in the general hubbub of the fifth floor. Most of the conversations I hear were in unidentifiable languages, though it’s safe to say Arabic, Indian, and Indonesian tongues wouldn’t be too hazardous a guess. The air was rich with the scent of cardamon, coriander, and other spices. Food—some sort of rice dish and pita bread—was ladled out in front of the book store in back. The crowd was lively, but I wouldn’t describe it as gaiety. More likely it was fellowship, the feeling of security and ease at being surrounded by your brethren.
Again, I’m lost, and the usual ease I have pinpointing shamans by their vestments was rendered useless in a room full of men in suits and business casual. I attempted to ask the first person I turned to, a woman waiting for the elevator, if she knew where the center’s office is located. Kill me for making the assumption that she’s a Center attendee, but her features have an Far Eastern cast, not so unexpected on a floor populated with visitors from Morocco to Timor. She stared at me uncomprehendingly as I spilled out my request, still out of breath. “Hello (pant) me religious writer (pant) who in charge (pant) here?” My sweaty visage won no hearts that day. She glares and fairly spat out an, “I’m sure I have no idea,” at me before turning and entering the newly arrived elevator. Au revoir, kindness of strangers.
Bumbling about, I seized hold of a friendly looking fellow. Sir, please, help a stranger on a strange floor. Who’s in charge here? Kindness of strangers recovered with this guy. He took me to the door of the wudu room, where the devout performed ritual ablutions—the hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, face, ears, and feet are washed—in preparation for prayer. There, a distinguished-looking chap in a suit and tie was chatting with two other men. Dr. Mohammed Kaiseruddin is his name, and I make sure I spell it right. He spells it out in slightly accented but perfectly clipped English. When I ask what his role is here he tells me he is the Center’s vice chairman. I give my church critic spiel, completing it with, “Now, how can I least offend everyone here?” Dr. Kaiseruddin appreciated that with a chuckle and led me to the main worship area. Before entering he asks me to remove my shoes and place them on a low shelf with 100 other pairs. I imagine shoe retrieval chaos later, then next worried my brown argyles weren’t the proper footwear choice today. Entering the service area, he indicates that non-Muslims usually sit in the chairs along the south
Dr. Kaiseruddin (yes, I do enjoy writing his name) gives me the itinerary. He, the imam—a man learned in the ways of Islam, not a priest—would lead the prayers, delivering a short sermon beforehand on current events. I was journalistically “lucky” that day. I already knew the service will be fraught with politico-social meaning; no doubt more so than it would have been before September 11. The center was a lively collection of individuals, enjoying their American freedom to worship God as they see fit, yes, but also posted with photocopies asking, “Have you been a victim of discrimination or police brutality? Call 1-800… ”
Another flyer is also available, titled “Duas (Supplications) for Fear. Recite Them When Leaving the House or Work or When Walking the Streets”
What to say when in fear of a people:
Translation: “O Allaah, protect me from them with what You choose.”
Transliteration: “Allahumma ikfineehim bima she’ata.”
Translation: “O Allaah, we place You before them and we take refuge in You
from their evil.”
Transliteration: “Allahumma Inna Naj’aluka Fi Nuhurihim, wa nauzu bika min
Wonderful. How many Christian churches are packing prayer survival kits?
The worship area is triangular, pointing East, and is as sparse as a bingo hall sans chairs and tables. In mosques, images are considered blasphemous. Words are not, as evidenced by the red curlicued Arabic script that imprinted the walls. Assumedly, these are pronouncements from the Qur’an. The scarlet script dwarfed the black printed English transliterations beneath them. Arabic is the purest language of the Qur’an. English and other translated versions are considered only weak interpretations. The tiny black type wan’t accidental, and as much of a fan as I am of Romanesque lettering, the involute curvings of Arabic seem more elegantly illustrative of God’s penmanship. At the back of the room, a six-foot high wicker screen stood, cordoning off the rear. I figured it was a storage area. I was wrong, after a fashion.
Men filed into the room. Many men. Big men, small men—as a matter of fact all men—of various ages and races. Many faces would indeed be at home beneath a turban or keffiyeh, but the striking reality is that there’s more ethnic variety at the center than at most churches. The coffee blends of skin range from mocha to latte. The men filed in and lined up in about 20 horizontal rows, 20 men wide. Dr. Kaiseruddin told me the place would be packed, but I wasn’t really expecting it to be this packed. On an October Friday afternoon, the room teems like a Christmas Eve service.
Entering, the men followed a common procedure. First one faces east, toward Mecca, making a clear intention to pray. This is called a takbir, when one shuts out the outside world in order to devote oneself fully to prayer. Some stood, some sat—the mood was meditative and calm for all present.
“Es selamu aleikum,” Dr. Kaiseruddin offered greetings. Peace be on you.
“Aleikum es selamu.” And upon you peace, the sentiment is returned tout ensemble.
Don’t hold me to the spelling. Despite Internet research and my purchase of All About Salat at the Iqra’ Book Center on Devon Avenue, my poor head still spins about proper transcription. I discovered a ream of English variations on this single phrase. Es selamu aleikum, salaam aleekum, as-Salam-u-‘Alaikum… salaam ad infinitum… I should have contracted a National Public Radio pronunciation team for this review.
The muezzin (or crier) performs the Adhan, or call to Salat (prayer). The Adhan is that keening cry so beloved of Hollywood when a film is set in the Middle East. Usually, the muezzin stands at the top of a minaret, puts his fingers to his ears, and declares the following:
Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!
Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!
I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but Allah.
I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but Allah.
I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger.
I bear witness that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger.
Hasten to Salat. Hasten to Salat.
Hasten to success. Hasten to success.
Allah is the greatest! Allah is the greatest!
There is none worthy of worship but Allah.
All in Arabic, naturally. For Muslims, reciting the Qur’an or prayers in any other language is as respectful as delivering the Bible or Torah in Pig Latin.
Our muezzin was not perched on high. Rather he stood up front and to the left. His voice has a tired gentleness to it, not the piercing wail most Americans are familiar with. Of course, he wasn’t trying to shout it across a city. According to All About Salat, this is followed with a second call, the Iqamah, which is much the same as the above call, save with the addition of the phrase, “Salat has just begun. Salat has just begun.”
And so it did. Fortunately, for me, it is during this part of Salat that the imam is permitted to use the local lingo. The sermon is always delivered in two parts. As mentioned above, in the first half, the imam usually discusses community issues. A bare month after September 11, however, thrust any discussion into the national context.
While Dr. Kaiseruddin spoke, bombs were vaporizing Afghanistan’s rubble, anthrax was spreading like powdered sugar on French Toast, and the FBI 20 most-wanted terrorists list wallpapered post offices nationwide. Dr. Kaiseruddin focused on this last event. He’s wrestled with it, it seems, and his clipped words sound somewhat blunted.
Dr. Kaiseruddin sermonized on the demands put upon the Muslim community in recent months, commenting on the depressing nature of seeing the nation’s most-wanted men and realizing how very much they resemble your friends, your neighbors, and yourself. Dr. Kaiseruddin, however, sees this as a call for, in his words, maturity from the Muslim community. He asks those present to put themselves in the position of persons of other faiths. How must they feel when they see these faces? Still, this is not a call to be apologetic.
He raised the ghosts of history, comparing previous Muslim-American trials with today. During the Gulf War, during the Iranian hostage crisis, how many U of C professors were invited by TV’s talking heads to provide the Muslim-American perspective?
“Those who have watched these crises will see a difference in how the Muslim community is standing up,” Dr. Kaiseruddin posits. “This time our community has shown maturity. A Muslim perspective is being presented. Our society has earned credibility, and can talk with knowledge about Islam, and are being invited to do so.”
Still, I flinched as Dr. Kaiseruddin raised a point that would make our beloved Attorney General’s incarceration trigger finger twitch: what if America was the weak country and Afghanistan the strong one? Would America have taken the same action? Above all, Dr. K. pleaded, Muslims must evolve. We can hold different opinions, but we must not shout each other down.
“We hold fast to the Qur’an…this will not change.” Dr. Kaiseruddin brought it all home, asking that Allah “Give us steadfastness in our practices and in our interactions with other faiths.”
The imam calls the men to prayer. As one they sit with their palms up, meditative.
A cell phone rang twice, surely a makrooh (undesirable act) during Salat. The phone is quickly squelched. Some makroohs are ecumenical.
Again. The imam calls the men to prayer. Arabic. Dammit, more Arabic. I enjoy the language very much, thank you, with its soft tumble of vowels, but I feel I’m missing the heft and weight of the intentions. Weirdly, I catch a few words. To my culturally illiterate embarrassment I decide it’s due to my hobby of collecting Shriner regalia, owing to the parading fat men in red fezzes’ practice of cribbing Muslim trappings.
So intent on my notes was I, it wasn’t until I looked up that I saw I was the only man sitting down. Already, to my mind, a noticeable Christer, I quickly bolted up, obtrusively trying to look unobtrusive. No one noticed. As I scan about to make sure of it, the screen’s true purpose hit me. Looking over my shoulder I saw the other half of the Muslim community. I couldn’t make out faces. This is due more to the screen than the hijab worn by many of the women. To summarize, hijab is the covering clothing dictated by the Qur’an. Hijab can consist of a dupatta—the ubiquitous head and torso shawl; a niqab—a facial veil that leaves an opening for the eyes; or the chaddor or burqah—the full-body covering endorsed by the Taliban. Most of the women here wear dupattas, looking voguish in combination with power suits or traditional jilbabs—robes that cover all but the head and hands. Women usually pray at home, but all are welcome to Salat. My understanding is that the men and women are separated to prevent distraction during the service. It’s didn’t working for me. I was transfixed by the image of these exotically plumaged birds in their wicker cage.
The service continued, and the responses to the imam’s prayers were decidedly powerful. In most Christian churches, the sopranos hold sway. Here elongated male vocal cords create a sound that is deep, low, and bumpy, like boulders rumbling down a hill. The ladies were not heard over this bulldozer grumbling.
The men suddenly shocked me into staring eastwards as, shoulder to shoulder, they stood as one. Another prayer was liltingly read. One hundred men bowed (ruku), stood with their arms at their sides (quiyam), then fell and pressed their foreheads, noses, hands, knees, and toes to the floor (sujud). Please understand what an astonishing sight this is—as smooth as a ripple through a sheet snapped over a mattress, and with just as much noise. The coordination of movements is intentional. As little disruption as possible must be made during Salat. Chatting, eating, laughing, fidgeting, the wandering of one’s gaze—any of these can void the Salat and its accordant blessings. Music is absent, save for the musicality of the readings. Compositionally, it is the most stripped-down service I’ve attended yet. Body, mind, word, and soul work in harmony, with no extraneous doohickeys.
The recitation continued with its plaintive sound, until Dr. K. capped it off with an “Allahu akbar” (God is the greatest). A few whispered prayers were heard, and all were encouraged to address the fellow on your left and right with a final blessing. “Es selamu aleikum,” said an Indonesian-looking fellow sitting below and to my right. “Thanks, you too,” I reflexively reply. He didn’t notice. Maybe he would have if I said, “Right back atcha.” Even as the 100 file out, it was uncommonly calm and quiet. Cathedral silence is different. Cathedral silence is ponderous, the weight of the surrounding marble and statuary pressing down on anyone damn fool enough to open their mouth. A respectful silence pervades the room, which effervesces into happy babble upon exiting to the shoe vestibule.
I dashed through the shoe room and retrieved my footwear. The women likewise failed to linger, the anteroom the testosteroney province of the men, men, men, men. Feeling less than manly myself, I slipped on my Skechers and exeunt, almost late for work.
Reprinting a couple of pieces of mine from the months after September 11.
Review of the here is new york photo exhibit
In the shaky days after Sept. 11, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was roundly misquoted as describing the WTC attacks as the greatest work of art ever. Not so. German, with its knack for single words with myriad meanings, allowed the good professor to describe the day’s events as former angel Lucifer’s Künstwerk. Literally translated as “artwork,” the term more accurately denotes one’s handiwork. In Stockhausen’s approximation, Lucifer represents intelligence used to destroy creation, the devil’s creativity untinged by love.
On display Feb. 4 through March 30 at 72 E. Randolph, here is new york: a democracy of photographs displays 1,500 professional and amateur photographs of the days before, during, and after the attacks. The original exhibit emerged from a single picture posted in a New York store window, more photos being donated in the weeks afterward by dazed Knickerbockers, and applied one after the other like bandaids to the communal wounds. Stacked along the walls and dangled overhead in the Chicago gallery, the prints grant the viewer a visual experience approximating a fraction of the sensory overload felt by Manhattanites on an otherwise a beautiful early fall Tuesday.
Aesthetically, the day helped. Even here in Chicago the sun shone and the air was as crisp as peppermint. Weather favors the recording of tragedy. Challenger exploded against an azure sky, twin curling forks of smoke spiraling like DNA helices about a fluffy white plume. The Hindenburg gorgeously exploded against an early morning rain shower, brightly immolating and consuming itself into a crippled metal skeleton. Despite myself and watching safely from home on 9/11, I couldn’t help but be struck by the awesome sight of the towers burning like matchsticks and winnowing down against a perfect blue canvas sky. While the surface message of the show is one of endurance, American rah-rah, and cuddly solidarity, the unspoken theme is that of the aesthetics and disturbing beauty of destruction. Allegory or otherwise—your choice—Lucifer used his palette to present an “artwork” few will forget. here is new york, then, might be considered the coffee table book version of the whole hellish exhibit.
The late-January press review bore all requisite solemnity, though was largely unmemorable. A batch of suits and ties thanked us, the press, for coming; the show’s beneficiaries, the Children’s Aid Society WTC Relief Fund were cited (proceeds from the sales of selected prints go to them); and the names of the sponsors, Marshall Field’s and the Target store chain were repeatedly dropped. No one noted the unwitting inappropriateness of Target’s bull’s-eye logo being prominently displayed on the podium.
There were firefighters, of course. Not since the Iranian hostage crisis’ embassy workers has an occupation been so in demand for photo-ops and pull-quotes. The firefighters acquitted themselves nicely, of course, with the just-doing-our-job dignity that should come with their profession. Our own fire commissioner, the wonderfully named James Joyce, with his lived in face, stated that as he looked at them and they at him, they shared the ineffable emotions only the men and women in helmets and rubber raincoats can feel. The firemen themselves—names of Jeffrey Straub and Anthony Barone, and imported from NYC Engine 6—looked bright and shiny in their dress blues when they took the stand. Following the outline given them by the event organizers, an accidental note of unscripted emotion occurred when Straub, flanked by a photo of himself leaning against a car shelled by WTC detritus, explained what he was thinking at the time. Thinking about his fellow firefighter—and next-door neighbor it turned out—who had lost his life that day. A PR emissary takes the podium afterwards, thanking Firefighter Straub for sharing. It was “very emotional,” she needlessly underscored.
I’m sorry if I seem unnecessarily picky about proper tribute. The event is impossible to cheapen, but even the best-intentioned tend to overdo it. Solemnity can be spread so thick it becomes as overwhelming as the grey dust still coating Manhattan. The press review preliminaries, gratefully, ended, and we were left alone to survey the wreckage.
The number of photos was the first thing I noticed. As a first-world nation, we enjoy the luxury of documenting life down to the second. Cosmopolitan vacation spot New York provided an army of shutterbugs that day. Anonymity is the rule, regarding the photos’ authors, but degrees of professionalism seem easy to differentiate. Reasons for taking photos in the face of apocalypse are harder to pin down.
For the professionals, it was just part of the job. It was for Bill Biggart, whose shrine rested in back. The last picture of Biggart’s life is glorious yet horrific: It shows one side of the North Tower exploding into balsa wood splinters. The shot, splendidly framed, was obviously taken while looking up. The same fragments that Bill captured probably buried him. The next photo shows a pile of photographer’s tools—cameras and light meters scorched black, a singed and melted deck of press passes lying beside them.
The amateur photos are, as stated, relatively easy to identify. Varying levels of exposure, poor framing, and unimaginative composition abound. The tragedy, however, adds gravitas to the most banal shots. The exhibit isn’t about ability, it’s about the view through several hundred different eyes. En masse, the pictures all “work”—individually and as a collective.
Two images recur. One is of dragon’s fire bursting from the towers’ guts: A bright yellow fusion heart is at the center, burning brighter than the sun; the fringes of the holocaust are flushed with the colors of autumn leaves, slowly burning black. The other is that of the spectator, gazing upwards, one hand holding a cell phone against the ear, the other slapped against the forehead in disbelief.
Against the west wall, photo #6068 shows American death shrines in the style of Mexican Dia de los Muertos ofrendas. Bright orange posters surrounded by half-melted candles create an impermanent memorial to the unknown dead. One poster states, “I never met you. I will never forget you.” The other laments, “I don’t know you and I miss you already.”
In other photos, America’s bipolar reaction is documented. Peaceniks beg for cooler heads, marching with neatly rendered placards reading, “It’s Time for Reflection Not Revenge” and “Break the Cycle of Violence.” Opinions grow less tolerant closer to Ground Zero. The photos of dust, while visually dull, linger with me. The impact of the planes, the explosions were the media money shot. We didn’t see the dust on TV. We thought it was all fire and falling bricks. Photo #5681 stands out most for me. A William H. Macy clone dressed in blue Brooks Brothers and carrying a briefcase runs through a grey blizzard of lung-clotting dust. Office building dust jams up his day’s clockwork, the very materials in which he daily dealt business. Ironic that. Photos #1240, 1237, and 5192 show further capitalist paralysis with piles of Gap shirts and jeans and Perrier bottles buried in ash. Dust anesthetizes, rather than eradicates the City that Never Sleeps. Dust also provides a ready medium for rage. “WELCOME TO HELL” offers the back window of a Honda Civic in photo #1118. On photo #87, a “NUKE THEM ALL” graffito virtually screams from an opaque store window. Throughout the exhibit the dust messages debate, sentiments ranging from “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” to the less poetical “REVENGE.”
Moving on, certain photos help me recall a vow I made 25 years ago. On a grade school career day I stood in front of my class, dressed in a yellow rain slicker and a plastic fireman’s helmet—an Independence Day promo piece handed out by a local insurance agent. Words immortalized by fourth-graders before and after me tumbled from my mouth: “I want to grow up to be a fireman, so I can put out fires and help people.” Looking at picture after picture of dust-covered firefighters, burned-out eyes staring from beneath battered black helmets, I wanted to renew that vow. Photos #3383, 5247, 5234, 2424, and so on show walls of other firefighters, EMS techs, doctors, nurses, and just plain good Samaritans, in varying stages of exhaustion, human endurance stretched to a rubberband’s snapping. It’s all here, every emotion, every reaction. Photo #2763 shows two burly firefighters practically in a lover’s embrace. Unwitting comedy is achieved with a Scientologist counselor attempting to comfort a firefighter who looks like he’d rather be somewhere else enjoying his bottle of Poland Springs water.
Many of the photos, it must be pointed out, are disturbing. In #2840 blue-gloved medics handle a woman bleeding as red as her shirt. Beyond shock, her eyes are sealed with rust-colored dust. Still, for every image of a battered, bleeding, and broken human being, there’s a more reassuring and recurring image, that of an extended hand.
E.B. White, best known for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, provided the ideal title and coda of the show in his 1949 piece “Here Is New York,” which presciently describes the urban inferno to come: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headline of the latest edition.”
Mr. White’s chilling clarvoyance aside (his assessment of the Big Apple’s vulnerability itself a fabulous example of the melancholy poetry of destruction), the effect of the original exhibit rested in its spontaneity, its proximity, and its participatory nature. While effective, we as Chicagoans miss the real power of the original show. Unlike street cows, this bit of city art doesn’t travel well or translate accurately. The gallery offers us a before, but we lack an after with which to compare it. It is our good fortune, of course, that we’re deprived of ashes from which to arise. New York, however, in characteristic braggadocio, shows the horrors it’s lived through and, six months later, has risen above.
Originally published in the Chicago Journal .
®2002 Dan Kelly
For a long time I was quite the aficionado of true crime books. I had a fascination with serial murder for a good part of my young life. I published a zine about it, in fact. I probably read most of the books Rule published before the early 1990s. She, John Waters (who also collected true crime and wrote an essay titled “All My Trials”), and boredom at work were the three reasons I started the zine.
Among others, Ms. Rule wrote one of the two more interesting books about serial killer Ted Bundy. Hers was The Stranger Beside Me, the other was The Only Living Witness by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. TOLW was based on hours of interviews with Bundy—who never openly confessed, but was happy to “speculate” on the nature of the murders and the killer’s mindset—which lent it the frisson of hearing the smug bastard’s story in his own words. Rule’s book, as I recall, was nicely written and researched, but was also helped by the fact that Rule knew Ted before “Bundy” become synonymous with evil (or Married…with Children for that matter).
During my true crime fanboy period, I enjoyed reading Rule. Not always. I remember her being occasionally stilted. When she began covering scandalous family murders instead of serial killing perverts, I lost interest. According to my regressive thinking at the time, that was middle-aged chick reading—weepy pap about filicides and mariticides enjoyed by pearl-clutching hausfraus. Give me dark darkness with extra dark, Laird Beelzebub, said a young, gritty, quasi-puncrock Mr. Dan Kelly. Glad I got over that…mostly. It helped that I encountered many real lost boys and girls through the mail, who refused to grow up and dabbled in muck without the slightest bit of self-examination. Geez. Of course, they also made my zine—titled Evil® (the copyright sign’s intended irony was lost on most)—my most successful. But that’s a longer story for another day.
Anyway, Rule generally reliably delivered the goods. She was an old-school true crime writer, writing innumerable articles for the newsprint detective mags and several books under the alias Andy Stack (and others) because, per her first editor, the wimmens just didn’t write true crime. For the genre she was pretty good. Not Capote or Mailer good, but she kept things percolating, did her research (she ran into some accusations of sloppiness later, though these came from less than pure folks), and, as far as I can tell, kept the exploitation and sensationalism down. Uh, never mind the early Andy Stack stuff, which was SLEAZY as hell.
I saw her many years ago at a bookstore signing…I forget where. She talked about her latest book (If You Really Loved Me or Everything She ever Wanted maybe), knowing Bundy (who’d been electrocuted for, I think, two years by then), and answered questions. Silence of the Lambs had recently come out, and someone asked her opinion of the book and film. Unequivocally, she stated she hated both, loathing the idea of a serial killer character portrayed as smart, sexy, and funny. I imagine when you discovered the smart, sexy, and funny fellow you worked a suicide line with, and who you previously would have loved to see your daughter dating, was a psychopath who secretly raped and killed 30+ women, you’re likely to view Hannibal and Dexter with a scowl.
After the talk, I asked her to sign my books (she even signed my copy of The I-5 Killer as Andy Stack!), and told her I was a writer, and that she was a personal inspiration. Which was true, though before and since there have been other more influential writers in my life. I don’t recall her exact words, but she was very encouraging, and even spoke with me a bit about the craft without a hint of brush-off or acting as if she’d rather be elsewhere. Rare behavior in my field.
Anyway, in my experience: a very nice person was Ann Rule. RIP. I may dig through my old true crime collection—what remains of it—and reread one of her books in tribute.
I spent several days writing about a distressing event that recently happened to me. Happened to someone else, actually, with me in close proximity. I use the word “traumatic” sparingly. I’m not going to argue semantics, but it’s one of those words bandied about too freely these days. There are truly traumatic events—things involving death, abuse, severe injuries, and the like. But while what happened was scary and psychologically stabbing, everyone involved came out all right. I suppose it was partially traumatic, but nothing requiring psychological liniment and band-aids.
For the past week I kept returning to the piece, crafting it to recall every breath, sensation, and emotion. And it was pretty good. After several years of feeling barely able to word-craft worth a damn, it flowed. Flowing is a healthy activity for blood, water, and words.
But it occurred to me that this wasn’t entirely my story, and I wasn’t certain sharing it online was a good choice. I asked my wife what she thought, and after a moment she said, “No, don’t.” Occasionally, she’s overly cautious, but not this time.
Still, I had to finish it, I knew this, even though it’s destined for a file in the closet cabinet, along with my notebooks, journals, and never-sent letters. That stings a bit, because it’s one more bit of work that’ll do me no good now (soul-balming notwithstanding), and won’t last after I die. My kids might retain some of my work out of nostalgia for the old bastard, but otherwise one day my children’s children’s children will say, “What is this crap?” and heave it into the trash.
But jot it down I must.
What happened? I’ll tell you this much.
Someone dying and someone mimicking dying sent me into a double funk for the past week. Huzzah. Mr. Dan Kelly meet Mr. Death Mortis.
I think about dying a lot—not in a scared way. It just reoccurs to me that I’m mortal and will end. I don’t want to die. Confidentially, and this may surprise you, I hate the thought of it. Standard reactions, yes, but I’ve long developed a bland acceptance of what I can’t control. I’d like to fly unaided, but there’s all this damn gravity to contend with. I’d like to travel everywhere—literally EVERYWHERE—but money, time, space, and previous obligations won’t accommodate me. I’d prefer not to die, but…well, we’ve all been there. We all ARE there. You accept the limits and try to find a way to ameliorate the disappointments. Very well, airplanes and a few trips over the course of a lifetime it is.
But Death has no workaround. And when you’re face to face with it or it gives you a preview of the real thing, you discover the bastard is too stupid to make deals with you, or to give you a pleasant if temporary alternative. Death is neither fair nor unfair. It’s an unavoidable, dull-witted, bureaucratic lug doing its job that doesn’t even wonder why people are annoyed. Imagine a janitor wearing ear buds, listening to its music as it pushes past you to clean off your desk, even though you’re obviously still working or eating or otherwise occupied. Then it leaves without a word—but you know it’ll be back to swipe and discard whatever else you’d prefer it leave alone. Worse yet, it occurs to you that maybe you’re going in the wastebasket next time.
But you’ll get over it, because there’s no alternative. Which can be looked at as a comfort if only for its consistency and inevitability, I guess.
Oh…you want to use my services? Yeahhhhh, that’s a problem. Look you seem nice and all, but I just can’t do it, because what you…do…and are…is…frowned upon by my religion. But I have an excellent reason for discrim…uh, declining to serve you.
See, my ancestors chose to follow an abridged version of a religion practiced by a desert tribe millennia ago. This tribe had a direct line to the Almighty through a handful of guys who SWORE they spoke directly with the Creator of the Universe, and that He ordered the tribe to do everything these emissaries told them to do, or else He’d smite them.
Which he did, repeatedly, the emissaries claimed whenever things got bad. Sometimes he came through with food and water and protection—they said—but mostly he yelled at them through the emissaries. He was mad they weren’t following his orders to the letter. Whenever they complained, he’d get P.O.ed and let them get sick or suffer or die or be conquered by the other tribes who THEY were trying to conquer. Now, isn’t that a beautiful story?
Anyway, the emissaries presented a TON of laws to the tribe, and you had to follow them or else bad stuff would happen. A few of the good ones were terrific, pretty much stated not to hurt or kill anyone. Good thing the Creator of the Universe told them that.
Much later, some other guy who, and this is my favorite part, hinted that he was the SON of the Creator of the Universe took that tribe’s tenets and added a bunch of new stuff. He didn’t really dump the old rules, but he didn’t stress some as much as others. For example, he said everyone should love and respect each other. He also said that he’d set families against one another, and that he’d die and come back again to judge the living and the dead, sending the ones who displeased him to a horrible flaming underworld. Maybe. I mean, that’s the general consensus about what he said.
Anyway, he died, and CAME BACK. Wow! That’s a guy you want to know, right?
Certainly, well, his friends said it SORT OF looked like him, but not totally. Except for when he did. He hung out for a while and then flew off to this place no one can see where everyone is happy all the time…even though you’re hanging out with that terrifying Creator of the Universe dude who, uh, once killed everyone on earth at the time with a massive flood, because they were evil. The kids too. Evil kids? Sure. Hey, you don’t argue with a guy like that. He must know what he’s doing.
So, the Son of the Creator of the Universe left his followers, and they spread the word about his lessons across the Ancient World. Then this other guy who’d never met him, took all his words and restructured everything to appeal to the Italians who currently ran most of the known world. He underscored some of the older rules again too–which the son never mentioned, actually… Anyway, this new guy became the Son of the Creator of the Universe’s chief PR flack, after he’d spent some time trying to stop the Son’s religion by slaughtering his friends and followers for blasphemy.
No, no! The Son of the Creator of the Universe’s original followers were totally cool with that.
Man oh man, then it took off! Suddenly, the Italians and scads of other people across the Empire were worshiping this poor carpenter. Especially when they were assured they’d go to that happy afterlife place I mentioned.
Well, yes, there were people across the world who’d never heard of this religion or this particular Creator of the Universe, or the emissaries, or the Son of the Creator, or any of the laws…and, well, to their surprise, I heard they all died and went to that horrible flaming underworld to suffer forever, because…
It’s just a shame, really. They should have known better.
But let me get to my main point. Remember when I mentioned my ancestors? Well, somebody told them about this religion and they signed up…or they were forced to convert under pain of death. Either way, they were in, and since then everyone in my family has been told what I just told you, and we’ve accepted it as is, no questions asked. Because really, how COULD you question it? Answer: you can’t. You just can’t.
My ancestors and everyone since took to heart the laws prescribed by the desert tribe and the Son of the Creator in a book that compiles a couple dozen scrolls written in several different languages and eras, after discarding a few other texts that seemed iffy. The book has been edited and re-edited over the last 2,000 years by heretics and firebrands and tyrants and madmen and other men and women who wanted to amass power and wealth by showing the proper interpretation of the words of the Creator of the Universe who no one had spoken with directly for a thousand or so years. But the awesome thing is, it’s still true. Every last syllable. It’s been changed and altered and sifted and translated, but it’s still the same book endorsed by the Creator of the Universe. And you can’t deny that, right?
Anyway, I follow EACH AND EVERY law outlined by this book. Except the odd commandment about clothing or food or menstrual cycles or slavery or…well, okay, there’s quite a few I don’t follow because they don’t mesh well with my modern life and they’re too hard to follow. Sure, some folks still follow ALL the rules, but they’re wrong, because they didn’t listen to the guy who said he was the Son of the Creator of the Universe. Nope, they listened to the guys who said they were his emissaries. CRAZY, huh? SOME people.
As it turns out though, because I believe in all the rules and laws in this book, I also believe some modern laws can’t be followed, because they interfere with my selective reading…Um, I mean my deeply held beliefs.
Now, even though what I’m doing to you might RESEMBLE the discrimination practiced on other groups of people throughout history, it’s really not the same, because… well, like I said. I follow a few specific rules laid down by a bunch of guys who, several thousand years ago, told an isolated desert tribe that the Creator of the Universe put them in charge of everyone and that if they didn’t listen up and do what they said, they’d be slaughtered or punished horribly in the terrible place of torture no one has ever really seen that the Son of the Creator of the Universe may have suggested exists.
Anyway, that’s why I’m refusing to help you with your wedding.
So, honor my freedom of religion, even when it interferes with all the other rights you’re due. You better, because the super-powered Son of the Creator of the Universe will return some day, prove I’m right, and sentence you to an eternity of pain because you tried to get married. Face it, buddy, the facts are on my side.
And remember, the Son of the Creator of the Universe loves you! And so do I!
Recently, Liz Mason of Quimby’s asked me to do a reading at a performance by the Blue Ribbon Glee Club, an adorable punk rock singing ensemble she belongs to, whom you must see the next time they perform. Pure joy.
The band sang three songs, and two other writers and I delivered essays inspired by the tunes. Mine was “X-Offender” by Blondie, which, honestly, I’d never heard before. It sparked my imagination though, and I wrote and read the following piece. Hope you like it. Note: this is not anti-cop. I was the son of a small-town mayor, and I was brought up to believe the policeman was our friend and protector. Unpleasantly, however, it seems many need to be reminded of that fact and about the importance of the public’s trust. I’ll quote every authority figure ever: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, right?”
“X-Offender” by Blondie: A Researched Rumination
by Dan Kelly
“My vision in blue
I call you from inside my cell
And in the trial, you were there
With your badge and rubber boots
I think all the time how
I’m going to perpetrate love with you
And when I get out
There’s no doubt I’ll be sex offensive to you.”
It was 1976, and two years before Sting and the Police asked Roxanne not to turn on her red light, Debbie Harry and Blondie recorded “X Offender,” a tune about a prostitute and an officer she found arresting in more ways than one.
According to noted rock music historian Dr. Wikipedia, “X-Offender” was originally titled “Sex Offender.” Written by Blondie bassist Gary Valentine, “Sex Offender” told the tale of an 18-year-old boy being nicked for knocking boots with his underage girlfriend. The 70s weren’t as freewheeling as we’ve heard, and Ms. Harry wrote new lyrics describing a strumpet’s crush on the cop busting her for solicitation—a MUCH more family friendly storyline.
Furthermore, to calm their skittish label, they changed the title. “Sex Offender” became “X-Offender.” A meaningless term, but adding the letter X before or after any word—ray, men, brand, or Malcolm, for example—always makes it sound cooler.
Ms. Harry barely tries to describe the cop. We’re told he’s “big and fine,” and that he wears a badge and regulation rubber boots. According to photographs of 1970s NYPD cops, it is 65 percent likely he had sideburns, and 93 percent likely a mustache. Ms. Harry’s surrogate sexual surrogate’s reasons for the infatuation are unclear. The song can be read different ways. A kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome, where the perp comes to empathize with and even love her captor. As a disturbing tale of a nascent stalker. Or perhaps a cynical bit of Machiavellianism by the hooker who hopes she can get off by helping the cop, well, get off.
But let’s assume it IS a tale of a lady of the evening’s unrequited infatuation. A boy (in blue) meets (working) girl story, if you will. If it is, it is anomalous. You can search for songs about police officers, but you’ll find few that are pro-cop, and almost none that are fuzz-sexual.
Early cop songs by 78 rpm record era white performers tended toward the gently comic, and were delivered in a bogus brogue. In 1922’s “The Laughing Policeman” we learn of an obese constable who endlessly chortles on the corner. In “He’s on the Police Force Now,” we discover the innate hilarity of corrupt Irish cops.
Early blues recordings about the Force, however, are far more numerous, and usually about sheriffs, deputies, railroad bulls, and other lawmen busting the song’s subject for public drinking or killing a man for screwing his wife or, even worse, touching his hat. At no time, however, do we hear bluesmen Blind Blake, Robert Wilkins, or Peetie Wheatstraw, warbling about pitching woo at the man with the keys to his cell…and his heart?
By the 50s and 60s, cops were showing up in rock ‘n roll tunes like “Hot Rod Lincoln,” busting the juvenile delinquent singers for drag-racin’, hubcap stealin’, switch-bladin’, and similar hell-raisin’ antics. What nerds. Later on, in 1966, Bobby Fuller sang his regrets about the foolishness of robbin’ people with a six-gun, for when he fought the law…the law won. Sadly, Bobby died at 23, not long after the song shot up the charts. He was found dead in a car in his Hollywood apartment building’s parking lot, stiff and drenched with gasoline (but not set afire). The LAPD coroner declared Fuller a suicide. Conspiracy fans think it was murder. Whatever the truth, Fuller didn’t win that one either.
The 60s and early 70s brought protest songs powered by the rampant misbehavior of the nation’s finest. In Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs’ tunes, cops show up as by the book stiffs; nightstick-wielding goons and hicks; and shadowy Feds, ever looming and swooping in to pummel, jail, and do far worse to the songs’ protagonists. Ochs, never one to mince words, took an extra dig at Mississippi cops, singing “Behind their broken badges there are murderers and more.” Ouch.
In 1973’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” Bob Marley wailed about being framed for deputycide, when he really only meant to shoot the deputy’s boss in self-defense. More gently, in 1967, Arlo Guthrie rattled on for 19 minutes about Thanksgiving littering, draft board travails, and interactions with Officer Obie in “Alice’s Restaurant.” But note at no time do Arlo, Bob, Bob, or Phil broach the subject of cop on criminal action. Thankfully.
Let us jump ahead to the Bicentennial again, and rejoin Ms. Harry singing about cop-boinking on CBGB’s stage.
While Ms. Harry sang about her forbidden po-po paramour, the disillusionment and righteous anger of 60s hippies for the cops was metastasizing into seething punk rock rage.
I plumbed the collective brains of my geriatric punk friends for songs about cops. A scabrous songbook of cop fear and loathing was quickly drafted. Contributions included Big Black’s “Big Money,” the Swans “Cop,” the UK Subs’ “Police State,” the Partisans’ “Bastards in Blue,” the Dicks’ “Hate the Police,” the Authorities “I Hate Cops,” and half the Clash’s back catalog, with “Police and Thieves,” “Guns of Brixton,” and “Police on My Back” as standouts. Consulting with Professor Google, I found Taboo Tunes, a book on music scares and censorship. Which added even more ditties to our glee club song folio. “Police Story,” by Black Flag, “Police Force” by Fartz, “Police Oppression” by Angelic Upstarts, “Fascist Pig” by Suicidal Tendencies, “Anticop” by TSOL, “Death to All the Pigs” by Naked Aggression, “Kill the Police” by G.G. Allin, “Cops for Fertilizer” by the Crucifucks, and “Police Truck” by the Dead Kennedys.
In light of “X-Offender,” it’s worth mentioning that “Police Truck,” an acid shower of contempt for bent cops, contains the lyrics:
It’s roundup time where the good whores meet
Gonna drag one screaming off the street
Here, Blondie’s courtly cop’s colleagues go on an offensive against the X-Offender’s peers.
Taboo Tunes further listed several punk, hardcore, and noise bands that go that extra mile to extend a finger to the police force. For example, Officer Down, Cop Shoot Cop, Pig Destroyer, and MDC—which is short for Millions of Dead Cops. Driving the back roads with one of those names scrawled on the side of your band’s van must have been exciting.
As a side note, and of local interest, what’s up with Chicago police jackets, a youthful punk fashion statement that started sometime in the eighties? I contacted the primary purveyors of CPD wear, the Alley, asking how and why the trend started. They replied with a link to an article about John Belushi’s funeral, when a melancholy Dan Aykroyd marked his friend’s hometown roots by wearing a Chicago cop jacket as he led the cortege. The look caught on, and the Alley met the demand. When you think about it, The Blues Brothers soundtrack was rhythm and blues, but it had a punk sensibility. Trivia: 60 cop cars were demolished during filming.
I have no idea how police reacted to the sudden sight of funny-haired kids wearing the CPD badge and Chicago flag. Probably not well. According to the CPD site, which offers rules on uniform wear and proper mustache length—no, I’m not making that up—hair guidelines are spelled out:
Head hair will not be adorned with any type of ornamentation nor be styled, sculpted or carved in radical fashions such as mohawk, dreadlocks, punk, new wave, etc.
Can’t we all get along?
If there’s a genre with a greater strain of police resentment than punk, it’s rap—a bigger subject than I can tackle tonight. Also, I’d have to mention Ms. Harry’s freestyle skills in Blondie’s “Rapture.” It should be mentioned though that unlike NWA, no punk bands have received letters from the FBI and Secret Service expressing their displeasure with an album, the way they did in 1989 for NWA’s Straight Outta Compton. The Feds, Secret Service, and media overlooked the album’s rage and frustration with American culture’s racism and deathly status quo, as documented in the seminal “Fuck tha Police”—a tune which appears to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity these days.
In short, as song subjects, the police rarely come off well. But it’s hardly accurate to say there’s NO love for the flatfoots—or would that be flatfeet? As in Ms. Harry’s ode, there are others who’d like a piece of a peace officer, or at least a platonic friendship.
Cops are people too, willing to “get down” with the young people. In 1986, all the cops in the donut shop (Oh Way Oh) willingly walked like E-gyp-shee-ans for the Bangles…but who wouldn’t if Susanna Hoffs asked them nicely?
In song, the Beatles had a pleasanter relationship with the cops. Paul had the hots for lovely Rita, meter maid. In real life, when the Beatles played their final public concert on the roof of 3 Savile Road for Let It Be, they cranked up “Get Back,” tying up traffic below. Promptly, the Metropolitan Police Service showed up and very Britishly asked them to kindly turn down the volume. In later interviews, Ringo Starr still wishes there’d been footage of big-helmeted Bobbies dragging him away from his drum kit. Alas, the Fab Four were too cuddly to arrest.
Like maids and librarians, cops inspire a crazy amount of fetishization. Ms. Harry sings as much in “X-Offender,” of course, but more recently, Fat Mike of NOFX united the worlds of Sex and Law Enforcement in the song “My Stepdad’s a Cop and My Stepmom’s a Domme,” telling us:
They both wear uniforms
They both have shiny boots
They both use unnecessary force
One whips one shoots
Despite the “sadistic tendencies” of both individuals, Fat Mike still thinks its pretty cool.
Other musical romantic liaisons with cops are brief and rife with perversion—especially if you make up stuff that likely never entered the minds of the performers. Though with David Bowie you never can tell.
In “Five Years,” Ziggy Bowie sings of the police officer who kneels and kisses the feet of a priest, inducing vomiting in a nearby homosexual. In “Life on Mars?”, Aladdin Bowie asks us to take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy, and wonder if he’ll ever know he’s in the freakiest show—a freaky sex show, perhaps.
Earlier on, in Leiber and Stoller’s often covered and catchy as hell “Love Potion #9,” a young man is driven to insatiable sex cravings by Gypsy aphrodisiacs, and locks lips with a cop down on Thirty-Fourth and Vine. The officer smashes his supply of lust juice, but whether out of anger at the assault or in the throes of passion, I leave to the fanfic writers.
In “Straight Outta Compton” the song. Ice Cube rapped “Just ’cause I’m from the CPT, punk police are afraid of me.” Punk police? Can such a thing be possible?
As evolution shows, separate species can survive and grow stronger through reproduction and hybridization. Dirty Harry frequently railed against the scourge of “punks,” but who’s to say he didn’t encounter a young, tattooed, green-haired miss who was pleasing to his eye and vice versa.
“Are you feeling lucky, punk?”
“I think we both are, Inspector Callahan.”
Let us speculate that they bred a new spiky-haired, polyester-pants-wearing being, carrying a nightstick in one hand and a Minor Threat LP in the other.
Punk cops, like Republican punks do exist, but make slightly more sense. Errol Morris’ excellent documentary The Thin Blue Line draws its title from the expression that the police are the thin blue line standing between the public and anarchy. Not “Anarchy in the UK,” however. A search for “punk” and “police” brings up news stories of a hardcore member of the NYPD who was busted for taking sick days and collecting disability from an arm injury once it was discovered on YouTube that he could mosh, head bang, and fist pump on tour with his band quite well. Which is pretty punk rock, actually.
Celtic punk band the Dropkick Murphy’s—perhaps culturally simpatico, since all us Irish have at least one cop relative—won’t have poseur punks arbitrarily trash-talking the police. As they sing in their song “John Law”:
Suburban anarchists who’ve never broke the law
Sing about police oppression, but they’ve never met John Law
He doesn’t fuck with young kids drinking in the Park
But he makes the city safe for women after dark
Finally, who better than Killdozer to extend an olive branch to the police with their cheerfully growled tale of the awesomest cop in town, “The Pig Was Cool.”
We were at the Journey show
The first three songs we were hanging low
Then the band played “Wheel in the Sky”
Me and my babe started getting high
The dude next to me said gimme a hit
So I passed him the joint I already lit
When I saw his badge
I thought this is it
But he just said to me, “man, this is good shit”
The pig was cool.
Indeed he was, Mr. Killdozer.
After September 11, cops were imbued with a glow hard won after the decade of LA riots, Amadou Diallo, telephone book beatings, and broken broom handles. This post-9/11 canonization was so pervasive, the Strokes willingly pulled the tune “New York City Cops” from their debut album, delaying its release from September 25 to October 9. A bare month after the towers went down, no one (including the band after watching footage of valiant, dust-covered cops picking people out of the rubble), was comfortable with lyrics like “New York City cops/They ain’t too smart.”
Sadly, the halos have tipped again in recent months. Which is a shame, considering that despite a few bad apples, corruption, systemic racism, use of excessive force, evidence tampering, enhanced interrogation techniques, and…this is getting depressing. Anyway, despite all this, there ARE good cops who deserve our admiration, support, and, dare I say it? Love?
In that spirit, let us consider “X-Offender” as a hopeful anthem for, as it were, establishing better relations with the cops.
Let us hope that one day “Fuck tha’ Police” becomes a slogan both sides can get behind.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Put on your pointed ears, speak in a sonorous baritone.
Silence the communicator, put your phaser in its box
Bring out the coffin, live long and prosper, Spock.