text by DAVID MICHAEL GORDON
David Gordon is from New York City.
In addition to being a writer he has worked undercover in numerous fields including film, fashion and pornography, and as editor and writer for Hustler, Chic and Barely Legal magazines. This is an excerpt from a novel.
I REMEMBER THE MOMENT, it was 1980 give or take, when I first heard Miles Davis. I must have been around fourteen. Right there, I took a solemn vow: Henceforth, my life would be dedicated to art and love. I was smoking pot with Jake, in the woods near the tracks behind his house. He was my superior in every way: tall with long straight hair and a divorced father who never called him home to dinner. He excelled effortlessly at all sports but sneered at the jocks anyhow and refused to play, while I couldn’t catch and was frightened of the locker room shower. But now, as I spoke, simply and modestly, his eyes shined with something like admiration. He tapped the pipe out against the mossy, blackened statue by the bench. It was a cheap, miniaturized copy of The Kiss, left over from when this was a garden and his parents were in love. The ashes floated in the wind as we pondered my declaration. “That,” he said, “is fucking awesome.”
I’ve had plenty of reason to regret that vow in the years since. But I was a hopeless case, no warning would’ve helped, not even if I’d glimpsed, darkly through the smoke, everything that I couldn’t know was coming, Grace, dope, disasters, my whole life in the city before me there in ruins. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t really believe in fate or anything, but revealing our secrets, even to ourselves, is dangerous. Perhaps it was by lying there and recklessly dreaming, worse, by declaring my desires out loud, that I called misfortune down on my own head.
Certainly there were some evil spirits loose in that Jersey swamp. On a ripe day you could smell them. Really, it was just an overgrown strip of dump between the tracks and the rotten fence that had once lined Jake’s back yard. People threw old mattresses and baby carriages down the hill from Washington Road, tires and stoves and the skeletons of Christmas trees, still shawled in gold tinsel come Spring, when the snow melted to reveal a washed out graveyard of abandoned treasure. By June it was a jungle that would swallow you in ten steps and shield you from prowling eyes.
At that time, Jake and I were mainly connoisseurs of blues and the early jazz that grew out of the blues: Skip James, Lightning Hopkins, Howling Wolf, Louis Armstrong, Cannonball Adderly. It was the power of the music that I craved. Lonely, scared, weak, uncomfortable in groups larger than one, but choked with self-loathing when alone–I was powerless and needed all the help I could get. That day in the woods, when Jake pressed a button on his tape player and said, “Here, check this shit out, I taped it off the radio last night,” I knew: This was the thing I’d been waiting for all along. Here was a trumpet, sad and clear as any voice, yet broken into pieces, fractured and reassembled like a cubist painting. His band built a machine out of bass and drums and warped keyboards, built it out of spare parts while driving it at the same time, but unlike a rock song, or a blues song, this beat never repeated, it crashed with each chorus, the beautiful collapse of a rhythm that never stopped evolving. It was more than I could follow with only two virgin ears, but the emotional judgment was absolute and I submitted without question, discovering the truth again and again in each moment, always through a new path: It took me by surprise like God’s grace. This was genius. A living genius. Not a genius from the last century or from France or from some garret somewhere in a frilly shirt. This was genius an hour away by bus, greatness walking the streets in an overcoat, pursued by the unknown.
Jake had a pipe he’d made of plumbing parts he found in his basement. I had a dime bag in the side pocket of my army surplus pants. He was a painter, I was a poet, inspired supposedly by Blake and Stevens, but my poems all sounded suspiciously like Led Zeppelin lyrics, full of crumbling towers and dark ladies and relics of the old gods. We twisted off a corner of the baggie to get the last of the green dust in the bottom crease, and packed it into the bowl. In between hits we used my asthma inhaler to open up our lungs. Of course I coughed — horrible, gut-wrenching, hyena coughs — and if I so much as brushed against a bush I broke out in hives and had to take Benadryl, but it was all part of the life of a doomed artist. John Lee Hooker sang about it, or look at Keats. I would die in my 20s, and leave behind nothing but a few immortal, yet to be written pages. I accepted this fate. My tragedy was never to have known love.
I think it was Jodi who I longed for at the time. Let’s say Jodi. Her tight blue jeans, her feathered dark hair. The nipples she seemed so proud of in her tube top. Her menthol cigarettes and lip gloss. The lemon juice she combed into her hair, reading magazines by her parents’ pool, her ankle bracelet glowing against her gold skin, one plump finger running under the edge of her bikini bottom as she basted herself with tanning oil. I was afraid to even take my shirt off and swim, being so thin and so white, plus allergic to chlorine. And I still don’t know how to dive. True, she had terrible taste in music and could barely read. Her sun-faded copy of The Great Gatsby was swollen by the diving board, open to page three. She joked about how boring it was, and of course I agreed, although I’d read it through in one night, sitting up till dawn on the edge of the bathtub. I prayed to Fitzgerald for forgiveness and bought my first pack of Camel straights in his honor. I felt like a shit for betraying him, snickering behind his back with this stupid, middle-class girl, but who would understand better than he? I was ready to tear my heart out and fling it at her tiny, red-tipped feet, but I knew I’d never so much as brush her lips with mine. Nor her friend Mia. Nor the green-eyed Jamaican woman who worked at the deli where I bought the Camels. Jodi asked me to give her a quick synopsis of the book, so she’d pass the pop quiz, and the revelation that East and West Egg were really the Hamptons momentarily intrigued her, but she got bogged down on the symbolic eyeball sign and thought Daisy was a corny name for a girl.
“I just think flower names are lame,” she said, sucking a Parliament. “Like Iris or Rose.”
“Don’t even waste your breath, man,” Jake muttered. “She’s unworthy,” then spit an ice cube onto her back. It ran down the greased line of her spine, where the tiny blonde hairs grew, and vanished. She screeched and began chasing him with a pitcher of sugar-free iced tea. Behind my sunglasses, I adored Jodi with itchy, inflamed eyes while she watched Jake cannonballing into the deep end in his cut-off jeans, long hair whipping his shoulders, a beaded necklace banging on his chest.
“The problem,” he told me later, lighting one of my Camels as we walked home, “is we were born too late. The 80s suck, even worse than the 70s.” Jake had been a child like me then of course, but he had an older brother who assured him they sucked. “Except for punk. And at least he lives in the city. Out here, there’s nothing. Like a cultural wasteland. No art, no jazz, no cool chicks, no dope.”
We cut school the next Friday and rode into New York on the bus, looking for pot and what I insisted on calling “kicks.” Everybody had given us five or ten dollars each for nickel bags of pot, plus kicking in an extra buck or two for our busfare and whatever. In this way, we got ours for free.
In Port Authority the beggars swarmed us, wrapped in rags, newspapers stuffed in their pants, holding out creased, weather-darkened hands, the hide on the palms thick as shoe leather. I knew to watch for pickpockets, to keep a few bucks mugger money in my pocket and the rest in my boot. Then there were the pimps, scouting for runaways, boy or girl. Then there were the hookers. They were out on the far western avenues, by the river, trolling for commuters. They were all along the Deuce, the old 42nd street, hanging in front of the peep shows and the porn theaters and the topless joints. They were in the Port Authority, warming up or cooling off, drinking coffee at the lunch counter or sitting in the cocktail lounge in the bowling alley, sipping beer through a lipstick-stained straw.
We rode the subway downtown and came up at Astor Place. It was like emerging on the underside of the world. Instead of looking like each other, the way they did at home, everyone here looked like themselves. It was like a play where everybody was playing the part of themselves, marching down St. Marks in the costume they’d made for their character: I am the girl with the green hair who wears the red pajama pants. I’m the guy who wears an upside down shirt with my legs through the sleeves. I’m a skinny old guy with dread locks. I’m the fat guy with the pink mohawk who’s always walking a bulldog. Here I come.
We walked east across First Avenue, then across A. Now there were mountains of garbage in black plastic bags. Furious dogs exploded behind fences, chained to burned out cars. Another car was up on blocks by the curb, stripped clean with all the windows spidered into fragments. Somehow the whole inside was full of leaves and branches, as if it had been newly unearthed. Broken glass was everywhere, brown, green, white. The sidewalk glittered like Broadway did in the movies. And some of the buildings were actually only stage sets, with nothing behind the eyes but a vacant lot. In back, the bricks and beams were sloped in an easy drift, as if they’d fallen slowly, gently, like leaves. In another building you could still see the wallpaper and furniture. It had been sheared off like a birthday cake. You could see people moving around in there, carrying things up and down the stairs.
Bums pissed and shit on the sidewalk. Junkies slept. I saw one fall asleep standing up, with a cup of coffee in his hand. A dream had snuck up and caught him, like a net, right there in the middle of the street. Puerto Rican families put their TVs in the window and set up chairs on the sidewalk, out there with the grandma and the kids and everything, eating chicken and rice, passing around soda in paper cups. We walked right through their living room.
A storm came and we sheltered under an awning, waiting for the dealers to come back out. Rain clattered like arrows. It streaked across the windows and beat on the shields of the cars. In the dark the city looked like it was carved from a single stone. When the sky cleared, we crossed the street to Tompkins Square Park, where on a path beneath the dripping trees, men were out selling smoke.
It may sound strange, but no other city in the world has ever startled me so often with its accidental beauty, with the way the fragments of the past turned up, again and again. The walls were covered in spray-painted letters bigger than me, posters on top of posters, thrown up in endless layers and peeling back off like skin, the scraps of a million lost messages, slowly rearranging to form something new. Of course they knocked those walls down ages ago, or painted them over. Recently, when they demolished a building on my block, the ancient stencil on the wall beside it was revealed. “Silverb r &Son inens,” it spelled, for awhile, until the new tower went up. And sometimes the sky will still surprise me, just by being there at the end of an alley or the top of a roof.
We got beat that first time, of course, like everybody, and came home with five baggies of oregano. I suggested an elaborate lie involving gang members and brutal cops, but Jake just sprayed the oregano with Raid and handed it out. Everybody smoked it and convinced themselves that they were high. Eventually, we found places to cop, the tire store, the barbershop, delis with nothing but a few dusty cans of soup on the shelves and a guy behind bullet proof glass. In the morning, there would be a line of construction workers and lawyers.
We started hanging out with Jake’s older brother, a conceptual artist who lived in a storefront on the Bowery. The first time we went by to visit, he and a bunch of other guys were building a boat. I wasn’t sure if it was a conceptual boat or what.
Also, I couldn’t see how they were going to get it out of there once it was done. They were all smoking crack and blazing away with power tools. Jake’s brother greeted us in a welding mask, waving a blowtorch. Some kind of crazy German music I’d never heard was blasting out of the stereo. But the thing I admired most was that he’d managed to get himself declared mentally incompetent by the state, so that he didn’t have to work, just go in and act crazy once every six months.
First they sent us for beer, quarts of Old English. Then they let us kick in some money for rock. The glass bowl looked like a science beaker full of white smoke. Instantly it was winter in my lungs. I took another hit and coughed up diamonds. Suddenly it was dark out, in fact it was one in the morning, and I had to catch the last bus to New Jersey. I caught the express train but the tunnel from the subway to the bus station was a few blocks long and I had to run. Running and freebase turned out to be a bad combination. By the time I got there, my heart was shaking like a broken alarm clock. My legs trembled uncontrollably. Late at night, they moved the buses around and when I ran up to the counter to ask for my bus, I discovered I could no longer talk. My mouth was completely burned up, the lips and tongue rubbed raw from endlessly chewing that smoke. In my head, I was saying, “Excuse me, where’s the 167?” But what came out, to my horror, was,“Wa-wa nee-nay?”
“Excuse me, sir?” the attendant asked, trying to hide his distress.
I was as shocked as he was, and couldn’t explain it either. I tried again. “Wa-sit-see-ben! Wasitsiben!”
“Don’t worry. Sir. I’ll find someone to help you,” he said, probably thinking I was retarded, and picked up the phone. I sprinted up to the platform, where the buses came snorting out of the tunnel, and flailed around haphazardly, accosting people and yelling my strange, primitive cry. Of course I missed the bus. Now I had to hang out till six, when they started running again.
The Port Authority never closed, but they shut it down section by section. The cops came around and herded the few stragglers into smaller pens, poking the sleeping bums with their nightsticks. The drugs had worn off and my mouth felt like a graveyard, my tongue endlessly rereading the broken stones. My hands looked blue under the fluorescent lights and my head hurt when I blinked. When I went to the men’s room, a couple of guys poked their heads out of the stalls, smiling hopefully. In one, a bum was camped out, with all his stuff unpacked and a blanket spread on the floor. I got out of there quick and walked the streets, looking in the windows of the bars and dirty bookstores.
“Want a date?” a woman asked. She didn’t seem like a hooker. She was wrapped in a raincoat, with no make-up, and looked only a few years older than me. For a second I thought she was really asking me out.
“Fifty dollars,” she said and opened her coat. She had nothing on under it but thigh-high plastic boots. I was so stunned that I barely looked, but I remember noticing she had no hair between her legs.
I remember once, at like seven AM, I was going to work with my Dad, and we were sitting in traffic when this overweight woman with stringy blonde hair and smeared make-up lifted her shirt and pressed her gigantic breasts right up against my window. She smeared them around like we were going through the car wash, flattening the flesh against the glass so I saw the pancaked nipples and the veins in the skin.
“Jesus Christ,” my Dad muttered, honking his horn. “Get out of here, get!” The light turned green and he took off. The circular grease stains remained on the window, warping the buildings and streets as we passed. These were the first real naked women I saw.
That was also the summer I became a drug dealer. Jake’s brother hooked us up with his connections and we started getting ounces and quarter-pounds, breaking it up ourselves and making money. We kept our stash at Jake’s place. His Dad was old and foggy and didn’t even notice when we did bong hits in Jake’s room or kept a sheet of acid in the freezer. Suddenly, I was popular and got invited to every party. One night when she was drunk Jodi kissed me, but she bumped into Jake by the beer cooler and slept with him upstairs. I stood on a chair with an eyedropper full of liquid acid. Everybody lined up, like worshippers at church, and I let a tear fall onto their tongues.
When Jake and I first saw Miles, front row at Lincoln Center, it was during his return: From the 40s on, there had not been a movement he was not at the center of and whole generations of musicians came though his band: hard bop, cool jazz, hot jazz, modal jazz, fusion. Then in the 70s, he went beyond all that, creating a monster, a noise with a soul, a sound for the day after the apocalypse, and in Japan he recorded two double albums in one day. Then he stopped. It was terminal music, the sound of a man who can’t go any further, and he put down his horn for seven years, during which he holed up in his Manhattan townhouse with orgies and drugs and guns. One night, he was chasing someone out of his house and got caught on the fence, impaling himself through the groin. A neighbor heard him howling and yelled out, “What the hell are you doing down there?” Miles replied, “I’m fucking your mother.” How could this man not become my hero?
Now he was back from his nightmarish retreat to the mountains of his mind, and he looked it: hollowed out, hair past his shoulders, dressed like a wizard in robes and high-heeled boots. His hands were claws. His eyes, when he took off the shades, were demon-red. His health was gone. He walked slow. His throat was shot, his voice a hoarse snarl from the polyps burned off his vocal chords, death for a horn player. But he still played, beautifully, and unlike anyone else. He couldn’t reach those high sweet tones anymore, couldn’t hold those endless quavering breaths, but each note sounded like it had that whole life inside it, each fluttering cry seemed to come from across a vast distance, floating through the noise and clatter of his band, still manned by kids in their 20s, through all the pain and stupid destruction of his violent life, the broken loves, the shattered body, the lost son. It was like the last, purest rays of a dying sun, the ones that reach us after it’s gone. He played with his back to the audience the whole time. He didn’t say a word. Sometimes, in the depths of a solo, he would curl up in a ball, horn between his legs, as if bent over in prayer or cradling his broken heart, and he’d turn in a slow circle. Then, at some telepathic signal, his whole band would give four blasts and stalk off stage behind him. No bow. No encore. No nothing. He gave what he had to give. If you didn’t like it, fuck you.
I learned a lot from Miles. He showed me it could be cool to wear a suit. Or a gold lamé robe for that matter. But the most important quality he taught me was courage: The courage to move relentlessly forward. The courage to destroy. Not just to leave behind what had come before, and to spit on the opinion of others, that was easy, but the courage to betray his own ideas, to turn his back on everything he knew and loved, over and over again. Keith Jarret said that one night he saw Miles backstage playing a sweet ballad like he did in the 50s. He asked him why he didn’t do that onstage and Miles said because he’d already done it. Like Picasso, beauty came easy to him, so he moved into ugliness and found the other beauty beyond it. Jarrett said, Miles would rather be a failure, in a bad band playing bad music then do what he’d done before. Once an obnoxious interviewer asked him, “If you only had five minutes left to live, what would you do?” Miles whispered back, “I’d choke a white man.”
One thing I sure didn’t learn was how to play music: I bought a tenor saxophone, failed to learn even one scale, and realizing I was completely tone deaf, decided to focus my creative energy on staring out the window and not writing poetry. The truth is, even if I’d had the will to practice, it wouldn’t have mattered: Talent, like beauty or love, is ruthlessly unfair, brushing one sleeper with its wing and passing the rest of us like a dream. But our jealousy should be humbled, when we realize how little good these gifts bestow on most of those who possess them. In the end the best part is what the gifted leave for us.
One weekend that August, Jake’s Dad went away and we did angel dust at his house. We lay on the floor and listened to Miles’ double album Argharta with our eyes shut. When it was finally over and I sat up, it didn’t even make any difference. I kept seeing the same thing, planets forming and imploding. We went to the kitchen and tried eating fun things. Ice and grapes were best, since they changed form in your mouth: the exquisite torment of the melting ice, the sunny burst of a grape against the tongue. Jake went into the bathroom to pee and I heard him laughing hysterically.
“It’s like I have this sort of hose sticking out of my body,” he announced. He laughed so hard he pissed all over the floor. “You’ve got to try it.”
“Later,’ I said. I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. Then we sat facing each other on the couch and did “impressions.”
“Okay, I’m Humphrey Bogart,” I said and Jake immediately hallucinated that I was Bogart, complete with the cigarette and raincoat.
“I’m Eleanor Roosevelt,” he said, and I howled as I saw it: the big lips, the dress, the hair.
“I’m Jimi Hendrix.”
Sooner or later, we always raised the stakes, and got into the scary ones.
“I’m your dead grandmother,” I told him, and his eyes widened crazily.
“Stop it. Stop it.” He was jumping around and punching my arm. So I turned back into myself. Then he got up close in my face and grinned, looking me in the eye.
Jake decided to go to sleep, so I had to go lie down in his brother’s old room. I was worried. I knew I wouldn’t sleep and the cat was giving me the creeps. It kept growling and clawing on my chest, muttering like a soft engine that I could feel digging toward my heart. When its eyes glowed in the dark, I knew right away it was the devil. Finally, I worked up my nerve, and with a superhuman effort, I jumped up, tossed the cat out of the room and locked the door. All night, I huddled under the blanket, staring into the dark, while the cat scratched and meowed in the hall. Around dawn I heard crashes and screams, but I didn’t dare open up. Quiet returned. Now I really did have to piss, but there was no way I was going out there alone. I got up and looked around for an old bottle or a plant. There was an air-conditioner in the window, so that was out. When I pressed my head to the glass, the woods looked like a black mass closing in on the house. The old statue seemed to float an inch off the ground. Finally I just pissed in the corner behind a dresser, and decided to blame it on that fucking cat.
I crashed out and when I woke up it was mid-afternoon. I felt a lot better about everything. I stepped out into the hall and went to Jake’s room. Everything in there was smashed and torn to bits: the furniture, the stereo, every single record and book. The windows and mirrors were shattered. Jake was lying, naked and unconscious, in the middle of the floor with a hammer in his hand and blood smeared on his feet from the broken glass. I split immediately and went home to have lunch with my parents. Later I heard that Jake’s parents packed him off to some kind of rehab or nut house and after that to a special school. Then I went to college and lived in the city. I found a new crowd and never saw any of those people again. I doubt I would know them now if I passed them in the street. And, year by year, even the streets themselves are becoming less familiar. It is strange to realize that there are places, times, perhaps even whole cities, that exist nowhere but in my heart.
They say if you stand on the corner long enough, everyone you know will pass by. Who do you pass in the subway’s darkness? Maybe the people you don’t know yet or used to know and forgot. Maybe the people from your dreams. I used to love to get high and just ride around on the trains. Sometimes the car I was on would pull up close to another train in the tunnel. I’d see the people in the windows, staring into the same darkness but headed the other way. Maybe once, when I was cutting school, I passed you, Grace, or even brushed your hand in the crowd. It’s possible. I never remember my dreams, and you only ever had the same nightmare. So I can’t say I ever dreamed of you back then, before, but somehow I feel like I turned toward you in my sleep, reaching for your ghost beside me in the dark, the smell of your hair on my pillow, the weight of your head in the crook of my arm, the shape of my name in your mouth.
I think the first time Big Black played in New York was the summer before my senior year. I didn’t know much about them but Grace had their EP: songs about Speed Racer’s dark brother Racer X, about working in a meatpacking plant, about Midwestern teenagers lighting themselves on fire. The show was at CBGB’s, part of the CMJ festival, I believe it’s called, though I don’t know what that stands for, a music industry event, in which dozens of bands played at various clubs, mainly for the benefit of the music businessmen who gathered to sign “artists,” as they insisted on calling them. Grace and I packed into the club and stood waiting, sweating, staring at the back of the heads in front of us. Grace suggested I take off my shirt, like some of the buzzheaded boys had done, but I demurred.
“I would if I could,” she said.
At last they came out, two guitars, a bass and a drum machine. I was immediately filled with pride: They looked even worse than me. Unbelievably scrawny, in the 120 pound range, or else chubby, with thick glasses and scabby hair. The bassist seemed to have a hairlip. To know that this power, this noise, the angriest music in the air, came out of three dorks warmed my heart. The leader, Steve Albini stepped up to the mike.
“Good evening. Would everyone who’s here on a CMJ pass please raise their hands?”
Among the crowd of raggedy losers, the winners raised their hands: middle-aged guys in loose black suits with ponytails, slick young record producers and their models, a few stars of rock past. They smiled contemptuously over the heads of the rest of us, as if waiting to be called back stage for sushi and coke. Like a tiger, Albini leaped onto the mike and tore out its throat.
“Get the fuck out! You didn’t pay! Get the fuck out! You didn’t pay!” A roar went up from the crowd. Pimply boys in sweat stained wifebeaters began to shove the suits. Two fat girls in babydoll dresses spilled a model’s drink. We didn’t have money. We didn’t have girlfriends. Nobody did what we wanted or gave a shit what we thought, and we knew it was only going to get worse. Me, I felt like I was allergic to myself, like the touch of my own skin gave me hives. But now the music was louder than the voices in my head. That furious noise calmed me, the way Ritalin, a kind of speed, calms down hyper kids. It lifted the weight from my chest, and I felt, well, like a loser still, but exalted in a way I imagined you poor happy people would never understand. A strange new serenity washed through me, rocking in the rank arms of the crowd, where a punch was the same as a hug.
The slam dancers swirled like a vortex, sucking people in. Kids skipped in circles, blissfully banging into each other. I saw Grace getting knocked around as she tried to dance alone, so I planted myself behind her, elbows locked, to deflect the flying bodies. It was like I was holding her, almost. She didn’t acknowledge me, but she didn’t shake me off either. She just kept dancing, and as I caught stray rockers and launched them back into the flow, her shoulders swayed back and leaned against my chest. Her hair tickled my eyes and lips, but I didn’t brush it aside. I smelled lilac soap and pefume, and hair spray and cigarettes and sweat.
I was deaf after the show. Grace led me through the crowd, over the debris our flood had left behind, broken glass, cigarette butts, a torn t-shirt, one shoe. Tomorrow, a delirious music lover would wake up and wonder how he hopped home. Outside, rain had come and gone, and the soft air patted the sweat from my skin. My drenched shirt chilled my back. I heard something like the ocean roaring distantly, as if my ear was pressed up against the shell of my skull. Grace, Arno, Kelly, Marcus, their mouths moved like cartoon fish, and their movements seemed slow and dreamy without sound, like abstract dance, but I could see from their eyes and their calm smiles that they felt like I did, clean. Silence was okay. I didn’t want to talk yet anyway. It was like waking up and walking out and still being able to keep your dream in your pocket.
Of course, after a few years of this I blew out my eardrum. I remember lying in bed all night with static whistling through my head, writhing each time a nail of pain went through me.
At six, when the clinic opened, I was waiting, and the nurse gasped when she looked in my ear. They gave me pills and I had to wrap my ear like leftovers in a little plastic baggy to shower. Now I test more or less normal for volume and high-low, but I have a hard time picking one sound out of a crowd, and sometimes, at a party for instance, I may just be watching your lips move and nodding.
It was far too late to go back to school, so Grace and I went to her mom’s. In the cab, the city splashed against the window, brightly, but sweet and runny, like a watercolor left out in the rain. Buildings, yellow taxis, red lights, they pressed their hearts to the glass and then peeled away reluctantly, leaving their gleam in the drops.
I sprawled back onto Grace’s bed and she hopped around me, moving her mouth in exaggerated pantomimes and laughing as I tried to read her lips.
“I fudge cat?”
She shook her head and said it again.
“I forgot? Sassafras loom?”
At one point I thought she said sleep with me, make love to me, but then I was always hearing that in her smiles, when she wasn’t making a sound. But I did feel whispers kissing my stunned ears, and I felt mute kisses biting my neck, and then I was whispering back, things I couldn’t hear, my mouth full of her hair, her mouth mumbling into mine. I can’t trace the exact moment when we crossed the line that separated us, but suddenly we were over it, we were lovers. We took our clothes off and tried a million ways to fit our bodies together exactly, so that every inch of our skin was touching. But some part, the sole of a foot, the nape of a neck, the bottom of a tongue, would be left out and we’d have to begin again. She clawed my hair and nailed my chest, stuck her fingers in my ears and mouth. In the dark I found her open eyes with mine. When the sun came up, the sheets were all yanked up off the bed. The whole room smelled like love as I sat naked on the windowsill, smoking. I threw the butt out into the wind, but lost it before it touched ground. Anyway, that’s all. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.
Love didn’t exactly transform Grace into a jazz fan. For one thing, it was way out of fashion. That month, I think, the cute girls were dancing to Bauhaus: “Bella Lagosi is Dead.” Jazz had become the exclusive preserve of male nerds, nervous academics and potbellied stoners, snobbish but hopelessly uncool. I never really succeeded in converting any of my jazz or punk friends to the other side. Maybe I was simpler: I just liked difficult music, anything that would annoy normal people.
So the soundtrack of my life with Grace was steady punk and its cousins, The Cramps, The Butthole Surfers, The Fall. Our love balladeer was Iggy Pop. But except for Sonic Youth, those songs weren’t long enough to have sex to, while jazz went on and on, and in bed I’d be allowed to pop a tape in, some Mingus, a little Miles. The first guy she really took to was Coltrane. She recognized at first listen that this was music about love. We’d put on Selflessness or Inner Experience and let it fill the room. The air around us trembled like a bell. Afterwards, holding hands and staring at the ceiling, I told her how, back in ’57, Miles Davis fired the promising young saxophonist John Coltrane from his band because of Coltrane’s worsening heroin addiction, a remarkable achievement in and of itself, considering who his boss was. At first, Coltrane fell into a depression and his habit deepened. Then he had a spiritual awakening. He prayed to the abandoned God of his youth and, in exchange for relief from his destructive habits, dedicated himself to the Lord. In a week, according to legend at least, he stopped drinking and getting high. After a term playing with Thelonius Monk, he returned to Miles’s band. This is when Coltrane discovered the sound we think of as his own, those stacked chords shifting across the scales like a rushing current, changing yet endlessly sustained. People described it as sheets of sound, and he said he was trying to imitate the harp, but to me it always sounded like a river, like an open channel that once it broke forth never stopped, or better yet like a wall of rain that crossed over us and left but is still pouring on other valleys, other heads. Whatever, God had answered his prayer. His heart opened wide as a door.
He died in 1967 of liver disease, that one dark organ, I suppose, still the devil’s backyard, still shadowed with the silt of past sins, untouched by the cleansing hand. Later, a musician complained to Miles that his music was too complex, too difficult. It would take five saxophonists to play it. Miles explained, “I used to have John Coltrane.”
Of course, Grace and my escapades weren’t quite up to that spiritual level. We broke two beds during our Coltrane period, one at her mom’s apartment, one an antique at the country house in Vermont. Everyone came running in when they heard the crash, then stood around snickering as we huddled under the early American quilt. John, the sculptor, resented having to fix it, so he bolted it together with giant L-brackets and then muttered to me out of the side of his mouth, “That oughta hold you.”
Then sometimes, late at night, the rain came to stand at the window. Puddles grew on the sill and the floor. Instead of shutting the window, I’d run naked and barefoot to hit play and jump back under the covers, where we huddled till the music broke over our heads. Then she’d tell me things. About Kansas and Missouri, where her family came from. About her Grandfather who was born dirt poor and flew bombers in the war and now sat on the board of Exxon and played golf with the head of IBM. About her grandmother, who faded into a skeleton, drinking herself to death in a suite at The Waldorf. About her father, the classical pianist, who got her mom to run away with him in his microbus, who dragged his family around Europe for a decade, broke and living in hotels, and now he was famous but couldn’t stop sleeping around. About how, when she and I were still just friends, she used to secretly pretend I was her boyfriend, and hope when we were out together that people would think we were a couple. About the nightmares she had, but that seemed to get better sleeping next to me, when she could say to herself in the dream that I was there, and even manage sometimes to whisper my name and wake me, so that I could reach out and pull her up, into the lifeboat of our bed. About the way my back looked while I slept in the morning, my face buried sideways in a pillow, the shoulder blades poking out like wings, and the way my mouth sometimes moved silently while I was thinking, things I could never know about myself. About the secret lake in Vermont that no one else could find and the talking cat they had in Paris and the first time she tried heroin in Berlin, hanging out with a ballerina from Madrid who taught her how to shoot up. No one just knows how to do it. Everyone has that first person, the one who turns them out. Grace was mine.
We were at King Tut’s Wawa Hut, where someone Grace knew was doing a dance performance. He stripped naked, squeezed blood over himself from a plastic bag and then writhed on the floor, twisting and flopping in a seizure while machines screeched in the air.
“He uses real cow’s blood,” Grace said. “Stage blood doesn’t look real, because it doesn’t coagulate.”
It was true, the blood dried onto his blue-white skin quickly and then flaked off, crackling into a suit of crimson leaves. Across from us in the booth, Arno smiled sweetly, tapping his camera, waiting for something to happen. He conferred in mutters with Kelly and Jack, who squeezed in beside him. At first I’d thought Jack would hold something against me, he and Grace had been together after all, but he didn’t seem to care. Everyone had just accepted us as a couple, without acknowledgment or surprise, as if it had always been so. Kelly stretched across the table, the tattoo leaning over her bare shoulders like a shade, and whispered to Grace about whatever Arno had told her. Grace then turned to me.
“Those guys are going to cop dope. Do you want to split a bag?”
I shrugged. It was something I’d only read about in books, and it frightened me, but most things frightened me. I knew people turned into junkies, but I was stupid, in that smart kid way, and in love. I don’t only mean with Grace. Beauty pierced me in those days, it really did, the faces in the subway, the blade across the moon. These things really stung. What I knew about junkies was this: They only had one need, and they could fill it.
“How much is it?” I asked.
“Five each,” Grace said, squeezing my wrist. “And sex on dope is amazing.”
“Okay.” I gave her the money. Arno and Jack slipped out of the booth and vanished. The performer came out from backstage and took their place. He was washed and dressed now, but there was still blood crusted under his nails and on his hair, like he’d clawed his way out of the grave. Grace got up to dance with Kelly, hair jumping like fire in the strobe. Kelly’s tattoo seemed to float a few inches above the surface of her skin. Kelly kissed Grace on the mouth and Grace laughed, her lips blue in the black light. Or maybe I imagined that, or only dreamed it later. The performance artist lit a cigarette and blew smoke onto the glasses on the table between us. He smiled at me through the torn veil. One of his teeth was black. You know what I mean about the beauty. I felt that spear in my chest. I coughed like a lion, head back, eyes crying, and went outside to breath. The night sky was orange. On the street, the homeless pushed their carts toward the park. Cops slid past, chatting like old couples, riding with the radio on. Drunken kids swam by in the heat, strangling each other, their makeup dripping. It was 3 AM, and the whole palace belonged to us, pillars, shadows, walled gardens. Arno and Jack returned and slipped something to Grace. She showed me. The dope was in a little wax paper envelope, folded over twice and sealed with scotch tape. It was stamped with a lightning bolt. It said Extra Power.
Arno smiled at me. “You do dope?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Too bad,” he said. “I thought Grace had finally hooked up with a nice guy.”
Everybody already knows all about it, how it makes you feel. I’ll just say that maybe, for once in my life, I felt like myself, like I thought a person should feel. I was a ghost who’d finally been born into the right body after how many thousands of lives, or like a body that had finally breathed in its ghost. When an itch came I had the pleasure of scratching it. It was sweet trying to keep my eyes open. Grace and I lay hand in hand on our backs, in the darkness, with only a ridge of light dripping in under the shade, like we were lying under warm sand on a black beach watching the black ocean come and go. I had a dream and what I dreamed was what was there: hand, sheet, head, pillow, window, moon.
[Table of contents]
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Dick & James, A True Story
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Pete Doherty, Latest News
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Yves Saint Laurent Cruise Winter 2007
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New York Dolls
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A View On The French Art Scene
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She Smiles For The Camera
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