"..and then if someone asked me `Do you speak Rhinocerous?' I'd say of courserous!" - Rex Harrison, from the Oscar-winning theme song to the original film adaptation of "Doctor Doolittle"
Dateline, New Orleans -- Never before New Orleans have I lived in a place where I can flick on the radio at any hour of the day or night and feel like I'm living inside a richly-hued, poignant yet optimistic, exuberantly festive indie film. Mind you, I'm talking about public access radio. Because when there's a good non-commercial station to listen to, I avoid formula stations such as the ubiquitous "Arrow" in the same way I have always shunned TV.
Avoid the Arrow. It's the American airwaves' equivalent to Wal-Mart, the filmmakers equivalent to Blockbuster video. Just try and find a Jim Jarmush or a Les Blank film at Blockbuster. Listen to the Arrow 24/7 for a year, and you'll never hear Tom Waits.
My good friend and unequivocal mad hatter, mentally disabled genius James was on the phone from Bisbee, Arizona a few nights back. I love having friends like James. The man's brain fascinates me. And a satellite-fast, direct line into that brain is only two buttons away on my cell phone. The other night, however, I wanted Scott in on the dialogue as well, so I asked James to call back on my land line so I could put him on speaker phone. He did, and the ensuing two hour rant he graced us with was pure, off the cuff performance art.
I kick myself for not having a tape recorder on hand for such occasions. Yet there's a magic in knowing that you alone are privy to an event that will never be repeated for all time. An original Van Gogh, painted by the master with you standing over his shoulder. He finishes it, and in a fit of self-loathing, douses it with paint thinner and sets it aflame. Whoosh. Gone. But not gone. It's yours for as long as you live. And probably beyond the grave, come to think of it. For although they say you can't take it with you, I'm a firm believer that everything that touches the soul, whether intangible or once-tangible-now-lost, stays with the soul for eternity.
But I digress. New Orleans public access radio. And James. What is the common thread? I don't know. How can I know until I see what I say?
Originality. Style. A raw, visceral present-ness that commercialism kills and dull men lack. These are things James, and blues, jazz & cajun music have in common.
I'm in a Jim Jarmush movie. James is on speaker phone. Scott is cocked on imbibing white wine since noon. We are entering and leaving the room where James is a little black cordless phone hub babbling incessantly. If we acknowledge him, he will respond accordingly. But if we don't, he just keeps going. He is a self-sufficient rambler. He is Spaulding Gray on stage gluing you to your seat for two hours with nothing but a water glass on a table, his vocals chords and a chair. We are peripheral.
I demonstrate this to Scott by joining him in the kitchen for a drink whilst James talks on in the other room. I can see Scott itching to get up from the kitchen table, stifling the natural urge to "man the phone." I mean, you can't just drop the phone and walk away while someone's talking to you, can you? Yes you can. Furthermore, you can ignore the phone when it rings, and if you do answer it, the moment you realize it's a telemarketer you MAY hangup. This is hard for people to do. We over-respect phones like we over-respect cars like we over-respect corporations that feed us "news light" (USA Today, AOL Time-Warner, The White House) and "soft rock."
James is a story-teller. His wife was the first to hit me the textbook term for this: pathological lying. I like story-teller better. Then again, I don't have to rely on James for anything more than occasional inspiration and entertainment.
Oh, yes. He's inspiring, all right. The man's a genius. His encyclopedic mind and insight into history, world-events, politics, music, rare books, and on and on is phenomenal. It just takes a keen ear and a sense of humor to sort out the facts from the fiction. (I just gave myself away there. Anyone who knows me knows that therein lies my lust for life: the gonzo, mashed-potato mish-mosh of the real and the make-believe.)
James was the first person to tell me point-blank what the movie "The Matrix" later told with grandiose Hollywood flash: we're living in a dreamworld. There's a great throwaway pun in that movie that I bet most people missed. In the rain-soaked scene where Carrie Ann Moss and crew pick up Keanu Reeves and suck the anthropomorphic tracer bug out of his chest, the blonde calls him Coppertop. It's much later when Morpheus says "To the machines, Neo, you are nothing more than this," at which point he whips out a Duracell AA battery.
At the time, I was living in a shack behind the house James was renting. I was sitting in the living room of the main house where James was watching VH1's "Where are they now?" a show largely about rock stardom's short shelf life. Oddly, it was James' favorite show. I say oddly because James is himself a once-and-future great musician who never made the big time and is now about as far down the rabbit hole of obscurity as one can get. The show always depressed me. A writer's chance of making it great in this world is about as slim.
Rolling about his 450 billionth hand-rolled cigarette, James looked up at me and said, "You realize that none of this real?" I responded with something lame like, "Oh, yeah?" and James continued in a chuckling, faux-German accent. "Oh, yahvoll! Vee are not liffing in za material vorld as you thsink!" A swig of Natural Light Ice later, and his normal voice returned. "Nope. This room, this floor, that TV, the couch you're sitting on, it's all an illusion devised to make you think you're happy and comfortable on this place called Earth. You wanna know where we really are right now?
Sometimes James can be a little too convincing in person. Not having the benefit of quite his massive daily intake of Klonipin to keep anxiety at bay, I wasn't sure I did want to know. There was some loser on TV from an 80's band called "Flock of Seagulls" babbling about his painfully brief taste of fame and his current job as a janitor. That didn't help. I braced myself and said "Okay. Where are we, James?"
"Well, actually, we're working in a salt mine on the Planet Climitia approximately 500 Light Years from the real planet Earth. Our slavelords here on Climitia created this illusion to keep us from going insane." Pinching the skin on his arm and then rapping his fist on the table, he said "Pretty convincing, isn't it?"
Well, you get the picture. That's James in a nutshell. But before I take you back to present day New Orleans and the speaker phone, a short note in defense of all Climitia sufferers. This story is not intended to aggravate your suffering. In fact, I just threw that in there because I can't remember the real name of James' slave planet. I do remember it started with "c" and rhymed with Climitia. Any resemblance to the real Climitia is purely coincidental.
[To Be Continued !]