When I was a kid, if you were good with crayons, the other kids would dub you a Rembrandt, a signifier synonymous with douchenozzle, not only in kidville but in the culture at large.
When I was a kid, I lived three avenue blocks west and fourteen street blocks south of the Museum of Modern Art. But you wouldn’t have caught me dead in there (even if I knew it had been there), because I knew that art was for queers and pussies. (Not that I really knew what a queer or a pussy was. Had I been pressed to define them, to use them in a sentence, that sentence would probably have read Art is for queers and pussies.)
It was therefore my good fortune in 1965 to have experienced a cannabis-induced voyage into late-night, post-programming televised entertainment, a voyage that gave me my first look-see into the world of aht and beautieh (with a tip of the Schneider beret to Jack Woodford and, by extension, My Friend the Cartoonist).1
In 1965 life was action-packed. In baseball the cup was half full — while the Mets finished dead last, again, at least the Yankees also finished out of the money, in sixth place, and Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young. Koufax sat out a start in the fall classic because it was Yom Kippur. This gave the members of the tribe a communal pridegasm, except for those who worried this was an unwarranted disrespect of the gentile’s national pastime, an act of hubris that would bring unwanted attention to the Chosen People and ultimately wind up in the bad-for-the-Jews column of the ledger.2
In 1965 Reefer Madness was a basic building block of the Great Society, thanks in no small measure to the wit and wisdom of Harry J. Anslinger (One puff of Marijuana can instantly turn a normal man into a crazed killer; reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men). His Amurrican Zen know-nothingness whipped us into paroxysmal giggles as we puffed on the killer weed. But his anti-pot propaganda war was a stoned success. Middle Amurrica was terrified of reefer, though most had no clue what it was. The sickly sweet smell of marijuana was still in the secret handshake stage. You could easily walk the negro streets at dawn smoking a joint, jaunty jolly, settling in at Hong Fat3 at sunrise, there to indulge an all-out attack of the munchies with a sunrise serving of bok choy with garlic sauce.
In 1965 I fell under the spell of the Splendor in the Grass. Reefer was my gateway, though I missed the Abandon Hope warning until much, much later, after a five-year sojourn in a hazy, hellish lotus land.
The movies that moved me the most I remember best by the drugs I took to see them. Blow-Up was an opium dream; two bottles of Romilar made The Wild Bunch look muy lindo to me; a fifty-megaton dose of LSD guaranteed I would collect the Wages of Fear; Nepalese temple balls helped me understand that Bonnie and Clyde was, more than anything, a meditation on the wonders of amour fou (an insight that later informed Normal Life, the little-seen contribution to the discourse penned by My Wife the Organizing Principle and me); and finally, the psychoactive synergy of two black beauties4 washed down by a king-size bottle of Wolfschmidt’s enabled me to get past my nihilism and despair and really see the poignance and beauty of My Mentor the Mentor’s Little Stabs at Happiness, the first truly cathartic moment of my young and addled life.
In the beginning there was the circle: window open, doorjamb toweled, Old Spice spray at the ready, a sheet of Zig-Zag cupped, then sprinkle, sprinkle, roll, roll, lick, lick, a flick of the Bic, puff, puff, pass, round and round, one joint after the other, until the active ingredient, having passed through the alveoli into the bloodstream and up to the brain, left everyone wrecked, resulting in loosened tongues, tickled funny bones, and heightened taste sensations. Unfortunately social anxiety, paranoia, and increased levels of aggression were also a part of stonedlichkeit. When things got too Lord of the Flies, I, along with many of my self-medicating friends, would escape to some less-confined space, in this case a darkened public lounge. It was theater-like, longer than itwas wide, at the front of which, in lieu of a stage, stood an outsized Admiral Color TV with a vast control panel: a knob for every imaginable picture element, so many knobs, so complex a console, it could have easily been propped out to a low-budget sci-fi production looking to cobble together a spaceship set (a concept later articulated to me by My Friend the Film Critic — the Virgil who first showed me the joys and wonders of Luftmensch-hood — as we watched the sexploitative silliness of Space Thing, 1968).
On this particular night someone had serendipitously forgotten to shut the tube down, and broadcasting having long since anthemed off, the darkened room was lit by the gentle glow of the Admiral. Like a congregation in a makeshift church, we quietly took our seats and stared at, were soothed by, the hypnotic transmission: abstract, cathodically created snow.
In The Thing, the eggheads and the men of action gather round the Thing’s severed hand and discuss its vegetal nature. Dr. Carrington rhapsodizes, No pain, no pleasure as we know it; no emotions, no heart; our superior, our superior in every way; he goes on about the great opportunity mankind has to learn the secrets of the universe from our visitor but stops mid blah-blah, his attention drawn to the hand on the table, its fingers moving, the sharp thorns atop its knuckles clack, clack, clacking against the table. A hush falls over the room as Carrington dictates to his hot secretary (another in the long line of hard-drinking, rough-and-ready Hawksian dames), At 12:10 a.m. the hand became alive.
A similar thing happened to the Admiral that night.
At 1:37 a.m. the Admiral became alive. The inciting incident for this transformative moment occurred when a seriously stoned dude got it in his mind that if he didn’t get Raisinets right fucking now he would die. He lurched out of his chair; the sudden drain of blood from the brain made him lightheaded, causing a syncopal stumble into the electronic burning bush. The Admiral was an immovable object, but Dizzy’s proximity to it must have triggered an electromagnetic pulse, setting off an optical Big Bang within the cathode ray tube — it was like bearing witness to the creation of a formalist universe.
Snow exploded within the frame, sparks from the explosion shot across our eyeballs. The basic building blocks of the televised image underwent radical transformation — black and white became color, pixels became patterns, patterns ebbed, flowed, evolved, all of this action taking place absent the narrative element. It was a brave new world in which Lucy, Desi, and the Cartwrights became superfluous.
In the early ‘60s, Nam June Paik was sculpting with TV monitors. The first one that really brought him to the attention of the league (see The Blood of Heroes, 19895 ) was called TV Cello, made in collaboration with Charlotte Moorman, the topless cellist. It consisted of a bank of monitors piled on top of each other in the form of a cello, strings attached, played like a cello. The performance could be seen live and mediated on the monitors, which displayed details of the space, video collages, snippets of the performance. It was a real-time musical experience as well as a cubist, cathode ray deconstruction of the work.
In 1965 Paik bought a Sony Video Portapak and filmed the traffic jam in Times Square created by Pope Paul VI’s boogaloo down Broadway. The screening of that footage in the Cafe au Go Go that night was said to be the birth of video art.
And by the grace of synchronicity, in a boondock burg far from the art center of the universe, we few, we totally wrecked few, we bizarro band of brothers were discovering the potential of video art as well.
Without even knowing what we were doing, we became accidental artists gone gonzo formalist. Aided by massive infusions of the active ingredient, we passed the time in sheer pleasure, munching, slouching, staring in rapt wonder at Escheresque flocks of birds defying dimensionality, pulsing color wheels, pixelated galaxies roaring by at warp speed, all produced by one of our own doing his be-bop with the boob tube, madly twisting knobs, running his hands up, down, and sideways, herky-jerky style, as if he were spazz-dancing the funky chicken or playing the theremin with one toe nestled in an electric socket.
This was video performance art, small p, small a, inadvertent and unintentional to all present. To them it was merely a goofy, groovy way to pass the time till dawn, when they could safely go back to their rooms and sleep in until the sun would set and they could do it all over again.
Such simultaneity is a commonplace among things discovered and invented, the typewriter, the telephone, the telegraph, the television, the microphone, photography, color photography, talkies among them. This simultaneity mirrored the coincidental discovery of the calculus by Leibniz and Newton, if Leibniz (or Newton, your choice) were a group of retarded schizos who, by sheer accident, had somehow managed to solve the mystery of math.
What Paik did was intentional; what we did an accident. What he did was another sentence in the ongoing aesthetic conversation that stretches back to the caves at Lascaux and into the future; what we did was proof positive that slacking is a characterological constant of homo sap, not merely generational. It’s the difference between diachrony and synchrony, between evolution and eternity, between survival of the fittest and a hamster running to nowhere on its wheel.
But intent and accident are often inextricably bound. Accident can lead to intent and vice versa. This is nowhere better illustrated than in Red Planet Mars (1952), a spiritual, ideological screed masquerading as a movie.
A husband and wife team of wholesome suburban scientists (Chris and Lynne), convinced there is a cutting-edge civilization on Mars that could advance science in a quantum leap, are trying to make contact with the Red Planet using a hydrogen valve originally designed by a fugitive Nazi scientist now presumed dead.
Pops is totally gung-ho, but Mom has her reservations (and somehow manages the trick of being both wooden and hysterical as she enumerates them).
The father-mother are given the idea of using pi as a means of starting a conversation with the Martians by their blond-haired, clear-eyed son, who, at the moment of ideational inception is himself eating a piece of pie, the crust of which is so firm, the contents of which so jelled, he’s gobbling it not off a plate with a fork, but straight out of his hand. This instant of reason following rebus is so damn cute, you want to jump into the frame and go helter skelter on his all-American ass.
But meanwhile the rogue Nazi scientist is not dead! He has taken up residence in the snowcapped shadow of the Christ of the Andes, installed there by the Russkis, his crib stocked with the best equipment rubles can buy, along with a lifetime supply of vodka.
Doc Nazi intends to capture the signals coming from the scientific suburbans and send back messages, ostensibly from the Red Planet, which will have a destabilizing effect on the economic and social structure of the West.
Back in Burbville the missives from Mars via South America are received at a dizzying rate. Chris and Lynne, and through them the world, learn that the average life span of a Martian is three hundred years; that one half acre on Mars is capable of yielding enough food to feed a thousand for a year; that the Martians no longer need coal or oil since they’ve harnessed cosmic energy to run their machines, light their cities. As a result of these revelations pensions are cancelled, farm prices plummet, coal mines are shuttered, the stock market crashes, governments fail.
The Russki Chief of Staff, seeing imminent victory over the west, can barely contain his glee: We will build our new world on the ruins of the West.
While the commies are celebrating their victory over capitalism in Moscow, the cabinet as well as the Joint Chiefs (and of course Chris and Lynne) are gathered in the Oval Office in a state of what-the-fuck? Their latest question to the Martians: How have you avoided using cosmic energy to destroy your world? The admiral in charge of interplanetary communications bursts in with the response: You have been given the knowledge and have used it for destruction. Seven lifetimes ago you were told to love goodness and hate evil. Why have you denied the truth?
Lynne gets all glassy-eyed and says, The Sermon on the Mount… on Mars!
Chris, seeing that his wife has gone batshit crazy, and seconded by the Secretary of Defense, implores the Prez to suppress the message. But the Prez looks inward and decides to release the message, prompting the Sec Def to implore: We can’t hitch our wagon to that star.
But the Prez has made an executive decision: We’ve switched stars, Mr. Secretary. Now we’re following the Star of Bethlehem.
Worldwide the headlines scream GOD SPEAKS FROM MARS.
A talking head does his hermeneutic on the message: I know I am not alone in being struck by the phrase with which the message begins. “Seven lifetimes ago” are the words, but we know that the Martians’ life is three hundred years, so seven lifetimes is about twenty-one hundred years, or as near as one could ask to the era in which the carpenter of Nazareth went forth to preach his message.
The Prez addresses Congress, the nation, the world, relaying the next message from Mars: Ye have denied God’s word and worshipped false gods. Thy torment is the price of thine own sin.
The word goes out over the Voice of America. In rapid succession an avalanche in the Andes ostensibly kills the Nazi scientist; the messages from Mars stop; the invisible hand from the Red Planet guides the Russian Ortho peasants in spontaneous revolution.
The new leader of Russia is the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, flown in from exile to lead the country in what will surely be a theocratic state. (He bears a striking resemblance to the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was also flown in from exile to lead a revolution and preside over a theocratic state, making this bit of va-va Christian wishful thinking a prophetic example of Be careful what you wish for.)
And the plot points just keep coming. The Nazi was not killed in the avalanche after all. He shows up in suburbia and confronts Chris and Lynne in their lab, explaining that he was behind all the messages from Mars.
This assertion sets off a cascade of climactic intentions. The Nazi is determined to reveal the truth as he sees it, thereby rendering God’s message hollow and plunging the Western World back into chaos. This sparks Chris’s reaction. He pops a hose, filling the lab with hydrogen. His intent is to maintain the status quo by igniting the hydrogen and taking the kraut (and the missus) with him. The Nazi palavers. Chris unsheaths his zippo. But God then speaks through the machine — the ultimate ontological argument. Chris stands down. God’s Wi-Fi’ing of his wisdom has proved to be as real as Marilyn Monroe’s titties. This flips Evil Scientist so far out, he loses his mind for what he is doing, pulls out his Luger, and fires, accidentally blowing away himself and his intentions, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Wizard, the first martyrs of the new, holy world order of freedom.
And thus the dialectic of intent and accident, thesis and antithesis, synthesize the cuckoo theocratic message of Red Planet Mars. Back in the lounge, my simple intent was to get high. In doing so, I was accidentally exposed to the abstract effects of manipulated snow; without even knowing it, I became an art appreciator even while still thinking I hated art and that anyone who called themselves an artist was just a pretentious asshole, a pussy, perhaps even a queer.
It took many years filled with dope, despair, and dread until I was able to realize this lesson, and I couldn’t have done so if not for the fortuitous circumstance of finding myself in the right place at the right time — nestled among A Band of Outsiders, neophyte art cultists, My Friend the Cartoonist and My Friend the Film Critic among them, gathered round a world historical genius of film, a mentor of mentors, putting on a show of shows on an almost daily basis, a Houdini of higher learning who had magically transformed the sleep-away camp called college (with which I was no longer officially affiliated) and its soporific core curriculum into a mind-altering, life-changing experience. Dude made art into crack for the soul and my inner addict was hooked — a Darwinian adaptation resulting in a novel evolutionary niche: survival of the neediest.
1 In the hazy mists of yesteryear now referred to as back in the day, My Friend the Cartoonist happened upon a used copy of Jack Woodford’s Plotting: How to Have a Brainchild. He was smitten with Woodford’s insights into the principles of storytelling and so knocked out by his cuckoo primitivism and zany excoriation of the Aht and Beautieh crowd that he would sometimes give spontaneous dramatic readings, which would yield nuggets like: “Characterization is an accident that flows out of action and dialogue”. Or, “If you wish to write great literature, you are very stupid to read my books, because I do not, cannot, and would not write great literature.” And of course, “One of your first jobs, as you write for money, will be to get rid of your vocabulary.”
2 Every current event at my dinner table was seen through the good-for-Jews/bad-for-the-Jews prism. Anything in the good-for-the-Jews column always had the potential to move seamlessly into the bad-for-the-Jews column, but never vice versa. If something was bad for the tribe, it would forever remain so.
3 Open all night, Hong Fat was the lo-mein-eria of choice for the stoned heads of the day who found themselves out and about when all the good burghers were sleeping and were anywhere proximate to Chinatown (when Nueva York had only one), which effectively meant anywhere near a subway station in the four boroughs. One night I found myself stoned out of my mind at the Fat, munching on some grade A grease with My Friend the Red Diaper Baby and My Friend the Anger Machine, both of whose eyes were as red and pupils as dilated as mine. Because getting popped back then had serious consequences even if you were white and boojie, we went to drug Defcon 1 when a brace of cops got off the beat and took their seats at a family-style table akin to ours. But we found it well nigh to miraculous that we maintained our maintaining when the heat turned to us and grilled us about all the exotic shit on our plates because being the hipsters of our day we had ordered clearly enticing food far beyond the commonplace egg rolls, won tons, bbq’d spareribs.
4 Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu. In 1932 Smith Kline & French, a patent medicine outfit looking to branch out into serious pharmacology, marketed a water-soluble version of amphetamine that they called Benzedrine. They sold it in inhaler form, promoting it as a bronchial dilator. Each inhaler contained 325 milligrams of speed. As soon as they removed the Do Not Overdose warning on the label the product took off. One of the more popular ways people used it to dilate their bronchia was breaking the inhaler open, taking out the medicated strip, and dunking it into their morning cup of joe. That’s how Charlie Parker took the A Train. In WW II amphetamine was drafted by both the Allied and the Axis powers. They provided their soldiers with speed in order to make them more alert and more aggressive. (It was as much Benzedrine as Bushido that sent those kamikaze pilots suiciding into our warships.) Hitler led by example — Der Führer was a speed freak; his personal physician shot him up with the shit several times daily. Albert Speer blamed speed for Hitler’s loopy, lame ass decision-making that allowed Hitler to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. If Speer is to be believed and Hitler’s meth-tardation directly led to the downfall of the Third Reich and the derailing of the Final Solution then the inevitable conclusion is that we must seriously consider adding speed to the good-for-the-Jews column of the ledger (see footnote 2). The war ended, the suburbs exploded, Rosie the Riveter became Holly the Housewife and a new market for speed emerged. Smith Kline & French was on top of it, marketing two new products, Eskatrol and Dexamyl. Both were Spansules, a fancy pharmoco-neologism meaning sustained released capsules. They contained a downer as well as an upper to ease the jiggedy-jaggedy high you’d get from straight speed. But Big Pharma wasn’t just marketing mother’s little helpers to the hausfrau demo. They serviced red-blooded Amurrican truckers as well. By far the most ass-kicking of the macho concoctions was synthesized by Pennwalt and given the generic name bi-phetamine sulfate. Known to the cognoscenti as black beauties, each pill contained 20 mg of dynamite in a fashionable black gel capsule that kept trucks in gear from California to the New York Island. It is apparently, and frighteningly, now prescribed to kiddies to cure their ADHD.
5 Explained in detail in The Mysterious Codex of Hollywood and Vine.