Since I haven’t used this space for much else recently, I figure it’s time for you to hear another boring story from my youth. I spent the weekend in Louisville, my hometown, and on Saturday, my brother Danny lent me a bicycle. I took Saturday afternoon to bicycle around the coffee shops and bookstores of the Highlands, where I lived in my early 20s. This boring story from my youth in particular is prompted by the large concentration of tattoo parlors in my old neighborhood.
On September 20, 2002, Kentucky Governor Paul Patton held a press conference admitting to an extramarital affair with a nursing home operator that he may or may not have bestowed with political favors. He had spent the past several weeks denying the affair after the Louisville Courier-Journal broke the story, but finally came clean, and came clean in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of politics in the South: with big, fat tears streaming down his face. The next day, the Courier-Journal ran a half-page, full-color photograph by AP photographer Ed Reinke on the front page of Governor Patton’s tear-streaked visage. Here it is:
I remember the glistening in the nostrils quite vividly.
The next morning, I saw the photograph (online? or in a physical newspaper? I don’t remember). I immediately thought what any heartless 22-year-old painter would think: wow, this would make a great painting.
(A pre-Sheperd Fairey side note: now that I think about it, at no point did it occur to me to credit Ed Reinke, or even significantly alter the image, though I used his exact cropping in the finished piece. I don’t know what you were learning in art school in the early 2000s, but I sure never heard a word about copyright and fair use until my schooling was well over. Then again, maybe you went to a better art school than I did.)
Working fast, in order to keep up with breaking events, I stretched a 4’x4’ canvas, gridded the drawing on top of it, and then impasto’d the hell out of a bunch of cadmium reds and yellows and zinc whites until I had a messy, meaty sub-Francis Bacon portrait of the governor’s tear-drenched face completed. I carried the enormous painting from my apartment on Gaulbert Avenue to my school’s art studio on foot. The whole way, cars stopped on the street to honk and people shouted their approval. It felt great, though also quite weird, as I wasn’t sure what, precisely, passers-by were approving so vocally. Presumably they just approved of the bloodsport of the whole thing.
The painting went over well with the art school crowd, and was subsequently forgotten as I forged ahead in my work and began painting series of cigarette butts and coffee stains. It languished in storage until I graduated a few semesters later, in early 2004, where I transferred it the studio I was renting in Butchertown (so named for the nearby hog butchering plants that made the rents in the neighborhood so affordable — at night you could literally hear thousands of pigs screaming as they were sent to their deaths a few blocks away).
It was in Butchertown a fellow visiting the studio saw the painting and decided he had to buy it. Amazingly, Patton had refused to resign, and remained governor until 2003, so the following year, memories of his scandal were still fresh in people’s minds. This fellow, like most Kentuckians, would still immediately recognize the image. He contacted me, expressed his interest in purchasing the piece, and asked for a price.
Besides not learning about fair use, another thing I didn’t learn in undergrad was how to price work. Honestly, the problem with painting as a medium is that you’re stuck with them if you don’t sell them, and 4’x4’ paintings take up a great deal of space. So I was happy to move this one to what seemed to be a good home. I gave him an arbitrary number: $500. Five-hundred dollars in that place and time would have covered my studio rent for almost half a year.
He didn’t blink at the number — it is a fair price, and in fact, a little on the low side, which I believe he knew. The problem was, my patron didn’t have that kind of disposable income. He instead wondered about the possibility of an in-kind trade of some kind. Professional services, perhaps. Labor for art.
My patron was the proprietor of a well-respected tattoo parlor. “Do you like tattoos?” he asked me.
“Uh, sure,” I said.
“Do you have any tattoo work?” he asked.
“Uh, no.” I said.
“Well, tell you what,” he told me. “I would like to offer you $500 worth of tattoo work.”
I knew almost nothing about tattoo art at that time. I did know, however, that $500 worth of tattoo work was an enormous amount. A few hours, at least. I believe that’s a sleeve’s worth. Or if not a whole sleeve, a lot of one.
Of course, I accepted. I was mostly just happy someone was interested enough in my work to offer money, goods or services in exchange for it.
The problem now was I had $500 worth of credit at a tattoo parlor I had no idea what to do with. As I told him, I had no tattoos. I didn’t really ever consider it.
Lots of people had ideas for me. My friend Dave wanted me, my brother, and his brother to get four matching tattoos. This seemed like sort of a good idea, but no one could agree on a design. Dave’s idea was to commemorate the neighborhood we grew up in, but the problem with that was the neighborhood we grew up in was quite boring, and I was less eager to commemorate it the more I thought about it. After all, if my parents didn’t still live there, I’d never have a reason to go back. The idea eventually fell away.
The possibility of $500’s worth of fleur-de-lis tattoos for a whole gang of Louisville friends was also floated. A fleur-de-lis tattoo is de rigeur for any Louisville native worth a damn.
My girlfriend at the time told me she thought I should give the credit to her, since I didn’t apparently need it.
“No way,” I told her.
Our relationship was then in its waning days — she was preparing to take a job in a rural part of an adjacent state, and I had no intentions of following her there (nor, frankly, did she have any intentions of inviting me). We would break up within a few weeks.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because,” I said, “I don’t want you to think of me every time you look at your tattoo.” Listen: I don’t have any tattoos, so I really don’t know how they work, emotionally. I figured whenever you looked at your tattoo, you would reflect on the circumstances through which you came to have it. I figured if she got one using the $500 credit, she would think of me whenever she saw it, and feel sad, or angry, or however it is ex-girlfriends feel when they think about me. That seemed unfair and a little creepy.
She was not happy. “That is absolutely ridiculous,” she told me. A few years later, I came across her blog during one of those late-night regret binges and discovered a post making fun of me for selling a painting for $500 worth of tattoo credit, and then not giving it to her, and then justifying that decision in a manner befitting the hammy, overwrought quality of relationship politics in the South. I still think that’s completely ridiculous, but it’s likely she did have a solid point. She would, after all, have a pretty thorough tattoo now if I’d given her the credit, as opposed to no one having the tattoo.
I sat on the patron’s business card, not knowing quite what to do with it. He’d told me to come in anytime to have the work done, and I think for a while I planned to, though I never figured out what exactly I’d have done. About nine months later, I moved to Minneapolis. The business card is long gone, and though I am sure the offer still stands, I don’t remember the fellow’s name, or what the tattoo parlor was, or where it is, or really any other details.
A good deal of your early thirties is spent coming to terms with the questionable behavior of your early twenties. There are a few lessons here, I believe, I’d be wise to reflect on.
First of all, it’s not right to rip off the work of photojournalists. If I owe anyone an apology, it’s AP photographer Ed Reinke. The fact that I did not profit from his work is merely a byproduct of my own inaction, and certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. If anyone deserves the $500 tattoo credit, it’s him. Unfortunately, Ed Reinke passed away just last month in Louisville following an accident sustained covering a motor race.
Secondly, there’s the tattoo artist, to whom I also probably owe an apology. If he still owns the paintings and has it hanging somewhere and looks at it, he must feel pangs of guilt, knowing he obtained it without compensating the artist. And not even as a result of his own actions! He tried to compensate me! I inadvertently undervalued his work by not taking him up on his offer, which seems almost like a slap in the face. I still am not sure what would have been the best course of action here: should I refused to take compensation, knowing well I’d likely not have use for that amount of tattoo work? Or should I have gotten the tattoo, using the opportunity to do something I might not have otherwise? I don’t know where that painting would be if he’d not come into possession of it. Probably at my parents’ house, in the basement, in that neighborhood I didn’t want immortalized in ink on my forearm.
I wonder what the tattoo artist’s guests make of the painting now: ten years on, the Patton scandal and its subsequent tears are a little-remembered footnote in Kentucky political history. I wonder how many remember the story. I’d only remembered it biking around this weekend, and seeing a plaque on a building commemorating the former governor.
Maybe, all things considered, the girlfriend was right. Perhaps I should have just given her the credit as a gift and let her do as she wanted with it. Perhaps tattoos don’t work that way, emotionally — perhaps at some point the tattoo’s origin is divorced from the tattoo itself. My patron willed a $500 tattoo into existence when he purchased my painting, a tattoo that does not exist anywhere. All would be better, perhaps, if it did exist somewhere. As it stands now, all that remains is a 4’x4’ painting hanging somewhere, the meaty impasto teardrops reminding all who see them of the painful emotional economies of artmaking in the Upper South in the waning days of the Patton administration.
Collected together, for the first time ever, the complete S. 12th “Cool personal essay, bro” anthology: nine rip-roaring, first-person dispatches from the world of emotions written since 2009, dealing at some length with love, family, memory, childhood, major life transitions, and other subjects typically deemed “too hot to handle” by the editor of this blog (generally, he prefers to stick to zany regional minutiae).
Two years ago, I wrote here about “the blackout years”: that brief period in the early ’00s when I didn’t own a camera, and before going out into social situations meant a Magnum Photo Agency’s worth of cameras were going to be documenting every aspect of the evening:
I wonder if this is something that sounds familiar to you if you’re in your late 20s or early 30s. The obsessive need to document every aspect of one’s life doesn’t seem like it was a part of the cultural landscape until the mid-2000s, with the advent of social media and Flickr and Friendster and cellphone cameras. I thought of this kind of constant photographic documentation as something that my parents did, or perhaps something limited to the group of college friends I had that were studying photography and always carrying around Polaroid and Pentax cameras. There are rolls and roll of images from my childhood and teenage years, mostly snapped by my parents. My life since 2004 or so has been documented more than adequately; my Facebook photo page contains well over 100 from the last two years alone. But on my own for the first time after high school, out in the world, unbearded, it’s comparatively sparse. What few there are tend to be Polaroids, art projects roommates were working on, or packets of blurry Walgreens-developed 4x6s.
And, in particular:
I do not have — and this seems shocking, but I’m pretty sure it’s completely true — a single photo of me with any girl I dated through that entire time. Not even my college girlfriend, whom I was with for two years. I have a few lone snapshots of one or two of them, but nothing that would ever indicate we were ever in the same room together. A whole sub-generation of Canadian girlfriends!
Last night on Facebook, I was looking through some photos someone had uploaded from what look like print photos in 2004 of a show at the Phoenix Hill Tavern, back in Louisville. And in three or four in particular, of Nate in a Mexican wrestling mask drunkenly yelling something at disinterested-looking locals, there in the background — me and the college girlfriend in question. And as far as I know, that’s it. There are no other photos of us. I was surprised to find them, hiding there in plain sight. Surprised, and a little touched, oddly. Is is possible that’s all that’s left? I really think it is. Maybe I ought to write her and she if she has any — we’re still sporadically in touch, but I’ve never asked. I just don’t remember there being many cameras around then.
I have been wondering if I had been writing too much about my early 20s lately, a time that was, in many respects, less interesting and rewarding than right now. I feel better now about my life and what I am doing with it right now than I ever have, by far. But I guess it’s so easy to mythologize that time, because unlike now, there’s no electronic paper trail to refer back to. I didn’t have a blog or a journal. I don’t have access to the Yahoo email account I used during that time. There aren’t many photos. The art I made in that era has been dispersed throughout a series of apartments of people I don’t know anymore. Any writing I did was pretty limited to undergraduate academic papers. A couple sketchbooks and some paper archives — but compared to the massive quantity of information there is on my various exploits in the past five or six years, it’s pretty thin. I mean, in many respects, it may as well have been twenty years ago.
All that’s left, really, are stories. So I keep telling them, over and over and over.
About 9:00 p.m. one night, towards the end of one of our recent blizzards, I got sick of being entombed inside my apartment and decided to drudge out into the world. I laced up my knockoff Red Wings and hiked it across the mile of South Minneapolis that separates me from Matt’s Bar, snow still coming down. It took me about half-an-hour.
Matt’s has one of my favorite jukeboxes in the city. It’s nothing spectacular, but it does have Big Star, Otis Redding and It’s A Shame About Ray. It also only plays music when it’s been programmed to do so; no ghostly electronic cycling through the catalog to pass the time between quarters. A dollar buys you three, so more often than not, you’ll hear suites of three songs, then silence again. While I was eating a burger and reading Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate, some other blizzard refugee had programmed a cycle of three songs, ending with “More Than This,” by Roxy Music.
I always remember the first time I heard “More Than This” at Matt’s Bar. I was having dinner with the girlfriend from a few girlfriends ago, a New York-ish East Coast gal I was tentatively trying to persuade to move here, and finding my powers of persuasion hilariously ineffective. The trip was, in retrospect, sort of a disaster, but a disaster that unfolded very slowly. Maybe it only looks like a disaster now in retrospect. Actually, “disaster” is too strong a word — it’s not like anyone got hit by a truck — but a lot of those few days consisted of a slow, steady accumulation of small arguments, petty resentments and pained, silent confusion. Like the jukebox: short three-song suites of enjoyment, punctuated by long bouts of silence.
However, we were having a great time on that night in particular — she really loved the burgers at Matt’s, as anyone with a heart will — and the Roxy Music song coming on over the jukebox sewed it up. We’d been talking about Roxy Music recently, because with certain types of boys and girls, Roxy Music is a great band to talk about when you’re trying to project a certain type of self-aware cool. The song came on, and she sighed contentedly and then asked if she could come sit next to me in the booth. I know that nobody likes walking into a restaurant and seeing two people on a date sitting next to each other, because it’s sort of gross and teenage-y, but secretly, that will do it for me every time. I melted. It was bliss. The whole mess would be over within a few months, but that was certainly one of only a handful of times where being in love felt like being inside a three-minute pop song.
So whenever I hear “More Than This” at Matt’s, I am always vaguely irritated. This time in particular, though, I was more irritated than usual, because it was in the middle of a blizzard, and blizzards will have really strange effect on your emotions. “I see what you’re doing, Universe,” I grumbled, probably poking a french fry into the air. “You’re trying to do the old compare-and-contrast, because I am by myself and sweaty and covered in beardcicles and feeling gross because I hiked a mile over two-feet high mounds of snow on the street corners and because I am sitting all by myself, drinking beer, reading an 800-page biography of Lyndon Johnson, and I probably have french fries in my beard. And I am emphatically not sitting next to a beautiful New York girlfriend who’s a little tipsy and seem, for the time being, to be crazy about me.” I ate the fry, and continued.
“Well, it’s not working and I am not buying it. Because a.) I am feeling just fine right now, thank you very much, not just right now at this moment in particular, because Lyndon and I are having a fine old time, but about, like, my life in general, give or take a couple things, and b.) the specific experience you are referencing was certainly a treasured moment I will also think of with great fondness for years and years to come, but all in all, it was in its entirety a highly dubious experience that it should be pointed out ended not-very-well, and I think Bryan Ferry would absolutely agree with me, because it is more like Bryan Ferry to be sitting somewhere by himself in a bar thinking about love than almost anything else, although he would probably be wearing an eye patch and a pair of epaulettes and not knock-off Red Wings and he would also be drinking something classier than a Grain Belt Premium in what at Matt’s is referred to as a ‘scoop,’ but it’s still a lot closer.”
My words hung in the air for a moment, then the song ended after that synth outro. And there was silence, because it was the last song in the person’s dollar cycle. And I realized I had proved the Universe wrong, and I was right about “More Than This.” Or maybe the Universe wasn’t doing compare-contrast at all, and I had misinterpreted its intentions to begin with.
But the point is, I will never go into Matt’s Bar again and not play “More Than This.” Because on top of all of that, it’s a really great song.
This is a photo of my old 1999 Mercury Tracer station wagon and a UHaul trailer, at a rest stop somewhere on I-64 West in the fall of 2004. It was taken by my then-girlfriend on a Polaroid i-Zone, a toy camera that printed tiny instant 1” x 1.5” photos on pullout strips of metallic paper that were decorated with moons, flowers, cubes and hearts. i-Zone photos also had adhesive backs, so the photos could be stuck to anything. This one was stuck to the dashboard of the Tracer shortly after it was taken, where it remained until MPR hauled it off to tax write-off heaven a few years later.
In 2004, both the girlfriend and I had finished our formal schooling in Kentucky — she with an MLS, me with a BFA — and we’d decided to go our separate ways. She found a job as a librarian in southwestern Indiana that fall, and I’d already decided to move to Minneapolis at some point in the very near future.
My last official act as boyfriend was to help her move from her place in Lexington. We loaded all her possessions up in her Volvo, my Tracer and this trailer, and drove them to Indiana. When we were done, I drove by myself back to Louisville, and suddenly I didn’t have a girlfriend anymore.
A few months later, I rented an identical UHaul trailer, packed it up with all my possessions, and drove it north to Minneapolis. I arrived in the city on February 3, 2005. That was six years ago yesterday. That makes this, what, year seven? This is year seven. Happy anniversary, Minneapolis.
The thing about this photo is I eventually started telling passengers in my car that it was a photo of my Tracer making the trip north to Minneapolis in 2005. It made more sense, because if they knew me, my passengers knew that story already; they didn’t know about the time I helped my girlfriend move a few months earlier, and there was no reason for them to know that story. In terms of calendar accuracy, it was only a few months off. The equipment involved was identical. It may as well have been a photo of the trailer combo that moved me up here. I didn’t take any photos of the trip up — I know it’s weird now, but I didn’t have a reliable digital camera (or even a drug phone camera!) until a few years ago. The whole first half of the ’00s is very poorly documented. Moving here was as major a life decision as I have ever made, and this is as close to a visual record of that experience as I have. Like the line the reporter delivers in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
And this little photo has followed suit in the intervening years by taking on a mythical visual quality without any direct intervention from me. The sun damage from sitting on my dash for years has bleached it out, and the instant obsolescence of the format makes it seem much older than it is. It looks like it could be forty years old. It looks like something your grandparents could have handed down to you. I actually choke up a little when I look at this long enough. I know six years isn’t a long time, but god, it sure seems like it. This isn’t actually a photo of that February day six years ago, but it could be.
langer asked: If I were asked to survey which American cities most occupied my imagination that list would likely begin in New York and end in LA, doing a complete flyover of the country's interior. If pressed I might entertain New Orleans or Chicago, along with San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle--but Minneapolis wouldn't even be in my radar. So I must ask: five years back, while still in Kentucky, what was it that drew you so strongly to Minneapolis, not just to live but to adopt it as your own? Is there a secret mythology of the Twin Cities that has eluded me? Was the 1987 World Series a formative moment in your youth?
This question has been sitting in my draft pile for some time now — I believe Langer submitted it shortly after my fifth Minneapolis anniversary, which was way back in February. (Beloved Minneapolis-based lutrine art outfit Otterly Awesome also posed a similar question around the same time.) I’ve been putting off answering it because I haven’t felt up to addressing it as fully as it deserves to be addressed. However, Langer has been a great pal lately; I emailed him a draft of my 1,500 page historical thriller Monty Fontainebleau and the Tickle Heretics of Richelieu, and he sent it right back with revisions and ten pages of notes. So I owe him a straight answer on this, at least.
Some background: I arrived in Minneapolis in February 2005, but I had made the decision to move away from Louisville to an as-yet-to-be-determined American or Canadian city about a year-and-a-half earlier, in 2003. My original plan was to be gone by the time I turned 25, a mark I ended up missing by about two months. In late 2003, I had one more semester of school left, and was on track to graduate from the University of Louisville with a BFA in painting in May 2004. I was 24 years old, and turning 25 seemed like an enormous deal. It felt like if I was going to make some big change in my life, this was the time to do it.
This is not to say I didn’t find worthwhile things to keep me occupied in Louisville. In the months prior to and following graduation, I was singing in a charmingly ramshackle trash-rock band that later went to the UK to open for Slint. I was sharing a co-operative gallery/studio space with a collective of Howard Finster and Big Daddy Roth acolytes near a pork-rendering plant on the outskirts of downtown — it always smelled like bacon, and at night you could actually hear the hogs screaming as they were slaughtered. I was still working in the same mom-and-pop art supply store that had employed me since I was 19, a place where I learned a battery of skills that have been endlessly useful to me in my own work over the years, such as hand-lettering block type and script, and negotiating with angry, temperamental artists. I had broken up with my girlfriend of a few years, when she’d moved to Indiana to become a young adult librarian after getting her MLS at the University of Kentucky.I was having fun, but I was feeling a little rootless.
All of the things I was doing were interesting to me, but it felt like I’d accomplished most of what I’d wanted to do in my hometown. I had a good reputation; my old roommate Joel Javier and I were voted #2 and #3 visual artists in town by the local alt-weekly about this time, a fact we found endlessly amusing. Katie Beach and I had a pretty well received two-person show at one of the local colleges. It was a fairly productive period. These things all sound very romantic to me now; the hog-rendering plant, the mom-and-pop store, the ramshackle band with tenuous connections to Slint, the Howard Finsterites painting mountain scenes on wooden planks. Isn’t that the sort of life you’d imagine a 23 year old in Louisville, Kentucky to have? Sure it is.
That said, I also felt a lot of anxiety. Louisville is an odd place to grow up. It’s a place where you need really, really deep roots to fit in. People drink at the same bars their fathers drank in, sometimes with their fathers in tow. My Louisville roots are pretty superficial. I never quite felt like it was where I belonged. This could be a family thing; whenever my mom calls me, she still complains about going into restaurants and hearing all the Kentucky accents around her, even though she’s lived in Louisville for almost thirty years. The only one of my siblings that really seems to get it is Brother Danny, who plays bluegrass, talks with a Will Oldham drawl, and lives so close to Churchill Downs that he runs an informal shuttle service with his black-primer East German Volkswagen during the Derby season.
None of this tells you why I chose Minneapolis, though.
In the early ‘00s, and probably still today, the obvious choices for people in my position were Chicago or Portland. You can very easily divide the Louisville ex-pat community into Chicagoans (mostly musicians and artists that followed the Thrill Jockey/Touch and Go train back north), or Portlanders (the Bob Nastonovich/Stephen Malkmus connection may have had something to do with this). I certainly considered Chicago very strongly, but something about it didn’t quite feel right. It seemed too easy. I suppose, after living in Louisville most of my life, and not having done much traveling during college, I wanted a challenge, something closer to what’s usually called a “project.”
I wanted to move somewhere that fit these five criteria:
A million or more people lived there.
It was in that blue part of the country attached to Canada on all of those hot-headed “United States of Canada/Jesusland” diagrams making the rounds after the 2004 election. Or was that 2008? Regardless, after the 2004 election, I remember looking at that large swath of red that covered Kentucky and all the adjacent states, and wanting to get out.
It had a major art institution the majority of knowledgeable people considered important.
It was geographically isolated.
I didn’t know anyone there.
Before 2005, when I actually arrived here, I knew nothing about Minneapolis. Not even the Twins, as Langer suggests – all the teams I followed were in the NL Central. I had never even visited, though I’d known people over the years that had lived there (a prickly MCAD alum I’d worked with at the art store; the ex-girlfriend of an acquaintance who’d studied at Carleton). I had a vague sense that it had a good civic reputation. I don’t remember a single moment where I decided “OK, it’s Minneapolis.” All the other options just slipped away one-by-one – San Francisco seemed too expensive, Austin too lackadaisical, Seattle too granola, Detroit too gritty, New York too intimidating, Toronto and Montreal too complicated – until Minneapolis seemed like the only viable choice left. It was a leftist enclave with a Walker Art Center and a baseball team, located about as close to Canada as you could get without needing dual citizenship. There was no safety net, either: no acquaintances to fall back on for social support, no easy weekend getaways to more familiar regions available. Minneapolis is at least a six-hour drive from anything.
Art, as always, can help us here. This is an excerpt from a short story by a Louisville ex-pat named Mickey Hess, written in 2007 after he came to town for a visit on a book tour. I made him change my last name because in the story, I fall asleep at a bar and accidentally break my toilet.
Andy Schondelmeyer has a moustache that makes him look like he comes from an Old West photograph. He often wears scarves.
I met Andy Schondelmeyer when we both lived in Kentucky, before he moved to Minneapolis for what he called no reason at all.
“Do you have friends there?”
“Is it for school or a job or something?”
I think, secretly, that Andy’s love of scarves is the reason he moved to the colder climate of Minneapolis.
Scarves. That sounds as plausible as anything. Here is the thing about this story: it has nothing to do with why I decided to stay in Minneapolis once I’d arrived. The story of why I remain in Minneapolis is actually a much different, and perhaps much more interesting story. That is the story I try to write about every day (or so) here on S. 12th.
Christina Billotte Week continues with the title track off Slant 6’s first album. It is two years since the breakup of Autoclave, and Christina Billotte is 24. She has dyed her hair platinum blonde, and she has switched from bass to guitar.
And oh my god! What a guitar it is!
There is plenty to say about Christina Billotte’s guitar playing, and we’ll get to it later today. For now, though, enjoy this perfect introduction to Slant 6: the song starts off with a bassline that barely holds together, and then pow! Guitars and drums! An indecipherable girl-groupish call-and-response about ripoffs, Billotte’s voice asking “do you want to be?” all husky-like, and then all of a sudden everyone slams into a totally fucked-up Ventures riff and we’re all singing about soda pops and how they look good to me today, yeah. Repeat once, repeat twice, and it’s all over in a little over two minutes.
I am going to fly way off the handle into Personal Essay Land here, but personal essay feelings and Slant 6 are two things that are totally inseparable to me; if you’re coming along with the Billotte ride, you’re coming along with me, too.
It’s the first song by Slant 6 I ever heard. I remember hearing this song for the first time very clearly, because it was played expressly for me, with a dedication and everything, on 91.9 WFPK-FM radio in Louisville sometime in 1996 or ‘97 by a DJ I was completely in love with.
Veronica del Real was a weather and traffic reporter for the local public radio station in the mid-’90s, and I really liked her voice. I liked her name, too — public radio is full of great names it’s easy to base radio crushes on, obviously, but “Veronica del Real” is a particularly great one. I had no idea if she was saying “Delrio” or “Delriall” or whatever. Such mystery! Such ambiguous ethnicity! The fact that she sounded young, like a college student, was even better.
So I’d listen to Veronica talk about the warm front coming up from the Gulf, or the crash on 65 northbound, and wonder where she might be heading professionally. There were a ton of great DJs in the Louisville of my youth whose work I will always treasure — Woodrow on the Radio, Pat Joseph, Kim Sorise, Cary Willis — but there were some super-boring NPR-y ones, too. One of the worst was this well-meaning liberal that ran a snooze-inducing showcase of the Monsters of Granola on Saturday afternoons. You know what I am talking about — a non-stop hit parade of Lillith Fair notables, each more boring and earnest than the last. Every town in America had a radio DJ like this in the ’90s. So imagine my delight when the news breaks one summer that this DJ gets an offer to go off and become CFO of a hemp farm or something, and the new host in the Saturday 3pm time slot will be…Veronica del Real! My teenage sense of justice was, for once, vindicated!
Veronica moved in immediately, and boy oh boy, did Veronica not disappoint. Ani Difranco was out, and Exene Cervenka, Julie Ruin, Patti Smith and Essential Logic were in. At 3pm on a Saturday, even! Her show drove my dad bonkers. The only problem was that This American Life also ran at 3pm on another station, so I usually taped Veronica’s show and listened to it later. That way, I could write down the names of all the bands I liked, good student of pop history that I strove to be.
So when pledge drive time rolls around, I decide (uncharacteristically for those milquetoast years) to take action. I dress up in my best three-piece houndstooth suit, and wander on down to the radio station to give Veronica my $25 in person during her show, and totally wow her with some awesome personal request. I decide it would be best to ask her to play me the Raincoats: not too obscure or show-offy, but cool enough to make her think, “Whoa, who is this kick-ass teenager in the three-piece suit that’s into responsible public radio pledging habits and the Raincoats?” Andy Sturdevant, that’s who!
My dad drops me off at the radio station on a Saturday afternoon, and I march in with my check and ask to meet Veronica. And it goes well, generally. Veronica is, in person, adorable and warm and a little aloof. As I remember it, she actually seems a little embarrassed at the attention. A little embarrassed, but not at all put out or annoyed. She seems impressed — but not too impressed — at my request choice. She promises to play a Raincoats track for me the next week.
And she does. Not only does Veronica play “Black and White,” the most touching and yearning of all Raincoats songs (“is it love when I don’t know who you are?”), but she also throws in two more I had never even heard of: “Chick Habit,” by April March, and “Soda Pop*Rip Off.” She thinks I’ll like them, she says on the air, and thanks “my mysterious new friend” for stopping by to visit.
April March, the Raincoats and Slant 6. To this day, no woman has ever personally presented me with a more perfect suite of songs. I am not sure that any woman ever will.
I ran out soon after and bought April March’s Paris in April and Slant 6’s Soda Pop*Rip Off. And there you go.
But wait, you’re asking. What happened with you and Veronica? What do you think happened? I was a dumb teenager and she was like 25, and if there was anything I might have done to follow up on this exciting development, I certainly didn’t have the imagination or nerve to figure out what that might have been. Veronica ended up moving to Spain to do humanitarian work, and the hemp farmer moved back to town shortly thereafter and got her old slot back, and it was like none of it had ever happened. I just went back to listening to This American Life at 3pm. And then I guess I went to college. The end!
Of course, despite appearances, something had happened. As much as I love the Raincoats and April March, the Slant 6 track was the one that really stuck with me. So let’s hear it for all the cool, weird, independent women in the world that bring culture and light and knowledge into the lives of screwy teenage dirtbags. Thank you, Veronica, wherever you are.
J.D. Salinger’s books — specifically, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction — were the first books my father ever recommended to me.
I mean that he recommended I read them in the way that an adult recommends a book to another adult. This was a recommendation without conditions or a disclaimer, like “You might like this because you’re a teenager,” or even “I liked this book when I was a teenager.” His willingness to relate an anecdote he found particularly poignant from Raise High the Roof Beam (in this case, the story young Seymour tells on It’s a Wise Child about how wonderful it’d be if all houses were the same, and how anyone would be able to walk interchangeably into any house, into any family) was proof of one kind or another that I had passed onto a certain stage in my development. I had become a person he could talk to about things that were important. I was probably 17 or so.
I think it’s hard to overstate how important the Glass family became in the way I thought about families, and about siblings specifically. I also grew up in a large family; not as large as the Glasses, but with four siblings stretched over a decade. Certainly we weren’t child geniuses, and the suburbs of Louisville weren’t the Upper East Side. But something in the stories seemed familiar. I always found the shifts in the alliances and relationships between the siblings the most interesting — how Fanny regarded the eldest Seymour, how Buddy writes about Seymour, how the twins, the tragic Walt and the mysterious Waker, interacted, how sister Boo Boo fit in, how mother Bessie tells Zooey he’s becoming “more like Buddy.”
Siblings would drift in and out of the narratives. Even when some of them are absent — obviously Seymour, being dead and all, but also in smaller ways, like in the way Buddy moves through Boo Boo’s empty apartment in Raise High, describing the “any number of little untidy signs” that she was occupying it — they’re still always present. So it is with siblings. You can’t get away from them. Even when they’re far-off, in occupied Japan or a naval base in Brooklyn or a conscientious objectors’ camp in Maryland or the Yale-Princeton game or wherever the various narratives take place, there are still even physical reminders everywhere, notes, poems, whatever. Your siblings are the standard upon which you’re measured by the rest of the world, for better or for worse; the way you were all raised becomes the common denominator in all of your interactions (Franny’s outburst at the end of Zooey is particularly poignant for this reason; she yells at Bessie that Zooey keeps saying she and Seymour raised them all in a way that “made freaks out of us!” before Zooey calls her for the famous final conversation in the book). There’s always a uniformity in the way the family is discussed; “no one in my family has ever dated a letter,” Buddy writes confidently. That’s the way Glasses are. All of them.
That’s the way Sturdevants are, I often think, in similar situations.
The Glass siblings feel more real to me than perhaps any other characters in fiction. Salinger imbued them with a depth and a complexity that I will always keep with me. Me, and Nate, and Brother Danny, and Lydia. It will always be the four of us. I imagine the Glasses as being as real as the four of us; Seymour (if he’d lived) and Buddy would likely not be alive now if they’d been real people, as both were born in the late ’10s. Even young Franny would be 75 years old. But the complexity of those relationships remains as close to me as ever, in those three books I first read ten years ago, and my own dad twenty years before that. It’s imprinted itself permanently on the way I think about life. That is the best gift a writer can give you. Rest in peace, J.D. Salinger.
Oh boy, reader, it’s Mailbag Week at S. 12th! This is just a weak way of saying that this is going to be the week I will answer questions from you and people like you. It won’t be fun, but let’s just hunker down and get through this together as best we can.
This anonymous reader asks whereabouts in Louisville I’m from. I am now in the unenviable position of having to disabuse you of a lot of your romantic notions about my glorious Southern boyhood.
I grew up in a small third-class city called Barbourmeade, in the East End of Louisville, fifteen miles outside downtown. Specifically, for those of you that know the area, somewhere very near Goose Creek Road and Brownsboro Road.
This is a difficult question, and one I struggle with often, this question of where I’m “from.” It’s hard to be “from” the East End of Louisville. There’s not much there to be from. Most of what’s known as the East End now was cow pastures twenty years ago. I have no idea who lived there then, or if any of those people are still around. There were some hippies, I know — a country-ish group from the area called the Goose Creek Symphony had a minor hit in 1970 with a freewheeling cover of “Mercedes Benz.”
But there were no country-ish hippie fiddle bands in the Goose Creek of my youth. The East End is a sprawling, rootless, featureless part of the world — utterly unwalkable, almost completely lacking in any notable architectural features, and largely charmless. I could not write a book entitled Andy Sturdevant’s Guide to the Hidden Literary Mysteries of the East End with a Foreword by Wendell Berry and Companion CD with Music Composed by Palace Brothers, because there aren’t really many hidden literary mysteries to write about.
There are these:
I could show you where the Hungry Pelican restaurant used to be on Goose Creek Road near Westport, and whose fried fish I still dream about.
I could show you where Blue Moon Records used to be in Holiday Manor, where I bought a copy of the Robert Johnson box set to impress the owner, an archetypal hardcore-musician-turned-bluegrass-musician named Mike Bucayu.
I could show you Jimbo and Dave’s mom’s house, a couple of blocks away, whose basement we all learned to play Kinks covers on cheap instruments through high school.
I could direct you to the stretch of road where a Satanic Goat Man or possibly Satanic Goat Men were reputed to kill joyriding Ballard High School students of the 1980s in their cars.
And not much beyond that.
My parents moved to the East End because they got a good deal on a fixer-upper 1960s house with a backyard when I was in elementary school. They have no roots in the neighborhood, and neither do I. They’re from Cincinnati, where their families were from, and where my father in particular grew up in a noisy, multigenerational urban household. When I go back to their old neighborhoods with them, they’re full of stories about those places.
I think that there was a very self-contained Sturdevant monoculture within the house I grew up in, where we did what we wanted and read books and learned to play drums and whatever else, but it was not connected to the larger outside world. I wouldn’t say I’m rooted in the area I grew up in. There’s not much to be rooted to. I really could have grown up anywhere.
When I stay with my parents when I’m in town, and Nate comes over, the only thing we can walk to is the liquor store, and we buy 40s and hang out in the playground by the school, like degenerate teenagers, because it’s the only semi-public place you can walk to.
The Louisville I know, the place I am from and that I often talk about here is the one I arrived in when I started college. Like most other suburban kids in my position, I moved to the Highlands as soon as I was 18, and then on to Crescent Hill and Old Louisville, neighborhoods I lived in until I was 25 and moved to Minneapolis. I could take you on a wild, free-wheeling tour of the Highlands and Crescent Hill of those years, and show you the Birchwood Palace, the old BRYCC House, the record store that Craig bought with the money he supposedly received in an out-of-court settlement with the police when they ran over him with a cruiser, the best places to buy burgers, records and cans of Sterling, the old arcade where I saw Mickey Hess read for the first time, the apartment where I wrote PIZZA MAN COME ON UP in pencil on the back door because I ordered so much pizza, the doorbell didn’t work and no one had cell phones then (it’s still written on the door). Those things have more to do with who I am now than anything else.
Nate lives now in the St. Joseph neighborhood, near the University, and I stay with him when I’m in town when I can. It feels like a place someone could be from; we’ll walk down to Nord’s Bakery, buy doughnuts, then head down to the Catholic cemetery and try to find Victor Mature’s grave, and then have a drink at the Zanzabar. He could tell you all about the history of the place. What do I have about Barbourmeade? A vague anecdote about the Goose Creek Orchestra and the Goat Man or Goat Men.
The first in what may be a series of highlights from the past ten years.
“This blog doesn’t strike me as very interesting when I write about anything other than rock music.”
So writes your correspondent in his blog, as a 21-year old in the year 2001. For your safety, I am not linking to the blog in question, but I do love and cherish that quote. Ha! Can you imagine if S. 12th was only about rock music? You’d be checking out of here so fast…
The much-vaunted Sturdevant Taste in Music, once the toast of Louisville, has grown so creaky and desicated in the past ten years I don’t even know where to begin addressing it. I blame Sleater-Kinney’s decision to break up in 2006 or whenever that was. Everything that’s happened since has seemed perfunctory, which is the kind of thing my dad says about everything that happened after the Allman Brothers, but there you have it anyway. Bands like Grizzly Bear? Gross. I feel like enjoying rock music created by four young white men from New York City is virtually a criminal act. Things like Lady Gaga just remind me of that old anecdote about Rock Hudson storming out of a screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, stomping down the center aisle of Mann’s Chinese Theater shouting “Will someone please tell me what the hell this is all about?”
I am in the Rock Hudson role, if you didn’t catch that.
Anyway, whatever creakiness and desication that has occurred in me is probably my own fault for being a tasteless jerk — it’s not rock music’s fault. Rock music is doing what it’s always done. I feel sometimes like Lester Bangs in his later years, when he was sneering in print at awesome bands like the Gun Club and the Fall, and I’d shake my head in pity and think, “Oh, Lester, no, it’s a golden age!” Undoubtedly it was, and undoubtedly it’s someone’s golden age right now; it’s just not my party anymore. Does that sound condescending? I don’t mind. It is the role of cranks to condescend to the kids, and the role of the kids to shun and mock the cranks. That’s the natural order of things, and I’m kind of excited to be a part of the great cycle.
Of course, it was not always this way!
When I think back to all the rock music reviews I have read in the past ten years — on Pitchfork, in Magnet and Spin and Wire and Mojo and the NME, on Addicted to Noise (that was within the last ten years, right?), in Rolling Stone (ha!) and the All-Music Guide and the New York Times and, uh, Ptolemaic Terrascope, in zines and blogs and on Tumblr and wherever else people wrote about music, there is one review that stands out above all others. It’s a review that appeared on a website I read vociferously in the early ’00s called NEUMU.net that seems to have ceased operation in 2006 or so (right about when I did, as noted above). It’s a review by one Jenny Tatone of the Strokes’ first album. It’s a rave.
Well, I don’t about you, but it sounds exactly like me at that time. I could have written that myself, except I wasn’t a very good writer in 2001. (As opposed to the unstoppable force of literary excellence that I am today.)
I don’t write much about myself here, not in any truly revealing feelings-oriented sort of way, because I’ve never felt comfortable doing that in this format. But that’s one thing about good music writing that’s worthwhile, especially online or in zines and away from editorial oversight; it makes it very easy to talk about how you feel using the simplified critical language of music as a conduit — or at least a placeholder — for your own feelings. Granted, the feelings may not be profound, but sometimes they are. Or they’re profound enough. After all, it’s all based on just a 4/4 beat with a three-chord guitar figure. It doesn’t need to be that complex.
I really liked the Strokes. I guess I still do, generally, although I feel now that their relative success robbed us of something more interesting. It seems like before them, the sort of guitar-based music I loved was the exclusive province of weirdos, art students, librarians who loved the Smiths and foreign bands whose English lyrics always came out sounding mistranslated; dice-rollers, lesbians, misfits, obsessive loners, radical theorists, people that owned 5,000 vinyl records; Eric Carmen fanatics with bad breath, mod revivalists, deconstructionists with a good sense of humor, aging Gen-Xers that still wore Dinosaur Jr. t-shirts, and beautiful, frosty girls that learned to play bass three months before their first public performance. This is the rock music world I remember coming into at the end of the 1990s, when everyone in the straight world seemed more interested in dance music and ska and rap-rock and whatever else your roommate in 1999 enjoyed listening to on the kitchen stereo. The Strokes, of course, were not weirdos or misfits or mouthbreathers; they were Manhattanites and rich and good-looking and seemed to carry about them that sense of “stand back, kids, amateur hour is over — time for the mens to step in.” It was that implicit critical stance that real rock music is only created by nice college-educated white boys, and I should’ve hated them for that. But I didn’t. I loved them. I listened to that damned record every day for six months.
Ten years later, Disney teen idols make records that sound like the Strokes. I think mouthbreathers and lesbians and dice-rollers make dance music and rap-rock now. Don’t they? If Das Racist had written “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” ten years ago, it would have sounded like the MC5.
The reason why I liked Is This It so much is very much along the same lines as Tatone’s: because it expressed embarrassing post-adolescent longings perfectly, and it sounded like a bubblegum version of Television. That is a pretty powerful cocktail, and the sort of thing that, if it grabs you at the right time doesn’t let go.
I tracked down Jenny Tatone this weekend and emailed her to tell her I appreciated her review. I also sent her a certificate with Old English writing on it expressing my gratitude for her review. I think she was a little weirded out, and I probably shouldn’t do things like send certificates with laudatory Old English writing on them to people I have never met, but she seemed touched. “I was feeling a lot of those early twenties angsty feelings, obviously,” she said. Well, of course, but it was 2001, and you were in your early 20s and life seemed weird and scary and exciting; who wasn’t like that? That was the point all along.