Introducing the Thin Man: The Man Under the Bridge

Everything’s thin. The Wire


We open onto a large office in what looks to be Moscow.  It could be anywhere in the East however, anywhere from Petersburg to Potsdam.  The office appears busy; clerks filing, apprentices bustling, managers shouting instructions and reprimands that go generally unheard, not out of rebellion, nor compromised auditory canals, but rather because the generalized cacophony of the office space is such that the collective action set cannot but unfold without coordination or direction.

The office is draughty and usually cold, although an occasional over-active heat pipe burbles out a bit of local warmth for certain fortunate corners.  The walls are covered from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets; the major task of the office is simply to inspect, stamp, classify, and file an endless stream of nominally related documents.  It is mid-fall, nearly harvest season.  Summer’s bounty this year has been acceptable, and the local populace will have food for the holidays.  Inside, however, the mood is one of permanent resignation to circumstance.

Scene One: Morning

You found me on the other side of a loser’s winning streak/ where my thoughts all wander further than they should


The office’s hierarchy is complex, following rules of its own.  Those at the bottom of the ladder are blissfully unseen and operate without oversight or sanction unless transgressing in a manner so egregious that the neighbours become involved.  Those in the middle-lower classes are a little more visible; their seating, for instance, is of great importance.  Members of this class are ever being told that their stool has been moved to another section of the office.  Reason is neither given nor sought.  Transience is the way of the world, and is widely accepted.

The scene opens in the morning, just after the workers arrive.  At a large oak table, two members of this class sit, within mere inches of one another.  One of these is a thin man–the other, a Teutonic Knight.  Both have piles of papers left over from the day before in their work spaces, spaces delineated by a crack in the oak.  One of the papers from the thin man’s zone has shifted by a fraction of an inch overnight, whether on account of the draft or the vagaries of the cleaning staff is unknown.

The Teutonic Knight turns to face the thin man.

“I think you forgot something in my space,” he says.

“I didn’t forget anything in your space,” replies the thin man, “if you are referring to this piece of paper, it has shifted marginally and is abutting the crack which separates my zone from yours.”

“You have forgotten something,” insists the Knight.  “Take it away.”

The thin man sighs and removes the paper.  Good money after bad, he thinks to himself, applying a concept from the card tables, tables which he has, perhaps, been frequenting a little more often than he might want to admit.  The Knight knows nothing of the gambler’s demi-monde, spending his evenings as he does in endless rows over minor matters with one of the succession of women he sees.  And the thin man, well he has at least managed to stay out of the clutches of the worst money-lenders and knee-cappers in the city thus far.  His taste, in the last analysis, may run more to the risque than to risk per se.  In any case, the skirmish over, the knight withdraws from the field of battle, content in his triumph.  The thin man looks at the clock.  These days, everything seems to take all morning.

Scene Two: A Few Days Later

Well I was drinkin’ last night with a biker/ and I showed him a picture of you/ I said “Pal get to know her, you’ll like her”/ seemed like the least I could do

The Dead

The office has a kind of canteen, an open space where weak tea and the occasional edible biscuit have been reported. Here lives another man, a man from the south. His status with the company is ambiguous–a matter of no little gossip. Tales are told of whirlwind romances, payments under the table, mutually compromising material. No one really knows. This southerner spends his days reading and drinking tea in a most relaxed fashion. Good work if you can get it, muses the thin man. The thin man and the southerner are allies of the kind that sometimes arise during wartime conditions. The details of his ally’s dalliances and contractual complexities are only of a general interest to the thin man, who is however curious what value the southerner is seen to be providing to the company. Literacy is good and all, but the filing by god, the filing waits for no man.

Sometime that fall, the southerner pulls the thin man aside, for a talk. His manner is furtive, his words oblique. The thin man’s time with the company is limited, he whispers. His number is up. Time to hit the bricks, pal.

The thin man takes this news in stride. The tables beckon and he’s met a woman, a lady of the evening, perhaps, yet classy–demure, yet perfectly capable of looking after her own interests. He has only seen her a few times, true, yet there are possibilities. Of course being sans salary is not likely to widen that particular possibility set. So when the southerner leans in and whispers low, the thin man listens close.

“There is a man, a man you may meet,” says the southerner. “You must not ever tell anyone I told you this. The man will be under a bridge on a high holiday. There will be revelry. He may make you an offer.”

Gambling man he may be, but the thin man is confused.

“What should I do?”

“Stay alert. Pay attention. I can say no more.”

Easy to say, harder to execute, thinks the thin man. Alert for what? A man under a bridge is easy enough to spot, however the southerner seemed to be referring to another matter, an occasion where attention would be needed to carry the day. The thin man files the conversation away, and resolves to stay open to a situation that appears to have elements of fluidity.  It seems like the least he can do.

Scene Three: A Few Weeks Later

In bar light/ she looked alright/ in day light/ she looked desperate

Hold Steady

The thin man waited out the fall, his gambling limited to the occasional dice game at the Metropole. The southerner’s sage advice, if not quite forgotten, had faded into the general background of the holiday season. The city filled with lights and good cheer, and the denizens of the office slipped into a gentle numbness even more pronounced than usual. The demure lass was deft enough to dangle enough hints and intimations to keep the thin man hooked. You get what you get, he mused, when were it ever otherwise?  A couple of hot streaks at the tables allowed him to further postpone thoughts of the future. He would buy a round or two for a barfly girl he knew–at least she was around. Eggnog, that was her tipple.

One day a upper-middle manager summoned the thin man into a meeting. Called him by name no less. The meeting started crisply.

“Thin man, as you know you number is up here at the company.”

Hit the bricks, pal.

“As a result, we won’t be renewing your employment next year.”

Uh huh…ok, eggnog time then.

“I want you to understand that you won’t be employed by the company next year.”

What was that? “Stay alert,” so said the southerner.

“You won’t be offered a contract with the company. Do you understand?”

Unnecessarily repetitive. Information is being underlined. Pay attention.

“I understand perfectly,” said the thin man. And he thought that he did.

Scene IV: The Next Day

It was in Pittsburgh, late one night/ lost my hat, got into a fight/ I rolled and I tumbled, ’til I saw the light/ went to the Big Apple, took a bite


After receiving the news of his impending termination, the thin man felt he had relatively little to lose.  He spent the next day in the canteen talking with the southerner.  The Tutonic Knight still reigned supreme over the crack in the oak; there was no there there in any case.  The southerner read philosophy, remained on the payroll.

“I’m attending a holiday party,” said the southerner.  “It will be this Saturday.  Under a bridge in the dead center of town.”


“There will be a man there.  If you decide to come to the party, meet me on the street just above the bridge.  I will act as if our meeting was coincidence.  Then, I will take you to the man under the bridge.  He is waiting to meet you.”

The thin man had but one true weakness, a byproduct, perhaps, of over-indulgence in games of chance.  His weakness, he knew, was for the unexpected.  For the unplanned. For, essentially, the random.

“Sure.  What time Saturday.”


Military time.

“OK.  I will present myself on the street as instructed,” said the thin man.

Scene V: Saturday

I said hey Senorita that’s astute/ why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute

Paul Simon

On Saturday, the thin man arrived on time as promised.  The southerner materialized on the street just then.

“Ah, thin man, what an amazing coincidence.  I was just heading down under this here bridge to see a man about a mule.  Perhaps you would like to join me.  He may have an extra one for sale.”

“A mule might help me get out of town in a hurry,” said the thin man.  “Let’s see what’s happening.”

Under an inky moon the two men descended, passing through waves of people, men and women, reveling in the moonlight and watching the circus.  It was cake they ate, cake it was.  The density of erotic micro-transactions formed an exact square to the paucity of actual action.  Such was the slightly unkind thought that ran through the head of the thin man as he navigated the pretty party people.  In any case, the locus of action was ever in motion.

They pushed on, through the crowd, and reached the lowest point of the city.  Here, a man with a coat of many colors stood, in pointed shoes and a tricorne.  The host with the most, he held court to a motley crew of the pockmarked and the lame–the beautiful people of our fair city.

“This is a thin man,” said the southerner to the tricorne.

The man with the tricorne folded the thin man into a close embrace.  “You will be my new best friend,” said he.

“Naturally,” said the thin man.  “I think we will be very good friends indeed.”

“Now,” said the tricorne, “I have a little talent business, providing the right kind of people to the company.  You are my new best friend.  I will provide you to the company.  As talent.  That I found.”

“Of course you will,” said the thin man.  “Wither the eggnog, si vous plais?”

Dedication: For the southern man. Thanks for putting up with my nonsense over all these years.

On Some Airports

I spend too much time in airplanes

Eating peanuts and getting high.

Dean Wareham

Generally speaking, airports are more pleasant than airplanes. I don’t mind airports. And despite my once upon a time claim that all airports are essentially the same space, well, that’s more of a metaphysical than a practical contention. Practically speaking the experience of airports does differ. What follows is a totally unsystematic, entirely anecdotal, non-ranking of some airports I’ve been to.

U.S. Airports:

LaGuardia (LGA) in New York is actually a pleasant surprise. Clean, minimal but sufficient food options, phone chargers in the seats, proximal to Manhattan. The folks at the coffee stand messed up like 15 orders in a row, but that’s OK. I forgive them.

Verdict: LGA is fine.

Newark Airport (EWR), on the other hand, is terrible. If I had the choice of sleeping in an outhouse or spending a day at EWR, I’d take EWR. But not by much. It’s a pit.

Verdict: EWR is terrible.

Seattle Airport (SEA) is poorly run. There’s been news about it. Compared to Portland (PDX), and admittedly smaller airport that is solid, or even San Francisco (SFO), an operation of greater complexity, SEA struggles. Maybe they’ve turned things around, but I doubt it.

Verdict: SEA sucks. PDX is solid. SFO is decent but could be cleaner.

The best experience I’ve had at a U.S. airport is Tampa (TPA). Now this is not a major hub, however I found it super convenient. I stayed in a hotel right in the terminal, security was a breeze, everything was efficient and sound. When folks say that U.S. airports suck, relatively speaking they are correct. Omit TPA from the list though. I like it.

Verdict: TPA is excellent.

O’Hare International Airport (ORD) in Chicago exemplifies the fall of the U.S. Basically. It’s not BAD, it’s just faded. Faded glory. U.S. public infrastructure is weak and everyone knows it. ORD is a case in point, but it’s survivable.

Verdict: ORD is OK.

The Los Angeles Airport (LAX) was under construction for like two decades. It’s probably still under construction. LAX is far from everything. It is not a destination airport, although it is major.

Verdict: LAX is f***ing far.

Airports Outside the U.S.:

Let’s get out of Milwaukee and we’ll talk about it.

Michael Clayton

The Singapore Airport (SIN) is everything it is cracked up to be. Singaporeans have a great deal of pride in their airport, but it’s totally justified. I find SIN tranquil in the extreme. They’ve got butterflies. The’ve got Indian food. They’ve got a great attached hotel. They’ve got nap rooms, showers, a gym. Security is omnipresent and unfelt. Sure you can call Singapore a soft-authoritarian state if you like. I could care.

Verdict: SIN is the best.

The Bangkok Airport (DMK), on the other hand, is not pleasant. Sinage is bad. Information is thin. Food options are minimal. It’s simultaneously packed and cavernous. I have not enjoyed my time here.

Verdict: DMK is bad.

The Dubai Airport (DXB) is strange. It’s a serious hub and runs 24/7 (as does DMK). Unlike DMK however, DXB has ample food and drink options and is pretty comfortable. The customs staff moves at their own pace, to say the least. The dichotomy between an (apparently) efficient and gleaming modern airport and a snail’s pace customs experience is interesting. DXB is lit and feels kind of like a casino in the sense that 3:30 AM feels like mid-afternoon. I have found DXB to be disconcerting in this respect, but otherwise perfectly pleasant.

Verdict: DXB is big and better than most.

Osaka’s Kansai International Airport (KIX) is decent before security and weak after. My buddy Doug loathes the neon lighting of the airport–this bothers me less. My issue is the food options after security leave a lot to be desired. Since this is my home airport, I am not in a position to give an objective reading. Security lines can get super long during peak hours, but usually it’s fine.

Verdict: KIX is so-so.

Osaka’s Itami Airport (ITM) has recently had a facelift. It’s marginally improved. Just because you have a Wolfgang Puck’s pizza place doesn’t mean you’ve got it made, baby. Wolfgang Puck is f***ing overrated. Also, you almost have to take a bus to get anywhere from ITM. Buses sucks.

Verdict: ITM is fair at best.

I’ve been to the airport in Kuala Lumpur (KUL) several times but I forget everything about it.

Verdict: KUL is unmemorable.

The Shanghai Pudong Airport (PVG) has super high ceilings. Obviously a lot of money has gone into it. There is a super long train ride from customs to the gates. And, you are most likely to get delayed or re-routed because of weather or something. The airport itself is fine.

Verdict: Prepare to be delayed from PVG.

The Adelaide Airport (ADL) is in Adelaide, Australia. I went there once. The restaurants in my hotel were closed because it was a Sunday. There was nowhere to eat in the whole city and only stoner kids were on the street. The next morning the streets were packed. Adelaide is super strange. I have no idea what the airport was like.

Verdict: Pack a lunch.

That’s all the airports I have off the top of my head. Obviously there are more. If you agree or disagree or want to pitch an airport for my consideration, please leave a comment!

On Staying in Business Hotels (Featuring a Little 9-ball)

Note: This piece has gone through several iterations over time, and concerns the experience of staying at business hotels. I have stayed in a number of such hotels over the years and engaged deeply with the room-space in each case. At this point, I am prepared to say that I am “good at” staying in hotels (an absurd claim that I advance nonetheless), and feel authorized to advance some notes toward a general hotel theory. Facility as a hotel guest though not exactly a marketable skill, has yielded some insights about the general, perhaps archetypal, nature of the modern hotel stay. Despite at this point considerable experience in the field, I continue to find the hotel experience at once comforting and bizarre, and hotel rooms, when properly apportioned, womb-like and exercising a specific and fascinating gravity. Also, the first draft of this piece was completed when Larry King was still alive.

Part I:

The TV was turned to CNN, which was focused on violence somewhere. I could not tell where. The experts in their suits and hairsprayed hair presented the conflict as if conflict was inevitable. They agreed it was happening now and could be prevented, but at the same time at the conclusion of the piece they smiled politely and signed off as if the violence was also occurring in a land so distant it might as well be the past.

Emily Maloney

I have stayed in quite a number of business hotels, in quite a number of countries. This piece provides, in essence, a sort of “psychograph” of the business hotel experience. Three features of business hotels that we may want to consider are: i) like airports, all business hotels share a single ethos, an un-pindownable character that feels, wherever one happens to be geographically speaking, of a piece; ii) the effect of the television offerings, in particular CNN International, on the business traveler, is one of overwhelming relaxation, bordering on complacency and even numbness; iii) as a corollary to i), it is far easier to enumerate how business hotels resemble one another than to lay out any salient differences.

Oddly, minor local variations only seem to further reinforce a central sameness. Checking into an 11th floor room at a classic example of the species, for instance the Numzau Tokyu Hotel, half an hour south of Tokyo, Japan, one is affected at once by that strangely pleasant fugue state, a state of mind almost exactly halfway between bliss and malaise, attendant on “business” hotels. Once inside a business hotel, especially those neither top-of-the-line nor quite down-and-out, one is confronted with a kind of disembodied space which seems at once connected to a global network of similar hotels (accomplished in part through the simultaneously soothing and hypnotizing effect of CNN International) and disconnected from the local environment. The traveler is sucked into global weirdness through a combination of the flat, post-political window of CNN, the persistent low hum of the air conditioner, and the anodyne staleness, almost spartan, quality of the decor.

Oddly, any “artwork” or decorative flourishes that a hotel room may possess only serves to further a sense of featurelessness; the art in question being almost exclusively of the most banal nature–bland seascapes, abstracts denuded of all edge or verve, and those odd non-paintings that, try as you might, you forget the second you exit your room. One has to remind oneself that a business trip means that there is work to be done–the TV, the slight high resulting from contact with the bowing attendants, the men in black, and the blushing young lady who carries your bag, the knowledge that your company is footing the bill–all this lulls you into a kind of sleep of the spirit.

Turning on the TV, you feel that you could spend years, lifetimes even, staring at CNN’s Larry King (the long-dessicated one), the post-racial female anchors who bring that special Code 46 feel of the non-overt future, or the exquisitely paralyzing “World Weather,” before awakening in another age, the Rip Van Winkle of the travel world. When CNN finally wears out its welcome, one’s choices of pay channels open up the fascinating worlds of…golf (the Golf Channel), silicone starlets (the Playboy Channel), intimate acts in close-up (the “adult channel”), and, most fittingly, drama set in outer space (the Battlstar Galatica channel). This profile of options, golf, softcore, hardcore, and outer space, the result, presumably, of reams of data on the tastes of business travelers like me, the mobile working male, I want to find depressing, but the menu has something beautifully efficient about it. Not wanting to get sucked into the anesthesizing vortex of any of these choices, I have to force myself to rise from the supine contemplation of the only-vaguely Chinese news anchor and move on with the day.

My senses are momentarily quickened by a report of an attack on a hotel in Pakistan: a horrific assault which has taken place at a Marriott in Islamabad. Oddly, the reality of this event quickly fades, and what Richard Todd calls the “non-ness” of the Marriott up the road strangely becomes the non-ness of violence–the attack in Islamabad conveys, through the lens of the CNN International, not exactly shock, but a continuing and deepening sense of global weirdness only slightly tinged by fear resting on the realization that as a business traveler in exactly this kind of hotel, I am the target. Oddly, this realization is not as disturbing as it ought to be: my fugue state is such that I am more in, more of, Islamabad than Numazu, but not wholly there either. Instead, I am poised somewhere between Islamabad and Battlestar Galactica, cavorting with post-racial android news anchors who bring me news of a planet this 11th floor, air-conditioned bubble of a non-space has left far behind.

Part II:

A hotel room is a prison that changes from town to town/ a bed four walls and a window a clean and scratchy towel/ a hotel room is a prison that always waits for me/ a prison with a wake-up call and an in-house laundry.

Mark Sandman

In part II of this essay will we delve a little deeper into the business hotel experience using as a lens “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.” Ballard probably needs no introduction, but for those who have yet to fall until his influence, he is the author of “Empire of the Sun” and “Crash” who wrote dozens of fantastic semi-Sci Fi short stories in the late 1950s and through the 1960s including “Prima Belladonna,” Thirteen to Centaurus,” and “The Terminal Beach.” Ballard novels, in my opinion, are not as uniformly satisfying as his short stories; at novel length his “obsessions,” beach resorts, empty swimming pools, gated communities, plastic surgery, car crashes, the interplay of sexuality and technology, tend to wear a little thin.

In “Conversations,” Ballard offers the following defense of his insularity and thematic repetition: “I think the values of bourgeois society by and large have triumphed. We’re living in a world where people at the age of 22 and 23 are thinking about their mortgages. It is a fact, and there’s nothing much on can do about it, except cultivate one’s obsessions and one’s own imagination” (144), but this approach works better in his short stories (which Ballard has not written for nearly two decades now), where his limited set of concerns are reflected and replayed through a panoply of settings and situations such that he resembles a virtuoso musician building off of certain stable base elements to create endless riffs and improvisations.

As a boy, Ballard was, famously, incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, and this formative experience informs both his autobiographical “Empire of the Sun” and his short stories. But instead of literal prisons with externally imposed walls and limitations, Ballard’s characters seem over and over again to be immured within prisons of their own creation. Story after story features some variation on one of two related themes; scientists careening off on private quests that eventually destroy them or people seemingly sequestered or restrained who turn out to be acting in psychic complicity with their imprisonment. Ballard himself admits to the centrality of the prison experience in “Conversations” when Mark Pauline asks him “Writing Empire of the Sun hasn’t helped you forget those horrible years in the camp” and Ballard responds “But I’ve been writing about it all the time–I just wrote about it in disguise” (138).

“J.G. Ballard: Conversations” was overseen by one V. Vale, who, to all appearances, is a full-fledged Ballard maniac, and contains a number of Vale’s telephone conversations with Ballard and other Ballardians including the composer Graeme Revell and Ballard archivist, David Pringle. Ballard has a lot to say about that particular semi-reality fugue state described in my earlier post. As noted above, Ballard has a special fascination with self-imposed psychic incarceration: “I have a nightmare vision of a gated community of extremely expensive houses inside a larger gated community. It’s bizarre” (72). Ballard is also concerned with the dual themes of self-immurement and the mind-meld that occurs between the individual and their media systems. These two themes may not seem to be obviously related, but after reading 300 pages of Ballard on the telephone, all of his particular obsessions do seem intertwined, and connect with my experience of staying in business hotels. Take for example Ballard on why Surrealism no longer obtains:

“Classical surrealism, beginning after the First World War, made a very clear distinction between the outer world of reality {…} and the inner world of imagination {…} But after the Second World War, particularly as the media landscape developed enormously–thanks to television, mass advertising and the whole consumer goods landscape–the distinction between our reality and inner fantasy began to break down {…} This means that it’s very difficult to maintain the dichotomy, that contrast that the Surrealists required {…} As I’ve said before, in the last 20 years if you stop somebody in the street and ask the time, you might look at a watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial {…} It cuts the ground from under classical Surrealism” (166).

When viewing CNN International at a business hotel, I realize, pace Ballard, that the world as reflected does have aspects of the surreal, especially in the consummately inoffensive manner in which it presents horrific international incidents interlaced with “the exquisitely paralyzing World Weather” and 9-ball tournaments from Bangkok replayed several times a day. This approach effectively colonizes my own imagination by rendering the unthreatening creepy and and the unbearable passe.

The oddest thing about CNN International is that the news itself is actually not all that bad. Real news about real, important, global events, comes across the airwaves, but it gets somehow stripped on much of its impact through the presentation. Ballard in 1991: “We get the Newzak all the time. It’s been homogenized, trivialized, and there’s too much filler added to smooth it down so that it comes out like paste from a tube” (178). It’s not that the news isn’t there, it’s just that, pace Ballard, there is no room for either surrealism or real impact. Ballard explains that the Dali/ Bunuel films (Un chien andalou and L’ Âge d’or), so shocking at the time, would not work today: “The sight of people dragging dead donkeys through a dining room would {seem to be} some sort of advertising stunt–a beer commercial” (166). Here is David Pringle on why Ballard is not a Marxist:

“Ballard, being a good Freudian, is much more interested in the individual’s–yours and mine–collusion with what’s going on, our secret wishes, that in the idea of conspiracy–that there are conspiratorial entities out there trying to ‘get us’ {…} Ballard asks, ‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?'” (226).

Ballard also writes “I accept the Surrealist formula: the need to place the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible, to remake the world around us by the power of one’s imagination, which after all is all we’ve got. I mean, the central nervous system is faced with a world of Mariott hotels and ex-actors turned world leaders, dangerous medicines and you name it. The individual central nervous system can only attempt to make sense of this” (276).

Eventually, if she has even the slightest modicum of self-awareness, the business traveler comes face to face with Ballard’s question: “‘What are you out to do to yourself? What are you own darkest wishes? What are we all doing to ourselves collectively?’ This is because the enervating lassitudinal comfort of your standard Mariott is, in the worst possible sense, addictive. When you begin to run down the list of hotel features: airport pickup, bowing attendants, elevators, room service, air conditioning, permanently locked windows, security barrier, ubiquitous carpeting, fresh towels and soap, overpriced but almost appetizing meals, pool and hot tub, 9-ball on a loop, world weather, all these items add up to a simulacrum of a total existence that very quickly begins to edge out the rest of the world–there is no need to leave the compound and submission to the soft tyranny of over-priced conveniences sets in almost immediately.

At the same time, CNN International allows the illusion of connectedness while in fact only furthering one’s suspension in the high-rise ether of the business hotel complex. “One has the illusion you’ve seen a place in fact when you haven’t seen it at all. All you’ve seen are the airports and the hotels” (288). Ballard here hints at something I have long felt to be the case: all airports actually belong to a single country, and the vast majority of business hotels likewise sit uneasily within their supposed national confines; they are more like each other than they are like the buildings or community around them. The overpriced airport hotel in Tokyo resembles nothing so much as the overpriced airport hotel in Vancouver, which in turn is the kissing cousin of the airport hotel in Beijing, etc. Here again, local differences only seem to accentuate a basic central identicalness.

Ballard again: “People use mental formulas that they’ve learned from TV. Even in ordinary conversation, if you’re talking to the mechanic at the garage about whether you need new tires for your car, you and he probably talk in a way that his equivalent thirty years ago would never have done. You use–not catch phrases but verbal formulas. Suddenly you realize you’re hearing echoes of some public-information, accident-prevention commercial. It’s uncanny” (83).

(Ballard has the strange habit of ending thought after thought with “It’s bizarre;” “It’s strange;” “It’s uncanny”–this verbal tick serves as a running indicator of the way that Ballard sees the world and helps explain how, over the course of a novel, he can focus on a certain object, a tennis machine for example, or swimming pool, with such relentless obsessed focus that the formerly normal becomes invested with a kind of pathological creepiness that entirely transcends simplistic one-to-one correlative symbolism.)

Ballard’s central point here hints again at the colonizing power of certain ideas and turns of phrases which seep into our everyday speech, tempered only by feeble attempts to ironize. Thus, when in the course of normal conversation one refers to a storm as “an extreme climatological event,” to a sign as “singage,” or to a car crash as “a simultaenous intersection of vehicular components” the use of such terms, although masked with a patina of apparently self-knowing irony is still, in its own way, perfectly sincere. Here, submission to the linguistic idiocy of corporate non-speak marries submission to the blissful “non-ness” of the business hotel, a paradise of our own collective fantasy where the towels are always clean, the windows are always closed, and 9-ball is always on.

The Band: A Press Release

Author’s Note: A few years ago I was working on some major events, and thinking a lot about “event theory.” I’m not even sure event theory is a thing, but it was for me. Anyway, I was at an interesting old bar in North Kyoto called “Brown’s,” (since closed) when I ran into a guy I knew a bit called Jamie. Jamie and I are not, I would say, friends, and in fact I don’t know if I like Jamie all that much. However, I had once been to his apartment where he had a full in-home movie theatre set up and he showed us the film Rockers: It’s Dangerous, which is a bizarre film about some reggae dudes in Kingston Jamaica. The film is kind of hit or miss, however the soundtrack is amazing.

When I met Jamie at Brown’s he was with another friend of his. We were talking some event theory and Jamie started telling me about a “band” he and his buddy were putting together. (I should add here that it was during this evening that Jamie uttered the immortal phrase “an event should be eventful,” which I have appropriated and made my own ever since. So I guess I kind of like Jamie after all). Jamie and his buddy’s band was a fake one, he said, and although they played no music they were planning to travel to Boracay to discuss their plans. Haha, I said, could I join? No said Jamie, they were only recruiting women. That was it—Jamie’s concept was not very well fleshed out, but he gave me a seed of something. The next day I wrote this piece, called “The Band.” It’s tone is not like anything else I’ve ever written. I can’t exactly stand by this piece, but nor can I renounce it, so here it is.

To Whom It May Concern:

Good evening. I am here to introduce to you a new band. You will always remember this evening, as you are the first audience to hear about the band, which will go on to shake the music industry to the core. However, I’m sorry, I’m very sorry, but you will not be hearing from the band this evening. They are very busy preparing for the possibility of contemplating their first show, which you will hear about in a few minutes.

At that time, you will be given a inside tip about how to score FREE TICKETS for this gig, but first I should explain the membership arrangement of the band, as it is a bit special. The band is a trio consisting of two humans and a third member, a “third term”, which is referred to as “the floating concept.” The floating concept triangulates the members and makes the band structure as we know it possible. The band structure is therefore equivalent to a trinity. Without the floating concept, the band would spill apart in a matter of hours due to its own frivolity and according to the second law of thermodynamics.

Who are these band members, you will want to know? Of course you do. When something this special, this fresh, this frankly white hot, comes along it draws all eyes. Well, I can let you in on this much–the members are multi-talented young artistes on the cutting edge of fashion who are even as we speak enacting the first true artistic theory of the 21st century. They are considering and arranging all aspects of their performance, except those aspects that relate to the music to be played. There is a reason for this–the band can play no music, owns no instruments, and is in no hurry to learn their craft. They are instead, busy, very busy, honing their CONCEPT, Just as night follows day, and form follows function, the band believes, as its only tenant of belief, that craft follows concept.

Now, with the three members in place, is there room for more, you may ask. Yes indeed. In fact the band is actively recruiting a fourth member, and the position is wide open. There are some conditions on this member, however. First, the fourth member must be a woman, a female. Second, she must be gorgeous and bewitching. (For the time being, in advance of her arrival, we shall refer to her as the “background term.” Upon her arrival, the band will, momentarily, become a quaternary.) Third, and crucially, she must break up the band almost instantaneously upon joining it. There are no other conditions.

Now, you will be eager to know when and where the band will be playing as the break up of the band could occur at any time, in the blink of an eye, and is entirely at the mercy of the bewitching female, the eternal anima. Fortunately, plans for the band’s first gig are already well underway. The band will be convening in March of 2014 in Boracay, just 11 months from today, to discuss its next move. At this point we are thrilled to be able to announce that in Boracay the agenda point of a concert or live event of some kind IS a distinct possibility. In short, a performance concept MAY be discussed. What that performance might look like is currently a matter of the highest secrecy not to mention massive uncertainty. After all, as I am sure you will agree, the first true artistic theory of the 21st century, the theoretical descendant of surrealism, pop art, and the theater of the absurd, needs some little time to germinate. It cannot be rushed.

However, there is some information that we are prepared to release tonight. First, initial scouting has been undertaken on the island of Gibraltar, and very tentative discussions are being undertaken with representatives of the Zimbabwean government regarding possible locations. At present, we are referring to these as “Plan A,” and “Plan B.” In the event that either Plan A or Plan B materializes, you will be able to score FREE admission by simply attaching yourself to the flash mob which will storm the venue precisely 20 minutes after the band takes “the stage.” In order to join the flash mob, you will simply need to locate third member of the band, the floating concept, who will be leading the mob. Please be aware that the floating concept IS floating, and therefore by definition is subject to frequent re-definition and re-nominalization. In other words, by the time the third term reaches this putative future time/space conjunction it may well be styling itself as something entirely other. There is a Plan C. Plan C will be referred to as “Plan C.” Plan C is cancelation. In the event of cancelation, the concert/event will be simulcast across all platforms for viewing in the comfort of your own home.

I know that at this point you will be salivating to know more, that you will already be scouring the internet for more information about the band and its concept. What we can say is, anything you might read online is the purest of speculation. The band does not leak, in fact it does not even hold water. From an atmospheric point of view, however, the band is currently working under the following umbrella, and I quote:

Guinnevere orders one more beer in the smokey pick-up bar/ A burnt out tramp by the exit ramp waits for one more car/ The Latin teacher always smells like piss/ The census figures come out wrong/ there’s an extra in our midst.”

An extra? A fifth member? Is that a leak? Does the band leak? Does it, after all, hold water? Come and see, follow us across all social media platforms, tell your family, tell your friends, tell your neighbors, don’t tell a soul. The telos of the art world is about to be revolutionized, about to jump the shark, run rampant, build its own contingent, its own motherf***ing army. Follow the band, tap into the excitement come and see a legend while it’s still being made! Ladies, gentlemen, I give you, THE BAND.

Dedication: For Jamie, I guess.

Half Hours on Earth (A Poem)

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem in Auckland in 2009 however it is based on an encounter I had in Adelaide a few days prior. (There are a lot of mussels served in Auckland, incidentally.) The theme here is pretty obvious; it’s about an encounter, or, more precisely, an event, during which time compressed itself almost to a standstill. You have probably had this experience if you have been knocked of your bicycle by a car or something like that. When this happens over a half-hour, that’s a bit of a different guy.

This is one of my favorite poems that I have written. The title, and the repeating coda, are borrowed from the band The Silver Jews.

The quality of experience in half hours
is not uniform.
Some half hours are simply wasted;
in others, something occurs,
leads into something else.

“Half hours on earth/ what are they worth?/ I don’t know”

With the occasional half hour
something actually happens,
(in the Raymond Carver sense)
something that matters.
The air is charged, and thin;
butterflies roil one’s viscera;
and something is on the line.

“Half hours on earth/ what are they worth?”

These electric half hours
even if isolated in time
are frightening, or better
giddily upsetting, and dangerous.
They sear themselves into the memory,
rippling the fabric of the universe.

“Half hours on earth”

Dedication: For Molly. And for David Berman, RIP.

The Respectable Man (A Poem)

Author’s Note: I wrote this poem when I was in my twenties and it shows. Back then I wrote poems really fast. Today I still write really fast, but can barely write poetry at all. Anyway, this is sort of my version of a punk tune. It’s called “The Respectable Man,” and kind of speaks for itself.

The respectable man
reflects if he can
but the world won’t wait for reflectors
the respectable man
sits on the can
sits on the board of directors

The respectable man
hawks wares to the clan
who cannot tell shit from shinola
the respectable man
sees a water ban
and irrigates crops with a cola

The respectable man
works on his tan
en route to his room at the Hilton
the respectable man
is pimping a plan
with robust tax-giveaways built-in

The respectable man
spits on his hands
and scurries his way up the ladder
the respectable man
looks over the land
and respectfully empties his bladder

Some B-Side “Poems”

Author’s Note: This post collects some shorter “poems” I have written at different times. In my opinion, none of these are as good as “Half Hours on Earth,” although “For Ann” could be if I could finish it. In other words, all of these are pretty minor, although “Check-Out Girl” is not bad. A more prudent writer might hesitate to publish fragments like “My Uncle” or “The Pomegranate.” I, for one, am always interested in the artistic process, and part of my process includes coming up with little pieces of stuff I don’t know what to do with. For each “poem,” I have included a comment—the comments are just there to provide a little context. Basically, these are all “b-sides.”

“My Uncle”

I think about my uncle
when my uncle comes to mind

Comment: This couplet is completely ridiculous, doesn’t rhyme, and doesn’t mean anything. I have no idea when I came up with it, however for some reason it sticks with me. So much so, in fact, that I closed my “set” at a poetry open mic in Tokyo a little while back with “My Uncle.” The audience there was surprisingly receptive. “Right on,” they said, “that’s when you do think about your uncle.” Thanks folks, means a lot.

“The Pomegranate”

The pomegranate is essential to the sophisticated palate
Far more evolved than onion, watercress or shallot

Comment: Another couplet from god knows when, this one at least rhymes so let’s call it complete.

The Proposal”

A potatoey fellow
skin papery yellow proposed to you once in the rain.
But though he bleated intently
from the back of his Bentley
you said ‘potato, you give me a pain.’

Comment: This is one of my sneaky favorites. It’s also totally absurd, and I don’t remember when I wrote it, however I think I had seen some guy getting blown off by a girl and so I came up with the potatoey fellow. Although not exactly “finished,” it also has nowhere to go, so let’s call this one done too.

“Mod-Con (for Joe)”

A friend remarked to me,
as we reposed I and he
“Which mod-con
could be improved on?”
And I,
dull and droned as a sun-drugged fly,
I didn’t know.
“The washing machine
I mean, dirty clothes revolving in
dirty water
come out clean?”

Comment: Back in the day I had a friend called Joe. Joe was kind of a sleazy dude, but he was a good photographer and taught me a few things about that. He also came up with some left field ideas, such as when he critiqued the entire concept of the washing machine. Joe didn’t get the washing machine, and so I wrote a poem about that. Although finished I don’t think this one is really very good, so I’ll just leave it here, as a b-side.

Overdue Haircut”

I’m gonna get my haircut soon
maybe in the month of June
man, it’ll be smooth

Way up in Bostontown
to Atlanta they’ll get down
with the news

I’ll have girls on every hand
who’ll all think I’m the man
I can’t lose

Yeah I’ll play that haircut game
to popular acclaim
among gentiles and Jews

Comment: One time I needed a haircut, so I wrote about that. This was a popular one with my readers back in the day, and I like it too.

“For Ann”

Ann belle princess of the isles
the orbs whisper your name even if you’ve gotten piles
or if you’re on the game

Buxom barmaid or bellicose barfly
begs the inevitable question
booze improves the poet’s eye. but ruins her digestion

Comment: My friend Ann from Hamilton College went to England after graduation and she and I exchanged a few letters, back when people still wrote letters. She wrote me that she was drinking some, so I wrote a poem about my image of her over there. The original poem had two or three more verses, but they were terrible. Then a little while back I reconnected with Ann, which was great, and re-worked the poem, which wasn’t. It might have been a little better, but it was still bad. These two stanzas, on the other hand, are awesome, and maybe that’s all there ever needs to be said about Ann in England, you know?


In a glade near his home roamed a boy called Jerome when he met with the sight of the devil

who asked for his soul in a Tupperware bowl in a voice smug and typically level

though of manner quite mild the cunning wee child prepared a surprise for the devil

who felt sorely deceived when the soul he received belonged to the neighbor’s boy, Nevil

Comment: This little poem is one of the first things I wrote that I liked. I wrote it sometime during high school. At that time I was influenced by limericks (both dirty and clean) and nonsense poetry such as Edward Lear. One doesn’t write stuff like this without having read a bunch of nonsense poetry.

“A Pious Reformer Called Mather”

A pious reformer named Mather/ was frequently known to blather/ about the great judgment hour/ but the word from the shower/ was that Mather knew his way around lather.

Comment: This was also written in high school, after we had learned about some religious dude called Cotton Mather from the 19th century or something. This poem is super inappropriate and I don’t stand by it; however it is representative of my work at the time.

“Check-Out Girl”

jim went to the store on Tuesday to buy eggs
and fell in love with the red-haired check out girl
jim of the drab brown suit and bifocals
of the pint size milk cartons on the floor of his car
jim who at sixteen thought he might have a ‘calling’
who would have made a good camp counselor
kids for christ
jesus youth,
jim fell in love with the red-hired girl and her little turquoise earrings
when he went for his groceries
jim of the tedious but inevitable self-gratification
jim who is definitely not (not) gay
who recently gave up hair tonic
but still has a fine head of hair for a man his age
(thirty four in september)
thank you very much
who always wanted to see Topeka, Kansas
just because of the name
jim of no artistic pretensions
who nevertheless sits down to compose a poem
to the check-out girl
with the red hair, the turquoise earrings and the toothy smile
who’s nineteen if she’s a day
he’s in love
no question about it

Comment: I wrote this one in Flagstaff, Arizona when I was going to graduate school. I was playing basketball one day and this poem started to come into my head all at once. So I went home and wrote it down. I don’t know where any of this came from, but it’s not bad. Maybe it’s actually OK, I don’t know.

A run-in with Damon K. in a Kyoto Basement (a “Dis-Track”)

What follows is a true story.  Or, in the words of Damon K., formerly of Galaxie 500 and presently of Damon and Naomi, “here are the dirty facts.”

It was sometime in the first decade of the 21st century.  I was minding my own business in my fair adopted city of Kyoto.  You see, I live in North Kyoto and unless I have good reason, prefer to stay in orb of the north-central part of the city.  The south is for business, the east for the occasional mountain jaunt, and the west too wild and forbidding for a humble man such as myself.  Mostly, I just try to stay north of Shijo Dori (positively 4th street, so to speak).  That’s my zone.

As with any excellent locality, there is plenty to explore in North Kyoto.  One place that the locals know is Cafe Independants–a cafe with a small bar which from time to time hosts shows.  Cafe Independants is located in a basement with exposed white pipes and stone walls.  It’s hip if you’re into that kind of thing, certainly not trendy though.  And, it features a kick-ass pair of sneaky staircases that are worlds into themselves.  I have enjoyed those staircases many a time my own self.

I have had the pleasure of seeing the great Bill Callahan open for the immaculate harpist Joanna Newsom there when Ms. Newsom was just breaking through.  Callahan was the bigger name, and his generosity in opening for her was striking.  That was a great night.  I may have even smoked a rare cigarette.  I also saw my mate Darren Hannah play bass there with a bow.  That was something–and the dude executed a beauty of a bow toss at the end of the show.  A bow toss for a bassist is like a mic drop for an MC.  Show’s over folks.  So you see, I’d had some nights there.

The Cafe runs an open kitchen which serves right through gigs and back in the day also had a record shop open in the back.  It’s a small place, seating maybe 35 on a good day, and when a show is on people tend to pack around the big pole in the center and squeeze into communal tables.  Smoking is allowed.  The Cafe, at the best of times, is not a quiet place.  This is to be borne in mind with what followed.

So one evening I had secured tickets to see Damon and Naomi play.  Damon and Naomi were members of the late 80s/ early 90’s band Galaxie 500 with Dean Wareham.  The band didn’t really know what it was doing at first, like many a band before, and kind of stumbled into near-greatness before Wareham walked and started Luna, the world’s greatest band.  Wareham details the reasons behind the break-up in his memoir Black Postcards.  Poe is supposed to have said that any man who tells the simple truth of his life would write a masterpiece.  Wareham gets pretty close to following Poe’s dictum.

The ending of Galaxie 500 came about, according to Wareham, essentially because Wareham was tired of being treated like a child by the other two, a long-time couple.  I think he wanted his own band, and wanted to chill a little.  From Black Postcards:

Traveling is stressful.  And with Damon tour-managing, it seemed like every hotel check-in, every seat assignment, and every rental car was a problem.  Damon would argue about what floor his room was on.  He would get annoyed if he didn’t get the seat he wanted on the flight.  I shouldn’t have let this bother me.  I should have minded my own business.  But traveling together highlights your differences.

At one show in late 1990, a techie shone a spotlight on Dean as he stepped downstage for a solo.  This seems to have been the breaking point.  Black Postcards again:

Damon: “In retrospect I notice that Dean chose the L.A. show to launch this new trick, when the audience was full of music industry people.  We hadn’t had any spotlights in Columbus or Dallas!”

Dean in his contemporaneous tour diary: “Damon said he doesn’t like me walking in front of his drum kit–it throws him off.  I didn’t tell him to go f*** himself.”

Things were rough, and Dean split in 1991.  (Wareham quotes a Damon interview saying “Here are the dirty facts!  What happened was simply that Dean quit, more or less out of the blue, on the telephone one day.”  Ah oui, les sales faits.)  Galaxie 500 is still an interesting band and has a handful of great songs.  Then, Damon and Naomi formed their own group, named eponymously.  They are pretty good.  I like “This Car Climbed Mount Washington,” from More Sad Hits, and the whole record Playback Singers is strong.  Still, they are a far cry from Galaxie, much less Luna.

Nevertheless, I was excited to hear they were coming to little old North Kyoto in fact to play the Independants.  I showed up early with a friend and we had a few drinks, as you do.  There were 30 or 40 people there, as normal.  People were chatting, eating, smoking, and a local warm-up act started preparing on stage.  Actually, there is no stage at the Cafe, just floor space.  The show, from my point of view, HAD NOT STARTED.  Additionally, I WAS BEHIND THE POLE.  I wish at this time to stipulate this very clearly in light of what followed.  I also wish to stipulate that no-one is a bigger fan of the idea of the local warm up act than my good self.  Nobody.  By god, I remember seeing the Tenniscoats, a much beloved Japanese band that you won’t have heard of, open up in Kyoto for someone, Bonnie Prince Billy maybe, and saw the great Saya Ueno play in her barefeet.  I support the local art community with a whole heart.  And no blasted interloper will tell me otherwise.

Anyway, on the night in question I will admit I was talking to my buddy while the local artist was getting set up.  And yes, she may have said something into the microphone.  I don’t really know.  Because before I could do anything, here comes Damon K. bounding across the room, right in my face, and shushed me.  “Don’t speak when the ARTIST is talking,” he hissed.  Right…in…my…face.

Now, the human mind is a remarkable deal.  When Damon shushed me, two simulataneous and equally strong thoughts came into my head.  The first was, “wow, Damon from Galaxie 500 just shushed me.  Cool.”  The second was, “dude, f******** you!  This is my city you pompous SOB, the show HAS NOT STARTED, there is a room full of chattering people, and you are going to lecture me about the ARTIST.”

What did I do next, you will ask? Well, in my mind I like to think I produced a gesture equivalent to Dave Moss’s finger flips in Glengarry Glen Ross, the single best fuck you even put on screen. Or, I may have stared dumbly at the guy.  One or the other.

On the Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, the future poet and songwriter Jim Carroll famously “ruins” the recording of “Sweet Jane” by asking for a double Pernod. You can find reference to this incident in works as scholarly as The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, published by Oxford Press: “‘Excuse me can I have a Pernod, get me a Pernod’. Poet and author Jim Carroll’s boorish demands for a bloody Pernod ruined (this) illegal cassette taping.” 

Well, let’s look at the (dirty) facts.  Carroll’s supposedly boorish demands are almost entirely heard between songs when the band is tuning.  He doesn’t know that the show is being taped. On Sweet Jane, for example, Reed finishes the song and then we hear Carroll:

“Oh yeah, I wrote it, but it’s pretty new, yeah.  Did you get the Pernod?  You had to get the, you had to go to the downstairs floor.”

Sure, he is a little lit.  Sure he is close to the mic.  But the song is over.  There is downtime.  The man is thirsty.  The recording is “illegal.”  Now I ask you, is this “ruining” the song?  Only if you are an honest to god prat.  Otherwise, this is called local color.  Guess what Damon, buddy?  I’m a local.  This is my city.  I’m colorful.  And I’ll take my bloody Pernod whenever I goddamn well feel like it.

Stylistic Note: The style of this piece is deeply indebted to Eric Ambler’s The Intercom Conspiracy.  Inspiration from this master of form is acknowledged, with deep gratitude.

On Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil”

This piece takes a look at Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.” The song appears on Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album from 1970 on Monument, which is, by any standard, an astonishingly good record. The album features “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” along with the ol’ Devil. That’s four absolute classics right there for ya.

Sunday Morning features an opening quatrain that most other songwriters would trade their career for:

Well I woke up Sunday morning/ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ so I had one more for dessert

(I could play this game all day—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern features another couple life-work worthy couplets:

The first two lines of “Super 8”:

Don’t wanna die in a super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well

And from “Different Days”:

Time went by and I left and I left again/ Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.

If I’d written lines that great I’d call it a career and sip martinis on the house for the duration.)

Sunday Morning and Bobby are probably objectively better songs than To Beat the Devil, yet what I like about this one is that Kristofferson states very clearly a kind of founding intention for his life in song and art, right out of the gate. The only parallel I can think of is Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady, whose first album Almost Killed Me kicks off with “A Positive Jam.”

(Here’s Finn telling it like it is:

I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ so I started a band/ we’re gonna start it with a positive jam/ hold steady.

Rock on Craig baby.)

Anyway, let’s get to the focus of this piece. Kristofferson opens with a spoken intro.:

A couple of years back I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio. And while he was reciting some poetry to me that he had written, I saw that he was about a step away from dying, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me.

Here the singer is looking up at his idol who is both “great and wasted.” I wasn’t around quite yet in 1970, yet I can easily imagine Ginsberg’s “best minds” line hanging over talented folks across a lot of zones. Klosterman wasn’t quite there either (June 5, 1972–a mid Gemini of course), but he was close, and to indulge not for the last time in a little Klostermania, the zeitgeist seemed to be making people thirsty.

The singer receives some scraps of poetry, shards of shattered inspiration, and a song “occurs” to him. He doesn’t state it directly, however we imagine the song arrives fully formed, like “Pancho and Lefty,” or “Kubla Khan.” Thus, To Beat the Devil is also both an answer and an offer of redemption to his idol, who here is John(ny) Cash.

I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted, and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped showed me how to beat the devil.

The singer takes up the mantle of the master, and in so doing opens a possibility window onto redemption for his senior. This is no exaggeration—Cash also recorded To Beat the Devil in 1970 and we are basically stipulating that Kristofferson’s genius, descended from Cash while also original to himself, helped rescue Cash from addiction and the whole deal there. We won’t be deep diving into the archive on this one—as we said we’re just keeping it local and breaking it down, so you’ll have to take my word on it or search it up your own self.

Here’s the first verse; the words speak for themselves:

It was wintertime in Nashville/ down on Music City Row/ and I was looking for a place/ and to get myself out of the cold/ to warm the frozen feeling that was eating at my soul/ keep the chilly wind off my guitar

A classic down and out in the big city piece of scene-setting. The singer is physiologically and psychologically frozen, a cold wind gusts across his art. The man needs a break.

My thirsty wanted whiskey/ my hungry needed beans/ but it had been a month of paydays/ since I’d heard that eagle scream/ so with a stomach full of empty/ and a pocket full of dreams/ I left my pride and stepped inside a bar

You might think that the operative nouns here would be “thirst” and “hunger,” but no. This is not a man with a thirst; this is a thirsty man. We also hear an echo of a now-ancient American past where a man with an empty stomach would go in search of, of all things, “beans.”

Anyway, he’s got no money, can’t really bring himself to care. So, a singer walks into a bar.

Actually I’d guess you’d call it a tavern/ cigarette smoke to the ceiling
and sawdust on the floor/ friendly shadows/ I saw that there was just one old man sitting at the bar/ and in the mirror I could see him checking me and my guitar/ and he turned and said/ come up here, boy, and show us what you are/ I said I’m dry, and he bought me a beer

The man in the mirror, the devil himself. The singer comes face to face with the man who checks him out and summons him over. Kristofferson then enters into a bargain–offers up the terms of an encounter: a beer on the old man’s tab. Score one for the thirsty man. The singer faces the old man; it’s to be a showdown. He doesn’t have much, but he’s got some “friendly shadows,” traces of an older map perhaps, an older memory.

I can’t help here but engage in a bit of presumption. When I play the song in my head, I want to hear “in the mirror I saw him casing me and my guitar,” (listen to the way he pronounces “guitar” on the track. Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas in ‘36 and behind the laid back folksinger you can here some roots here baby).

If I could make one edit to the song, it would be to replace “checking me,” with “casing me.” What a great verb “to case” is.

Lexical Interlude: “To case the joint”

1. slang To observe a place in order to familiarize oneself with its workings in preparation for some criminal activity (often robbery). Judging from the security footage, those men cased the joint hours before robbing it.

2. slang By extension, to thoroughly examine a place. In this usage, no devious motive is implied. As soon as my kids walking into the hotel room, they started casing the joint, exclaiming about everything from the TV to the mini-fridge.

The seminal use of this verb phrase comes from Bill Callahan, formerly of Smog. Callahan is an odd duck—he is so artificial, so obviously self-created as an entertainer, that he has become almost post-authentic.  Callahan contains multitudes.

My favorite Smog album, well in the top two, is Red Apple Falls, which features “Ex-Con,” on which Callahan sings: 

Jean jacket and tie/ feel like such a lie/ when I go to your house/ I feel like I’m/ casing the joint

Devious motive implied.


He nodded at my guitar and said/ it’s a tough life, ain’t it?/ I just looked at him/ he said “you ain’t making any money, are you?/ I said, you been reading my mail/ he just smiled and said, let me see that guitar/ I got something you ought to hear/ and then he laid it on me

The devil has a bead on the singer, and he’s not far off.  Yes he’s broke.  Yes he’s down and out.  Whaddaya want?


Filmic Interlude I: The Long Goodbye

In Robert Altman The Long Goodbye, written by Leigh Brackett, the main character Philip Marlowe gets out of jail somewhere in the first act and heads to a all-purpose pit stop restaurant who’s owner apparently collects Marlowe’s mail. The dialogue is exquisite.

Marlowe: You got any messages for me?

Owner: Believe we’ve got a few over there. As a matter of fact, you’ll find my phone bill in there too.

Marlowe: I wouldn’t worry about that.

When you ain’t got nothing you got nothing to lose. Kristofferson’s got nothing to hide in his mail. Those bills go straight to the wastebasket.


If you waste your time a talkin’ / to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that you are saying/ who do you thinks gonna hear?/ and if you should die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ who do you thinks gonna care?

there were other lonely singers/ in a world turned deaf and blind/ who were crucified for what they tried to show/ and their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time/ ‘cause the truth remains that no one wants to know

The devil’s words speak for themselves. The path of the troubadour is a dead end. The world has not ears to hear nor eyes to see. Truth tellers meet a bad end. Whiners gonna whine. It’s a strong opening bet, made, we presume, with his red right hand.

Well the old man was a stranger/ but I’d heard his song before/ back when failure had me locked out/ on the wrong side of the door/ when no one stood behind me/ but my shadow on the floor/ and lonesome was more than a state of mind

The singer is on familiar territory; he’s has been tempted by this cynical incantation, he’s not immune to tuning out his calling when out in the cold. Who is?

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man/ if you don’t want to join him/ you gotta beat him/ I ain’t saying I beat the devil/ but I drank his beer for nothing/ then I stole his song

This is the key verse in our little tale. You see, when we tango with the devil the devil usually gets to lead. That’s just the way it goes. But the thing about the devil is, his game is a bit of a bluff. A couple of low pairs, maybe. You just gotta call.

and you still can hear me singing/ to the people who don’t listen/ to the things that I am saying/ praying someone’s gonna hear/ and I guess I’ll die explaining how/ the things that they complain about/ are things they could be changing/ hoping someone’s gonna care

I was born a lonely singer/ and I’m bound to die the same/ but I’ve gotta feed the hunger in my soul/ and if I never have a nickel/ I won’t ever die ashamed/ ‘cause I don’t believe that no one wants to know

Kristoffeson flips it right around. The devil’s got a point; the singer may die dead broke, that’s fine. Songs are borne on the wind in any case. The thing is to have faith in your audience. To believe someone is out there, heart in their hands and ear to the wind. And to hold this faith as a mantra. That’ll keep ‘em guessing, cause then you’re not playing their game, you’re playing your own.

Overall, To Beat the Devil is a young man’s song. It’s got a confidence, a swagger, even a hubris. So, after drafting most of this piece I wanted to find a recent live version, see how it’s aged. I stumbled on a version from a live set with Lou Reed released in 2017. The set is part of The Bottom Line Archive, and it finds Kristofferson in a Waitsian stage of life. The voice is richer than ever, but he’s not exactly singing. Then again, that’s what they said about Dylan and it’s B.S. The voice is the voice; singing is just a category.

The set is interspersed with short interviews of the two songwriters. Here is Kristofferson’s spoken introduction that precedes To Beat the Devil. It is instructive.

Interviewer: The devil figures in some of your songs, you know there’s that silver tongued devil and he pops up from time to time. Who’s the devil? What’s the devil for you? What are your demons?

K.K.: Well, I, I’ll do that song then. Ahhh…

Interviewer: Is that a metaphor or is that something real for you?

K.K.: Well here’s a song called To Beat the Devil. Maybe it’ll explain it. I can’t.

Notes on Breathing

A lot has been written and said about breathing.  Here’s some more of that.

Most people it seems to me breathe pretty high in their chest.  This makes some sense because your lungs are up there somewhere.  However, I’ve long thought this was basically wrong.  When someone says, “take a deep breath,” well, deep implies lower down.  And, meditators, who know something about the topic, sort of breathe with their belly.  That’s why they get a little fat there–a little buddha belly.  Breathing in the belly centers us and calms us down.  It’s also a pretty cool motion.

Recently though, I realized that I have been over-modeling meditation breathing at the expense of breathing in my chest.  I went from one extreme to the other, failing to remember the middle way principal.  Do you know the middle way principal?  It’s pretty easy to remember.  The middle way principal is simply: “just split the difference, dude.”

So that’s what I’m working on.  Breathing in the chest upward with vigor–that brings inspiration and good upstairs action.  And, breathing in the belly, making a little balloon there at the same time.  This feels good.  Like a middle way.

No one really teaches you these things, or at least they didn’t me.  If this makes sense to you in any way, maybe tell someone about it.