Life Harvester #7: A Lawyer's Fleshlight, Piles, John McLean's Tribal Tattoo, Tony Conrad "Teddy Tells Jokes," Queen "It's Late"

WELCOME     Still finding time to work in a chaotic world and I’m unduly proud! Been on a roadtrip with Becca to look at art/see old friends that basically took an East Coast punk bands first tour route. New York – Boston – Providence – Philly - D.C. then back home to Pittsburgh. In New York we saw one of the Bikini Kill shows. Not sure I’m ready to write something about it but I’ll say this: both of us had a kind of blasé attitude going in like “oh yeah it should be fun” and then when the show happened we freaked. Becca came down with a case of full on Beatlemania (Bikinle-mania?) and just screamed the whole time, like not even singing along just screaming in some kind of ecstatic reverie while she danced. I was paralyzed almost completely, standing there with my mouth open until they played “Feels Blind” as the third song when I started weeping and couldn’t stop.

FINDING A LAWYER’S FLESHLIGHT     When I was in high school my best friend’s dad worked construction during the day and cleaned offices at night. Sometimes he would subcontract my friend and I to go to one of the office buildings and do the cleaning for him so he could have a night off. I forget what all the businesses in the building were, but I know one of them was a lawyer’s office. This was a small office building in the suburbs of New York City, and looking back, it’s clear that it was close enough to Manhattan that if this lawyer had actually been important or influential in any real way he would have had an office there, but at the time, we were 16 and just thought like “we are punks, this is a powerful lawyer.”
     We would always rifle through the drawers. There was often petty cash laying around that we assumed had been left out as a trap to fire my friend’s dad so we never touched any of that, but we were convinced that we could find “Lawyer Weed” and that it would be better than any weed we could ever get on our own and furthermore, that if we stole it no one would report us because it was weed and illegal and so they’d just be in a bind and if they did try to report us we’d blackmail them.
     We never found any weed so you don’t have to worry about our plan being stupid. One time though, I went into the one big shot main lawyer’s office and opened a desk drawer that had been locked on prior visits. I just pulled it on a lark assuming it wouldn’t open and when it did I was momentarily shocked and called out to my friend. I assumed we’d found the weed stash but when I yanked the drawer all the way open it was full of porno mags and a fleshlight!
     Let me tell you, as an adolescent punk in what I misconstrued to be a powerful lawyer’s office, opening a previously locked drawer and finding a fleshlight felt like a confirmation that my worldview was right. I felt like I was inside a Dead Kennedys song. The world was governed by old white sexually repressed perverts who were ashamed of themselves and made all of us pay for it. We (my friend and I, but also every punk, skin, rudefolk, outcast, freak, weirdo [except hippies]) were in it together to create a newer better world one Culture Jam at a time.

PILES     A few months ago the sewer line on me and Becca’s house busted and it had to get replaced. In the course of doing the work my whole front yard got dug up with a backhoe and then plopped back down haphazardly. This was the beginning of my love affair with piles, or at least the moment when a lifelong affinity began to coalesce into a fascination. 
     Last month on our road trip Becca and I stopped in Providence to hang out with our friends Jacob and Sakiko. While we were there Sakikio was driving us all out to Beaver Tail, a magical place and one of my favorite beaches, when we passed a giant dirt pile with some sparse grass growing on it next to the onramp to Rt 6 near Olneyville. I pointed at it out the window and said “you guys didn’t tell me you had such nice piles in Providence.” And it’s like I had uttered an incantation, because suddenly I was seeing piles everywhere and couldn’t stop pointing them out.
      Obviously construction sites have great piles, and gardening stores do too. But there are piles all around. My current favorite type of piles are the kind they have at the side of the interstate that you can’t actually see because they built a pile-shaped dome around them. I think on the east coast these structures generally conceal piles of salt for the snowy season, but I could be wrong. I think there’s something about the mystery of a covered pile that appeals to me, because my current favorite individual pile is the one across from Highland Park dog park in Pittsburgh in the same spot they keep the Christmas Tree pile in the winter. I’m not sure what it’s a pile of, because it’s covered in a giant tarp and the edges are all held down by old tires. It looks like a cake! Thinking about it now, I can say definitively that my first ever favorite pile was the pile of snow they made in the middle of the A&P parking lot by my parents’ house in New Rochelle when I was a kid. I think I like piles because they are a perfect mix or order and chaos. 
     Providence was pretty early in our road trip, so we had plenty of time for pile gazing as we continued to drive around. We had many discussions about pile taxonomy (Is a mound a type of pile? What about a stack?) The most difficult to answer question for me was how long until a pile becomes a hill? Becca suggested that perhaps it’s when there’s more than five years of vegetation growth, establishing it as part of the landscape, and that sounds good to me.

JOHN MCLEAN’S TRIBAL TATTOO     Like ten years ago I was driving these two bands from Athens, GA—Witches and Dead Dog—on tour. John from Dead Dog and I had been in a band called Nasty Intentions together and hadn’t really seen each other since he’d left New York for Athens, so this was what you’d call a triumphant reunion. We’d spent a lot of time playing music in a sweaty little room his roommate DPG had built in the basement of 131 Tompkins, but also just riding our bikes around and drinking beers on the stoop. He made me a mixtape that literally saved my life (more on that later). 
     On our drive from Gainesville to Melbourne everyone in the van was asleep except John, Clancy from Witches, and me, but they were sitting as far back in the van as possible and I was driving. Participating in their conversation was impossible, but I kept the radio volume low enough that I could at least listen to them talk. My interest was piqued when I heard John ask Clancy “have you seen my tribal tattoo? It’s too cramped in here to take my shirt off, I’ll show you when we get to the show.” 
     Now, John is only a couple years my senior but he’s the tail end of generation X while I’m the eldest of the millienials. A subtle difference that can be boiled down to whether or not you’re old enough to have gotten a tribal. My mind was racing. Had ever seen John’s tribal tattoo? How could a close friend of mine have a bodily adornment that was so embarrassingly passé without my noticing it? We were still a couple hours from Melbourne and I spent the time cataloging every time I’d seen John shirtless. Times we’d been swimming, sweaty summer band practices. And I tried to catalog all his tattoos I knew of, but I couldn’t picture anything tribal.
     When we got to the show and began to unload, I tried to stay close by John and Clancy without drawing too much attention to myself. John hadn’t invited me to see his tribal tattoo, only Clancy, but I was determined to catch a glimpse. Finally on the third trip from the van into the house I saw John confer with Clancy, and then the two walked towards the kitchen. I set down the amp I was carrying and crept behind them like a Pink Panther, lurked in the doorway of the kitchen. Both of their backs were to me as John asked Clancy “you read?” Clancy nodded and John slowly removed his shirt to reveal the words FUCK YOU COLIN sharpied in six-inch letters down his entire back. They both turned to me and grinned, and reader, let me tell you, I was elated. I’ve never felt more seen by my friends in my entire life.

TONY CONRAD “TEDDY TELLS JOKES”     Though the Tony Conrad show in Philly wasn’t among the art Becca had to see for her job, we went and saw it anyway because she thought I would really enjoy it and she was right! I was familiar with Conrad from his musical work but had no idea he made all these great sculptures, funny homemade musical instruments, and tons of videos. There was one video in particular that Becca suggested I spend a little time with. It was footage from a cable access show Conrad had in Buffalo, NY in which he, a Harvard trained mathematician, helped a group of school children talk their peers through their math homework. One of the cool things about it is that Conrad never tells the kids how to do math. He talks the kids in the studio through helping their friends with the problems, reinforcing their math skills as well as teaching them how to teach! It’s sweet, and Conrad comes across as a kind of weirdo Mr. Rogers. At one point this young lady calls in and all the other kids start laughing. Conrad excitedly says, “I think some of these people here know you,” and one little boy looks at him and says “that’s my sister,” then turns to the camera cheesing so hard and goes “hi ugly.” I fully cried.
     This same Mr. Rogers vibe pervades what was by far my favorite piece in the exhibition “Teddy Tells Jokes.” A single shot black and white film in which Conrad stands with a big puffy microphone next to a piano on which Teddy—a seven year old holding a rifle, wearing shorts and an army helmet—is sitting. Conrad plays a local news anchor interviewing Teddy, who tells a series of jokes that are mostly inelegant plays on words, i.e. “What did the poop say to the pee? I’ve got a flush on you.” The whole video is surreal and there’s something jarring thinking about how normal it is to see a literal child sitting around casually waving a (presumably fake) firearm. But honestly it’s the insane jokes that stand out and remind us that all children are basically coneheads trying and failing to understand the nonsensical and seemingly arbitrary social mores of an alien culture. Here’s my favorite joke: “What did the butter say to the vinegar when the vinegar told the butter the joke ‘what did the Pink Panther say when he stepped on an ant? Dead ant, dead ant (sung to the tune of the sax melody in Henry Mancini’s iconic theme music)’ WELL? What did the butter say??? He said ‘you tell sour jokes.’”

“IT’S LATE” BY QUEEN     So this tape John McLean made me was like, full of music I thought I didn’t like because I was too punk—The Mamas & The Papas, Zappa (still don’t really like this dude but the song John put on the tape was a banger), Queen. I can’t really remember the rest because my car got broken into like seven years ago and the only thing the thief took was a Real Tree fanny pack full of tapes people had made me. ANYWAY this Queen song “It’s Late” is very good and this tape was the first time I heard it. For all the benefits I’ve publicly extolled about having grown up with a Jazz Dad, one of the drawbacks is that my classic rock education was sadly lacking.
     The song begins with some beautiful fingerpicking that devolves into what I would describe as a “Sheer Mag riff” because I’m an asshole. Freddie Mercury starts singing, You say you love me, and I hardly know your name…describing a romantic encounter with a practical stranger and his fears of establishing actual intimacy. The verse ends, I could love you, if I could let you stay. On the last word the drums and bass hammer in and the rest of Queen comes through with an operatic IT’S LAAAAAAATE. The first time I heard it I got so revved. The power music has to manipulate my emotions will never cease to amaze me. And one night ten or so years ago this song saved my life.
     A decade ago I was getting to my late-20s and was really not excited about the prospect of living into my 30s (spoiler alert: I did and it rules). I oftentimes characterize this time as a point in my life when I didn’t really care if I lived or died, but truth be told, I was actively working to tip the scales towards the latter. Which is why one night I was biking through Manhattan with headphones on and no helmet, wasted, in the pouring rain. The batteries on my bike lights had burned out and I was barreling through intersections without looking. I felt carefree, invincible. I was listening to John’s tape and when this song came on I couldn’t help but scream “IT’S LAAAAAAATE” at the top of my lungs every time the chorus hit.
      As I was riding up Norfolk about to go through Broome Street right before getting on the Williamsburg Bridge I heard squeeling tires and instinctually hit my brakes. I slid to a halt on the wet asphalt in the middle of the intersection at the same time as an SUV came skidding towards me. It stopped inches from my right leg. The whole thing happened in a split second.
     The driver got out, an older Puerto Rican woman who looked more terrified than angry. “Sweetie, you okay? Did I hit you?” I shook my head no, and we both looked at how close her bumper had come to my leg. I apologized profusely for scaring her. She looked at my headphones, now hung around my neck. “You should be more careful. I coulda killed you. You’re lucky I heard you screaming or I never woulda stopped.” I apologized again. She got in her car and continued wherever she was going. I kept my headphones off and pedaled slowly to the bridge, stopping at the light on Delancey before proceeding through the intersection. 
     This was not a huge turning point for me. It wasn’t some moment where I realized my nihilism was wrong and truly learned to live. But the encounter left me shook. And while I maybe still didn’t care so much what happened to me, I stopped trying to tip the scales.  

ASK A SHMUCK
Dear Shabby,
     What is the correct balance between “what we do is secret” and sharing punk skills and talents with the civilian world? 
-Trying to Draw the Line

TDL,
     I think this one is pretty intuitive. We should avoid sharing things that are illegal or private, but otherwise go ham. Teach squares how to screen print, sew, play drums. Give out your black bean recipe. But remember in like 2005 when that straight edge kid from Minneapolis wrote about his wild scam life for Harper’s and included stuff like switching out your old shoes at Walmart or Home Depot receipt scams and then those companies made it harder to do those things so punks and junkies and other people who relied on them for income had to find a new way? Don’t do that. Or like, maybe don’t tell just anyone how you get free copies (although feel free to DM me cause I been PAYING ever since Staples upgraded all their machines and I’m frankly sick of it). Stuff like shows at houses is a little more of a grey area, but like, just don’t invite squares. There was this lady way back when who was always asking me to tell her when shows were happening so she could write about it for Vice and I kept being like, “I’m happy to invite you to shows but you can’t write about it for Vice because they’re happening at my friends’ houses and they don’t want their addresses out there like that.” Eventually she got really upset and said “good job protecting your precious little punk scene” to try to make me feel bad but like, I was doing a good job and my precious little punk scene needed protecting and she was a narc!
     In short, do tell people about skills, but don’t tell people about scams and never give a poser your friend’s address.