Some Avalanches Go Up

I GOT CAUGHT in an avalanche the other day. It was unexpected, since I’d been sitting in my writing room trying to get a hold of some inspiration. I wasn’t careening down the side of a snowy mountain, or climbing up one. I was on a flat surface, which is generally regarded as a low risk site for avalanches, so when the wall exploded and a hundred tons of mud and snow swallowed me up in its path, well I was goddamned surprised.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but then again it’s hard to believe that the entire city of Atlanta was brought to its knees by two inches of ice some years back. It’s hard to believe that a six-lane freeway collapsed because of a homeless man’s barrel fire a few summers ago. It’s hard to believe that two men escaped Dannemora prison by watching The Shawshank Redemption. In short, there are all sorts of surprises from the universe’s bag of curiosities, and so when the avalanche came rushing through my office I just went limp and rolled with it, which is rule number one when it comes to avalanche survival.

It wasn’t long before I got used to the slide. I was up, down, and all around, but my computer was still in front of me so my typing was uninterrupted, and the deep rumble of the massive swell was actually soothing to my state of mind. I’d just been reading about a stuntman named “Mad” Mike Hughes whose homemade rocket had crashed out in Barstow, California, killing him on impact. By the end of the article I’d decided I liked him, would’ve enjoyed a beer with him, and was sad about his death. And then, the avalanche.

It’s the era of the avalanche, after all. Things have become brittle, and the foundation has eroded. Technology has wired humanity so tightly that one tremor anywhere in the world can end up in an enormous collapse due to the sheer weight of hysteria, speculation, misinformation, disinformation, cruelty, and general idiocy. The modern system of mass communication that once promised an intellectual liberation has locked the global spectatorship into a handful of emotionally charged issues, destroying the imagination as thoroughly as a mudslide decimating a hillside village during the rainy season. 

So much for that avalanche, which I try to avoid. This new avalanche, though, the one about Mad Mike, I welcomed. I admit, I’m drawn to the weirdos. Here’s a guy out in the southwest United States just launching himself all over the place for no reason at all, which is the best reason there is. Mike had grabbed some headlines years back with the proclamation that the Earth is flat, which is not even close to the weirdest idea that’s come out of California, considering Manson’s Helter Skelter philosophy and bars that charge for oxygen.

I remember reading a section of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, the original scroll, specifically a part that did not make it into the final book. Kerouac is sitting on the corner of Hollywood and Vine waiting for a bus and he writes his observation that, “Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling into L.A. in the southwest corner.” How that didn’t make the final manuscript I will never know, but if that was my line and my editor cut it out I would’ve stuffed him into a rocket and shot him over the horizon. 

In marketing, it only counts if it’s memorable. Therefore If some California goofball  declares the Earth to be flat and then straps himself into a rocket to go confirm it, he has won, regardless of how it all washes out.  “Mad” Mike even allowed for the possibility that the Earth was round. He just wanted to see it for himself, he said. Which makes him a strict empiricist, in modern parlance, although “Mad” Mike has a lot more punch to it than “Strict Empiricist” Mike. So he decided to build a rocket to head out into space so he could get a good look at the giant thing he’d been clinging to, like an inquisitive flea trying to figure out the breed of dog he’s been gnawing on all this time.

So there he was, in Barstow, California, at the edge of the desert. This line rings familiar to me, as it’s the starting point for Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

…We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…

Hunter goes on to describe a sky full of imaginary bats swooping down on him. If he’d been on his journey fifty years later he would’ve actually seen a huge rocket come crashing out of the sky, which is much weirder than a flock of bats in a desert.

 I was in Barstow once, taking a pit stop during a drive from Las Vegas to Redondo Beach. It was all part of a weeklong bachelor party for a friend of mine, although in retrospect it may have been more of a preliminary funeral for him, of sorts, since the only thing he succeeded in doing was getting the ball rolling on his first divorce, after which his wife drove a stake through his heart, and his bank accounts. Why did I bring this up? Oh yeah. Due to about twelve beers, the raging desert sun, and my own carsickness, I remember being on my knees in the dirt on the side of the road, retching my guts out while our party bus idled about twenty feet away. From that close a vantage point I’d have to agree with Mad Mike. The Earth looked pretty damn flat. I was so out of my head that I saw the flat world, and a flock of bats, and a talking iguana, and a hundred shiny rockets crashing out of the sky, and a million angels dancing on sunbeams, and Jim fucking Morrison, and the lost tribe of the Clock People, and the rhythmic frenzy of the Tarahumara drum circles, and every other mystery that the desert holds in its vast emptiness, and reveals from time to time as an invitation to a seeker with the proper type of mind. That’s why I salute Mad Mike. In a world of rehash and formula, it’s nice to know some folks are doing their best to shake loose the tedium of predictability, and put a little movement under our feet, and we can go with them on the big slide, and improbably elevate to a place where the air is sweet, and the view is beautiful.

Cheers, Mad Mike. I’m going to drink your beer for you. You would’ve wanted me to, I know.

More Alembics…

No Name Maddox

I was quite outraged the other week to hear that Charles Manson has been released from prison. Even though he is in his eighties the guy, last I checked, is absolutely unrepentant. It’s only a matter of time, I fear, before he sets about putting his infamous cult back together, happy that there is still no shortage of outcasts and losers to continue his campaign to bring about Helter Skelter, his apocalyptic race war.

“They released him because he died,” someone clarified to me.
“Oh. Very good then. Carry on.”

And there you have it. Old Charlie was the world’s most infamous serial killer who never actually killed anybody, depending on how you look at it. He got young acid-heads to do his work for him, which is pejoratively impressive, yet impressive just the same. Most people can’t even get somebody stoned on acid to move over on the couch so they can sit down. Forget about ordering them to pile into a van, drive to the Hollywood Hills, scale a fence, murder a bunch of people, scrawl words on the walls in blood, get back into the van, avoid the Jefferson Airplane concert at the Whiskey A Go-Go, and find their way back to Spahn Ranch. Charlie was eloquent and charismatic and ultimately dumb. To bring about a race war there was no need to go murdering wealthy white people. He could’ve just instructed his followers to secretly, in the dead of night, remove all the Confederate statues from Virginia to Louisiana, leaving a note at each site saying, “You white motherfuckers have held us down long enough.” Done and done.

America back then would’ve looked like Syria today.

His failure is our gain, and yesterday’s pig is today’s sausage patty. We can be grateful that the internet wasn’t invented back in the late sixties, or Manson’s story could’ve ended quite differently. Instead of a few dirty wanderers laying around the California desert Manson could’ve had a worldwide legion of acolytes, like ISIS, appearing in digital form in every corner of the globe to tell people to hack everything to pieces. Disaster averted, for the time being.

Speaking of disasters, I was watching a video the other day of a robot doing a backwards somersault. Some jokers from Boston Dynamics created a cyborg that can do a standing backflip. When asked why, they released a statement saying, “We just wanted to create a computer that can do what humans do.” Hilarious.

Fair enough, although I know very few humans who can actually pull off a standing backflip and land on anything else but their head. If they really wanted to create a robot that does what humans do they could’ve created a robot that sits in a recliner and then they could’ve created another robot to fetch beers for the first robot while answering questions about what the weather is going to be later on and what time the game starts and who is that hot actress that is on that show that I like?

My fear of the backflipping robot was quickly overshadowed by a video of another robot. Her name is “Poppy” and she isn’t a robot but might as well be one. She is a teenage girl who, like Charles Manson, tries to get people to fall under her spell, except she does it through a series of YouTube videos. This is the next iteration of the Manson family. Poppy will probably be killing people in a few years, either directly with a knife or indirectly with bad art. Her leader is a fellow named Titanic Sinclair. Like the rocker Marilyn Manson, whose criteria for nomenclature in his band is to have the first name of a glamour icon and the last name of a serial killer, Titanic Sinclair seems to have arrived at his name by adopting the first name of a historic shipwreck and the last name of a muckraking writer.

Titanic Sinclair’s “Poppy” campaign is to sell ironic jailbait, cute girl, vapid sugar pop music, which is the same thing as normal jailbait, cute girl, sugar pop music, except that
old guys who watch “Poppy” videos can masturbate to it without all the guilt, because the videos are made with a hip self-awareness of how ridiculous the genre is, which makes all the difference.

Charles Manson was born “No Name Maddox.” His notorious identity came about some years later, cobbled together from this and that. So in a way he himself was an invention. Then again most famous people we recognize are invented. Who doesn’t love Issur Demsky. Allan Konigsberg. Robert Zimmerman. Farrokh Bulsara. Frances Gumm, and Marion Morrison. (Kirk Douglas. Woody Allen. Bob Dylan. Freddie Mercury. Judy Garland. John Wayne.)

Fuck it, I’m sold. I’m joining Titanic Sinclair’s cult. No more Paddy the Duke. I’m going to have to figure this out…okay, boat wreck. muckraker.
My name is now Lusitania Algren. Please to meet everybody!
More Alembics to come.

Outclassed by a Maniac

Fearful of the dangerous state of fatigue known as “karoshi,” in which people actually die from overwork, I decided to procrastinate. To tarry about. To idle.
It is the one way I refuse to depart from this world. Overwork. Luckily I am an American male, which means I have about as much chance of dying from overwork as I do from ovarian cancer. The word “karoshi” is itself Japanese. There is no English translation. It doesn’t exist here. Just like there is probably no word in Japanese for the phrase “sedentary obesity.” We own it. The closest Asians come to the translation is, “Big rock made of cholesterol. Never move.”
Anyway I was procrastinating. I decided to grab my theoretical surfboard and jump into the ocean of filth known as the “inter-web.”

It is a general rule that serial killers make terrible spokespersons. Nobody wants to buy a product whose testimonial is given by a psychotic butcher who indiscriminately takes the lives of countless innocents. To wit:
“I’m Dennis Rader, the famous “BTK” killer, for Scotch brand x-treme hold duct tape. When you are binding and torturing a victim, the last thing you need is a second rate adhesive that comes apart, rips easily, or loses its stickiness, allowing your target to flee the basement, or the abandoned shed to safety or even worse, a police station. Don’t let inferior duct tape land you in prison for the rest of your life. Use what the pros use. Scotch brand x-treme.”

Or how about…
“I’m Richard Ramirez, the “Night Stalker,” for Avia running shoes. Stalking around a city as big as Los Angeles all night is tough on my feet. Climbing through windows, sneaking through backyards, kicking in doors, and tormenting random citizens can be murder on my corns and bunions. Avia sneakers kept me one step ahead of the police for thirty or so killings. You’d have to be as sick and demented as me to wear any other sneakers. Don’t take chances. Use Avia.”

And finally,
“I’m Jeffrey Dahlmer for Poli-grip.”
You get the idea.

So I was disappointed with myself the other day when I chanced to read an article about a series of notorious murders that took place in Manchester, England in the 1960s. Dubbed the “Moors Murders,” a fiendish man and his fiendish moll set out to murder local children and dump their bodies along the British countryside. Caught and sentenced to a life in prison, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley languished and, lucky for everyone, finally died.

The posthumous fuss that Mr. Brady had created was that he had expressed his wish to have the “Witches Sabbath” portion of a Berlioz symphony played during his cremation. I wasn’t familiar with that particular piece of orchestration, and so thirty seconds after I read the article I was listening to the symphony on YouTube. Five minutes later I had purchased it, which made me pause for a moment. Had a serial killer just sold me some music?

To be fair it is an incredibly dynamic and lively piece. Berlioz himself was rumored to have been in a strong daze of opium during the composition, which would’ve been enough of a reason for me to buy it without the more grisly associations. I listened, entranced, sensitive within myself to any imminent urges of bloodlust. This is how they do it. The spirit of the killer moves through the music, infecting a kind of metempsychosis to an unsuspecting listener, like me, at which time I have the overwhelming urge to go out and slaughter the citizenry. The last thing I’ll remember is my computer asking me, “Are you sure you want to purchase Symphonie Fantastique from iTunes? (Do not ask me this again).” Then in a series of psychotic episodes my computer will keep asking me, “Are you sure you want to purchase this huge carving knife from Bass pro shops? (Do not ask me this again.)” “Are you sure you want to purchase five bags of lime from Pikes Nursery? (Do not ask me this again.)” “Are you sure you want to purchase shovels, rope and a hacksaw from Home Depot? (Do not ask me this again.)”

Later on, as I return to my senses in the holding cell of the Dekalb County jail, my blood-soaked excuse that the symphony made me do it will be mocked and derided. I would request that it be played after my limp corpse is taken down from the gallows pole. (This essay is turning out to be a little more morbid than I had anticipated. Luckily it is getting close to Halloween.)

I listened to the symphony a few times and felt no urge to do harm to my fellow man. Actually I was inspired creatively. I think what really had me annoyed was that a psychotic killer named Ian Brady was more cultured than I was. He has got time to kidnap and murder children yet somehow he still maintains a rather sophisticated attitude toward ethereal pieces of musical composition? He can allude to the great composers, actually suggesting to me pieces I may be drawn to. It is like a professor of classical literature waking up to find a burglar in his house who, after beating him, tying him up and stealing his valuables, tells him he should concentrate more on Chateaubriand’s dissonance between his romantic ideals and stop fussing over Swedenborg’s didactic categorizations.
“Motherfucker!” the professor would mutter through the gag in his mouth.

Perhaps this was the redemption. Like U2 performing “Helter Skelter” at the beginning of the movie Rattle and Hum, and Bono declaring, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles, we’re stealing it back!” The Berlioz symphony had to be taken back by the righteous so it could not be bastardized by the more sordid elements around the world. I listened and listened proudly. No more would the killer be a spokesman for the highest of the musical arts. We’d have the right people for the right product. I went back to browsing the internet just in time to see another commercial pop up.
“I’m Harvey Weinstein for match.com.”
[Skip Ad]
More Alembics to come