Dark Angels

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

“Paris changes! but my melancholy

Has not changed at all! New palaces, scaffolds,

Bricks, old suburbs, it all becomes allegory to me.” – Charles Baudelaire, “The Swan”

In July 2001 I sat with a musician in a café in Soho in Lower Manhattan, who I was interviewing for a magazine.  Having gotten over pleasantries, my interviewee, a long time inhabitant of the city, expressed his total alienation from what Manhattan, and presumably the rest of America had become.  He talked of how he felt that everything in American culture had become twisted, distorted beyond recognition, and that this was a culture in a state of hopeless decline.  I agreed with him.  Both of us felt like ghosts, hungry ones no doubt, wandering through the paradise of designer clothing stores and retail delights that now fill a neighborhood that in the 1960s and 1970s was the incubator of some of the most beautiful art, music, poetry that the world has ever known.  We were ghosts, yes, but still had access to these haunts and our feelings of disaffection were in a sense untenable, since we both enjoyed the good fortune to be able to enjoy the city on that warm summer afternoon at our leisure.  Two months later, the dust from the twisted, distorted metal framework, and the bodies and machines that inhabited it about a half mile down the road from where we sat, might have floated through the open doors of the café and settled on top of our cappuccinos.

I am very much aware that hindsight is 20/20 vision, but the fact remains that many people living in New York were angry about what happened to the city in the 1980s and 1990s.  Figuring out the contradictions involved in that anger, an anger born of our love for the city, is what this article is about.  Presumably, ever since there was a bohemian subculture in Manhattan, there were people who angry about what was happening to the city; bohemia is about doomed utopias, disenchantment.  I’m talking about a much more specific feeling, probably born from being immersed in the world of people with AIDS for most of the 1990s, and experiencing the discontinuity between their experience of life (especially before the protease inhibitors came along) and the Friends/Seinfeld world blossoming all around me.  I’m a natural born pessimist, so I believed that this world could not last.  But it carried on.  I believed that something was going to happen, had to happen, but it carried on.  Like everyone else, I was shocked by September 11 when it happened.  I had fantasized about some slow grinding recession or depression which would make all the Starbucks and Rite Aid branches go bust, that would drive “the yuppies” away and allow me to rent a cheap apartment in the East Village.  Or maybe some kind of Y2K apocalypse.  But despite the bursting of the stock market bubble, it didn’t happen.  Stranger still, even after September 11, everything still continues, although in a queasy, jittery way.  Is this a sign of the plucky resilience of ordinary New Yorkers, or a sign of a terminal inability to face a situation that is out of control?  Or both?

At one point during the late 1990s, I started writing a new version of Lord of the Rings, in which Mordor was Manhattan, the East River the Great River, and Brooklyn the Shire.  I wanted to capture the impotence of those of us with little money, and little interest in making any, in controlling what happened to the city that we lived in.  Thinking of those lines from Benjamin about the storm of progress heaping up its wreckage, which The Mekons quoted on “Sorceror”, I conceived Guiliani as a new Lord of the Rings, able to make and remake Manhattan at will, shifting around vast sums of money, reshaping the skyline and the street level of all the streets that I love, mocking the poor of the city, harrassing artists, eradicating all signs of the genuine street life of the city in favor of a suburban shopping mall imposed on everyone with brute force.

Of course, it was not entirely money that has reshaped our skyline in Sept. 2001, although Osama bin Laden did make his fortune in construction.  After September 11, I walked around the streets of New York, and it was incredibly hard for me to understand how some of the plane hijackers must have passed through those same streets, seen the incredible of explosion of cultures and peoples there, and were indifferent enough to them that they could want to destroy them. I guess what they were really interested in was the towers. The people in them, the people living on the streets around them were dispensable. Hmmmm. Sounds familiar. How could they not see that it means nothing to destroy a tower – that the wreckage, the frame-work is quickly carried away, the power structure that built the towers continues, in fact is invigorated by the damage, and the suffering that remains is felt by families who have lost someone. That’s all.

Yes, it’s amazing that someone out there in the world apparently regarded Manhattan as Mordor and hated it enough to want to destroy it.  Equally amazing that after 0911, The Lord of the Rings film, which was already in production when the disaster happened, could still be brought out, and become the box office smash that it has.  Just as Star Wars was to Reagan’s 1980s, so Lord of the Rings is to Bush’s 2000s.  But while the evil Empire and Communism were easily equated, who exactly is our Mordor?  Milton’s Satan says that “I myself am Hell!”  So maybe this time we are Mordor?  If Brooklyn is the Shire, it’s only because Manhattan is the visible symbol of American power and across the East River, the rest of the world, a dull sprawl of gas stations and mini-malls begins.  Not that that made any difference to those who drove planes into the twin towers, killing many people from the Shire.  The metaphor breaks down, doesn’t it?  Am I a part of The Shire or Mordor?  Both, really.  Better still, am I a hobbit … or an orc?  Another idea for a book I had was to retell the Lord of the Rings from the point of view of an orc, Good Soldier Schweyk style.  This orc would be lazy, totally uncommitted to Sauron’s plans for world domination, indifferent to elves, dwarves, hobbits, other orcs or Black Riders. I am not saying I admire this orc. I am saying such orcs exist.

The problem with the marketing of Tolkien’s conceit is that it was rabidly anti-industrial revolution, anti-modern state.  The world of technology, the military industrial complex is the world of Mordor.  Sure, maybe Tolkien was talking about fascism.  But Saruman’s glass ball, Sauron’s evil eye are techno-scientific wonders of the kind that dominate American culture at the millennium, just as the Black Riders on their monstrous horses, represent the fearsome powers of American military technology, such as those drone planes that recently smoked a group of Al Qaeda people driving down the highway in the Yemen, totally unaware (I presume) that they were about to be struck by a missile from an unseen drone plane and reduced to instant ashes.  Is it clear what I’m saying?  The narrative of the Lord of the Rings is to some degree the same narrative that the modern world hating Al Qaeda view the world from.  In a different way from Al Qaeda, who I abhor, it is a narrative that many of us in the counterculture view the world from too – however much our lives, immersed in technology such as the laptop on which I am writing this, contradict this feeling.  It’s a narrative that many Americans presumably identify with – since it’s endlessly marketed to us by Hollywood in movies like Independence Day.  Even the makers of the movie The Two Towers seem confused about whether a tower is a good or a bad thing.  In Tolkien’s book, The Two Towers are Isengard, home of Saruman, a formerly noble place, now mysteriously turned evil,  and the noble tower of Gondor, Minas Tirith.  They represent a balance, a polarity of good and evil power – a polarity maintained throughout the trilogy. In the movie, somehow, the tower of Gondor has all but disappeared, and the two most visible “towers” are now the evil Isengard (which moreover appears to have always been evil) and Sauron’s towering Mount Doom.  As though it was impossible to imagine a “good” tower any more – or maybe a tower not associated with trauma.  Note that the winning design for the restored World Trade Center contains nothing that resembles a tower.  Are all towers now to be shunned?

The cover of the new Rhys Chatham compilation on Table of the Elements suggests an answer.  It’s a photo taken by Robert Longo of one of the ornate top stories of one of those turn of the century warehouse type buildings in Soho, with ornate mock classical decorations around the windows and the flat roof.  Or for all I know, it’s one of those buildings that fringe Central Park, which are beautiful too.  The photo is taken so that this single building appears to be reaching up to the sun.  It looks imperial, but fragile too.  It’s the kind of building that Frank O’Hara would have called beautiful in a poem in a way that everyone would understand, but whose beauty now, in retrospect, appears to be at least in part connected to its imperial status.  For decades, the rest of America despised New York, and so the gesture of saying that the Chrysler Building is beautiful, which I, and Frank O’Hara, and millions of others, have made, made some kind of sense.  New York’s beauty was something fierce, something that needed to be affirmed.  Somehow it was something that could be affirmed even by those who couldn’t afford to live there.  I can’t claim that I never thought about the imperial nature of the city – it was the architecture, its sublimity, that first struck me when I visited the city in 1982.  That and hiphop, graffiti.  Somehow the combination of the two even: this vast sublime architecture, the expression of imperial power, and the wildness of the street, the subway, so opposed to one another, yet somehow inhabiting the same space.  To what degree does the roar of sheer electric exuberance that comes from the great artifacts of downtown Manhattan’s cultural heyday (early Bob Dylan, John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Velvet Underground, abstract expressionism, Martin Scorsese’s films, beat poetry, punk rock and nowave, hiphop, even Chatham’s noise minimalism) come from the power of those towers?

And what went wrong, so that the culture that Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine and so many others were a part of disappeared, moved to Europe, or migrated to the internet?  Finally, to what degree did that wall of noise, the roar of art, even the sleaze of the old Times Square somehow protect all these towers of industry?  The full title of Chatham’s compilation is An Angel Moves Too Fast To See.  Is it possible that all those dark angels that fill Scorsese and Abel Ferrara’s New York films were driven away by Giuliani in the 1990s?  It’s an absurd thought, completely unprovable in every sense.  But it points to another side of the Magical Politics that several people in this issue discuss.  The world of magical politics, in Mick Taussig’s expression, is the murky realm of manipulation of the “power of the souls of the violently killed, the unquiet dead ranging over continental drift …  this magical universe of warring spirits, metamorphoses, illusions, confusions and secrecy.”  In terms of New York, that would be the streets, that murk and chaos out of which, as Rem Koolhaas described in his book Delirious New York, the pristine power of those towers arose.  Koolhaas thought that it was New York’s grid, and the austerity of the architecture that led to the chaos going on in the streets, and in the lofts where monstrous erotic, aesthetic carnivals played themselves out.  But what if it was the other way around?  That all that chaos, the violence and exuberance of the streets, the drugs, the discos, the art, poetry and music being cooked up around the city, everything that Giuliani despised about the city, was actually what sustained the towers? And that when Giuliani successfully “cleaned up the city” in the 1990s, drove out most of the remaining artists, got rid of the sleaze of the old Times Square and made everyone behave like they were in Switzerland, he actually destroyed a delicate balance that protected the city, a balance between the cool, sleak, hard, straight lines of the towers, and the turbulence murk and darkness that constitutes city life. The new sanitized city became out of balance, the angels that protected it fled, and it became vulnerable to attack.

Why did Rome fall?  Why did Paris cease to be the center of modern art around World War II?  These are obviously very complex questions.  I want to point to a way of thinking about these questions that I haven’t seen discussed, that’s all.  I don’t know that I believe in angels.  I do believe, like Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, who quit New York for Toronto in the 1960s, that cities thrive or die according to the richness of the people and cultures who inhabit them.  There is a profane magic to the anarchy of great cities that is not a matter of metaphor.  This magic does not belong to the Giulianis of this world, however much they like to flatter themselves that it does.  It’s turbulent, murky, out of control, offensive and scary.  It was also an important part of what I love about New York, and in a strange way I did feel protected by it.  A sanitized city is not necessarily a safe one.  I think Jacobs left the city way too early.  I hope it’s still not too late.

Jon Hassell: There Was No Avant Garde

hassellThis was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

I spoke to Jon Hassell by telephone last summer on a bright summer morning, while I was living in the Catskills, surrounded by huskies, cats, lumbering bears, Sufi gurus, and other types of beings. Hassell was very open and direct, curious and human, obviously still very moved by memories of time spent with Pandit Pran Nath. If you listen to his early records, like Vernal Equinox, Possible Musics, Aka-Darbari-Java and Dream Theory in Malaya, you can really hear the fruit of his study with Guruji – it’s all meend, all bending, curving glissandos, morphing shape and pattern. It’s a mistake to interpret Hassell’s work of this period as some kind of post-modern collage of styles. He’s trying to explore or create places where different methods of making music converge with each other, not through the sentiment of some kind of World Music, but experimentally, with the idea of Universal Sound always present to encourage exploration and affirm the possibility of communication. This remains a challenge and a goal worthy of aspiration to today. This interview in Perfect Sound Forever will give you a broader sense of Hassell’s history, while the Jon Hassell Power Spot has discographies, background on Fourth World and more. David Toop’s thoughtful piece on Fourth World from The Wire is also recommended.

JH: When I ran into Pran Nath, it was at a certain point in the development of my musical signature. I was not so well-formed as Terry and La Monte. I always felt I was slightly privileged in that my musical style was still in the process of being formed, and therefore I could weave it into my own particular blend of things whereas with Terry and La Monte, the influence came at a different angle.

MB: Can you trace out what the transition for you was when you studied with Pran Nath?

JH: To me it was an introduction to a microworld of connections. He didn’t normally allow people to record lessons but he did allow me to record one or two and I probably wore out the pause button on my cassette player, just going through and making sure I was picking up every note that was being sung. For me that was a complete revelation. Coming into it from an educated Western point of view listening to Indian music you hear the ornamentation and … from the outside, it’s like a child listening to Indian music trying to imitate it and going (imitates “snake charmer” music) without knowing what’s actually there. It was such a revelation to me, to see that there was this background grid on which these arabesques were being traced – and how it extended the range of possibilities that had been laid out for me in Western musical training.

MB: And you didn’t find that kind of nuaunce in jazz?

JH: What it revealed to me was that jazz was a subset, a “raga family” … because there were a fairly limited set of intervalic variations. But because raga is all about shape-making, it turned me on to seeing African and African-American music, every music through the lens of that shape-making ability. The “calligraphy in air” aspect was such an immense revelation for me. When you hear Pran Nath singing the beginning of a raga and after 15 minutes you realize that he’s only touched on the first three notes, then you see how much is lacking in the western system: you know, here’s the C lily pad, here’s the C sharp, the D lily pad … leaping from pad to pad in that mosaic way, ignoring the connective tissue, the shape making that’s possible between these pitches, which opens up an incredibly vast territory of thinking about music. But, coming in when I did, I didn’t leave anything out, it wasn’t like I had time to become the world’s greatest raga trumpet player and tour the world playing classical raga. I wasn’t 21 when I started studying with him. And that idea, “oh isn’t it quaint how the elephant can dance the ballet,” is somewhat limited … the “trick” of playing something on an instrument that’s never played it before. I mean it’s a cool thing to do but it was out of reach for me … and it just didn’t appeal to me so much. I couldn’t leave behind all the other stuff that I was interested in … Electric Miles Davis … “On The Corner” is the record I always cite …. I had to incorporate all these things I loved into what I did. I tried to open myself to all of it. Certainly the biggest single factor in my development was coming into contact with Pran Nath.

MB: So raga provided the grid for fusing whatever needed to be fused.

JH: It was a window through which I could see other things. The last record I did – Fascinoma – has two Guruji tamburas on it … it’s like a return to my first record Vernal Equinox, on which the raga influence was more prevalent. It’s all one microphone in one church space, no sleight of hand editing of the tape. I also allowed myself to play things I’d never allowed myself to, like Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. Having an appreciation for the shape making ability of raga, led me to finally see things like Johnny Hodges, the alto player with Duke Ellington, who was famous for all these swoops and curves … and a singer like Jimmy Scott, anyone who shaped a music that way … It was a lens through which I started to see things in my own culture from a different angle.

MB: What is lacking in the raga worldview, in terms of envisioning your own music and what you want to do with it? What did you most want to add or incorporate?

JH: A kind of earthiness, an urban quality that you find in the African American approach to things – that synthesis of high and low, that was brought to things by Miles, among others. That was the part that I had grown up on. The things you’re impressed by when you’re in your formative years are going to stay there forever. So it wasn’t likely that I was going to don a white cloth and go off into the mountains and deny whatever it was that made me thrilled when I heard a magic chord progression or some beautiful Brazilian song. Even though raga is definitely sensual. I always talk about the realization that all the other so called classical musics in the world are sensual as well as structural. In Western music it’s often been reduced to something simply structural and the sensual part is often underdeveloped. It’s that combination of structure with sexiness, to use the word that’s lurking behind this talk. Think of Indian classical art with it’s refined sensuality, in which there is no difference between spiritual and sensual. Speaking of it from a Western point of view we always say, well you take a little of this and you add a little of that, but the real story is that sensuality/spirituality is a completely organic thing, there is no separation. In fact, one of the ragas that Pran Nath told me about, the lyric, maybe Lalit, was about girls holding hands, dancing in fields of flowers, they’re like garlands of flowers themselves. This was of course related to the love of God. But that whole ecstasy, from high to low, and the beauty of the girls, the deep spirituality of it, is all clustered together in one concept. The language is not made for speaking about these things. You have to be very careful, otherwise you fall into a trap like wrapping up a sentence with “a concept” – that’s not where it is! It’s pre- and post- “concept” …

MB: Which is what allows it to fuse at many levels, right? Is it hard for you to think of Pran Nath’s singing as sensual?

JH: No, not at all. If you think about the curves, the motion of his hands in the air, he could be describing a Marilyn Monroe shape.

MB: Did he talk much about that?

JH: No. I just knew it was there. He certainly appreciated women and had a healthy libido. Everyone will agree. He had a twinkle in his eye. I always felt that was one of the sine qua nons of music …

MB: That it had that sensuous, incarnate quality …

JH: Yes. And without that it becomes dry and intellectual. In fact I’ve been collecting notes for a book, the title of which is The North and South of You, as in the Cole Porter song. It’s basically about this Western dysfunction between the North and the South, not only globally speaking, but bodily speaking. The equator is the belt line …

MB: It’s a fine idea. Although in the last 30 years, maybe there’s been a kind of global warming that has changed some of this?

JH: Not really. It’s on everybody’s mind of course. The tensions that arise from this imbalance are expressed every place. The public manifestations of the consciousness of it is much greater than before. But it’s still operative. The worldview of Northern people who don’t have a great relationship to the Southern parts of their body is still the one that prevails, and that’s the one that’s causing all the trouble. There’s not proper respect for the “gifts of the South”, shall we say.

MB: I started a book that would be a personal erotic history where I would go through every erotic moment of significance in my life, and use the word “erotic” in the broadest possible way, so that it could describe all kinds of forms of sensuality …

JH: That’s what’s included in this book. The subtitle is “An Erotic Worldview”.

MB: Most of the books that have been written on this subject are pretty disappointing. And very few are written by white men. The few books that are out there that are any good tend to be written by women.

JH: Sounds right.

MB: My feeling is that the “erotic” world dissolves the more you look into it, and enter it: it exists as this powerful heightened Southern world so long as you’re not in it. But once you’re in it, it’s intensity turns into something else, and that’s what interests me the most now.

JH: Maybe you’re speaking of this state of grace that I mentioned in the raga sensibility, in which everything is fused so that it’s impossible to separate. That’s probably an ideal.

MB: Yeah, you’re left with something that could become anything. The erotic is left as a connective tissue.

JH: Well, it’s pretty fundamental. Everything that happens comes from that connection. The erotic experience of sliding down the uterine canal … that’s a fairly good hint as to what we consider fundamental. I view it as a fact of animals who have become so abstract that they’ve lost contact with their animal origins and therefore separate everything into “us” and “them”. Some humans have stayed closer to that, and are … quite “amusing” to northern people who go on vacation to the South. But their world view is not respected enough to be seen with the same weight as the classical Northern view.

MB: I guess we should return to Pandit Pran Nath.

JH: Oh, I don’t think we’ve ever departed (laughter).


MB: When and where did you study with Pran Nath?

JH: I’d just come from studying with Stockhausen for 2 years in Germany and I was new to this whole minimal idea. I was in Buffalo with Terry and played on In C … It must have been ’73, ’74 that I actually moved to New York, and started playing with La Monte – that’s when I came into this sphere, being around him and playing in the Dream House, listening to those overtones and intervals magically connecting, often on some hashish cocktail.

MB: Just from seeing a video of Pran Nath, I got a strong smoker’s vibe …

JH: Not him. The Indian thing is … bhang grows alongside the road there. When you’re studying and living in the forest, and it’s music music music all day, the first thing you touch when you wake up in the morning is the chillum. Those things you see in those classical Indian paintings … ladu, little balls of bhang and almond paste … To write a history of music without that concept of ecstasy, of intoxication, is to write a history of the world without noting that it didn’t take place in the glare of electric light.

MB: And it’s a history of embodiment, of relationships with nature, connections with the divine through nature, through material processes.

JH: Right.

MB: But Pran Nath was not particularly a hashishin.

JH: Not really, that was more the Dream House. Doing those long sessions and tuning up those intervals. I’ll never forget that.

MB: One of the things that’s said about hashish is that it allows a micro-perception of intervals …

JH: I’d say microworlds rather than microintervals. La Monte talks about this … listening in the present tense. And also vertical listening. As opposed to listening to a line unfold in time, you’re presented with a timbre and you scan the timbre up and down vertically and listen to little areas. I did a piece called Solid State while I was in residence at the at the Center for Creative and Performing Arts, at SUNY Buffalo, which can be seen as an attempt to bring into the audible range that overtone area – bring it into a more fundamental range, then carve away at it with sequential filtering. That was all coming out of my experience with the Dream House and Terry Riley – we did his In C there. I used to present it as a sound sculpture in museum spaces. It was working with this idea of a block of sound, but I added a kinetic energy to it through sequential filtering. The concept was like beginning with a piece of paper that was all black with pencil lead and then making shapes on it by erasing.

MB: So you were mixing this live?

JH: Yes. Although the fundamental piece was done on 2 track tape. We did it at the planetarium in Amsterdam a few years ago, which turned out to be the perfect place for it!

MB: So when did you actually formally study with Pran Nath?

JH: There was an intense period of study when we were both in New York in 1973, 4. I began studying just by singing, and shortly after I started playing trumpet. And I had to forget everything I knew about playing and really learn to play the mouthpiece instead of the trumpet. The trumpet is a glorified bugle. It’s made to touch wide intervals until you get to the upper partials … by the way, some people think that’s the theory behind those high Brandenberg Concerto trumpet parts… I had to find a way to make the meend – which I tried to do by trying to use the lips as a secondary voice, as if transferring the vibration point from the vocal fold to the lips and thinking of it as a conch sound, blowing primitively into it and making the pitches with just the lips and the resonating chamber. I had to blow across the normal overtone “notches” and, as a result, the sound became quite fuzzy and vocal. That was a pleasant side effect of attempting to make the meend happen.

MB: Were you involved in other musical projects while you were studying with Pran Nath?

JH: No. I left for California in 1975 … I went through a lot of personal stuff … which was all part of the birth of what I’ve called “Fourth World”. I was just practicing with my raga lessons and my pause button. I lived in a little place in Malibu near the ocean and I’d go up into the hills and practice and try to make those curves. I basically studied “Tilang” for two years or more … and just the alap … I never really got beyond it …

MB: Was “Tilang” a raga that Pran Nath particularly taught?

JH: It was certainly special between him and me. In India, that’s what I was working on. Whenever it would come on the radio and he started to sing a bit of it outside of a lesson, I knew he was still teaching me.

MB: How many times did you go to India?

JH: Just once.

MB: Any particular memories?

JH: Just the ecstasy of being there in the temple. I think La Monte and Marian were staying in the temple, my then girlfriend DeFracia and I were staying in a hotel down the road, and we’d come to the temple early in the morning, and Swamiji (Narayan), Guruji’s spiritual guru, he was there. I remember playing on the roof for him. He came up and sat and listened to me, with these brilliant eyes shining and smiling, seeing what I was doing on the trumpet. We would go to the market, buy two ladu … it made the day go like … water! I was often on ladu, and listening to the children sing, the arti bells clapping, the swallows overhead, the muezzin singing from the minaret nearby, I mean it was total ecstasy, it was so beautiful.

MB: Sounds like a fourth world foundational experience right there.

JH: Totally. Totally.

MB: What did people there think of you playing the trumpet?

JH: They just accepted it. There was even a fabled trumpet player spoken of there … I mean they use clarinet in those wedding bands. It wasn’t like oh my god you can’t do this …

MB: But most people studied singing with him …

JH: First I started vocal … but then I started transferring it to trumpet.

MB: Did he ask you to do that?

JH: No. There was a festival that we did in Rome in the early 1970s. La Monte was doing a Dream House, Guruji was singing too, and I was warming up in the space one day, playing some pattern, and Guruji picked it up and started singing it and running rings around it and I thought, why am I not studying with this man? I’d seen him perform for months or maybe a year before I decided to study.

MB: Did you formally become a disciple?

JH: Not formally. I was always on the outside a little bit. I profited from that in some way. I think he respected where I was and respected the slight distancing. Too close to the guru you burn up, too far away you’re too cold. I always felt there was a nice blend of master, pupil and friend.
MB: That’s the sense I have from almost everyone I’ve talked to …

JH: Yeah. Terry and I when we see each other, we think about how he would laugh. Oh ho ho. just to say that … He’d come across a beautiful thing or a beautiful girl or a beautiful vista. And he’d say “oh ho ho!” in a special way. It was more beautiful than I can … as you can tell I’m starting to mist up over here!


M: My feeling is that all the action is in that middle space where things are mixing and fusing. Hungry Ghost will be devoted to this issue of fusion, tradition and experiment in contemporary culture.

JH: Find another word for fusion! That rings a bell and Pavlov’s dog comes out, dripping.

MB: You start using words like matrices …

JH: (laughing) No, don’t do that either! I try to cultivate a very direct, extemporaneous manner … try to say things directly without going into art critic speak. Try to say the thing in the most direct way, avoiding words that push people’s buttons and cause them to slam the door shut as they read.

MB: Yeah, part of Hungry Ghost is about discussing spirituality and the sacred in modern culture, and those are two more words that you can’t really use or wouldn’t want to use. So the whole venture is about inventing a space or vocabulary for things that we’re unable to talk about without the associations being so heavy that people are turned off or think they already know what’s gonna be said.

JH: Wordism is what I call it. Here’s something I wrote about it: “the words are all on a transparent film. the experiences to which they refer are taking place seamlessly behind the film overlay. the words are like digital samples of a continuous analog experience. if you focus on the word-film, the experience becomes a blur, the way that focusing on an insect on your car windshield prevents you from seeing the road in the distance clearly. Preverbal experience of primitive people takes place entirely behind the overlay or rather without it. Early verbal cultures see the word and the thing which it names in somewhat equal focus, connected by an invisible membrane. Later verbal cultures come to see only the verbal overlay, with a vague blur of experience behind. As Homo sapiens lives ever more in the realm of symbols the membrane connecting thing and symbol atrophies. Discourse becomes a same-symbol with-different-underlying-meanings/same-meaning-with-different-underlying-symbols quicksand.”

MB: That was part of what my book about drugs was about. I wanted to reconfigure the idea of both drugs and literature, since they’re both actually types of embodied experience. The particular ways in which modern people relate to the notion of embodiment and how they think culture relates to that idea, completely determined the fate of drugs and literature in our world. There’s no such thing as “drugs”, there’s just a set of attitudes and laws, in which these things appear which we call drugs because they set off a certain set of alarms, desires, fears …

JH: Exactly. “Intoxication” is a word I use to jump over “drugs”. And to say that intoxication is the fourth drive, along with sex, hunger and thirst. Intoxication is essential as any of those. It’s a primal need, which expresses itself in various ways, sanctioned or not.

MB: To what degree did your thinking about preverbal culture evolve through studying with Pran Nath?

JH: Well, as far as the fundamental root is concerned, it’s smack dab in the center. The collision of my western training with this raga culture, which is a complete embodiment of sensuality and structure … like Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, where the game was a combination of all science, art all in one thing. If anything came close to that it was raga. And who knows that art? Who would have the knowledge to understand how many things converge in that, being able to summon up the memory of this particular calligraphic event or situation. See the language breaks down into scientific stuff. Raga is like this smoke in the air which presents the listener with the feeling of being in a dream which imparts knowledge all at once. It reminds me of Terence McKenna’s saying that drugs are chemical gifts of the gods … it’s almost like a printed circuit, or an operating system that you may as well consider sacred … the chemical result of a plant that allows your brain to receive a certain kind of knowledge all in one swoop.

MB: And that raga is another way of addressing that circuit … and that concern with mood in the raga is that preverbal experience of knowledge.

JH: Right, all imprinted in the person who has opened their receptors enough to have the whole picture come in.

MB: To what degree do you feel that Pran Nath knew what he was doing?

JH: Well, he wouldn’t be able to talk about it as I am now. Even though he could say it in his own way. But being of one world and being acquainted with others, it’s become quite important to me and I’ve focused a lot on trying to say things like this in a language that might be understood by other people.

MB: Did he comment on your music?

JH: Actually, yes. “Graduation Day” for what I was doing was when I played him a track off Possible Musics called “Charm” in which I’m doing a lot of meend, a lot of shape making. It’s over a kind of tambura. I felt that everything I did was a way of transforming the basic structure of the raga situation: there’s a solo in front, there’s a background grid, the tambura, and I just said OK, let’s smear this image up a bit, let’s not use the traditional way, let’s do it another way, try this one, try that one, that’s where it all began, and you extrapolate from there … just like a painter would, start with a set of assumptions, limitations etc and paint your way out of them, and back into them, and then out of them again …

MB: And you played “Charm” to Pran Nath?

JH: Right. He said “This is good”. So that was a big moment for me. That he could actually see how something could be taken and how his art could be absorbed and translated in another way. In the same way that raga itself has always depended on personalities – maybe the variations between singers in a tradition is much more subtle – but still it all had to do with personalities, saying “I like the way this sounds, this makes me cry” … that must have been a part of …

MB: But this was about more than personalities. He must have been aware that his closest American students were musicians who were involved in a very different kind of music. And yet he himself seems so traditional. Did he have aspirations for his music?

JH: No, I don’t think so. I think he just did what he did. And was certainly expansive enough to understand how things grow and don’t stay static. But as for his own work, in the same way that we’ve said that sensuality and structure, or spirituality and sexuality, can be bound together, that they’re not separable, you could also say that for him forward and backward were also the same. There was no avant-garde. Except that probably while we were lying around listening to his music, as all sensitive musicians would, he probably understood what things we were really getting off on. and “played to the crowd” I hope. And if you’re not “playing to the crowd”, what are you doing?

MB: Do you think he spelled an end to minimalism? Basically after meeting him everyone went off and did something else.

JH: It just opened a wider panorama of possibilities. To a certain extent it took some of the wind out of the sails of a particular way of thinking about things. In other words, there was something better to do than that. My definition of minimalism is keeping one thing constant while other things move, and that generalized notion could be applied in many ways, including raga.

Charlemagne Palestine: Searching for the Golden Sound

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

bethdavidsinging 2I spoke to Charlemagne Palestine by telephone, he in Belgium, in New York in the summer of 2001, after his return from a trip to Iceland. Palestine, as he himself says, met Pandit Pran Nath outside of the circle of musicians and composers associated with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, although his work is animated by a similar interest in minimalist strategies for composition and improvisation, and a concern with the transcendental qualities of sound. If you don’t know Palestine’s work, his interview with Brian Duguid should set you straight. For myself, I’ve never witnessed any of Palestine’s legendary live performances, but I love the CDs of Strumming Music, Schlingen Blangen and Karenina, each of which overflows with euphoric intensity. In conversation, Palestine’s voice has an extraordinary musical quality, full of spaces, half finished phrases that convey his meaning musically and poetically, always feeling their way beyond the words.

MB: How did you first meet Pran Nath?
CP: It was at the end of the sixties … I was living on the upper west side of Manhattan in a neighborhood that was known for jazz musicians. A neighbor of mine told me that he’d just heard this incredible singer, and he invited me to go hear him. I’d already sung Jewish sacred music as a child, and was already excited by all kinds of music. So I went, and I heard Pran Nath sing, and he was great. He was looking for students, as where he was staying was only 7 or 8 blocks from where I was living on the upper west side, he was living on 95th Street with two disciples of Baba Ram Dass. So I started to work with him. Immediately it went very easy, since I came from a background of Jewish sacred music, especially his kind of chanting, my voice adapted very well. Within a few weeks, people sometimes mistook me for him. I was a young kid. I mean I was imitating the timbre of his voice, not that I was a great Indian singer. At the beginning, when you learned with him in those days, he tried to help you find the sa. Like the om, the do in Western music. He would do amazing variations on this [sings sa in very PPN way], and then you’d learn the scales. I’d already learnt that in music school … I’d been searching for a sacred sound in Jewish music so it came very easily to me. I was about 20 years old …
I studied with him for a few months, and he taught me how to use the tambura, and we’d sing sa and the different notes. He asked me if I wouldn’t be his disciple, which meant spending much much time with him. And at my age, it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. So at a certain moment I stopped working with him. But for all the following years, because sometimes I had political musical problems with the other generation, Pran Nath always included me in every situation where I was there. He always waved to me – though I never sang to him, and it was clear why, because the idea of giving a commitment and finally the amazing commitment that La Monte, Marian and Terry gave was something I could never imagine giving another person. But this link came because of the sounds themselves and my tradition, I started as a singer, not a keyboard player or composer. I started in music as a singer. And my relationship with synagogue singing. And this put us on a level of very powerful musical communication, which was great. I know he was disappointed, and somewhere, so was I, but even now … some people say my music is very meditative or centering … but all the guruisms and gurujiisms … that kind of giving your life to another culture like India … though I had many dear friends who were great musicians, and we can even say holy men from India, from Africa … I loved all that stuff … But as my culture had disintegrated as a tribal culture, a Jewish New Yorker in the late sixties is not in a Hasidic community, I was already too worldly, too restless to want to return to a foreign culture. But he never excluded me. When there were problems and because I could be a very disruptive person when I felt cornered, he always took my side by including me in the family even though I was the prodigal son who never finally did spend those kinds of years which his technique and his position and Indian music and dance demand. It demands daily commitment. It’s not something you can do just like that.

MB: What do you think you learnt from him?
CP: I’d put it more sociologically. There was a great division in my childhood between Oriental or I should say Jewish Oriental sacred music, classical music, jazz, rock … everything was separated. What he brought by coming to America and by inspiring a bunch of people like Jon Hassell and so on … all of a sudden you have a whole bunch of guys, I mean La Monte is a Mormon, Terry Riley’s an Irish west coaster, I’m a Jewish New Yorker … at that time we were very conscious of being a very un-tribal culture, meaning that we were all searching for a kind of identity … all was possible but all our family and tribal units our own born tribal units had disintegrated into an American pablum, and so it was hard to say who you were if you were American. What his being there helped me to feel was that I was continuing the chant of the synagogue, and along with his chant …we were all part of some larger force that was coming of age, that would then create a kind of world … even now the audience of young people who listen to my music and get it astounds me … in those days there were so few people who got it. And people were so fragmented … you were either in this kind of world or that kind of world … so his being there and attracting so many people and his coming from such an ancient culture … was a very powerful social force, bringing this ancient tribal tradition, which musicians like us had lost touch with, certainly white musicians.

MB: What about this tradition was important that it should manifest in the west?
CP: Ooof. It even happened with Merce Cunningham or John Cage …. at a certain moment, we were given all the freedom to do what we want. I went to conservatory, and there were people I met, and even now there are people who spend their lives from the time they’re 7, 12 hours a day developing a musical tradition – piano, voice … it’s a paternal or maternalistic system … ballerinas for instance … so it’s not like you wake up in the morning and you’re the king of your own world and you invent your own music. It’s something that came out of the western [classical?] idea … but at a certain moment you wake up in the morning and you say: well what the hell do I want to do?? That system that came from an ancient place where there’s already this hierarchy where you don’t have to think about what to do for years and years, maybe for 30 years you won’t have to think about what to do because there’s someone above you who will show you, who will mold you, who will inspire and guide you. And that aspect of guruisms that I used to criticize I understand because there were many very interesting and intelligent people who felt that need. That was one of the things that drugs tried to … that’s why someone like Richard Alpert becomes Baba Ram Dass … he too was looking for another force bigger than himself to show him some great magic in the world that he could no longer do by himself. That’s maybe what psychedelia was about. That you took some kind of another force, whether it was a human being or a drug which … you were no longer the top of your heap … you were more like a leaf in the wind where somebody else took care of the power structure. And that I think was somehow very important in those times. Especially … for a lot of white people … although I’m Jewish I lived in a white society … but because I was born in a culture that’s not exactly white through and through, so I had this ancient link … maybe you have this still in Ireland … but in America we’ve lost that. Maybe in the UK you still go to a place and ancientness is still there. In Iceland, they arrived in 900 AD, but when I watch them and see what they do … 900 is not such a long time ago. That comes out of the simplicity of a tribal culture. Iceland is a modern culture, but it’s a very tribal culture.

MB: And it’s to do with discipline … discipline produces a kind of authentic experience?
CP: … And it lets you know that carrying on a tradition is OK. That you don’t have to be an iconoclast every day, you don’t have to destroy what was there yesterday. I was brought up with that notion of genius: that you do something that nobody else did and you try not even to do what you did after awhile otherwise you’re already finished. Which is the contrary of the oriental tradition where you make more and more perfect the tradition which goes from generation to generation … and certainly he was the incarnation in this time of a very ancient tradition. So he was him, but he was also an entire culture.

MB: Are there particular works of yours, where you do see the resonance of your studies with Pran Nath?
CP: Well, Karenina is an easy one. That came out just after his death. Schlingen-Blangen is a kind of sa piece. It’s not sung, it’s sung by an enormous instrument, but it’s a way of humming in space … but in a funny way my teacher Sebastian Engelberg, Austrian Jew in the opera tradition, died quite a few years before, that’s why he became my teacher … he was looking for the golden sound. The whole concept for me of the golden sound was the sa of Pandit Pran Nath.

MB: The sound that contains all the possibilities of sound?
CP: Yeah – and the search for this perfect sound. And the pure voice without anything else is the most intimate and expressive sound that a being can make. If its an animal, their screech … the bark of a dog … for me there’s nothing more intimate, and the essence of the animal or the being is the voice. Even though I did many things that were not the voice. But I started with the voice. And he was the voice.

MB: But even your non-vocal drone pieces …
CP: Yeah I see them as taking that ideal and putting it in another context. In my sense I don’t know what that perfection is. Finally I do it in a very sort of Jewish way … searching, neurotic, schizophrenic, frenetic, sometimes calm sometimes chaotic, searching for this perfection … a way that’s kind of Kabballic … something unattainable … it’s not like a beautiful smiling Buddha on a mountaintop somewhere. Meaning, for somebody for me.

MB: It’s more of a struggle …
CP: Exactly. And he was a struggling man. He loved his whisky …

MB: I heard he had a taste for Chivas Regal …
CP: As did my father. As do I! (laughs) Sometimes to very cataclysmic extremes. On that level I also touched with him. Though we didn’t discuss it.

MB: Did you have a sense of what the struggle was about?
CP: A sense of what the struggle was about … well … life is a struggle! Certainly when you’re in a tradition like that, with a continuity, with that as a center, a pole to secure yourself from the winds that can throw you from side to side … and the creative process … someone like him was not just a good virtuoso singer … because also in India you find people like the Dagar Brothers who are fantastic virtuosos. And maybe also because he also was out of his culture too he rarely went home, he preferred to be in the west. As we were tormented by being a lost culture looking for our roots, he was tormented, being from a culture with enormous roots that he could no longer socially live in as a normal member of. He had a lot of ghosts and angst that in traditional Indian society were not looked well upon. But he wasn’t the only one … I met others … and you see it with jazz musicians too … they gave all their lives to their music, and their personal lives were less ecstatic than the sounds they made and they suffered from all these questions and problems dealing with that, as many artists do.

MB: Right. You see it in a lot of the spiritual teachers who came from wherever they came to the west in the sixties and seventies too. Moving to the west and taking on that sort of rootlessness was something very painful.
CP: It makes me think … the difference between drinking in a culture and drinking like that is that you’re alone. In Greece, even in French families, there are thirty of you and you’re drinking for a festale, a marriage. You’re all together – it’s not lonely. But then you come to another culture, and it becomes a lonely kind of task, and that creates another kind of alcohol.

MB: It’s said that Jewish people are less susceptible to alcoholism because they tend to be raised in families where alcohol is used in a social context, and it’s much more integrated into their lives.
CP: In my family that was the epoch when my father drank with his brothers and cousins and his Chivas Regal was a social drink. I drank with him at the table for shabas, we drank together. But when I came of age, that community no longer existed. My cousins had moved, they had become Americans and there was no longer this community. But the alcohol stayed! (laughs) It’s funny, you called me at the hour when I have my aperitif – I’m drinking my Johnny Walker. My wife knows it’s like a sacred hour of the day for me. When I start my first whisky. I used to drink sometimes at any time of day. Now, after six … so if there’s anything I need to do that needs a certain precision or objectivity … but then I try to drink pleasantly, to enjoy it … and in these years I’ve come to enjoy alcohol.

MB: Were there specific pieces of advice that he gave you?
CP: No. We never spoke like that. It was always in the sound. He always had me sing. He just looked in my eyes … for me he came from a tradition in sound that was the closest to anything that I could have imagined … I sang with some of the great singers in Jewish tradition, they’re the equivalent of Pran Nath for the Jewish faith. They’re not rabbis, though they can also be rabbis … they studied, they learned the books and became learned men, but they were the men that sang to God, and for the people in all the traditional rituals. And I studied with several of them – with them, because often a young boy would do duets with them, never a girl … and even with them our relationship was totally sound. So we did very little talking except to say, you’re out of tune duh duh duh … and it was through the sound that we communicated … and with him also that was true. I sang so easily his style. That’s why people thought I sounded like him, because I could imitate the sound. Not him of course, but the sound. The sound was easy for me.

MB: Were there works where you were formally concerned with raga like structures?
CP: No. I’ve never been good at … in western music, in eastern music, I’ve always been kind of a poetic deadhead … I’ve never been good at the mathematics. I could just sort of get it! I was in the conservatory for five years to keep out of the Vietnam war … I learned certain techniques, but I never used them. They were just something I learned because they exist. Interesting to analyze. But I always learned everything by ear. I loved the sound of those words. Like in Karenina I invent ragas and words that could mean something … I always have the dream that some day someone will listen to them and know exactly what they mean because it’s their language. Like when I was in Iceland, they have such a special language and everyone understands because they speak the language, but when you’re a foreigner, it just sounds like you’re muttering and sputtering all these strange sounds and that I love! (laughs) That’s the level I love, that mysterious sputtering and juttering in a language. That’s what it was like for me to sing with him. Like re ne na … (sings)

MB: You have that solemn quality in your voice that he has …
CP: I had it in five minutes. As soon as I met him, he looked at me with those eyes, those sad eyes and his teeth, one tooth a little bit off, when he opened his mouth it wasn’t perfectly symmetrical, it was a little bit off and I knew exactly how he felt because that’s how we sing in Hebrew singing … you cry and you do these lamentations. It just was so easy. It touched something very ancient. About the man … on the planet … blah blah blah!

MB: When you were working with different ethnic musics, did you come to feel that there were particular ways of doing it or ways to avoid or did you just go on your nerve?
CP: Sometimes I feel like I’ve been too floating … a whirlpool of wind and water … but I’ve never been able to decide those kind of questions. They seem to me something very untouchable. Some deep part of me feels they shouldn’t be touched. And then there are other people who actually do set up these systems and they work. Even for ballet, they’re magic when they work, yet they come from a lot of repression and discipline and ego battling. But I’ve never been able to … so I’ve always kept outside. And that’s what keeps me the prodigal son. Even in this story, I’m on the outside. I use what I use and I do what I do. I’m sort of an uncle, I’m not a father. I’m just my own asshole … going through my day. I try to be the best possible asshole I can be!
Photo: Palestine at the Beth David Cemetary in Long Island, NY in 1996. Photo by Irene Nordkamp.

09:16:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgusquareTook a long walk downtown with a friend after an amazing dinner at Tomoe Sushi, my favorite sushi joint, which is at Thompson and Houston, quite close to Ground Zero. Kept flickering back and forth between sensual pleasures of eating the fish there, and feelings of guilt at how obscene it was to be enjoying anything in that charnel ground atmosphere.

We walked down to Canal Street, through the stores selling their $300 shoes. At Canal and Sixth, there were little candle lit rituals going on in the square there, as there had been, on a much vaster scale, in Union Square earlier that evening. I was moved by the intensity of the mourning … also struck by its vagueness. In Union Square, nationalist symbols and religious ones, American flags, statues, even the architecture of the park were being used in a frantic search for meaning. There was paper and cloth on the floor and people were writing things on it – statements of mourning, peace, anger, hiphop proclamations of war like “Yo Bush! Regulate!” The green spaces of the park were candlelit too.I liked the Canal Street area of mourning best — there were people from everywhere — Chinese, African-American, Caucasian, Asian … everyone had cameras and was snapping away, but everyone was also serious, making sure the candles stayed on fire. After spending much of the year in India, New York suddenly felt very similar to an Indian city. Heiner Muller once said that the only hope for the West was the explosion of the third world within it’s cities. Well, it literally just happened. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

I too was taking photos. The sheer amount of documentation of this event was extraordinary. It made me think that there was certainly a relationship between photography and the sacred, and that it was too easy to dismiss the tourist desire to photograph sacred places. It’s easy to say that photographing something turns it into something kitsch, picturesque. But what if taking a photograph actually was a ritual act? Like everything else we saw that night, there was a sense that people were looking for something, trying to make something, through all the candles, through the camera’s eye. But do they find what they’re looking for this way?

We walked west on Canal Street until we hit the river. The highway was cordoned off so that rescue vehicles and trucks full of debris could pass through on their way to the Frozen zone. Incidentally, at one place, maybe Hudson, you could look down the city, and in the far distance, you could see these curvey volcanic mountains of trash, vaguely illuminated like snow covered mountaintops, by the electric light. A Hispanic couple stood in front of us and took turns to pose for photographs in front of the eery sight.

A food donation center had sprung up on the corner of Canal and the West Side Highway. Posses of male steelworkers, who suddenly didn’t look like the slobs leering at women from lunchtime building sites around the world, stopped by, and strange, lone tanned women in hard hats too. The response was overwhelmingly one of men, at least on the streets, with women mostly on the sidelines, serving food and other services, so it was good to see these tough looking women on the scene. Every time a car went by, or a group of workers, looking exhausted but mostly calm walked by, a cheer went up. A group of children chanted “USA! USA!” Flags were everywhere. I find it hard to deal with displays of national pride, since they tend to involve someone somewhere being stomped on. That may be the case here too, but the mood tonight wasn’t jingoistic. It was about finding symbols of support.

A big guy with an Alsatian sniffer dog, who sniffs for bodies, was standing in front of the gas station, being interviewed by an even taller guy with a note pad. He said the dog had once sniffed a body out in six feet of water. They’d come up from the South, driven 22 hours to the Pentagon, stayed overnight and then come to New York. He works for a private firm, but now the government pro dogs are moving in and he’s going home.
We walked north up the highway, past the porno video stores, the joyful queer chaos of Christopher Street and the piers beyond, which were totally deserted on this Saturday night. On Gansevoort Street even the transvestite hookers were dressed up like secretaries in a Doris Day movie, as though out of respect. There was a general feeling of uncertainty in the air — although once upon a time in the 1970s, it was deserted places like Gansevoort Street where you felt the most vulnerable, the most scared. Now, with talk everywhere of chemical and biological warfare, it is the most populated places, like Grand Central Station, where you look nervously around you, unsure about what is going to happen next.

09:12:01 NYC

This was originally published in Hungry Ghost, a website I maintained from 2001-5 that was devoted to spirituality and contemporary theory/culture. (To read more of my journalism, click here.)

hgwtc1This piece was written the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. In whatever the mental state I was in at that moment, I overstated my remarks about the glee of the newscasters, and the pervasive state of denial that I perceived in the final paragraph, and I apologize for that. At the same time, the mechanisms of denial, which are undoubtedly at work, in myself and other people at this time, should be explored. So, rather than simply erasing and rewriting the piece as though it had never existed, I think it’s best to post and read it as a trauma-document, with all the blind-spots that implies, but also the potential for illumination and altered perception that shock brings with it. As I write, the plume of dust and smoke from the site of what used to be the World Trade Center towers is passing directly over my loft in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. If you scrape your finger over the bonnet of the cars outside, you barely draw a line. It’s milder now than earlier this afternoon when I wandered through downtown Manhattan, unable to see more than three or four blocks ahead because of the musty fog of dust. It’s milder than yesterday afternoon too, when I was hanging out on a stoop in Boerum Hill with some friends. Having safely brought the kids home from school, we drank beer and watched them play, while charred pieces of plastic fell from the sky onto us, and high up above, a steady stream of paper flowed through the sky, driven by the wind. The atmosphere here in New York is not just surreal. It’s unreal. As I walked around Greenwich Village earlier on, college students back for the new semester wandered around, chatting on cell phones (though many cell phone lines are still down), listening to Walkmans, drinking sodas. At sidewalk cafes on Sixth Avenue, tanned customers tuck into plates of tuna carpaccio as ambulances rush by. Mayor Giuliani has suggested that today would be a good day to do some shopping but most of the shops south of 14th Street are shut, so people just wander, as though they can’t think of anything else to do (the multiplex UA cinema at Union Square is having free movies all day – even at midday, there were plenty of takers). Yesterday, when my friend Michele and I picked up her daughter Tallulah from her school on the other side of Brooklyn, roadblocks forced us to park the car miles away from the school and walk. Tallulah’s feet started to blister, and the heat and dust made everyone cranky. We went into a Korean deli on Smith Street and bought Arizona ginseng and honey flavored iced teas and Japanese rice crackers, while above us, the smoke billowed. Maybe this is how it is in wartime: life goes on, however it can, even in the consumer paradise of New York City. But as I write this, about three miles down the road from my Williamsburg [Brooklyn] loft, there are thousands of dead bodies still laying there, under piles of steel and concrete. Of course, there are the EMS volunteers, the doctors, the firemen, the blood donors. The churches too. When my room-mate walked back to Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge yesterday afternoon after work, he was greeted by a group of Hasidim at the Brooklyn end, offering pink lemonade to everyone to refresh their thirst. But Governor Pataki has said on TV that the city doesn’t need any more volunteers. And most people aren’t volunteering. They’re standing in the street, chatting, or at home, in front of the TV. I watched both of the towers go down from the roof here. I first found out yesterday morning around 9 a.m., through Yahoo!, which had a small item about a plane hitting the trade center on the home page. I went to the New York Times web-site, as I usually do in the morning, and there was nothing there. So I shrugged it off: probably some small private plane made a major mistake. Maybe a few deaths. Somehow, not enough for my jaded news-saturated brain to pursue the matter further. Then, about five minutes later I got a call from my sister in London, asking me if I was alright. While I was getting briefed by her on the situation, a call on my other line from a friend in Australia saying “what’s happening there???” I had no idea. So I climbed up onto the roof of the tenement building I live in. My upstairs neighbor Michele was already there. The Puerto Rican pigeon fanciers, with their roof-top coop across the road were there. There was almost nobody else around – all either at work or still asleep. And across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, beyond the Williamsburg Bridge, over there in Manhattan where none of us artists can afford to live these days, the twin towers were on fire. I went down to get my camera. Michelle got her radio, which didn’t work. You could see the glow of the fire inside the towers. It was awful but it was a building on fire. I’ve been in burning buildings before. This was something that could be comprehended, and so somehow we sat on the roof, watching and taking photos. Then the first tower seemed to sway and then it fell, in a vast cloud of white smoke. We looked at each other in confusion. Still somehow it didn’t sink in. We knew that it was likely the second tower was going to go too. We talked about the terror that those left in the remaining building must be feeling. Still, we just sat and watched, and when the second building went down, our cameras were ready. As the thick cloud of smoke expanded and drifted slowly over towards downtown Brooklyn, those on neighboring rooftops began to descend back into their buildings, as you do at the end of a firework display. From this distance, upwind from the smoke, there was simply nothing to see any more, and so, no reason to be up there any more. I’ve had calls and email from all around the world to make sure I’m alright. Besides my nearest and dearest, hardly a single person from within the United States has contacted me. I don’t think it’s because I’m unpopular round these parts. This place shows all the classic symptoms of trauma. Perhaps it’s every man for himself here while in Europe and Australia, people have the luxury of thinking about others. I find that disturbing. If, as the anchors on Channel 7 so gleefully announce, the nation is rooted to their TVs, it’s because they are desperately trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, to push the still unfolding horrors back into the TV set and turn this situation back into a spectacle, an orchestrated Hollywood rerun in which certain images like those of people jumping from the burning buildings (“Too horrible to watch, so we decided not to show it,” explained the news anchor this morning) are edited out, while others, like the second aircraft striking the tower, are endlessly replayed. Everyone is trying to create some distance between themselves and the terrible event, which is still unfolding as I write. Maybe for those in other parts of the country that’s a possibility. Here, I don’t think it’s going to work.