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November 22, 2006

Installment #19: Of Fond Memories, AGIOs, and "Oh, My God, What Died In Here?" 

Okay, it's the day before Thanksgiving, 2006, the Holiday Season is upon us, and as is my habit this time of year (being the cheerful and ever-so-happy fellow I am), my mind turns to thoughts of loss and death ... only this time it makes me smile.

Stay with me, this won't be depressing, I swear.

In an introduction I once wrote for a collection of Elizabeth Massie's short stories (Shadow Dreams), I made the following comments concerning the often flippant and careless use of the word "Art":

"There is, in my opinion, not one writer, actor, painter, sculptor, dancer, director, musician, what-have-you living today who has the right to call him- or herself an artist: to loudly declare, 'I'm creating a piece of art!' is to invite pretension and arrogant high-mindedness; it is to proclaim to anyone who cares to listen that you’re so cocksure your work will have a profound impact on everyone who encounters it that they should feel privileged to encounter it.

"Art is not something that can be consciously created; it has to occur. Usually it's a happy accident. Timing, luck, happenstance, a person's mood at the time, all of these come into play -- and the creator's underlying intent is always secondary. Always. No exceptions. Period.

"It's more than just 'liking' a piece of work, it's experiencing a complete, pure, and total communion with the work; for one second -- maybe longer if you're blessed -- you are submerged in the emotions summoned up by the piece and the world is reduced to only your burning core and what this work does to it, gives to it, asking for nothing in return, and what, finally, this communion means to the rest of your life: You come away from the work more than you were before. Art lingers as a ghost called emotional resonance, and from that moment on you, not the creator, have the right to call this something a 'work of art.'"

Looking at it now, perhaps that mini-rant is a bit high-minded and hoity-toity itsownself (especially considering the context in which it's about to be applied, which I warn you is in questionable taste), but at its center it remains something I fervently believe: Art cannot be created, it has to occur ... so the next time you hear someone defending the context of their work whilst brandishing the "... because I am an artists" shield, do me a favor and smack the living shit out of them.

Moving on.

A little less than 2 years ago, a very dear friend of mine -- one of those rare friends you have from childhood who remains close to you throughout the rest of your life, even if you lose contact for years at a time -- passed away suddenly. It was a tremendous shock and a heartbreaking blow to anyone who knew him, because he was one of the most gracious, good-natured, and outright kindest people I have ever known. Some of my fondest memories of childhood and early teen-aged years (like there's really a difference when you Get Right Down To It) feature him in a major role. (Those of you who've read my non-fictin book Fear In A Handful Of Dust: Horror As A Way Of Life will know that the word "fondest" is not used lightly by me ... childhood (for me), not a great time; not a lot of laughs; not a lot of material that's gonna make my Highlight Reel anytime soon. Once again, moving on ...)

For the moment, we are back in early 1973: The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Patridge Family are at the top of the TV ratings, Bananafish, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon and Melody Maker are the only magazines the Utterly Groovy read,
The Joy of Sex is topping the bestseller list, Shaft and Superfly (both films featuring incredible, award-winning scores by, respectively, Isaac Hayes and the late, great Curtis Mayfield) have ushered in the era of the so-called "Blaxploitation" flick, and The Sting is fast becoming one of the greatest Hollywood blockbuster movies of all time and has everyone refusing to tell their friends about the surprise ending.

A small group of friends -- 5 guys, myself included -- are continually spending our weekends hanging out in someone's basement room because the Girls We Were Madly In Love With have yet to realize how Utterly Groovy we were. Sometimes we read comic books; sometimes we worked on Aurora monster models; sometimes we flipped through Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (or Creepy, Eerie or Vampirella because most of our parents thought they were wicked and evil and would warp us for life -- in my case, they did, but my folks were Fairly Hip, if not Utterly Groovy, and had no problems with my monster magazine collection, knowing that monster were My bag, man) ... but mostly we hung out in various of our basements because that's where the central and most important piece of our Kid Hardware was located: the holy record player.

Yup -- mostly we listened to records, always accompanying the best songs with our various air instruments (except for the Air Bass -- ever notice how no one ever plays the Air Bass? Seriously -- when was the last time someone in an air band said, "Hey, man, I wanna play the bass because the bass player gets all the girls."? There may be a lesson here. Think on it and get back to me). And, of course, being 12 years old, we'd decided that we were all going to form the World's Greatest Rock Band and be big, big stars, so that Girls We Were Madly In Love With would come to concerts and see us in all our Rock Glory, realize how foolish they'd been in refusing our affection, and throw themselves at our feet, begging for our eternal love.

Ahem ....

If you were around back then -- that is, if you're now staring down the barrel of middle age as I am -- then you'll recall that the album that every Utterly Groovy person had in their collection and on their turntable was Deep Purple's Machine Head; none of us were any exception. (A bit of trivia here: when "Smoke on the Water" was originally released as a single from MH, it all but tanked here in the states; it wasn't until the live version from Made in Japan was released as a single that it became the monster hit we all know and claim to loathe. Remember this the next time you play Trivial Pursuit.)

In truth, none of us had any idea what the hell we were going to do with our lives, so Rock Stardom seemed the most obvious choice -- forget that, between the 5 of us, not a one could play any instrument worth a damn, unless you count the armpit as a muscial instrument, in which case we could have formed the world's first and greatest armit orchestra. (There's an image for you ....)

But it was Johnny, my now-late friend (miss you, buddy; miss you every damn day) who one night, in the basement of his house, provided what was for me one of the earliest examples of what can happen to a person when art occurs.

Understand that Johnny, like me, did not come from a well-to-do family; his folks worked factory jobs just like mine; there wasn't a lot of money for allowances, so you had to save for weeks -- if not months -- if you wanted to buy a model kit or a record album (which cost you a whopping 3 or 4 bucks back then); he wore old clothes that were not in fashion; he wasn't particularly articulate (we were 12 -- all of us sounded like idiots when we talked for more than 4 minutes at a time); and -- and this was the killer for his social life at the time -- he was a bit too tall and bit too fat for his age. (That fat later turned to muscle and made him unstoppable on the football field; I remember with great joy the sight of many a fullback deciding to plow into Johnny's mid-section head-first, freezing in their tracks once they'd slammed into his gut, and then dropping to the ground like a bird that's just flown into a window.)

On this particular night in 1973 we'd exhausted all our usual time-killers and were just sort of sitting around wondering whteher or not if the Girls We Were Madly In Love With were going to magically come knocking at the door to keep us company (they didn't), when Johnny made the announcement: "Hey, I wanna show you guys something."

Now, we'd all pooled our money that night and bought a couple of pizzas and an 8-pack of bottled Coke-a-Cola, then Johnny's mom had insisted on making popcorn for us; despite being stuffed the to eyeballs, some of us had eaten a little of the popcorn (Johnny consumed most of it). We were all stuffed and sleepy, so whatever in the hell it was he had to show us had better be pretty Utterly Groovy.

Johnny opened -- I kid you not -- a can of cold beans and ate precisely one-third of it, then finished off the last of his bottle of Coke, and crossed the room to his Chair.

I use upper-case for Chair because no one -- no one -- but Johnny was ever allowed to sit in this thing; you weren't even allowed to park your ass on one of its arms, lest Johnny come barreling across the room like some freight train from Hell and push you into a wall (for which he'd later apologize, and then give you one of his comic books so you wouldn't stay made at him).

Now, I have to tell you about this Chair.

In all the history of chairs, there has never been an uglier, sadder, more rickety, patched-together, malevolent, taped-up, uncomfortable-looking, and potentially dangerous monstrosity than this thing that lived in Johnny's basement; I mean, this was the kind of chair that would cause every other chair in the world to cross the street were they to see it heading in their direction; had such a thing as chair Most Wanted posters existed, this Chair would have been Public Enemy #1; it was the Captain Ahab of chairs; the Frankenstein's Monster of chairs; it was the Chair that other chairs warned their children against at night so they would behave.

Not an attractive piece of furniture, is what I'm saying. Covered in what we used to call "banana-skin" (now referred to as "pleather"), it had countless springs sticking out from the seat that were covered in duct tape; stuffing spilled out of its back like the innards from some victim in a Romero zombie flick; one leg was held together with chicken wire; the left arm was covered in red banana-skin (the rest of it was an ungodly shade of green); and -- perhaps its most horrifying characteristic -- the seat appeared to sometimes breathe of its own accord after Johnny rose from it: for several minutes on end, the seat would expand and then contract, making low but nonetheless terrifying hissing sounds, bubbling and undulating like some evil experiemental fluid in a mad scientist's laboratory. Many of us were convinced the thing was alive; possessed even. It attacked us in our nightmares. Came after our family members. Made us eat our vegetables. Forced us to sit in it and watch Hee-Haw or The Lawrence Welk Show.

This was the terror which Johnny began to approach on this night in question.

One more aside, and then I'll reveal the remarkable thing that occurred a minute after Johnny sat down in the Chair from Hell.

Johnny had an unfortunate biological quirk during childhood that he often could not control; he had a tendency to suffer AGIOs -- Audible Gastro-Intenstinal Occurrences ... popularly know by the layperson as farts. And Johnny's farts were, well ... loud. And sometimes frightening. Think Godzilla's roar in a lower register and you'll have some idea of how these things sounded. I've heard foghorns that sound like a newborn chick's peeps compared to these things.

We're back in the basement now, and Johnny is approaching the Chair. He sits. Looks at us and smiles. Shifts his weight around a little, moves one of his legs a little to the side, and then puts a finger to his mouth to tell the rest of us to be quiet, please.

"I've been practicing this for a couple of weeks," he said.

Then he closed his eyes, shifted the position of his behind a fraction to the left, took a deep breath, and did one of the most remarkable things I have ever witnessed.

He farted the opening riff of "Smoke on the Water", all 12 notes, on-key.

It was not only miraculous to hear, but to see, as well. He reddened with effort and concentration; a small vein bulged in the center of his forehead; his face, neck, and arms became almost instantaneously lacquered in perspiration; he would partially raise one cheek while shifting a leg, then lower that cheek as he raised the other, sometimes using one of his hands to press in on a certain area of his abdomen; he twisted his features with each note, biting down on his lip, closing one eye, flaring his nostrils ... a sick walrus in the midst of an agonizing breach birth would have been more appeaing to look at.

But none of us cared. We were witness to something extraodinary in the annals of kid mythology. No human being had ever done anything like this before. Perhaps no human being would ever do this again in the remainder of world history. I wondered if perhaps we should kneel and make the Sign of the Cross to acknowledge the sanctity of the moment. And pray that he wouldn't accidentally shit his pants. (Soiled underwear has a way of taking some the oomph out of a miracle.)

Still, Johnny continued with the second bar of the opening:

Bwap-bwap-bworf, bwap-bwap-bworf-BWOOOORF, bwap-bwap-bworf, bwap-bworf ....

When it was over, we all stood there, nailed to the spot in a kind of twisted awe.

And, yes, the odor was enormous, which explained the tears in our eyes. But the loss of air in our lungs was a small price to pay.

When the moment of awe and near-suffocation passed, we broke into loud cheers and applause, crowding around Johnny, slapping him on the back, wiping his brow, rubbing his shoulders, and basically acting like a bunch of trainers at ringside after a championship fight. So loud were the accolades we were bestowing on Johnny that his sister came down to see what the hubbub was all about; no sooner had she hit the bottom step and taken in a breath than she cowered back, exclaiming, "Oh, my God -- what died in here?"

There was no way to make her understand the inexplicable, astounding, epoch-marking event that had just occurred; mere words could not do it justice. All we were capable of was staring at her little brother in open-mouthed (and pinched-nosed) wonder. He had done something no human being in our experience had ever done before.

(I feel it only appropriate to add this bit of trivia for your further edification: there was a man who had, in fact done this before. Le Petomane was the stage name of the French professional farter and entertainer Joseph Pujol (June 1, 1857 - 1945). He was famous for his remarkable control of the abdominal muscles, which enabled him to break wind at will. His stage name combines the French verb peter, "to fart" with the -mane, "maniac" suffix, found in words like toxicomane. In English, a translation might yield "the fart maniac". His profession can also be referred to as a "Flatulist" or a "Fartiste.") (By the way, I lifted that bit of information, word-for-word, from the Wikipedia entry about him; after all, why try to improve upon perfection?)

That night became legend very quickly, and within a few weeks, we would have parties where Johnny and his unique, amazing talent would be the high point of the festivities. Even the Girls We Were Madly In Love With began to attend these gatherings, and Johnny never failed to deliver the anticipated finale.

But he always had to be in the Chair, the one and only Chair, which we carried to and from the various parties with the greatest of care and reverence, as if it were a Van Gogh painting, or a Da Vinci sculpture, or Ann-Margret's breasts.

And Johnny always prepared for the big event the same way: pizza, Coke, popcorn, and one-third of a can of cold beans, consumed in that order, in precise quantities, at pre-determined times so that it would all settle into him in the same way before each performance. He always moved the same way, always lifted this cheek or that at the right moment, clenched and unclenched so as to maintain the right pitch ... it was Utterly Groovy, ya dig?

Johnny's gone now, dead of a heart attack at age 45, and not a day goes by that I don't miss him, or recall how, every time we saw each other, one of us would bring up the Chair Concerts, as they came to be called. He died watching a football game, sitting in the Chair, eating pizza, after a too-short but rich and happy life wherein he met and married wonderful and beautiful woman, made dozens -- if not hundreds -- of friends, worked at a job he loved, always had a kind word for you, a smile on his face, a joke to tell, or a great-big, rib-bruising bear hug at the ready should you need one to brighten your day.

The Chair, by the way, is still in his family, and no one sits in it. It is proudly displayed, and even children -- nieces, nephews, cousins -- who never met Johnny, know the story about the Chair Concerts, how Uncle Johnny could fart "Smoke on the Water" perfectly every time ... providing he could properly prepare. It is a story that will be passed on from generation to generation, and there will always be, eternally, the Chair as proof.

So how does this story of farting apply to the subject of art? (And, yes, it has crossed my mind more than once that "fart" and "art" rhyme, which in I find oddly appropriate for this particular column.)

This story applies to the subject because, whether we're willing to admit it or not, every person we know possesses some gift that they bestow upon the world; a skilled auto mechanic; a detail-oriented brick-layer; an expert toolmaker; even the proficient janitor -- all contribute something of the aesthetic to everyday life, something that impacts you and adds to or enhances your existence. Okay, maybe a well-tuned engine isn't exactly on the same level as a Kurosawa's greatest films, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't have deep and abiding value; doctor or doorman, composer or custodian, sculptor or sales clerk, everyone possesses some skill or talent that makes them unique among the carbon-based life-forms we pass every day. What they do on an everyday basis may not obviously be an occurence of art as I described it at the start of this column, but bear in mind that the definition was more than a bit insular: occurences of art are all around us, we just have to be willing to see them for what they are, regardless of how mundane or trivial they may appear on the surface.

Have you ever seen the film Babette's Feast? It's not about a woman who prepares a meal for a bunch of people; it's about the creation of a moment of art that can never be repeated, but makes such an impact on those who experience it that it will live on in their hearts and memories forever.

Kind of like Johnny's farts. As crude as it may seem. I know in my heart that long after I am gone, people will still be talking about Johnny's farts while my books and stories will be, if I'm lucky, a minor footnote in some genre textbook gathering dust on a dim shelf somewhere.

But you know what? That's okay. Because for the rest of my life, I will have readers who appreciate what I do, and I am thankful for that. I am thankful that I knew Johnny, that I knew my parents, that I knew my uncles, that I knew the too-numerous amounts of people who are no longer part of this world.

If this sounds like something of a pep-talk, that's because it is; not just for you, but for myself, as well. It's too easy to give into grief and sadness and despair -- believe it or not, as dark and depressing as my work gets, that is one of the core points I try to get across with it.

So, tomorrow, when you're sitting with your family and friends and (hopefully) enjoying one another's companionship, be grateful that you have people in your life who care about you and respect what you do and are pleased to be in your company. (I say this as someone who remains constantly baffled and humbled that anyone is glad to see him.)

Enjoy your family, your friends, your meal, and your memories.

Just -- and trust me on this -- don't try to entertain everyone afterward by farting the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or everyone might be put off that pumpkin pie for desert.

Until next time ....



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