Blaine and Jubilee


My friend Blaine died of colon cancer about a month ago.  He was 47.  Here is a text I wrote about our friendship and about what I admired about him for a gathering of his friends in Oxford, MS last night. Blaine ran a bar there called Jubilee for a number of years.

Writing down the wires through space and time, I look for Blaine but he is gone.  My old friend, my roommate, my space brother, as we said.  I havent seen Blaine since 2000 and our friendship really centered around the late 80s and early 90s, what seems to be a “golden age” now or what you are calling “Old Oxford”, but we certainly didn’t know it then.  It was pre-Internet and that’s one thing that was special about it, in retrospect, that we shared in a sense of community that seems to be harder to find these days.  But taken another way, we were just pothead flunkies working in the Hoka, the coolest place in town, and living in little student dives on dead end streets, practically living side by side with the raccoons in the bushes.  We were both in our mid-20s, straining at that cusp-like moment when you realize the pressures of the “real world” are coming for you and you wonder how to keep it at bay.  We Gen-Xers, if we have to put a tag on it, were both burdened and emboldened by the dreams of the 60s, that yearning dream of youth to make the world anew, to cry out, “Is this all there is?”  We were hiding away in Mississippi, “Stranded in Canton”, to quote Bill Eggleston, and we were dreaming of a better world.

Money and fame always seemed like the golden ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and yet Blaine and I, always pushing against the grain, we thought that money was also like a big weight holding us down, another trap, another lie.  It’s unfair, right, if one kid gets the ticket, but it leaves out the others.  So Blaine began thinking of a jubilee, in the original sense of the word, a time of return and celebration when the cycle begins anew, debts are cancelled, money loses sway, and we see past our envy and fear. Blaine was a loner who longed for community, and I think at times he had it at the Hoka and in the Jubilee Bar.  He may not have been a practicing Christian, but Blaine was a metaphysician of sorts, he believed in the Kingdom, that a great power lay in nature, in music, in love.  In his focus and his sacrifice, he showed us a better world, if we cared to look.  He was looking for something greater than gold, seeking clues in the lost places.  I think of the mysterious Polish woman at the beginning of David Lynch’s magnificent Inland Empire when she says, “A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace. As if half-born. Then: not through the marketplace, you see that, don’t you? But through the alley, behind the marketplace…this is the way to the palace.”

Blaine was looking for the palace, he was seeking answers, looking under stones.  The tragedy of death is that we can seek no more, but Blaine found more answers than most, because many dare not even ask those kinds of questions, perhaps because they seem impractical in the face of finding a career or making a home.  In his isolation and hermit ways, he had a touch of Suttree about him, Cormac McCarthy’s stolid anti-hero who rejects the expectations of society and lives alone on a houseboat, meditating on the light and dark of life in his own silent nocturne.  Blaine lived by his own code and it takes great strength and bravery to stick to the narrow path, the one that leads away from the well-troddden way of the others.  If he beat like a moth against the glass of the world, if he was trapped in a narrative arc like a character in a film, then he was just like most of us who are hemmed in by the limitations of life itself.  Something about Blaine reflected that struggle, he wore it like a mantle.  Death took him too early, but if he had stayed on with us, his struggle would have continued.  He lived under such a sign, and why not?  The good things don’t come easy, and so we go on.

I’ll end with a little quote from Joni Mitchell that makes me think of Blaine and all my friends, if I could see you again …

Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will
Buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down
Let's have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let's have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town


Viktor Kolář - Exile's Return

There is an excellent retrospective of Viktor Kolář's black and white photography at the House of the Stone Bell on Old Town Square in Prague this summer. Kolář's work, with its touches of Fellini and Henri Cartier-Bresson, focuses on the human spirit caught within the deadened world of life under totalitarianism in the Silesian mining town of Ostrava. In this dark heart of Europe, Kolář used the camera to find a surrealist undercurrent beneath the constant boredom and despair of daily life near the pits.

Kolář's life work stems from his deep connection with place. Ostrava is the sort of abandoned place that most artists would leave, but Kolář actually returned after a 5 year exile. The city is his home, and warts and all, its what he knows best. The mystery and poetry of the dispossessed drives his art. Kolář emigrated in 1968 to Canada, and though he was forced to accept difficult manual labour work there, he used the money to buy a Leica and made his way to Toronto and Montreal where his talent slowly gained recognition. Despite his growing success, he chose to return to Czechoslovakia during an amnesty, where he faced detention and an uncertain future. Unlike his fellow countryman, Josef Koudelka, who also fled to the West and whose work shares a similar aesthetic, Kolář did not gain a post at the prestigious Magnum agency, he did not travel throughout Europe. The need for his homeland was too strong. It reminds me of a character in Jan Pelc's story "Emigrants" about a man similar to Kolář who has escaped from totalitarian Czechoslovakia to Paris but is haunted by the need to return. He continually imagines sitting on the train, crossing the border, evading the police and seeing his old friends who berate him on his stupidity to return, until one day he actually finds himself on the train crossing the border and caught by the police. Even during times of such repression, the call of the familiar was strong and many returned. The waves of Czech emigrants throughout history is a complex tale, those who had success abroad (Milan Kundera, Miloš Forman, Josef Škvorecky, etc) remain better known internationally of course than those who returned.

I dont think the rule works in reverse, ie that people like me who immigrate to CZ will somehow become known internationally. No, in many regards life in CZ, and many other countries for that matter, remains entrenched in a kind of antagonistic relationship with the outside world. The Iron Curtain may be gone, but the memory of it remains a potent barrier on both sides. I've recently been revisiting the work of Charles Olson, and his Emersonian approach to deep observation, his idea of the "saturation job" in knowing a place, for him Gloucester, Massachussets. Viktor Kolář's work in Ostrava is analagous to Olson's, a sense of deeply relating to place, diving for the "pearls at the bottom" (Perlička na dně), to refer to Bohumil Hrabal, an artist with a similar approach as well. The expatriate/emigré abandons his/her place of origin, and can rarely feel fully integrated in his/her new home. One longs to return, regardless of the conditions, and this longing never truly ceases, despite any logical reasons to the contrary. There are the ones who stay, and the ones who go. And both experiences are enriching in different ways. But I can't help feeling that those who stay live with less doubt, but of course I would feel that way.

Exile is not a material thing,
it is a spiritual thing, all corners
of the earth exactly the same.
And anywhere one can dream is good,
providing the place is obscure, and
the horizon vast.

—Victor Hugo

(all photos Viktor Kolář)
crossposted on

phonepics from Kakania

Robert Musil referred to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as "Kakania" ie Poopoostan, and sometimes, with all the dog crap here, it still seems a fitting moniker for this Mitteleuropa capital, So here are some phonepics from Kakania,


Inner City Blues: Sixto Rodriguez, Suttree and Meister Eckhart

Like many people these days I recently saw the documentary on Sixto Rodriguez and have been caught up in his music and life story. It's beautiful that he is receiving recognition now and the way he has cultivated his ideas and stayed true to his original direction is admirable. Of course the way he just had two albums at the start of the 70s and hasn't been releasing dozens of albums like his peers means that his message and image are clearer to see. I like how these albums from the early 70s are like a time capsule, and how that little message from the 70s is receiving attention today, that the counter-culture values can still find an audience.

The way the counter-culture from 1968-75 has been buried is actually kind of astonishing when you think about it. The values were absorbed to a small degree by the general population but a materialism and celebrity culture have taken over. The internet age is also quite isolating to the degree that we couldn't have another Beatles or Bob Dylan today anyway, because the message is diluted against the stream of competing memes and infotainment. This is most likely a purposeful strategy on the part of TPTB to pacify public opinion. Rodriguez is made into product too, but the message in the lyrics is strong enough to counter that commodification. I've read that his lyrics were really too strong for radio in 1970 and that's the main reason he didn't get almost any airplay at the time. I've also read that Hollywood is considering making a film about Rodriguez's life story with Johnny Depp in the lead. Pretty crazy, and somehow I doubt it will happen. But it would bring more attention to Detroit and Rodriguez's message, so that would be good I guess.

I'll Slip Away is about ending a relationship, but it's also generally a "drop out-tune in" song about making one's own values in the world.

And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I'll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I'll go mend all my shattered dreams

Maybe today, yeah
I'll slip away

Detroit is the "city of victims", and Rodriguez is an ambassador from the working class, from the every day world of life lived in labour, in creativity. What has happened in Detroit is indicative of the general apathy and neglect people in power have for the suffering poor. for the quality of our daily lives. America's social fabric is torn and fraying and all we get from Washington is stale-mate politics in the House and a puppet show of empty words and no action. The inner city blues have been around ever since there were cities, capitalism creates a victimised class, it requires it. America the melting pot has changed to a pressure cooker. Detroit is being left to rot by our new economy, and the cancer is spreading. We turn our back on Detroit, we turn our back on the poor. And they say it's a Christian nation.

Going down a dirty inner city side road
I plotted
Madness passed me by, she smiled hi
I nodded
Looked up as the sky began to cry
She shot it

Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o'clock this morn
A cold fact
Asked about her bag, suburbia's such a drag
Won't go back
Cos Papa don't allow no new ideas here
And now he sees the news, but the picture's not too clear

Mama, Papa, stop
Treasure what you got
Soon you may be caught
Without it
The curfew's set for eight
Will it ever all be straight
I doubt it

image source: tidal magazine

When I saw Searching for Sugarman I had also been rereading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. Suttree takes place in another desolate city, McAnally Flats (Mechanicsville) in Knoxville, TN, by a fetid river under a relentlessly blazing sun. Set in the 50s it focuses on the drunks and misfit rebels who, like Rodriguez, refuse to take the straight road. Now clearly the comparison is not so direct, Rodriguez is much less alienated than the character Suttree, he worked, had children, wrote these great songs. Suttree, on the other hand, is trapped with his own dark despair, plagued by existential questions which remain unanswerable. But what they do have in common is an abiding acceptance of the world, of their lots in life. The surprise surrounding Rodriguez has focused on his quiet acceptance of his recognition, and also his fierce belief in his life lived in poverty and hard-labour. But why should he not be proud of who he is and what he has done in his life? Our materialistic, celebrity-driven culture only focuses on success, but what about living, what about our day-to-day lives? This is the existential fact of time passing which is embodied in Rodriguez's story, as well as in the character of Suttree. There is an excellent essay online by John Rothfork called Redemption as Language in Cormac McCarthy's Suttree which examines the book in light of pre-Socratic philosophy, Meister Echkart, and Camus. A quote there from Eckhart reminded me of Rodriguez:

"A disinterested man, pure in heart, has no prayer, for to pray is to want something from God, something added that one desires, or something that God is to take away. The disinterested person, however, wants nothing, and neither has he anything of which he would be rid. Therefore he has no prayer, or he prays only to be uniform with God…. When the soul achieves this, it loses its identity, it absorbs God and is reduced to nothing…. Nothing helps toward this end like disinterest."

This is the secret that Rodriguez knows, he is at peace because he has detached himself from needs. Like Suttree, its not that he doesn't feel for the world, but rather he has come to see that all men are equal, that life itself is enough and full of riches if we know how to look. Just let his lyrics speak again:

Rick Folks Hoax

The moon is hanging in the purple sky
The baby's sleeping while its mother sighs
Talking 'bout the rich folks
Rich folks have the same jokes
And they park in basic places

The priest is preaching from a shallow grave
He counts his money, then he paints you saved
Talking to the young folks
Young folks share the same jokes
But they meet in older places

So don't tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going

The sun is shining, as it's always done
Coffin dust is the fate of everyone
Talking 'bout the rich folks
The poor create the rich hoax
And only late breast-fed fools believe it

So don't tell me about your success
Nor your recipes for my happiness
Smoke in bed
I never could digest
Those illusions you claim to have going

(reblogged from my cultural vultural blog)