Trust We Must
By: Danielle Woodrich
Devoted Readers and Mistaken Stumblers, welcome to this column. Since before there was an little publication called In Music We Trust (long before), the seemingly oil and and water relationship between Art and Politics has plagued me. I don't pretend to know which is more important, I only know that I, and most of you, need both to survive. Please enjoy what is written for whatever it might be worth.
Not more than a week ago I sat in the window of the cafe, waiting for Dr. Scott to show up for our date, scribbling on my placemat. I was trying to remember my favorites of the 26 constitutional amendments. Why? Because when Doc called, his message on my answering machine said, "Politics protects you while Art fails you. Meet me at 7 to learn how fully you agree."
That drove me nuts. I hate it when he gets so pompous, except that it is a hint, a jewel of a clue he doesn't even know he gives me. And it's obvious, as you'll see: I need clues; they are my handicap to make the game fair. The key this time was that Doc sounded invincible, which means he was of the mind to preach at me. He probably thought he would prefer to pay for both our meals in exchange for using me as an audience without idiots, a commodity that I am sometimes happy to provide him. Unfortunately for Doc however, he hit a raw nerve and I had a five dollar bill in my pocket. The audience planned to rush the podium.
We started meeting several years ago while Doc was teaching me history and political science. During class our talks were intense and often so oddly tangential that 92.3% of the other students spent the whole of the semester choking on our dust. The things we talked about! The vertiginous excitement of an exchange with a mind so vast as his! It was glorious, and walking home from school at night, I often imagined I knew what the students of Plato or Artistotle must have felt after hours of this sex of intellects with their master.
Those more jaded of you probably see where this had to head. Of course, and probably in fear of their collective marginality and laziness being exposed, my classmates complained noisily to the department head. Meetings were called to order. I don't know what transpired within, but Doc stopped speaking to me even outside of class. His instruction changed, to entail each week dry, recycled-text lectures and comatose testing. I wrote furious letters to the dean and to the college president, neither of which changed anything. I dropped the class, accompanied by more letters detailing the nature of my "grave illness" at the department's nauseating decision and demanding full reimbursement of my tuition. I was categorically ignored, thus beaten, poorer and pissed off.
Then I began receiving the oddest prank phone calls of my life: long speeches on history, whole political theories, including bibliographies and recommended reading! On most occasions, my prankster called back time and again until the tape was filled. And I, like a starveling being left morsels of meat and wine, sat next to the blinking box and gobbled it up. One time I caught the caller, in mid message, perhaps the third in a row he had left one night. I had been listening intently, thought of a comment I HAD to have answered to, and grabbed the phone.
"Doc, I KNOW it's you. You must meet me at the Dirty Cafe. I won't have you evangelizing at me anymore! I have things to say about all of this!" I slammed down the phone, and hallelujah, he showed up. School began again.
That all happened several years ago and now, every good conversation with him has a boxing match mentality, neither of us being truly happy with it unless we're pummeling or defending, and ending with a solo gloating fox-trot.
Today though, I suspected his academe yin to my rock and roll yang could only strengthen my position. I was loaded for bear, and laughing because the bear himself pulled up on a bicycle, looking every bit the 1920's circus stereotype. Doc is not at all a slight man and he does not own a car so his every move through the neighborhood draws up the corners of people's mouths, including mine. You should see him.
Berniece, the waitress, and the unnamed Cook (just Cook, as so many do and are), also saw Doc arrive. Cook alternated elbows ceremoniously. Berniece heaved herself up and waddled over.
"Hello, Little One. 'Know what you want yet?" She leaned on the back of the booth and chewed a section of lip thoughtfully.
"Not yet," I said, moving my clutter to make room for Doc and his clutter, "just a couple of coffees for now."
The door opened, sucking restaurant air out into the vestibule and creating a small tornado around Doc. I smiled when I saw his lip curl, knowing the whirlwind smelled not unpleasantly, but certainly overpoweringly, of home fries and refrigerated cream.
"Unbelievable traffic, and it was not the cars today; today it was every dumb dog walker, every deranged speedwalker, every teenage mother with a stroller full of screaming brats, all on the road to impede my progress. Pedestrians are so...." Doc began, growling and still panting a bit, ready to complain longer and more thoroughly than I was prepared to hear.
"Pedestrian?" I finished for him.
In the small lane between his eyebrows and the tops of his bifocals he regarded me. He sensed my bridled enthusiasm, yes. I went so far as to wink at him. Never able to wear a poker face, he read me like a book, but with my full knowledge and permission. I, so unlike him in this way, knew that my willingness to expose myself was not a noteworthy weakness, but a brazen strength. At least he had the good sense to act a little nervous. He has come to know that when I am ready to set myself up to possibly fail, I rarely do.
I realize that Doc looked at my lifestyle of loud thumping music, twisted films, drunken camping, vicious dogs and the shameless holding of unfulfilling but decent paying mcjobs to support it all, with disgust and dismay. Some of it is his ego kicking in, for how can his favorite student BE everything he despises? I'll never forget the look on his face when I turned down his offer of Tosca at the Met to attend a weekend-long, treehouse-building acid party. I told him, there will be a band, he should come with me, but he only squinted and snickered. I'll tell you, there is little less pleasant than an old man, fat from suckling the university tit, derisively laughing in your face.
Berniece brought our coffees. We both winked our thanks to her, and she winked a "you're welcome." We love the Dirty Cafe: no canned music, no unnecessary bullshit banter.
"Doc, remember when we went to see the exhibit of Van Gogh at the art gallery? What did you say to me about the close of the past century's pop art?"
"Why do you bring that up? We fought about it for days and I thought we'd agreed to disagree."
"I just want to remember. It was clever, if dead wrong."
"I said that if billboards had existed, Van Gogh would have been a raging success painting them because his work was so unoriginal and uninspiring, so tastelessly beautiful, that every idiot on the continent would have loved them," Doc snorted.
"Ahhh yes, " I said, urging him on with a circular wave of my spoon.
"The reason he achieved no success in his lifetime was that art's standards of the time were too high. Also, I believe our conversation included the comparison to a genuine artist, a visionary, Andy Worhol."
It was my turn to snort.
"You brought it up." He reminded me, shrugging.
"Just clarify for me again why Van Gogh was unoriginal. If you could tie that into why Worhol was so incredibly unique, it would help me a lot."
I let him ramble on for several minutes, only half listening.
It has been worth it though. I accept his laughter as long as it remains a sign that I have not lost myself under his strong tutelage, for that is a risk every true student of a true master assumes. I am comforted to know I still believe Worhol was a despicable flake and his success a fluke, and my darling impressionist with the heavily colored strokes of insanity the genius I respect.
"...And that is why Worhol far surpasses Van Gogh artistically. Now where is that god-awful Berniece? Wench! Wench, we'd like to ORDER!"
Berniece, naturally, ignored him. Two cigarettes and some minutes of small talk later, she took our orders, writing down nothing.
?So, let's talk," he said.
"Doc, I have some serious issues with your message of today." I slid my paper placemat out from underneath my creamy spoon and the ashtray that already needed an emptying.
"Really? Serious issues regarding so brief a message?" His eyes positively twinkled and he glanced once at the writing on the placemat.
"Yes. While I waited for you, I decided my handicap. I think you will be surprised."
"I doubt that."
"The handicap is: you may only use the 26 Amendments to substantiate your opinions."
"That is a handicap? It sounds more to me like your death rattle."
"Not so fast, Greedy. The handicap is also that you must speak your argument in verse."
"As in, liturgical prose, huh? Not my favorite means of expression. All 26? In a row?"
"No, not all, we'd be here forever. Just the good ones. Forget presidential succession and the electoral college and all that crap."
"All that crap! The shame you should feel in your disrespect and enneyeux!"
"Let's just work on the civil liberty ones, okay?" I almost had him. How better to prove to him that Art exists everywhere, in everything; and obviously Politics does not, than to have him practice it?
"You are a wily and evil child."
"Whatever," I laughed. "Let me eat my pita and you give me your poorly thought out thesis."
"It is as simple as I said to the machine. It only needed one message."
"Hmmm. All you told me was that politics protects me while art fails me."
"That is it." God, he looked smug.
"I wholeheartedly disagree," I began. "Art, specifically music, protects my inalienable rights and I far more efficiently and thoroughly than politics."
"I think not. Let us look at the First Amendment." He bit.
"Okay. Remember - in verse."
He thought for a minute.
"You should not have chosen the amendments, Love. The language is almost in poetry already. Congress shall make no law..."
I sipped my coffee.
"...prohibiting the free exercise of religion."
I held up my hand to stop him from continuing. I lit a cigarette.
I answered, slowly, "Music shall inspire awe...in exhibiting the freak exorcism of opinion."
"Now, go on," I urged.
"Wait, I'll start again. Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion...."
"...or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble."
"Yes, to continue...whereas Music...incites the people into the pitward mess, sweaty, lusting, bruised my dress," I paused to exhale smoke. "...or delights behind your blindfold, mind paganly disassembled. Top that." I let out a loud WOOHOO and Cook smiled.
"All right. Hold it right there. I'll give you the first point, and it was very nicely put. But what is a pitward mess? Or a bruised dress? How can being blindfolded and mentally/sexually disassembled be as freeing as the rights which provide for your expression in speech, literature and assemblage?"
"A pitward mess is a bunch of concert-goers in a huge pile, moving together, to the music, with great dangerous energy. A bruised dress is a metaphor for the outside taking a beating, while the natural body inside remains unscathed. Sounds like a civil demonstration, no?" He considered it and then nodded.
I continued, "Paganly disassembled and blindfolded means that every part of the creationist me, and of all artists, that can be broken down and self-examined without outside influence before realizing a full artistic expression, is infinitely more freeing than a document, and the supporting bureaucratic infrastructure, giving me such ludicrously unnecessary permission."
Doc stared at me. He put down his fork and pushed his plate away, still staring.
"Let me see your paper." He demanded, reaching for my cheat sheet.
I laughed. "It won't help you now, Doc."
He studied my scribbles.
"There is no prose here. Where did you come up with that?"
"Right from my own head, Doc. Creativity and spontaneity are in the realms of art and music, not politics. We're having this conversation so you don't ever forget that."
He threw down the paper.
"You will never touch the Second Amendment. It is the whole of our national security, you realize."
"Yes, yes. I know. Bear arms and the country would have to be conquered one home at a time. But give it some smooth meter. Come on, give it some fucking flair! You and you're politics are so damn deliberate all the time." I was having too much fun; it was driving Doc mad.
"You revolt me tonight. I will NOT give it flair. I will strip it of it's verbosity and with it's remaining beauty, lay you to WASTE!" He shouted, pounding his fist and sending a fork flying.
"Better let me use the bathroom first then. And you should relax. You prudent, premeditating types do your best thinking when you are ummm, less passionate." I picked up his fork and set it very gently on his plate. It didn't make a sound.
I laughed all the way to the bathroom.
Doc was furiously writing on his own soiled placemat when I returned.
"So, how'd you do?" I asked.
"I'm ready. The Second Amendment. Shhh. Listen."
I settled in and put my feet up on his seat.
He said, "A well regulated militia" (pause)
"being necessary" (pause)
"to the security of a freeeee state," (pause, stand up, upset empty cups)
"the right of the people to keeeeep and bear arms" (pause, look skyward)
"shall not be infringed" (gloat)
"Well, well, Doc. That was very cool. I never realized how poetic legislated violence could be. I am not being sarcastic, it is lovely. That frightens me Doc, and it didn't before."
"What frightens you?" He relaxed, as is his bipolar fashion, and morphed into my gentle advisor.
"The logical concept of justified, personal, self-defense exploded outwards and without discrimination to be applied to an entire citizenry...." The thought really did mortify me.
In a tender paternal voice, Doc said, "Stop drinking that cold coffee.?
"Awww Doc. I have something better than a pensive pout to offer. Just give me a minute to soak up some more caffeine," I said.
Berniece came to us in silence, refilled our cups and when she had gone we still sat. Doc waited for me. So patient.
"Shall I recite my part again for you?" He asked, to get me moving.
"Are you ready then?"
"Yes." But I wasn't.
Doc whispered, "A well regulated militia...being necessary..."
"A vibration of Music's panacea, free and voluptuary..." I had no idea where that came from.
Doc, still hushed, "to the security of a free state"
"Cannot come too soon, cannot come too late."
"The right of the people to keep and bear arms..."
"Alights through heart's peepholes with blazing guitars..."
"Shall not be infringed." Doc finished.
"Shall not be a lie, could not be a farce, will not be imprisoned. The Judge is Art."
"You win," he said.
Later, Doc was too tired and the night was too dark for him to ride home. We walked the 20 long blocks back to our neighborhood, the faded bicycle between us. The night was more quiet than when we started. It was possibly the sparse traffic, or maybe the deserted sidewalks that got us talking again.
"I may have conceded victory too soon," said Doc.
"I thought you wussed out a bit. I'd hoped you could deal with the lyrical stuff, but you were shocked, weren't you, that all that history and common sense might be less meaningful in ?the moment' than the blasphemous meter I pulled out of my ass?"
"It was not shock. It was disorientation, I think," he reasoned.
"And now, I would like to tell you about the Fourth Amendment."
"I'd like to hear about it."
"It's beautiful," he threatened.
"I can take it."
"I changed it."
"Now you're catching on. Lay it on me."
"Deny not the people the right to be secure."
"Sing it brother," I shouted.
"Not just their person, but all that is theirs. To abridge this right would be an egregious violation, unless supported, in a warrant, by oath of affirmation."
"Yes! Yes, Doc! Gorgeous, in a Doctor Suess sort of way." We laughed.
The bicycles spokes ticked off three more blocks; I let his 4th Amendment play in my mind.
"I have another," he said.
"Thirteen. In no state of the United States, shall exist either involuntary servitude or slavery, except as punishment befitting a crime, for which the party shall have been duly convicted, and the length of his time juris prudently assigned."
"Wow. That actually combines 13 and 7. You should write that down when you get home."
"This is the last one, a true Suessian finale."
"I can't wait."
"The rights of United States citizens to vote no or yes, shall not be abridged by age (more or less)."
"Sixteen, very cool," I mumbled
"And cannot be denied based on race, creed or sex."
"Fifteen and nineteen!"
"I'm done, grasshopper, and so are you."
"We still have a few blocks till I'm home. You went first, so I have to finsh. By my count, it's 2 to 3, and the best I can hope to do is tie," I stalled.
"You should count yourself lucky you didn't lose more miserably."
"Shhhh, shut up while I think.?
I was out of time. His verses were swimming in my head. We arrived at my house in silence, but with a low psychological pop, my thoughts opened and poured out like drawings, light and crude, in chalk, as the rain started.
Deny not the people the right to be secure "There is a treasure-like smell to music we heard" Not just their person, but all that is theirs. "the familiar waft, sensations not gone," To abridge this right would be an egregious violation, "music could overcome, loved like a sucked thumb, staring into the sun," unless supported, "but it was reported:" in a warrant, "our Art had been thwarted" by oath of affirmation. "by your moral oaths, your indignation."
"So no searches; due process; prohibition repealed and all vote, it honestly matters little, through my blue kaleidoscope. Since, titled or not, women, old people, weirdos and kids are quite slaves and what the hell use is a vote from America's alcoholic soul-grave, where under a loophole laced shoe, bounty eats itself, elected marquis de fades? Watch, the tough, the tall remain the beaters, and the fuckers, and the employed, while the poor, the weak, the less informed, lie, bleed, and die, stripped and forlorn, and come on, their only due process is that they'd been warned."
It was ardent and pure and right enough to win against Doc, but not enough to restore in myself all the faith in Art and Imagination that over the years had been lost, stolen and left behind. Maybe in time.