Wednesday, July 01, 2009
The Cream King Trove
MORE. The old Boomer Bible Forum folks are checking in, here and in emails, so I'm responding to their requests for more explanation of the archaeological dig that turned up "proof" of the punk writer movement. It's hotly contested to this day, but there are multiple manuscripts that argue for the existence of the movement that produced The Boomer Bible and much else. Here's an excerpt from just one:
The Punk City Paradox
Punk City, born of Kain, and all its wings, will fail,
Falling toward Eden, widout a sound, in the mutement
Of allathings what never were, nor will be,
The undecoming of the inpossible, what may not be,
Nor would be, all gulpated by the intrails of the Raven...
- Excerpt from CKT MS No. 616
There are no photographs in the Cream King Trove. In their place are paintings, unschooled mockeries of works by the great masters of every age. The three large classrooms containing the relics of “Early Punk” include the most outrageous of these, cartoonish parodies of twentieth century masterpieces. There are stacks of them. Hopper’s Nighthawks at the Diner transmogrified to Philadelphia’s South Street, where punks with pancaked faces and black-rimmed eyes hunch over coffee at The Rattery, perusing Cliff Notes of MacBeth, Pride and Prejudice, and Portnoy’s Complaint. Picasso’s Three Musicians, renamed The Shuteye Train, rendered in hallucinogenic reds, blues and greens, with a fourth incongruous figure wedged into the tableau as if cut and pasted from the painter’s earlier blue period.
Sapinaire’s portrait of Verrone, redone in blacks and blues as a Tarot card of The Boss, which may represent the first king of Punk City—if we can trust the intuition which seeks to reassemble its cubist fragments into a real human face. But it is difficult to trust one’s intuition about punk artifacts, and the more so with this painting, because it may be the only surviving image of the punk ‘demortal’ known as St. Nuke.
He is the central enigma of the Philadelphia punk phenomenon. If it existed, and if he existed, St. Nuke is the key to unlocking its secrets. He runs through all the punks’ abundant and wildly contradictory histories of themselves. He is by turns a god, a mythic king, a dueling Renaissance dilettante, a maniacal tyrant, a passionate lover, a self-destructive rock star, a dogmatically puritanical pagan priest, an inspired spiritual and artistic leader, a satanic villain. The blurred and fragmented visage which stares at us from his maybe portrait is a visual analogy rather than a resolution of the ambiguities. St. Nuke’s essence, whatever it is or was, has been concealed from us by the filters of the punks’ borrowed styles of painting and writing. And so we yearn for just one photograph, one single cracked and fading Polaroid of a real human being to put with the name of St. Nuke. For even the matter of his human-being-ness remains somehow an unsafe assumption.
But why does it matter? To what end has this distinguished old classroom building at Eberhard College in rural Pennsylvania been converted to an archaeological museum and laboratory? Outside, the college’s smooth lawns are perfumed with dew and bright with the cut-grass green of spring. Inside, the dry remains of a bizarre urban subculture lie dead in labeled plastic bags awaiting the revivification of understanding. Students scarcely older than were the vanished punks at their height scurry like coroner’s clerks among the lab tables, inspecting microscopic clues as if in search of an exact cause of death to write on the certificate. But there are no certificates, not of death or birth. The questions that consume these students and their professors are much more basic: What is this stuff? Who made it? Where did they come from? Where did they go? And why, in all the world, is this assemblage of junk the only evidence that anything out of the ordinary happened on Philadelphia’s South Street two decades ago?
No one disputes that there were punks on South Street. Like New York, Philadelphia had its own contingent of the rock-and-roll rebels who, according to music historian Tricia Henry, “broke all the rules and declared war on all previously existing musical trends and rules of social behavior.” In the late 1970s, South Street was the logical place for such a community to congregate. And if casual witnesses are to be believed, congregate they did. Half a dozen punk nightclubs sprang up along the rat-infested street whose roots are sunk in Philadelphia’s colonial era, and Yuppies now gray at the temples recall that black-garbed punks came out at night to roam the tree-lined stretch of asphalt that merged with the circus atmosphere of historic Headhouse Square. There were the usual Sex Pistol lookalikes, minor league versions of Wendy O. Williams, and endless variations on the costumes and makeup of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which in those days reigned at South Street’s TLA theater in midnight shows all weekend long). Those with strong sensory memories claim that bass chords rippled underfoot along the brick sidewalks, shivering the tired mortar of bars, punk clothing shops, and second-hand musical equipment stores. The only trouble is, the punks of the Cream King Trove were not musicians but writers, and their histories claim that they ruled South Street—owned it, guarded it, and fought wars to keep outsiders out. This does not square with the recollections of most.
Yet the evidence of the Trove is physical, substantial, at times incredible, but undeniably present and provocative. The inventory records list 643 items of (nonmusical) computer equipment of a configuration claimed by no current manufacturer; 13,262 computer disks of unique physical design and data format; 1,159 weapons, including 454 bullwhips and 502 ‘swords’ fashioned mostly from extra-long screwdrivers, many showing trace amounts of human blood; 3,844 items of clothing, including combat coats armor-plated with green plastic circuit boards, blood-soaked gloves, and welded steel helmets evocative of bronze-age designs, as well as female apparel ranging from the frankly erotic to combat-scarred Amazonian; 108 paintings; 921 paper manuscript scrolls, most of them eaten by mold and mildew from the outside in, so that there are many beginnings but maddeningly few endings; 16 issues of a newspaper called The Punk City Shriek (sans photographs); five decks of well-worn tarot cards, each of unique design and nomenclature; 126 broken sheetrock panels covered with hand-painted script in a punk-pidgin dialect called The Tung; one Egyptian-style sarcophagus (empty); four plaster murals adorned with brilliantly colored hieroglyphics; 88 ‘band’ flags or pennons; and more than 200 isolated artifacts, including such items as a five pound sledge, a lock of hair, an eyepatch, a small vial of elaborately cut crystal, and what can only be described as a full-combat motorcycle featuring a computerized sonic ‘silencer.’
Confronted by such a mass of unexplained relics, one seeks a focus, a recognizable starting point. The one the punks nominate again and again in their writings is of unexpectedly childlike origin, encrusted in layers of riddle and myth.
The Shuteye Train
The painting hangs over Lynn Wyler’s desk behind a protective slab of glass.
“It’s the only one,” she explains, “the only image we have on canvas of the Shuteye Train.”
She gazes at it with an almost devotional raptness, her head tilted slightly upwards as if to receive a blessing or rebuke. A lovely young woman dressed in a prim wool jumper, she seems an unlikely candidate for obsession. Yet that is a word she has become comfortable with.
“Maybe it’s because I remember hearing it as a child,” she says, breaking her connection with the painting to smile at her own intensity. “The name is from a nursery rhyme, you know. My mother used to read it to me. I was all tucked in and safe, and her voice was so warm and soft.” Lynn’s voice remembers her mother’s and she recites from memory:
Through the blue where bloom the stars
And the Mother moon looks down
To land of Fay—
Oh, the sights that we shall see there!
Come, my little one, with me there—
Tis a goodly train of cars—
“All aboard for Shut-Eye Town!”
She breaks off, blushing. “I can’t get it out of my head anymore,” she confesses. “I am obsessed. Until a month ago I was engaged to be married. But my fiancé got fed up. ‘You care more about the Shuteye Train than you do me,’ he said. And when I realized he was right, he saw it in my face and broke off it off. So here I am, the hostage of four cubist-looking guys who, according to all official accounts, never existed.”
She pauses, then goes on in a lowered voice. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this but I do dream about them. They don’t look like the painting, but I still know it’s them, four figures in black coats. I see them pass through an intersection, no cars, no pedestrians, just them headed somewhere at night, and I run after them as hard as I can. But when I get to the corner and turn it, they’re gone.”
She laughs at the suggestion that she is suffering from a classic anxiety dream. “Of course,” she says. “The obvious explanation. The problem is, there isn’t anything about this whole phenomenon that yields to obvious explanations. I think maybe that’s what this is all trying to tell us. Forget the obvious explanations. They may work everywhere else, but not here, not on South Street.
“Look,” she says, slipping into her pedagogical persona. “Everybody in this building is a scholar or technical expert of some kind. We have all been imbued with the scientific method. We have been taught the discipline of logic and the perspective of absolute objectivity. And now here we sit, surrounded by this mountain of stuff—manuscripts, computer equipment, weapons, clothing, artwork, sacred relics—the archaeological remains of a fully developed subculture that simply cannot have existed. But does logic make this painting disappear, does it empty this building? No. Somewhere in all this stuff there's a fact, a reality, maybe even a truth of some kind. But everywhere we go to look for it we find filters in the way, like deliberate screens put there to keep us from seeing what happened. Because something did happen. There isn’t anybody working on this project who doesn’t believe that something happened, whether they admit it or not. And personally, I don’t think we’re going to make any headway at all until we admit the fact that we all do believe it happened, in spite of the evidence.”
She holds up a stack of photocopied manuscripts. “And whatever it is that happened, it starts here, with the Shuteye Train. It’s one of the few points on which all the materials agree. The first verse of the Punk Testament says, “At the beginning there was the Shuteye Train.’ Every other punk account keeps saying the same thing in different ways.”
She reads from the top of her stack:
In Shuteye Town did Shuteye Train
A nightmare children’s home ensee:
Where Fish the secret symbol reigned
O’er boomers destified for Kain
Deep in a quantum sea.
The sleeping car that snores along on bloody tracks,
The tired pullman that drones our song on bloody tracks
Gave tongue to all our hammered dreams of morning.
I return to the day a week or so before when I first arrived on South Street, where I had come in search of an entity known as the Shuteye Train, rumors of which had circulated as far north as my home in Boston... The Shuteye Train, it was said, wrote vicious stories live on stage, then went out and made them come true. I heard that they were maniacs, that they were murderers, that they lived in hiding, somewhere between half a step and a step and a half ahead of the law.
Lynn Wyler stops to clear her throat and observes, “There’s more, of course. A lot more. And these are just the fragmentary manuscripts we found in the Trove. When—if—our computer jocks crack the code on the disks, there are bound to be thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of pages we know nothing about today.”
How, then, does she go about her work? Is anything known for sure, and what has she concluded about the Shuteye Train?
She is more than willing to talk, to explain, to speculate, but she will not lay claim to knowledge.
“We are given their names. Loco Dantes is their leader. You’ll find evidence of that in The Boomer Bible. The other three are Pig Millions, Reedy Weeks, and Joe Kay. These are obviously symbolic, selected names, but then so are all the other names in Punk City. Eliot Naughton declares in his preface to The Boomer Bible that the Philadelphia Police knew of an organization, or something, called the Shuteye Train. That’s intriguing because the Naughton preface is otherwise adamant in its dismissal of the value and reality of the punk writer phenomenon. But Naughton died in 1995 and we don’t know where he got his information. I should tell you this is a touchy subject with me.
“Eliot Naughton had a brother, Thomas, also a professor of literature, at Princeton I think, who inherited whatever records Eliot left behind. He’s recently published a book of his own on the subject—An Autopsy of Punk Authors or some such condescending title—and it’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever read. The book contains some real information. But it’s fundamentally untrue in that it purports to know all kinds of things that are no more than patronizing guesswork. He’s managed to beg, borrow, or steal a handful of punk pieces—many of them tiny fragments of larger works—which he presumes to analyze and explain as if he had read the entire manuscript. His selections are not representative of the scope and variety of punk writing, and his introductions to individual pieces are nothing more than preemptive dismissals
"Worse than that, the book is just plain terrible, a thudding academic bore. It’s as if he deliberately wrote it to be unreadable. He’s got it so larded with pompous nonsense and sententious academic prose that it’s impossible not to think Naughton’s real purpose is to sabotage the publishing prospects of everyone working on this project. I’d like to jam the ridiculous crap he made up about Loco Dantes and the Shuteye Train right down his lying throat. And what really steams me is that he’s obviously got a mole in here feeding him some of our material, which is not supposed to be freely available, and artifacts, which are never supposed to leave here for any reason. Which means he knows it’s not a simple-minded, easily dismissed phenomenon. But his book treats it as an accepted reality that’s just not very interesting when a real scholar takes the time to concoct enough dismissive lies and misrepresentations about it. I’d love to know who’s pushing his buttons on this, and I’d love to read some of his files, but if I ever meet him I’ll probably light into him so hard I won’t get to find out anything. Oh well, that’s off the subject. I won’t bore you with any more on that fiasco.
“What it boils down to is, there’s not much to go on except what we already have here. Nobody I’ve talked to in the Philly PD will even acknowledge the existence of the Shuteye Train. So that leaves us with the records in the Trove, except for Frank Frelinger, of course, the last person to claim an encounter with them, which was described in the second preface to The Boomer Bible.
“I interviewed Frelinger and came away with the sense that he had a hidden agenda of his own. He was keenly interested in why I was questioning him, and he seemed to have learned more than I’d have thought possible about the Trove research effort. I don’t assign any particular weight to his contention that he’s had contact with the Shuteye Train, but I don’t necessarily regard him as a liar either. It could well be that he’s just a journalist who fell into a story he can’t get away from.
“That’s nothing new, though. The prose passage I read you was supposedly written by Boz Baker, the famous ‘new journalist’ of the sixties and seventies. He died during the period when the punk phenomenon was presumably still underway, and critics familiar with his work have told me they believe the Trove fragment attributed to him is his writing. So he may be a credible witness, but all we have of his account is a few pages, he’s not available for questioning, obviously, and he never claims in the material we possess to have seen the Shuteye Train in person. Apocryphally, Boz Baker became obsessed with Alice Hate, the de facto queen of Punk City, and lost interest in everyone and everything else. For my purposes he turns out to be ancillary material. Still, he’s another ‘real world’ witness to the supposed ‘unreal world’ of Punk City.
“Which leaves me to look for the Shuteye Train in other ways. In the Trove, we have only a hanful of fiction fragments attributed to their authorship. We have numerous references to them in punk history—that is, what purports to be history but more closely resembles mythology because of its apparent preference for semiotics over facts. And we have an overall pattern of punk iconography that seems to originate with the Shuteye Train and continues to proliferate, most notably on the Internet. That’s the angle I’m pursuing now.
But what of the story, she is asked. Isn’t there a real human story to find amidst the tales of an undying punk writer band called the Shuteye Train?
She laughs, peals of genuine merriment. “Certainly there’s a story. There are many stories. Every story line you could imagine is in there. At least, that’s my bet. But if you’re looking for a single line, an epic Punk City story, if you will, you have to be tolerant of contradictions and confusion. You wind up having to back your way out of all the conflicting detail accounts to the point where everything blurs, to the point of myth really, and then you get a community coming of age story that goes some-thing like this—
“In the late 1970s, maybe 1978, there’s a kind of second-string punk rock community living on South Street. It’s just an imitation, really, of what’s happening in new York and London. But these aren’t the punks of the Cream King Trove. The punks that go on to leave us all this are the losers and hangers-on of South Street., the ones who can’t even get into one of the rock bands. The Boomer Bible speaks of ‘the lowest of the low’ and it seems apt here. The punk writers speak of themselves at this stage as being ‘noth-ing’ in the truest sense of the word.
“But then some kind of crisis comes to South Street. Symbolically at least, it comes in the form of a biker gang which takes over the drug territory of which the community is a geographical part. The bikers run roughshod over the punks. There are beatings, rapes, murders, a campaign of intimidation and terror.
“Now the police will tell you that this never happened, that there was never any overt biker presence on South Street at this time. That’s why I refer to a symbolic event. The important thing about it is that it represents some kind of ultimate ordeal, a crucible that wreaks a transformation. That’s where the Shuteye Train comes in.
“You see, there is a moment in there somewhere that we can’t find. We can’t find it but it has to be there. A moment of inspiration or rebirth that alters the context, invisibly perhaps but profoundly. The underlying nature of the circumstances acquires a radically different identity. What had been nothing but a sordid vignette of drug abuse and aimless youth becomes, in the blink of an eye, a heroic and even sacred quest for meaning, redemption, and salvation. Imagine watching a movie about gang-bangers in an L.A. barrio and then somewhere in the middle of the first act you realize you’re watching the Iliad instead—a full-blown literal dramatization with Greeks and Trojans in crested helmets—and you have no recollection of the transition. That’s the scale of context change I’m talking about, and it’s the same kind of change. That’s why it’s also the key to whatever happened on South Street in the late seventies. In the punk accounts, this change is represented in terms of dramatic physical conflict.
“The hostility between punks and bikers erupts suddenly into war. Not a skirmish, but a war. All accounts use the word. Something has made the South Streeters resist. A mysterious ‘it’ has intervened and empowered the punks. Even though the challenge they face is terrifying. Here, let me read to you from the fragment we call the Gypsy manuscript:
It is an effort, even now, to recall this time, an eternity of fear and blood and death that made each night into an abyss. I watched or heard it all unfold outside my window, deep inside the hell of South Street, where the bikes rolled in at midnight and out again before dawn. In between my memories are splintered and painful as shattered bone. The gang had a leader, a man with a hammer, who withstood every assault like a cliff. He appeared one night in December when it seemed the punks were at last growing stronger than the bikers.... It was then that the Duke spoke, in a loud hoarse voice. “I be ready to settle this thing for good right now. One on one. The best you got against me.”
There is a low, thrilling power in Lynn’s voice as she utters the words of “the Duke.” It is obvious that she can see the scene unfolding in her mind’s eyes. More of her dreams, one wonders? But she resumes her exposition in a normal scholarly tone.
“To me, the important part of this passage is, ‘memories... splintered and painful as shattered bone.’ It’s my theory that this is the key to the beginning. It won’t come together for us because it’s not together for them, either. It’s like some terrible wound that can’t heal—a wound that may have elevated them but which has also bequeathed them a permanent legacy of pain. They come back to this moment of their history again and again and again because they want to perceive, directly if they can, the origin of this incredible, ennobling and agonizing gift. But no matter how many times and ways they tell the story of their beginnings, they can’t quite get back to the real origin. There is a point at which the physics of punk reality crumbles into jagged mismatched shards of quasi-remembrance. And interestingly to me at least, this ‘shattered’ effect is strikingly present at the very climax of the war event, just where you’d expect a purely mythological structure to enforce some unity.
“You can see the problem most clearly in the confusion of identities that runs through this episode. For example, the Gypsy manuscript is the only eyewitness account we’ve found so far of the pivotal showdown between the punks and the bikers. The way he tells it, the Duke turns his challenge into a ritual that is repeated every night: ‘The best you got against me.’ An invitation to single combat that sounds straight out of the middle ages. When he’s finally taken up on his challenge, who is it that comes forward to fight him?
But as everyone looked one to another, searching for the source of the voice, four masked men dressed in black stepped out of the ECCE doorway and crossed the street through the snow, silent as wraiths.
“The Shuteye Train,” Lynn explains. “’Four masked men dressed in black’ is absolutely standard iconography for the Shuteye Train. It just can’t be anyone else. And so it’s Loco Dantes of the Shuteye Train who engages in combat with the Duke, and it’s Loco Dantes who ‘stuck an icepick in the monster’s ear, deep into his murderous brain.’
The Duke dropped to his knees, a look of astonishment wiping the menace from his face, and then he pitched forward, blood pouring from his ear onto the white blanket of his deathbed.
“And then, bang!” Lynn continues, “Just like that, according to Gypsy, the war is finished and the ‘punk writer’ phenomenon takes over. The coming of age that is the rest of the punk story has been initiated, and it has acquired the momentum that will push it forward through the remainder of the history. Thus, it is the beginning which is most important to all subsequent punk writers.
When you look at this beginning for the purpose of explaining the primacy of the Shuteye Train, the Gypsy account of the duel between Loco Dantes and the Duke serves as a fascinating clue to their symbolic identity. For this is the precise moment at which the punks cease to be nothing, when they become victors instead of losers and are enabled to manage their own destinies.
“That’s not how most of the punk writings we’ve found describe this episode. Despite Gypsy’s account—and Gypsy is an important figure, we believe, who went on to become a power in Punk City—it is St. Nuke who is given credit for killing the Duke. The book of Angels in the Punk Testament says, ‘Whereupon St. Nuke planted an icepick in his ear, all the way to the handle, which slew the one called the Duke, before he hit the ground.’ The physical details are the same, but the identity of the protagonist is changed. While the Shuteye Train waits mysteriously and implacably down the street, the king figure plays the vital role.”
Which version takes precedence with Lynn Wyler? “Neither,” she responds. “Gypsy’s is the eyewitness account, but this does not mean that his version carries more weight than the book of Angels, which is, after all, the document purporting to contain the collective memory of Punk City. One could take the obvious cheap shot and say that it’s the ‘official’ version, the one that’s politically correct in a community writing effort being managed by the hero of the story, but that, to my mind, is an unnecessarily cynical explanation of the discrepancy. I think there’s a sense in which they work best together.
“Gypsy never says that the slayer of the Duke is Loco Dantes. He has used literary language that makes the Shuteye Train unmistakably present at the scene, just as Angels uses scriptural language to do the same thing. Both could be saying, ‘It’s as if the Shuteye Train were there in person, ensuring that the punks would prevail. The outcome is the same in both versions, as is the clear implication that the decisive factor is this invincible presence that resides in no single person, including the king.”
Lynn Wyler smiles. “There are those in Agley Hall who will tell you that questions about the Shuteye Train pale beside the questions about St. Nuke. I acknowledge that perspective, but I don’t want to dwell on it. I’ll just point out that if the punk writer movement occurred, St. Nuke will be confirmed as an historical personage, a living breathing human being who led his people to a fairly notable accomplishment. This cannot be said of the Shuteye Train. There is every chance that they were, in the context of Punk City, the personification of an article of faith, not a physical but a metaphysical presence of extraordinary gravity and authority. If that’s the case, then it will be impossible to understand anything about the punk writers without understanding how and why they came to believe so fiercely in the Shuteye Train.”
She smiles again, this time at the suggestion that she already has her own answers to such questions. “Provisional answers,” she concedes. “Theirs, I believe, is the power of untraceable memory, the authority of a reference that seems to predate any meaning to which it refers. Like me, some one or ones in Punk City had heard a nursery rhyme in childhood and developed a series of implied associations—of comfort, meaning, and significantly, of journeying—which were triggered into mental and emotional reality by the identity crisis arising from adolescent drug addiction. The result was a subconscious but exceptionally powerful return to the innocence and belief of earliest childhood, which—if any of us could manage it—would indeed seem like a rebirth. The courage to fight back comes from seeming flight into a fantasy realm where reality itself is diminished in intensity and immediacy.”
Does this mean that the Shuteye Train should be understood as a kind of mass delusion, or worse than that, as a mass hallucination of childish figments of the imagination? And doesn’t such an explanation reduce the ‘epic’ punk story to a cheap allegory, like some Hollywood western? The Duke is drugs. The Shuteye Train is dreams. And when they face each other down at high noon, the good dreams outdraw the evil drugs?
Lynn seems taken aback for a moment, then recovers her composure. “That’s not how I think of it,” she says. “I’m inclined to the idea that the Shuteye Train begins as an accepted symbol without a deterministic meaning, but as the punks grow in knowledge and experience, the preexisting symbol is used to embody the value system that has been developed along the way. In this sense, it’s a microcosm of the human relationship to the notion of divinity. The image of God appears first and accrues successive layers of metaphysical identity which reflect the minds of the believers as they learn more about themselves and the universe.”
But is the Shuteye Train nonetheless real? Time, it seems, for a very pointed question: Does Lynn Wyler believe in God? She blushes at the question, crosses her arms, glances toward the door. “What I believe,” she says slowly and distinctly, “is that we are all waiting for the code on the Trove disks to be broken. And while we wait, we are hoping for a miracle—recovery of the lost testament of the punks. The Apunkrypha. I will cheerfully change any or all of my pet theories if The Apunkrypha shows me a new way to understand it all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
In case you're interested.