Friday, July 24, 2009
ERRATA. One of the very few leaks from the Cream King Study at Eberhard College. This wasn't one of the parchment manuscripts included in the Trove. It comes from one of very few readable disks from the punk computers. The text was captured from screen shots of a file that almost immediately self-destructed into a stream of commas. Scholars are still divided over whether it was "meant" to be read off the screen or was simply improperly coded into the unique (quantum?) punk archive. When it appeared, they took it as a directly defiant challenge: Are you getting it? But they are academics and know better than that. So it's obviously an anomalous fragment, but it's also a glimpse of another potentially key player on the early South Street scene:
Basil Shroud: Fear Is Life
What do you think? By now you must be hip deep in our little time bomb. Step right up. See the mortal remains of Punk City, USA, and judge for yourself whether it pays to rock the boat. Judge fairly, judge harshly, judge any which way you will, but judge. Put on your black robes, climb onto the bench, and grip that gavel in your hand. The prosecuting attorney is making his summation now.
“O wise and honest jurors, we have shown you the ruins of a lost world, artifacts, writings, scraps of art and lore, enough in our opinion to warrant a verdict of guilty, a sentence of oblivion. The punks came, the punks went, and nothing they hoped for happened, which is about what you’d expect. Along the way, they spilled blood recklessly, until even the tomb of their world stank like a charnel house, which is about what you’d expect. The record is not complete to be sure, but it is clear in its import. Our response should be equally clear. Let us build a bonfire and consign these relics to the flames. Let us burn the evidence and turn away from the face of horror. Let us continue as we were and leave the punks to rot in peace.”
Now, do wish
to hear from the defense? Do you? Do you? It will not be pretty. It may
not even be safe. But come, take my hand, and we will go to Punk City,
as it was then, in the beginning, and take our chances.
Afterwards, you may have your bonfire, and taste the charred sweetness of marshmallows fired over the pyre of Punk City, and there will be an end to it. Unless there is no end. Unless there will never be an end. Unless there was a Doctor Dream, who answered the prayers of Punk City, and came at last, and forever changed the landscape of unlifeland, in ways that make it perilous to ignore.
But that never happened, of course. No, no, of course not. That couldn’t have happened. Our expedition is only archaeology, a kind of dream built upon the broken and eroded facts at your disposal. Now, if you will just give me your hand... GIVE ME YOUR HAND... we will descend through scales into the arena of South Street, where something happened or it didn’t, where you must be the judge of your own experience.
We are moving now, well above it all, safely over that map of the United States you carry with you in your mind. Are you comfortable? See the flaming dot on the extreme right hand side, somewhere below New England and somewhere above the south. That is Philadelphia, our destination. The dot burns, its flames devouring the surface of the map, which peels away to show us a vast modern cityscape, and now we can hear the music starting, a perpetual squall of drums and electric guitars that will direct us to the center of the storm.
Do you know of Philadelphia? Have you imagined the spire of City hall, turning grandly into the mind’s eye of our approach? The spire is the ornate and mighty pinnacle of an ornate and mighty building that stands at the intersection of Philadelphia’s greatest streets. The man in the funny hat on top is William Penn, the peace loving Quaker who founded this city and still bears witness to all that occurs within the purview of his granite eyes.
Let us join him for a moment. Grab a granite arm and plant your feet next to Billy Penn’s. Welcome to the City of Brotherly Love. I see you cannot take your eyes off the river, which looks, even to me, like a dirty steel mirror. Its surface holds a blurred and tarnished image of city life, the gray industrial breath of three million Americans who work and sleep and die, a little of each every day, in the valley built by this very river so many aeons ago. On the far side of the river is New Jersey, an infected wound called Camden, and through the incision made by the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman bridges, a sclerotic system of asphalt arteries and veins and capillaries that carry the most modern of urban diseases into and beyond Camden, perhaps as far as Atlantic City by the sea. Breathe the air. Can you smell salt, the tang of spray from waves drumming the sandy shore? Not at all. You smell cars and trucks. You taste the bite of billions of complex and synthetic grime molecules, the same ones you see beneath your feet on the woodwork of City Hall, the same ones that sting your eyes, the same ones that are coating your fingertips with soot as you cling to the blind stone statue of this city’s father.
It is like the fine dust of our own decay, this grime, which fills the air and falls onto every surface as far as the eye can see. It falls on North Broad Street, which leads straight as a black arrow into the heart of the Philadelphia ghetto, where you would die if we took you there. It falls on Chestnut Street, for its entire length, from the murderous halls of academe in West Philadelphia to the simulated restoration of the city’s birthplace by the river’s edge. Yes, there is an eternal frost of soot on the University of Pennsylvania, on the plastic bubble housing the Liberty Bell, on Independence Hall, on Penn’s Landing, and on all the imposing monuments in between, including the glass and stone and steel of Philadelphia’s center city, as high or higher than the brim of Billy Penn’s hat.
All that’s left is south, and there is soot in the south too. The Schuylkill River winds like liquid soot along the same course as the Schuylkill Expressway, which is made of petrified soot and leads from the southern edge of South Philadelphia, with its soot-covered Italian vegetable markets, past the southern border of center city’s mountainous towers of soot, and then on by the soot hill called Manayunk, to its ultimate destination in Valley Forge, where the snow is still white when it falls, or was in the when you’re in now—which is the days of the earliest punks.
Are you comfortable with your flight of fancy so far? These should be familiar images, a burning map followed by snapshots of creeping petro-chemical death in the northeast, with a heavy metal soundtrack of your own devise, the carnivorous riffs of Hendrix’s Purple Haze perhaps, or the desperate loneliness of Morrison voicing the final organ chords of The End. But have you thought of me, who has you by the hand? I don’t wish to disturb you, but I am there beside you, and will be with you for as long as it takes, no matter how long it takes.
Beside you. I am beside you. I am the punk beside you. Not the punk of your tepid imaginings, which cannot yet see the city as it was and is, but the punk who lives in your darkest and most unconfronted fears, the one who picks you out of the crowd, and fastens his hatred upon you for no conceivable reason, and follows you home, not quite seen, and into your bedroom, where...
But you do not quite believe it yet, and these are — I am — only words buried ina yellowing page that was found in a tomb, if there was ever really a tomb at all. For it is always easier not to believe. Easier not to think that somewhere, somehow, some dead-end blur of faceless zeroes might make a stand. Impossible to believe, really. Impossible to think that some row of zeroes might go looking for some one to hang onto, become a number to be reckoned with. Impossible to think that someone would grow tired of you, and react against you, because they know you better than you think.
I did not believe it either. I was not always a punk, did not start out as Basil Shroud. Way down there, just a few blocks from City Hall, you can see me standing on the sidewalk, a dot on the pavement taking the afternoon air. If you hang on, we’ll swoop down and take a closer look, down past the sealed windows of skyscrapers, past the big city pigeons creating their defecatory art, and down to street level, where the growl of buses surges over the soundtrack and puts us in real time.
There am I then, a teenage artiste, a larval sophisticate who pictures himself as Hamlet, uttering the one true soliloquy in a stage Brit accent perfected in the shower. The building behind me is the Pennsylvania Academy of the Dramatic Arts, and you can see that I like to stand there with it gazing impassively at the street over my shoulder. My overcoat, my too long muffler, my stylish throwaway hat, my Brit umbrella have all been chosen to complement my sensitive gray eyes and the stone of the building where I do my best posing. Someday, some young lady will see me standing there, the distinctive but succinct grace of my body language, and come closer for a casual onceover. She will glimpse those gray eyes of mine and find her heart wounded by their oxymoronically remote, unfocused, piercing quality. She will be mine from that moment on, the helpless admirer of my presence onstage and off, and will know—before I even tell her—that I am born to play Hamlet as no man ever was.
But the boy was wrong. He did not play Hamlet, not then, not later. Through the window of the academy, we can glimpse him auditioning for the play of his dreams, “To be or not to be,” he pontificates, in the manner of a boy declaiming in the shower, while all of us, including you and me and the director, blush and look away in embarrassment. He too is scarlet with shame but anxious to be accepted in some way, and he boasts of his attainments in a strategic skill, the feint and parry of swordplay.
“I’m a trained fencer,” he declares. “I was number one on the varsity epee and saber teams. I can make the duels a work of art.”
But no one is paying attention. The director and his staff have tasted all the flavors of desperation and they have work to do. To whom would it matter that an actor who cannot act is gifted in the use of weapons? The answer is: it would matter to no one but a punk. So how on earth did two punks manage to sneak into the back row of the theater, and why would they be there anyway? Did you see them, see the way they exchanged glances when young Hamlet made his boast, the way they slithered like snakes for the exit immediately thereafter?
And now our poseur is back at his usual spot, looking more remote and less piercing than usual, in fact somewhat crushed, as if the panache he needed to carry off that absurd hat had had been left inadvertently behind in his apartment this morning. He does not want to think about Hamlet just now. He wants to envision his own vindication, radiant reviews of performances he doesn’t know how to give and can just barely glimpse by squinting in a certain way into the realm of maybe somehow land, where he is perfectly at home.
But there is another maybe somehow land, just ten or twelve long blocks away. This other land is the birthplace of Punk City, which may be annihilated before it ever gets to be at all. Is this too hard to imagine? One set of city scum is being decimated by another set of city scum, and the stakes are dominion over the territory known as South Street and Headhouse Square. Of course, this never happens, but our young protagonist is ignorant of many things, including this, and he is in a dangerously vulnerable frame of mind just now. If he should be approached by a pair of punks who are prepared to admire him, he might not be able to to restrain his ego from impelling him headlong toward disaster.
And surprise! He is approached. The punks shuffle toward him, aware of being far from home. They are aliens in need. In fact, they look like aliens. One has green hair, one has striped hair. The ears of both bear multiple punctures, multiple dangles of of sharp-edged objects, including razor blades and safety pins and industrial copper staples. Their coats are olive drab, slashed and tattered and maybe not just for appearance’s sake.
“S’cuse me, man,” one of them says to our young hero. “We got a question to ax you.”
“I don’t have any bread on me, man,” retorts Prince Hamlet. “I’m just a student.”
“We don’t want your graves, man,” the other punk explains.
“Yeah,” agrees his companion. “We’re looking for somebody who knows about sword fighting. What d’you call it? Fencing?”
“I can’t help you,” Hamlet answers, starting to walk as if he had somewhere to go.
“You know about sword fighting, don’t you?” challenges the punk with green hair, falling into step beside Hamlet. “We heard you inside. We was watching the actors and we heard you say about being number one at fencing.”
“I’m sorry I can’t help you.” Hamlet is walking faster now, wishing he could see a cop on the next block or the next.
But the punk with striped hair stops him with one firm hand and speaks with sudden, vehement emotion. “Hey, man. We need you. We’re dying every night, for real, man, down on South Street.”
“We need an edge,” barks the other.
“Got to find an edge. D’you understand?” The two punks regard the actor in mute supplication.
They have come to a halt in front of Horn & hardardt. The smell of coffee cuts through the chill of a November afternoon. Hamlet risks eye contact with his molesters. In their eyes he sees a familiar emotion, one he can relate to. It is fear.
“We can talk for five minutes inside,” he tells them.
Three hours later, Hamlet enters the besieged realm of Punk City for the first time since the police stopped patrolling it. If you listen closely, you can hear the five sets of footsteps on concrete, approaching the barricade at Tenth Street. Three sets belong to Hamlet and his new friends, Armpit Smell and Vox Rot of the Great Unwashed. The other two belong to you and me, treading behind them into the mists of legend.
dressed like the others, you and I, and you must stick close to me. I
warn you that not everyone leaves this place alive, and as evening
falls tonight, tempers are short and ugly. You must forget who you are,
if you are anyone, and be with me a punk on the edge of extinction.
Forget your clothes, your shoes, the part in your hair. The legs you
see walking below you are covered in coarse olive drab duck. Your boots
are heavy, black, a half size too large, and a blister is already
forming on your heel. Inside your coat, you carry weapons; the handle
of a long scriver digs unyieldingly into your ribs. Like the rest of
us, you wear a layer of thick white pancake on your face. Anonymity is
a blessing and a charm against the terrors of the night. For you are,
in spite of all of us, alone in a place where people dressed like you,
and armed like you, will die tonight on a nameless Tuesday.
Inside the shell of metal music, you will be hearing from the maybe’s yet to be. Have you ever feared for your life? For weeks and months at a time? If so, you know the maybe game. Maybe they will not come tonight, the bikers and their Harleys and their hard ass kick ass glee for mayhem. Maybe they will come, and lose, and go away again, trailing plumes of undigested city sky from their tailpipes. Maybe you will live to see the red of their taillights one more time, the bloody periods that end each night’s sentence of combat. Maybe they will kill someone else, not you, and you will wake again tomorrow morning for a quick one-two-three with the cards, to start another string of maybe’s and maybe nots.
Up ahead of
us, Hamlet's sense is that all is not as he had thought. Until now, the
idea of combat has not been real to him — no more real than the five
thousand dollars he has been promised for teaching the punks to fence.
Now he is beginning to feel a curious elation. Here on South Street,
walking from Eighth to Seventh, he believes in the possibility of war
and sudden death, and in the possibility of honest-to-God payment for
services rendered, five grand in crisp small bills, an incredible
bonanza that just might be worth a few hours on the dark underside of fear ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
BUT. This is also a good place to restate Basil's question:
What do you think? By now you must be hip deep in our little time bomb. Step right up. See the mortal remains of Punk City, USA, and judge for yourself whether it pays to rock the boat.
We can stop here. No need to continue with the punk writer story. I'm content to wait and publish it in some other venue. I know it's a distraction from the political combat we all live for. Don't be shy. It's only fiction. Let me know. We can definitely go back to the old days of essay, humor, satire, and pure attitude. I know some of you would be the happier for it. How about the rest of you? "What do you think?"