Street Movies

(Originally published February 2, 2006)

The world is a stage.  Welcome to Act One.

I rarely go to movies. I’ve gone to one movie over the last 20 years. Living on the streets, you live out about 20 weird movies every week. So the celluloid movies don’t quite make it anymore. The last movie I saw was the Crumb documentary about 10 years ago. And the only reason I went to that one was because I had a vaguely personal connection to it.  (During the scene where Crumb is in his studio as he’s packing up to move to France, you can see on the wall behind his head a copy of the “TELEGRAPH STREET CALENDAR 1991″ that I co-published. I was standing up in the theatre screaming at the screen: “Pan in on the calendar! Get your fat head out of the way, Crumb!”)  (What can I say, I found the scene particular evocative.)

Anyways, last week I was hanging out on a street corner at my 25-cent used books vending table by Cody’s Books. I was sitting on a milk crate, minding my own business (who me?), taping covers back onto torn books, when a “scene” broke out right behind me. This cute young black chick in her car was stopped in the middle of the street.  And she was yelling at a tall, young black guy who was standing in the street, blocking her way. “GET OUT OF THE STREET!” she yelled.



Next thing I knew the black chick is attacking the black guy right in front of me. He’s backing up, trying to fend her off, whipping his jacket at her like a matador. She’s throwing punches. He grabs her by the wrist and they’re swinging each other back and forth. He gets the best of her and flings her in the air like a rag doll into the metal payphone. A very vicious picture in my mind’s eye, as the side of her head crashes into the metal. A few more inches and she would have broken her neck.

She gets up from the sidewalk, mad as a hornet, and pulls a knife out of her pocket. The black guy is backing up like mad, with his palms up to fend her off. And he backs right into my shopping cart full of books parked right next to me, knocks the cart over into the street and he lands on his ass in the middle of the street. She’s still pursuing him and backs him all the way into the middle of the intersection on Telegraph and Haste.


“SHE’S GOT A KNIFE!” yells the black guy.

So the black chick — and cute, I might add, in a young, Diana Ross kinda’ way — walks back towards her car, and spots his black leather jacket lying on the sidewalk. She picks up the jacket, holds it up towards him — in the classic “NEENER NEENEER NEENER!” schoolyard brat tradition — and proceeds to slowly and methodically slice the jacket to ribbons with her knife. And I can tell you, that knife is razor sharp: it slices through that leather jacket like butter.



So the black guy, not to be out-done, shouts out: “OH YEAH?” and runs over to her car — which is still parked in the middle of the street — and starts kicking the shit out of the side of it with his boots. CRASH! CRINKLE! sounds of broken metal and glass.

Suddenly, four cop cars blast to the scene: that surreal, red-lights-flashing-in-the-dark-night scenario. They catch the guy in the middle of the street in mid-kick. So, needless to say, he’s got Some Explaining To Do.

As usual with these weird street movies, you never know how they started, or how they end. You usually just get the 2nd and 3rd act of the drama.

Who knows why people do the crazy things they do? Who knows, and who cares, right? Unless you’re nosey bastard like me and can’t help wondering, What The Fuck?

At first I assumed they didn’t know each other; that perhaps the black guy was standing in the street trying to save the parking space for a friend who was circling around the block in his car.  But then it was pointed out that there was an older white man in the car with the young, cute black chick. So the second possible scenario was that she was a hooker, and perhaps he was a jilted ex-boyfriend. And the third possible scenario was that it was just a bunch of stupid bullshit over nothing (and people on the streets regularly get killed over less).

I ended up re-telling the story at least 10 times to 10 different people — something Exciting Happened! — embellishing the story with each re-telling (“And then she pulled out a switchblade! No, it was a MACHETE!”)

And me? I bought 10 bucks worth of crystal meth and went back to my office and masturbated for 48 hours. What the fuck.



Punk Rock 1982 Punk Rock 2002

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Originally published December 13, 2002

This crew of gutter punks have swamped into our scene lately, meaning sure doom for our campsite. Most of them are good guys; 18, 19, 20-years-old. But they all have this “Bad Boy” act that is almost laughable. They all think they’re such big rebels and non-conformists. And they express their rebellion mostly by getting drunk and trashing out the spots where we hang-out, and setting fires to the campus bulletin board, and pissing and puking everywhere. “FUCK SHIT UP!” is their credo, and they live by that.

They justify their brainless acts of destruction with sort of a vague, “anti-corporation/anti-society” ideology. I overheard a typical conversation between two of these “bad boy” Gutter Punks the other day.

“I never shoplift from, like, Mom-and-Pop stores, man,” said the one. “I only steal from the big, corporate-owned places. Like, I go into Andronico’s and steal big bottles of whiskey and vodka from them all the time. And I, like, give it away and share it with all the other kids, man.” Why, he’s a regular Robin Hood. And getting drunk and puking all over the sidewalk is a revolutionary act, man.

Most of the street people in my crew are older; in their 40s and 50s. Most of us have worked at mainstream jobs at some point in our lives. We have nothing AGAINST the mainstream, or mainstream people. We just prefer not to be part of it.

These punk kids, on the other hand, have a hatred of the corporations, the System, the Mainstream, Society, whatever you want to call it. “Fuck Yuppies!” they’ll yell at passing straight-looking people. The Enemy. You wonder where this pose came from….

And I flash back to 1982 and Tim Yohannon — publisher of Maximum RocknRoll. I have sort of a strange, personal connection with MRR, for my own publication, Twisted Image #1, came out at the same time as Maximum RocknRoll #1 in the fabled summer of 1982. We were both inspired by the energy and excitement that was swirling around at that time. But we both had completely different takes on the burgeoning phenomenon that was “Punk Rock 1982.” Whereas MRR constantly and enthusiastically urged young high school kids to “join The Scene,” I described the punk movement in TI# 1 (in a record review of the just- released “Punk & Disorderly” album) as: “…the perfect soundtrack to the Apocalypse.” No, I was hardly saying “Come and join the scene.”

Tim Yohannon was famous for (and probably proud of) his ability to indoctrinate impressionable young kids with his quasi-socialist, anti-corporation spew. Why, those corporations were evil. And any self-respecting punk who had anything to do with those heinous corporations was a “sell-out” or a “poseur” or worse. This was an odd stance coming from the mouth of Tim Yohannon, considering that he spent the whole time he was publishing MRR working for UC Berkeley, one of the largest corporations in Berkeley, if not the state of California. And he was entitled to retirement benefits and full health coverage, etc., even as he was spewing out his anti-corporate harangues to these impressionable young kids — setting them up to go charging down a blind-alley that led to nothing. But, as always, Tim Yohannon did it all for The Scene, so it was different.

He was famous for condemning and attacking anyone who “exploited the punk scene for personal gain, man.” And yet you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who profited more handsomely from the Bay Area punk scene than Tim Yohannon himself. Yohannon ran MRR for 15 years, called all the shots, controlled virtually every facet of it. But you see, MRR was run as a “collective,” and he had a band of stooges who rubber-stamped anything he wanted to do. So you see, Yohannon himself never TECHNICALLY gained personally from MRR. Why, MRR was proof positive of “socialism in action.” And besides, any benefit Yohannon derived from MRR was done, not for personal gain — oh heaven forbid no — but for The Good of The Scene, man. Because Tim Yohannon was such a wonderful, selfless man. Like the big house he owned — oh excuse me, MRR owned — where he called the shots and decided who lived there and who didn’t. But it’s not as if Yohannon was the de facto landlord. Oh no, it was all done for The Scene. Or the $20,000 in cash that he regularly kept in a locked box under his bed which he controlled, which he decided where it was spent and who it was given to. This, too, was done for The Scene. It was just one of the many great sacrifices he made on behalf of The Scene.

And he had all sorts of funny rules at the Maxi Pad, this too was all done on behalf of the scene. Like his rules that “couples” weren’t allowed to live there. This was done, no doubt, to break the bonds of the patriarchal, monogamous, White-Male-dominated Power Structure. No doubt. In theory. But in effect it meant that any teenage punkette that wandered into the MRR house was fair game for this 50-year-old weasel, Tim Yohannon, who would be waiting for them on his bed, with the $20,000 in cash stashed underneath, and the power to decide who gets to keep a roof over their heads and who has to leave, and you can be sure that the chicks knew what the score was. Why, Tim Yohannon was doing it for The Scene yet again. What a great man he was, this slimy little weasel. Now I don’t wish to be casting aspersions on anyone’s sex trip — Lord knows the power exchange between men and women is OFTEN a brutal exchange. But what was doubly slimy about Tim Yohannon was how his high-sounding, “selfless” ideology, always — miraculously — seemed to coincide with his own personal self-interests. Such a coincidence.

Another rule, of course, was that “corporate rock” was banned from the MRR house. Why, if some unsuspecting punk kid dared to enter the house with a Ramones album, or, heaven forbid, a Sex Pistols album (what phony corporate punks THEY were), he’d be Banished From The Scene (horror of horrors). Because the punk rock revolutionaries at MRR were against the corporations, man. Then Yohannon would turn on his television set and watch “Perry Mason” and all the other corporate drivel that spewed out of his TV set. But that was different, somehow (don’t ask me how).

And who can forget the special issue of MRR about punk chicks working as strippers and whores, with Tim Yohannon himself breathlessly interviewing the young girls. What a wonderful thing this was, according to the world of Yohannon. Young punk girls turning their backs on the horrible, sexist, corporate world to become truly independent and free-thinking riot grrl-type revolutionaries. What a wonderful role model this Tim Yohannon fellow was for his youthful and impressionable audience of teenagers.

In the late ’80s, early ’90s, I actually appeared in MRR for while. To be fair (to myself), I submitted my comics and writing to literally hundreds of publications, virtually anybody who wanted to print it. And I got published in an astonishing cross-section of papers, of which I take a certain pride. Leftwing papers, rightwing papers. Middle-of-the-road papers. Hippie papers. Punk papers. Anti-racism papers. Blatantly racist papers. Underground papers. Mainstream papers. My work appeared in everything from USA TODAY, to 8-page zines xeroxed off by high school kids. So, for about a year, my comics and writing appeared in MRR. Then one issue Yohannon wrote a column eulogizing and glorifying Huey Newton, this great, great man. In fact Huey Newton was nothing but a thug, a murderer, a rapist, a crack-dealer (though you’d never know from reading MRR). So in the next issue I mildly took Yohannon to task for this (not mentioning Yohannon by name, because I half-expected what was coming), as well as pointing out a few home-truths about another thug (oh excuse me, “’60s revolutionary”), George Jackson, who had recently been glorified in MRR.

So I get a phone call from Tim Yohannon later that week. Alas, “they” (not him of course) had decided to stop running my column. He, of course, wanted to continue to run my column. But that darn “MRR committee” had voted against it. It had nothing to do with my political views or criticism of him, he assured me (oh heavens to Betsy no). But that I had suddenly become a “bad writer that nobody wanted to read” and that my literary abilities were no longer up to the high standards set by the 17-year-old punk kids who largely wrote the magazine. He wanted to keep running my comics — which he could selectively edit, of course — but I told him I didn’t want to have anything more to do with a slimeball like him. And so, out of the hundreds and hundreds of publications that I allowed to run my work, MRR would go down as the only one that I WOULDN’T let run my work.

In truth, Yohannon was one of those slimy little weasels where virtually everything that came out of his mouth was a self-serving lie or double-talk. He was one of those guys who talked like a lawyer, endlessly shading his meaning, splitting hairs, giving purposely false impressions, saying one thing while manipulating the exact opposite thing behind the scenes. One of those guys you felt the need to take a shower after talking to him because you felt like you’d been covered with a layer of his slime.

What he mostly reminded me of was a 50-year-old loser who never got to hang out with the “Cool Crowd” in high school, so now at age 50 he finally could play at being the Big Man to 17-year-old kids, and now he got to decide who the Cool Clique was (with him as the coolest of the clique, of course). In truth, his only real talent was the ability to intellectually bully naive 17-year-old boys (or adults who still had the mentality of one).

On the other hand, there was something almost poignant and sympathetic about his partner, and MRR co-founder, Jeff Bale. Because Bale was so dumb, you sensed he actually believed it. He was the True Believer (whereas Yohannon spent so much time and energy covering up his double-talk, you knew on some level that he knew it was bullshit). Recently, Bale — 20 years too late — came to the startling conclusion that Maximum RocknRoll was pushing “a rigid, politically-correct orthodoxy” on the unsuspecting public, man (tell me its not SO, Jeff!). And that MRR was stifling the free expression of free-thinking iconoclasts (like him). So he began publishing a dull, generic, “alternative” rock rag to set the world on fire (alternative to WHAT, you might ask). Why, The Scene has been saved at last! This was so hilarious to me, I couldn’t resist getting in a few digs at Bale’s expense. To which Bale responded by bragging about the incredible “impact” he’s had on the world (unlike me, of course, whose criticisms of Bale were no doubt inspired by my jealousy at his great accomplishments…whatever THEY happened to be). I wrote back: “People like you and Yohannon are just typical politicians who saw the parade going by and jumped up in front and pretended to lead it; parasites who attached themeselves to the energy of youth-culture.”

In truth, the punk kids that fell for MRR’s political blather were just cannon fodder sacrificed at the altar of Yohannon and Bale’s worthless, “failed-60s-radical” political horseshit.

MRR is still being published to this day. And it is a most peculiar specimen to behold. It is as if the world froze in the summer of ’82. And there is Maximum RocknRoll. This dead thing. This petrified fossil from a bygone era. Like something you’d find under a rock. Where nothing new ever grows. Endlessly repeating the same endlessly-repeated blather. Forever. This dreary smudge of black newsprint. Strange, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the gutter punk kids are flopped out on the streets of every city in America, begging for money and fucking shit up (but at least they’re not supporting The System, man). Maybe what they need is yet another anti-corporate, anti-America lecture from the political geniuses at MRR to set them straight

LOVE LOVE LOVE Part 2…. That’s Like Hypnotizing Chickens

(Originally published April 19, 2006)

We wonder sometimes if God loves us. “How could a loving God do something like this to us?” as we survey the wreckage of our wounded, suffering lives and the myriad diseased calamities of human existence. And you wonder — if in fact it is all love — why there is so much of this other stuff: all the seeming non-love aspects of life: the pain and suffering, the anger and rage, and the boredom (which I suspect is the true opposite of “love, as opposed to “hatred” — the fascination of love is the antithesis of boredom).

Again, I always come back to the hide-and-seek aspect of Hindu mythology: God, splitting Himself into pieces, slicing His body up into a zillion so-called separate beings, cutting Himself off from Himself, from His eternal throbbing Cosmic Love. So that He could play the game of mortal existence — of being you and me — and of seeking and ultimately finding Himself again. In essence, putting a veil over His love. All the non-loving aspects of this life — the seemingly impure and imperfect things — are merely the veil that God placed over His gold. And the little beams of love we pick up now and again, are like the clues left at the scene of the crime, to keep us moving in the right direction.

I’m sure the next life, our ultimate destination and destiny, is nothing less than the eternal throbbing of 100% pure love. Now and forever. But in the meantime…

“Love is an angel disguised as lust,” went the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen song (and somehow, I suspect that line was more Patti’s than Bruce’s). Something about that line always said a lot to me. As if, under the fumblings of my spastic attempts at Romantic Love, was something deeper. This all-encompassing love. You can write off Romantic Love as “just sex.” And most of human love is just “buying-and-selling.” And the kind of love we seek from the applause-of-the-crowd is usually just the flip side of our preening, insecure egos (“Geez, maybe somebody will read this brilliant blog and love me!”). And yet, even there, with all those “shallow” forms of love, Show Biz Love (“They LOVE me!” squeals Sally Fields as she clutches her Academy Award), there’s this deeper thing, just beneath the surface.

Like, I was thinking how I ran into this woman-from-my-past last summer. She was The First Love of My Life 30 long years ago. That bit. Now, she was a middle-aged housewife. To her, at the time (1978) I was just another-face-in-the-crowd that passed by her for a couple days and then was mostly forgotten. And yet to me, she was this Goddess, this Angel, this Vision of this Pure Thing. And yes, there’s the whole bullshit of putting a person on a “pedastool”, turning them into an idol in your imagination (as opposed to the actual love-less reality). And it’s all false on that level. Just like it was also “just sex” — this beautiful 19-year-old sex goddess that she was, sticking her fat, ripe ass in my virgin face. (Now THAT’S love for you, baby) (Let’s make so-called love!). And there was the “ego love” of the “trophy girlfriend.” (“If only I could win this sought-after person, that would prove I was a Great Man after all!”)

And yet, in spite of all the banalities, falsehoods, and shallowness that is Romantic Love (i.e. “lust”), when I ran into Her on a street corner nearly 30 years later, there were still all these “feelings” lurking just beneath the surface. Feelings that could never be dismissed as “just sex.” For there’s the all-encompassing aspect of Love — with a capital L. And these minor loves, these spastic, all-too-human loves — with a small l — are like a tone hit on a tinny toy piano. And yet, just behind the tone is a complete symphony, and the song of the angels sweetly singing. . . .

LOVE LOVE LOVE…. That’s Like Hypnotizing Chickens

(Originally published April 19, 2006)

Been thinking about love. All the different kinds of love. . .

I’ve always been hung up on ROMANTIC LOVE: to love and be loved by this special other. It never really happened for me. Mostly, it expressed itself as this incredible unfulfilled longing. And the emptiness of This-Thing-That-Was-Always-Missing. Which I guess they call “loneliness” or “heart-ache.”

Then there’s the LOVE-YOU-FEEL-FOR-YOUR-FELLOW-MAN kind of love. Which sometimes, but not always intersects with Romantic Love. All these different forms of love intersect with each other. It’s “one love,” and all that corny crap. I guess describing the different sides of love is like describing the different properties of water: rain, ice, rivers, H2O…. It’s all still water. The Love-You-Feel-For-Your-Fellow-Man type of love is that “spontaneous feeling of tenderness that arises on its own accord,” as my guru Swami Muktananda put it. It’s the feeling that makes you want to do a favor for another person without wanting anything in return. The feeling of “love” itself is its own reward, and we’re all humble servants to it. It’s the one aspect of human life that isn’t a “deal.”

Then there’s the LOVE OF NATURE. The appreciation you sometimes feel for the awesome splendor of this natural universe (mixed in with the less-than-splendorous feelings you have towards parasites, fungus, contagious diseases, and TV sit-coms). You can feel that affection towards a tree, or a flower, or a dog, or a child, or a sun-set, or whatever. Or even for a special spot; your home or your hang-out.

Then there’s another form of love I just thought about: I guess you could call it NOSTALGIA LOVE: that wistful, poignant feeling you get, looking back on all the places and people of your past. It’s not so much a love for these places and people, but for the totality of all your life experiences. Like all the things you’ve been through — and you go “WOW!” Like it’s been the most amazing movie, with all these weird, indescribable peaks.

Then there’s the LOVE OF DOING. This friend of mine who loves working on cars described it this way: “When I get underneath a car and start working on the engine, I’ll look up and 8 hours has gone by just like THAT!” I know exactly the feeling he’s talking about. Labor-of-love. Or maybe somebody gets that feeling from going to the movies or watching sports. That fascination where time is no longer a burden, but a delicious food you want to keep eating. That feeling is the best, ain’t it?

I’m sure you could slice the pie of love up into many more sub-categories. But I guess the only other real important one is LOVE OF GOD. That one surely encompasses all the other categories. It’s the feeling that nothing exists but God, and that every molecule and atom of this world is made up of nothing but Pure Love. Love is what makes the blood pump through our veins, and the sperm shoot out of our penises, and the earth revolve around the sun. When we lose that feeling of love, we feel our physical being start to shrivel up and die, so fundamental is it, our cells crave the experience of it like our lungs crave air. All that we do, we do for love (though the experience often gets sublimated and warped into all sorts of convoluted plot-twists). It is always there, somewhere, behind every aspect of the human story. “Even at its most sordid, life is a profoundly spiritual affair,” I once said as I looked up from a gutter in the Tenderloin.

(to be continued…)

Life is Strange, Isn’t It?

………..Or Maybe its Just Me and All You Other Motherfuckers Are Having a Normal Life

(Originally published November 7, 2007)

Like most people, I have had some very bad periods in my life. I look back on certain years and cringe. 1974. 1978.1984. 1992.1996. 2002 to 2007 (and counting). Everything seemed to collapse.

There were other years, magical years, where I really seemed to Have My Shit Together. 1980. 1982. 1987 to 1991. 1993-1994. 1997 to 2001. I seemed to be blessed by God. I was invulnerable and floated on a wave of grace.

During the magic periods, it was as if all my dreams were coming true. Or were on the verge of coming true. I’d be surrounded by beautiful young women, these sirens, circling around me, smiling upon me. I’d read about myself in the newspapers and hear how great I was. Opportunities were everywhere. Out of the blue, some stranger-in-high-places would ask me to put together an art gallery showing of my work. Producers from the network news would call about doing a feature on me on their TV show. Publishers would publish my books. Somebody else would print up t-shirts with my cartoons on them and get them in malls in New Jersey. I’d record a CD of my music and the radio stations would play it.

During those magic periods, I’d look at myself in the mirror, and momentarily I could look past my self-loathing and microscopic examination of all my flaws, and for once I wouldn’t look hideous to myself. Out of the corner of my eye I’d think: Ya know, maybe that guy (me) really IS kinda’ cool.

You wonder if its just an “ego problem.” There were times (and I kid you not) where I felt I would go down in history as one of the great artists of our times. I considered myself a genius. Considered it just an obvious fact, and had no reason to tell others or convince others. Was even slightly embarrassed by it. Like it was one more thing that was weird about me, and I worked to conceal it to maintain some kind of normal, Average Joe facade.

There were other periods where I felt I had “transcended my ego.” After several years of intense Siddha Yoga meditation, I felt I had pierced the mystery. That I was God Himself. That I was the Total Universe. And this Ace Backwords fellow was just a minor role that I (as God) was playing, along with playing all the other parts of the Universe, you and them and all the other critters and planets and stars and atoms and molecules. I was One With The Universe, as they say. Literally. (Of course, my ego would always re-assert itself and spoil it, jumping in their to take the credit: “What a great man I am, Ace Backwords, that I have so cleverly managed to transcend my ego and realize I am God.) (S’funny how there’s such a fine line — that “razor-sharp line” — between “transcending your ego” and going on “the ultimate ego trip.”)

Now, during this latest, hideous, 6-year period, where everything in my life seems to be going wrong, I’m going in the opposite direction. Where once, everything I touched seemed to turn to gold, now, everything I touch seems to die. Everything in my life is contracting. Its like I’ve painted myself in a corner. All my unresolved phobias, insecurities, and mental problems — things I felt I had resolved years ago — have all flowered at once in this hideous way.

I woke up this morning at 5AM, pulled myself out of the bushes, stashed my sleeping bag on the campus, and staggered down to the men’s room in the basement of Barrow’s Hall. Looked at my face in the mirror: “YUCK! Him again!” Tried to comb what was left of my scraggly hair. I look awful. Can barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. Remembering when I was young and cool-looking. Remembering another morning in 1995, in a similar bathroom, admiring myself in the mirror.Getting my look just right, like an actor just before he prepares to hit the stage, knowing he’s got a plum role to play, eager to Put On a Show. On that day, a sunny summer day full of magic, I went out to the campus with my 4-track recorder and recorded street musicians jamming on the Plaza. Beautiful teenage girls who smiled on me. Hip, cool street musicians. Capturing the magic of life. I still have photos from that impromptu recording session. I looked cool. I was cool. It sounds stupid and shallow to say it so baldly. But you probably know what I mean. “Life’s a stage,” and sometimes you got a great role to play.

Nowadays, I’m embarrassed by my show. I skulk out of the bathroom, go to a coffee shop on the Ave that’s just opening up. Drink my first cup of coffee of the day. Glance at a local newspaper. Nothing of interest happening anywhere.

Go and check my email. Nothing but 20 spams telling me how I can enlarge my penis and be hung like Ron Jeremy. Nobody writes me any more. Nobody publishes me any more. Well, I did get an indignant letter-to-the-editor published in the Berkeley Daily Planet yesterday. You know me: I’ll probably be bitching and moaning to my last breath. Or maybe the day will come when I even give up on that. And I’ll just sit quietly somewhere, staring into space. Thinking nothing. Or maybe thinking of everything all at once, all the scenes from my past playing at once, like tuning into 20 radio stations at the same time and getting nothing but static with no coherent thread.

It’s a Weird Thing

(Originally published September 27, 2007)


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 It’s a weird thing to be 51. (It was a weird thing to be 21, too, but in a different way). It’s a weird thing to realize you have more past than future.

When I was a young man, it seemed like my life was leading towards something, building towards something. But as you get older, you realize its just leading towards death. Oblivion. Or whatever mysterious and unknowable Thing is behind That Door. So it changes your perspective.

You can feel like its all slipping away from you. You can get this sense of melancholy. Of existential despair. If you’re philosophically-minded, you can’t help wondering: What was the purpose of it all. All this sound and fury. All the pain. All the pleasures. When you’re young — and death seems far away — its easy to postpone that need for Summing It Up. You can spend 20 years just obsessed with getting laid. And that at least supplies a semblance of purpose and direction to your thrashings.

But as you get older, you look for something to hold onto. And yet, all your castles were built on sand. And they’re all disintegrating.

You feel especially listless if you’re on the street scene. Most street people just seem to drift through life pointlessly.

You see them hanging out, endlessly. Smoking cigarettes. Drinking beer. Getting stoned. Socializing. You see them flopped out there on the sidewalk or a park bench, you can’t help wondering: “What are people FOR?”

Well, maybe we aren’t for anything. Or maybe you just have to make up a reason for living. Or maybe some people don’t even feel the NEED to come up with a reason. Many people seem to spend their whole lives focused on nothing more than giving themselves an endless series of indulgences: I want a candy bar. I want to go to the movies. I want to buy a new CD. I want to get a hamburger. I want to go to bed. And then, wake up the next morning, and start it all over again. Then one day they die, and that was that.

In Hinduism, they call us “bound souls.” And we’re all trapped by the web of our karma. By all the limitations of our situation. By gravity. By our bodies. By our endless desires.

At its best, life is like a fascinating puzzle we all get to play with. We’re not given any rules. We’re not even sure if there ARE any rules. Like the saying goes: “That was a birth certificate they gave you, not a written guarantee.”

Oh well. Another pointless blog. Like the Pink Floyd song: “…this song is over, thought I’d something more to say…”


From the Dec 6 – Dec 12, 2001 issueBooks

Street Knowledge

Life in Tweener Space: A Book review from the Seattle Rocket

by Beth Lovejoy


Ace Backwords, former cartoonist for High Times and Maximum Rock ‘N Roll, is a veteran of the Berkeley street scene. Having been homeless off and on for nearly two decades, he wrote this book, Surviving on the Streets, over a period of five years, sending the Port Townsend-based publishers Loompanics Unlimited a chapter at a time. The result is a painfully sober biography and a handy guidebook for those who have just dropped out of regular society.

Ace Backwords’ brutal prose takes us into a liminal zone, a place where people exist in the twilight between the city and wilderness. Marked as “wildmen,” viewed with suspicion by the law and often the general public, the existence of those who populate this shadowy region under and on the periphery of our rushing, roaring cities is played out in the endless theater of the sidewalk. It’s a heightened zone, fueled by a state of constant quasi-illegality, from which the homeless can rarely escape and others barely understand from the outside.

The best way to survive, says Backwords, is to embrace this liminal zone, or “tweener space,” as he calls it. The key is to be as invisible and as self-sufficient as possible. He argues that one can live fairly comfortably on the detritus of mainstream society without stealing or hurting anyone. Much of the book is devoted to useful tricks on how to accomplish this, as well as spiritual advice on how to deal with the emotional ramifications of such a limited existence.

What, precisely, necessitates such invisibility? Quite simply, the acts that comprise the homeless person’s very existence–sleeping, shitting, fucking–must take place outdoors. And since people don’t really appreciate seeing these acts take place on park benches or in public squares, homeless people face a constant losing battle with the cops. They must therefore expend great effort to avoid cop “heat.” But a homeless person’s troubles do not end with the cops and the productive public; they also receive heat from the “homeless community.” In fact, the most disturbing parts of the book are where Backwords describes the kind of violence perpetrated by the homeless against each other. Homeless life is therefore a delicate dance in the hopes of avoiding a “bad scene,” as Backwords terms it.

The street person must be as self-sufficient and as invisible as possible. That is rule number one. He must watch his back, yet guard against being so suspicious of others that he retreats entirely into a state of alienation. Backwords also says that it is only by “getting involved with things” (projects in the street community, jobs) that the street person can hope to stay sane.

The tips in Surviving on the Streets will surely benefit those who are considering, preparing for, or just entering a life on the streets, but the gentle readers who plan to read this book in the comfort of their warm apartment or home will find pleasure in the sections where Backwords skewers stereotypes. For instance, he detests the notion of a street person as a “Noble Loser”; in an attempt to puncture that myth, he repeatedly offers accounts of street characters so foul it makes the skin crawl. Indeed, the book is a Dostoyevskian gallery of the loathsome, the dysfunctional, the damaged, and, yes, the lazy. There are those who have chosen this as a lifestyle, drawn to the “oddball/outlaw/cowboy” archetype, those who couldn’t “pay the rent,” those who lost their minds. Their reasons are many, and often complex.

It’s precisely this complexity, Backwords argues in another useful section, that undermines the good intentions of the average homeless activist–a class of people he doesn’t much care for. Basically, Backwords sees activists as the sort who leave their comfy apartments, stir shit up, and then retreat while the heat is played out on the streets. At the least, many activists lack direct experience of homelessness, and their good intentions are rarely good enough. “Most of us don’t remember electing the activist to occupy [the position of spokesperson],” he writes near the end of the book.

Ultimately, Backwords is weary of the homeless as a symbol of our social ills. “Don’t pity us,” he pleads proudly. “What we mostly want is to be left alone.”

More Beatlemania

Originally published January 14, 2003


If Horace Dalrimple was the first Beatlemaniac I was to meet, my little sister Jean was the second. 7-years-old, little brat she was. Sometimes late at night after bedtime, sister Jean would lay there in her dark second-story bedroom. Then she’d open up her window, stick her head out the window and shout into the night sky:

“John!  Paul! George! RINGO!”

And always in that order: “John!  Paul! George!  RINGO!” Yelling into the black sky, in the direction of the railroad tracks and the school playground behind our back yard.  I’d hear her voice echoing off the red brick school.

Then she’d close her window and go back to sleep.

To me, it was the Saturday morning “Beatles Animated Cartoon Show” that really got me. They were like the most fun toy of all, them Beatles. They sure looked like they were having great fun. And there was something zany about them. That had that extra ZING about them. I mean, you could argue that the Beatles were manufactured and marketed to us by the media. But there was something organic about the whole process. It went way beyond mere hype. For Horace, sister Jean, and me — and millions of other American kids just like us — responded immediately to the Beatles. We didn’t have to be TOLD that we should buy this. We went after it, hooked from the beginning.  It was a strange confluence of the Beatles, the Baby Boomers and the burgeoning Mass Media all tri-secting at the same place.  To the point where it was hard to tell which was creating which.

I still remember the opening bit of The Beatles Cartoon Show. It started with the 6 open-tuned notes of an acoustic guitar. Later, I would remember that when I learned to tune my guitar as an adult. The Beatles were putting out some high-wattage material, and much of it would stick to us for a lifetime. And you never knew precisely which pieces would stick.

The cartoon Beatles were like superheroes, in a way, and their guitars were their super-weapon. Whenever the guitars came out, the reality amped up and the Beatles took control. Instant Fun. Later, with their psychedelic kiddie cartoon “Yellow Submarine” the Beatles would amp up the theme of the superhero Beatles and their super guitars battling the evil Blue Meanies. But always, the Beatles stood for The Good, doing battle if not against the Forces of Evil, then against the Forces of Dullness. Of drabness. They were like sunshine. Candy. And the battle was against the old farts, the stodgie ones, the ones that wouldn’t let you play, that told you you had to get to work. Clean up your room. Do your homework. The Beatles always appealed to the kids in all of us — and especially when we were in fact kids. One thinks of the scene in “Hard Days Night”, the bitter, cranky old guy, the stone-faced guy. Contrasted to the free and easy Beatles. That was always their image. On top of it all. And yet with just a bit of the cheeky rascal in them. But even that was always done in the name of good; never in maliciousness; they were just trying to liven up the party and have some fun. They were presented to as like four Cat in the Hats. Four Bugs Bunnies; the Beatles cartoon toy. You always sensed that about the Beatles. That they were big kids who just wanted to cut loose. And what kid didn’t.

And what fun they were having! Millions of girls chasing after them. Love! Love! Love! That was another thing that separated the Beatles toy from most of the other toys. They were amping out this message of Love! Love! Love! in a way that the other toys didn’t. The other toys were much more quiet. Even the Barbie toy, romantic-slut that she was, had a very dignified, regal air about her. She never got sloppy with that LOVE LOVE LOVE stuff. She always seemed to play it pretty cool, even with Ken. You couldn’t imagine Ken shouting “Barbie I LOVE YOU LOVE YOU LOVE YOU! ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE LOVE LOVE, BARBIE.” Nah, Ken was a little too uptight for that. And he was kind of a fag to boot. Every hair in place. You could never imagine Ken making fart-noises with his hand, but you could always imagine the Beatles doing that. Especially John. 

The GI Joe toy, on the other hand, was the stoic, quiet type. “Just doin’ my job.” You couldn’t imagine GI Joe being much fun at parties. And Barbie’s parties were even duller. Sitting around drinking tea out of little china cups and talking about shoes.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Beatles toy was in fact an improvement over the Barbie toy and the GI Joe toy. GI Joe glamorized war and violence and killing and Vietnam. Barbie glamorized shallow fashion and image and mindless consumerism and cock-tease sexuality.

In that context the Beatles toy was a breath of fresh air. A celebration of wholesome, exuberant, cleancut FUN! At least on the surface.

Of course a lot of people remember where they were when the Beatles appeared on “Ed Sullivan.” Our whole family gathered around the family television set on that fateful night. The five children and Mom and Dad. We had this big television set, as big as a cabinet with a tiny black and white screen. We had all gathered around that television set a year earlier when Kennedy had been shot. My mother had taken me out of school, 2nd grade, and brought me home. She was convinced the Russians were going to start nuking us at any second. We had a dusty cellar stocked with cans of food in the event we’d need an emergency shelter. Anyway, now I was in the 3rd grade and it was the Beatles. Paul McCartney would later describe the effect they had on America: “It was probably the haircuts more than anything else. To most people we probably seemed like four singing marionettes.”

And that was exactly it. For the Beatles were the coolest most vibrant new toy in the toy-chest. These cheeky, smiling, singing marionettes. “WOO!” Singing joyous songs of LOVE LOVE LOVE! What was not to like.

But there was something very odd about the Beatles toy.

There was something very different that set the Beatles toy apart from the Barbie toy and the GI Joe toy and almost all the other toys in the toy-chest. The Beatles toy was real. For the Beatles were real people.

This would play out in many odd and surprising ways over the next few years. For one thing: many of us didn’t out-grow our Beatles toy. In fact, unlike the other toys, the Beatles toy kept growing along with us, one step ahead of us.


Counterculture Casualties

Here’s an excerp from SURVIVING ON THE STREETS: How to Go Down Without Going Out:

Chapter Twenty One

Another new development over the last thirty years is the emergence of the counterculture casualty. There are lineages on the street scene that have been around since bums immemorial: the Skid Row Wino lineage, the Hobo/Tramp lineage, the Gypsy lineage, etc.   But since the ‘60s, a relatively new and virulent strain has emerged: the Counterculture-Casualty lineage.

Much of today’s modern street scene spawned out of the ‘60s hippie counterculture, and continued on with the ‘80s punk counterculture. So it might be worth it to take a quick look at some of the values and assumptions that came out of this. As well as some of the pitfalls you might want to avoid stepping into. Because one thing you will definitely have to survive on the street scene is The ‘60s, man!

Kerouac was the forerunner, Kesey and the Merry Pranksters created the prototype, and then the Haight-Ashbury was the explosion. And kids have been dropping out ever since in search of that elusive countercultural dream. Every year I’ll see a new crop of dazed street kids looking for it. The hippie kids looking for Rainbow Hippie Village. Or the punk kids looking for Punk Scene USA. Where is that cool scene they’ve read about in all the cool books and magazines anyway?

Now it’s certainly a reflection of something seriously lacking in the mainstream culture, that so many people seem to be seeking an alternative in the first place. And I certainly don’t have space here to do justice to the whole Counterculture vs. Mainstream Culture debate.

All I’m trying to point out here is what you’ll most likely find, on the street level, when you come looking for the counterculture:

Very, very little.

Let’s face it. This world just doesn’t need any more hemp-jewelry makers, or hardcore punk-rock bass guitarists. So cut your hair and become a yuppie, okay?

(And what exactly is wrong with being a yuppie, anyway? Can anyone explain the universal scorn I keep hearing being heaped on “yuppies” these days? It just means you’re young, you live in the city, and you’ve got a fucking job. That makes more sense to me than this phony “counterculture rebel” pose I see so many kids trying to live out.)

All I’m saying is: If you decide to drop out of straight society, BE PREPARED TO PAY THE CONSEQUENCES. “Living in the moment” might sound nice if you’re nineteen and picking up Zen for the first time, but many of you may be unprepared for the truly tenuous nature of day-to-day existence on the street scene.

Take me for a tragic example. You want to talk drop-out?

I haven’t driven a car in 25 years. I haven’t been to a doctor or a dentist in twenty years. I haven’t had a bank account in fifteen years. I haven’t watched a TV show in ten years. I haven’t lived in anything that would remotely be considered a “home” in six years. (Which reminds me of the old street person joke: “What does the street person do when he gets sick? He dies.” Ha. Ha.)

Now if you want to try and exist without the security of the corporate tit, that’s fine (and it may be an illusion that such a thing as “security” even exists in this ever-changing world of ours). I’m just trying to warn you here about the reality that’s waiting for you, as opposed to the highly romanticized counterculture myth that you’ve been fed by the media.

Now it could be I’m overreacting here with the scorn of a lover betrayed. Because, at one point, I shared most of the values of the counterculture. I was certainly one of those kids who tried to live out the whole countercultural dream. For several years in the early ‘90s my work appeared every month in both High Times (the bible of the hippies) and Maximum Rock’N’Roll (the bible of the punks). An accomplishment I’m still not sure if I should be proud of, or embarrassed by.

Which reminds me of something else. A lot of people seem to think there was a big difference between the hippies and the punks. But what’s the difference between Sid Vicious and Jerry Garcia? That one of the dead junkies was “positive”?Speaking of media myths: It cracks me up when I hear these so-called “’60s-icons” congratulating themselves for the greatness of the ‘60s (and the greatness of themselves for bringing us the ‘60s). This would be all well and good, aside from one niggling detail: Virtually every aspect of American life has gotten worse since the ‘60s. Much worse.

In a radio interview, cartoonist R. Crumb talked about coming to the Haight-Ashbury in ‘67 right before the so-called Summer of Love. He mentioned what a beautiful city San Francisco was then: the streets were clean and safe, the people were friendly, housing was cheap and plentiful, living was easy, etc. And he mentioned an idea that was very much in vogue then amongst the countercultural set: How much more wonderful the city (and the world) would be when the Age of Aquarius set in and all the old farts died off and all the groovy hippies took over.

Well, I’m here to tell you, all the old farts did in fact die off, and all the hippies (including me) did in fact come tramping through the city. And it was hardly improved by our presence. But here’s the funny part. These “’60s icons” seem to think it’s still 1967 and that they should be judged on all the groovy, idealistic things they intended to do, as opposed to the actual effect they’ve had. I think it’s getting a little late in the game for that.

In the ‘50s, Oakland was averaging about twelve murders a year. After the ‘60s it started averaging about 150 murders a year. What would we have done without all the “love” the hippies invented in the ‘60s?

I think we all could benefit from an honest appraisal of what actually went down in the ‘60s. Lord knows we still haven’t sorted it out. Lord knows this society is schizo in its attempts to assimilate the counterculture into the mainstream.

I think of the day Jerry Garcia died. The mayor of San Francisco gave a heartfelt eulogy and lowered the flags at City Hall to half-mast in honor of this Great Man. And then, after shedding a few tears, went back to his Matrix program of busting and throwing into jail any of the street freaks dumb enough to try and emulate the example of this Great Man.

Which reminds me of George Carlin’s great joke about Jerry’s death: “It’s a sign of the great progress we’ve made since the ‘60s that rock stars are no longer in hotel rooms, but they’re now on the way to detox centers.”

My opinion? LSD is garbage, Jerry Garcia was an idiot, and the ‘60s was bullshit. The ‘60s was basically a dead-end we went staggering down. The ‘60s impacted on the modern street scene in several devastating ways:

1. Drugs (need I say more?)

2. The sloppy sexual unions that came out of the so-called “sexual liberation” movements – and the shattered family structures and the generation of orphans (especially in the black community) that resulted from that.

3. The romanticized notion of being against the mainstream society. Number three is probably the most devastating, because usually the street person starts out feeling alienated enough from society to begin with. Then the counterculture ethos feeds him this romanticized notion of the Hip Rebel Outsider, which locks him permanently into this state of alienation. Why try and integrate yourself into society when your alienation is your badge of honor, the very source of your identity.

Criticizing certain aspects of this world is one thing. Hating the world is another. It’s one of the most damaging things for the human psyche to endure. And all too often, the counterculture encourages and justifies this sense of alienation from society. Over and over I’ll hear these Counterculture Casualties give me a big speech about how they’re “against the multinational corporations, man.” That’s fine, except for one thing: the corporations own virtually everything. What world are you planning to live in? Well, the sidewalks, I guess.

What does it actually mean when you say you’ve “dropped out of the corporate system?” Most of the food you eat, the clothes you’re wearing, the beer you’re drinking, 95% of the media you’re consuming, all the electricity you’re using, all the money in your pocket… all these things were produced by big, big corporations. All you’re saying is: you’ll consume, but you won’t produce. Does that somehow make you more noble?

The ‘60s was a noble experiment, perhaps. All I’m saying is, the time has come to clearly assess the results of that experiment. I’m not looking to go back to the ‘50s. Maybe what I’m looking for is a counter-counterculture. In the meantime, beware of the pitfalls of the generation that preceded you.