StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

85A Log: “What We Do Is Secret,” Joshua Furst and James Frey

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 8, 2008
Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A

Johnny Rotten - Patron Saint of 85A (from now on, I'll use his picture at the top of every 85A Log)

So, I will be meeting with Shell next Thursday, August 14th to go over the first draft of 85A. I can’t wait to hear her feedback, though, I must say, I have enjoyed my little vacation from the book.

In my sophomore year at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, we had Career Day. I went to all the career workshops that had anything to do with careers in the arts – Photographer, Actor, Musician, Arts Critic, and Writer. For a school that had little to no respect for the right brain, it’s no surprise that – instead of flying Hanif Kureishi or Kurt Vonnegut in with the mint the school raked in from its alumni association – some crusty old Jesuit got some crusty old alum, whose name I forget and whose writing was equally forgettable, to conduct the Writer’s workshop.

It was about as interesting as watching roadkill rot. The Fuddy-Duddy stood before us, crushed every bone in his feet with the names he dropped and then rattled off the titles of every award any writer worth his or her salt should vie to win. I wanted to be a writer precisely to get away from all that systemic bullshit he touted. Unmentioned went the opioid orgies that the freaks among us were dying to have with the muses.

Now that I’m done dumping all over that poor man, I will say that he offered all of us one piece of advice, which still resonates with me today. It was: “Once you write something, put it away for a couple weeks before you decide whether it’s any good.”

I guess that, on Thursday, I’ll have more perspective on whether 85A was any good. If not, who cares? Like I’ve been saying all along, that’s what next drafts are for.

So, this morning at 11 am, I took another Artist Date (see, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) and went to see the premiere of What We Do Is Secret at The Landmark Sunshine Theater on Houston & 1st Avenue in Manhattan. At the box office, I stood behind some chick who had fresh bullet wounds, with blood spurting, tattooed on her neck. It was kind of cool.

Anyway, Secret is a biopic by Rodger Grossman about the rise and fall of Darby Crash, lead singer of the Late Seventies L.A. punk band The Germs. Shane West from E.R. plays Crash. Evidently, the old band members of The Germs liked West’s performance so much that they decided to reunite and make West their new lead singer.

They must’ve seen something in this movie that I didn’t see. I mean, Shane West is a good actor and all, but he doesn’t come close to expressing the raucous inner life that Crash must have had. (Let me admit before I go any further that I was never a Germ’s fan. Although I did see them featured in The Decline of Western Civilization, I know about as much about them as the folks in the geriatrics home up the street.) Evidently, a major Cross for Crash was that he was a closet homosexual, but the film shows one snippet of that bete noire and then drops it like a burning coal. Also, although Grossman did his best to convince us that Crash was a barroom-brawl-waiting-to-happen, West makes Crash seem more like a leather-clad Merry Prankster than a G.G. Allin-meets-Ian-Curtis malcontent. He even makes his suicide (coincidentally, on the day John Lennon was assassinated) look more like a madcap stunt than an act of total despair.

Great tracks from Bowie on Grossman’s flick, though – two in total, both off one of my Top 20 Albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. “Five Years” plays as an allusion to Crash’s five-year plan for the Germs, which he may or may not have fulfilled before his suicide at age 22. Grossman plugs “Rock N’ Roll Suicide” as an elegy to Crash.

In fact, Crash hails Bowie several times in the movie. He’s got Aladdin Sane and Ziggy posters on his walls. He keeps putting Bowie on the guest lists for his shows even though Bowie himself wouldn’t have even heard of The Germs at the time. He demanded that the Editor-in-Chief of Slash magazine form Slash Records and record The Germ’s only LP, GI. Then, he demanded that the Editor get Bowie to produce the album, only to later settle for Joan Jett.

But didn’t that first wave of punks think Bowie was too soft and old school?

Oh! While we’re on the subject of Bowie…last night, I found out for the first time that he’s half Irish! Why didn’t anybody tell me that before? As a kid, I was always looking for Irish heroes – even if they were only part of the Irish diaspora like me – and Bowie was one of my idols.

Back to Secret, though…I’m glad I saw it. It at least reinforced some punk themes and images that will help fuel my writing on the next draft of 85A.

Plus, I’m halfway through a novel called The Sabotage Cafe by Joshua Furst. He’s a writer who teaches right here in Brooklyn at Pratt Institute. His novel is outstanding! I came across it on a display table at some bookstore in the Village. Furst is such a gifted writer and his book seamlessly fades in and out of the Eighties punk scene and present-day street-kid culture.

I’ll blog about it more once I finish it – which might not be for a little while, given the work that’s on my plate – but I hope to meet him some day to congratulate him on his remarkable achievement.

In other news, Shinnyo-en in Tokyo has sent me a book to edit called, Turning the Wheel: Stories of the Buddha’s Disciples, so that’s keeping me busy between 85A drafts.

I’m also going to be reviewing Bright Shiny Morning by James Frey for Edge Magazine. It’s his first-ever novel and his first book since the 2006 Smoking Gun/Oprah scandal.

I know he lied a lot in A Million Little Pieces and My Friend Leonard, but I still enjoyed reading them. I loved his propulsive, plain-spoken narration and his unpredictable syntax. It sucked me right in and I just had to finish both books in one sitting each.

I’m about 150 pages into Bright Shiny Morning, though, and I’m not sure that the same style works for him in third-person fiction, where he has to be more detached and documentary. There isn’t the same sense of compulsion. Still, it’s good to see that he’s dropped a lot of his tough-guy facade with this book, where he treats the characters with a lot more compassion and sensitivity.

That’s it for tonight. I’m heading to a party in Clinton Hill, right across the street from Pratt actually. Wonder if I’ll see Joshua Furst there. Do I have the nerve to go up and shake his hand?

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85A Log: Sid Lives! (Right Alongside Ian)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 16, 2008

So, last night, Mike and I were hanging out at one of the alfresco tables of this one Cuban restaurant on Bowery, right across from where CBGB used to be. Now CB is an art gallery called Morrison Hotel. Ain’t bad there actually. Vivid punk and glam memorabilia – Liebovitz and Mapplethorpe-level photos of The Stones, Iggy Pop, Elton John, The New York Dolls, Debbie Harry, Sex Pistols, Bauhaus. The window display was that disgusting picture of Sid Vicious eating a mustard-slathered hot dog with his mouth open. Then, I kid you not, two people walked by – within five minutes of each other – wearing Sid Vicious t-shirts. This morning, on my way to go write at Tea Lounge, I passed a kid, no older than 18, wearing a t-shirt featuring the front page of a newspaper with the headline: “Sid Vicious Overdoses on Heroin, Dies.”

This all bodes so well for me! I mean, 85A might be set in 1989, but Seamus’ obsession with Sex Pistols (ten years after their breakup) is still timely. (His favorite band is Public Image Ltd. He’s way more into Johnny than Sid.)

Two books in particular have helped me recapture the disaffected spirit of Sex Pistols youth: Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus and England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond by Jon Savage. Also, John Lydon’s autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs was surprisingly well-written and informative; I’ve always loved Johnny Rotten for his wit and candor. I also went back and watched My Beautiful Laundrette, This Is England, The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle, The Filth & The Fury, and of course Sid & Nancy.

I first saw Sid & Nancy when I was 13 years old. It had way too big an impact on me. Sid, Nancy, and Johnny’s foul mouths and havoc-reeking looked like total liberation to me. I started talking and acting like them every chance I got. Made my home life even worse than it already was. I also entered high school with that well-worn Rotten attitude, thinking everybody had seen the movie and knew what statement I was making. No, they just thought I was a twerp and an asshole. Walk in like that as a freshman, you’re going to spend the rest of your high school years living it down…and, well, that’s what happened.

So, I wondered what kind of appeal Sid & Nancy would hold for me at age 34. Oh my God! I am so embarrassed that I thought those people were cool. They were nasty, malignant, maladjusted scapegraces. Why didn’t I pick better role models growing up? What can I say, I was possessed. I needed to get all that sedition out of my system. Having said all that, Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb give peerless, searingly authentic portrayals of Sid and Nancy from start to finish.

I also recently rented Control, a wonderful film about the rise and fall of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis by Hungarian director Anton Corbijn. I was a captive Joy Division and early New Order fan as a teenager. All accounts I’ve read point up Ian Curtis as a total dick. Control has quite the opposite take on him. Even as an adulterer, he comes off as a sweet, sensitive, even polite youth who only wants a simple life of work, marriage, fatherhood and poetic musings. Life has other plans for him, though, when it catapults him into stardom. Samantha Morton gives a heartrending performance as Curtis’ beleaguered wife, Debbie Woodruff. Sam Riley is absolutely prodigious, adorable and tragic as Curtis.

But does the film’s account of Curtis’ death (at age 23) stand up to fact? Corbijn has Curtis hang himself in Debbie’s kitchen pantry. From what I’ve read, he hung a rope from Debbie’s living-room ceiling and stood on a block of ice, noose around his neck, while watching TV. By the time Debbie came home from work that night, the ice had melted, the TV was crackling static and Ian was dangling, dead.

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but one of the things that charmed me most about the film was that the first track on the soundtrack was “Drive-in Saturday” from David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane (1973). Curtis has just come home from buying Aladdin Sane at the record store in Macclesfield. He lays back on his bed and lets the album spirit him away. Then, his best friend Nick swings by with his girlfriend Debbie, who’ll soon be Curtis’ wife. Curtis rolls off his bed and starts applying glitter eyelashes to look more like Bowie. Oh, why didn’t that period of music last longer? In my late teens and early twenties, I used to sit in my bedroom with the lights out, playing that same LP.

Another amazing track they play is from one of my all-time favorite albums, “Warszawa” from Bowie’s Low (1977). It’s so deep, sad, haunting. Once again, in my room, I used to play “Warszawa” and all of Side Two of Low again and again and again while I smoked Camel Lights, wrote in my journal and looked out over all the miasma curling off the trees in my backyard. It made me want to be an expat writer, living in Berlin. Well…that didn’t end up happening.

But there is a great German film about a 14-year-old heroin addict prostitute called Christiane F. (1981). The soundtrack is all Thin White Duke-period Bowie (including, “Warszawa”); through most of that period of his music (1976-1979), he was living in Berlin. He even appears in the movie when Christiane goes to his concert and tries heroin for the first time. He does a killer live version of “Station to Station.” The movie is based on the book, Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo. (I actually read the English translation about 15 years ago. It’s not bad.) Only problem with the movie is that the dubbing is so bad, you might find yourself laughing your ass off while she goes cold turkey.