StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 8, 2010

Mike Levine sent me word that he read a New York Times article on how they’ve rediscovered many lost tracks from Exile on Main Street (1972).

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to reprise a memoir piece that I published three years ago in the now-defunct magazine Sentient City. Here it is:

Finding Exile on Main Street: A Patchwork Confessional
By Kyle Thomas Smith

“The shadow becomes a force in our psyche as we regularly exile the emotions that could elicit rejection from others.”

– Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

This is going to be tough. How do you write about true love? It’s ineffable. Some of the greatest poets have died trying. For me, hearing The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street for the first time at 16 was an epiphany worthy of Blake and Joyce. Yet, for the past 16 years, whenever I’ve tried putting the experience into words, I’ve only ended up swooning. That’s fine for nonverbal communication, but what about for writing? So, now, I’m just going balls-out and, if I end up swooning like I usually do when I broach the subject of the greatest album ever made, I’ll just pick myself up off the floor and keep typing until I’m down to my last swoon. Warning: I foresee many detours on my way to Main Street. After all, the heart has many landscapes and it’d be a shame to leave them bloodless and lifeless when they can lend so much color.

Let me start with a story I heard about Picasso. When he was 78, a rich American noticed him sketching in a café on a plaza in Barcelona. She scrounged up the nerve to approach him: “I know who you are. Draw me. I’ll pay you.” Picasso appraised her. She steeled herself. He nodded. She let out a shriek that would have made her a pariah of the literati and jet-set at the neighboring tables if the master hadn’t offered her a place at his. Picasso ordered the American woman a highball and waited for her to swill it down so that he could catch her in repose. Then he flipped to a blank page in his sketchbook, made a few lines, drew in some waves of her hair and her arms. Then he signed it, ripped it out, and handed it to her. Before she even had a chance to look at it, Picasso said, “That’ll be a million dollars.” The American woman bolted up and fell back down into her chair: “A million dollars! That took you fifteen minutes.” Picasso wagged his finger, “No, Madame. It took me 78 years and fifteen minutes.” The woman stood up and turned on her heel, leaving the sketch facedown on the table.

Sometimes I wonder what she would have seen if she had given it a good look. Picasso may have overcharged her, but he might have also imbued that sketch with every success in art and failure in love he’d ever had. In a lucky strike, he might have conveyed the whole of his childhood and his humble beginnings as a painter and the misery of his mistresses and maybe he had even intuited the American woman’s life story and transmitted that to the sketch too. It’s been known to happen. Sometimes all creativity collides in a thunderclap and the product can be a brave new universe of expression. If that had happened for Picasso that afternoon in Barcelona, a million dollars would have been a pittance for the woman to pay. Just think what collateral she could have had in her estate!

Should I be calling Pablo Picasso an asshole? Is it naïve of me to think he could have made a million-dollar masterpiece in one flush? I don’t think so. That’s practically how it happened for the Stones in the south of France when they recorded Exile on Main Street, the album I credit for redeeming my youth. And I bought it used, on vinyl, for just $4.99.

“I gave you the diamonds. You give me disease.”
The Rolling Stones

Not that everything went off without a hitch before the album’s studio production. In his new book, Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield writes, “To say that the human toll exacted during the making of Exile on Main Street was extreme is an understatement of major proportions.” True enough. In the summer of 1971, The Stones and their entourage managed to consume more drugs and parade more decadence through Keith Richards’ Nellcote chateau than Caligula and his consorts had throughout his reign in Rome. If they hadn’t been so stoned, they probably would have also cut off more heads per capita than the Julio-Claudian court too, what with all the catting around they were doing with each others’ girlfriends and wives. The Stones perfected the Ten Non-Virtues to the point that, if the Buddha would have incarnated about 2,600 years later, he wouldn’t have even had to deliver the Dul Lung sutra. He could just whip out Warhol’s Lips-and-Tongue Logo like he did the flower on Vulture Peak and we’d all get the point.

After retreating to France as tax exiles, unable to pay the levies against them in England, the Stones had shipped in the highest-end recording equipment with the last of their pocket lint, only to find that the equipment didn’t cut it, so they weren’t going to use it. Later, they realized they didn’t have enough electricity for their set, so they hijacked it from the local railroad system, hoping to wrap up the final cut before the French authorities could beat down the door. What a stroke of genius for Greenfield to subtitle his book, A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones! That summer, the Stones made Rimbaud’s absinthe-spiked odyssey look like minutes from a Temperance Society meeting.

When I was 18 and newly legal, I somehow got my hands on a copy of a banned, black-and-white documentary film (later legalized in 1998) called Cocksucker Blues, which follows the Stones’ ’72 tour for Exile. It was cinéma vérité at its pornographic nadir. Mick would stumble drunk on to stage. Keith would shoot up and nod out in full view. They had on-camera orgies with jailbait every other scene. I know it sounds entertaining, but there was nothing so base to my eyes. They were all literally sick – vomiting, crying, blacking out, going cold turkey.

Just before that, I’d also read Many Lives, Many Masters and, in doing its past-life regression exercises, became convinced that I had been the Stones’ founding member Brian Jones before reincarnating about five years after his death as Kyle Thomas Smith. Three years before Exile, the Stones had kicked Jones out for doing too many drugs. (If you get kicked out of The Rolling Stones for doing too many drugs, honey, you got problems.) Within two months, he was found dead at the bottom of his swimming pool, his system crammed to the pores with intoxicants of every make and model. So, in my current incarnation, I all but wept watching this contraband video and seeing what a scene I’d been in. (And, believe you me, paying off Brian Jones’ karmic debt has been a bitch.)

Still, neither Cocksucker Blues nor my past life as Brian Jones sullied my love for The Stones or for Exile. I have little interest in the band’s drug abuse, sex scandals and studio politics. I am floored, however, by how they suddenly managed to get past all those things long enough to let it loose with jam sessions that comprise a double album that so gloriously spans the genres from Tin-Pan Alley to greaser rock to country and blue grass to gospel, from the most soulful Mississippi melodies to the sluttiest Chicago blues. If Picasso had spent 78 years and 15 minutes on that one sketch at the café in Spain, then the Stones had packed countless lifetimes of rough roads into one randy-ass record in France.

My Life, Pre-Exile
“I’m no schoolboy, but I know what I like…”
– Jagger/Richards, “Brown Sugar”

I’m the youngest of seven kids. My oldest sibling Colleen is 15 years older than me. She saw the Stones twice, once at the Chicago Stadium in ’75, a year after I was born, and another time at Soldier Field when she was in college for their 1978 Some Girls tour. Once, when I was 12, I helped Colleen move apartments and she returned the favor by giving me a ragged copy of Sticky Fingers on vinyl. It was the first full-length album to feature those slag-banging Stones lips that Andy Warhol had designed. He’d also done all the cover art, where there was an actual steel zipper over a man’s bedenimed crotch. You could yank it down to expose the bulging briefs inside. Many years after Colleen had moved out of my folks’ house, I also found a program in our crawl space that she’d brought home from the ’75 show. Annie Liebovitz had done the photography. (All these little tributaries of decadence slipping into my formative years – now a mother of two, my sister teaches catechism at a Sunday school in Illinois.)

At the time I first spotted the program, my head was half-shaved. This was two years before I’d find Exile. I wore a spiked bracelet and was into Sex Pistols, Millions of Dead Cops, and the Revolting Cocks, so I feigned apathy for dinosaurs like The Rolling Stones and once even committed the unpardonable blasphemy of breaking Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World LP in two over my knee just to show that I was over my old tastes. (David, if you’re reading this, know that I’m sorry.) But then I flipped to a certain page where I was arrested by a black-and-white, Liebovitz still of Jagger looking like he was about to fellate the microphone he was crooning into with his Hindenburg lips and doorstop mouth; his glitter-greased owl eyes upturned and a shower of white rose petals cascading around him on to the stage that he stretched his lithe, Leonine body across. I tried to cast the program aside, but I couldn’t, couldn’t put it down. Nor could I bring myself to defy my newfound punk religion (I still can’t say why, my punk-rock loyalties were whorish at best), so I placed the ’75 program back into its cardboard box with the same care a lovely child might for a fledgling that has tumbled out of its nest. Periodically, I climbed back into the crawl space for clandestine encounters with it.

“To experience the loneliness of our soul is the hardest thing in the world.

– Brigitte Bardot

I’m afraid to write the rest of this memoir piece. It will require that I delve deeper into my teen years. It’s the only way I can begin to describe what Exile was to me at 16. I don’t want to make myself out to have been cooler than I was. We all know what happened to James Frey when he did that. Truth is, I was a lot like Lily Tomlin’s character, Agnes Angst, who wore so much chains-and-leather that she set off electric garage doors whenever she walked down the street. Every time she got kicked out of her house, she’d go to a payphone outside IHOP’s piss-oire and suck up the airtime on this one radio shrink’s call-in show. She’d do readings at a place called the Anti-Club: “No matter how much contempt I have for society, it is nothing compared to the contempt society has for me!” Her grandparents said she had the manners of a terrorist.

Yes, I was a delight like Agnes Angst. Yes, I was an outsider like James Frey claimed to have been. Yes, I was lonely like Stephen King’s Carrie and I still think that cheerleader skank got off easy at the end. Yes, I was a low-GPA fuck-up like Marshall Mathers and, just like him, have never gotten over how the school system failed me instead of the other way around. Yes, I smoked and drank my share. Yes, I took early residence with my notebooks in coffeehouses and have been in them ever since. Yes, in my south-side Jesuit high school, guys tagged graffiti on classroom and bathroom walls about me being the class faggot. Yes, I entertained one or two proto-Trench-Coat-Mafia fantasies.

The bullies found they couldn’t dismiss me so easily, though. I wasn’t their typical Tinkerbell. I didn’t swish down the halls with a snippy comment, falsetto voice, Preppy Handbook and haywire Oedipal Complex. No, I liked my music raw, my philosophy existential, my parents absent, my jokes raunchy, my smokes rolled and my men…well, I’d slept with a couple girls, but I was bad at it. No sooner would I get it up than it would flop back down. It’s a wonder I ever got the condom on. Still, I managed and cringed my way through the ordeals. I only did it to prove myself straight and vanquish a Catholic guilt complex that would have kept me a virgin till worms would crawl up and eat my male hymen in the grave. My hetero insurrection never succeeded, though. I still found myself changing my fifth-period route to biology class just to moon over Chuck at his third-floor locker. It wouldn’t be long before I would go all the way with a Phase II insurrection, this time with my same sex – and the rubber slid on good and tight then. The Church purported to dislike those transgressions all the more, citing passages from Paul and Leviticus and a special circle of Dante’s hell, even though so many of them were moaning in the same dark corners.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There was this chick Sarah. We had a routine. She’d lead me on. I’d follow. I’d send her letters like Young Werther. She’d snub them like Lotte. She didn’t want to accept my overtures. I didn’t want to perform them. I’d stroke her ego. She’d perpetuate my denial. She’d waltz her litter of boys in front of me. I’d watch. I was her slave. She was my beard. It was an even exchange.

“i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.

– e.e. cummings

Then something happened. I began to notice Sarah’s charms. She had heavenly flowing chestnut hair. She’d toss it back and bare the curve of a luscious neck, her chin poised in a cultivated hauteur. Most chicks in our school hated her. They said she had a big ego and an even bigger ass. What did they know? They all wore sensible underwear. I began to daydream about Sarah in class and on the L. I composed suicidal love poems to her instead of doing homework and flunked tests instead of considering my future. I pissed away an education – the perils of having a crush on a girl.

Sarah ran with boys who bought GQ, could afford Girbaud, got their hair cut in salons, and lived in Lincoln Park or Gold Coast with moms who were rolling in alimony and let their sons stay out till all hours even on school nights. They played sports. They dressed to the nines. They pulled good grades. They knew how to outclass. They knew how to kiss ass. They knew how to stand out. They knew how to fit in. They got into top schools. They slammed imported beer. They liked fucking girls. Their parents didn’t dare cramp their styles, didn’t mandate mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Their parents championed them. They got away with getting stoned. Their futures were assured. Normalcy triumphed. I didn’t stack up – not in Sarah’s eyes, not in anyone else’s, not in my own.

Back then, I didn’t hear a lot of talk in the mainstream about self-esteem. If I had, I would have known what I was missing. After about a decade of sleep, pop psychology had only just begun to reawaken as a genre. Oprah hadn’t gone New Age yet. Nobody was grabbing TV cameras to badger us about how we had to love and accept ourselves in order to manifest abundance. The prevailing convention was: if you don’t get your validation from the outside world first, you’re fucked. I didn’t. I was fucked.

“It’s not that [art] batters you down, gets rid of barricades or opens doors. The person inside has to be accessible. There has to be a little crack already…some willingness.”
– Toni Morrison

Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Even as a minority-majority city, its history of apartheid is enough to make Maycomb, Alabama look good. Fortunately, even those with the inside edge say that race relations are a hell of a lot better now than they were back in the day. Yet, even now, there’s no denying that demarcations between black, white, Latino and even straight and gay in Chicago remain thick as prison walls, but this was even more the case when I was growing up there. Before I moved into my grandfather’s house in the Rogers Park area – an anomaly of a mixed-income neighborhood where there is an even balance of black, white, and Latino – I grew up on the lily-white northwest side, but had to commute to and from school on the south side. This meant traveling through neighborhoods as different as heaven and hell. To me, hell was my neighborhood, where manicured lawns, Cadillacs (leased or owned, nobody asked, nobody told) packing the parish parking lot, single-family homes, gay bashings, racial profiling, and the imminence of white flight were the norm. Heaven was due south of where I lived.

Down the middle of the Kennedy Expressway, the L ran past Montrose Avenue, where bungalows predominated all the way to Irving Park Road, where rabbit-warrens of courtyard apartment buildings began to appear, only for the L to descend into a tunnel and, two stops later, reemerge into a totally different locale starting in Logan Square. By now, developers have razed all those old-style tenement buildings in favor of luxury condos with upwardly mobile whites stepping out of them. When I was a kid, that area, commonly known as West Town, was a cluster of Latino barrios.

The L rode past rows of West Town buildings, where pit bulls and Dobermans patrolled tar rooftops against a preponderance of Popes and Disciples graffiti, two rival gang syndicates who dominated the city at least as much as the Daley administration. Their presence was so powerful that Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi had allegedly held negotiations with the largest gang, the El Rukins, to overthrow the American government. Some of their graffiti was on par with the best mural art of any city. Some was downright scary – pitchforks, arrow-headed letters, severed heads impaled on spikes over hellfire, coded hit-lists with names crossed out, often denoting members of a Nazi-sympathizing white gang called the Gaylords.

In the rush-hour commute, the women who boarded there stood in stark contrast to the white women from earlier stops, who sat in tailored suits, poring over open manila folders on their way to work, with smart little attaché cases on their laps. The women from the barrio stops were often stouter and sported flowing manes of highlighted hair, lacquered ceramic nails and, if they worked in offices, vivid chintz. If they had children in tow, they reined them in with a firm hand, often exclaiming, “Callate!” The men did not appear to work in offices. They were too dressed-down. There was a quietness and humbleness about them that I did not see in the white-collared white men. If they had children with him, their faces seemed to reflect a worry that my Dad often said his immigrant parents had: “How are we going to pay for it all?” For many, I’m sure there was an added trepidation, one that my grandparents didn’t have: “What if they catch us and send us back?” I used to wonder how the dinner-table conversations of each group of passengers compared and how different each group’s race and standard of living made their conversations. But I could only imagine. The walls between us all were too thick for me to actually witness what I’d wondered about.

In time, I began to notice another element emerging on those L platforms. A lot of white guys with flowing manes like the Latinas, though otherwise they looked nothing like them and were much taller. They were thin, dressed in ripped-up Am-Vets rags, often carrying leather-bound portfolios with paint smudges on them. A lot of the chicks wore Manic Panic dye jobs, pummeled leather jackets, kilt minis, skull rings and don’t-fuck-with-me glares. They did not make eye contact with anyone, though so many eyes, including mine, were right on them. Some would remain standing while the L was in motion, reading socialist digests, to stand out all the more. I saw others reading used copies of plays by authors like Samuel Beckett and Dario Fo. Many seemed lost in their headphones and I wanted to make my own coolness known whenever I could identify the bands sounding from them. Now, it’s not as though I hadn’t seen their kind before. They proliferated in somewhat less cerebral form on Belmont and in Rogers Park, where I hung out all the time. But what the hell were they doing in these Hispanic neighborhoods?

One day I was in my favorite café in Rogers Park, aptly named Ennui, where I sat writing yet another tragic ode to Sarah in my Geometry notebook. I overheard a young woman telling a matronly older woman that she’d seen a version of Medea at a storefront theater near Milwaukee and North. I screwed up my eyes, only to hear the older woman ask a question that I was too cool to admit was on my mind too: “You mean, they have theater in that neighborhood?” To which the younger woman replied: “Oh, yes. It’s the second largest artist community in the country now, next to the one in New York. You see all those starving artists walking down the streets. You wonder where they’re going. They’re just going home. These are the only places they can afford.”

That’s all I had to hear. I packed up my book bag and headed down, lighting on West Town soil for the first time. This was a place where kids from my school would never dare set foot. In search of new life, I started patrolling the West Town streets as regularly as the guard dogs did its rooftops. I couldn’t wait to grow up and live there. I decided that, since I didn’t know how to draw or play an instrument and some people had already told me I had a flair for words, writing might be a way for me to be an artist like these strange folks. I could be one of them. I decided to be a writer. It all seems so silly now, my enthrallment. But I was raised in a world where different universes paralleled and sometimes collided but never quite converged. Now it seemed, for the first time, they could.

Like I said earlier, in my teens, I avoided any and all contact with my family. Only cold silence with intermittent hot eruptions came out of me. Only cutting remarks, smirks, and bare knuckles came out of them. Our clan had all the earmarks of an Irish play.

Still, I’d accepted an invitation from my sister Colleen to her newborn son David’s christening. While my mom, Colleen, my grandfather, and my nephew posed for a photo that would show four generations in a single frame, I busied myself digging through my sister’s record collection. I’d recently entered a back-to-basics phase – one I’ve never left – after it became clear that it wasn’t working out between me and flash-in-the-pan hardcore and industrial bands. I now had every intention, for instance, of replacing that Bowie album I’d broken. Looking back, I have to say, my sister had some good stuff. There was Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love & Hate, lots of Beatles, early Lou Reed, Thin White Duke period Bowie, Songs in the Key of Life, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Dusty in Memphis, Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. Then my finger traced the spine of a double album that I couldn’t help but pull out and examine.

The cover bore multiple rows of old-timey black-and-white photos. Scrawled over the right margin in harlot-red lipstick were the words: ‘Rolling Stones, “Exile on Main Street.”’ I would later learn that photographer Peter Black had lifted this montage right off the walls of a redneck tattoo parlor near Harlem. It depicted circus freaks – the dwarf lady; the Siamese twins; the man-dog; the fat man in one of those old-fashioned bikini-looking one-pieces; the electric-chair survivor. There’s no denying that it also presented racist images of yesteryear’s African-American – a buffoonish picture of a black carny performer with three golf balls stuffed into the front of his mouth and a minstrel with buckwheat hair, recoiling, the whites of his eyes glaring like those of a shellshock victim. The cover was an artless paragon of Found Art controversy, a subject that would reemerge in Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) with its Found Art object “Coon Chicken.” The Stones seemed to be sending the same message that Zwigoff would about thirty years later: You can’t have the past without its shadows; try whitewashing them over, they’ll just jump right up to dog your trail.

On the back cover, alongside some blown-up selections from the ugly tattoo-parlor montage, was an arrangement of surprise shots of different band members, all in black and white. Each had long, unkempt hair and the camera had often caught them with unabashed, convivial smiles on their faces. What struck me even more, though, was the inside of the grainy, black-and-white gatefold.

A movie house’s box office was papered with a collage of press photos for a Joan Crawford retrospective, one of which shows the silver-screen bitch goddess screaming in film noire terror. Imposed on the edges are liner notes, dashed off on scraps of paper, with lyrics like, “I gave you the diamonds/You give me disease,” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes,” and “I don’t want to talk about Jesus/I just want to see his face.” Then there were other found photos of gangs of kids from the 40’s, hanging around a nickelodeon, and others of the inside of seedy old bars like the ones Nathaniel West wrote about.

But the greatest to me by far were the ones of Mick and Keith. There were studio shots of them, singing together over sheet music into a hanging microphone, bottles of bourbon in their hands. Another showed Mick in a Seventies plaid blazer outside a porn theater and then another one showed him inside of it, standing with a beer in front of an ad for a skin-flick called Sweet Taste of Joy. It showed a pair of Joker lips with a rattlesnake’s tongue darting out of it and inside the mouth was a frame of a couple fucking in the missionary position. The promo copy read: “She never knew who was COMING to dinner, but she always kept it warm.”

“I can’t feel you anymore, I can’t even touch the books you’ve read/Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead.”
– Bob Dylan, “Idiot Wind”

I saw Mick in the gatefold. He seemed like me. I wasn’t attractive by most standards. Neither was he. I didn’t have a conventional mind or manner. Neither did he. I had pasty skin. So did he. My lips were thick for a white boy. Few were thicker than his. The only difference was, he didn’t care. He was liberated, alive, and ugly. He flaunted it. Like Richard III, he was not “made to court an amorous looking-glass,” but he turned canons of beauty inside-out and made himself the hottest thing ever. Like I said, he was alive. As I mused on those pictures of him, I said to myself, I may be strange and ugly, but I don’t have to play dead anymore. From that day forward, Sarah never got another poem or letter out of me, nor even so much as a look, except when she’d corner me and rail about how I never paid attention to her anymore. My new fixation would be my mirror, and I would soon have a whole new soundtrack for it.

As usual, I saved my lunch money until I could afford to go to Dr. Wax record store. I found a used copy of Exile in a mile-long Stones stall. The scratches on it made each track look like spastic little heart monitor screens, but my record player had a diamond-pointed needle that could ride over even the craggiest groove and not miss a note. I already had some Stones in my collection – two years later, I’d have about two dozen of their LPs – but they were mostly compilations like Hot Rocks and Through the Past, Darkly. I didn’t have a deep sense of their discology yet. Exile had only two hits to its name, “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy,” whose titles I didn’t even recognize.

As I put the needle on the first song, I was unprepared for what was coming next. The song was “Rocks Off.” It was anything but clean. From Keith’s opening guitar licks and Mick’s first ejaculation (“Oh…yeah…”), it was raucous as all get-out, nothing smoothed-over, all jagged. All Side One sounded that way. I sat on my bed staring at my stereo, wondering what the fuck this scrawl was, how it ever made it to market, how it ever sold. I was done by Side Three. I got up and went for a walk along Lake Michigan.

By and by, as I kicked along the gravel walkway, trying to clear my head of aesthetic shock, I remembered the Bayou bass on “Sweet Black Angel.” Those tones came from somewhere deep down, somewhere only my soul, not my mind, knew. This was music from the Mississippi backwoods. I watched the waves, “Sweet Black Angel” playing in my head. I pictured swamps, crickets, long dry stalks under a menacing moon. How did these British boys capture all that? They were even farther away from it than I was. They were from the land of Tea Time, Worcestershire sauce, and crumpets. I grew up in the metropolis of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. If the Stones could do all that they did in blues, coming from where they came from, I thought, who knows what I could do with writing? If I practiced a lot like they did, opened my mind to the annals of the infinite past and attained mastery like that one song alone showed they had, then time and space could not contain me, just like it couldn’t contain them, and I myself could achieve godhead, just as they had. Maybe that album I’d just walked out on could save my life. I walked a little farther down the lakeshore, ruminating on this maybe.

I soon found myself tearing back to my bedroom in my grandfather’s house and stuck the needle back on “Rocks Off.” I lay back on my bed and let each side run roughshod over me the way I used to let more refined albums like Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road wash over me years before my punk phase. Track by track, it busted me open in the same way I’ve read that people experience the sudden apparition of a saint. Afterwards, I even felt fearless – fearless, even as the rank outsider – almost the way people have said they do after dying and coming back to life.

Summary of Songs
I would spend hour after hour, day after day, further eroding the grooves on that record. The songs seemed to mark a jailbreak from my old condition. One could reign as both icon and outsider, the songs seemed to say.

Side One: After tearing his throat lining out on “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint,” Mick slows it down to a sultry Slim Harpo shimmy, “Hip Shake,” which made me more excited than anything ever had, even in puberty. Like a leering despoiler of roadside nymphs, he growls: “Well, I met a little girl/In a country town/She said, ‘What do you know!/There’s Slim Harpo!’/Didn’t move her head,/Didn’t move her hands/Didn’t move her lips/She shook her hips/Do the hip-shake, babe…/Shake your hip, babe!/ Shake your hip, babe!/Well, ain’t that e-e-e-easy.” Then we hit my all-time favorite Stones song, “Casino Boogie.” The vocals alone show more sass than Missy Elliott herself. Unlike any song I’ve ever heard from any time period, “Casino Boogie” seems to elevate actual sound bytes from soused speakeasy habitués to an art form – “Dietrich movies, close-up boogies/Kissing cunt in Cannes” – and Keith tears through with rhythm riffs that could shake the dead from their caskets. This takes us to the hit song, “Tumbling Dice,” which rouses the bravura backup singers who’ll resurface as a sublime gospel choir on Side Three in “Just Want to See His Face” and “Let It Loose.”

Side Two: On Side Two, the Stones do an even better job of bringing rock back to its country roots than Dylan did in his seminal John Wesley Harding (1967). It all begins with “Sweet Virginia.” A deep-south harmonica introduces this score like a clarion above the heads of an after-hours jam session on old Maxwell Street in Chicago. You can hear the band cheering Mick on as he croons: “Wadin’ through the waste stormy winter/And there’s not a friend to help you through/Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs/Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues.” The refrain they all sing in scattered harmony essentially tells the song’s beleaguered heroine both to lighten up and to endure: “But come on, come on down, Sweet Virginia/Come on, honey child, I beg you/Come on, Come on down, you got it in ya/Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” This live-in-the-studio ditty leads into the polished heartbreaker “Torn and Frayed,” which, much like “Moonlight Mile” from Sticky Fingers, tells the story of a musician who seems to walk straight off the pages of a Steinbeck novel, having traveled through field, moor, mountain, and bordello, winding up all the worse for wear: “Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind of rough/Yeah, and the codeine can fix it/Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies/Who’s gonna help him to kick it?/Well his coat is torn and frayed/It’s seen much better days/Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away.” Next up is “Sweet Black Angel,” where Mick puts the issue of racial discrimination right on the table in a song written for his friend, Black Panther leader Angela Davis: “But the gal in danger/Yeah, de gal in chains/But she keep on pushin’/Would ya take her place?/She countin’ up de minutes/She countin’ up de days/She’s a sweet black angel/Not a sweet black slave.” Once this plea for liberation concludes, the album takes us to “Loving Cup,” where a Niagara of emotions drenches Mick’s soul as he uncharacteristically begs for the love of a woman: “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up/I’m the plowman in the valley with a face full of mud/Yes, I’m fumbling and I know my car don’t start/Yes, I’m stumbling and I know I play a bad guitar/Give me little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

Side Three: This side starts with Keith Richards’ chart-topper, “Happy”: “Always took candy from strangers/Didn’t wanna get me no trade/Never want to be like papa/Workin’ for the boss ev’ry night and day.” Then, Mick collars us for a trip down the dark alley of ugly breakups with “Turd on the Run” – “Fell down to my knees and I hung on to your pants/You just kept on runnin’ while they ripped off in my hands/Diamond rings, Vaseline, you give me disease/Well, I lost a lot of love over you” – only to ram us right into the powerhouse polemic, “Ventilator Blues”: “When you’re trapped and circled with no second chances/Your code of living is your gun in hand/We can’t be browed by beating, we can’t be cowed by words/Messed by cheating, ain’t gonna ever learn/Ev’rybody walking ’round/Ev’rybody trying to step on their Creator/No matter where you are, ev’rybody, ev’rybody gonna/Need some kind of ventilator, some kind of ventilator/Whatcha gonna do about it?/Whatcha gonna do?/Gonna fight it?/Gonna fight it?” After Mick and Keith are done raging, the album mysteriously moves on to a whole new course, bringing us in media res into “Just Want to See His Face,” a Stones gospel song, complete with the world’s most worldly preacher and a rhapsody of swelling Siren voices: “Sometimes you need somebody, if you have somebody to love/Sometimes you ain’t got nobody and you want somebody to love/Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face/You don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see his face.” When this song fades, another arises with the same sisters of mercy in tow, “Let It Loose,” where the cuckolded singer nurses his shattered heart: “In the bar, you’re getting drunk, I ain’t in love, I ain’t in luck/Hide the switch and shut the light, let it all come down tonight/Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger/Some face you’ll never see no more.”

Side Four: After “Let It Loose,” the album dries its tears and crescendos on Side Four with “All Down The Line,” which invokes the Harlem Renaissance: “Well, you can’t say yes and you can’t say no/Just be right there when the whistle blows/I need a sanctified mind to help me out now/Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” Next up is an electric take on Robert Johnson’s classic “Stop Breaking Down,” where Keith puts out one of the finest blues solos in all rock. Then, something happens. The album intones a pause before sliding into “Shine a Light,” rumored to have been written about Brian Jones. Here The Stones show a compassion that rarely, if ever, manifests in any of their other work: “Saw you stretched out in Room Ten O Nine/With a smile on your face and a tear right in your eye/Oh, couldn’t see to get a line on you, my sweet honey love/Berber jewelry jangling down the street/Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet/Couldn’t seem to get a high on you, my sweet honey love/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Make every song your favourite tune/May the good Lord shine a light on you/Warm, like the evening sun.” The album ends with the ball-buster, “Soul Survivor”: “Running right on the rocks/I’ve taken all of the knocks/You ain’t giving me no quarter/I’d rather drink seawater/ I wish I’d never have brought you/It’s gonna be the death of me.”

Exile is the pinnacle of a series of masterpieces that the Stones released over a four-year period, beginning with Beggars Banquet (1968) and continuing with Let It Bleed (1969), Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (live, 1970), and Sticky Fingers (1971). Unlike Exile, however, all the other albums in the series were highly stylized and even commercialized. Not that the Stones weren’t interested in making money off Exile. In fact, they launched a sold-out North American tour for it, featuring a young Stevie Wonder and Tina Turner, that became the subject of Cocksucker Blues. But, for one reason or another, they let it rip with Exile and took no pains to rub down its rough edges. The album bears no resemblance to the band’s pre-Beggars Banquet outputs, not even the early Blues covers. It’s the damndest shame that the Stones would never again match the vision, energy or talent displayed in this treasury of rough cuts. But, then again, neither has anyone else.

“It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for living.”
– Simone De Beauvoir

My Life, Post-Exile
I might never fully understand the shifts that took place inside myself after finding Exile on Main Street. But I can say it marked a transformation of consciousness, deep, sudden, and pervasive – a bona fide peak experience, a miracle, the likes of which I have never again experienced, not even after years of meditation practice. Was it an enlightenment experience? Not to the extent that I suddenly knew everything or that I would never suffer again, not by the longest of long shots. But it was the beginning of warts-and-all self-acceptance without which I would have surely taken my life long ago.

To me, Exile was the essence of honesty. Seeing Mick’s unadorned photos and hearing his raw voice helped me to start looking at myself for who I truly was, rather than for who I wished I could be. I would soon decide to come out – first as bi, then as gay – and let the chips fall where they may with my family and everyone else, though it meant enduring others’ denial and denigration of the truth. Instead of spending my lunch money on the latest records at Wax Trax, I spent more and more time and pocket change on self-education, scouring used book stores and sitting through old Hollywood matinees and foreign films at the Music Box. I no longer feared being cast out of Eden or forever blacklisted from the in-crowd. I knew to the core of my being that all that had already happened long ago, so there was no need to worry about whether I could reclaim a seat at a table to which I’d never been invited in the first place. Exile on Main Street is a north star for exiles from the mainstream, helping us to navigate emotional valleys with integrity, verve, and dignity.

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY.

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James Frey’s BRIGHT SHINY MORNING (A Review for EDGE MAGAZINE)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 20, 2008

I submitted the following review of James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning to Edge Magazine.

They should be publishing it this week.

Most of us know the story. In January 2006, The Smoking Gun website documented how James Frey had lied about many of the events in A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of his time in rehab. A few weeks later, when Oprah offered Frey the opportunity to recant before a national audience, she went from being his foremost supporter to a frontline scourge. For a long time afterwards, memoirists everywhere hid beneath their beds, lest their editors – and the editor’s newly fired fact-checkers – would charge their doors.

I myself wasn’t surprised when the scandal broke. Memoirists from time immemorial have exaggerated, distorted or (like Frey) flat-out lied about the events of their lives. While it’s lousy that egoists gratify their own egos through fabrication, those fabrications are often the stuff of great stories. I enjoyed A Million Little Pieces and its sequel My Friend Leonard, Frey’s account of his friendship with a gay Mafiosi who took him under his wing and later died of AIDS. It is true, however, that the books wouldn’t have packed the same punch if Frey had come right out and called them fiction (romans a clef). Still, Frey’s propulsive, plain-speak narration and unpredictable syntax kept me so spellbound that I read both memoirs in one sitting, each.

In 2008, Frey’s embattled career charges full steam ahead with Bright Shiny Morning, his debut novel and first book since the Oprah/Smoking Gun debacle. Through a series close-ups and panoramic snapshots of a cavalcade of characters and cityscapes, Frey attempts to give us the whole sanguinary city of Los Angeles in 501 pages. To buttress this highly ambitious undertaking, Frey presents whole chapters worth of factoids about the history and demographics of L.A. Frey calls these his “Fun Facts” and “Not-So-Fun Facts” about Los Angeles—many of which are of questionable veracity, given Frey’s penchant for tall tales and the book’s tongue-in-cheek disclaimer, “Nothing in this book should be considered accurate or reliable.” Unfortunately, Frey dumps these clumpy clods of information en flagrante between scenes, rather than weaving them into the stories themselves and directly connecting them to his characters’ lives.

For the most part, Frey’s characters are stock. Many of them are quick sketches, archetypal Los Angeleans, who pop up for a page or two and then disappear like angels—or fallen angels. But even the main groups of characters, whose paths never cross, suffer from a bad case of banality. Dylan and Maddie are two-dimensional figures: 19-year-old lovers who hop into a truck and head west, leaving Ohio and their abusive homes in the rearview mirror. The two lovebirds somehow land in the snake pits of Los Angeles, where their chances of climbing out alive are almost none. There’s Old Man Joe, a Chablis-swilling wino whose attempts at lending a helping hand backfire big-time on Venice Beach. There’s young Esperanza, a Mexican-American martyr figure with deformed thighs, who you’ll wish would just slap the living s**t out of the white heiress, Mrs. Campbell, who never passes up a chance to degrade Esperanza as she scrubs the marble floors of the Campbell mansion in Pasadena.

Movie magnate Amberton Parker is the most caricatured of the cast. He’s got it all: perfect looks, a Harvard education, starring roles in blockbuster movies, Academy Awards, more millions than the GNP of most second-world nations. But he has a terrible secret. (Okay, I’ll tell you.) His three kids were manufactured in petri dishes and, under cover of the night, he sleeps with men—the younger the better—while actress wife Casey sleeps with women. They can and do have anyone and everyone they want. Back out of going to bed with them, you’ll never work in Hollywood again. But karma bites Amberton’s ass when he meets Kevin, an African-American talent agent and former college football star whom Amberton keeps stalking with the highest-end gifts even though Kevin is straight and won’t sell himself into white slavery. Did Frey buy this plot from Jackie Collins? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one would have to have a heart of stone to witness Amberton’s desperation and not burst out laughing.

The run-on and oddly punctuated sentences that drove Frey’s memoirs with such wicked compulsion are back for the attack in Bright Shiny Morning. Only, this time, the style becomes a gimmicky distraction in the third person, where a narrator has to be far more detached and documentary. Frey also refuses to indent or use paragraph breaks. His outré techniques come off more as branding than literary innovation. This self-indulgence ultimately detracts from his enormous talent.

In Bright Shiny Morning, Frey shows far more compassion and sensitivity toward his characters than in previous books. Yet he also keeps flashing the tired, old bravado of his former self: the guy with the hammerlock on the underbelly. Having said all this, let me qualify that Frey deserves a lot of credit, not only for his research, but also for reaching beyond racial and socioeconomic boundaries to round out his grizzly picture of Los Angeles. We know from Frey’s past writing that he is a big fan of War and Peace and he shows a lot of guts in trying to pull off a project of that magnitude. Much like War and Peace, the individual chapters of Bright Shiny Morning are brief, adding up to a sprawling landscape of characters and classes, all of whom are vying for survival, success, or love. But, even at the expense of his cherished bravado and branding, Frey needs to deepen his characters and make Los Angeles more of a savage organism than a compendium of random facts and skeleton sketches.

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?

The Serial Killer in the Green Hanging-File Folder (Last Night’s Dream)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on July 29, 2008

Last night (or, early this morning, if you want to split hairs), I had a nightmare. There was an office off to the side of a hospital hallway, which looked like the one in the hospital where Briony worked in the movie Atonement. The bottom drawer in the gray metal office desk was open. It had green hanging-file folders in it.

I somehow knew that a serial killer was hiding in one of those hanging-file folders. I further knew that he waited for people to enter the office and then, once they’d close the door behind themselves, he’d jump out of the hanging-file folder, wielding a letter opener. Out of the drawer, he’d instantly grow to full height, maybe six feet tall. Then, he’d use that letter opener to slash his victims to death.

In the dream, I alone could see him poking the letter opener’s blade out of the green hanging-file folder. Nobody seemed to listen when I warned them that a serial killer was in there, so they got killed.

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

In the next part of the dream, I was at a reception at The Art Institute of Chicago. My sister Colleen was there with my niece Elizabeth (her daughter) and my nephew Patrick (my brother Kerry’s son). Elizabeth is a recalcitrant 13-year-old, but, in the dream, she was just about to graduate from high school.

I already knew that my nephew Patrick – an 11-year-old squash player who lives in the Bay Area – has been dead set on going to Yale from the time he was eight years old. (No one knows why. No one in my family or in my sister-in-law’s family has ever gone to Yale or any other Ivy League school.)

I asked Elizabeth where she planned on going to college. I hoped she’d say something refreshing like, “I want to go to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.” Instead, she replied, “I’m joining the Marines.” I did a double-take. Sure enough, she still had a straight face. Elizabeth looked away. Normally, my sister would be loath to support such a decision on the part of one of her children, especially during wartime. But, in the dream, Colleen put her arm around Elizabeth and proudly assented, “Yes, she’s going to join the Marines before she goes to college.”

I woke up from the dream wondering if I should join the Marines. There are a few hitches, of course. Number one, I’m gay. I’ve published article after article citing my sexual orientation. I couldn’t be more open about it if I threw a circuit party in the middle of a Teamster’s meeting. Secondly, I’m morally and mortally opposed to this war. Third, I’m 34 years old. Fourth, if it was a choice between the military and hara kari – well, guess which one I’d pick (hint: the latter). Still, I wondered if the Marines might help me to later become more capable of plugging myself into the round hole of a mainstream profession. Then again, my Dad was a marine sergeant and he wasn’t able to straighten me out and, boy, did he work at it. (High five to my younger self.)

But, then, what is/was there to straighten out? I was a dreamy artist, a Romantic, that’s all. Even when I tried fitting in, my attempts were about as successful as those of someone trying to play an 8-Track tape in a CD player. I wasn’t on drugs (which means that I can’t put out daredevil memoirs like David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs and James Frey), I just wanted a more creative, a less regimented, by-rote existence. In the movie Deconstructing Harry, a therapist asks Harry Block (Woody Allen) why his alma mater threw him out. He says:

“Because I was not interested in [school]. I wanted to be a writer. All I cared about was writing. I did not care about the real world. I cared only about the world of fiction. And, plus, I tried to give the dean’s wife an enema so they didn’t take kindly to that.”

My life has run somewhat along the same lines.

But I have another nephew named David, who is my sister Colleen’s other teenager. He has just graduated from high school and will be going to college at, I believe, DePaul University. Since the tenth grade, David has wanted to be a history teacher at his high school in Palatine, Illinois. David hasn’t striven to be the next Thom Yorke or Kanye West or, let’s throw in a “now” writer, Junot Diaz. He doesn’t want to throw a sack over his shoulder and head out to New York or Europe to lead an artist’s life. No, he wants to grow up to be a high-school history teacher in the suburb where he grew up. David has set himself an attainable goal that has all the trappings of stability. Some might yawn, but I cannot help but admire the wisdom in his choice. If only my heart had such simple yearnings! Alas, it doesn’t. I’m too much like Harry Block.

Julius tells me I’m bourgeois when I say things like that. He’s right. I am. I was raised in an environment where you go straight from a Big Ten school to a job in a bank or an accounting firm. If you want to dream big, then work your way through law school or maybe get your MBA at night. It might seem drab and colorless, but at least it’s stable. But, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that quiet desperation is the way to go, I keep having dreams like the one about the serial killer in the green hanging-file folder.

Here I must remind myself of some wise words by former tearaway and venerated Buddhist teacher, Susan Piver:

“One’s own mind is the only reliable guide. The place to start is with who you already are and what you are experiencing right now. No doctrine. No ideal to emulate. I had never heard anyone say that before. On the Buddhist path particular qualifications, beliefs, or vows are not necessary. Strength and independence of mind are the qualities that are required. Maybe my inabilities to toe the line, fit in, succeed in conventional life were not such bad things after all. They were just me, and on this path, ‘just me’ is the path. You start with who you are, and the goal is self-discovery.”