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William Burroughs knows

Christiaan Tonnis ~ William S. Burroughs / Video / Laserprint / 2006

Until a couple of days ago, I was pretty psyched about the place where I currently live. Luminaries like Ike Turner and Angela Davis have called the Normandie Hotel home. The lobby’s beautiful, the rent’s reasonable (for L.A. standards), and the vibe is pretty hip. But what is decidedly unhip is the fact that there has been no water in the hotel for 6 days now. That means: no bathing, no hand-washing, no using the toilet. Thank god for my gym membership.

I’m not too sure what’s going on with the place. Apparently, one of the new owners moved back to San Francisco to be close to his boyfriends, and the other manager doesn’t seem to know too much about running a hotel. I’m starting to wonder whether the place is going to close down soon. So once again I’m having fantasies about owning my own home.

Coincidentally, yesterday I received a link from Bruce Germinsky, a realtor on the Jersey Shore. It looks like they’ve got some great properties all over New Jersey; and if I had any desire to live in that state, I’d probably get in touch with them.

But America’s getting me down right now. I keep thinking about this quote by William Burroughs:

“America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream. The American non-dream is precisely a move to wipe the dream out of existence. The dream is a spontaneous happening and therefore dangerous to a control system set up by the non-dreamers.”

I’m a dreamer. I think I need to blow out of the States for a while, to keep my soul alive. Any suggestions as to a destination? Email me at

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The End of Heroes

Before moving on from the subject of heroes, I thought I’d mention more people who’ve inspired me. Of course, the list could be much longer, but a few standouts are: Brad Will, Michelle Obama, Igor Stravinsky, and Albert Camus. And the Buddha, of course. I guess I admire these folks for being not just rebels, but revolutionaries. I’m reminded of a Machiavelli quote that goes something like: “There is no more difficult or dangerous undertaking than to change the existing order of things.” I’m interested in rebellion that profoundly challenges the status quo, and that’s what the names I mentioned have in common. Not to slam Courtney Love, but when someone like her is one of our biggest cultural “rebels,” then something is seriously wrong.

The Buddha

… because he’s the Buddha. I dare you to read the Dhammapada and let it change your world.

Albert Camus

… is my hero because he wrote The Plague — a novel that reveals his (and our) incredible capacity for compassion.

Michelle Obama

OK, I know the Obamas are trying to downplay the race issue, because people don’t want them to be “too black” (!) But I really have to say something here about Michelle Obama and race because, in my experience, being a gifted black female is extremely dangerous. Over the centuries, people have grown used to seeing black women in positions of servitude to everyone else; the stereotypes all rely on a presumption of your inherent inferiority. I’ve found over and over again that, when you don’t fit into degrading molds, the mob gets hostile. In fact, the more gifted you are, the more of a liability it becomes, because people take your very existence as a threat to their (often unconscious) worldview in which they are superior. As a result, many will go to insane lengths to destroy you, while accusing you of being aggressive (and insane). Though they usually fabricate nonsensical rationalizations for this, the truth is that many people literally want to kill you, simply to keep you from shaking their worlds.

I know all too well that our First Lady must have been under lifelong pressure, even coercion, to be less gifted than she is. The reason I admire her is that she nonetheless went right on being bright, educated, attractive, powerful, successful, and stylish. I think this is a big deal for everyone, whether you are white, black, male, female, or anything else.

Because human degradation extends WAY beyond the hardships of just one demographic. Capitalism is built on a conflict between ownership and servitude, and even white male wage slaves suffer under this system. Nowadays, I see people from all backgrounds clinging to mediocrity, just because they are afraid of what would be done to them if they stood out from the crowd. Michelle Obama (along with her husband) stands as a reminder that, contrary to the messages that we receive every day, it’s possible for you to be true to yourself, become successful, and change the world, all at the same time.

Igor Stravinsky

Reportedly, the inspiration for Stravinsky’s most famous work came when the composer unexpectedly received a vision. I don’t know if it was opium-induced, like the demon-ridden icehouse that drove Coleridge. But whether he was sober or not, in his mind’s eye Stravinsky witnessed an ancient pagan ritual that culminated in the sacrifice of a young virgin who danced herself to death. Stravinsky then wrote a soundtrack for this infernal vision. The result was The Rite of Spring.

Staged as a ballet (choreographed by Nijinsky), Stravinsky’s masterpiece was so revolutionary that it started a riot at its 1913 Paris premiere. Now that, my friends, is true rock and roll. In fact, I’d call it heavy metal, scored for orchestra. Except nothing like that has ever come close to happening at even the best or heaviest rock concerts I’ve been to. Not even Megadeth! Stravinsky’s masterwork has been so influential that someone once called all 20th-century music the “Re-write of Spring.” After 20 years of obsessing over this piece, I’m still dumbfounded at how its creator invoked primal chaos so deliberately and intellectually, resulting in an unparalleled work of jarring dissonance and transcendent beauty.

On a side note, though, I’m not too jazzed anymore about Stravinsky’s storyline, which I think reveals the composer’s Old World mentality. I think romanticizing a young girl’s death as some exciting and glorious event is an archaic and dangerous point of view. I started thinking this way after having a conversation years ago with culture critic Mark Dery. We were discussing Beat and post-Beat writers that I liked, when Mark said that he thought a lot of those guys (and they were mostly guys) were misogynists who saw redemption in killing women. William Burroughs, for instance, claimed that, had he not killed his wife, Joan, he couldn’t have become a writer. I agree with Mark that preying on vulnerable women isn’t cool. I also agree with Carl Jung that glorifying violence against what is feminine and maternal constitutes a war against life itself and has created a massive, collective psychic imbalance. I think it’s a holdover from caveman days, and has caused some of humanity’s direst problems, from war to global pollution. I’m not a militant feminist; I just believe in love and life. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox and merely say that I love The Rite of Spring, despite its flaws. Here are Youtube pages where you can watch a recreation of its original staging; it’s pretty trippy:

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Brad Will

Brad gave me my very first radio interview. It went down in a basement below the anarchist bookstore on Avenue B where he worked. That basement served as the control room for pirate radio station WSTR FM. (The “STR” stood for “Steal This Radio.”)

On his program Brad interviewed people and recorded the shows in a beaten-up tape deck set on a folding table. For the show, I performed a couple of impromptu rants and a poem I’d written in honor of my friend Michelle Robinson, who’d recently died from heroin. Raised in San Francisco, Michelle had her whole left arm inked in tattoos portraying the Cookie Monster and the other Muppets frolicking in a brightly-colored cartoon graveyard. Her back was covered in a tribal pattern. We met when she was working at Baby Doll Lounge, a titty bar downtown where I’d danced my very first sets. She made drinks. On one of her nights off, Michelle took me to her friend’s apartment on St. Mark’s Place, where we smoked crack cooked by the girl who lived there. It was the only time I’ve ever smoked crack, and I thought it was stupid. I’m interested in expanding consciousness, and this drug had none of that; its effect was more like really strong coffee. Back then I’d also been friends with a Jamaican girl whose brothers had a storefront on Avenue A where they sold weed and blow over-the-counter to the likes of Mary J. Blige. These were still the years in the City when you’d walk along East Second Street and suddenly your breath would catch and you’d stop in your tracks because you noticed the sidewalk was glittering, littered with used needles.

But back to Brad. We met in the days when we both frequented the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, where he hung out and I performed. A professed anarchist, Brad was tall and slender, smart, and sharp-eyed behind wire-rimmed glasses. When he didn’t wear it up in a bun or ponytail, his long, straight brown hair hung down to his ass. Brad always seemed to have with him both a book and a smelly, drab-colored canvas backpack. We met and he invited me to be a guest on his show. After that, we were friends.

I hear now about how he was such a ladies’ man, but I didn’t see him in that way. Brad lived in an illegal East Village squat with minimal utilities. One night I stopped by his place, I forget why. He opened the door and, though he partially blocked my view with his body, from the threshold I could smell the sex he’d just had with some dirt-smudged black-haired girl I spied through the cracked-open door. Brad wanted me to be jealous, but I wasn’t. My men were more dark-hearted than he, and I resisted Brad’s flirtations — also because he was unwashed. Now, after having lived in my car four months straight several years ago, I can understand how hard it must have been for Brad to stay clean in the squat without a shower.

He could be reckless. Not from stupidity, but because he really believed in and was excited about what he was doing, and often disregarded practicalities. Once, his unattended space heater started a fire that nearly burned down the squat. I remember how badly he felt after the accident; everyone blamed him for their personal losses. The illicit homestead adventure ended when the cops finally came to throw everyone out. Brad defiantly told me about it afterwards. The narrative was murky, but he described a sort of Western-ish stand-down, with himself on the roof in resistance.

Sometimes he amused us because he could be overly earnest, like an idealistic younger brother. One afternoon I was with Brenda and her husband at Veselka, eating chili, when Brad came in, crouched down on the floor, and effused about how excited he was to be with such amazing people. Brenda and I smirked superciliously at how he wore his heart on his sleeve. But now that’s one thing I most admire about him.

At the millennium I started leaving New York City, and we lost touch. It wasn’t until years later, after a West Coast detour, that I returned and learned of Brad’s death. He’d become a filmmaker and a reporter for a leftist paper. On assignment in Mexico, while he was covering a demonstration for workers’ rights, Brad’s camera was rolling when the cops came, started firing into the crowd, and fatally hit him.

The story was characteristically sensationalist: Brad, shot in Oaxaca, filmed his own murder by government lackeys. His footage captured not his own face, but those of the cops that killed him, and then the streets of Mexico that passed by ever-slower as he died while running and at last fell. That’s vintage Brad — though not even onscreen, he was still the star. A few months later, his tale was a Rolling Stone cover story: “Death of an Anarchist.” His final video aired on the major news shows. He was an instant cult hero. But because his death was one of self-sacrifice, it all went beyond tabloid fodder and Brad’s story took on a certain Christ-like dimension.

Yes, it’s tragic. Yes, it’s sad, a shame, and a waste. But it’s also rock and roll.

A lot of people walk around talking about how the world should be a better place in this or that way; and how, if the world were a better place, they’d do this or that. How, for instance, they want to join the Peace Corps or something, but can’t take time off from work. After a few youthful escapades that they love to wear thin in glory-days stories, in the end they always get jobs and settle into lives of obedient fear. People like that rot in their fat and condescend to characters like Brad for their naivete and poverty. Unlike them, Brad wasn’t all talk; he lived his ideals, and thereby achieved an unlikely fame.

Nowadays it’s hard to be real and not get physically and psychically destroyed. Well, Brad was real; and his body was killed. But his spirit lives. He won, in my opinion.

Rat on a Mountain

So I’m living in a Buddhist monastery on a mountaintop in Woodstock, NY. It’s fitting. The Chinese zodiac describes me as a rat on a mountain — a creature removed from its natural environment. Which maybe explains why I never felt I belonged anywhere I was.

Perhaps the same could be said of others here. Our red-robed teachers are Tibetan, the gentle staff mostly middle-class whites. Decades ago, Jan* left his native Netherlands, to worship in an Asian language on this American highland. Lucy, blonde, mops floors. Tom, the tattooed cook, prepares the pilgrims’ meals. Today he told me how he and a few friends, all stoned, once left Boston at midnight and drove four hours just to eat cheese steaks in Manhattan.

I was born in Chicago, but when anyone asks where I’m from, I say New York City. I’m settling in.

A gong calls us to chant in the shrine room every evening at seven. I went my first night here. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, upon a stiff pillow, I caught the melodies easily, but tripped on the foreign syllables. It will take practice.

It’s a monastery, so I guess I’m stating the obvious when I say it’s peaceful here. On a mountaintop, though, everyone complains of the cold. Both the chill and others’ tales of bears and rattlesnakes have conspired to keep me from walking down the mountain road into Woodstock proper. But I’m not lacking excitement.

Take today, for instance. At lunch yesterday, Tom told me about the nearby meditation pond. I decided to see it. So this afternoon, dressed in four layers, I wandered down our high, quiet road until I found the narrow wooden sign marked “DHARMA PATH.” l noted a way cleared through the forest. Stepping over a thin rope that serves as a gate, my feet followed the dirt lane, which was hung on either side with prayer flags curtaining the path in multicolors. Because of the chill, I refused the invitations of benches built from carefully laid slate, and instead kept walking until I came to a clearing.

The land was slightly wild. I stepped past heads of purple clover hidden under long grass and tall weeds with yellow flowers. Above us stretched white-skinned birch trees furred with pale green moss, their glossy leaves turning. Large black dragonflies clicked by like tiny helicopters, and in the distance a low cloud crouched upon a neighboring mountain. Between the foot of that mountain and the clearing where I stood, I saw the pond cupped in the hollow hand of the slight valley. I approached, and noticed the world reflected on its clear surface. Just underneath, side by side, swam two large goldfish, a pair of orange flashes.

I tried to enjoy in innocence the beauty of this scene. But it was too late, because days ago the memories started. After he died he came to me to confess, like a good Catholic. And now I can’t forget how she and I shared him for a summer, and then those two tried to kill me.

As if a light switch’s been flipped, I’m flooded in remembrance. A summer spent in a mountain valley. Like me, he had a wiry frame. It hung over me, filament-thin. And around him the air somehow took on a weird glow, a rainbow overlay; I was enchanted. But what lay within him was dark. So was the bedroom where he had me exactly as he wanted. In exchange I took his heart.

It made her livid. And for some reason he’d always do anything she asked. I dimly remember the ritual. My mind recalls the curse, formed by her words, that dripped down on me as if filtered through her bitter heart. In horror I hold this picture of betrayal: those two lording over my prone body on her altar — black widow and black magician, standing side by side to call down my early death — alchemists who’d forgotten the Golden Rule.

So there followed a near-decade of disaster: a second Bush era, bombs droning dully overseas. On TV I watched them fall. I died each time. I left home again and again. New York. Portland. Los Angeles. Each radiant city a separate hell — nine years, nine circles, neverending. Struck down day after day, I rose more tired each time friends exhumed me.

Until finally I’ve climbed to the top of this mountain, and am looking down now at the vista below. And I’ve outlived him. But she’s still here. And as memory flares like lightning into forgotten corners of my mind, I’m struck dumb staring at this wicked mirror:

I spy her, skulking beneath an image carefully constructed from a multitude of skins like scalps amassed in a gruesome necklace — like the string of unwitting victims of her secret crimes! I see her once more, eyes veiled in guilt, Salome’s jealous sister, a murderer of mates and rivals.

Now he’s gone and there’s no one between me and my sister serpent, for I’ve swallowed the ends of the earth. Being black, I absorb all. From dust to dust, to me, he returned. So also shall she when, burnt out and sour, she submits to the weight of the bones she wears daily, a penitent sitting in the tired cells of her body and awaiting release from her lunatic funhouse.

In years past, I’d have had her killed instantly. But it’s a new era. I’ve learned from her error, so these days I pray for the well-being of all. And I still believe in democracy, albeit one ruled by a hierarchy of the wise. So I’ve brought an audience up here with me where, in clear air, we can decide the next step together. I’m heartened by your counsel.

You all still dare to hope, and seem to agree I should take another lover, a more apt mirror. And, as it happens, the Sun is rising like a fair-haired hero. He and the mountain have mated, a sodomist anomaly! An infernal sunrise in the death of summer!

To me it’s no surprise. Years ago, in a dream, he fell onto me like the sun spills upon sea at morning. Slow as if hung over, he rose, sleepy-eyed. Then, seeking his own image, he stumbled at last to a looking glass in the cup of a mountain clearing! And here he is, at last, once more. My love, please come see me again and again. I no longer fear infinity. * All names have been changed.

Who Are Your Heroes?

As I finished outlining my earlier blog post about Jim Carroll (see below), I started thinking about people in my life who are or have been heroes to me. And then I thought about Alex. If you haven’t heard of Alex Grey, you will. And if you know of him, then you know of the incredible gifts of this visionary artist.  

I won’t write much yet about my friendship with Alex, in part because our story is still unfolding. But the first time I met him I felt a connection. This was confirmed when, days later, I learned that we have the same birthday (November 29). Soon after that, I wrote “He Who Is to Come,” a song (still in progress) inspired by Alex. I then spent a semester assisting him as an intern, and have sporadically kept in touch since then.

So this morning, with him on my mind, I walked out into the lobby of the place where I’m staying, and saw that someone had posted on the community bulletin board a flyer about one of Alex’s upcoming events with his wife, Allyson (another talented artist).

I took the synchronistic moment as a message from Fate, admonishing me not to make the same mistake with Alex that I made with Jim Carroll (see earlier post). And I take that lesson to heart. I feel honored to have this extraordinary individual in my life, and I am grateful to be Alex’s friend.

So, while I’m on the topic, I’d like to know: who are your heroes? Feel free to comment.