SURREALISM and its UNWITTING MISSIONARIES

denker at s bhf savigny platz

I came late to Sex or it came late to me. In 1968 I had already been a Beatles fan for nearly half my life and The Beatles I knew were not about Sex unless one already knew enough about Sex to look for clues in the lyrics.

I listened obsessively to The Beatles on a portable Philips record player. In ’68 this little briefcase-sized box was a marvel, powered by six “D” batteries, its heavy speaker built into the lid. I remember listening to “Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite” on this Philips portable while my mother listened to Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic debut on a four-legged Magnavox stereo console record player/radio. The Magnavox was wood and tubes and gold-threaded-fabric behind the speaker grills. It was hot and heavy and the green light of its radio dial glowed through the twilight, when it was too dark to read comic books but not yet dark enough to justify switching the living room lights on. There’s a smell associated with hot RCA tubes glowing in wooden cabinets that will soon be lost from human memory but I can smell it as I write this. A sultry mélange of Bakelite and pancakes.

I was listening to The Beatles upstairs while my mother washed dishes downstairs, and prepared dinner, listening to her primal Aretha. The grinding-blue electric-piano riff from “I’ve Never Loved a Man” is so drenched with Sex that I didn’t even need to know what the word “Sex” meant in order to fear the tune. That music was so grounded in earthy, sweaty, daily existence that it almost made me ill, at the age of nine, to hear it. It was the sound of a prison cell. As an adult I now love that entire back catalog (as a professional composer, how could I fail to?) but, back then, that music was my nemesis and it threatened to destroy me. That is nothing but the strange and shocking truth: in 1968, only a member of the White middle class could really afford to live for or in the  “Race Music.” If you were Black it could and would trap you. Like Native Americans and “fire water”.

I’d listen to “I Am The Walrus” with my ear about an inch from the speaker, which was up on the flaking desk I did my homework on. I’d finish my homework in ten or fifteen minutes and spend the rest of the evening listening to The Beatles or reading, say, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I kept the volume very low while playing these records. I feared I’d be in serious trouble if the neighbors ever caught me listening to The Beatles. I spent my pre-pubescence a little like Anne Frank, afraid to sing or sneeze.

I lived in the second-worst neighborhood in Chicago, then (the worst being Cabrini Green; the third-worst being the Robert Taylor homes)… a bona fide ghetto… and this fear about having the shit kicked out of me for code-crossing was arguably justified. Guns weren’t common but they weren’t absent. A school chum in kindergarten had had his teeth blown out by a brick during a gang fight. One of the summer pastimes (which I studiously avoided, eyes averted) was the Roman spectacle of dogs fucking in a drained swimming pool on the site of an abandoned Youth Club project I had to walk by on the way home from the filthy grocery store. I abhorred foul odors and I was surrounded by them. My mother scrubbed the apartment all day but it was like keeping twenty five square meters swept clear of trash at the heart of a city dump until the wind kicks up.

I studied.

The old neighborhood is still there, on the border between Chicago and Gary, Indiana. There is a nearby Lake, polluted by a Steel Mill; also a Sherwin Williams paint factory, a mile or two upwind, the smell from which (like the smell of the glowing RCA tubes, but negatively), I recall with perfect accuracy.

Almost every day I listened through both sides of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I remember also that I appropriated my mother’s old collection of recordings of Tchaikovsky. Those were amazing: the size of “45″ singles and transparent red, they played at 33 rpm. The cliché of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto No. 1 for Piano in B-Flat Minor, Op. 23 was an alien thrill as  I stared at the clear red spiral spinning. I was reading Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Clifford D. Simak, James Blish, JG Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison

I had a subscription to a now-defunct magazine which came in a format I haven’t seen since: one week the Science issue of the magazine would come, next week an Arts issue, another week for Politics (I think) and one for Entertainment. I’d get these four different editions of the Saturday Review per month. The Saturday Review gave me ideas above my station. The Saturday Review along with The Beatles and Ray Bradbury and every other producer of the cultural artifacts with which I was able to nurture an intellectual imagination. I can remember being ten or eleven and phoning my father (my parents separated when I was five, then divorced; my father lived a middle class life; my mother refused his alimony, just as she refused Welfare) to complain that my mother and brother were watching too much Television. I was on a planet of my own making.

Things turned out well.

The Beatles, by not being overtly Sexual, and by channeling an Art School sensibility (via Lennon especially), turned me on to the redemptive (and dissident) possibilities of Surrealism; to recognize The Surrealism inherent in my my situation. My Existence. I was The Walrus. The Beatles opened a window that served as a door I used as a Fire Exit  and I didn’t even need LSD (though I admit to trying it in college: the only non-chocolate drug I’ve ever tried. I’ve never even been drunk.)

As long as I had “A Day in the Life” or “Across the Universe“, it didn’t fucking matter to me that I’d been born into an underclass that wasn’t even finally legally human, by decree of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, until I was five years old.

Before turning human in 1964, I was at the far end, the brown end,  of a continuum encompassing people who had been traded and abused like cattle. By the time I was nine, and fully aware of my position at the bottom of American society (and the “family of man”), I was checking out ten-or-more books from the library at a time. I could tell you the difference between RNA and DNA. I read with nerdy glee Project Blue Book (“official” Air Force findings on the matter of UFOs) and Charles Fort’s “Book of the Damned” and grisly arcana about stuff like spontaneous human combustion and so on. I could tell you who Enrico Fermi was but I was so ignorant about Sex that I once raised my hand, to answer a (rhetorical?) Sex Ed question, “Do girls have penises?” with a resounding, “Yes!” To the deafening merriment of my classmates, some of whom were already totally at it. There was a girl named Vanessa who once asked, of the teacher, during the Sex Ed Q-and-A part of the day, while I was hung up on the metaphorical functions of pistils and stamen, “What do you do if a boy always cum too quick?” Vanessa was twelve or thirteen. Come?

Come where?

I knew I knew nothing about Sex. And I was proud of it. I understood, subconsciously, that Negroes were North America’s Dirty Libido. This was obvious from the ecstasies with which fat White cops were hosing-down lithe Black integrators and whipping them with nightsticks on Television. National porn on a b&w Cold War canvas in our timeless ghetto exile. There were riots when King took his bullet and the cops very cannily stayed away as we burned ourselves down.

No task is more thankless than being the Dirty Black Libido of an uptight White post-Germanic nation. I wasn’t about to exchange the iron shackles of chattel slavery for the velvet noose of erotic noble-savagery. The more Whites demanded this of me, the more I resisted, whether I could have articulated the reasons for my inherent dissidence or not. I couldn’t have. But I knew, ironically, with my body. Whites needed, on so many levels, my supposed animality. My fabled animality. My juju and my juke.

I refused.

But it was Whites, too, who saved me from the downward-mobility of the instinctual body and showed me to my mind.

Malcolm X was all rhetoric and no real practice (cool pictures posed with rifles, and gleefully circulated by the FBI,  notwithstanding) whereas John Lennon was conceiving, recording and distributing the blueprints to my own Imagination for me. Lennon hipped me to the transcendence of the cult of Apollo when everyone else was being suckered in the mud by Pan. He advocated Fucking, too, of course, but he made you pass through a conceptual gallery of possibilities first. Maybe you’d have to be shit-poor and nine and banned from using certain drinking fountains to get that point… the enormousness of the difference.

If you’ve never lived on a wire calibrated to measure such fine vibrations that a five-dollar-bill is the difference between shelter and eviction, or in which one multiple-choice test can change your life, or one glance at the wrong person at the wrong time can mean prison or a bad beating or death, you won’t understand what an atrocity it is to implicitly encourage Black kids to mock and beat other Black kids for being too articulate, too bright, to averse to crime or violence… too open to the possibilities inherent in, say, Italian madrigals of the Renaissance. Any “urban” kid who can be allowed to learn to genuinely love an Italian madrigal of the Renaissance is rather less likely to rape, rob or kill. A life of the mind is the obvious best option for the children of the congenitally poor. Which is so obvious that you’ll find it impossible to accept. A well-meaning teacher who gives a Black kid only books about the ghetto, by Blacks, is turning that child back at the maze’s exit and pointing to its center.

And here is the real beauty and the secret paradox of my childhood Beatles obsession: Pablo Fanque, of that supremely surrealist Lennon song,  “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”,  my favorite, from Sgt Pepper’s (closing track, side one), was Black. Pablo was Black like me.

If you find yourself trapped in a maze designed by Whites, it stands to reason that you’ll need the help of Whites to find your way out of it. John Lennon and Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut and Eugene Ionesco and Enrico Fermi and so many others (some dead for centuries) saved me. It was an Inadvertent Intervention… maybe even some of my saviors would have detested me… wouldn’t have considered me fully human, themselves… how to verify? It doesn’t matter now: I was saved. And the irony is that Aretha and James (Brown) would have seduced me into a damnation… the same cultural Potter’s Field that most of my poor fucking classmates of the 1960s faded into as their own anonymous epitaphs. The slo-mo mass-torture and genocide of the North American Black. Very few think-pieces are as thoroughly supported by empirical evidence. Your counter-argument is what? Because: most of the kids I went to kindergarten with have been dead for years. Your only conceivable adequate counter-argument would be to resurrect them. Resurrect them and teach them to read difficult texts and live lives of the mind. Why not; why does the first proposition in the previous sentence seem more feasible than the second and third?

Graduating from eighth grade was a big deal (I had actually taken a college entrance exam, btw, and passed it, at 13… but there wasn’t enough financial aid in the country, back then, to make that miracle happen). I was the valedictorian of the ghetto Catholic School I attended before escaping, to Vegas, with my father, in 1972. I don’t remember the speech I gave. Much of that year was a blur knotted around the fear that I was becoming the age at which it would have been impossible to remain such an oddball and live; a strange child is one thing; a gang-age Surrealist? Not funny. Maybe tragicomic, then. They would have stabbed me clutching my bound library copies of Transition magazine. They would have slashed me, ironically, with Bunuel’s Andalusian razor.

In Vegas I had to hide my Beatles obsession from my father, a Black militant who was into Charlie Parker and Free Jazz. He had a ten-thousand album collection.

I love that music now.

As I write this, from my home in Europe, I can frame that passage of my life as the beginning of the acquisition of Escape Velocity. And it had nothing to do with installing the bourgeois’ glass ceiling of getting a degree and a “good” job, Yankee Materialists please note. It involved learning to see the doors leading off the plantation, which aren’t locked and not even closed. Merely obscure.

That flickering image of a child in the ashen heart of a rat-infested ghetto, listening to “Strawberry Fields”, with his ear just inches from the speaker, is as surreal, itself, as anything Lennon ever recorded or Magritte ever painted or Ionesco or Kafka ever wrote.

Lennon and Francis Bacon and John Dowland and James Clerk Maxwell were the parts of my cultural patrimony, as a native English speaker,  that saved me from crime and drugs and certain early death and every other permutation of pain and indignity. The fact that a populist circle of racist fire has been drawn around so many Black kids, to keep them from these treasures (half their patrimony as humans), speaks to the current mercilessness of American culture; its Brutal Essentialism; its near-autistic misapprehensions of what is appropriate and for whom.

 

 

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