Not among the P's

Margaret still calls now and again… and again. Maybe more again than I’d like. Today she called me at work, and said she wants to fly down to Frisco to visit — twice. “Once in June, definitely, for your birthday, and maybe once before then.”

Look, I like her. Really, I do. I'm not wild about visitors, though. My mom and sister are coming next month, and that's enough visitors for 1995. 

Margaret is a little crazy, and she makes me a little crazy, and it’s never going to work out between us. Dames usually say this to me, instead of me saying it to them, but — I think me and Maggie work better as friends.

When she called, though, she made it clear that this would be a "more than friends" visit. The thought of that stirs my blood, I won't lie, but the last time we saw each other she frickin' beat me up.

Also part of the equation is that she’s sorta suicidal. I don't know the details, and she rarely talks about it, but Maggie tried to kill herself, some time before I knew her. That's something I don't want, and sure as hell I don’t want it on me, so I hesitate to say, point blank, it’s over, stop calling me, a Christmas card is enough, knickers on please.

When she suggested two visits in six months, I told her I’ve taken a vow of celibacy. I don't know where that came from. She didn’t believe it, because we kid around and always have, and of course it sounds ridiculous. I don’t need to take a vow — I’m ugly, crude, bad breath, the whole package, so celibacy is bestowed upon me. 

As lies go, it's a good one, though. If I say it several more times over several weeks, keep a straight face with no chuckles, she’ll maybe believe it. Yeah, the details are starting to take shape in my mind… How's this? I’ve been hanging out with some Buddhists, see, and we chant a lot — or is that the hairless Krishnas? Whatever. We’ve all sworn to abstain from sex of any kind until, um, New Year’s Eve 1999, and even then, we’re only allowed sex with other men. And only once.

Or, I could be a grown-up. I could remind her what she told me, before she forgot: That we’re over. We could do lunch, but no sleepovers. Cripes, I hate being a grown-up.

♦ ♦ ♦

Massive mood swings, man. Factsheet Five came in the mail, and I of course flipped straight to the review of Pathetic Life, except it wasn’t there. I started hollering at the walls, Jesus H Christ! I’ve been sending freebies to R Seth Friedman, and he told me to expect a good review, but I never got the promised post card with the text, and now the zine isn’t even listed. Well, double-fuck you too, Friedman!

Then I started flipping through the rest of Factsheet Five, and guess what? Pathetic Life is an Editor’s Choice — that’s why it’s up front, instead of being back with all the P zines. I take it all back, Seth. You’re a wonderful fellow, a perceptive critic of the written word, and it was silly of me to imagine otherwise.

The zine has gotten too many good reviews lately; it’s screwing up my equilibrium. Somebody please send an angry, disgusted review, preferably demanding your money back, so I can snicker.

Anyway, the entire evening was absorbed into Factsheet Five, reading through the reviews, checking off zines I want to send for, until way too late and only as far as page 48, I clicked off the lamp and faded into the sunrise.

From Pathetic Life #8
Wednesday, January 18, 1995

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Pathetic Life 

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  1. Doug, you can post this anywhere. You don't need to bother with an email or USPS or a formal proclamation from QE2 or anything. I just didn't know where to write it.

    On the right gutter of your page -- I mean no harm, that's what we used to call it -- you have a list that included Woodstock Journal. One of my favorite guys, Ed Sanders who is unaccountably still alive, writes for this journal. Are you a fan, or a hairdryer or anything that cools and clarifies? I've been reading and following Ed for -- fuck me -- 50 years, ever since the days of the Fugs.

    Guess I've always liked troublemakers who write well.

    Just wondering.

    1. “No country that invented the wah-wah pedal could be totally evil,”

      Ed Sanders

    2. I don't know Mr Sanders, but I am a fan of Woodstock Journal. Not a fan for 50 years like you, but I've occasionally spent some time at the site, and never yet regretted it. Thus, it gets a permanent link from me.

      I had to google "wah-wah pedal". I think my mom had a wah-wah pedal for her sewing machine.

    3. Geez, I'll bet she was hell on stage. Did she play punk or new wave?

      Mr. Sanders, like me, is old and, although he's a semi-retired rocker (as well as a serious expert on ancient civilizations and their writing) I'm not sure he knows that what started out as a wah-wah pedal is now about 50 different effect pedals. Hell, the challenge today is making a guitar actually sound like a guitar, or, in your mother's case, a sewing machine sound like a sewing machine.

      In the days of Hendrix, there was only one effect pedal: the wah-wah. You can hear it in "All Along the Watchtower" and other songs from the period.


    4. You know many things I don't know, like wah-wah pedals. My mom's, I think, controlled the speed of the sewing? Was it actually derived from a device made for rock'n'roll? She'd hate that.

      I can barely sew new threads through a loose button.

      Woodstock Journal seems to no longer be publishing new material, a sadness but understandable at Mr Sanders' age. If you're in touch, tell him I said thanks.

    5. Yeah, Virginia's pottery wheel has somethiing similar tou your mom's sewing machine. It's basically an accelerator pedal. She can control the speed of the wheel while being wrist-deep in clay with both hands.

    6. I will not insult anyone's intelligence by just summarizing information that is readily available on Ed Sanders' brief, well-written Wikipedia page, but, just as the slight difference between Doug's age and mine make history for him out of what are current events for me, Mr. Sanders' 10-year head start on me (and his intelligence, his countercultural instincts, his audacity, and his ability to pick up long-dead languages and somehow make them rhyme with relevance in a chaotic post-war America, make him the last living ambassador of the Beats in a lost country that is tumbling toward its demise or transformation without Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Allen Ginsberg to console it.

      Fuck me, that was a long sentence. Strap in; I have a little more to write here.

      There are two generalized points I'd like to make about Mr. Sanders and his ilk:

      1) We overvalue people and cultures who came long before us and undervalue people and cultures who came shortly before us, and

      2) We get deluded by fake historical notions like the naming of generations and it screws up our perceptions of how things work (or don't work).

      If those points need expanding, I'll do so, but only on demand, and I recommend against it.

      I "met" Ed Sanders in 1968 when his musical, writing and publishing consortium, The Fugs, released their sixth album (but first I'd ever heard) "It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest". I'd review it here if Doug reviewed albums instead of movies, but he doesn't and I won't. I'll just say that my 18-year-old head, draft-registered for a ghastly war and resistant to a Nixon presidency that seemed way out of touch with reality and me, exploded due to the odd combination of politics, art, and subversive discourse offered on "It Crawled ...".

      I listened to other Fugs albums, but they never really caught the spirit or grace of "It Crawled ...", though others disagree. But when you record songs like "Johnny Pissoff Meets the Red Angel", "Ramses II Is Dead, My Love", and "Claude Pelieu and J.J. Lebel Discuss the Early Verlaine Bread Crust Fragments" a curious young man might start to sing along.

      I did, and the weed and booze made it all rhyme and Ed Sanders seemed like quite a genius. I kept bumping into Mr. Sanders throughout the Viet Nam war years, the Reagan Years, and beyond, always making art, always making trouble, always raising money for another bummed-out Beat, and rarely for himself. He won an American Book Award, an NEA fellowship, and several other honors along he way, some of which came with financial rewards, and I heard he had a small farm in the Northeast. His fellow Fugs died as people do, and in 2011 he wrote an autobiography of sorts, "Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the Fuck You Press, the Fugs, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side". I read it twice and sold it because I was out of money. I loved it, but if you're under 65 or so, you likely won't understand what the fuck he's talking about.

      If you're still with me I can only ask, "Why?"

      Anyway, that's a thumbnail or less about Ed Sanders, who now seems to go by Edward. I console myself in the certain knowledge that the first name change doesn't represent a move uptown. Ed Sanders will always be in and of the Village.


    7. Captain — What does your sweetie think of the goopy pottery scenes in Ghost?

    8. John — It was a lucky day, whatever brought you to click here.

      Your beautiful opening sentence-paragraph of course led me to Ed Sanders' Wikipedia page, which in turn has led me all over the internet for the past two and a half hours. It’s downright embarrassing that I knew so little about Mr Sanders until tonight.

      He published a mimeographed zine called Fuck You: A magazine of the arts for four years, beginning in 1962. Probably a thousand dumbass kids have named their shitty zines Fuck You, but doing that in 1962 was pretty damned bold. You could be prosecuted for publishing something like that. Fuck You is available in its entirety on-line (I love it when old-time zinesters do that), and I’ve been reading it, and intend to read more. Fuck You has lots of poetry, which I usually hate, but I only hate poetry because 99% of it is awful. Sanders is in the 1%.

      He was one of the planners of the 1967 attempt to levitate the Pentagon, which I’ve always thought deserves a movie — so ‘60s, so ballsy and beautiful. Spoiler: The Pentagon only rose up a few inches.

      And the Fugs — a band I’d heard of but never much heard, and I’ve been listening to their first album this evening. Considering that Sanders is, I think — maybe I’m mistaken? — primarily a poet, I expected the band’s music to be basically half-assed. It’s not. The lyrics are very good, which shouldn’t be surprising, coming from a poet, and the music is indescribable by me — very good folkish rock at some points, pre-punk angry, old-school country, unpretentious and imperfect, sometimes experimental or barely music at all — but at no point did I even consider clicking it off. “I Couldn’t Get High” is fabulous, and “Nothing” is hilarious. The Fugs will be my playlist for the next week or so.

      > If you're still with me I can only ask, "Why?"

      I’m still with you, because being with you makes me smarter. Makes me feel like there’s another intelligent human on this planet, and I like that. I’ve never read an album review longer than a couple of paragraphs, because I don’t know music, so I stupidly don’t think there’s much to be said about it. If you wrote an album review, though, even a long one, I’m pretty damn sure I’d want to read it.

    9. Now it's the next morning and I'm less impressed by the Fugs' second and third albums. Several songs skipped, and the appeal of off-key singing is limited. The poetry works better than the music.

    10. Doug, I reissue my caution that these guys lit a joint in mid-1964 that was still going in early 1967. I think they rolled it with Zig-Zag-Zig-Zag-Zig-Zag-Zig-Zag papers. You might consider jumping to 1968's "It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest". The eternal flame was out by then. "Burial Waltz" is in a key and several other songs come close. And whenever Tuli Kupferberg got close to a hot mic he performed in A-minor demented. Sorry, music joke. Actually Ringo's, not mine. Sorry you were tortured.


    11. I know a little about early underground publishing, but so little about music that until you got me reading and listening to all this yesterday, I'd always assumed Tuli Kupferberg was a woman.

      Not tortured. The first album was 70/30, and the next two were 40/60 and 30/70, but I'm still listening. I am traveling chronologically, and should reach 1968 over the weekend (What a long strange trip it's been, so far), and I'll give both my ears to the tunes you've suggested.

      My favorite Ringo joke is apocryphal, from somebody's sketch show, I think. A reporter asks John and Paul, "Is Ringo the best drummer in the world?", and John replies, "Ringo's not even the best drummer in the Beatles."

      Inquiring minds want to know — is the wah-wah pedal only for musical purposes, or is it mechanically-genetically related to the pedals on a potter's wheel or sewing machine?

    12. Doug, as with many things in the world, it's both simple and complicated. (spoiler: I'm not going to tell you much you don't already know). Potters' wheels of my grandmother's day were spun with both feet, and guitar players were much more worried about how to amplify their sound (as with resonators) than creating effects. Electrification changed everything.

      Both the effects pedal and the sewing machine pedal are inevitable consequences of our bilateral symmetry. Had we evolved with three arms, like the (fill in this space with a three-armed creature) we wouldn't need either pedal, but the fact the both operating a sewing machine and playing a guitar require the full attention of both arms, the invention of both pedals was pretty inevitable. Arms/hands very busy, feet doing nothing = foot pedal.

      Early guitar effects were achieved in recording studios with impossibly large appliances that achieved tremolo and other effects. They were expensive, and couldn't be replicated in performance. Then the transistor was invented and everything got smaller (heard this one before?).

      The earliest public use of an effects pedal that I remember was for the song "Apache" (1960) by the Shadows (Cliff Richard's backup band). Check it out on youtube. It didn't take long. First commercially available transistor, circa 1955, portable effects pedal available 1960.

      I know less (and perhaps care a little less) about the sewing machine pedal, but I don't think it requires a transistor. In any case, they've been around since electricity came to Arkansas, and were developed by sewing machine companies independently of effects pedals.

      I would say the two devices are the kind of cousins that can get married in Mississippi at best. They are related primarily through our bilateralism.

      Yeah, it's kind of a crappy answer, but I'd say in summary that the sewing pedal preceded the guitar (and other instruments') effects pedals by a decade or more, and has different antecedents. Combining the two would be a mistake, but would allow us to sew up this gig and get out of town.


    13. It would take me a couple of hours to write something not as good as your replies here. Sincerely, sir, when you get going, it's all worth knowing and it makes my daze better.

  2. For a guy who claims not to know much about music and musicians, you nailed the faux Lennon quote about Ringo that has fooled many in three generations of Beatle fans, including me for a short time before the Web and Snopes. It was written for a 1981 British radio program and delivered as written by a forgettable comedian. The tricky part is that, although it's possible Ringo might have been the only Beatle for whom John had genuine affection by 1970 (Ringo played on a couple of post-Beatle Lennon albums), John had a sharp tongue and a biting wit. It sounds like him, but it isn't.



    1. Damned funny joke, though. If it was true, I think the drummer would be Paul; I've read that he plays numerous instruments well.

      On the internet, anyone can say any damned fool thing (see my website). So I do, by habit, try to doublecheck things.

    2. Yeah, that's McCartney on drums on "Back In the USSR" and "The Ballad of John and Yoko". Several other performances are rumored, but, because in their last three years the band members were rarely in the same studio at the same time, it's difficult to confirm who was overdubbing (actually, underdubbing) drums. Ringo walked out a few times and also made a movie or two in this period. Paul was pretty clearly the designated hitter when Ringo was away.


    3. He was like a utility infielder, someone you could plug into any position and he'd be fine. Was he as good as Ringo? Like the joke says, the best drummer in the band?

    4. I've just reread this and my only question is, Who wrote this shit? But here it is . . .

      It's subtle. Paul could fill in on lead guitar and most of the time you wouldn't notice, but the band had picked up George Harrison, the youngest member and a "natural talent" on lead (which means George practiced his ass off for years and the instrument played into who George was [a shy young man with a strong personal need for self-expression]), so Paul moved to bass (he had been lead guitarist and occasional piano player in his own band before Lennon recruited him into the Quarrymen). Paul was as good as George for 90% of the lead guitar role, but when that invisible creative line of genius was crossed, George soared and Paul was a few thousand hours of practice and a large thimbleful of inspiration behind (hear also: Something).

      Paul was a capable pianist, (Let It Be, Maybe I'm Amazed) and after the Beatles quit touring, there was always a piano around (in the studio). Before 1965 you don't hear much piano in Beatle music; after 1965 there's quite a bit, and much of it is McCartney, although occasionally George Martin would fill in and, in their last year and a half Billy Preston was playing keyboards (and holding the band together).

      For 90% of drumming, Paul could replace Ringo -- maybe 95%. He didn't, because 1) he was busy playing bass, a vastly underrecognized instrument and 2) Ringo was the fucking drummer, and 3) That last 5%, of course, is what drummers get paid for. Ringo was a left-handed drummer who played with a right-handed drum configuration, so his fills were subtly different than those of most of the rock/pop drummers in the business. Paul, of course, was also left-handed but he hadn't put in the ten thousand hours. Listen to "Back In the USSR". The bridge has the same time signature and rhythm as the rest of the song.

      Also, Ringo was a rock drummer, the antithesis of Charlie Watts. He generally was unpracticed and unskilled at the kind of polyrhythmic, multi-tempo beats that are integral parts of jazz. Fortunately, the Beatles were a rock band.

      Ringo was and is a more-than-capable rock drummer, and one of his strengths played into what made the Beatles the Beatles: playing behind harmony singing. The Beatles, especially early, more subtly later, were a harmony band. Three part harmony is what gave them the "Beatle sound". In much of harmony singing, the drummer has to get out of the way without disappearing (which generally means he/she is using brushes instead of sticks and not whacking the drum heads. Ringo was a capable quiet drummer. So "This Boy", "Yes It Is", "Sun King", etc., the drumming is subtle and way back in the mix, but it's usually there.

      Jeez, I've written a brief answer longer than intended, and without looking anything up. Hope I got most of it right.

      Let me close with the obvious. What the Beatles did better than anyone else was write and arrange songs. George wrote some beautiful tunes, but Lennon/McCartney were the best songwriters of the 20th century. Ringo, who has sort of a sneaky-good voice, sang one per album and played the drums very well, but, above that, as a non-songwriter/non-harmony singer, he was Ringo, slightly bigger than life but not so big that he can't be your slightly over-the-top best friend. In the end, that's what he did best.

    5. Sorry, man — you wanted to talk about artistic rock like the Fugs, and I've derailed you to talking about the most mainstream band ever. They're the only band I accidentally know much about.

      I'm up to the fifth Fugs album, btw. Which I am liking quite a lot, but it's sure not Top 40 material. Which is what they intended.

      CIA Man remains my favorite so far, but I haven't yet reached what you tell me is the best.

      You're a patient man, chatting about music which you obviously know and love with someone who doesn't and doesn't, and yet somehow you haven't made me feel like an idiot.

      My minor-fan's take on the Beatles is, three geniuses and Ringo.

      In life, of course, almost all of us are Ringo on our best days.

      Doubtful that Lennon-McCarthy were the best of the century, but probably they were the most successful. Success is so tied up with luck and money and who you know, I imagine the *best* songwriter of the 20th century is someone we've never heard of, someone who wrote and recorded a dozen songs on reel-to-reel tapes in a friend's basement after working a hardhat job all day, and his or her songs were heard by dozens of people, mostly friends but never on the radio, before he died and all of it was dumpstered.

  3. Doug, the most important elements of both knowledge and wisdom are curiosity and invention. My experience is that the gold is to be found at the off-ramps. I start talking about a wah-wah pedal, somebody else (maybe you) immediately thinks of his mom controlling the speed, direction, and other operational elements of a sewing machine with her foot pedal; somebody asks somebody else about controlling a potters' wheel with a foot pedal. Three off-ramps from a conversation that all lead to the same intersection: the improvement of human productivity and creativity by breaking through the limits of what can be accomplished with the two hands two billion years of evolution gave us.

    Sure, one needs to be careful about a scattershot approach to human discourse in which the subject gets changed before it can be appropriately explored, but when reasonable, intelligent adults remain cognizant of the need to balance the introduction of new topics with the need to flesh out the current one, an occasional breakthrough can be achieved. As long as we remember that most of the "connections" are false connections that need to be pruned rather than nurtured, we might occasionally learn something new.

    When you asked about the relationship between a sewing machine pedal and a wah-wah pedal, with a comment about a potters' wheel foot pedal sort of on the side, I thought, come on man, similar appearance but entirely unrelated to one another. When I started writing about them I realized pretty quickly that your question wasn't silly -- it was profound:

    Since we are culturally in aggregate products of the technologies associated with the global economy in which we live, the tools we develop to extend our bodies and our brains to become more productive define who we are at any point in human history.

    So the four+ global economies through which we've lived: the hunting and gathering economy, the agricultural economy, the industrial economy, the information economy, and the emerging bio economy each redefines who we as humans through the tools we develop to survive/prosper in each economy. And as we are redefined, the definition of what constitutes wealth, education, family, wisdom, success, governance, exploration, etc., changes radically. We have stopped evolving through the process of genetic mutation and have begun evolving through the process of inventing tools to extend our bodies and minds for maximum success in the economy in which we find ourselves.

    Understanding the dynamics of those inventions and the nature of the economy for which they're developed can give us insight into who we are. For example, here, at the very beginning of the bio economy, we can predict which parents are most likely to give birth to children with debilitating defects, implant electronic devices to fool the brain into experiencing less pain than it otherwise would, manage previously life-shortening diseases by measuring and supplementing levels of biochemicals in our bodies. . . the possibilities are endless, and we've only been at the entry point of the bio economy for less than a decade.

    Of course, we have to live with the detritus of the tools we build. The raw mineral extraction tools, the high-speed transportation tools, and the very tools that protect and extend human life we built during the industrial economy likely permanently changed the global climate to the extent that human culture and the human species might well be at risk. Every global change has global consequences, and the longer it takes us to learn this, the higher the risk that the various cures will kill us.

    So derail away as I did in this comment. Speculation usually leads nowhere at all, but sometimes it leads to genuine human understanding. Meanwhile I'm going to give some more thought to those foot pedals.

    And I hope you make it to "It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest" before Tuli and Ed cause foam to spew from your mouth.

    I wish you well.


    1. I hate conversations with almost anyone, because they’ll reliably say something stupid as shit but think it’s a polished pearl of wisdom. That’s why I’ve spent years in this recliner, being literally a hermit. This conversation with you has been a kick in the head, though. Dang nice having someone to talk with without regretting the talking.

      Meet me at the off-ramp, any time.

      Of course, you still might disappoint me in the end, and I’ll *definitely* disappoint you, but over the past few days and weeks, you’ve taken me all sorts of places I hadn’t intended to go, but never yet anyplace I regret going.

      As for the sound of music, I ate a big lunch so I took a long nap this afternoon, without the musical stylings of the Fugs. It’s only intermission, though. The concert ain’t over.

    2. Finally finished my Fugs retrostpective with "It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest"

      Sorry to say it didn't hit me with the same cosmic smack that it hit you. I'll avoid going into detail because dafuque do I know about music anyway. Just, not for me.

      Thanks for nudging me toward the Fugs, though, still like a lot of it.

    3. Glad you got to hear it. I think the more risk songwriters and musicians take, the more varied the reaction people have to the music. I appreciate your hanging in there for the whole trip. Maybe we'll try Leonard Cohen or John Prine next time, whenever that is.

      You are a gentlemanly host.


    4. I'm pretty sure I know what they were doing in that album; it seemed like they were really working on the music, lots of complex arrangements. I respect it, but it wasn't as much fun (for me).


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