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Incoming wounded

Some letters to Pathetic Life:

As I started to write this letter to you, I thought of telling you how sad my life is and how pathetic I am. And what kind of fucked-up competition is that?

I am sick and tired of being sad, depressed, and miserable, but when someone is talking about how miserable they are, I chime in, "Oh, you think your life is shit? I so don't like myself I've removed all the mirrors in my apartment and keep cutting myself shaving," or something like that.

I'm depressed because I'm a loser and can't do shit but still, if I'm going to be pathetic I want to be the most pathetic, at least more than you. Irony? If there is anything I don't want to be it's the best at being sad. I just think I've got nothing else. Is depression all I have? God, that sucks. 

Anyway, please send another copy of your zine…

—Greg M, Tallahassee

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Let me offer a little unsolicited (and probably unwelcome) advice: I'd caution you against moving suddenly to New York City unless you're sure that YOU WANT TO GO. Please don't go just because Sarah-Katherine wants some company.

If you do decide to move to New York with her, I think you deserve a little more of a commitment than she seems to be giving you. Moving three thousand miles is a big jump, especially if the person you're going with isn't giving you any assurances of sticking together once you arrive at the destination. 

I know you like Sarah-Katherine a lot, and I don't mean to be a killjoy, but I do think you need to look out for yourself a little bit. Don't just move to New York because she wants some company — move because YOU WANT TO GO  and would be willing to go on your own.

So much for my lecture.

—Karl Myers, Permafrost  

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Dear Pathetic — and you are that! I wrote a response to your sleazy letter, but CF thought better than to print, showing a kinder being than you were to that young woman.

You are most correct, you are a butthole. Most men are. However, as you angered me greatly, CF said I should have mercy on your worthless being so I forgive you, but will not forget!

—Pat, Harrisburg PA

Of course, I have no idea who you are, who CF is, why you let CF do your thinking for you, or what young woman you think I was unkind to. —DH

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I find New York City a hideous, unlivable place, and stay away from it. It is totally alien to human life.

The poet William Everson said there are only two cities in the US where man lives in harmony (I'd add the qualifier 'relative' here) with nature, instead of at war with it: San Francisco and New Orleans.

—David AM, Warren OH

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My bowel movements have been pretty good lately. I try to eat fibers. Carrots are good. Rice and beans, too. Yum.

Dang, man. Yesterday I found out that ████, a woman I've been nuts about for years (she's a big reason I moved down here) is getting married in May. Tonight I found out that ██████, my buddy in Portland, has fallen in love with a woman on Vashon Island, and he's moving there in a few weeks. Go figgur. Why don't people do what I want them to? But they never do.

—Corby, Salem OR

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Enjoyed #13-15. I used to live in Berkeley, and frankly, all those hippie-dippie street vendors drove me nuts. And so you say they're still selling the same old shit — tie-dye, bad jewelry, "US out of North America" stickers.

I realize it screws up your job, but in an evil way I loved hearing what a bureaucratic mess it is. Berkeley is a big phony place and I knew one day I'd be proved right about that.

—Al Hoff, Thrift Score

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I'm doing this article for this magazine (Peerpee) that I edit here in the UK. It concerns the authenticity lent to fiction and non-fiction by presenting it in diary form. I was given your address by a colleague and was wondering if you could send me a copy of Pathetic Life? We will also review it and perhaps we could do an interview?

—D G Owen, Peerpee

Sure, that's what I need to do — waste $2.51 I don't have on overseas postage to a magazine that may or may not exist, where the editor begs for a freebie so he or she can write what sounds like a hopelessly boring article about diaries. Absolutely no. Try sending money, ya fuckin' cheap bloke. —DH

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When you mentioned your need/desire for a substantial sum of money in order to move to New York, I thought for a moment of withdrawing such a considerable sum of my life's savings and sending it to you, if only to imagine your expression and reaction. The moment must have lasted for all of two seconds before I decided that (a) I'm much too selfish to do such a thing, (b) anyone who'd even think of relocating from the bay area (or Seattle) to NYC has more problems than can be helped with any amount of money less than a million or so dollars, and (c) it doesn't sound like your proposed relationship would work out well for long.

—Don F, Covina CA

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I work the night shift as a security guard at the hospital, I guess in case someone sneaks in to try stealing a CAT scanner, but really nothing ever happens. Sometimes a patient's relatives try to sneak in after visiting hours, and once I found a couple of naked interns — both men — in a meeting room that was supposed to be locked. I think they thought I'd fill out a report and their careers would be ruined or something, but fuck it, why should I care? I asked them not to leave a mess, and to lock the door behind them on the way out.

That was a crazy night, but usually nothing happens at all. I just sit here reading zines, making the rounds every once in a while, and I just read yours and liked it, wanted to say thanks.

—Michael G, Los Angeles

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I wonder what you expect from New York City? It's not exactly a hospitable environment, especially for people without much money. New York is violent, cold, and expensive.

I've been there, Doug, and it's a great place to be from. When my employer offered me the opportunity to transfer to San Francisco, I jumped. I lived in Brooklyn for three years and it seemed like twenty. I've been here for six years, and I've never felt so at home. 

Take it from someone who's been both places. If you move to New York you'll regret it for as long as it takes you to find your way back.

—Bruce W, San Francisco

It's not enough to make me reconsider, but it does make me wonder why so many people are warning me away from moving to New York City.

This zine has almost two dozen readers in the rotten apple. Would one of you please say something nice about the place? —DH

From Pathetic Life #18
November, 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.

Addendum, 2022: Years later, what smacks me in the face is that I was always more likely to reply, or at least reply in the zine, if you were an ass, than if you said something kind or thoughtful. What an ass *I* was, and still am.

I should've said something kind to Grieg, the first letter. I wonder how much he was kidding around, and how much he meant it. Have a hug in 2022, Grieg.

And to Michael G, can't believe I didn't retort, "Thanks, and don't leave a mess."

13 comments:

  1. Our younger selves weren't always aware of how lame we could be to other folks. We knew our struggle but often failed (at least in my case) to comprehend what others were going through and minimized their suffering because it wasn't exactly like our own. (Actually, I'm not sure why I just wrote all that in the plural.)

    As someone who grew up in NJ, outside of NYC, I will say NYC was a fascinating place until probably 2010 or so when it seems like every neighborhood was turned into a land of drugstores and banks. It's an insanely expensive city (but then so is SF) and unless you have a good job that you couldn't have elsewhere (people who edit film, run recording studios, work for magazines based there) there is no point in being there. The best city for people who live on the margins is anywhere where the cost of living is almost palatable and there is enough public transit and funding for the marginal to survive.

    In other words, I doubt Omaha or Tulsa or Houston is ideal, but a small California city, Seattle or Louisville (which despite its Kentucky status is well-liked by friends I know living there) might work.

    Be glad you never moved to NYC. You might be able to afford to leave. The weather is terrible. Humidity! And the housing is so expensive... Jim Morrison said it...The West is the Best. What a poet, eh? -- Arden.

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    1. I suppose in a search for worst city/town in America, we'd have to consider Memphis, Tennessee. Its informal nom de guerre in the late 1950s and through the 60s into the early 70s was "The Most Segregated City In America". Had the Chamber of Commerce had their way, that boast would have been on a sign at every entrance to that divided city. It is most famously the site of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, in the midst of a strike by the all-Black garbage workers department for a livable wage.

      Oddly, it was also the home of STAX Records, formed by Jim Stewart and his older sister Estelle Axton (thus, ST-AX). Mrs Axton was included because she was able to mortgage her house to acquire the startup money for the label. A coherent history of STAX is included in the wonderful book that presents a history of soul music in America, Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. Buy it, rent it, borrow it, or steal it, but read it if you want to know how one branch of American Black music evolved to become soul music: Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, etc.

      Jim and Estelle, poor rural white folks who became upwardly mobile urban white folks in Memphis, couldn't afford to buy or build a recording studio, so they bought an abandoned movie theater at the edge of the Black community zone in Memphis, bought some cheap, used recording equipment, and stapled every recovered egg carton and carpet remnant in Memphis to the walls, and opened for business in 1957.

      In a city where it was illegal for white people to entertain Black people in a hotel room, somehow white and black kids and young adults wandered into STAX (and the record store Estelle opened at the theater entrance to supplement the meager income STAX was generating).

      One of the white kids, Steve Cropper, who also worked a shift at the grocery store across the street, got the attention of Jim Stewart for his excellent guitar playing and his early sense of responsibility (he was in high school when he first wandered it). He became the first musician to get a key to the building, and taught himself how to operate the recording equipment.

      You know some of the stuff that happened next: An adequate band from Macon came to audition for musical stardom and didn't make the grade, but their driver, Otis Redding turned out to be a pretty good singer and writer. Three Black musicians, one of them, Booker T. Jones still in high school, joined Cropper and formed Booker T and the MGs. Soon the black bass player quit to make more money in the Black club scene and was replaced by a bassist with the unlikely name of Duck Dunn. They made a recording that was pressed into a hundred 45 RPM singles called Behave Yourself. A DJ at a Memphis black radio station flipped the 45 over and played the tune the guys made up on the spot, Green Onions, and things began to happen . . .

      Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, and many, many more. STAX was much better known in Europe than in America. In 1966, during a London stop on a STAX tour of Europe, the Beatles stopped in to catch part of a Carla Thomas set at a small club, and were introduced to Steve Cropper. All four Beatles bowed at the waist before shaking hands with him.

      Of course, eventually things went to hell with STAX: recording and publishing are rough businesses, and Atlantic fucked them pretty thoroughly. By 1970, STAX was effectively dead, although they soldiered on for a few more years.

      Clearly the music worked because of the synthesis of Black and white music and musicians. Steve Cropper and Booker T and Steve Cropper and Otis Redding had life changing, close relationships. In the Most Segregated City in America, the integration of Black and white musical traditions created art, and that art changed the course of popular music in America.

      John

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    2. Thanks, Dr John. I never know where you're going but I'm always glad to go there. I've heard of Memphis and most of the other proper nouns, but the rest of it's all news to me. And Otis Redding was the bus driver, that's my favorite bit.

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    3. Yeah, he was the driver of a clunky old bigass car that somehow held a band and all their instruments in the back, trunk, and on the roof. Otis' pay for driving the band was the possibility of an audition if the band didn't work out. Otis came within about ten minutes of not getting an audition, but the time the band paid for wasn't quite up when the band effectively washed out, and Cropper and the other quasi-producers were fair, even if inexperienced.

      Otis would have washed out too at any studio of size, but the STAX folks, especially Cropper, saw genius hidden deep inside Otis and invited him back to sing with the house band (some combination of the Mar-Keys and Booker T (currently away at college) and the MGs. Lewie Steinberg had left to play with his dad and others in the local "club" scene, so on bass, as always, was Duck Dunn.

      Otis always took his shirt off and directed the horns and rhythm section with his arms, sweat flying, and stayed close to the mic. I don't think he had any idea what key he or the band was in most of the time. Cropper figured out how to release his talent and just let him sing.

      It was Cropper who worked night and day for three weeks after his close friend's plane went into the lake to take Otis' singing and whistling and make it into Dock of the Bay. But STAX got a single out within a month of Otis' death, and Otis got his number 1 song. His widow lived on that for quite a while. As revered as Cropper is, he doesn't get enough credit for his contribution to American vernacular music.

      I know nobody else cares about this shit, but I don't know much about movies, although I'm enjoying watching the complete series "Homicide: Life on the Street" at the moment. The only defective element of that enterprise is the movie at the end, as it happens.

      But I've written on bigass (and mediumass) sites, and I'd rather build a small fire and sit close.

      Yes, my references are dated. What of it?

      John

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    4. Was it only weeks, months after Redding at STAX before his death and big posthumous hit? Were any other Redding hits crafted from those sessions?

      Yes, these are questions I could google an answer for, but I'm lazy, and I trust you more than the internet anyway.

      For many years my wife and I lived in Madison, where the plane went down. Twice we picnicked at the crash memorial atop Monona Terrace, and once we danced to "The Dock of the Bay" overlooking the lake that took him.

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    5. As usual, complicated answer. Redding was known as "Mr. Pitiful" because of the songs he sang and the way he sang them. But he grew quickly, both creatively and in confidence. Dock of the Bay resulted from him getting a gig in San Francisco and staying on a houseboat in Sausalito. That's where he wrote the tune and first verse. He finished most of it with Steve Cropper's help back in Memphis. He had gotten the gig in San Francisco based on his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival (also breakout gigs for Hendrix and Janis Joplin). So his life was changing real fast. He went from crappy juke joints in Macon to STAX in a couple of years. He went from STAX to Monterey in a couple of years. But the SF gig, which was also the beginning of his own writing and the development of his own style in months. So from the time he wrote Dock of the Bay until the plane hit the water was a few short months. He had just purchased a ranch with a nice house, mostly based on a signing bonus. He got to enjoy the fruits of his talent for months, not years.

      The pilot had no business flying that day. He let Redding talk him into it. And that is him whistling. I believe it's take 1.

      John

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    6. Doug, I think the sessions to record Dock of the Bay were rushed and were done partly to listen to how it sounded so they could complete the arrangement. I don't think they even wrote a B-side, but I could be wrong.

      Cropper was still working on the mixing when he left for the funeral in Macon, so I doubt any other material was recorded before Otis got on the plane.

      It's hard to describe what Otis' death meant at STAX. STAX had other artists (Aretha Franklin had recorded there briefly) and their house bands toured and recorded when they could, but the air really went out of the operation when Otis died. Booker T. and the MGs were a big deal and Green Onions was a HUGE hit, but Otis was just starting to make STAX "Soultown USA". Sam and Dave were terrific, but Otis was the future, and when the future plunged into Lake Monona it just killed the momentum of the enterprise. It's hard to describe how much the people who worked at STAX loved Otis. They would have loved him had he not been a future moneymaker. He was one of a kind, and they knew that he valued the commitment STAX had made to his career. He was one guy who wasn't going anywhere else, and then he was gone.

      John



































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    7. Sorry for the long wait. I tried to comment twice yesterday, but the Google comment system was broken. Today it's working again. Always it's something, and I really ought to start migrating to the Wordpress platform....

      They loved him, eh? I've sure never worked in a place that loved me, or loved anyone. STAX must've a fabulous place.

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    8. Yeah, for one brief, shining moment (actually for six or seven years: until they started raking in money). If you had talent you could walk in off the street and play and sing your ass off and create music. Once the big labels noticed though, STAX was fucked. They went millions in debt and hired thug "security" to keep the riffraff out. It's an American story that takes about fifty or sixty pages (just guessing) of the Guralnick book I referenced. If you're "of an age" and grew up listening to music I can't imagine not having a grand time reading the book. From Sam Cooke to Ray Charles to James Brown, buying his first pair of store-bought underwear at age 7 from the proceeds of dancing for troop trains headed for WWII to STAX to more recent soul singers. Outside a dog, a book is man's [and woman's] best friend.

      Yes, I also miss Groucho.

      John

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    9. How come nothing in the world ever changes for the better?

      I am reminded on Justin Bieber's origin story. True or false I don't know, but according to his publicity he was a street busker, and the right people noticed him, leading to his big break and a whole lot of popular music I've never heard.

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    10. It's the way of the world. Success has many fathers, most of whom are filing paternity suits, but failure is an orphan. The lesson here might be to hang around failing enterprises, have a good time, hope for severance pay, and move on.

      Hunter Thompson rather famously said it best (as usual):

      “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.”

      jtb

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    11. I've seen that Hunter Thompson quote before, and yet I laughed for ten seconds.

      I'm not an orphan, though.

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  2. If we're good people we grow kinder in our dotage, and I'm working on it. Still an ass at heart, though.

    I've also heard good things about Louisville, which baffles me but what do I know. I'll never get there. It would be nice to at least see NYC, but I'll never get there, either.

    Cost of living is barely a factor any more. Everywhere is too expensive for a worker, let alone an out-of-worker. I picked Seattle because it's home, and has decent transit. Still not sure it's going to work out, but if the west turns out worst it's a pleasant place to die.

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