Fred Smith, of Choctaw Books, July 2014
Polaroid 600 // Impossible Project B&W
I wrote about how “God is in the transistor” for LENT MAG (“feel free to give us up”). It’s about growing up in suburban Alabama and being in love with the radio, how “[s]omewhere in the basement of a home on the outskirts of Birmingham there’s a cassette tape filled with half-songs . . . .”
LENT MAG’s “about” page is just a picture of a bunch of Krystals, which really sums it all up.
In 1917 an artist named Jacob Kurtzberg was born in this building on the Lower East Side of New York City. Twenty three years later he drew a picture of a man clothed in the flag of the United States punching a person named Adolf Hitler in the face, a full year before the U.S. would go to war against Germany, but after folks had heard murmurs of what was happening.
The artist got death threats for the picture, which was published on the cover of a newsprint magazine filled with lots of other color drawings he did as well. It sold almost a million copies. The Mayor of the City, Fiorella La Guardia, called the artist to tell him that he supported him and his drawing.
In 1943 the artist was drafted into the Army, where he served as a reconnaissance scout, because he could draw maps and other useful things. He also saw things other people didn’t see, or would never see; maybe couldn’t see, or shouldn’t see. Private First Class Kurtzberg came back to the U.S. with a bronze medal shaped like a star, just like the one on the chest of the man who punched Hitler in the face.
The artist kept drawing; drew until his body stopped being able to draw. He drew the world, he drew a universe! He drew the man in the flag, named Captain America; he gave him friends named Thor and Iron Man, made them a team, called the Avengers. He drew another team of New Yorkers named the Fantastic Four, another team of New Yorkers named the X-Men, who were hunted and feared because they were born different, even though they looked just like you and me. The Black Panther, genius king of Wakanda. So many new gods, so many New Gods!
When I say the artist “drew” these characters, I mean “dreamed.” Until he drew them, they weren’t real yet; the artist dreamed them into being, pulled these myths into our world from deep inside.
The man born in this building in 1917 as Jacob Kurtzberg had other names. Children by the billion called him “Jack Kirby.” I call him “KING.” There’s no plaque on the brick of 147 Essex Street with any of these names. There doesn’t need to be. Don’t you know why? Didn’t you see the clerk at the Strand wearing the shield of Captain America on her shirt, see a graffitied and fading billboard for the Avengers in the Union Square station, see the baby in the stroller yesterday in an Iron Man onesie? New York City itself in the 21st century is a plaque to Jack Kirby.
Plus like acorns falling from an oak there are millions more
plaques to Jack Kirby printed every month, billions printed since 1943. We call the dreams he drew “comic books,” call the people he drew “heroes,” all these dreams are brighter than the star on the chest of that soldier punching Hitler in the face.
In 1976 a teenaged artist named Marianne Joan Elliott-Said went to a Sex Pistols show, then promptly went home and put together an advertisement for the New Musical Express. The title said who and what it was for:
“YOUNG PUNX WHO WANT TO STICK IT TOGETHER.”
Two years later she had a different name and the band she put together recorded the sounds they screamed / blew / skronked / thudded onto a few hundred feet of magnetic tape. A company then distilled that recorded clamor onto opaque circular plastic encarved with minute ridges, day-glo rectangles safeguarding spools of tiny plastic film—and over time, brittle, shiny discs.
Sixteen years after that one of the day-glo rectangles—wrapped in smoke-damaged shipping tape—made its way to a second-hand store in a nowhere town in north Mississippi. A teenaged person who so very desperately wanted to be an artist, who was just about the age of Marianne Joan Elliott-Said when she saw the Sex Pistols and put that ad in the NME, looked at the neon cover with bizarre hand-drawn writing and neon-colored children jammed into test-tubes, and figured it was worth $3.
Three dollars! Three dollars for that slinky riff at the beginning of “Warrior in Woolworths”! For the jazzy saxophone part on “Age”! (let’s pretend it was by Lora Logic instead of Rudi Thompson). For “Identity,” one of the best songs I have ever heard in my entire life, a song which helped define my life. Three dollars for a whole life.
I love you, Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, spinning on this globe until April 25, 2011. I owe you so much more than I can ever say.
GOD BLESS POLY STYRENE AND GOD SAVE X-RAY SPEX
In July of 1954, a person named Dewey Phillips was playing records and broadcasting live on the radio from the Hotel Chisca in downtown Memphis. People were still playing music like they always had, but they’d figured out how to contain the vibrations in the air made when fingers plucked metal strings, wooden sticks hit drum, a larynx warbled. They captured the sounds and carved them into a flat piece of sturdy circular plastic. This was called a record. You could play a record by running a tiny piece of metal over it at a certain speed. When you did that, you could hear the music etched into the record, even if it had been sung five months ago or fifty or a hundred miles away. It was magic.
You could also let other people hear the record if you had the ability to transmit signals. There were machines that could modulate electromagnetic waves, the kind that vibrate lower than you can see with your eyes, the kind that maybe people on Mars can see, but not us, not yet. You would play the record on an electrical-type machine that would make the air move in a certain way, and it would spit the shaped air out in a way that other people could listen to it, if they had machines that could taste the spit right. People that played records for other people were called disc jockeys, or DJs. Dewey Phillips was a DJ. He spit music into the night. This was also magic.
That summer night in 1954 the DJ spit a song sung by a nineteen year old. The teenager didn’t write the song. He was from somewhere nobody cared about. He wore shirts that were dyed bright colors and had lace cuffs and liked to put a cosmetic device on his eyelashes called mascara. In another city named the same as the city the teenager lived in, people would mix a powdered copper rock with honey and smear it around their eyes to ward off evil and protect their souls. Maybe the teenager did it for the same reason. This, too, is a type of magic.
People in Memphis who had air-spit machines loved the song the teenager sang. The DJ ended up spitting it fourteen times into the smoldering night. People will go just crazy for a song that they like. It makes them feel good and they want more of it. There is a juice in human bodies called serotonin. It is like a radio that only spits out your favorite songs. Music can induce feelings of euphoria, possibly through triggering higher discharges of serotonin. This is most certainly magic.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, scientists spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get human bodies to make more spit like this, or not to get rid of it as fast if their bodies could actually made it in the first place. The scientists tried to determine how to replicate the spit in the same way that records could play back a song. This was a holy mission in search of the rarest of magics.
The concern some expressed at the time is that there is never enough of this spit. There was only the first time that Dewey Phillips played the record by the teenager; and certainly by the fourteenth time it felt differently. There was only the one time where you kissed your first kiss ever in the back of your best friend’s dad’s Buick. There was only the one time you stood at the wall of the teenager’s house and pressed your hand onto the sharp-edged rock. There was only the one time you held hands in the back of a cab on a January night when it felt like nineteen degrees outside. There was only the one time when you pressed your face to the cold brick of the Hotel Chisca, ruined and empty. There was only the one time when you buried your face in your hands on the banks of the Mississippi River. Not all records can be played twice.
That’s all right. That is the magic of life.
Jackson, Mississippi // Impossible Project Film for Polaroid 600 // November 2013
This is a Polaroid from HALF HOURS ON EARTH, a photography exhibition hosted by Light + Glass Studio. There will be two dozen of my Polaroids on display and for sale, with work spanning 2007-2014. The gallery is also showing work by Ashley Gates and Roy Adkins.
Half Hours on Earth
February 20, 2014, 7:00 p.m.
Light + Glass Studio
523 Commerce Street
Jackson, Mississippi 39201
I just stood there on the sidewalk for a minute, staring at the pastel reflection of the neon sign from the jeweler across the street. Tightened the scarf around my neck; hunched my shoulders. Years ago someone had carefully painted these letters on the store window, and now the sun and time and the sodium streetlights had revealed every brushstroke. Each letter was golden, a black shadow dropped to the left of each stroke, with pencil-thin white for highlights.
I leaned forward and pressed my forehead up against the glass. It felt like a Coca-Cola bottle in July, the kind you could get out of a vending machine at the Forestdale Pool, the bottles slender and green, yanked out through the circular grate with a dull and violent clank. It had been a few months, maybe even a year, since I’d been back. The wind burned my ears. A stubby white Christmas tree made out of plastic sat on a dusty wooden table in the window. It was decorated with a dozen red poinsettias, synthetic as the tree. I wondered who painted the sign, wondered what they looked like.
A car alarm throbbed in the background. It began to sync up with the pulse beating through my cheeks and face against the shop window. My phone buzzed once in my pocket, then again. Two text messages in rapid succession. I tried to remember what was even on the menu that I could eat. Did they even have an actual salad you could order, or was it just a trio of fist-sized bowls filled with creamed corn and asparagus and boiled potatoes? It didn’t really matter, I would just eat a few rolls and drink coffee either way. The alarm shut off.
The phone buzzed in my pocket again. I leaned back from the window. There were three little cartoon kids standing on the last letter, pulling another one up by a thick brown brushstroke. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and looked down at it. Where r u? I looked at the sign. The car alarm started up again. The phone buzzed in my hand; incoming call from MOM. I looked at the little boy climbing on the letter in the sign. “SAVE OUR YOUTH,” it said.
Let me tell you a story.
It’s not the one about when you said my hair was ridiculously long and I said fine, cut it, and you called my bluff. I ended up on my knees leaning over the tub, giggling so hard I lost my breath, balancing a half-full aviation in my right hand while you jammed the clippers against my neck. You kept yelling THAR SHE BLOWS in like a Popeye voice, and hair kept getting in my cocktail, but of course I drank it anyway. We woke up with hair all over the pillows and I looked like I’d gotten in a fight with a bobcat.
It’s not the one where we met your childhood sweetheart on the side of the road outside Alligator. He’d texted and said he was back home, which meant he was sober, or at least off coke for a little while, and that he had a present for you, did we want to meet him, he was on his way down to deer camp. I wasn’t jealous because I always loved all your old boyfriends, I’d even been a little fond of your husband. I remember he bought me a shot when I saw him at W.C. Don’s one night after he finished that long slide from the bedroom to the couch to his buddy’s couch and back up Highway 61.
So when we made the drive down I didn’t mind and he was like all the rest, puffy in the face and carrying too much belly for somebody barely thirty but with a kind smile and lines around his eyes, just like me. We sat and talked about Ole Miss and how they were really going to suck this year, maybe even worse than last year, and after a little while he pulled the tarp back in the back of his Dodge and there was a case of Maker’s Mark, gleaming in the sun. There were two bottles gone—he said he took one, just in case he ever needed a little help, and he said the other one had gotten busted up when he got it from his buddy.
The case was made out of strips of thin white pine and the bourbon from the busted bottle had gotten all soaked up into the raw wood. We slid it into the back of the Tahoe and swear to God I thought we were gonna pass out from the fumes, until you said the only way to fight fire was with fire, and a few shots of Maker’s later we finally made it back to the house. You said you were going out with the girls and I said fine but there was no way I could hack it, and you kicked at me laying there on the bed, telling me to take off my shoes, and I threw them at you, trying to quote something Willie Morris said once about Mississippi women, but you were already gone, and I couldn’t remember it right anyway.
It wasn’t about the time we were at your momma’s house that Thanksgiving and I had the flu so bad I was shaking and you kept a cold compress on my head and read all the obituaries in the Commercial-Appeal to me in a funny voice, and made me a hot toddy, the smell of lemon sharp in my nose. Maybe it should be, maybe it should be. That might have been the sweetest you ever were to me, rubbing my hands down to the fingertips because you knew it made me sleepy, murmuring in my ear. It might have been the sweetest anyone has ever been to me.
It could have been the one about the wedding we went to that was somewhere outside of someplace, maybe Leland. I never got all the dang names and places straight. I mean I can get up and down the highways but I was always getting startled by beautiful names like Falcon and Darling and telling you we were going to move up there, buy a plantation in Minter City, we’d live off the credit cards until they were all cut off. Because we were going to a wedding we were in a fight, I had already gotten too drunk and you were fake mad that I was, and then I guess you talked yourself into getting real mad, and lit into me about how slow I was going. I told you we could pull the car over right then and live out of it, just shut it down right now, stake out a homestead, use the wheels as sinks and pull the backseat out for a couch. You finally smiled and rubbed your nose and sniffed and stared out the window. You reached over and poked me in the leg, patted my thigh until I placed my hand on yours. You said you’d rather die than live in Leflore County, mashed the button that slid back the sunroof, turned up the stereo, and croaked out “I kept fallin’ like a Rolling Stones song,” and squeezed my hand so tight it tingled.
It definitely wasn’t the time when we were headed to the condo in Florida and stopped in Mobile to get dinner, and I told you not to get the crab because it looked weird and gray, and you flipped me off and got the crab, and you threw up all night long so bad you couldn’t even sip down Gatorade, and we ended up staying the night in a Holiday Inn. In the morning you were still so mad at me for lording it over about you about the crab that you slapped the keys out of my hand and kicked at me like you some kind of feral child raised up by wolves, and got in the driver’s seat. When I told you we were going the wrong way you told me to shut up for once in my life, for Christ’s sake, and we headed right back up 98.
Let me tell you a story, I said.