So I wake up from a nightmare in which I'm perched on the hood on a 1978 blue Grand Am, and a fly enters my ear, and I can't reach it to remove it, while its wings beat furiously against my eardrum.
Then I let the dog out in a pouring rain, make some espresso and open the New York Times, immediately getting drawn into an article about whether the newly discovered portrait of Shakespeare is idealized and if, in reality, he looked more like Wallace Shawn. I suddenly realize the dog isn't scratching at the door, so I go to check on her, and, since she's blind, she's managed to get herself lost in the yard and is stumbling somewhere out among the wilds of the garden border. And looking puzzled. After multiple whistles, she makes it in, after running into a couple of solid objects. Luckily, her head seems to be her least vulnerable spot.
So I rescue her, make it through a couple articles about subprimes and derivatives and the history of economic downturns (yeah, I actually read that stuff), until it's time to delve into the New York Times book review section for relief and to find out what my fellow writers are up to. The main article is basically about what a huge alcoholic twat John Cheever was, while being an abundantly talented writer, and I'm still never going to look as dashing as he did in the article's photograph, in which he looks very depressed indeed. By the time I'm at the end of it, I feel oddly like I need a Scotch on the rocks. Single malt, thank you. Followed up by a review of a new spy novel that makes me think the new piece I'm working on is complete junk and that I'm fooling myself that it'll actually make a play, and it'll end up being another one of those goddamn things you write until a real idea comes along.
Then I manage to get down another espresso, shower, and dress in the clothes I wore yesterday, and I'm sitting on the couch, putting on my socks and shoes (noting both socks have holes), and thinking: Christ, some mornings, simply waking up is a heroic act.
This is (mostly) Mead Hunter's fault, but he responded to one of those questionnaires about the "15 albums that changed your life" and it's like...oh man...I'm doomed to pick up such a thread. I'm just going to do 10 because otherwise I'd go nuts.
Here goes...keeping in mind this is my life and not meant as any kind of critical review. And not necessarily in order...just as they came to me.
1. The Rolling Stones: "Hot Rocks." Naturally, me and the boys. "Exile on Main Street" is still my favorite Stones album, I love the "great four" that stretch from "Beggars Banquet" to "Exile" (and include the unforgettable "Let It Bleed" and the album that seemed to represent the darkest and strangest of my New York days, "Sticky Fingers"). But this one was my constant companion as a lonely, probably too bright kid burning up the backroads of Southern Oregon, and it led me to the blues and jazz, for which even "Emotional Rescue" and "Dirty Work" can be forgiven.
2. The Doors: "The Doors." Psychedelics, revolution, Vietnam...did I mention psychedelics? It was all here in one shot, and it would have been epic if they'd never done another album. (Not the worst advice, though "Strange Days" was pretty good.) Sad to say, I'm still a sucker for "The End"...even writing about it makes me want to put it on...but "Break On Through," "Soul Kitchen," and "Journey to the End of the Night" (which led me into a lost period of reading Celine and Norman O. Brown, you bastards) are wonders.
3. Jefferson Airplane: "Surrealistic Pillow." Have I mentioned drugs yet? There's so much to love on this album, even when it's stupid. Mostly, it was a fond look back on an era I was just old enough to taste the end of but too young to be completely drawn into. And one of my most cherished memories is riding on a warm summer's night in 1967 in my cousin's convertible in the hills above San Diego, the city below a sheet of diamonds on the velvet, bordered by dark ocean, with "Somebody to Love" bursting fresh from the AM radio.
4. Beethoven: "Ninth Symphony." When my peers were listening to, uh, Foghat, I was down with the deaf German. Probably a more dangerous role model than the rock gods, but, my God, the "Ninth" is just the whole universe, isn't it?
5. Miles Davis: "Bitches Brew." Who could imagine? Who could still imagine? Davis opened the door to vistas you can explore for the rest of your life. "Kind of Blue" is still a masterpiece, but "Bitches Brew" is just the greatest, unholy mess imaginable. The only reason I don't include a Hendrix album on this list is that Hendrix, though he doesn't play a note on this album, is all over it.
6. The Clash: "London Calling." At one point and time, this was the most important music being made. At least for a bunch of us. Though it seemed all elbows and knees, it was, at heart, as smart as it was powerful. Plus one the of greatest album covers ever (in the days when you could hang an album jacket on your wall for art).
7. R.E.M.: "Life's Rich Pageant." R.E.M. had already produced wonderful albums, but this one seemed to be some kind of jagged peak, a manifesto, energetic, mysterious, and hopeful at a time when all three were in short supply.
8. Tom Waits: "Rain Dogs." Ramshackle, jangling, booziness in the back streets of New Orleans, New York, Singapore, wherever, in an eternal twilight of junk store craziness, come ons, hard luck stories, and broken hearts. An album you want to throw your arm around and clink bottles with. And mind movies to last a lifetime.
9. Bob Dylan: "Soundtrack from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid." What? No "Blonde on Blonde?" "Blood on the Tracks?" Well, of course. It's just this slight but moving collection of jams put a spell on me that ties, I think, to growing up in the West, in the country (and not some country-and-western bullshit country, but the real thing), and feeling the land as a part of your soul.
10. U2: "The Joshua Tree." A personal selection, really. There's greater music out there, but this came at a time when I was changing, when I was leaving New York and setting out for New Orleans, and soon would end up back in the Northwest, broke and starting over, and its echoing catalogue of empty spaces, nameless roads, and painful longing gave me a place to go to feel both promise and loss. Plus wonderful production values from Mr. Daniel Lanois, genius.
If I go into "honorable mentions" I'd be here for days, but just a couple need to be mentioned: Neil Young's "Rust Never Sleeps"; Elvis Costello's "My Aim is True" and "Armed Forces"; Dire Straits "Love Over Gold"; Nirvana's "Nevermind"; Ry Cooder's "Soundtrack for Paris, Texas"; Warren Zevon's "Excitable Boy"; Ride's "Nowhere"; Johnny Cash's "Live from Folsom Prison"; B.B. King's "Watermelon Blues"; John Lee Hooker & Miles Davis "Soundtrack from The Hot Spot"; Marianne Faithfull's "Broken English"; Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Robert Cray "Showdown!"; and, of late, My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless."
So I'm in that puppy love stage with the new Canon G10 and kind of wanted to test its resolution and quality under optimum conditions; so I figured I might as well mix it with my other recent passion in the arts and photograph my Stratocaster. (It doesn't move around much or complain that I'm taking too long setting up the shot.) Anyway, at the moment I'm very pleased with both.
Last night, as you were brushing your teeth and setting your alarm for this morning and kissing your children goodnight after telling them stories, as you were perhaps sipping a glass of wine in a darkened room and looking out under the streetlight as the rain lay its breath upon the spring buds of fruit trees days away from blooming, and perhaps as you listend to a Chopin etude and felt the long trail of memory pull at you--those gone before, now lost in the dark, and those to come--who the Pole tells you, through his carefully phrased notes, that those past and future were and will be just as anxious and feeling and questioning as you are now, facing for the untold time the question not only what life is but why it matters....
...the Oregon State House of Representatives voted your soul away.
Days before, the State Senate voted to take $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust and move it to the general fund to make up for a budget shortfall. No doubt the money will pay for some worthwhile, needed programs (and some less noble purposes backed by well-monied lobbies). Competiting priorities are not the point here, though that's how the lawmakers will try to cover their duplicity. The point is: that money was not theirs to spend.
It was donated by Oregonians, for Oregonians, to provide a life raft for the arts in turbulent times--times exactly like those we face. It was not gathered by taxation but by choice. It has been, to cut to the bone, not reappropriated but stolen.
In an effort to lure people to the state--to spend their money on our symphonies, museums, and theatres as well as to visit our natural wonders--a slogan was devised: Oregon, it's different here.
Well, sorry, but it's not. It's drearily the same as elsewhere the arts are considered a pretty accessory to be hocked when inconvenient. At a time when people are losing everything and asking themselves whether life really is worth living, the state legislature--House and Senate--has squandered a means to answer that question. They may as well have traded your love and the love of your children's children for thirty pieces of silver. If politicians such as Margaret Carter don't feel unspeakably filthy, they should:
"There are those who are whining all over the place about 'you cut this and you cut that,' " she said, wiping away mock tears during a speech on the Senate floor. "The fact is that we had to cut. That's why I call this the shared cut and shared responsibility model."
Anybody who can equate betrayal of the public trust with "shared responsibility" has long lost their moral compass and, with it, the authority to define equanimity. But note that we speak of the mock tears of public servants. As such, they serve at the public's pleasure. So learn how your state senator or representative voted, and, if they voted to plunder donated money from the Oregon Cultural Trust, when their canvassers call or knock on your door next spring, simply say, "March 5, 2009. Oregon Cultural Trust."
As I noted a couple days ago, I sent a strongly worded note to State Representative Ben Cannon about the Oregon legislature's plan to, uh..."steal" I believe is the right word...steal from Oregon Cultural Trust, and I thought I'd let you know what I've heard back....
Well. You know. Ah....how's the best way to put this? Hmm.
Nothing. I've heard nothing
But...he's probably busy. Or something. Else. Maybe he'll get back to me when he's done...with his bike ride! That's it. He's out biking! How silly of me. Take your time, Ben. I'll be right here. Waiting. You know, to see if you're going to vote for ripping off money people have donated specifically for the arts. It's not like it's about anything important. The arts. Like, you know, about anything people have sacrificed and dedicated their lives to. Stuff where, say, they work two or three jobs so they can eke out a few hours to do the thing they love. Shit, I mean, who even remembers, say, 500 hundred years ago, what any artists were doing? Ha! As if. Like that one, uh...oh damn. Shakespeare? Was that was the guy's name? (Sorry...I'm really just guessing here. Off the top of my head. It might have been Bacon or Johnson or something. The guy, you know, he wrote "A Midsummers..." ah...something or other. It had "summer" in it. Or was it "winter"? Maybe it was both.)
The main this is: no! Hell no! People don't remember any of that shit. They remember the important things. Like...you know, the name of the mayor of Stratford. England. Five-hundred years ago. Guy was, uh...his name was, uh...oh damn. It was on the tip of my tongue, I swear. I hate it when that happens.
Anyway, I'll just hang out here, Ben. Whenever you get back. Dried off. You know.
Hmm-hmm-umm. Hmm. Look. Pigeons. Flying around and stuff.
I'm going to make this short and to the point. I understand the State is facing a budget shortfall, but the Oregon Cultural Trust was designed as life raft for the arts in stormy seas; it was not designed to be the legislature's piggy bank. The money donated to that fund, particularly through the sale of license plates, was given with the understanding that the funds were to go soley to the arts, not to the general fund, and to use these funds as such would be more than a breach of trust between legislators and the public; it would be fraud.
The State Senate has authorized raiding the Cultural Trust fund, and now the vote comes to you in the House. If you vote to violate the trust of those who have willingly donated their hard-earned money to the arts, I will no longer consider you qualified to represent Oregon's interests in the House, and I promise I will campaign for and urge others to campaign for other qualified opponents when you face your next primary.
The Canon G10, a cult camera if there ever was one, is now mine. This being the Internet, it's hard to tell quality, but if you click on the image, you'll get a better idea, considering this was shot hand-held, pretty much on automatic, as a test.
This morning's New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn't break it down to this level, but my guess is there's also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)
So that's good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it's hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don't want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they're Americans, see things blow up.
But it's further grim news for those of us who can't forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it's sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: "Waiting on Sean Flynn" and "Liberation"; "Next of Kin" is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and "Depth of Field" is mired down in a structural writer's block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I'm intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).
Even I'm feeling it. Though I don't imagine I'll ever be accused of writing fluff--it's just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents...it's dark (but busy) in here, folks--I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I've kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there's usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I've also been playing with taking "genres"--such as the noir detective world--and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.
It's not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they're doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I'm an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It's not just Portland; I'm hearing this everywhere. Right now it's more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.
But, as recessions don't last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that'll challenge them. And, as we enter--for good or ill--a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you're not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I'm actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven't even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don't last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I'm doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I'm relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.
To my artist friends, especially those who don't live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you'll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It's not fun. It's scary. And it's going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don't last forever.
Steve Patterson has written over 50 plays, with works staged in Portland, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Tampa, and other U.S. cities as well as in Canada and New Zealand. His works include: Waiting on Sean Flynn, Next of Kin, Farmhouse, Malaria, Shelter, Altered States of America, The Continuing Adventures of Mr. Grandamnus, Bluer Than Midnight, Bombardment, Dead of Winter, and Delusion of Darkness. In 2006, his bittersweet Lost Wavelengths was a mainstage selection at Portland Center Stage's JAW/West festival, and, in 2008, won the Oregon Book Award (he also was an OBA finalist in 1992 and 2002). In 1997, he won the inaugural Portland Civic Theatre Guild Fellowship for his play Turquoise and Obsidian.