This World is Vaudeville
A Cautionary Tale, but Oh What Fun!
Song & Video by Joe Henderson
A Cautionary Tale, but Oh What Fun!
Song & Video by Joe Henderson
Fiction by Joe Henderson © 2015
The day a raggedy pair of old dirty underpants came flying through the window. This was back in the days when not everyone had screens, or the screens were missing for some reason. An era when, if the weather was hot and everyone’s windows were open, things from outside regularly flew inside: bugs, birds, hats, smells, small children, unwanted commentary on one’s lawn, home or wife; basically just a whole range of things you really didn’t want to experience.
One day we were sitting in grandma and grandpa’s parlor, fanning ourselves and saying things like, “It sure is hot, ain’t it?” and, “Sure is, but not as hot as that one August—1951, wasn’t it?” and so on, when we heard a peculiar sound, like an inner tube deflating. It was coming from outside.
“What on earth is that?” said grandma.
“I don’t know,” answered Aunt Effie. Then all of a sudden something came sailing through the window and landed with a plop on the floor, right in the middle of the room. Everyone jumped as if they’d gotten a shock.
“What in Sam Hill is that thing?” said grandpa.
“Don’t know,” said Uncle Ern, “but I don’t like the looks of it.”
“See what it is, grandpa,” said grandma.
“You see what it is,” replied grandpa, “You’re closer!”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said my mom. “Bob, get up and take a look at that thing—I’d do it but Joe’s on my lap.”
My dad grunted and pulled himself up off the sofa. Bending over the thing that landed on the floor, my dad peered down for a moment, kicked it with the toe of his shoe and shrugged.
“Looks like a pair of underpants,” he mumbled, and headed back to the sofa. This sent another shock through everyone present.
“Yes, underpants,” repeated my dad, settling back in. My sister laughed, and taking my cue from her, so did I. The word “underpants” was hilarious to us kids, one of those not-quite-dirty words that were on the list of words that you could say to make other kids laugh without getting in too much trouble. But the older people didn’t think it was funny at all. They were scandalized.
“Underpants?!” said Aunt Effie and Aunt Ina at the same time. “Why, I never!”
“Are you sure?” said my mom, pushing me onto the arm of the overstuffed chair she and I were sharing.
“I’m as sure as I can be without actually touching them,” muttered my dad, “And a very dirty, raggedy pair, too,” he added, scrunching up his nose.
“Let me see,” said my mom, sliding out the rest of the way so she, too, could have a look.
“My land!” mom cried out, “It is underpants—Bob, get those things out of here!”
“What?! They’re not mine, I don’t want to touch ’em!”
“Oh, here! Get me a stick or something,” said grandpa to grandma testily, “I’ll get ’em out of here.”
“A stick?” replied grandma, “Where am I gonna get a stick? You get a stick.” Grandpa muttered something not quite below the level of hearing and shambled off to the kitchen.
Meanwhile Uncle Ern got up and went to the window. “Now, who would throw a pair of underpants into somebody’s house?” he said, peering outside. “Something funny’s going on around here.”
“Yes, something funny,” agreed the chorus of aunts who nodded their heads solemnly, and my sister and I laughed again.
“Do you think somebody’s trying to tell us something?” Grandma asked worriedly.
“If they are, what is it they’re trying to tell us? That we’re slobs?” asked Uncle Ern.
“Well, if they are, it’s a very peculiar way to pass judgement on someone.”
“Elon! Did you mow the yard?!” hollered grandma to grandpa, who was still out in the kitchen. He said something from the far end of the house but we couldn’t make it out.
“Go out and see if that trash can’s covered up, too!” Grandma added, then she leaned over to Aunt Ina. “Last week Miss Ollie said to me in that icky sweet voice of hers that she ‘just loved it when all the bushes and yards in the neighborhood were kept nicely trimmed,’ that’s how she talks, you know, she says things in a roundabout way. Then she added, ‘and somebody’s been stealin’ my tomaters again—why do you think they’re doing that?’ I had the feeling she was blaming me for it somehow,” said grandma, looking at the window. Miss Ollie ran a boarding house next door to grandma and grandpa’s house, and her thick layer of rouge and eye makeup was a regular source of merriment for us.
“What are you trying to say, Tressie?” said Uncle Ern, “That these here are Miss Ollie’s underpants?”
“Land no! I’m – I don’t exactly know what I’m saying.”
“Well, I think I know,” said Uncle Ern. “That’s what happens when you gossip. It gets back to the party you’re gossipin’ about. Now look what’s happened,” he said pointing to the underpants.
“Do you honestly believe that Miss Ollie would stand out there and fling a pair of her underpants through our window?” asked grandma.
“No!” said Uncle Ern, “I’m saying one of her roomers, that family with all those kids heard Miss Ollie gossiping about us, saying the yard looks bad, the gutters are falling down, the shingles are coming off, the—”
“Okay, Ern!” said grandma. “That’s enough! You know Elon can’t get up on the ladder anymore and fix that stuff!”
“Yes, I know, but ‘Little pitchers got big ears,’ and they’re hearing the old folks over there gossiping about you, and then the kids go out and hook a pair of panties off the line, and the next thing you know, they’re sailing into your house!”
“But why in the world would they do that?”
“If their folks say disrespectful things about their neighbors, and the kids hear it, they’ve learned to disrespect the neighbors from their parents, and act out on it.”
Everyone looked at my sister and me. Sometimes we played with those kids, but not very much; they were sort of mean.
My sister said “Don’t look at me! I wouldn’t dare touch her old underpants!” Which made me laugh again.
Grandma said, “Of course you wouldn’t, honey, but . . .” My mom jumped in. “Grandma’s trying to say we know you and Joey wouldn’t do anything like that–you couldn’t have done it, anyway, you were sitting right here. But in the future, we just don’t want to have things we say in private repeated.”
My sister started to object, but right then grandpa came in the parlor with a garden hoe. He scooped the offending pair of panties up with it and swung them around, making everyone duck, and hoisting them high in the air like a fish he’d caught, trotted them off to the garbage can, muttering and growling all the way.
* * * *
A couple of days later, grandma was hanging laundry in the back yard. “Yoo hoo, Tressie!” Miss Ollie called to my grandma from across the hedge. “Did you happen to see anyone hanging around my backyard the day before yesterday? A pair of my good underwear disappeared off the line . . .”
An instrumental & a video to go with it.
“Albert P. Ryder ~ A Romance” Fictionalized biography by Joe Henderson © 2015
More attuned to creating dream-like paintings than attending to his own well being, Albert P. Ryder could be the model for the time-worn cliché of the bohemian artist. His clothes were old and dirty, he couldn’t throw anything away, and he left money and uncashed checks lying around in the trash that cluttered his studio apartment in late nineteenth century New York City.
But a bright shiny soul inhabited that unwashed body, and was animated by a love of poetry and Shakespeare, mythology and the Bible, as well as his New England fishing village upbringing on which he drew heavily to create a style of painting that has one foot in romanticism, the other in what is now considered a forerunner of modernism.
Visitors who entered Ryder’s dark cave of neglect would cringe at the incredible mess he lived in, until they became aware of the paintings, propped up or perched here and there on heaps of junk, shining out in the gloom like precious gems glowing with their own light.
As amazing as the paintings are they have always had a precarious existence. Ryder worked and reworked some paintings for years, and some of his bad housekeeping habits extended to a lack of skills when it came to correct painting methods and use of media.
In Ryder’s mind, any and all materials were fair game for use. He often mixed pigment with such unconventional media as alcohol, grease, kerosene, candle wax, asphalt, linseed oil, and some that have yet to be identified. If he wasn’t satisfied with the thick melange of media and pigment, he might scrape the whole mess down to canvas and apply a glaze, or scumble over another part to produce the effect he wanted. Sometimes he poured varnish directly onto wet oils then painted on top of the varnish, too impatient to wait for either layer to dry. These feral methods made for mysteriously beautiful paintings that began to self destruct almost immediately because the mix of materials dried at different rates, or some (like asphalt) did not dry at all, causing whole sections of a painting to slide around, or develop cracks where the still wet underlayer continues to bubble out to this day. Other paintings have darkened so over the years it’s difficult to see much detail at all.
But when the effect is so glorious, his methods have proved to be worth it, however fragile or ephemeral the painting is. For seldom has anyone quite matched the mystical grandeur of his Moonlight Marine series, or The Lone Horseman, Temple of the Mind, Moonlit Cove, Macbeth and the Witches, and many others. Thankfully, contemporary photographs were taken of some of his work so we get to see how Ryder’s more unstable paintings appeared around the time of their creation.
When he wasn’t wrestling with his materials, he would often take long walks in the moonlight through the streets of Chelsea or Greenwich Village, or on occasion go out with a tight circle of artist friends.
# # #
One night he had supped in a tavern with friends and lingered with them for hours, drinking beer and enjoying their company, until one by one, they bid him goodnight until he found himself alone. His head dropping to his chest, he fell asleep and found himself in a dream that picked up where the visit with his friends had left off, except they were now rambling along one of Ryder’s favorite country lanes outside his boyhood home of New Bedford. The talk was jolly and it was a beautiful day in autumn, with a pale blue sky framed by green fields and patterned by the golds and reds and browns of the trees. As the sun dropped below the horizon, the animating light he so adored in nature began to radiate from the earth, a dark living light that shimmered with roiling, gradating colors that could not be found at noonday.
As the twilight deepened the companions passed a clearing where a massive full moon could be seen rising between two clumps of dark green trees, lighting their edges like ripped cloth of burnished gold. Ryder stopped, arrested by this sight; in his imagination it looked like it could be a scene from some of his favorite poems, Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh or Kublah Khan by Coleridge, and other stories set in exotic places like Persia and Arabia. What a painting it would make! As Ryder’s mind swam with golden turrets gleaming in the moonlight, his companions went on down the road without him into the deepening dusk, singing a merry song.
Torn between staying and following his friends, Ryder was about to do the latter when a man and woman entered the clearing from opposite sides as if on a stage. They stopped and faced one another about a dozen feet apart, stood still for a moment then ran together, colliding in a passionate embrace with Ryder watching wide eyed as they kissed and tore at each others clothing. Suddenly a woman’s voice rang out in the distance, calling a man’s name. The man jerked his head in the direction of the voice and pushed the woman away, holding her at arm’s length for a moment then released her and ran back the way he’d come, casting a look over his shoulder as he disappeared.
Left behind by her lover, the woman covered her face with her hands and wept.
Ryder felt himself trembling with rage. He didn’t like how that so-called man had abandoned his lover just because someone had called his name, the coward. He wanted to run up and take her in his arms and comfort her, but being a stranger knew he would only frighten her.
She reminded him of a young woman who lived in his building, who practiced her cello in the evenings and had played so sweetly one night that Ryder had completely lost his head and ran down to her room and proposed marriage to her on the spot. The cellist had turned him down of course, saying she was betrothed to a captain in the navy. Ryder, coming to his senses, had apologized profusely for the intrusion then stumbled back to his dreary room in shame. The incident had happened several months before, but the embarrassment he’d experienced was still fresh.
Ryder looked down at his clothes and rough appearance and frowned, shaking his head. What woman would want to be with the likes of you, anyway? he asked himself. A raggedy painter of fairy tales!
A loud sob came from the woman again, and Ryder clenched his fists; he must comfort her, and not be like the faithless lover who had bailed out when things got difficult! If only he were someone she already knew, someone more presentable, then maybe she wouldn’t be frightened of him—a man like the cellist’s navy captain perhaps? Or even the man she had just embraced? If he were to suddenly return right then and beg her forgiveness for running off, she might be so happy to see him come back again she would forgive him and fall into his arms, and then they could continue where they left off in that holy place of golden green trees, shining like domed Islamic turrets in the moonlight. Lalla Rookh again popped to mind.
The story was about a caliph who disguises himself as a poet and accompanies his betrothed on a long journey to the place where they were to be wed, telling stories to his unwitting bride to wile away the hours, then revealing himself in the end as her husband-to-be. Ryder warmed to this idea; perhaps he, too, could pose as the woman’s lover in disguise. The problem was, he wasn’t sure how he could pull off such a ruse out there in the woods, even if he wanted to; in order to look like the man who ran away, he would have to lose 50 pounds and shave his beard!
What are you trying to do? Ryder muttered to himself, shaking his head. Such a charade, even if it were possible, couldn’t last because sooner or later she would find out he was an imposter. And any love she might feel for him would have been meant for someone else.
He finally decided to just try approaching her as a concerned bystander. But by the time he opened his mouth to speak, she was gone.
All at once the moon-soaked woodland scene that had so enthralled him before now seemed empty and cold without her in it. The emptiness was too hard to bear. Treating the scene before him as a prepared canvas with the background already laid in, he reached for his brushes and paints to begin working, but try as he may he couldn’t seem to find them.
Desperate to get the images that were pouring into his head onto canvas, Ryder reached up with his index finger and scooped up the bright creamy area in the middle of the moon and daubed in the woman’s face and body, then sampled the darker colors from the trees and leaves with his finger nail and laid in her features, and the entire scene became his palette.
As he worked, he marveled at the feel of his finger-brush on the canvas of air and how the figures seemed to appear effortlessly. What a feeling it was! He tenderly refined the shape and contour of the woman’s body, trying to paint her how he remembered her, but at some point he realized he was turning the woman into his cello player. And she was naked.
He blushed down to his toes. His paintings had featured nudes before, like his Dancing Dryads who danced without a stitch of clothing, but that had seemed perfectly in line with classical literature and a long tradition of historical art. This, however, seemed like it was verging on voyeurism, wish fulfillment. Ryder shook his head. Naked women could be had for a price down on 4th Street; he wanted a woman he could share his life with.
Sampling the golden light on the leaves, he covered the woman in a long, sumptuous robe.
He added some shadings on her face, then stepped back several feet, and tilting his head to one side, he looked long at the painting and smiled. Not bad—not too bad at all.
He decided to leave her for now and try blocking in the figure of the unfaithful lover in the act of returning. Since he’d turned the woman into his cello player, why not place himself in the picture as well? He started to do this, but it made him feel self-conscious. He had an idea; instead of making the figure into his own image, why not depict himself as the caliph disguised as the poet from Lalla Rookh in the act of revealing himself to his bride to be? It would be tricky to do, but he liked the challenge.
With his tongue sticking out the corner of his mouth Ryder set to work creating the figure who was supposed to be him in several layers of disguise. He painted and painted, and painted some more, and at some point he glanced back at the female figure and gasped. She seemed to be staring back at him like a living person.
“You’re lonely—aren’t you?” he said, speaking for her. He imagined that she looked at him with pity.
“Yes, I am very lonely,” he answered, addressing her by the cellist’s name.
She shook her head. “You have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Nourmahal, and I am betrothed to a caliph.”
“No, no,” said Ryder, trying to take her in his arms. “I am your caliph, I am the one to whom you are betrothed.”
“No!” she cried, and he took a step back as if Nourmahal had pushed him away in distress. “You are a poet who spins beautiful tales—I admit I am attracted to you, but I have sworn to marry my caliph.”
Struck by the peculiar irony of this, Ryder stared at her open-mouthed for a moment. He tried to tear off his poet’s disguise to show her who he really was, but his hands were thwarted by the flat surface of the canvas. Out of desperation he gripped hold of the scene and tore it from its moorings in the sky, and the light of the moon on the lovers in the woods blinked out like someone had hit an off switch.
This shocked him so badly the painting slipped from his hands and dropped to the floor.
Falling to his hands and knees, Ryder stared at the canvas. Without its living light the scene was flat and cold as a corpse. What happened? It had been so good just moments before! Tears sprung to his eyes.
He tried desperately to sample the moon again, but he couldn’t seem to scoop its light onto his finger the way he’d done before, or from anywhere else on the painting. It was as if the paint had dried! How could this be? Hadn’t he just been painting with it?
Tears streamed down his face and onto the canvas. He was about to give up in despair when one large tear dropped directly onto the woman’s face, and—something happened. The tear created a lensing effect that gave her face an interesting sort of grainy opalescence, creating colors that could only be found in moonlight or in the oblique rays of sundown.
He needed more tears! Ryder got very excited; oils didn’t ordinarily mix with watery tears, but maybe he’d been living and sleeping and wallowing in his media for so long, his tears had varnish in them from long exposure!
He dredged up every sadness he could think of, the long lonely years of working in isolation to bring his visions to life, trying to create something beautiful, foregoing personal happiness, wife, children and family, giving up everything for his art until the tears poured out of him and onto the canvas in a wave that roiled and rippled and glimmered in its own light like a briny moonlit ocean that he and his lover could sail away on.
Mopping his face with his sleeve, he grabbed up the canvas, and being careful not to let the medium of tears stay on too long, he tipped it from side to side several times for even coverage, then poured it off and set it down to dry.
After time passed he saw that the effect had taken, and it looked glorious!
Ryder sat back on his haunches, exhausted, warming himself in the glow of satisfaction of having successfully portrayed what he’d set out to create. Then his eyes began to stray; he looked around in confusion at his paint-smeared hands and broken furniture, and in the bleak light of morning he realized he was at home, in the cluttered mess of his apartment. He had no memory of how he he’d gotten there from the tavern—or when—but somehow he did, and he’d made something beautiful: a painting of two people enshrouded in the mystery of love. And there it was, in all its shimmering, mystical glory. The light he’d captured in it was especially fine, he noted happily; he must use that method again! Then suddenly feeling very tired, Ryder got up and started to stagger off to his poor excuse of a bed, when he stopped and turned around, fixing his eyes on the figure of the caliph in the painting.
“She told me she was attracted to me,” he whispered, grinning from ear to ear.
# # #
The location of Ryder’s Lallah Rookh is unknown.
Sources: Albert Pinkham Ryder, Painter of Dreams by William Innes Homer & Lloyd Goodrich; Wikipedia.
August 23, 1999.
Hello, this is Idaho Orange, coming to you from a resplendent three-story tower on the North Side of Chicago, where I inhabit a cluttered apartment in the Largesse Housing Project for Artists.
Just why I call myself Idaho Orange, I will explain another time. Right now I am behooved–isn’t the devil behooved? Well, I am behooved to tell you about this place I live in, an old Brewery complex built right after the Chicago Fire of 1871. The Brewery went out of business a long time ago, but in the early 1970’s, a former alderman bought the buildings and converted them into a housing project for artists. I came to Chicago a little while after that, hit some hard times and through the grace of God and good friends found my way here. I had a number of other adventures before I got to Chicago, which I would like to tell you about sometime, but right now this peculiar place I live in is on my mind.
All the buildings in Largesse stand on a spiral-shaped road named Blaise Boulevard, which you enter from the south on Addison Avenue, go around and round till you see a pretty green park with a hill in the middle, which you then spiral around in the opposite direction until you exit on Irving Park Road in the north. Nothing quite like it I’ve ever seen anywhere else.
Chicago has all these neighborhoods, Rogers Park, Pilsen, Englewood, Bridgeport. This particular neighborhood is called Lakeview, but the precinct I live in has a long tortured history of being coveted by greedy aldermen and devious developers, which are often one and the same . . . Forever treated like a political football, the Largesse precinct has bounced back and forth between neighboring wards for over a hundred years because of the Ehrenman-Zwitter Brewery that was built here, an architectural wonder, and apparently a money powerhouse for whoever controlled it, until it went bust in the 1950s. In the late ’60s, the alderman whose family controlled it at that time was disgraced by extramarital activities, got booted out of office, allowing his long time rival to briefly get hold of it, until the alderman next door had the ward map redrawn yet again, and now Largesse is back in his ward. Is that enough for you to chew on for awhile? Oh, and by the way this place is haunted. Or something. Maybe “haunted” isn’t the right word. Possessed, maybe? That isn’t right either; possession implies “evil,” and I don’t think that’s true of this place, despite the machinations of its politicians. It’s something else altogether, maybe you can tell me.
Here’s an example of what I mean. I started to take out my garbage the other day when I happened to look at it, and was amazed at how interesting, how aesthetic it looked, striking me as perfect, the perfect combination of elements placed just right, just so—the banana peel next to a crushed tomato can, next to a pile of coffee grounds dotted with egg shells and haloed with a spiral of orange peels. You may not think garbage can look good or even artistic, but it did.
At some point I began obsessing over my garbage, and would catch myself standing near the garbage can and staring at it at various times during the day. The inner parts of the egg shells with their scooped out shadows became eyes, the orange peel a mouth, a rotten potato the nose, the skin of the face a wad of paper towels. The more I stared at it, the more I realized it had become “garbage man.” Well, actually, Garbage Face. No matter what kind of garbage I had, no matter how carelessly I flung the trash into the garbage can, it always turned into a face. And there was something in the garbage that spoke, or muttered, really. I tried not to listen.
Bill Kreckman, A Dear Friend, has Died.
He was a man who some have said
was an “ornery old cuss,”
But I can honestly say
that I knew him well
And I know that there was more
to Bill Kreckman than most people knew
When we met in the fall of 1969
we were about as different as two people could be
but early on we realized we had at least one thing in common:
we were both outcasts
Two messed up teenagers
left out, kept out, pushed out, uncool, two fools
never quite in synch with anyone or anything else
utterly mystified by how the world worked
missing some important part of the puzzle
that everyone else seemed to have figured out
But outcasts tend to find one another
And as fellow outcasts, we helped each other
through the gauntlet of high school
I remember someone at the time asking me
“How can you hang out with someone like that?”
He was bad news, they said, someone headed for bad things
I suspected that they were probably right
but our commonality trumped everything else
Everyday after school we sat in his parents’ kitchen
before they got home from work
listening to his Steppenwolf and Black Sabbath records,
or WLS AM radio,
drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes
& talking about how rotten the world was
while drawing a cartoon story we passed back and forth,
trying to convince ourselves
how glad we were that we didn’t fit in.
We liked all the usual music at the time,
Jimi Hendrix, Stones, Beatles, CCR, Janis Joplin,
as well as the odd single
that caught our ear on the radio,
like “Little Green Bag,” or “Spirit in the Sky,”
and Frijid Pink’s version of “House of the Rising Sun”
But early on we realized
we were both drawn to quirky music
recorded by weird, edgy people
Stuff that made most other people say
“Yewww! What’re you listening to?”
Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa,
Iggy & the Stooges, Velvet Underground,
Roxy Music (the stuff with Eno), The Sex Pistols, and so on
from the late ’60s through the ’70s & ’80s and onward
We began a race
to turn each other onto bands
and performers we’d discovered on our own
or through my friend Steve, or
our mutual friend Gary Matthews
But for both of us,
it was the classic Blues
and old time Country guys
that really did it for us,
records made by people like
Leadbelly, Hank Williams,
Big Bill Broonzy, Buddy Guy,
John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters,
Howling Wolf, J.B. Hutto,
Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson
Hound Dog Taylor,
and last but certainly not least,
If Bill had a religious impulse at all,
a sense of the holy,
it was articulated for him
by those old Blues songs,
like when Muddy sang
“There’s two trains running,
and neither run my way,
one runs at midnight,
the other just before day”
or when Beefheart sang
his tangled vegetative portraits
of sonic beasts in motion,
perfectly expressing both his
and Bill’s true religion:
Bill loved & respected Nature
maybe more than anyone I know
even though I think he may have doubted Nature
included human beings
(or maybe other human beings)
And I know Bill never felt as good or at home
in this world as he did when he was wandering
far afield, or in the woods, lost in the
embrace of lonely spaces
He loved animals, especially his little Cat,
and greeted Spring each year
like the return of an old friend
& he loved the Earth like a lover,
just so long as She didn’t expect him
to make a big deal about it on Valentine’s Day
He was his own creation
a wholly original person,
untrained in music or art,
and other skills,
like carpentry or car repair
but he never let lack of formal training
stop him from doing whatever
he took a mind to do
If he needed a chair
he made it out of discarded wooden skids;
If he had to replace his spark plugs
or put in a gas pump,
or fix his brakes, he did it himself
He once built an entire fence from
old railroad ties, and a beautiful china cabinet
from wood he bought at Walmart
He only took one art class in high school,
didn’t know Van Gogh from a Chevy Van
but with a style that was completely his own,
could draw or paint
whatever subject was on his mind,
usually something or someone
that he admired
or had pissed him off
with a desire to
pay them homage
or to exorcise them
from his mind and soul,
a primitive impulse
that savages and artists embody
Whatever he needed to do
he would invent a way to do it
and make it his own
I remember when he decided to take up guitar
He never learned how to play
the way people usually do,
with chords & charts & scales,
he just played
And if he didn’t know how to play a song
that never stopped him from playing it anyway
which I admit could be really annoying
until I relaxed and quit fighting it
and just played, too
It didn’t always sound very good
(I have the tapes to prove it)
but sometimes (again with the help of our friend Gary Matthews)
we hit the Good Groove,
that elusive THING that can’t be repeated or pinned down,
but you know it when you hear it
(I have the tapes to prove it)
One of the few things he ever copied outright was
that famous Elmore James riff, which he could do to a ‘T’
but everything else he made up on the spot
& I swear to this day
that I have never heard anyone else
get the sound he could make
with just an electric guitar and a Silvertone amp
He could do lots of things
with natural ease, but
when it came to telling you
he cared about you
that seemed to be a bit harder for him to do
If you glanced around you, though
and took another look
at the bookcase he’d made, just for you,
or the cassettes or CDs
he’d meticulously recorded
of rare old Blues and Country & Western songs,
just for you
the notion would dawn
that there’s other ways
to say the words
that the mouth won’t form
I’m sorry that difficult people have to die
before you can say you love them
But I did love him like a brother
and brothers fight, sometimes bitterly
I could also say I loved him
because of who he was
and what he could do
But who he was, and some of the things he did,
could also be the reason we fought
I loved it that he
wasn’t afraid to do some
spur-of-the-moment crazy idea
that he or someone else had
But some of these things could also get you into trouble
and to be his friend you needed
to be ready to accept the consequences
and take the bad times in stride
because the good times
were so good
Did he hurt friends and family? Yes
Was he a big pain in the ass sometimes? Oh, yeah
There were times when his closest friends
and family couldn’t stand it anymore
and had to take a break from him.
But there is a tight circle of people
who bonded with Bill down in their souls
and a bond like that
A bond that couldn’t be broken
even if you were really, really mad at him.
With Bill in time the bad memories
faded into stories you tell
and make room
for better memories
to come back
like rain after a long dry spell
and the good times flood your mind
like magical tales of olden days
you actually got to take part in
Like the time we pulled up
to a drive-through liquor store window
and barked and howled like rabid dogs
at the terrified guy behind the counter
then drove off laughing
Or the day we took my Dad’s ’68
Chevy to go fishing
above the main dam on Lake Decatur
with two other friends
& hit a pothole on the access road
which threw out the transmission linkage
and stuck the car in reverse
and we drove all the way
to the Shell station in reverse
crossing Highway 51 in traffic
with Bill looking out
for other cars (and cops)
But one of my favorite memories
was the time Bill & I were out walking in a farmer’s field
south of Decatur, and he just reached down
and picked up something,
which turned out to be
a six-inch Indian spearhead
artfully carved from white flint, perfectly balanced
and as deadly a weapon
as it was a beautiful work of art,
created centuries before
when it probably had been used to bring down a bear,
or a deer, or an enemy.
And he’d just plucked it up out of the dirt clods
like it was a cigarette he’d dropped
Bill may have been hard to deal with sometimes
but truly original people are hard to deal with
And Bill Kreckman was a True Original,
and a Dear Friend,
lost to this world
one heart-breakingly beautiful day in early June.
* * * *
Bill liked to memorize Beefheart’s songs
off of Troutmask Replica, like “Old Fart at Play,”
and “Well,” and there was another one he really
liked that I couldn’t remember the name of.
I wanted to include it here, so went on Youtube
to try to find it, and was shocked to find that
the one I couldn’t remember was named “Bill’s Corpse.”
It brought back a memory of saying to Bill one time
after he recited it for me,
“Doesn’t that creep you out, a song title that?”
He said, no, not really. He said he liked the line:
“The only way they ever all got together,
was not in love but shameful grief,”
and said that was pretty much how he felt about funerals.
Bill’s Corpse, by Captain Beefheart
Quietly the rain played down on the last of the ashes
Quietly the light played down on her lashes
She smiled ‘n twisted, she smiled ‘n twisted
Hideously looking back at what once was beautiful
Playing naturally magically
O’ her ragged hair was shinin’ red white and blue
All and all the children screamin’
Why surely madam you must be dreamin’
You couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doin’
When the gold fish in the bowl lay upside down bloatin’
Full in the sky in the plains were bleached with white skeletons
Various species grouped together
According to their past beliefs
The only way they ever all got together
Was not in love but shameful grief
It’s not the way I’d like it to get together
That’s not the kind of thoughts I’d like to keep
The rain played lightly down down on the formal heap
O’ lady look up in time
O’ lady look out of love
And you should have us all
O’ you should have us fall
Ode to an Autumnal Equinox 2013 © Joe Henderson
Oh, Summer girl, basted in oil
& cooked in August’s oven
you stand before Autumn’s mirror
& gaze at the first signs of frost
Your mother’s face looks back
& you both smile, a little weary
your hair wreathed in oak leaves
Oh, shed that green dress
& put on red, purple and yellow
You look so nice & cool
as cool rains run rivelets through
you cup to drink
then let it go, you cup again
& the rains end
As evening approaches the skies clear
a blue black purple light dark as night
that lifts clear from the edges of the earth
streaking the dome above
with luminous webs
One flares out directly overhead,
Cygnus, the Bird of Heaven
Or is it the Great Northern Cross?
What will it be called
ten centuries hence
when standing stone
& church alike are covered
Like this ode to an Autumnal Equinox
Music & Lyrics by Joe Henderson, Stephen Foster
You lay half asleep
trying to get back to a dream
you were having
just a few z’s & x’s ago
while a cockroach, also snoozing
inside the wall by your head
shares that dream, a dream that is now
mixed up with
strange characters & scenes
from both your brains
Meanwhile 2 million light years away
a being wriggles it’s protoplasm
half in his dimension,
half in yours & the cockroach’s
where he is pleasantly shocked
by the parade of unknown creatures
who are engaged in acts of carnal delight
with such intensity & abandon
His enthusiasm blows open a door
into the DC comics universe
where a naked Lois Lane
bolts upright in bed
next to Bizarro Batman
who frowns in his sleep
happily confused he mutters
“me dream ugly things”
Dream me dreaming you dreaming me dreaming you dreaming me
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me
Giotto di Bondone
Lyrics & Music by Joe Henderson
Copyright © 2012
Before Giotto di Bondone
people had to fool themselves
there was little illusion in art
there was little or no depth
in any painting or drawing
except crude attempts
or an occasional glimpse
on a two dimensional surface
There was no systematic method
no mathematical strictures
for placing a human figure
inside real looking structures
but Giotto was the First
to use an algebraic formula
to create the illusion of a room
in which Caiphas sealed the doom of Jesus
It wasn’t a perfect rendering
lacked a recursive ratio
but it was close enough
& his painting recreated a scene
from a well known story
that lived in mediaeval minds
that had only existed
in the drama of words
as repeated by a priest
or as read from the Book
Giotto pushed in on the canvas
& punctured that two-point perspective
& a new space appeared
where only flat surface had been
& some called it magic
Some called it a miracle
& others called it witchcraft
by those who suffered stagnation
of the imagination
Today some might say
he put a fiction inside an illusion
but others might equally say
don’t you step on my symbols
This is not the actual Jesus
but it is the truth
this isn’t really a room
with Jesus in it
Okay, then why do we say
“There’s Jesus” when we see it?
and the knees of Caiphas
while rounded in fabric
look like they could be grabbed
I wouldn’t do it if I were you
the docent is watching
Giotto di Bondone was a painter, sculptor and architect whose work singlehandely initiated the Rennaisance. Working from around 1290 to the year of his death in 1337, Giotto sharply departed from the Byzantine way of depicting Christ and other religious figures in favor of the more lifelike, naturalistic style that he ordained. Not to put down the Byzantines—to the modern eyes, their elongated forms and stylized features are stylistic forerunners of illustration and cartoon. But in Giotto’s hands, Jesus, the Apostles, Mother Mary and Mary Magdalen became real human beings who had weight and form, wore real clothes and expressed human emotions, instead of the remote, otherworldly figures that had characterized religious art for hundreds of years.
Giotto is also one of the first European artists to use a system for determining linear perspective in his work, purportedly using an algebraic formula to lay out his paintings.
One of the earliest examples is “Jesus before the Caif,” which portrays the biblical scene of Caiaphas tearing his robe upon hearing Jesus’ blasphemy, a painting rich in color and drama.
In 1305, while Giotto was working on another masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel fresco, Dante Alighieri stopped by. Giotto was already famous by this time and Dante wanted to meet the great artist who continued to paint while they visited, with Giotto’s children playing underneath the artist’s scaffolding. As they spoke, Dante couldn’t help noting to himself how homely Giotto’s children were. No longer able to restrain himself, Dante finally asked the artist, “How can a man who paints such beautiful pictures create such—plain children?” To which Giotto replied, “It’s my own fault—I made them in the dark.”
Just then a ragged old woman who cleaned the chapel came bumping by with a broom. Pushing a strand of filthy hair out of her face, she stopped and stared at the finished portion of the panel Giotto had been working on, The Last Judgement, where the figure of Satan sat in Hell, swollen huge from the lost souls he was shoveling into his maw like so many chocolates.
The broom clattered to the floor as the woman crossed herself, a look of horror spreading over her face. “Oh, my Lord! That’s, that’s—it’s a monstrosity to show such things! It’s—he’s—too real! Oh, my Lord!” She pointed at Giotto, who stared back in mute surprise. “You! You horrible thing! You’ve conjured up the Devil by doing this—Oh! I shouldn’t say his name! He’s already here!!”
As the old woman turned and ran from the chapel, the two men collapsed in laughter.
But later that day as Dante returned home, he no longer felt like laughing. The look of horror on the old woman’s face haunted him as he traveled along, and he began to wonder if maybe she’d been right. Were Giotto’s skills too good? Had his considerable abilities been acquired through some unholy bargain? How else could he so accurately illustrate what men had only seen in nightmares?
Some years later, when Dante was writing his Divine Comedy, he knew Giotto would have a place in it somewhere, but exactly where was a question with which he’d wrestled for months. In the end he had to flip a coin to decide whether or not to place Giotto in the company of other artists and saints in one of the highest rings of heaven, or consign him to one of the lowest circles of hell where souls were tormented for all time.
Source information on Byzantine Art, Giotto & Dante story: Wikipedia
Fictionalized by Joe Henderson