In 2021 Open City you`ll find the final – tempting fate I know, sorry – installment in Dennis Kane`s captivating quartet of New York COVID chronicles. Concluding two years of bad ass bulletins from the Big Apple – plus some cracking, cracking, film and book reviews.
All words, selections, and NYC at night photos care of Dennis Kane.
The change happens seemingly in a day. I hear for the first time in over a year the whirring of traffic helicopters (aren’t there drones? GPS?) hovering as they observe the FDR drive and the bridges to Brooklyn. If this were night, it would be the NYPD in pursuit mode, their sound accompanied by the shifting beams of search lights. The copters linger for minutes, I can’t see them, but their rumble is thunderous, sometimes several will overlap, and the volume builds and echo’s, at one point it sounds like they are right outside my window, and then instantly they evaporate into the distance. You hear traffic again, blaring horns, cars with blown out bass bins emitting auto-tuned sounds, somewhere nearby a jack hammer is meeting asphalt, this is all before I’ve gotten out of bed. This hasn’t been normal for some time. New York City was quiet long enough that one grew unselfconsciously accustomed to the silence.
Mu has vanished, Delta recedes, now it is Omicron, more variants will come. This is our new normal, living with viral contagion just like we are coping with tsunamis, fires, flooding, draught, and melting ice caps. That doom scented science fiction future seems to have arrived, if it hasn’t entered the house fully, it has declaratively kicked open the front door.
In America, Democracy is under siege, and being dismantled state by state, as gerrymandering, challenges to voting rights, and a partisan Supreme Court attempts to sway rule, for a small wealthy minority. Deeply arresting, is that the most vocal base for this minority, are poor, poorly educated, mostly white people, who will be far worse off if those swindling them succeed.
The forlorn right-wing maniacs who loved Trump, (the people corporate liberals forgot about), resist rational modernity, and states like Florida and Texas are going out of their way to help the virus incubate and flourish – this is madness. America which has an ample supply of vaccine doses and had it first on a mass level, has now fallen behind Japan to the lowest vaccination rate of all the G-7 countries. The loud minority are anti-vax, anti-mask, anti-science, anti-democracy, and anti-adulthood. The have enablers, disinformation broadcasters like Joe Rogan, Alex Jones, (a large coterie of right-wing talk show hosts – many of whom have subsequently died from COVID) and internet trolls, like reactionary biologist Bret Weinstein. People are advocating a horse de-wormer, instead of a proven, tested, and free effective vaccine. The scenes of overweight, misinformed, unbalanced parents screaming at doctors and teachers is not just sadly heartbreaking, but, as one researcher whose job it is to speak to them said: “truly mind blowing in its massive ignorance, and soul crushing in its unexamined inarticulate rage.”
In NYC, the Police and Firefighters, most of whom don’t live in the city, have protested against mandatory vaccination. I live across from a firehouse, I ask one of the guys I see daily his take: “Well I hear if you get it and survive you don’t need it (the vaccine), some say it can cause all kind of problems, I heard it messed up (Eric) Clapton. I mean I work out, I take vitamins, I eat a lot of protein, I’ll be fine.” I don’t bother challenging or disproving his certitude, nor do I remind him of the numerous effective shots and vaccines he has already taken, but I do parse out the idea that a contagion is a circumstance that requires us to vaccinate, to care for each other, and that it seems a deadly virus is in a way a common enemy we can all unite to defeat – if we follow a fairly simple no cost protocol. His reaction to that shows how deep and opaque some cultural divides are in this country, I let it drift, we talk about boxing, and I move on.
People are overwhelmed by our present, by fractured information, by the endless drip of social media, by the replacement of informed debate, which requires listening, with hot takes, by a culture which sees people as consumers to be targeted, mined for data, and separated from their income. “Fame” however bizarrely that is constituted, is seen as the legitimizing index for too many lost egos. The contemplative and analytic volumes are turned way down. The self and the communal are both standing on precarious ground.
I started biking at night in the early days of COVID and have maintained the habit. It was for a long time eerily, beautifully silent. I stopped wearing headphones and just listened to my tires. I would ride through the emptiness of lower Manhattan and Wall Street, up the West Side to the 60’s. Now the rats and security guards are no longer my sole companions, but it’s not all bad.
One late night by the east river, the redolent scent of some amazing weed drifts in on my headwind, a hazy diaphanous cloud, next I smell food, garlic, lamb? I hear a bass line that comes into focus as Horace Andy’s Zion Gate. It is after midnight on a Wednesday, and I am riding into a sweet late-night cookout. A beautiful young entwined couple barely move, somewhere between a dance and a passionate embrace, they sway imperceptibly on beat. I veer from them, to not disturb their deserved Eden-like privacy. There are about 3 dozen people, babies to old folk, a few small grills, dogs, beer, I circle around to get a look, and enjoy the fragrance. An older man sees me, nods, I’m smiling behind my facemask, “Bikeman you on patrol? You want some fish? How’s your boy?” I’m surprised, but as I get closer, I realize we know each other as Dads who have sat in the park watching our kids over the years. I drop in and hang for a bit, have a piece of grilled pineapple, and get back on my ride feeling like I just returned from a curative vacation.
In late July, on a former pier converted to a park, there is an impromptu vogueish function happening. Initially I think it`s connected to some kind of wedding, but it`s soon clear bridal heat was the suggested look. A mobile DJ, complete with lit up mini booth and strobing speakers, is bringing the Lisa Lisa to Liz Torres to C&C Music flavor, and poses are being struck with liquored authority – the COVID nurse bride being my personal favorite. I am catching the tail end of what seems to have been a ferocious night. People are glazed, boys and girls are looking spectacular and disheveled and serving tired carnal flavor. A young man in denim cut offs and a Cameo T-shirt grabs his skateboard to leave: “Bitch that is not a proper deck, that is some suburban mother at the mall let me shut this kid up approximation – oh soo heartbreaking! we need a GoFundMe for this lost soul stat!” Fully read, he just laughs with everyone, and flexes his skillz, casually exiting, grinding a ledge while nursing his Tecate. His deck by the way is a dope vintage cruiser, custom sprayed a fleshy pink with matching wheels, and it intentionally looks somewhere between a cheap knockoff and a Matthew Barney sculpture.
There are other surprise nights. A Brazilian party behind a storage warehouse at water’s edge, where the women are rocking bikinis and scarves as dresses, the party continuing on a boat that seems sketchily docked. A pre-Halloween night in a small park near City Hall, where a converted school bus has a King Kong outfitted DJ on the roof, and costumed people who arrived on bikes sort of dancing – the party has wanna-be anarchist / how do we get laid awkward vibes, but the energy is sweet. I have encountered numerous couples furtively having sex, men out cruising over by the Chelsea piers, and regularly, this older couple who bring out chairs, a bottle of wine, some weed, their two dogs, and listen to Hector Lavoe, as they stare out at the barges floating down the Hudson. I check in with my fishermen along the route, and have earned, after almost two years, unsuspicious easy hellos.
It all feels restorative, these are the New Yorkers that I missed pre-COVID. The people I`m meeting on these nighttime rides aren’t privileged interlopers. I don’t miss the private equity transients who inhabit luxury condos “adulting” on their career trajectory, and getting tipsy at weekend brunch. I don’t miss the passive aggressive hipster types, still in some social high school, as they tell you about their music, or fashion, or curating careers: “I was covering fashion at Vice, then I was booking DJs, now I’m DJing!” The New Yorkers that I’m seeing at night are people whose lives aren’t cultural cosplay, they bring an unselfconscious flavor to the party, and in a way that flavor is part of what made New York so appealing to me as a kid – the Bronx, not Madison Ave. The nature of capitalism is to virally colonize every space, and to turn everyone into a supporting consumer. Adorno questioned the ability to have a true life in a false system. Authentic culture can offer resistance to commodification. Its motivations aren’t scripted by narratives of “success”. A low-key late-night cookout, an ad hoc freestyle pier party, getting high at 2am and listening to music, fishing with your crew, are graceful gestures on the margins, not stratagems for more “follows”.
The extended pause of COVID has put the exhausting intimacy of colonized culture on hold a bit. I stopped being agitated by the purely transactional, and by chance, stumbled into small groups having a good no-budget time with each other. As Lady Pink says to Lee in Wild Style “it’s about them”. Paying $90 to stand in a parking lot and stare at a DJ scrolling through their seasonal playlist, waiting in line to spend rent money on some LVMH sanctioned “streetwear”, and then making it all part of an Instagram self-branding exercise, is to risk use as an operational cog in a dysfunctional and ultimately exploitive narrative.
Can community become a way out? Can smaller groups, both virtual and mundane, thrive and find ways to build social spaces and events to usher us through our time here? To paraphrase Ornette Coleman are: “friends and neighbors where it’s at”?
A move toward the communal, unpretentious, nomadic, and shifting, offers possibilities and challenges. Finding common ground, spaces, and a social syntax for dialogue and productive argument, critically examining the “specialness” of the isolated consumer role, and the disempowerment of conformity, might make for less otherness. We may stop petulantly slamming doors and retreating to endless streaming entertainment / fame loops, and step out of our bespoke cells of curated information. It will be messy, and it will take time, but perhaps it’s nothing to stress, just something to start encouraging in our daily lives.
No instant Aquarian utopia, but small steps of coolness, looking out for the other person, giving them an ear and some space. The firefighter may never agree with me about vaccines and a million other things, but daily good vibes between us, him connecting me to a guy from down the street “who wants to get rid of all these jazz records”, me giving him some sound system advice, or just actively listening about his bad day, (which for a firefighter can be dramatic), is a start. The realm of the mundane seems as good a place as any to forge new social practice, interdependence should make us more grateful for others. The ignorance of the entitled, and the shrill stupidity of the many will test that thought for sure, but we can put on some music and dance, grill some food, easy skankin`, the art of living, admission is free.
A few films and books:
My Psychedelic Love Story, 2021. Directed by Errol Morris
A captivating documentary from the great Errol Morris, this film tells the story of aristocratic It girl Joanna Harcourt-Smith and her love affair with Timothy Leary, and is based in large part on her 2013 memoir. Leary was 52 and she was 26 when they met. He was on the lam in Europe, having escaped – with help from the Weather Underground – from a minimum-security prison in California. Harcourt-Smith, born in the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, only had a fleeting notion of who he was as a guru / philosopher / advocate for the use of LSD and expanded consciousness. They became fast soulmates, and were on the run from Switzerland to Beirut to Afghanistan, where they were finally captured and remaindered back to the states by Nixon’s CIA.
Leary is a break from Harcourt-Smith`s louche jet-set life. Her prior boyfriend, a successful arms dealer, she was pals with Dianne Von Furstenberg, partied with the Rolling Stones, and when they are in Beirut, she somehow ends up starring in a TV show there; “The President of Beirut was in love with my mother”. Her mother also claimed to have been Mussolini’s lover, and at one point in the film, when her daughter tells her about being raped by their chauffeur, exclaims “good chauffeurs are so hard to find”.
It is an insanely baroque story. At one point in Switzerland she goes to jail for simply not paying her hotel bill: “the food in the jails was actually quite good, and I used the time to read Leary’s books” Morris interjects “Really?” several times when talking to her. He keeps the film moving in rhythm with the madcap events. The film recounts their recapture, and ultimately their both becoming informants for the Justice Department and their time in the witness protection program as James and Nora Joyce. It is hard to remember just how despised Leary was upon his release, and how Harcourt-Smith was seen as a Mata Hari by many of Leary’s former friends and colleagues. This film tells what she thinks is her side of the story, but she even pauses and comments about it all. “I don’t know”.
Until the End of the World, 1992. Directed by Wim Wenders
Coming in at close to five hours, Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World is a cosmic road movie, literally shot around the world, over a six-month period and set in what was the near vaguely apocalyptic future of the coming millennium. A good COVID or holiday shut-in film to dig into. Flawed, romantic and funny, with some amazing moments and telling views on where we were headed. Everyone is obsessed with their personal electronic devices, the internet allows people`s movement and finances to be tracked, and environmental issues provide a sufficiently apocalyptic backdrop.
The threat here is an Indian nuclear satellite threatening to crash into earth. Claire (Solveig Dommartin) is a woman recovering from her boyfriend’s infidelity by running through some serious parties in Venice, she hooks up with some comic thieves and agrees to launder money for them for a significant profit. She then runs into the damaged handsome Sam, (William Hurt) in Berlin and it is on. The lovers track each other through time zones, Hurt’s eyesight suffering from a project he is working on, Claire’s writer boyfriend (Sam Neil), following them trying to look out for her, a private eye following them all. It gets complicated. Wenders used a small skeleton crew and then worked with local filmmakers in every city he filmed in. The great Robby Müller does an amazing job of forging the various styles and film stocks into a poetic rhythm.
The final act of the film is set in the outback of Australia where Sam’s father has built a lab for his research and practice. Hurt`s mother is blind and he has been using a device invented by his father that records the brain transmissions occurring in sight, and then transfers those to an unsighted person so they can have an experience like vision. Wenders examines the issues of around what constitutes our windows of perception. Addiction to the device can weaken one’s actual sight, the perils inherent in the development of such technological capabilities seem to elude most of the characters. The first nation people who help run the compound are openly critical, and well aware of the risks of ignoring the present.
At one point in a truck en route to his father’s lab, a first national guide starts singing. Sam explains to Claire that he is singing about their surroundings, and that he is the custodian of the area they are traveling in. His song is his connection to the land. It is a level of connection that the group, who has traveled so far, and have so much, seemingly fail to grasp.
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko. 1977 Viking Press.
A brutal but spectacular novel, Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, a native American WWII veteran dealing with some serious post-traumatic stress from his time in the Philippine jungles. He spends time in a VA hospital, and that corrodes his fractured identity even more. He is sent back to a reservation in New Mexico and experiences alienation there for being part white. Raised by an aunt from aged 4, Tayo is a proverbial stranger in every context, and the struggle to form a response is a monumental burden. The alcoholism and barroom despair of reservation life is presented unflinchingly, as is the loss and purposelessness his fellow soldiers feel after returning home.
Marmon Silko talks about the power of memory, and about the healing power of stories. Few have her facility to present complex layers of culture in a single scene, but that need to remember and tell is something she tasks her characters with. When Tayo’s aunt sends him to a medicine man he makes it explicit to him: “The people must do it. You must do it”, there is no help coming from the white men, and from most of his ravaged culture, he must tell and live his own story, and find his way. He starts to put together the enormity of what he is facing: “His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything.”
Working with the medicine man, Tayo has to construct his own ceremonies, as a way to find liberation, and not just from the war, or the white man, or his own brutal childhood. Marmon Silko makes it resonant that the protagonists attempt toward some freedom is also a struggle for the freedom of the language, which she sees as living and magical, and by extension for the culture which is as trapped as Tayo. The weight he pushes to emancipate is mythic, and his Sisyphean path has palpable uncertainty at every step, and he is rendered as a limited and damaged soul attempting this transformation. Among his travails, he frees some cattle and brings them home, and survives a brutal night in a uranium pit, where he confronts darkness from his past. The crisis that Tayo faces are modern, mundane, and psychological as well as cultural, Marmon Silko expands that into the mythic past of native heritage – which she sees braided to the modern – and makes the existential, neurotic, and mythic all components or territories that have to be negotiated. That she was building a model like this in the `70s is even more impressive, because she inhabits a realm many contemporary novelists are trying to find a path through now.
Blank Forms 06, 2021, Organic Music Societies (Edited by Lawrence Kumpf with Naima Karlsson and Magnus Nygren)
This issue of Blank Forms is devoted to the collaborative life and work of Don and Moki Cherry (nee Karlsson). Their project wasn’t just an aesthetic exercise, it was a life of communal art, social and environmentalist activism, children’s education, and striving to find not only new forms of expression but a breaking down of the walls between artist / performer and audience.
As Cherry stated: “I wanted to play different instruments in environments not man-made for music – natural settings like a catacomb, or on a mountaintop, or by the side of a lake. I wasn’t playing for jazz audiences, I was playing for goat herders, who would take out their flutes and join me, or for anyone else who wanted to listen or to sing and play along. It was the whole idea of organic music, music as a natural part of your day.”
Don and Moki left the increasingly volatile US in 1970 and moved to Sweden seeking to elevate and aestheticize ordinary experience, as Moki said: “the stage is home and home is the stage.”
Their idealism led them to create environs for collaborative performance and attempts at establishing communities around artistic practice. Their first endeavor Movement Incorporated emerged at a worker’s association in Sweden.
This is a vital collection of essays and interviews, some previously unpublished. It also provides an insightful presentation of Moki’s artworks and investigation into their role in the performances, as well as a look at her writings and diary entries, accompanied by a tribute / reminiscence of their life by Neneh Cherry. This issue provides a great overview and contextualizes their work in relationship to the developments in world music and counter cultural education. Don and Moki’s project was a utopian one. This issue of Blank Forms maps out its terms and implications, it is an ambitious and proper retrospective of a stunning collaborative project.
You can purchase Blank Forms here.
You can find more amazing pieces, and interivews, conducted and written by Dennis Kane here, while you can check out his new label LESDK here, and his musical partnership with Darshan Jesrani – as Siren – here.