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By Kenneth Goldsmith

Kwame’s (Dawes) recent blog about readings is a tad depressing. This is one instance when I know we must occupy different spaces in the world. As I said before, I dislike readings. While I like doing readings, I despair at being an audience member at readings. I agree, there is probably one central reason why I like doing readings. Generally, the people who are there to hear me read are there to hear me read and this means that they care about the work they are going to hear. There is something affirming about this. But a reading for me has nothing to do with a series of experiences that are rooted in my childhood.

On Long Island where we lived in a development whose streets were lined with identical shoddily built tract houses, we would gather around the television in a cheap wood-paneled basement. The year is 1972, the contraption is a General Electric — a chunky piece of equipment. I turn on the TV, grab a bowl of Fruit Loops and settle back into the polyester couch as Marcia Brady recites her latest crushes to Jan. We are as much enthralled by her soliloquy as we are by the technology. And each time the episode is rerun, we are fascinated by the sound of her voice coming back to us, surrounding us, preserved. Her monologues were engaging. They represented a doorway into the orange sunshiney light of that unattainable land: the West Coast where Marcia grew up. Her performances focused around how she broke every law in the book attempting to please her classmates by getting Davey Jones of the Monkees to perform at the Jr. Prom. Marcia Brady — ever the overachiever — knew that her voice resonated with power and authority. She would speak in a proto-Valley Girl accent, one that we would later imitate as children, not with bitterness or cynicism, but with the giddiness of children imitating their pop idols. These “performances” took us to a home that we had not seen. They conjured a sense of place and a time: southern California. They were a way for us to know this girl. In a house that had only television (my father thought it was a great way to keep the kids’ mouths shut), this was splendid entertainment, and we enjoyed it.
On Long Island we found other distractions especially during the holidays. One of our favorite was a trip across town to Roosevelt Field — at that time the largest shopping mall in America — in the mid-Island wasteland adjacent to the Nassau Coliseum and Roosevelt Raceway, just off the Meadowbrook Parkway. In this place of plastic panels, linoleum floors, sheetrock walls and thick concrete barricades, was Macy’s or at least a farflung branch the flagship store on 34th Street. I am not sure, but in the long hall, teenagers would gather around an artificial fountain festooned with plastic plants and pennies, listening to Led Zeppelin or Aerosmith, and stoned kids would leap into the open space and begin to move in patterns, sweating, smiling, laughing, while the boys would play air guitar. Sometimes they would break into dirty jokes, and then fling themselves back to the dance. Jimmy Page’s guitar would create a pattern that I would later recognize as the basis for much of classic rock as well as West Coast proto-hardcore that was to emerge in the 80s. Sometimes the kids who owned the boomboxes would let us play them, encouraging us, teasing us. Here the smoking of angel dust or the downing of PCP was about creating a sense of community, but also wondering about which girls we would be able to score with on the bus ride home.
When I was about ten years old, my Aunt Sue came to stay with us. She was my mother’s sister. A woman of medium build, she was the only sibling of my mom’s. We would go up to her room and have her tell us stories and entertain us. It seems now that what she enjoyed most was to recite songs from the bands she saw at the Fillmore East, high on acid, or speed, or junk. She would orate with passion and conviction and we would listen, amazed at her recall but barely understanding what she said as the methadone kicked in and she began slurring her words. But we must have done this a lot, because soon we would be repeating the songs ourselves. Learning how remarkable a thing it is to be able to retain so many words. This is how I learned Lou Reed’s lyrics from “I’m Waiting For My Man”. This is how I learned phrases like “Up to Lexington, 125 “, and ” Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive”:
I’m Waiting For My Man
I’m waiting for my man
Twenty-six dollars in my hand
Up to Lexington, 125
Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive
I’m waiting for my man
Hey, white boy, what you doin’ uptown?
Hey, white boy, you chasin’ our women around?
Oh pardon me sir, it’s the furthest from my mind
I’m just lookin’ for a dear, dear friend of mine
I’m waiting for my man
Here he comes, he’s all dressed in black
PR shoes and a big straw hat
He’s never early, he’s always late
First thing you learn is you always gotta wait
I’m waiting for my man
Up to a Brownstone, up three flights of stairs
Everybody’s pinned you, but nobody cares
He’s got the works, gives you sweet taste
Ah then you gotta split because you got no time to waste
I’m waiting for my man
Baby don’t you holler, darlin’ don’t you bawl and shout
I’m feeling good, you know I’m gonna work it on out
I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine
Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time
I’m waiting for my man
— Lou Reed
My aunt probably longed for us to remember the famous last lines, ” I’m feeling good, I’m feeling oh so fine / Until tomorrow, but that’s just some other time”, but while that did not stick, the early phrases did, and the meter of the work did as well. Above all, these romantic ideas of the Lower East Side intoned in the dim light of her room would stay with me.
Years later, when asked to offer something to a night of entertainment, I would quote from Lou Reed, relying on the words that I hardly understood when I first learned them.
When I was in high school, Black Sabbath was very difficult for me. I did not even understand their sense of improvisation. But my sister taught me something important. She went to a different school — she was a girl, after all, and most schools were segregated that way at the time. She was way into Sabbath. A fellow shoplifter of my sister’s may have told them that knowing passages from Ozzy’s works by heart would be helpful getting guys into the sack, but I think they did came from some other place, from the rituals of performing that we had grown up with. She would prance around the house chanting: “Generals gathered in their masses / Just like witches at black masses” “Evil minds that plot destruction / Sorcerers of deaths construction”, and so on and so forth. I had to learn these lines without even seeing them written down. I knew the first lines of “Electric Funeral” before I had heard the album in full, and when I finally did buy it, I could join my sister in mouthing sections of the piece out of familiarity. This pattern of learning lines and speak them aloud would save me later when I came to love the Dead Kennedys. I learnt to sing their songs aloud, to intone them with feeling and with relish. Soon a simple truth hit me — I could understand the songs better when I sang them aloud. When I came to buy “Plastic Surgery Disasters” during the final year of high school, I locked in memory whole chunks of the album, passages that I still know by heart to this day. Meaning, pleasure and the appreciation of artistry all resulted from this business of not simply learning the lines, but singing the lyrics aloud in the shower.
So, Kwame, dear, you can imagine me hating readings. There really was no magic or community or soul or love whatsoever where and how I grew up. We knew no one in our empty neighborhood; our parent and grandparents were either alcoholics, on anti-depressants or had joined New Age cults: we lived in the typical American Teenage Wasteland; we’re all wasted. The most meaningful poem I can recall from my foggy childhood was the immortal words of Black Flag: “We’ve got nothing better to do / Than to watch TV / And have a couple of brews”. That pretty much sums it up: we were so fucking bored and so fucking high all the time. If I tried to replicate the spirit of those memories of how I first encountered the spoken word everything time I face an audience, my eyes would glaze over, the room would start spinning, and I would pass out.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, May 8th, 2007 by Kenneth Goldsmith.