The Deeply Strange American Night

This is a deeply strange country.  Sometimes it too closely resembles the movie Blue Velvet, where a seemingly normal veneer masks a darker underbelly.  The other night on tour I found myself with the rare solo hotel room.  It was late, but since I don’t have cable, I decided to see if there was anything interesting on that I would normally not get to watch.  I was in Oklahoma.  What I found was perverse mixture of religion and crime.

The first thing that I stumbled upon was the televangelist Mike Murdock.  He looked like he should have been hosting a Vegas magic show with a black sequined shirt on, hair that was so black it was almost blue, and a black goatee.  He was giving a strange mixture of religious and finical advice.  He wanted viewers to “sow” the “seeds” of their future for just $83 a month.  He was hoping that 120 souls would send him a thousand dollars a piece.  He was shamefully asking for money like a late-night infomercial host while holding a Bible.  Televangelists have been around a long time, but the sheer look of this guy was creepy, like if he tried to sell you a used car you would be suspicious.  However, he clearly has enough money to appear on not one, but two channels at the same time.  Someone out there in the American night was buying into his insane schtick, long after Jimmy Swaggart’s deal went south.

The strange thing was, he wasn’t even the only televangelist on.  In flipping the channel I again not only found him again, but another one on at the same time in the same state.  Between these I saw the equally strange infomercials that so dominate late night television.  Bad ideas for those that just might be in a state to believe anything.  Some guy that looked like an albino was trying to sell personal generators incase U.S. power grid going down.  I understand that in someplace like Oklahoma, where tornados are a reality, there may occasionally be a need for such a thing, but this was beyond that.  This was trying to strike fear into the average person to make them think that Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was right around the corner.

Even weirder still, every channel that I turned on that did not feature religious or business hucksters of some kind, featured crime and punishment.  These were, for the most part, true crime shows, that let one know what kind of savagery was waiting outside their door.  i finally settled on a show that was about Arizona’s famous tent city prison, where inmates sleep under tents in the stifling Arizona heat and do hard labor by day.  The part of the show that I watched was about someone that was a new inmate serving six months for meth.  Apparently if he did his time in tent city he could avoid a lengthier sentence in a “real” prison.  If he broke the rules in tent city his sentence would be extended and he would again be sent to that “real” prison.  However, like prison in general, the inmates formed gangs by race.  If they broker the rules of the gangs, which often were the opposite of the rules of the prison, they would get the living fuck beaten out of them.  This didn’t have to put the fear into people.  This actually resembled Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

So here in Oklahoma, people were being preyed upon by religious hucksters and slimy sale men.  Meanwhile they are constantly receiving messages of fear:  Fear that they are going to go broke, fear that hell awaits, fear that criminals await, and fear that if they break any rules they will go to a prison that animals aren’t fit to live in.  No wonder so many people in this country are crazy!

Strangely enough, I have been trying to finish Dante’s Inferno the last couple of days.  In Dante’s version of hell, those that use God to commit fraud are worse than those that actually steal.  However, in our country we give those people TV programs and tax breaks while those that commit non-violent crimes are put in a living version of hell.  Someone might go to jail for theft that, while still wrong, pales in comparison to what these religious con-artists are doing.  Someone that robs people of thousands of dollars by prettying upon their fears and religious beliefs becomes a rich celebrity in America.  Now there is a lot of absurdity in The Divine Comedy, but I can’t help but feel that our own moral code is often absurd as well.

I went to sleep deeply troubled that night.  I try not to be under any illusions as to what is out there.  I’ve been well aware of all of the above for quite some time.  However, it was jarring seeing it all back to back, channel after channel.  Images of unrelenting insanity are being pumped into millions of homes on a daily basis.  I’ve read enough to know that over the long game of history that progress is real.  I know that change is possible.  But for a brief moment I couldn’t help but feel that we were just monkeys with machine guns, gathered around televisions instead of campfires, telling superstitious stories, under the influence of a skull white moon.

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Fun In the South

Day 3 in Louisiana – Headed towards New Orleans.  Due to the weather that has been going down, the countryside looks like West Virginia in winter, without the allure of the mountains.  “Slate grey Victorian skies” hang over leafless trees.  Cigarette butts and plastic bags dot the landscape all too frequently.   I have been reading Dante’s Inferno and listening to Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance.  The soul is a flexible thing.  Mine is mirroring the landscape, slithering to the rhythm of the haunted South.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Oliver Stone’s Nixon.  “Nixon is the darkness reaching out for the darkness.”  Another is when Lou Reed said after making Berlin, an album many deem the most depressing of all time, that he was, “just having fun.”  That is the key and secret code to unlock it all: fun…

Modern Hell

I am reading Dante’s The Inferno for the first time since highschool.  If memory serves me correctly, I am actually reading it front to back for the first time.  I have been lucky enough to spend a fair amount of time in Dante’s hometown of Florence.  The Inferno is clearly influenced by the people, places, and imagery of which Dante was familiar.  

Hell, even at its worst, resembles the artwork and literature of his time, which was often the work of true artists and craftsmen.  I find myself reading this out on the American highway, which often features architecture and art that’s only functions are functionality and efficiency.  Box stores and garish logos dot the landscape.  This is not to say that making things visually striking is everything, as the Nazis were quite good at that.  But often even our modern view of Hell resembles the artistry of Dante’s time, more than any true concept of what is the worst in life.  Would you choose Dante’s Hell or an abandoned K-Mart for eternity?   Dante had no concept of what modern pollution was capable of, of nature so full of chemicals that it looks like a nuclear winter in deep space. 

Overall I, like most who read this, am quite amazed at how much this old text has to offer.  However, how deeply strange would a modern hell look to Dante?  Who knows such things…

Passing Thoughts On the Inferno

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Been reading Dante’s The Inferno today.  It is part of his epic poem The Divine Comedy.  As well as it being far more readable and entertaining than I remembered, it is also truly hilarious for the insanity contained.  I’m only about five Cantos in.  From the beginning, not only is the imagery batshit insane, but some of the ideas that are rooted in religion are as well.  Early on Dante visits the Virtuous Pagans.  These are people that were at the pinnacle of humanity, but could not progress higher in the afterlife due to the fact that they were without the light of God.  (They were born before the time of Christianity, so it was through no fault of their own.)  So it is clear that the religion of Dante’s time (and we know some of the religion of our own), valued a belief in God above any kind of great achievements, even if these achievements were the kind that brought light and understanding to humanity, even if the circumstance of their birth was the sole reason for this lack of belief.

Also there are a group within this group known as the naturalists.  These would be people that were the equivalent of scientists in our society.  Clearly these people were valued by believers during Dante’s time for the understanding of the natural world that they brought to society.  (Though not enough that they were allowed to reach heaven!)  Why is it now that many people on the religious right today do not value scientists?  Have we regressed since Dante’s time in certain ways?  One step forward, two steps back?

A Whole New Set of Costumes

I’m probably one of the few guys that actually enjoy clothes shopping for and with my girlfriend.  I grew up in small town suburbia.  We used to hang out at the mall all of the time.  Given what this once proud nation has become, a coast to coast shopping mall, my feelings on malls are now mixed.  I find them to be partly nostalgic comfort and partly one of the levels in Dante’s Inferno.  We are conflicted souls in this modern world.

Recently my band played a bar in Austin and I had a strange experience.  In an area that was full of hipsters only months before, I suddenly realized I was surrounded by urban cowboys.  A whole new set of costumes had become the norm.  Sometimes I wonder if this were the 80’s, if this same set of people would have Flock of Seagulls haircuts.

When I was in my heavy drinking days I would sometimes wear a green leisure suit.  I never took myself too seriously and at the time there was strange drunk humor in this.  My one friend called it a party uniform.  I was always aware that on a random Tuesday night at the bar, I was wearing a costume that most people would save for Halloween.    I had to quit wearing it about three years in, when some girl rightly called me out on it and said, “Are you still wearing that?”  The joke that wasn’t funny anymore.

I don’t make much money, and what money I do make is rarely used for clothes.  If I have money left over after bills I’d rather go on a trip or buy some records or musical gear.  Plus it’s just plain too fucking hot in Austin to wear most of the things that I like anyway.  I began with the sentence about shopping with my girlfriend to say that I’m not anti-fashion.  I can appreciate a sweet outfit.  There are periods I like and don’t like.  I can also appreciate the artistry and work that go into making clothes that look and fit right.  It’s another art form.

However, when you see of band of 20 year olds dressed like it’s the dust bowl, or a bunch of people that have never ridden a horse wearing a cowboy suit, realize that it’s a costume and not an outfit.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that.  As long as you realize you are not a cowboy or not living in the great depression, everyone should be allowed to live out their fantasies.  I live in a town with a lot of weird costumes.  The more the better I say.  I would be seriously let down the next time I go out if everyone were dressed the same.  Just don’t claim to be more authentic or more hip than me, if I decide to get back into the bottle and go out tomorrow night dressed as the Dungeon Master.