Artists Take Note

Tonight will be the opening for a weekend art exhibit at a lawn-and-garden center here, called Suburban. This isn’t just any lawn-and-garden joint, but a lavish place that revolves around a huge white greenhouse. By huge I mean it’s the size of a football field. Literally. We’re having a group show there. Why?

Well my gallery’s in Midtown. Suburban is on the south side, in the midst of the booming new suburbs. Those folks don’t come to this part of the city much, so we decided to go to them. Do I dig doing this stuff? Not really: I’ll have to talk to prospects for three hours straight, tell jokes, help people to see the art, and keep the energy at an inviting level. Is this necessary? Yes, if I’m to keep advancing my artists’ careers, landing them the sales and commissions that they thrive on. Besides, the president of Suburban is a fine client. He asked if I’d do the gig if he promoted the heck out of it. Couldn’t say no. Actually think it will go well.

My point? If you’re an artist, you will have to do similar things–or have your gallery do them. It’s either that or languish. I don’t consider the latter much of an option. Anyway the opening closes at 9:00. I’ll boogie out of there by 9:05, and be meeting friends in Midtown by 9:30. Always a good way to end an opening.

William Burroughs’ lawn

Before I became a gallery owner, I ran a lawn-and-tree service in Lawrence. It wasn’t much of a service: a pickup, a chainsaw, and some mowers. Also the occasional art student–who I never allowed to climb the trees. If anyone was going to fall, it would be me. This was a good gig, since it allowed me to write several hours a day. Later, the gallery would become a better gig.

Among the many lawns I mowed was that of William Burroughs: his little bungalow, with his Reichian orgone box and fish pond out back. How we met is an amusing story that, inevitably, had to do with one of my gay friends. Actually I mowed his manager’s lawn more than his–James Grauerholz. James is a great guy who brought Burroughs to Lawrence from where he was languishing in NY in the early 80s. Then James revitalized his career: getting all his books back in print, getting him on tour, then later the Nike spots and the music video with U2. Also the shotgun art. Very amusing, but I’ll not get into that now.

The few times I mowed his lawn, he would come out onto the porch to watch. On occasion we’d talk. Did I ever mention I was a novelist? Nah. We dwelt in different worlds. However I always looked to see if he was armed, knowing his love of handguns. He never was. Say what you want, I don’t think he ever got over the shooting of his wife at that party in Mexico City. Some sadnesses never leave the eyes; I believe that was one of them.

The last time I saw him was in the fall of 1993, when I removed the leaves from his lawn, just before moving back to KC. We didn’t talk much. He watched me mow up the leaves, I asked him how he was, he said Tired, I said I understood, then left. He died four years later. I’ve never forgotten the mischievous intelligence in his eyes. Too bad we didn’t become better acquainted, but it wasn’t the right fit.

No Direction Home 2: Bob Dylan / Allen Ginsberg

So we finished the film. Wonderful. Don’t know why Scorsese focused so much on the early 60s, and neglected the 70s–the period after the bike wreck. The 70s were an entirely different phase for Dylan, and not insignificant. But I don’t make flicks, I just watch ‘em. I do feel much better informed about the whole journey. Amazing dude, especially to achieve so much so young. Makes me understand why virtually every album collection I thumbed through as a teenager had Dylan’s Greatest Hits in it. However he is not why I began reading Dylan Thomas in college. That was brought on by curiosity about the Welsh.

Interesting how Dylan seems two different people: the pale-faced kid before the wreck, and the disillusioned man in his 60s now. Is it the same for all of us?

The interviews with Allen Ginsberg were great. Since he died in 1997, I gather that the tapes were rather old, but you never would have known it. The part where he described Dylan as a reticent shaman was pure Ginsberg. You can be sure that Dylan didn’t agree then, or now, and that he wearied of people reading so many things into his lyrics; but that’s the power of understatement. You normally don’t have that option with a novel.

Either way, Ginsberg was always both charming and brilliant. Met him once, in the days when I used to mow William Burroughs’ lawn in Lawrence. Ginsberg was in town for a Beat conference of sorts. Very kind man, but that’s a different story.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

Sure I watched the Bob Dylan gig. Watched it with my wife and sons. Oddly I never listened to him that much as a kid. His folk stuff came up shortly after I was born, and the electric stuff came along after I was sold on Led Zeppelin. I even passed up a chance to see him, choosing The Who instead. But I always thought Before The Flood was a masterpiece. Still do. So do my sons. “Lay Lady Lay,” “Knockin On Heaven’s Door.” Music of that sort doesn’t get any better.

So did I miss the boat on this when I was younger? Somewhat, although I was always aware of the Dylan influence (who wasn’t?). I did feel badly for him regarding the hero-worship nonsense that he had to deal with. Surely that messes with one’s psyche. But he seems to have come to peace with it. I mean the low-key way he handled the Soy Bomb dancer in 1998 says a lot about him, as well as his not-surprised-by-anything demeanor. Hilarious really.

Did I enjoy the Scorsese film? The first half of it, yes. Enormously. The second half is tonight, and I’m sure I’ll dig that too. My sons? They are all agog.

Blown Glass Chandelier / Vernon Brejcha

Met this morning with a client who’s built quite a substantial house, and wants a hanging glass sculpture that the spiral staircase will encircle. They’re interested in the work of Vernon Brejcha. So the designer and I met at the house and figured the specs: 7′ high, 3′ in diameter at the base, 250 lbs of glass. It will involve about 40 elongated pieces, multiple colors. Will it look like a Dale Chihuly? No, it’ll look like a Vernon Brejcha. He’s been around longer than Chihuly anyway. Client wanted to know when it could be done. I said eight weeks. Can we really finish it that soon? Guess we’ll have to.

Price? Now you know I can’t divulge those things. Bad form. But the price will be fair to all concerned.

Home / Baseball / Constant Gardener

So finally I’m home again, making the adjustment from the insane crowds, noise and traffic of NY, to the relative calm of the Midwest. Both places are great, but, as with everything, there’s an advantage to living in either one, and a price too. I do dig living in KC. I also dig getting away from it.

Very nice to see my family again: a kiss from my wife, embraces from my teenage sons. The first thing my boys and I did was go to the park to play a little baseball. That’s always a good way to end a summer day–though we’re in autumn now. They hit beautifully: powerful swings, good follow-through. I love watching them grow stronger.

Later my wife and I went out to see The Constant Gardener. I’m a fan of Ralph Fiennes, have been since Quiz Show and The English Patient (which someday will surely go down as a great epic). As always Fiennes was fantastic to watch. Rachel Weisz was good too, though she lacks his presence at this time. But somehow the pacing of the movie was a bit tedious, as was the dialogue in several of the later scenes, where the flick seemed to lose a little impetus. It didn’t have the power of Meirelles’ earlier film, City of God. Still a good movie, especially the scenes in Africa: the crushing poverty of the millions. Yes, the Third World’s surely coming to meet the West. Someday the two will have to compromise on what is a fair standard of living for all. If we don’t reach that compromise willingly, I fear it will be forced on us, and of course when things are forced, they wind up disastrously.

Afterward my wife and I went to one of our favorite bars in Brookside, to talk about the movie, New York, publishers, and various people who are very much a part of our lives–both together and separately. I love the candor of that. I couldn’t survive in a marriage without it.

Later we went home to become reacquainted, which we did until 2:00. Good to be back. West Coast is next, but not for three weeks.

Princeton / Fitzgerald / Sushi

Stayed in Princeton my last night in the NY area. An old friend of mine, Tyler Lyke, lives there. Got his masters in painting at the Penn Academy, his undergrad at KU. Does wonderfully intricate paintings that are abstracted yet precise; a combination of a scalloped ceramic surfaces on canvas that are treated with a complex process of in-painting. Oh hell, I could never describe it. Let’s just say it’s inspired and unique. He has one show a year in Philly.

We had sushi at some joint in a hotel, then went for a walk. I’ve always liked walking past the old dorm where Fitzgerald stayed, when he tried to make his mark in the Triangle Club, the Cottage Club, and in football. He had no trouble making his mark in the drinking clubs. Don’t doubt he felt intimidated; middle-class Midwesterner among the great wealth of the East Coast families. Poor Fitz, always convinced he had to impress everyone and it cost him greatly. But then most of us feel that way when we’re young. I know I did.

He entered Princeton in 1913, then had to drop out in 1915 owing to a bout of malaria, brought on by the mosquitoes in the nearby swamps. He returned in his junior year but, really not an academician, flunked out. America jumped into WWI about then, he joined up, and never returned to Princeton. He didn’t go to the war either, as it ended before he could get overseas. But he did write This Side of Paradise while still in uniform, which was later followed by Gatsby, Tender, and Tycoon–along with all those dozens of flawless stories. Then he died at 44 from overdrink and heartbreak: the struggles with Zelda, with his own demons, and the knowledge that he was underappreciated. Must have been some character.

The Princeton swamps? They’ve largely been filled now, occupied by housing tracts. But walking past Fitzgerald’s dorm made me think of all these things. I told Tyler the story. It made him a little sad, especially the part about Zelda dying in the asylum fire. Oh well, the arts are riddled with sad stories. That’s where some of the greatness comes from. The rest comes from stories of ecstasy. The uninspired stuff comes from the middle.

Jersey City

So I got to Jersey City early for my talk. Went for a stroll. Beautiful waterfront, with streetcars that take people back and forth; a much more charming place than I’d been led to believe. Lovely neighborhoods like in Brooklyn; brownstone rowhouses with stoops and all that. Had coffee in a Greek coffee shop where the waitress had tawny hair and dark skin and was very kind; wanted to know what I was writing. A couple of Turkish women were in one corner talking and laughing, a pair of French businessmen in black suits–not laughing–were in another. Lord the mix of nationalities on the East Coast. Never tire of it.

Wrote for a couple of hours in the coffee shop, then decided to go for a jog on the waterfront. Helluva wind. Passed near Ellis Island, with the Statue just beyond. Never seen them from the Jersey side before. Odd how close to shore they are.

Finished the jog hot and sweating. Took a nap beneath a sycamore in some park. When I woke a couple of Puerto Rican dudes were nearby with a pit bull. I went over to say hello. They nodded and grinned, but the one with the dog held him back on the leash. I gestured to let the dog come close. He said he shouldn’t, that the dog had issues. I said not to worry, that all dogs liked me. So I knelt down, snapped my fingers, and slowly the dog came forward. Sure enough, it had issues. Went for my freaking hand. I whipped it back and the Puerto Rican laughed.

“I tried to tell you, man,” he said. I told him next time I’d listen.

After awhile I went back to the coffee shop, to look at the NY skyline and write some more, and not think about the talk I had to give that night. The talks are easy, come almost automatically. I dig giving them, and inspiring the audiences. It’s just that I’m ready to start giving talks on a different book now. Well, that should start next summer.

Anyway Jersey was fine. NY was even better. Back to KC soon.

NY Public Radio WFUV, Interview

Beautiful morning. Rose early for my interview, and had to pass through a corner of the Bronx on the way to the station: the El clattering overhead, traffic worse than insane, and yet everywhere these neat and spotlessly dressed Puerto Rican kids, being led by their moms or dads to school. In most cases the parent held the kid’s hand, even if the kid was 12, and in most cases there was an evident connection. Beautiful to watch. But on the faces of those young parents the strain of living for so long in such a loud, crowded city showed. You could see them trying to protect the kid from it, and actually succeeding. Must require amazing strength.

The radio station is on the Fordham campus. Jesuit school, quiet little oasis surrounded by city, with the NY Botanical Gardens across the street. Great staff, and a great interviewer: George Bodarky. He interviewed me for 30 minutes: good, insightful questions. Of course we got into the the SoHo/Chelsea scene–both the real side of it and the absurd side. Great deal of fun. Afterward he took me on a tour of their new facility, which they’ll move into next week.

Now? Think I’ll take a stroll in the Botanical Gardens, then later have lunch with an old girlfriend in Tarrytown. Tonight I’ll give a talk at the Art Center of Northern NJ, for all those artists who can’t afford to live in NY. Looking forward to it. Always felt Jersey got a bad rap.

Art Students League of New York

The League was started in 1875, and its history is reflected in the incredible work that’s displayed throughout the joint. I liked the portrait of Georgia O’Keefe as a young woman, and the bust of Aaron Copland as a mature composer. The independence showed in O’Keefe even at that young age. There was a great deal of contemporary work too, especially from the era of the 1913 Armory Show.

Just south of Central Park on 57th, the building is five stories and quite stunning. Also has a great vibe. Some of these places can be oppressive because of a strange air of decadence and snobbery. Not the League; it’s all creative passion and relaxed camaraderie–which is as it should be. People of all generations pursuing their dreams.

I loved the multitude of studios and disciplines, which I toured barefoot, tired of wearing shoes. This was something of a concern to my guide, but she got over it. Met a brilliant Argentine figure painter in one of the studios. Lovely woman. I asked her if she could Tango; she smiled and said Sure. We talked for awhile. It was evident she was very dissatisfied with her life here. We both wanted to go out for coffee and become better acquainted, but I wasn’t about to touch that. Instead I just wished her luck and went to a Swiss coffee bar on my own, where I could write for awhile, catch up on e-mail, and loiter. Nice place.

Signing started at 7:00, and went very well. About 100 people attended: curious, enthusiastic, just looking for suggestions or a little guidance. Well I know how to help with that. The Argentine had told me she wouldn’t be able to attend, which was better really. Again I couldn’t get away on time, but it’s more fun to stay, talk and sign books. So I did. Finally got to my hotel around 11:00. Freaking exhausted. A very good day.