The dog is called Emi. Beyond that pointy elongation of nose, and the wet welcome, this promiscuously affectionate, warm-breathed female is a canine in sheep’s clothing: a tumbling knotted rug of a thing. Emi has a supporting role in The Practice of the Wild, a documentary film featuring her human companion and the writer Jim Harrison, recently shot at San Simeon, on Hearst property; a leisurely senior citizen conversation on wilderness, Native American myths, the Beat Generation, mortality and memory. ‘Nature is not a place to visit,’ the man says, ‘it is home.’ Read the rest of this entry »
There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco of Walkup ?? truck drivers and even the poor grime-bemarked Third
Street of lost bums even Negros so hopeless and long left East and meanings of responsibility and try that now all they do is stand there spitting in the broken glass sometimes fifty in one afternoon against one wall at Third and Howard and here’s all
these Millbrae and San Carlos neat-necktied producers and commuters of America and Steel civilization rushing by with San Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above the following hotshot freight trains–it’s all in California, it’s all a
sea, I swim out of it in afternoons of sun hot meditation in my jeans with head on handkerchief on brakeman’s lantern or (if not working) on book, I look up at blue sky of perfect lostpurity and feel the warp of wood of old America beneath me and I have
insane conversations with Negroes in second-story windows above and everything is pouring in, the switching moves of boxcars in that little alley which is so much like the alleys of Lowell and I hear far off in the sense of coming night that engine calling our
But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above the little S.P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the Gate of Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break your heart. It was the fantastic drowse and drum hum of lum mum afternoon nathin’ to do, ole Frisco with end of land sadness–the people–the alley full of trucks and cars of businesses nearabouts and nobody knew or far from cared who I was all my life three thousand five hundred miles from birth-O opened up and at last belonged to me in Great America.
Now it’s night in Third Street the keen little neons and also yellow bulblights of impossible-to-believe flops with dark ruined shadows moving back of tom yellow shades like a degenerate China with no money-the cats in Annie’s Alley, the flop comes on, moans, rolls, the street is loaded with darkness. Blue sky above with stars hanging high over old hotel roofs and blowers of hotels moaning out dusts of interior, the grime inside the word in mouths falling out tooth by tooth, the reading rooms tick tock bigclock with creak chair and slantboards and old faces looking up over rimless spectacles bought in some West Virginia or Florida or Liverpool England pawnshop long before I was born and across rains they’ve come to the end of the land sadness end of the world gladness all you San Franciscos will have to fall eventually and burn again. But I’m walking and one night a bum fell into the hole of the construction job where they’re tearing a sewer by day the husky Pacific & Electric youths in torn jeans who work there often I think of going up to some of ’em like say blond ones with wild hair and tom shirts and say “You oughta apply for the railroad it’s much easier work you don’t stand around the street all day and you get much more pay” but this bum fell in the hole you saw his foot stick out, a British MG also driven by some eccentric once backed into the hole and as I came home from a long Saturday afternoon local to Hollister out of San Jose miles away across verdurous fields of prune and juice joy here’s this British MG backed and legs up wheels up into a pit and bums and cops standing around right outside the coffee shop-it was the way they fenced it
but he never had the nerve to do it due to the fact that he had no money and nowhere to go and O his father was dead and O his mother was dead and O his sister was dead and O his whereabout was dead was dead but and then at that time also I lay in my room on long Saturday afternoons listening to Jumpin’ George with my fifth of tokay no tea and just under the sheets laughed to hear the crazy music “Mama, he treats your daughter mean,” Mama, Papa, and don’t you come in here I’ll kill you etc. getting high by myself in room glooms and all wondrous knowing about the Negro the essential American out there always finding his solace his meaning in the fellaheen street and not in abstract morality ”
and even when he has a church you see the pastor out front bowing to the ladies on the make you hear his great vibrant voice on the sunny Sunday afternoon sidewalk full of sexual vibratos saying “Why yes Mam but de gospel do say that man was born of woman’s womb -” and no and so by that time I come crawling out of my warmsack and hit the street when I see the railroad ain’t gonna call me till 5 AM Sunday morn probably for a
local out of Bay Shore in fact always for a local out of Bay Shore and I go to the wailbar of all the wildbars in the world the one and only Third-and -Howard and there I go in and drink with the madmen and if I get drunk I git.
The whore who come up to me in there the night I was there with Al Buckle and said to me “You wanta play with me tonight Jim, and?” and I didn’t think I had enough money and later told this to Charley Low and he laughed and said “How do you know she wanted money always take the chance that she might be out just for love or just out for love you
know what I mean man don’t be a sucker.” She was a goodlooking doll and said “How would you like to oolyakoo with me mon?” and I stood there like a jerk and in fact bought
drink got drink drunk that night and in the 299 Club I was hit by the proprietor the band breaking up the fight before I had a chance to decide to hit him back which I didn’t do
and out on the street I tried to rush back in but they had locked the door and were looking at me thru the forbidden glass in the door with faces like undersea––I should have
played with her shurrouruuruuruuruuruuruurkdiei.
From the July 2005 issue of Senses of Cinema, this article is about the films of musical historian/filmmaker/mystic bohemian Harry Smith…
Harry Smith not only seemed to get everywhere (at least within America), he also gave the impression that he could do anything. He weaved in and out of various cultural milieux, many of them notorious, and turned his mind to countless different creative and cultural endeavours. In a time when computers had not yet nudged their way into everyday life, Smith was making a decent attempt to turn his brain into a multimedia hub, a receptacle capable of sucking in and spewing out various bits of data, juggling them around in new, enlightening ways. Considering his prodigious consumption of alcohol and drugs, this was no mean feat. And yet, despite Smith’s many achievements, his life remained a mess. Serious bouts of deprivation, fits of childish anger towards his friends (sometimes leading to the destruction of his own creative objects) and perennial poverty were three of the main features that plagued and cursed him throughout his life. Whilst he was adept at perceiving and treating everything creatively, he was at a loss when dealing with the more rational, mundane things in life, such as financial matters. For Smith, mundanity was something to be collected, processed and imbued with magical qualities; he couldn’t deal with non-transformable objects that remained in a state of functional stasis (eluding the alchemists’ grasp). Thus Smith’s elevation to the status of the Magus was both a curse as well as a blessing, which may well have suited his overall outlook, informed as it was by arcane belief systems, in particular a penchant for alchemy and the occult.
Smith has constantly played games with interviewers, mixing imagination and memory when recounting his past. It is no surprise that he had a rather disdainful attitude towards “facts”, for a fact connotes something fixed and rigid, whilst Smith preferred reality to be more elastic.
Smith was born in 1923 in Portland, Oregon. His childhood experiences undoubtedly influenced his future interests: his parents were versed in Theosophy and active in occultism, and Smith has recalled that as a child “there were a great number of books on occultism and alchemy always in the basement”. It did not take very long for Smith the occultist to emerge, and he would later claim at various moments that he was the son of Alistair Crowley (though this claim is extremely dubious). Smith’s father taught him to draw the symbols of the Kabbalah, which led to his life-long involvement with magic and the Ordi Templi Orientis (of which Crowley had been head), as well as his intermingling of art and magic. His father also, according to Smith, gave him a blacksmith shop when he was twelve and told him to convert lead into gold, thus stimulating his alchemical pursuits. Again, this latter claim seems to tell us more about Smith’s imagination than it does about any ‘truth’, pointing to the importance that alchemy played in his creative endeavours.
Smith grew up near an Indian Lummi reservation, where his mother taught, and this undoubtedly influenced his abiding interest in cultural anthropology. He also developed other lifelong interests at an early age: linguistics, filmmaking, painting and music. By the age of 15 he was engaged in his first archival documentation of folk culture, recording hours of tapes of Lummi and Salish songs and rituals, as well as compiling a dictionary of several Puget sound dialects. This was a project that continued Smith’s compulsion to map the world according to his own abstract principles. He had at this time already begun to write down his own transcription methods for visualising the music using diagrams. These efforts were attempts to record the “unknown Indian life” and were borne out of his curiosity concerning the links between music and existence. These links were attributable to his wide-ranging interests as filtered through occultism and magic. For Smith, things needed to be documented not merely in order to preserve historical snapshots, but rather to shuffle such snapshots around and to discover their hidden meanings, as well as to filter them through alien codes so that alchemical transformations were produced.
After Smith had finished school he stumbled into the beatnik life. He had spent two years at the University of Washington between 1942–1944 studying anthropology and working as a teaching assistant, but eventually dropped out of college after experiencing marijuana for the first time during a trip to Berkeley. He subsequently felt that he couldn’t go back to his old life and eventually relocated to California. It would appear that Smith’s pot-instincts were justified here, as he had by this time already began to make abstract films, and in California there was a large bohemian arts scene that would eventually prove receptive to the films that he was producing. He became involved in the Art in Cinema series of programmes, established by Frank Stauffacher, which screened a number of experimental films at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between 1946–51. Smith also forged close links with a number of other experimental artists, including Jordan Belson and the Whitney brothers. Such contacts helped to establish his films on the avant-garde circuit, and they were continued when Smith later moved to New York in the 1950s, which was becoming a hotbed of underground film activity. Here Smith forged links with critic and curator Jonas Mekas, and became involved in the Filmmakers Co-op, which distributed artists’ films, including those of Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith.
Smith’s earliest films (particularly those numbered 1-7, though 6 is lost) are those least directly associated with his cabalistic pursuits, and also his most geometrically abstract films. No. 1 (ca. 1946–48) was hand-drawn onto the film itself, thus avoiding any need for a camera (importantly, Smith saw these early films as extensions of his paintings). Alternating coloured rectangles and circles occasionally dance around the screen with hand-scrawled imprecision, against a vibrant, changeable, mesh backdrop. It’s not an easy film to describe, due to its extreme abstraction and because of what P. Adams Sitney has called “the excessive instability of its imagery” The film does not conform to dominant narrative cinema, eschewing the concrete references provided by cinematography and narrative. Yet, whilst it does not provide these pleasures, it does contain more sensorial effects, providing space to marvel at moving forms in and of themselves.
This mode of abstract cinema already had a lineage that stretched back to 1920s avant-garde filmmaking, which itself largely emerged out of the static visual arts. In Germany, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling produced films derived from scroll paintings, in which geometrical shapes were animated in a rhythmic manner. Smith’s No. 1 shares some similarities with Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921), though is distinguished by its colour and “direct” painting methods. Smith was also influenced by another German abstract filmmaker, Oskar Fischinger, who began making films in the late 1920s and who also contributed to Disney’s Fantasia (1940). None of these figures had actually painted directly onto film, and Smith was disappointed when he found out the New Zealand filmmaker Len Lye had. Lye was working in England and had produced A Colour Box in 1935, a hand-painted film which advertised the General Post Office. Smith’s film is vaguely similar to Lye’s, though A Colour Box features more wavy figures, a greater sense of offscreen space and less depth than No. 1.
What, though, were the connections between Smith’s more hermetic interests and his first film? One explanation is the notion of synæsthesia, one of Smith’s interests that also preoccupied earlier abstract filmmakers (particularly Fischinger and Lye). Synæsthesia – in which information in one sense is perceived subjectively in another sense (i.e., music producing different colour impressions) – is a phenomenon that has been recognised for more than a century and a half by scientists. Synæsthesia challenged many existing scientific tenets, particularly through challenging researchers to produce “scientific evidence” concerning its existence, and the manner by which it merged the “objective” and the “subjective”. It proved attractive to many artists and occult figures in the late 19th and early 20th century (many psychologists who were researching synæsthesia from a scientific angle tended to conduct psychical research, such as telepathy and somnambulism). The phenomenon was thus attractive to those who were disenchanted with the more rigorously rationalised and mechanised world as posited, and shaped by, normative scientific theories.
The interest in synæsthesia as “non-rational”, containing the capacity to transcend “mundane existence”, stretches back to the Romantics, who used synæsthetic metaphors in order to construct an objective world that was more in tune with human subjectivity. It was, as Dann points out, a mode of experience that represented liberation from the laws and confinements of the physical world. The Symbolists, too, employed it as a tool by which to reject realist art; they probed the depths of the inner world by using a number of different symbols built upon cross-sensory metaphors. As well as artists, many occult researchers saw synæsthetics as visionaries, demonstrating the evolution of perceptual capabilities. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, for example, believed that synæsthesia was a way of sensing the astral world (whilst Theosophists Annie Besant and C. W. Leadbeater produced many cross-sensory illustrations in their 1905 book, Thought Forms). And whilst the gift of synæsthesia was rare, many found that drugs could aid a mode of experiencing the world on an absorbed, sensual level. In the 19th century, for example, hashish was seen by many artists as aiding sensuous experience, often resulting in muddled sensory states (LSD and DMT would later become more powerful sources for stimulating perceptual fusion).
It is noteworthy, then, that Smith himself experienced synæsthetic sensations when taking pot, remarking that he saw “little colored balls” when listening to Bessie Smith and also having a revelation listening to Dizzie Gillespie when high, in which he “literally saw all kinds of colored flashes.” It was at this point that he decided music could be added to his films (originally they were made silent). This is not, however, to de-emphasize the importance of his early silent films. Smith’s interest in cross-sensory perception was already evident in his attempts to transcribe music and was carried through to his early filmmaking.
His first film was made by hand-drawing onto the film strip, whilst his next two films were batiked, a process involving successive layerings of dye, through which masked areas of the strip form abstractions. This resulted in tighter films in terms of formal organisation. Whilst No. 1 appears to be very freeform in its structure, the next two move towards a more calculated mode of abstraction: in No. 2 (ca. 1946-48), circles swoop across the frame and swarm within it. The film uses many more geometrical forms than the first, and structures them into occasional motifs, thus creating a more insistent rhythmic pulse. Yet the rhythms are never tightly structured into entirely predictable patterns: some movements are more random, thus retaining a sense of freeform abstraction. The structural mode of arrangement seems to be directly referenced in the predominant grid motif of No. 3 (ca. 1947–49). Simple grids at the beginning intermingle with other shapes, such as diamonds. As the film progresses, grids intermittently grow more complex and dominate the screen, occasionally expanding to reveal vibrant coloured cells.
It was Smith’s original intention to screen No. 2 with a Dizzie Gillespie recording, “Guacha Guero”. This not only links it to his own direct synæsthetic experiences but also to his No. 4 (ca. 1949), which begins with a filmed sequence showing his painting, Manteca (ca. 1950). “Manteca” was the name of another Dizzie Gillespie song, and Smith’s painting of the same name was another of his attempts to subjectively transcribe music, with certain strokes representing different notes. The resulting painting is a conglomeration of coiling twists and curls, surrounding more intricate and huddled shapes (such as circles and paisley patterns). It is a kind of document of Smith’s direct, impressionistic encounter with the music, an attempt to transform his sensations into a codified form. The photograph of the painting at the beginning of the film seems somewhat out of kilter, yet may be related to Smith’s attempts to place the dialectic between his films, paintings and musical inspiration at centre stage.
For Smith, his films were secondary to his paintings, but I find that the films – moving in time as they do – are more satisfactory synæsthetic devices. It was not possible for Smith to capture the intricacies of individual paintings upon the tiny celluloid strip, and this may have given rise to his personal view that the paintings were superior. The films, though, produce complex configurations of shifting shapes through time, bombarding the senses in order to invite deeper viewer absorption.
In No. 4, the influence of Fischinger on Smith’s work becomes more marked. The film works with a black background and white shapes. It begins with two small circles dancing in tandem across the screen, as well as decreasing and increasing in size to give an impression of depth. These are joined, via superimposition, by two simple grilles, and then by a larger grille which swishes from left to right and vice versa at such a speed to produced a blurred effect. Gradually the forms become more complex: larger, more elaborate grilles as well as clusters of less geometrically precise dots. Smith here is playing upon the tension between precise shapes and rhythms, and less regulated patterns and movements. The simple, regulated forms become more indistinct and murky through alchemical transformation. In No. 4, one can detect echoes of Fischinger’s Study no. 7 (1931) and Study no. 8 (1932), which also feature geometrical forms dancing with precision against a plain background. Fischinger’s films, though, seem to play upon a more regulated, complex mode of patterned mutation, as well as featuring more elaborate curled forms.
If No. 4 is vaguely reminiscent of Fischinger, No. 5 (ca. 1950) is more directly related to the great animator’s work and this is made explicit in its sub-title, Homage to Oskar Fischinger. An extension of No. 4, No. 5 expands that film’s two-coloured format. It begins with a static red triangle, then a green square, and then a red circle. It is as though we are being introduced to the protagonists of the film: simple, static shapes out of which complexity and rhythmic interaction will be produced. The film is very much in line with the movements of No. 4, but with the addition of concentric circles, occasionally visible through the coloured shapes, as well as circles dancing around within (and bumping into) other circles. No. 7 (ca. 1950–51) again features nods to Fischinger, in particular through a more sustained use of concentric moving circles as well as the motif of shapes composed of small triangles, which seem to explode outwards with projectile force. These motifs directly refer to Fischinger’s Allegretto (1936) and create a sense of hypnotic absorption. The film also bombards the viewer with a number of alternating colour transitions used in conjunction with shapes that emerge from deep screen space. In addition to using moving circles and circular patterns, Smith again makes use of grille patterns at times within the film. The pace of movements and colour alternations intensify at various moments, as though attempting to overwhelm the viewer’s sensorial apparatus.
The films numbered 1-3 seem to be related by their hand-painted techniques, whilst 4, 5 and 7 also feel of a piece through their use of optical printing. The third phase in Smith’s filmmaking, according to his own description, concerns “semi-realistic animated collages made as part of my alchemical labours between 1957 and 1962” (though, as I have suggested, all of his films should to some degree be related to his alchemical preoccupations). No. 10 (ca. 1957) is the first surviving film from this “phase”, and in it we can detect another shift in Smith’s filmmaking, but also a notable continuity from No. 7 (existence of films 8 and 9 would have no doubt helped in placing such continuity within a greater context). The shift is evident in his use of more “concrete” symbols and through the use of collaged materials. Yet the reference to more “elementary”. Geometric forms is still present as both a background upon which the collaged material takes place (and interacts with), as well as a formal template by which such material is arranged upon the screen (i.e., the more concrete material is at times manipulated according to geometrical principles). Smith’s collage imagery in this film more directly alludes to his particular interests, drawing as they do on “Cabalistic symbolism, Indian chiromancy […] dancing, Buddhist mandalas, and Renaissance alchemy”. The use of concrete imagery, however, does not move Smith towards the depiction of a concrete narrative. Rather, these swarming transformations continue his interest in the film as an alchemical process. Whilst interpretations may be placed upon the film (particularly regarding rebirth and spiritual renewal), its textual status is extremely slippery.
Whilst No. 11 (ca. 1957) is in many ways similar to the previous film, No. 12 (more commonly known as Heaven and Earth Magic, ca. 1957–62) is often regarded as Smith’s masterwork. Though it again uses collage techniques, it is a much longer and more ambitious work than anything he had previously created. Such ambition was not only evident in the scale of the work itself, but also extended to the conditions whereby it was to be shown. Sitney has written that, whilst the film is in black and white, Smith had built a projector with colour filters to tint the images, whilst he also planned for the entire film to be projected through a series of masking slides, which would transform the shape of the film. These slides were modelled on important images within the film, such as the recurrent watermelon or egg symbols. Apparently this only occurred for a single preview screening at Steinway Hall in New York. Smith also wanted to design seats in the shape of important motifs from the film (such as the watermelon) and to electrically manipulate the movement of the seats in accordance with the shapes and colours on screen. Such an ambitious plan, which would have greatly extended Smith’s sensorial assaults, unfortunately never materialised.
The film itself again references a number of sources, including neurological texts, the Kabbalah, as well as the inauguration of the London sewers. The latter event, which is referenced within the film, provides much of the source material as Smith obtained many of the film’s images from an illustrated magazine featuring the sewers. Smith was also influenced by Daniel Paul Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, which documents the author’s two nervous breakdowns (in the late 19th century) and describes them as visionary experiences through which he made contact with God. The themes of mentality and divination run through Heaven and Earth Magic, which features a loose story in which a woman chases a dog who has stolen her watermelon. After going to a dentist she then begins to experience a number of hallucinations under anæsthetic (directly referencing Smith’s interest in the work of Canadian neurologist Dr Wildner Penfield, whose brain surgery on epileptics supposedly produced visions). This framing story may move closer to narrative again, but such a narrative thread (and a strange, rather illogical one at that) only produces confusion in the viewer who remains attached to unpicking a coherent plot. The fantasies of the woman produce a melange of associations, a convenient way by which Smith could again produce a welter of transformations.
A very loose plot does hover over a wealth of fantastical images, in which the woman ascends to heaven before the diminution of the anaesthetic brings her back down to earth (directly indicating Smith’s belief in the importance of drugs as mystical mediators). This plot, however, is merely a backdrop to the more complex details of the film. A single “explanation” cannot contain its complexity, but it is clear that the importance of the mind is paramount. There is the central trope of the effects of drugs on the mind; there is the motif of a little man, who effectively represents the homunculus of the woman; and there is the associational structure of the film itself, which alludes to the unconscious. In fact, Noël Carroll has argued that the film models its very structure on the processes of the mind itself. The importance of the mind and its unconscious processes were clearly important to Smith in the making of the film, and indeed informed its construction: he often worked upon it between sleeping bouts in his studio, in which his dreams directly fed into the work. A similar process of associational sound construction also accompanies the images. Smith composed his own soundtrack for this film, in which a number of concrete noises are combined with the visuals, sometimes referring to them, sometimes creating curious and confusing contrasts.
The nature of associational, unconscious connections, in which logical relations are often flouted in favour of curious alterations, very much alerts us to the similarities between this film and the work of the surrealists, who also fed upon dream imagery in order to break down logical expectations. Indeed, Smith has talked of the surrealist influence in his work, focusing on his methods as akin to automatic writing. Automatic writing involved the production of text in ways that bypassed the filtering censor of rational thought, tapping into the unconscious, or opening oneself to outside mystical influences. Automatic writing was one activity that the surrealists housed under the rubric of psychic automatism. Other activities included séances and the game “exquisite corpse”, in which people composed a sentence or drawing unknown to other players on folded paper, resulting in the production of a collaborative, chance work.
Smith’s last phase of filmmaking is more difficult to discuss for a number of reasons, which include: the fact that many of them are incomplete, unavailable or difficult to project (for instance, Mahagonny/No. 18 (ca.1970–80), was designed for projection on four screens). There seem to be two main developments characterising Smith’s filmmaking during the latter part of his career: first, his aborted major project of reworking Wizard of Oz, of which only one sequence – “The Approach to Emerald City” – and a number of rushes survive. (These extracts have appeared in Oz/No. 13 (ca. 1962), Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream/No. 16 (ca. 1967), No. 19 (ca. 1980) and Fragments of a Faith Forgotten/No. 20 (ca. 1981)); second, extending the incorporation of more “concrete” material, the use of photographed film.
Smith’s Wizard of Oz film (co-animated with Joanne Ziprin) would have chronologically followed his Heaven and Earth Magic. The project was begun in the early 1960s and received major financial backing from a consortium (which included Elizabeth Taylor!). This was to be a widescreen film, using a number of coloured glass plates in front of the lens at varying distances in order to create strange effects. Smith drew on a number of sources in order to produce a cabalistic environment within which the Oz story would unfold: these included the drawings of Hieronymous Bosch, Tibetan mandalas and sketchings of microscopic life by biologist Ernst Haeckel. Unfortunately, the major backer of the film, Arthur Young, died and the project was abandoned.
It may well have been the expense and laboriousness of animation that led Smith to use photographed film (though these later films did include animated segments). This follows on from his increasing use of concrete references in his films, though the way he used such material was deliberately obscure. Late Superimpositions/No. 14, for example contained a mass of jumbled, multiply exposed and superimposed images. Smith shot much footage, including images of a Kiowa ritual and autobiographical material, in unedited 100-foot reels, and then pieced these reels together into a rhythmic whole. Mahagonny – loosely based upon Brecht and Weill’s opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny – was an extension of No. 14, in which autobiographical film, animation, street symbols and images of nature are combined into a sensual, fluctuating flow.
Smith’s occult and alchemical interests are important to an understanding of his films. Such interests fed into all of his creative activities, which connected to his wide-ranging, arcane interests in a number of different ways. His most famous achievement, of course, was not his films but his collection of music, The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952), which is seen as a crucial benchmark in the folk revival of the 1950s. Even this item was arranged in a symbolic manner, with each record in the set being assigned an abstract symbol representative of the elements; whilst Smith’s accompanying booklet was pieced together in the manner of a surrealist collage (reflecting the way in which the anthology itself was a musical collage).
Smith’s occult interests, in conjunction with his difficulties negotiating many of life’s practicalities, may on the surface appear to have removed him from the “social”. This was not the case, however: not only did he rely on a number of social networks in order to bring his work to visibility, he also tended to see his work in social terms. For instance, he spoke of the Anthology in terms of stirring up social change. He never actually outlined any specific ways in which social change should or could arise, yet firmly saw his work as relating to the ways in which we experience the world. Thus we should see Smith’s work in personal-political terms, as mixing things up in order to derange the senses, allowing one to see things anew, and thus for social change to emerge out of personal transformation. Again, such a project is very much in line with the aims of the surrealists, whose illogical juxtapositions were created in order to jolt the habitual, bourgeois mind out of its conventional ways of perceiving the world. As with the surrealists, Smith approached life in an artistic manner, so that distinctions between art and life became meaningless. As with the surrealists, he rearranged everyday elements in new ways in order to show us how the fantastic was embedded in the mundane (and how “mundanity” was a consequence of how we perceived the world, rather than a reflection the external world).
We should also think of Smith’s work as an attempt to overcome oppositional boundaries, which would have been connected to rationality.
Within his films, for example, abstraction and concreteness, the ancient and the modern, vision and hearing, precision and randomness, to name but a few examples, were merged to varying degrees. Likewise, Smith refused to be pinned down to a single creative endeavour, his filmmaking merely one element amongst other dimensions of his practical achievements. Rigid classification was also anathema to Smith’s way of thinking because it defied the alchemical spirit. Smith continually made connections between anything and everything. Connections, for Smith, were forever in flux, so that his work was a refusal of the status quo. Hence the fact that his films – whilst being connected by many concerns – were nevertheless always developing new modes of registration. This may also help explain Smith’s notorious destructive impulses: it was as though once he had synthesised a number of disparate elements into an artistic work, then that work itself was in danger of becoming fixed. This would also explain why Smith would often rework older artistic works (at least those that had not been destroyed), as though hinting that such works were only of worth if they could further contribute to the process of alchemical transformation.
It is most important now to change the smell of the Beatnik. Instead of using,
for example, the word “shit” so often in their poems, I suggest that they
tactfully substitute the word “roses” wherever the other word occurs.
This is a small adjustment.
It is just as AVANT GARDE so art will suffer no loss.
Instead of saying “MERDE” they will be saying “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Just
as AVANT GARDE, you see, with considerable improvement in the effect created.
Somebody Blew Up America
They say its some terrorist,
It wasn’t our American terrorists
It wasn’t the Klan or the Skin heads
Or the them that blows up nigger
Churches, or reincarnates us on Death Row
It wasn’t Trent Lott
Or David Duke or Giuliani
Or Schundler, Helms retiring
The gonorrhea in costume
The white sheet diseases
That have murdered black people
Terrorized reason and sanity
Most of humanity, as they pleases
They say (who say?)
Who do the saying
Who is them paying
Who tell the lies
Who in disguise
Who had the slaves
Who got the bux out the Bucks Read the rest of this entry »
One enters Pilgrim as though it is the death-house. One sits down in the ward
and waits. 5 doctors approach, the patient weeps.
Shock treatment is prepared. One wakes dazed.
Allen comes, he says, “Don’t argue with them, do as they say.”
Time asserts itself again. You go home. You tire yourself out sleeping
with women. Then you pause. You think, “You are a writer, you should do
It is tiring to understand what they are saying to you, you talk about
Nerval and you talk about Proust.
A young man comes up to you. He is of Arabian descent. He mentions Nasser
and begins an anti-semitic diatribe.
Dr. Rath is a young man. Of Rumanian-Jewish descent. A background more Read the rest of this entry »
A March 14, 1974 article that Beat poet Michael McClure wrote for Rolling Stone concerning Bob Dylan…
I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake’s voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating.
Memory is a beautiful thing — as I get older I learn to cherish it. It seems so beautiful or ugly that it is often more than real. Sometimes the vision is lit up with imagination; sometimes the imaginings have the shapes of real acts and gestures we call experience.
Experience is physical matter — and there is no sense in hanging onto it. It is a pleasure to let memory pour through the consciousness like nuggets of gold and moss agates and crystals of quartz clicking through the fingers at a rock shop. One never plans to keep those stones but the pleasure of feeling them is lovely.
The autoharp Bob Dylan gave me early in 1966 sat on the mantelpiece for six weeks before I picked it up and strummed it. A black and magical autoharp. Afraid of music, I had always felt totally unmusical — except in appreciation. Bob had asked me what instrument I’d like to play (I was writing song lyrics). I said autoharp out of the clear blue though I had no picture of what an autoharp looked like. There must have been people playing them on farms in my Kansas childhood.
San Francisco poets were poor in 1965 and it was an impressive present and it committed me to music. There was the interest in writing lyrics and perhaps a new way to use rhyme.
Rock had mutual attraction for all; a common tribal dancing ground whether we were poets, or printers, or sculptors, it was a form we all shared. I spent a year and a half learning to play autoharp in an eccentric way and wrote songs like “The Blue Lyon Laughs,” “The Allen Ginsberg for President Waltz” and “Come on God, and Buy Me a Mercedes Benz.”
I bought an old amplifier and stood in front of the mirror whanging on the autoharp. Obsessed with John Keats’ question: What weapon has the lion but himself, I tried to make it a song and sang it so many times so loudly that I wonder what the neighbors thought in those old days when acid rock was a baby.
In December 1965, when we had been bombing Vietnam for eight months, Dylan read “Poisoned Wheat,” a long anti-war poem of mine. One day as we were eating chicken, I handed him another copy. He left huge greasy fingerprints and he did it with complete aplomb. It seemed very non-materialistic and natural not to notice the blotches. It seemed right to treat works of art as part of the transformations of life. Later I gave the copy to a girl who wanted Bob’s fingerprints.
The first person to play a Dylan album for me was the poet David Meltzer. It was Dylan’s first album, and I heard it shortly after it came out in March or April of 1962. I could not understand what David heard in the album. In high school I knew people at the University of Chicago and in New York City who were singing like that — just some hillbilly-intellectual music that I’d gotten bored with earlier. In retrospect, Dylan must have shown a direct creative thrust without the “Art” self-consciousness of other singers.
Early in 1965 a friend of my wife Joanna came to visit and brought the Dylan album with “She Belongs to Me.” The album had changed her life-image from a tragic loser to a proud artist. Joanna heard and understood Dylan at once and completely, I think.
In 1965 everyone had been after me to listen to Dylan carefully — to sit down and listen to the words and the music. I absolutely did not want to hear Dylan. I imagined, without admitting it to myself, that Dylan was a threat to poetry — or to my poetry. I sensed that a new mode of poetry, or rebirth of an old one, might replace my mode. In the long run, rock lyrics have sensitized many people to words and brought them to discover poetry.
At last I could not resist Joanna’s demand that I hear the album. We had a banged-up record player in the hallway at the top of the stairs. Late at night, in the pale-gray hallway-light, Joanna sat me down in front of the speaker and told me to listen to the words. I began to hear what the words were saying, not just the jangling of the guitar and the harmonica and the whining nasal voice. The next thing I knew I was crying. It was “Gates of Eden”: “At dawn my lover comes to me/And tells me of her dreams/With no attempts to shovel the glimpse/Into the ditch of what each one means . . .”
I had the idea that I was hallucinating, that it was William Blake’s voice coming out of the walls and I stood up and put my hands on the walls and they were vibrating.
Then I went back to those people who had tried to get me to listen and I told them that I thought the revolution had begun. “Gates of Eden” and those other songs seemed to open up the post-Freudian and post-existentialist era. Everyone didn’t have to use the old explanations and the mildewed rationalities any longer.
By the time I met Bob, his poetry was important to me in the way that Kerouac’s writing was. It was not something to imitate or be influenced by; it was the expression of a unique individual and his feelings and perceptions.
There is no way to second-guess poetry or to predict poetry or to convince a poet that the very best songs in the world are poetry if they are not. Bob Dylan is a poet; whether he has cherubs in his hair and fairy wings, or feet of clay, he is a poet. Those other people called “rock poets,” “song poets,” “folk poets,” or whatever the rock critic is calling them this week, will be better off if they are appreciated as songwriters.
At a party after his concert at the Berkeley Community Theater in December, 1965, Dylan told me that he had not read Blake and did not know the poetry. That seemed hard to believe so I recited a few stanzas. One was the motto to “The Songs of Innocence and Experience” which begins: “The Good are attracted by Men’s perceptions/And think not for themselves/Till Experience teaches them to catch/And to cage the Fairies & Elves . . .”
Bob was sitting on the floor and everyone crowded around him. Joanna, who has a tendency to go to sleep when she’s pleased and in a crowd, started to sleep with her head in my lap. Someone told her in an ugly way that she ought to wake up — that if she didn’t want to hear what was being said, there were plenty of others who would like her place close to Dylan. One wonders if those were honors being paid to a popular poet, or a worshipful voice in the crowd that the poet argues against.
In 1965 that first Dylan concert in the Bay Area was at the Masonic Auditorium. In those days the Masonic seemed huge and rather plush. It was the first time I’d heard Bob Dylan in person. The records were beautiful but this was better — an immaculate performance with inflections or nuances different from the albums. Dylan was purest poet. Like an elf being, so perfect was he and so ferocious in his persistence for perfection. There was a verge of anger in him waiting for any obstacle to the event.
After the Masonic Auditorium concert we went to the Villa Romano Motel, where Bob and the Hawks were staying, and met Al Grossman. He, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and I spoke for a while. Joan said that Allen and I should be Bob’s conscience. It seemed a beautiful thing to say, though not clear at the time. Later Joan wrote that we should hold Bob in our consciousness.
A night or two later, after another concert, there was a party for Bob in San Francisco. Ken Kesey bounced through the door with a few of his Merry Pranksters. Ruddy with the vigor of good health, Los Gatos sunshine and acid, Kesey immediately hit Dylan with something like, “Hey, man, you should try playing while you’re high on acid.” Without a pause Dylan said, “I did and it threw off my timing.” There was no way to one-up Bob or to get ahead of him at any level or any time. You knew that pop stars like Dylan or Lennon drove around in black cars and they were careful and they were very fast and they were staying where they were and they were not kidding.
Nine years later, on the plane going to Dylan’s Philadelphia concert, I reread Robert Duncan’s small book, Seventeenth Century Suite. Duncan has vowed not to commercially publish any of his new poetry for 15 years, so that no pressure would direct him to write anything other than what he wishes most deeply. By canceling formal publication he was essentially vowing to please only himself. Robert made an edition of 200 copies of Seventeenth Century Suite and gave them to friends for Christmas gifts.
How incredibly far it is from Duncan’s private edition of Seventeenth Century Suite to Dylan’s millions of albums. Both are fine poetry and though they seem poles apart, they almost touch in their subtle images and music. One can imagine the radiance and spectrum of the poetry in between.
It is a mistake to wonder which poetry will matter 30 years from now. We should wonder what is wrong if Dylan’s songs do not mean something to us today. We are all moved by spiritual experiences. For some of us the spiritual experiences can be the grossest hit songs or the most kitsch painting. It is really a matter of whether we are ogres or elves — or something in between drawn one way or the other at one moment and another.
The Philadelphia concert made the Masonic Auditorium of San Francisco 1965 seem like a jam session in a small nightclub. The crowd was not in their late 20s and early 30s as friends in San Francisco had predicted — this was an audience of nice-looking, scruffy young people in their early 20s. The tri-sexuals and glitter bunnies were obvious by their absence. All in all, except for a number of bodies (making one think of the pictures of a Tokyo beach), one did not mind being there. There were some of the best people around, a part of the backbone of the future — the people with hope and some enthusiasm in a country run over for eight years by the War Machine.
The lights went down accompanied by a burst of enthusiasm from the 19,000 living souls.
To open the first set houselights came down into darkness very fast. Colored spotlights flashed to the stage and banks of colored lights shone. The Band and Bob Dylan almost ran onstage and began playing without a pause while the audience was still cheering their enthusiasm.
There were two thoughts that someone had imparted to me. One was that Bob was doing his old songs as rock for the new rock generation who did not know him well. The second was that Dylan was in danger of disappearing into his own creation; that as one of the founders of the giant rock scene he had spawned so many followers, imitators, and Dylan-influenced groups and movements that he stood in danger of blending in among his own offspring and hybrids — ending up in the public eye as another surviving folk-rocker.
Dylan a grown man . . . a young man still, but a man. The elfish lightness of foot is gone and the perfection of timing is replaced by sureness; the nasal boy’s voice replaced by a man’s voice.
Another poet’s singing came to mind: Allen Ginsberg at the 1966 Human Be-In singing his strange “Peace in America — Peace in Vietnam.” Ginsberg introduced me to Dylan in 1965.
Now Dylan is official culture — like Brecht and Weill. He played “Mr. Jones” — in 1965 a glove thrown in the public face, a statement of revolt; now it is Art.
I could not take my eyes off the lights, hypnotized by the spots of amber, lavender, blue, red that kept playing on Dylan. The banks of lights up above the bandstand stage to the right and left kept bleeding and blinking off and on in time with the drama and melody of the songs. Bright lights kept popping in the blackness — intensely bright and silvery white in their flash. Flashbulbs! It seemed crazy that anyone sitting three blocks from the bandstand in darkness would be setting off flashbulbs. It seemed demented.
“My God, it is a long way since the Avalon Ballroom,” I thought. A long way since the lightshows by Tony Martin and Bruce Conner and the smallness of the dance floors and the tribal dancers of 1966. We felt so crowded together, transpersonal and magical in those days. In Philadelphia what I saw was gigantic! The incredible subtlety of the earlier lightshows was surpassed by the blending of colors, the motility of the spotlights and sheer candlepower. The devastating volume of the music made it unpleasant trying to pick Dylan’s words out of the roar.
One became aware that the enormous volume of the amplified music mimicked, as it bounced off the walls, the roar of the crowd. The music became a response to itself. The effect would trigger in the audience a response to the music. Loud cheering. When it happened I wondered if that was entertainment or ethological manipulation — or if entertainment could be ethological manipulation.
I loved what I could hear of Dylan’s new love songs — they seemed inspired. The melodies, lost in the amplified blare, were not impressive but I was able to hear: “May you always stay courageous/Be forever young . . .”
In the darkness at the end of the concert, the audience lit matches and cigarette lighters, making a Milky Way of wavering lights and cheers — a universe of tiny flaming stars.
If a scholar goes seriously into an analysis of the poetry convergent with the rock movement there will be interesting contrasts between Lennon, Kerouac, Dylan and Ginsberg. The whole thing started with the poets of the Fifties. It was an alchemical-biological movement, not a literary one. An English group with shiny jackets called the Silver Beetles took Jack Kerouac’s word “Beat,” grew their hair out and became The Beatles. It was beautiful! Bob Dylan’s “Dylan” is from Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet so popular in the Fifties. Allen Ginsberg asked if I’d heard that Dylan was titling his album Planet Waves. I asked Allen what he thought of that. Allen said, “Charming! Delightful! Great!” I think so too. Allen’s last book was Planet News. There’s plenty of room for feedback back and forth.
At the Toronto concert, Marshall McLuhan and his wife were in the audience. McLuhan told me that he had played Dylan albums to a poetry class that morning. McLuhan believes that rock & roll comes out of the English language — using its rhythms and inflections as a basis for melody. (Exactly what I believe — and also that it comes out of the Beat mutation or has the same root.) The future of rock, he felt, would be the same as that of the language; that it would have ups and downs as the language does.
As a mode, the ballad and story-song seem mined out, I said. Anyone can write a story-song in almost any manner and it becomes uninteresting to listen to. McLuhan felt it is the background, not the mode, that gives out. The background is violence, and Dylan was singing violently. “Violence is the result of a loss of identity — the more loss the greater the violence.”
Sitting among 19,000 people McLuhan said, “Gravity is like acoustic space — the center is everywhere.”
I told Marshall that I wanted to go out into the hallway in the last set of the concert when Dylan and the Band played “Like a Rolling Stone.” The night before I had been carried away and wept so hard that I did not want to have the experience again. This was my third concert and the incredible volume of the speakers was beginning to undermine my nerves.
I first heard “Like a Rolling Stone” when Joanna and I were driving in an open MG across the Arizona-California desert with our daughter curled up asleep behind us next to our Russian wolfhound and our pet black-and-white rat sleeping in his cage on the floor of the sports car. The moon was on the horizon. A song never hit me so hard except as a child when my mother sang to me. Much of our poetic sensibility may have its origins with cradle songs — I remember my mother singing songs from Disney cartoons and movies and reciting Mother Goose.
Dylan sang well, putting on extra temperament, and I wondered if he consciously or unconsciously put force behind his lines about professors and critics.
After the concert there was a moment to introduce McLuhan and his wife to Bill Graham and Barry Imhoff and Dylan before Bob and the Band went back onstage for their encore.
Pouring sweat, his face puffy, his eyes partially blanked by the concert he’d just delivered, Bob smiled as much as he could. In the auditorium almost 20,000 people were screaming and yelling for him to come back so he could reconnect them briefly to the godhead.
When Dylan and the Band ran back onstage, Marshall said that this was his first rock concert. Graham replied: “I wish I could say the same thing!” Bill had been concerned because everything was going too well. There is a theater superstition that if small things don’t go wrong then something major will.
Dylan has slipped into people’s dream baskets. He has been incorporated into their myths and fantasies. They worry about him: whether he is understood, what his next album will be like, if he is appreciated by the press, whether he might get a cold and how he performs his pieces.
My particular fantasy is that he is underpaid. I would not stand in front of 20,000 people and those lights and amplifiers and do what he is doing for all the dollars in the world or for a stack of gold records.
Bob is a prisoner, of his fame and fortune. When he says, “I’m anyone who lives in a vault . . .,” he means himself. He is a real poet who lives the poems that he sings. A low of people who hold Dylan in their dream baskets think the songs are a confection — that they are cute and sweet the way Rod McKuen is. But everything I’ve seen convinces me that Bob is the real thing, that he is no joke, that he has no answers, that he is a poet, that he is trapped most of the time.
The several new songs that I heard in the concerts were domestic (about wife and home) and inspirational. I hope this is the direction that Dylan is going. It would be good to see lots of young Americans put back on their feet — not through renewed faith in the old values that have been shot down, but through greater awareness of themselves on an earth that was once beautiful — and that still has pockets of beauty. I’d like everyone to begin to get some sense of what, and who, they are — and a further sense that something can be done to elevate the vicious mindlessness of politics and bio-environmental destruction and the extinction of the species of living plants and animals. A lot of the poets are moving in that direction — Ginsberg, Snyder, Duncan, Creeley, Waldman.
Thinking of Dylan’s poetics I had brought along some books as background material: Seventeenth Century Suite by Robert Duncan, poems by Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, Black Music by Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer.”
In Black Music, published in 1968, Baraka says that the content of white-rock, anti-war and anti-authoritarian songs generalizes “passionate luxurious ego demonstrations”; that the artists want to prove that they are good humans though in fact, Baraka contends, they are really sensitive antennae of the brutalized and brutalizing white social mass. Baraka insists that is a cop-out and the music is still wealthy white kids playing around. We should remember Baraka’s viewpoint; it may be narrow but light sometimes passes through a thin slit. The Beatles did not write anti-war songs. When asked about that they replied that all their songs are against war. There may be some beams of light in that crack too.
In Toronto I read Kafka’s “Josephine the Singer.” A mouse-narrator relates an account of a woman-mouse named Josephine who is a singer. She proclaims herself a great artist and the other mice congregate to hear her at the risk of their lives. But nothing will satisfy her ambition. She has a coterie of worshipful followers. Many of the mice people, however, are not at all sure that what she does, as fascinating and important to them as it is, is singing. They think that it may only be “piping” and perhaps it is her childishness (as she reflects simple attitudes of her people back to them) that is attractive: “Here is someone making a ceremonial performance out of the usual thing.” Josephine demands freedom from the labor quota of the mouse people. But no matter how much they love or worship her they will not free her from the work law. Josephine disappears — perhaps has gone into hiding — to force people to accept her demands. Anyone interested in Dylan and/or poetry should look at the piece.
I thought of the creation of a demigod and prophet that took place in the multicolored spotlights and amplification and banks of stagelights — better known to the modern world than Plato or Confucius or Buddha; watched by thousands with millions wishing to see him in other cities. One can become a statue of one’s self, mimicking what one is in eternity. Immortality (or its substitute) can be turned off and on and directed by voice over wires and captured on disks of black plastic. There is the possibility that the background has swallowed up the object and that we are in the process of whiting-out. If so, I think we stand in need of it.
“Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be the expression of the imagination; and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an everchanging wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them . . .”
Said Shelley in 1821 in A Defense of Poetry.
A Sept. 16, 2010 Newsweek review by Jennie Yabroff of the 2010 film concerning Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”…
When is a biopic not just a biopic? When, like ‘Howl,’ it’s got poetry in its soul.
The movie opens in black and white with a bespectacled poet adjusting his glasses and preparing to read. In the audience, college kids drink wine from glass jugs and blow cigarette smoke dramatically skyward. The poet begins. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” It’s Allen Ginsberg (James Franco), the poem is “Howl,” and this is the point at which a traditional biopic would flash back to Ginsberg’s childhood, then proceed forward in a dutiful, linear manner, detailing all the events that led the man to create the work. Instead, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman make the convention-defying, refreshing choice to focus on Ginsberg’s art, not his biography. We get little of his childhood, a smidgen of his personal relationships, and nothing of the 40-odd years he lived after “Howl” made him famous. By devoting their movie to Ginsberg’s poem (and the obscenity trial it engendered), the filmmakers avoid all the pitfalls of so many formulaic biopics and create a response to a work of art that is art itself.
In 1955, a gay, Jewish, self-doubting 29-year-old wrote a raw, ragged, personal ode to bohemia, homosexuality, interracial sex, drugs, and the American landscape, dedicating it to a boy he had met during a stay in a mental institution. As a piece of writing, “Howl” is arrestingly visual, but its de-tractors found the meaning behind the often rude images difficult to parse: according to the prosecutor in the obscenity trial, the poem could have literary value only if the Read the rest of this entry »
Taken from the London Review of Books, May 24, 2012…
Coming through the woods, down a soft winding track, two minutes shy of the time we have been instructed to arrive, 10 a.m. on a bright Sunday morning, we see the man already there in the clearing, his right hand on the dog’s collar. Two minutes later, you feel, and he’d be gone. But this is the right person, undoubtedly, the one we have come to see. In a solid, heavy, hired car, a Chevrolet Impala, we have driven down the coast, on 101, from Seattle to Eureka, where a mudslide after weeks of rain diverted us over the mountains to Red Bluff, and on to goldmining country, Nevada City and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The man in the clearing, thin silver hair lit from behind, long blue work shirt over pink, is lean, of modest height, and steady as a post. The dog is more enthusiastic, a superior hillbilly poodle. It bounds forward to lick the passenger window, avid for society. As the man is not: he can take it when it comes, assess a situation, shape unshapely events to a predetermined programme and deliver what’s required, before returning to his proper business, a measured life in a portion of territory he has made his own.