Friday, December 23, 2011

Remembering Memory


Memory, the illusive scrapbook of consciousness. 

The concept of which, in my life time (since 1958) has gone from simply being the mind - regarded as a store of things remembered, to science and technology’s creation of the computer and it’s collateral storage devices - which have literally become an extension of our personal physiological faculty, thanks to google and the "contacts" app on your iphone. 

Case in point - How many telephone numbers do you know by heart - on demand - right now? 

This modern miracle that we now take for granted, gone pocket appliance, has created a global paradigm shift of mythical proportion, to the point of becoming the most traded commodity ever in the history of mankind..

Truth be known, and as amazing as all this technology is, I really don't care enough to carry on about all this stuff, though there is a tiny part of me that actually kind of envies geeks way that they seem to be able to think in a linear fashion...


I just want to talk about the first kind of “old school” memory… The kind that, for me and many of my friends is as fickle as that bitch I call  "my Muse" The thing that when it's good, makes you feel proud of yourself as you recall your "times tables" while calculating an equation with a broken off pencil on the hood of your pick up truck; lending confidence that you just might be cogent enough to pull your shit together in a pinch - when your lap top or calculator batteries go dead…

How's this work for you? Apply this advice that Terry Allen first gave me about going into the music business, to this memory test... "Good fucking luck!"

Here's a memory enhancement technique... Try to remember why you just went upstairs.

One thing about computers that I do like is a component called RAM which stands for random access memory... unlike my recalcitrant memory which works fine as long as the access is random..  When it is "on" though, the shit that I actually do remember is uncanny and that’s why I’m writing this. It's part tribute, part memoir and part memorial to our inner scrapbook... the old Swiss cheese - steel trap. The joy and lament of past travel adventure.

I do anything to get this thing hooked up in my head...

Here's to the good times when we are sharp as a tack and and the bad, when nothing comes.. like stumbling around a library in the fucking frustrating.

My poor recollection used to be just annoying, but now at age fifty three, as symptoms of loss seems to have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, it worries me... a lot. As a matter of fact, as I am not the only one, chronic memory loss is a common topic of conversation which makes me wonder if it's an epidemic, maybe it's an environmental thing that has gotten worse in the last generation. Did so many people used to suffer like this?

My parents seem to have the same very noticeable verging on extreme flakiness. I read somewhere that it’s a symptom of ADHD but what the fuck is that all about?  

Holy Shit!

My dyslexic mother’s car and house has been “broken in to”  four times over the past six months.. She says that “they steal her fancy clothes” … Neither her car or home have shown any evidence of forced entry. I can easily project from my own experience that she forgot to lock either. To her credit though, it’s possible that the maintenance man has a key… bummer.

My first recollection of a loss of my thoughts is from my early twenties when I would test myself by making a mental note of the mileage on my odometer as I was driving to San Antonio.. 

Inevitably I would forget that I was conducting the test at all, not to mention that if I did remember, I wouldn’t recall the original number… ARRGH!

I can only imagine, to my chagrin, that I smoked way too much pot way too early.. 


I did take note back then (in my late teens and early twenties) of how much sharper a lot of my friends thoughts were when they waited until college to “turn on”… 

If I have a regret in my lucky life, it is that I let myself be drawn into this stupid behavior that was guided by my teenage insecurities and deep need for acceptance… I blew it - way too young… I wonder if I would be  stronger mentally, had I abstained.

Song writing

My 1969 Yamaha Mini Enduro - The stuff of songs.

As a kid, I’d sequester myself in my room and get lost in convenient escapism, which was either drawing contraptions like beautiful bicycles or elegant trials type motorcycles or obsessively gruesome and heavily shadowed portraits of people blowing their brains
out with guns or someone’s eyeballs bulging and tongue hanging out from lynching themselves or maybe I'd just blow off some steam masterbating… which probably accounted for many miles of my uncomfortable 3rd class ticket through adolescence.

Once, my friend who lived by the railroad tracks (where we loved to hang out building forts and getting into all kinds of mischief)  produced a beautifully rendered pencil drawing that he found, of a machismo rooster with a huge dick and hairy balls. He had a big cigar stuck in his beak wearing a serious shit eating grin as he was fucking a wild chicken's lights out.. Feathers and juices were flying all over the place.

I distinctly remember thinking how amazingly brazen a thing that was to draw… I was fascinated and it made me feel really horny to look at it.

If I’d a had my wits about me, and wasn’t afraid of being humiliated by my parents, I think I would have loved to draw cartoons like that… Then I found R. Crumb and that was it as those Rip off Press comics took me to a whole new level of "anything goes".

  This wasn’t about content or context… 
It was about permission to be myself.

When I wasn’t lost in my escape, I tried to make music on a cheap old Spanish style guitar. It gave more of a hypnotic sensation than drawing, as I spent hours slumped over that guitar, mouth agape and eyes fixed on sound instead of object. 

I anaesthetised my teen years away somewhere between the Am and Em chord (as in Neil Young “Down by the River, I shot my Baby”) which I played endlessly. I was in a two year musical rut - stuck in a sonic Mobius strip.

I suppose it was far more constructive than if it were now and I was wiling away those hours and days and months on a computer.. which must be at least as mind numbing to kids now, as marijuana was then… At least I sort of learned to play the guitar out of the deal…

But my mom and dad complained that I made too much noise  with “that thing” so I resigned myself to the downstairs bathroom, far from their “asshole-sphere”  where ceramic tile walls and floors made a beautiful reverberating, cathedral like acoustical environment that isolated and insulated me from constant humiliating parental commentary.

There was a method in my madness… You see, I figured that being low on discipline, a system like playing guitar every time I used the bathroom would ensure a daily practice regimen. It sounded good in there and depending on my diet, I did play most everyday… And slowly, I did develop some skill at the guitar...

But something was missing and that was “the song”. I was never drawn to learn a song just for the sake of knowing a song. This was a tough and laborious task, like ballroom dancing, because the formality of following someone else’s instruction, for me, takes all the fun out of just feeling the rhythm and having fun making something up on your own. 

But I eventually got bored listening to my own repetitious repertoire. It had no purpose. I wish I would have been able to figure out that I needed to tell a story about something relevant in my life. I could have made that story dance to my two chords.

For example, there was a running joke in the family that if I ever did get any good at playing and ever performed live on stage, I would have to sit on a toilet in order to feel comfortable… Ha ha very funny!

I’ll have you know, dear reader, that I did give my architect the dimensions of my guitar when she was designing my downstairs bathroom… 

I wish I'd a thought of this!

Suddenly, as I am writing this, I’m thinking that, like my pal and musical cohort, Dan Kaplan (who is recording himself in his daily rehearsal spot - under the 1st street bridge) I should make a recording  called “Big Sounds from my Throne”.

Oh yes, I just remembered that this story is about – memory.. 

Okay, so that house with the guitar accommodating commode is where I realized years later that learning and having to remember songs might be a good exercise in hopes of beefing up my lousy recollection muscle.. But again –  I found that learning other people’s songs was too much of a burden in relation to the fun factor of making music, so I opted to try to write my own…

In those days, I was listening to iconoclastic, anti-establishment free thinkers, 24/7 on Houston's KPFT Pacifica radio as that kid in my room and twenty years later the ironic story telling styles of Kinky Friedman, John Prine, Terry Allen, Mojo Nixon and Garrison Keillor granted me permission to say whatever the fuck I wanted to, in the name of creating art to music 

This wasn’t about music… Once again, it was about finding permission to be myself, this time, with hopes of strengthening my memory..

This was back in the early 90’s. I had been awarded an NEA fellowship and as an artist, I felt like I was on fire, painting a lot of allegories back in those days. And so, the addition of music was a natural progression from my room as a lonely teenager in the early 70’s. 

I think my first song of note might have been “Smart Fools from Art Schools”. Then others came along like “Evil Spirits”, “Golfers are Fat” and “Volcano + Tornado”.

Before that, in the late 70’s – early 80’s when I was still in Victoria, my best friend and jamming buddy Kevin Jordan and I played constantly.. It was our thing, I loved every minute of those days with Kevin.. He was an old friend from Junior high through high school. He was funny, smart and generous with his guitar knowledge. The song writing muse tapped my shoulder very lightly for the first time, compelling me to try my luck and so I wrote a few goofy songs like Kevin's and my cult classic entitled “God Damn Fletche’ Rojas” This bluesy tune was about a treacherous, death defying and really fun surf safari bus ride through the mountains between Acapulco and Puerto Escondido Mexico in 1978..

I’d say that song, though we never play it, has held up well (mythically speaking) for three decades.. There were others though, that didn’t do so good with time.. One, whose title escapes me, about my dog Sonny’s Christmas eve conception in1969 by gang rape in my bedroom by a pack of neighborhood dogs who, (frenzied by Sonny’s Afghan hound mother’s scent of being in heat for the first time ever) made their way through the kitchen screen door and upstairs where she was sleeping like the beautiful princess of a dog that she was…and suddenly deflowered.. I have to say, thinking back that song was actually pretty funny…

And then there’s the deusy of em all, that is just referred to by Kevin and me as “And Ralph Caught One” which has become a cult phrase for the epitome of bad songwriting… With a foundation like that, and the desire to write words to melody. I figured that I had plenty room to grow…So in 1993, with a small handful of originals, my pal Chris Layton, who was Stevie Ray’s drummer and I were having dinner on Lake Austin one evening when he convinced me to play in public at my big NEA show opening.. I suppose it was kind of a dare… I was totally up for a transfusion of new blood in my career. Chris went on to suggest a place called Ample Sound where I could rent a PA system. It was right next to Eric Johnson’s rehearsal room where his angelic scale riffs filled the air. I found great comfort in that moment of Eric’s virtuosity, realizing that I would never be burdened with the that kind of dedication to precision and the responsibility of being a  technically proficient musician”.

Lucky for my self esteem, I remembered then, that I have always just been a creative slob looking for permission to be myself.

How's that song go now?? ..."Something something something... the days of September".

That's when my big show was happening. A curated installation of my best paintings and entire body of work/investigations of neon sculpture containing phosphorescent minerals from my NEA fellowship. 

It was scheduled to open one month before the date when I was to either start working at Breed Hardware or heading out for Nepal (which I did) to trek 200 miles for three weeks through the Himalaya into Tibet with close friends.. 

The idea being that I'd sequestered myself (again) while creating this show to the point of needing to re-socialize myself back into the world. I would start the process by playing my songs live at my opening to my large captive audience of art enthusiast victims.

Setting up the rented PA was pure ritual.. Turning it on and saying that special word phrase - "Test - 1-2-3" was a rite of passage into performance land where suddenly,  I was breathing pure oxygen and I could remember anything... Lyrics, people's names.. even swear word preventing descriptive adjectives.. Everything works up there on a stage, and upon my first address to the audience I was immediately transformed into a place where time stands still. It was and still is - pure magic! Thanks Chris, for giving me the key to Avalon... I'll never forget it.... I hope.

There's something to be said for all this, I mean it really is amazing how once an audience and I engage, my mind becomes extremely and remarkably present - in the moment. I have no control over this, I just know that it almost always happens. Maybe the ADHD thing is relevant. I don't know but I can't help imagining serotonin and dopamine production soaring from all the oxygen kind of like adrenaline and sperm count escalating during love making. 

Good memory or not, at this point I figure that no matter what one remembers, our essential nature will always sparkle forth from our eyes.

For horses, it's galloping across a vast paddock, for eagles it's soaring through the air. 
How about you? For me, a good performance is transcendent.  

And with that - Happy holidays to all whenever you are.