There's a quote I like--an artistic motto of sorts--by the great Scottish writer and artist Alasdair Gray (who attributes it to the Canadian writer Dennis Lee): "Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation."
We all know the bad America. If we're unlucky, it's right outside our windows; with a little more luck, we can see it 24/7 on CNN. It's the place of hatred, violence, militarism, murder, lynching, bigotry, genocide, slavery, racism, unthinking dogmatism, proud know-nothingism, narrow- and closed-mindedness, fraudulent piety, hypocritical puritanism, fist-pumping jingoism, shrieking paranoia, howling xenophobia, murderous economic cruelty, ignorance unlimited and stupidity beyond imagination. We've all been there. We have seen its moronic face.
This Fourth of July, I'm telling that America to go fuck itself with its hydrogen bombs. I'm focusing, this fireworks day, on the good America. And I'm doing it the American way, in the improvisational spirit of the Beat writers and the late, great Ornette Coleman (long may his soundwaves wave). I'm slipping my CD of Ornette's classic record Free Jazz into my player and cranking the baby while I compose a long paragraph of people, works, things and images from the good America. Let's roll:
There's Ornette Coleman, first of all, freest jazzman that ever was; and Albert Ayler flying through Afrofuturist space with his strangulated saxophone cry; and my mind flies back to the Mandan and the Cree and the Lakota and the Shawnee and the Pawnee, the Nez Perce, the Huron, the Delaware, the Seminole, the Cheyenne and all the other peoples my ancestors tried to annihilate and failed, for as Faulkner would've said, they abide; and Morton of Merrymount, the great anti-puritan, merrily mounting around his Maypole--in history, not just in Hawthorne; Thomas Jefferson, scribe of freedom and master of slaves, slave-owner and slave-lover, the foundational intellectual who embodied all the contradictions of what Henry James called "the complex fate" of being an American; and I think now of John Quincy Adams and his defense of the Amistad freedom fighters; and those other freedom fighters Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, Frederick Douglass and John Brown (whose rhetoric of purging the sin of slavery with blood was echoed by Abraham Lincoln at the start of his second term and whose truth marched on in a song choired forth at Barack Obama's second inaugural); I think of the Underground Railroad and the North Star to freedom; of the birth of jazz on the streets and in the glorious whorehouses of New Orleans; of Emma Goldman speaking truth not to power but to the ordinary men and women for whom truth was a refreshing change; of Herman Melville in western Massachusetts looking at the arc of a distant hill and imagining the great curved back of a breaching whale; I think of Thoreau in his cabin not far enough from Concord; of Emerson nearby composing essays to unsettle the multitude; of Emily Dickinson in the same state at the same time placing her poems in a drawer like a bomb set to detonate after her death; of Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll and the forgotten tradition of American religious free thought; of separations of church and state, government and womb, pulpit and penis; of course of Walt Whitman pouring the manstuff all over his camerados; of Oscar Wilde lecturing on aesthetics to a full house in a Colorado mining town; of Georgia O'Keefe and D. H. Lawrence both doing time in Taos and Lawrence writing a little book that taught Americans to take their serious literature seriously; of other exiles, of Mann and Adorno and Schoenberg and all the others who found refuge from Nazi horrors in the capital city of kitsch (a memory shadowed, as it always must be, by the memory of the refugee ship St. Louis sent back to Europe and death); I think of Faulkner writing Absalom, Absalom! at white heat, flying hand scrawling words almost illegibly upon the page; of Thomas Wolfe in New York dreaming one long novel of everything and sitting down to impossibly write it and writing that motherfucker literally to his death. And I think of Hemingway finding the words for Michigan in a Paris café; of Henry Miller arriving later and poorer and in a darker time and bumming himself into immortality; of Man Ray and Lee Miller surrealising photography; of Robert Johnson tuning his guitar down at the crossroads; of Hart Crane the Ohio boy hearing the bells ring down the canyons of old Mexico; of Kenneth Anger's Fireworks and a roman candle for the Fourth; Maya Deren's dreamvisions and the shimmering flashing audacity of Stan Brakhage; of Louis Armstrong blowing music as perpetual reinvention; of Bird and Trane and Miles doing it all over again; of Sarah Vaughan of Sarah Vaughan of Sarah Vaughan; of Jackson Pollock in a small barn on Long Island throwing arcs of paint that will curve into the next century; of Chuck Berry duckwalking and Little Richard getting all awop-boppa-lubop, awop-bam-boom; of Marilyn Monroe photographed reading Molly Bloom's monologue (is there an America better than that?); of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and of George Whitman honorary Beat and natural anarchist in his Parisian labyrinth of books (the world's a dimmer place without you, George, you crazy old bastard); of James Baldwin's fierce gaze on the cover of a vintage paperback and the fiercer prose inside; of Gore Vidal's essays and Norman Mailer's endless provocations; of both Morrisons (Jim and Toni); of Jim meeting Ray Manzarek on the beach and telling him to drop acid (Ray's dead now too, but that's not the end, beautiful friend); of Monterey Pop and Woodstock, two great films and two utopian moments even Altamont couldn't erase; of all the films of Robert Altman and especially McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Short Cuts, The Player, Vincent and Theo, Nashville, California Split, Brewster McCloud, and the brilliant, underappreciated Secret Honor; of the drag queens rioting at Stonewall and ripping open the whole country's closet door; of Mario Savio throwing his body onto the gears of the machine; of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, Norman O. Brown and Harold Bloom and all the others thinking wisely otherwise; of all the many marvelous Bob Dylans Bob has been; of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now; of the comics of Spiegelman, Bechdel and Crumb and Terry Zwigoff's perfect movie about the R.-Man; of Woody Allen's great run from Annie Hall through Husbands and Wives; of Lenny and Carlin and Pryor and Robin; of Thomas fucking Pynchon for fuck's sake a-and let's not forget that Tyrone Slothrop; of William H. Gass's stereophonic sentences and Philip Roth's beautiful outrages; of Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, B. B., John Lee, the Dead's American Beauty, Nirvana's Nevermind and Don Henley's The End of the Innocence; of the Kronos Quartet's Black Angels and all of David Lynch's films (even Dune); of Kurt Cobain singing "Lake of Fire" and of Bruce Springsteen's first boxed set; of William Vollmann's Seven Dreams and Annie Proulx's Wyoming and the D.C. of Edward P. Jones; of Wallace Shawn meeting Andre Gregory for dinner with Louis Malle; of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions and the best of the writers therein and of the amazing fact that is Samuel Delany; of John Ashbery narrating Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!; of MOMA and the Met and all the palaces of art scattered across the country (let's be truly democratic like London and eliminate admission charges and set the artworks free to blow everyone's mind); of the beautiful woman who met me in front of a Matisse in a Manhattan gallery 15 years ago and took me back to her apartment and fucked me until I was sore and never asked my name nor volunteered her own and who bought me breakfast the next morning at Windows on the World (it was 11 months before the atrocity) and I will never forget her; of that place along I-90 west of the Missouri River in South Dakota where the trees disappear and the land flattens out and you experience the bizarre horizontal vertigo of the High Plains; and of the fact that we are still here, still kicking, still Americans in the good America, working as though these are the early days of a better nation and remembering also the words of Vladimir Tatlin about Russian artists before the Revolution: "We created the art before we had the society." Yeah, that's the way to blow it. Build the future out of balsa wood. Hammer it together. I'm thinking today of every American who works and thinks beyond the badness of the day.
That's the America I'm fireworking this Fourth of July. It's a radically democratic place, open to everyone with a will to make it true. I'll see you there...