2014 Writing Round-Up

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RBW by Franco Vogt, 2014

 

Happy End-of-2014 Faithful Readers,

2014 was a huge year for me, writing-wise. In addition to posting here, I finished my novel, now titled Perfectly Broken, and my agent is shopping it around. At this juncture, I daresay we’ve got a couple of nibbles, but that’s all I can say. The great Akashic Books, who brought you the hilarious “kids’ book for parents” Go the Fuck to Sleep – a worldwide hit – will publish a short excerpt on their site on January 20th, a chapter entitled The Junkie Incident.

I became music editor of The Weeklings, and that’s a great gig to keep me busy. I edited and wrote several pieces, three of which mega site Salon cross-posted (that is the parlance). My favorite published writing of 2014, however, was Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Crossdressers, a bit of memoir for The Bitter Southerner. All of the above propelled my byline far beyond my bubble, and that was a thrill. Links to all below.

Southern Belles, Latchkey Kids, and Thrift Store Crossdressers was the start of something. With the encouragement of some dear friends, including memoirist/teacher Beverly Donofrio, I am forging ahead with more stories like that. I’ll be posting some of them here, or on a new, dedicated site.

Last year, Holly and I, along with fellow musician-writer Michael Eck, wrote liner notes for the CD Live From Caffe Lena. Earlier this year we all received an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award for excellence for our work.

I wrote a lot for arts monthly Chronogram – book and CD reviews, and an article on “empty nest syndrome.” (Links below.) I branched out to the Woodstock Times, writing about local music and the Sinterklaas festival in nearby Rhinebeck.

Thanks for being my audience and for the feedback. I really appreciate it. I turn 50 in March, and I plan to spend the next twenty years writing. Hope some of that reaches your eyes, dear reader.

Happy Holidays! – RBW

LINKS

The Weeklings (a selection)

Salon

The Bitter Southerner

Chronogram writing

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The Hippie Angel – A Christmas Story

Hippie Angel

Hippie Angel by MCL, photo by EBW

On Christmas Eve 1973, I was hyperventilating beneath my Charlie Brown sheets, thrashing in the dark, my salivary glands in overdrive. This was my first anxiety attack, triggered by the worry that I would hear my mother placing presents beneath the tree, thus officially obliterating the Santa Claus illusion.

I already knew the truth. I was eight years old, soon to be nine, and I’d seen the remote controlled car I’d requested from Santa in my mom’s closet. Even before that, science had captivated me, and I couldn’t square the technology requirements for the sleigh, among other things. But I had yet to admit my crisis of faith to anyone. The dreamer in me, the believer, was still strong, and, due to particularly hard times, I was desperate for dreams and magic. More than ever, I desired the illusion of Santa’s visit. To experience that, I needed to fall asleep.

I gotta get to sleep, I told myself, again and again.

1973 had been intense. It was my first full year of fatherlessness. My dad had died driving drunk the year before, and my mother hadn’t taken my older brother and me to Dad’s funeral. As secular, hippie agnostics, we’d not engaged in any rituals to deal with the loss.

In the wake of my grief, I’d befriended an impish boy named Kemp. While dumpster diving behind the A & P grocery store, Kemp and I had discovered a brown bag full of Penthouse magazines, which we secreted away in our plywood treehouse in his family’s backyard. We pored over them, fascinated, titillated, and scandalized. The explicit photos and erotic stories alternately aroused us and freaked us out.

Perhaps in response to it all, Kemp and I invented imaginary friends Antonio and Joe, who were elves. We swore to each other that Antonio and Joe were real, indulging our fantasies in a kind of sad pact. We ginned up excitement at seeing them in the monkey grass, peeping from behind the azaleas, their little peaked caps bobbing among the bees. Sweet, yes, but our imaginary friends could not compete with the smut. The siren call of porn lured us away from Antonio and Joe time and again, until finally, as the magazines grew dog-eared, our elven playmates faded.

cg_tree-house

In retrospect I wonder if the lingering trauma of my dad’s death, combined with the adult activity of ogling Penthouse magazines, had something to do with my anxiety attack. Quite suddenly, I was intimate with death and sex, and I had no tools to shape the horror and excitement they evoked. In my bed, on Christmas Eve of my eighth year, the air around me was heavy with shadow.

Our house was small, so only the dining room stood between my tiny room and the area where the Christmas tree shimmered, covered in lights and garlands and crowned with a homemade angel we called the Hippie Angel. Sometime in the mid-60s, when she was newly divorced from my father and we were quite poor, Mom had drawn the Hippie Angel in ballpoint pen on white cardboard and cut her out. The haloed, long-tressed, tiny-winged Hippie Angel wore a wide-sleeved gown and slippers. In her left hand she held a scepter topped with the peace sign. She was much beloved, especially when I was very small and she seemed quite real.

Mom was bustling around in the kitchen, waiting for me to fall asleep. I smelled her freshly lit cigarette, heard her boiling water and padding in bare feet on the old linoleum, familiar sounds and smells that usually gave me comfort. It was well past 2 AM, and my brother slept soundly in his room at the other end of the house.

My mother came to my door to check on me. I called out.

“Mommy!”

“Yes, honey?”

“I can’t sleep! I can’t sleep!”

“You’ll be fine, you’ll fall asleep, I promise.”

I resented her apparent calm. “If I don’t fall asleep,” I said through sobs, “this will be the worst Christmas ever.”

She recoiled a little but recovered quickly, took a drag on her cigarette, the burning tobacco crackling as she filled her lungs. “You’ll be fine, honey,” she said. “You’ll fall asleep. I love you. Merry Christmas.”

She headed back to the kitchen, and, according to my ears and nose, she made a cup of Constant Comment tea in the crockery she and my dad had received as a wedding present, stirring in honey with a tarnished silver spoon. Sometime after that, I finally drifted off into wild dreams in which the Hippie Angel flew between the synapses of my fevered brain.

I bolted awake at dawn, having slept an hour and a half, but energized and deliriously happy. I ran to the living room and there, in the flickering of the Christmas tree, the Hippie Angel smiled down on my remote controlled car, plus some Sesame Street puppets and, for my brother and me, a racetrack, fully assembled. Our stockings were crammed with candy, which we would consume for breakfast. I ran into my brother’s room, passing my mom’s on the way, noticing the familiar lumps of her deeply sleeping body.

My brother woke easily. We did not speak of Santa, but rather said to each other, “Look! Look what I got!” We put the Partridge Family Christmas Card LP on the turntable and tore into our gifts, a familiar ritual we’d engaged in for as long as we could recall – just the two of us, wide-eyed, intoxicated with sugar, avaricious as pirates.


partridge

I took my remote controlled car into the street to see what it could do. My brother stayed in to play with our racetrack. It was unseasonably warm that Christmas Day, so I wore no coat. Our house stood at the end of a hairpin curve, and we often played in the street with no fear, so I plopped myself down on the manhole cover in the middle of the road. The neighborhood still slept, and I heard no traffic, just the birds heralding the new day.

My car zipped along quite well on the cracked concrete as my hands played across the plastic remote. I was happy, but my huge chocolate breakfast and lack of sleep were taking a toll, and as the sun poked over the pines, my head drooped. I could barely concentrate on my toy.

A woman screamed and my head snapped up as a car screeched in front of me, a real, speeding automobile, swerving to avoid smashing into my head. It skidded to a stop a few feet away. I was running for our front yard, my remote control car forgotten, when I heard a woman’s voice.

“Hey!” she called. “Hey kid, stop!”

I did. I turned around, panting like a baby bird, to see a young, flax-haired woman wearing a long, wide-sleeved dress, walking toward me on slippered feet. She stopped below a naked old oak, shaking her head and panting just like me. A bearded man was slumped in the passenger seat, rubbing his eyes. The scent of burnt rubber wafted over us.

“I almost… I almost hit you kid,” the woman said, pushing hair behind her ears. “I could have… Look. I don’t want to sound like a bitch, but you shouldn’t be playing in the fucking street, kid. Please. Never do that. Never.”

I nodded, transfixed. The bearded man got out of the car, lean and lank-haired, and retrieved my toy, which he handed to the woman, who handed it back to me. It was warm.

“Merry Christmas,” the bearded man said, smiling. A frisson of energy passed between them, quick micro-expressions shared. I shivered.

“Be careful, kid,” said the woman, on the verge of tears. “You can be a little wild, but… You got a long life ahead of you.” I nodded again. After this, I would never play in the street again.

Just before she dropped back into her car, she smiled and held up the index and middle fingers of her left hand. “Peace, kid,” she said. “Peace.”

RBW, December, 2014


 

Not A Misspent Youth Part 8: Wee Wee Pole and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983, More of The Strand

YouTuber rottingtapes has been busy cleaning up and uploading a VHS performance of Wee Wee Pole, featuring RuPaul & the U-Hauls, at The Strand, circa June, 1983. (Thank you, rottingtapes!) After some chit chat, we play our “banned from WRAS” song “Body Heat.” (First clip, of the song “Hips,” uploaded HERE.) That’s Todd on guitar and Casio (see also HERE and HERE), Gina and Chrissy, aka the U-Hauls, moaning and screaming, percussionist David Klimchak adding flava, and that’s me on bass in my BSA T-shirt, weighing in at about 155 pounds.

Please note the fan who says that she skipped work and ignored a migraine to come see us. Such love.

Playing Alongside Your Echo – For BTB

R.E.M., Todd & Me

Todd and me, summer, 2004

I understand the impulse to maintain a dam-like wall against swelling emotion for fear it’ll flood the meticulously kept terrain of persona. At best, that turbid stuff can make a mess, at worst, it can cause permanent damage. But I think you would’ve advised, as was your wont, to go ahead and chip away, let the untamed, hard-to-manage stuff spill out. That’s the truth, anyway, you would’ve said. The rest is boring. And boredom is the enemy. And, crucially, the kids are watching. Do we want them to be ashamed of what they really feel? No. So spill it.

You would’ve been 50 today. Five months older than me, you and I celebrated milestones five months apart since we were seven years old: you were the first to reach the double digit of ten, to get your driver’s license, to see an X-rated movie (Cafe Flesh, I think, or maybe Pink Flamingos), to legally enter clubs to see bands.

That's me, far left, in fireman hat. Todd Butler in center. My brother in fangs. Not quite drag, but we're getting there.

RBW, far left, in fireman hat. Todd in center. EBW in fangs.

Ten years ago I superseded you, when you died by your own hand and left me to pass these markers without you to compare notes with. I turned 40 in the wake of your death. We had a party at which floodwaters rose in the basement of my Catskill mountain home as I tried unsuccessfully to fix a sump pump. Interesting. That was the first of several floods.

In a way, you’ve been spared, as some of our note-comparing would’ve been complaints of increasing infirmity – the tax on a long life – but I like to think you would’ve also helped shape my perspective, as was your wont, to direct my focus, gently, usually with humor, to the good stuff: the food, the beauty, the endless halls of art and story to savor, the kids, the woman on the beach, the hilarious cat, the coffee mixed with Swiss Miss in the cool of a summer dawn while our families slept.

You were and remain many things to me, but I keep going back to you being the first to pick up a guitar and teach yourself to play. You encouraged me to do the same, and you taught me, in the front rooms of that bungalow that was my second home, with a depth of patience I took for granted. Most people know me as a musician, and that is because of you. I recently told my son, who you last saw when he was six, how I still feel guilty for intentionally getting on your nerves until you struck me with a badminton racket. I was saying the same infuriating nonsense phrase over and over like a mantra, and I still don’t really blame you for coming at me in such a fury. (I wish I could recall what I was chanting, but I can’t.)  Regardless, you showed me how to play Led Zeppelin songs, a currency that actually led me away from you for a time and bought me “coolness,” but again, you forgave me that, and we eventually rocked stages from Atlanta to New York City, having teenage adventures that shaped us, and gave us a shared history that would grow more precious with time.

Todd'83

Gina, Todd, RuPaul, 1983. Photo by Clare Butler.

But our story was more than that, much more than the music. The music and the teen years were never our “good old days,” never the only common ground. For years, in fact, we shared faith that good days were ahead, always ahead, and for a time, they were, especially when we became dads. We stayed close friends, even as I moved north and you stayed put to paint and make a life in our hometown. You wrote me beautiful, funny letters and sent me mixtapes that I listened to on a Walkman as I walked the mid-80s Manhattan streets, finding out who I was, how much I could take, and what I could do with what I goaded life into throwing at me, always with your encouragement. (The one thing you didn’t encourage was holding a grudge.) We visited and talked often, sharing successes and failures, effortlessly picking up the thread, hanging out with our wives in my grandmother’s den, brewing another pot of coffee, telling stories, laughing ’till we cried, completely present, no thoughts of past or future.

I recently told  a friend who’s about to turn 40 that I learned more in the past decade than any other since my first. That is the truth, or at least it feels like the truth. It’s truthy. Pain is the greatest teacher, and losing you – and another friend, in ’06 – kicked off my 40s. Pain has taught me, but also, much of this steep-curve learning has come from doing what I am doing now: writing. I have begun to fashion my stories, many of which feature you in some way, or which I write with you in mind, as my reader. As our fellow Georgian Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” For me, that has been so, and I’ve learned a lot, traversed paths, brightened corners, found strength, and done a little forgiving, including forgiving you for enacting what you first told me you wanted to do when we were in my Plymouth Duster in the Denny’s parking lot, post-Rocky Horror, 1982. We were 17.

You’d be amazed at the world, at your daughter, my son, our wives and friends. I can barely begin to tell you. My son is a beautiful young man, making his way into the world with kids who remind me so much of the Rocky Horror crew of our teens. He’s sharp and brave and spreading his wings with such style it makes his mom and me gape-mouthed, it makes us weep. Your gorgeous daughter, who I keep up with on her mom’s Facebook page (don’t ask), is playing guitar and singing in a band and she’s funny and original and you’d be so proud, I know you’d bust. She would’ve kicked your ass a bit, no doubt, and you would’ve said “bring it,” and when the dust settled, you would’ve looked around, like me, and said, “these are the good ole days, even as they sometimes suck.” And then we would’ve complained a bit, but leavened it with something funny or something that provoked our awe and/or indignation. That stuff remains easy to find.

You would’ve been 50 years old on this rainy autumn afternoon, and I send this to the ether, to the past, to that point several million miles into the cosmos where it’s still 2003, and you’re sending me encouraging emails about some demos, or even further out, where it’s 1985, and you’re saying yes, go to New York, see what’s in store for you, or further to 1983, where we’re smiling across the smoky light of a stage, melding our musical gestures into a song that sounds brand new but has, in fact, been playing since we first met, further out, in 1972. That song continues, here and now, as I keep playing alongside your echo.

Happy Birthday, Todd. Sent with undying love and gratitude.

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Todd, late 80s, Polaroid by James Bond.

Not A Misspent Youth, Part 7: Wee Wee Pole/RuPaul and me in Marietta, Ga., 1983

It happened again! An episode from my youth as part of the New Wave Queer Underground of Atlanta popped up online, thanks to YouTuber rottingtapes, who once managed the Marietta, Georgia-based band Guadalcanal Diary. My band Wee Wee Pole – featuring RuPaul – shared stages with Guadalcanal Diary several times, and I think this was one of them. It’s June of 1983, and my friend Todd (on guitar) and I are about to graduate high school. We’ve just acquired our new drum machine and percussionist David Klimchak. Back up singers/dancers the U-Hauls have quit in a huff. But we are in good form.

The venue is “new wave” club The Strand in Marietta. Marietta’s about 15 miles from where I grew up in Atlanta; it was more country then, but it’s now an Atlanta suburb. RuPaul is ON, and as you can see, the audience loves him. The song we’re playing is “Hips.” Most of the lyrics are indecipherable, but the tag line is, “her hips were made to kill!!!” Please enjoy. More to come.


More about my time in the New Wave Queer Underground HERE.

More about Todd and me HERE

More about My Life in Music HERE.

End of the Summer Writing Round-Up, From Dorky to Nirvana to Trolls

20-year-old retired huntress cat Sis, watching me work.

20-year-old retired huntress cat Sis, watching me work.

Ahoy there,

Summer isn’t officially over, but Labor Day has passed, the maples are beginning to turn, the tourists have folded up their tents, and the garden is surrendering to blight, so change is certainly afoot. As ever. Hope your season was fun.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve signed on as music editor of The Weeklings (Rogue Commentary for Now People). Every Monday or so, I either write or edit a music-oriented post. It’s been fun. More to come. (Of course you should subscribe to The Weeklings. It’s easy! And my cohorts are wonderful writers, all.)

In addition to excellent writing about culture, politics, art, and music, The Weeklings occasionally indulges in listporn, i.e. the increasingly popular subjective list – usually a “50 Greatest.” These lists draw an insane amount of attention, every day. Far and away the most trafficked Weeklings post is Samuel Sattin’s  “The 50 Greatest Superhero (And Villain) Names of All Time.” The reasons for list popularity, and especially the reasons why that list in particular is so popular, are subjects for another post on another day.

In any case, I jumped into the fray with “The 50 Dorkiest Songs You Secretly Love.” I have always had a fondness for music I’m not “supposed” to like, music the “cognoscenti” deem “bad,” and this was my chance to state my case for everything from disco to bubblegum to weepy 70s folk. “Dorky” is merely a catchall term, more lively than “uncool.” I was inspired by conversations about songs we’re not “supposed” to love; I find it fascinating how eager people are to divulge guilty pleasures in the presence of friends, and how liberated they feel upon sharing. I hoped to engender more of that with my post.

The post was very popular, and Salon re-blogged it, which, while satisfying (it got shared a lot) re-introduced me to the world of the Internet Trolls, who I hadn’t encountered since I wrote to the Kingston Freeman in support of the SAFE Act. I didn’t wade too deep into the comments section, but from what I could tell, most commenters misunderstood my idea, thinking I was putting the songs down, and, being Internet Trolls, they spoke their minds and assailed my character mercilessly. It didn’t bother me, though, in part because they were in the monority.  And, as Dolly Parton said, “People ask if I get offended by dumb blond jokes and I say, ‘No, because I know I’m not dumb. I also know I’m not blond.'”

My other post was “Razor Sadness, Wizened Eyes: Nirvana Unplugged, 20 Years On.” Since Robin Williams’ death, I’d been meaning to write about my changing feelings regarding suicide, and a viewing of Nirvana’s remarkable swan song gave me a way in.

I also wrote a post on this blog about my dad for Father’s Day. if you missed it and want to check it out, you can read it HERE.

Other summer writing included book reviews for Chronogram and finishing my novel, Feedback, about which I will post more in depth later. Suffice to say, it’s 306 pages, approximately 77 thousand words, and soon I’ll be sending it out in the world. Also upcoming: several spoken word/storytelling performances. I told the universe I wanted more of that, and she honored my request, apparently.

Thanks again for reading. Your comments, troll-like or not, are always appreciated.

sound as ever

RBW

9-2-14

 

 

Rock On for The Weeklings

 

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror. Pic by Dennis Oclair

I’m happy to report on my new gig as music editor for The Weeklings. I’ve written for this fine publication before, weighing in on post-apocalyptic novels, rock and roll movies, and the Syria Crisis (see here) but now I will be writing and editing regularly on music and music-oriented  topics. My first post is a getting-to-know you essay entitled  Rock On, in which I condense highlights of my life in music, including, but not limited to, RuPaul, the Fleshtones, Buddy Holly, Electric Lady Studio, The Roots, the Big Apple Circus, and kindie rock.

Please click HERE and enjoy. And thanks.

RBW