The first time I saw the comedienne Margaret Smith on TV may have been on Letterman. She had a haunted look, as if the memory of some horrid moment in her past had driven her to the brink of catatonia. She inserted long pauses in between her lines. She never smiled. She hardly even moved. Her voice stayed flat and small throughout her routine, never rising in tone or volume.

I felt nervous and uncomfortable watching her. I found the things she said disturbing and unsettling. Her power to create those feelings in me made Smith’s punch lines more powerful than those of nearly any other comic I can remember. I got a feeling of relief from those punch lines—a deep, physical feeling of gratitude at being able to breathe again. I have experienced that feeling when cops have let me off the hook for speeding, when a lifeguard pulled me out of a rip tide and when a drunken redneck decided not to beat the shit out of me. Andy Kaufman achieved a similar effect by engaging in infantile behavior and making you wonder when or if he would stop. But with Smith, I felt like I was dealing with a grownup.

I looked forward to her next TV appearance with the kind of anticipation I almost never feel. And I don’t think I’ve felt it since, or ever will. Her next appearance was a great disappointment. She was smiling, laughing, moving around, her voice rising and falling like that of any healthy, normal person, not liked the shell-shocked survivor I witnessed the first time around. I could only imagine that some industry hack—perhaps her agent, perhaps the host of the show, perhaps an acting coach or a well-meaning colleague—took her aside after that first appearance and counseled her to “dial it down a notch, you’re scaring people.”

However it happened, I resolved then and there never to watch her perform again, and I never did. I have read on the Web that she still has a deadpan delivery and an acerbic wit, but it seems as if she may have opted for the relatively more mainstream approach of someone like Roseanne Barr—sassy, irreverent and wounded, but without giving the impression that she desperately needs intensive, long-term psychotherapy.

Jimmy “J.J.” Walker said in 2000 that Smith is “is too smart to be successful…what a shame!” I have always respected his opinion. He always seemed to sort of float above the mediocrity of the grating sitcom “Good Times.” With praise like his, I may yet give Margaret Smith another chance, but I doubt that I’ll get over the sick, anxious feeling I had seeing her that second time, the feeling that someone had gotten to her. It looked as if she had given in and given up trying to fight not just the power of the people who run the entertainment industry, but American culture itself, with its inflexible demand that all of us smile and laugh at all times. It matters not what has happened in our lives; nor does it matter if we do not naturally jump out of bed at the crack of dawn, ready to roll up our selves and tackle the next challenge with a song in our hearts. Fake it ‘til you make it.

“Bigger people than you have tried to go against us, Margaret Smith,” I can see the Powers that Be intoning. “They have all fallen, and so will you if you don’t do what we say.”

April 1984. The University of Maryland kicked me out about a year ago. I dropped out of Montgomery College a month ago.

My 20th birthday is on the 14th. I have a blowout. A band plays in my living room. My friend disappears. I find him a little while later in my sister’s old bed with some girl he met from work. I pull them out of the bed. I think she splits. He spends the rest of the evening on the microphone, until my parents come downstairs and ask him to stop.

The girl I was seeing at the time brings her main man, which bums me out. He gives me a Skör bar as a present. The card that goes with it says, “I hope you ‘Skör’ tonight.” I didn’t, but I had a good time anyway. Somebody smashed a guitar on the living room rug. I was picking pieces of it out of the fiber for several weeks.

Later that month, I join Government Issue. I play my first show with them in Georgetown. I think it was the Hall of Nations, in May. A few weeks later we do a short tour up through Connecticut.

Dates and places are hazy, but I remember sleeping in a van in the Bowery in 90-degree heat; hanging out at somebody’s squat in Alphabet City where there was no electricity and some of the stairs were missing; and playing and recording at CBGBs. That week or so we spent in New York is a story in itself.

Then on to Connecticut. I remember doing an interview with some guy named Spazz Jeff, who had a fanzine. We all tried to be funny, but I don’t think it really worked, at least not on my end. I was an arrogant little shit back then, or at least I could be at times.

We crashed at the home of one of the guys in the Vatican Commandos, who really, really wanted us to know how the band got its name. I think it must have been Jim Spadaccini. He’s the earnest-looking guy in the photo on this page. As I recall, our host was very genial, but also very serious. As I recall, none of us were especially interested in that story, but if I had known at the time that Moby was in that band, I might have been impressed, because, you see, I was a snob.

I also remember some squat, beefy guy talking to me outside a show about how his band was getting a reputation as the best speed-metal band in Connecticut. The guy was so goofy—and real—that I couldn’t help but like him.

Seems like the two big, new things of 1984 were microwaves and MTV. Not that either of them were new; that’s just when I first started noticing them. As it turns out, microwave technology had been commercially available for more than 30 years before people started talking about “nuking” their food. I though new Coke came out in 1984, but Wikipedia says it was 1985.

I found these old notes I wrote while working on my undergraduate English thesis in 1992. I had forgotten that Milan Kundera talked about wanting to return the novel to its wilder and woollier days. At the time, I had no idea what Kundera was talking about, but after seeing all these online courses advertising about how to write novels, or short stories, or mysteries, etc., etc., I can relate. I tried writing short stories. Joined an online group. Felt like I was back at my old nine-to-five job.

I read one Writer’s Digest book, by Orson Scott Card, about characterization, and hated it. Then I read a sci-fi novel by Orson Scott Card, Memories of Earth, and hated that, too. I’m going to write pretty much whatever I want, and you can call it whatever you want. Maybe if I ever get something published, you can say, “I’m not buying that crap.” That’s fine with me. I’m like Johnny Ramone; I don’t care if it sells or not. (He said that in a documentary about working with Phil Spector; I just don’t have the cite for it now. He makes similar comments in this interview.)

The Ramones were nothing if not primitive, at least at first. They probably would have horrified Kundera, but they and he were reaching for the same thing—art that doesn’t let convention get in the way of feelings. I feel like I’ve been too caught up in trying to observe all the rules of story structure, and somewhere along the way I forgot how to express myself.

I’m still going through my old notebooks; I think that what I wrote before I checked the manuals reads better than what I’ve written since then.

In my conversations late last month with my thesis advisor, he suggested it might be prudent for me to reduce my scope from all fiction written in the last 400 years, beginning with Shakespeare, down to just the fiction written in, say, the last 10 to 20 years by just one author, Milan Kundera. He also suggested I change my subtopic from the almost limitless terrain of “confusion” to one or two that would be more germane to Kundera. He suggested postmodernism. Two of postmodernism’s attendant features, he said, are dislocation and fragmentation: if one feels oneself out of the mainstream in this century, it’s because there is no mainstream any longer. I’m going to try to find out what factors—be they cultural, technological, culinary, whatever—led to the extinction of the mainstream. Perhaps the mainstream itself caused its destruction. Thus, we are now living in pockets of reality, in varying degrees of isolation from and interaction with each other.

The way Kundera approaches it, post-modernism seems to be kind of a reactionary movement. He says he wants to return the novel to the more primitive, experimental state in which it existed before the rules of writing a novel became codified and formalized, in the time of Rabelais and Diderot, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy.

Of course, then Kundera goes and writes something called The Art of the Novel. I guess we all feel like we have to explain ourselves.

781.66 Rock music

I used to be in this band called Government Issue. I’m the Geekazoid playing bass on the cover of this DVD from some shows we did in 1985. Please buy some of our stuff. We all need the money.

Thank you.

Just watched part of a DVD called Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. The Z Channel was a cable channel back in the late 1970s and early 1980s in L.A. I had never heard of Jerry Harvey before, but I feel like I knew lots of people like him, totally monomaniacal creatures who lived out their obsessions unfettered by the kinds of constraints on personal expression most of us take for granted today, when we feel like we have to watch what we say and have little censors sitting in a screening room in our head.

This documentary made me think of what moviegoing used to be like 30 years ago – a lot more interesting than today. Movies today are predictable, unadventurous, sticking to familiar themes and situations. Especially children’s movies, but all movies seem like they’re made for children now. Cars. Lethal Weapon. Over the Hedge. In the Barnyard. Robots. Focus-group tested. Stamped out of a template. Boring, boring, boring.

And scary. And I feel like there’s nothing I can do about it. The people who hate uniqueness and individuality seized power when Reagan won the 1980 presidential election, and by the time the rest of us figured out what he was up to, it was too late. They’d conquered too much ground for us to be able to push them back to where they came from. All we can do now is wait until they get tired, lose their sense of purpose and start turning on each other, which they have started to do. But there will never be the kind of environment there was back then – magical but unstable; fascinating, challenging and mind-expanding but too volatile to last.

Liberal revolutions begin quietly and end in violent flameouts. Conservative revolutions go the other way, starting in glorious, grandiose bursts of violent retribution and ending in pathetic shame and obscurity for those who once stood so tall. Liberal, intellectual and artistic revolutions begin gradually, with little pockets of activity building until the people in those pockets find each other and recognize their common values of wanting creative people to reach their full potential. Collaborations happen and wonderful, innovative creations appear, like little peeks at Heaven. But some people always go too far, some lose their minds, and the era crashes and burns tragically and violently.

Conservative, anti-intellectual and artless revolutions are born in those moments of violence, when the rage of the unimaginative conformists is at its hottest, when the excesses of the creative class have offended the conformists most deeply. The fires of rage gradually cool, the conformists and moralists lose their sense of direction and commit excesses of their own, often not all that much different from those of the creative class, except maybe in scale. Then one day, the musicians, writers, painters, filmmakers and dancers feel like it’s safe to come out again, but I see little chance of the creative chaos of the late 1970s repeating anytime soon. Long live the College Park Theatre, the Hoff, the Inner Circle, the Outer Circle, the KB Cerberus, the Biograph, the Ontario Theatre and all the other darkened auditoriums that held reality at bay for me for so long.

We are all going to die, people. I’m not advocating legalizing bestiality and murder, but let’s have fun until our time is up, okay?

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