Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sittin' In: "We Can’t Even Elegantly Bleed" by Melina Rutter, as based on the song "Failure" by Swans

I've been on and off for the past month or so, but I've got an excuse. A few of them, in fact.

1) I'm editing and contributing to a local zine. It's called ruix. Saying that ruix is a monthly zine by a collective of Dubuque musicians and artists who share the common goal of promoting and sustaining local music, art, and literature gets you close to an explanation. Saying that ruix is for those looking to capture and consider original sounds that are bent, but pure, gets you even closer. The collective behind ruix has not gathered by chance. Its brain—its brawn, too, for that matter—is borne from the natural forward motion of the arts community, the progeny of community and imagination. Everything is happening now.

If it's local and original, we want. No cover bands, no arts and crafts fairs, no bullshit. This project is consuming my life right now, editing all of the content in addition to writing original articles, show reviews, blurbs on new albums, and other odds and ends. If I've done any writing lately, it's been for ruix, which you can find on Facebook or on the plain ol' world wide web.

2) I'm in two bands, both of which are in the process of recording albums. My main project in which I play guitar and do vocals, Legal Fingers, spent most of last week recording the drum tracks for our debut sleaze rock album, No Time For Tenderness. (Featuring the hit single "(I Just Wanna Get All Right) Tonite!")In addition to that, we're breaking in a new vocalist who is talented as all get-out (and a hot chick, to boot). I'm teaching her the old ones when we're not at practice working on new songs for her to sing, and I've written four songs in the past five weeks that I hope will all make the cut when it comes around to throw her into the full-band mix. I also play bass in a street punk band called Bucket House Hooligans. I joined the band a couple months ago, and I'm still getting a handle on the tunes, which I'll be recording here shortly for the band's debut album, Dubuque (That's not me in the video).

3) I'm running a six week YA writing workshop. I've done this every summer for the past three or four years, for all the reasons anyone cites in doing something like this: teaching kids not to be dickheads who suck at writing is a good way to give something back and keep up on the basics myself, in the process learning something, teaching something, and being looked up to as a mentor. Warm fuzzy whatevers all over the place. But, as much as I love them all, it takes time to figure out what we're going to talk about, what and how I want to explain my comments on their written work, and the hour round-trip commute (and hour and a half spent in the actual workshop). They're great and it's satisfying, but I'm on week six of six here, and I'm getting to be glad my English degree has nothing to do with traditional education.

This is in addition to thirty three hours a week working as a janitor, between four and eight hours a week as a door-guy at some music bars in town, and still trying to do cool shit like meet Hacksaw Jim Duggan (and Terry Funk!) in Waterloo, Iowa. That said, I hope to get back in the OBCBYL game full-fledged once the workshop and recording process are both over. The zine is still taking a lot of time, but once we get used to deadlines and figure out the best ways to work alone and with each other, things will smooth out. Until then, here's one of my absolute favorite stories that's been sent in to me, Melina Rutter's "We Can’t Even Elegantly Bleed."


We Can’t Even Elegantly Bleed

We used to have to stand in rows while the nuns checked out our fingernails. There was a kid named Shane Braddock whose father was a miner in Wyoming, and his hands were clean, the cleanest. Every day we watched the nuns shine their approval all over him because of his clean, square-cut nails, his long, tanned hands. To us, it was the way he wore his jacket, too, the dark disconnection in his glance, the bump on his nose that made him look like he’d just come up from a fight. Their approval was endless, all-encompassing. It made everything about Shane Braddock enviable, no matter how amiss it was.

He saw his father only once that year, and when the time came around we knew, because he had his pockets full of gravel that he brought out in the yard, pointing at some near-invisible sparkling flecks. It was a warm, windy day, and we were all squinting and restless. “Gold,” he said. “It’s gold my father brought for me.”

The day Shane Braddock brought his so-called gold to school was the only day that year he was punished. When it came time for the inspection, his hands were smudged black, nails full of dirt. Some of us leaned forward in line to get a better look. “That gold is dirty stuff,” someone whispered and a few of us laughed.

But in truth we were undone that day. Shane Braddock with black hands, Shane after his once-a-year-father, Shane who had special rocks dug up from the earth, was more enviable than he’d been with the nuns’ approval all over him. We looked down at our own washed-quickly hands and saw our dishonor.

* * *

We were eleven that year and had stashes of shameful, beautiful things hidden wherever we could make them last longest. We’d stolen cigarettes from our older sisters, chewing tobacco from a cousin, small nips of whisky straight from the liquor cabinet, ink bottles from the counter at the art store, ten bucks from a drunk aunt’s wallet, the key to the basement, some poker chips, baseball cards, and always the magazines we weren’t supposed to know about, a few we’d found used in a dumpster behind someone’s building, and those we’d dug a hole for in the yard and buried. There was a girl on one page called Sweet Tooth Savannah and she was our chosen one, the girl we wanted most. She lay in a bathtub filled with licorice, her eyes sullen, breasts exposed, dark hair indistinguishable from all that candy. She had black licorice ropes wound between her fingers like snakes or jewelry.

* * *

We heard about the mine collapse on TV during dinner. We knew it was Shane Braddock’s father’s mine because one of our mothers took their dresses to Shane’s mother for alterations and it was certain, tragically, unbelievably; it was Shane’s father’s mine, yes.

Some of us were stupid enough to ask about gold.

The mine was called Freedom but it was a coalmine. A coalmine, and nine men were dead underground, their faces blackened like Shane Braddock’s hands the day he was punished.

We went to sleep feeling too full from our dinners, babyish, hemmed in. We wanted to climb out the window and run the seventeen blocks to where the Braddocks lived, near the train tracks and the highway, where we could sit in the warm, dusty night on the porch and share our sleeplessness. Instead we turned over and over in our beds, unsure of what we had lost.

* * *

Shane was not in school the next day and we circled his empty spaces hungrily, in packs. The closer we imagined ourselves into his life, the more adequate we became. We took turns collecting his schoolwork for him, hoping to bring it by his house ourselves, but it was always collected by some adult or another—“the neighborhood pulls together in times like these,” was how one of our mothers put it. After some weeks it became clear to us that Shane would not return. We were told the mother couldn’t afford the city anymore, much less the school, and had moved Shane and his two younger sisters back to Wyoming.

Years later, we’d still be in the old neighborhood, just blocks from the classroom where we were made to stand in rows, compare ourselves against each other. We hadn’t seen the Badlands, the Rockies, the Snake River. We knew there were Indians who lived on all this land farther back than we cared to envision, and we’d have told our well-schooled kids about their battles and horses and visions without ever having met one.

We saw Shane Braddock one day, coming down long and loose from the elevated tracks; we knew that look of his even with twenty-five years piled on it. He was more torn up than we were, pinched, lined, underfed. He rolled a cigarette as he walked. He moved outside of the city-rhythm, any native could see that. He was there, coming down the stairs, then stopping to look far down 125th street, and then he was almost gone, his back to us, moving into the crowd.

He had gone down with his father in some pit unknown to us, he had left us, his stolen pocket money, his Sweet Tooth Savannah, who was his as much as ours; he had faded into some margin of half-existence. “Gold my father brought me,” he had said, and we could laugh for days.

But there were our washed-quickly hands, again, and there was the certainty that it was we who had given in, we who had been tricked, strung along, and we watched him go—quick in his old canvas shoes, his cuffs falling past his fingertips—again.



Swans are a band led by Michael Gira. Imagine the pants-shittingly downtrodden and tortured you've ever felt in your entire life. That's what listening to Swans is like. They're probably the best band I can hardly bring myself to listen to sometimes.

Melina Rutter is a slender girl in Germany who writes awesome stuff at bark (a culture, literature, and art blog) and her own personal blog, Invisible Adventure. She likes tattoos and good tunes. Born on Earth, dead on the moon.

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Next week: A story based on "Bicycle Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle" by Be Your Own Pet, as suggested by writer Kevin Wilson. (For real this time, hopefully.)

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

"A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Car Crash": A story based on "Love" by John Coltrane, as suggested by musician Steve Marion of Delicate Steve 36/100

A Priest and a Rabbi Walk Into a Car Crash

When Father Garrison and Rabbi Kohn both stepped onto the accident scene at the same time, they were surprised to see each other, as though they'd walked not into chaos, but into the set-up for a joke. The cars had collided at their front corners and then slid around each other in such a way that their tail ends touched, like two people in the beginning stage of duel. Garrison and Kohn each had their instincts: the Father to the knocked-out mother and crying child in the station wagon and the Rabbi to the nervous and harrowed teen in the Saab. They thought nothing more or less of each other for this, and in the odd spaces that appear in times of disorder, were thankful for the efficiency of their reactions.

They'd met a few times before in passing, at interfaith events or conferences. After the accident, realizing their previous appointments were as good as cancelled, they decided to go to a nearby café and discuss the accident. Neither mentioned the ways in which they followed another instinct, to bond over grief and reflect on what is gained when nothing is lost.

* * *

Earlier in the day, before the accident and the café, a woman had come into the church and done a tarot reading for Father Garrison. He was in the confessional finishing up with one member of the congregation when the door opened and then immediately closed again.

“Touch the cards,” the voice said.

Father Garrison reached up and placed the tips of his fingers on the cards and then leaned over top of them to peer through the screen. A dark figure, like everyone else on the other side.

“These things usually start off with something along the lines of ‘forgive me father, for I have sinned’ and not a request to touch a deck of cards.” He had become more serious in these later years, for the first time feeling as if he were forced into the priesthood by his family and then, after time, by convenience.

The figure on the other side of the screen was still, but Father Garrison could hear shuffling and, on the small shelf reserved for the folded hands of kneeling confessors, the laying down of five cards. He sat back in his chair, curious.

* * *

Father Garrison came over to the table and lightly placed two cups of tea in front of him. “Rabbi Kohn, do you know much about tarot cards?”

“Is that what the disco singer says she’ll do on those late night infomercials?”

“Not exactly. A woman came in today for confessional and mentioned something about them.”

Rabbi Kohn nodded, but was obviously thinking about something else, already having passed off the situation as a non-sequitur, a way to not talk about the accident.

Father Garrison’s card in the first position was the Knight of Wands. “The horse is riding through the desert,” the figure said. “Constant movement is necessary so you are not burned on the hot sands. If you stop, you burn.” Her voice wasn’t that of an old crone or a young gypsy. She was as worn out and non-descript as a news anchor or a waitress in a big town. “The horse is moving to the left, the path of non-traditional thought.”

“Miss, this is an obvious fabrication, and I don’t feel it’s necessary to make a mockery of my life as I’ve lived it for our lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Father Garrison’s tone was level and stern, but he didn’t even bother to lean forward, a defeated edge in him that made the woman continue, unabated.

“Your card in the second position is what you cannot see: the Hierophant. You may be feeling a lack of respect for ceremony and the law, perhaps doubting your knowledge of tradition.” She drew for him the Ten of Cups in the third position, showing that he is able to do away with what he’s comfortable with. Then the Two of Swords in the fourth position, his inability to change intuition or rely on other senses, blind in his situation but unafraid and, in fact, centered.

Father Garrison moved his head from against the wall and took a slight glance through the screen. He quietly asked if they were finished, but he was ignored again. “Your last card in the last position is your overall outcome. The Fool.”

“Wait just a damn minute,” Father Garrison burst out under his breath. He did not realize until a long lull in conversation with Rabbi Kohn later on that he had swore in the house of the Lord.

“Now now, Father,” the figure said, for the first time sounding as if she were deviating from a script. “The Fool in the final position it not bad. Look forward to a new beginning of simplicity. A fresh start with a straightforward heart.”

Father Garrison stood up and then sat back down when the woman said, “Doesn’t that sound nice?”

* * *

“Do you remember why you became a rabbi?” Father Garrison asked Rabbi Kohn.

“Ah, boychick, what a heavy question!”

“I used to think so myself, but . . .”


“But now I don’t.”

“Well, I mean, I had a good education as a young Jew in the Midwest, that was a good start. I learned early on that the Jewish peoples have a rich history, one of sorrow and longing and, above all, hope. I just wanted to learn and teach, be burrowed in so deep to that one thing that it surpasses faith and become knowledge.”

And like that it became quiet, God as uncomplicated and sensible an intangibility as love itself. Father Garrison sat back slowly and thought of the baby crying in the backseat of the car, pieces of the windshield shining like heaven in her hair.


John Coltrane was a jazz musician who pretty much ruled. He made a tenor sax sound heavier than any metal band. He died of liver cancer at the age of 40. He also did a shitload of drugs and was sainted by the African Orthodox Church in 1982.

Steve Marion
is the main creative force behind the band Delicate Steve. He likes doing yoga, which I tried to do once, but stopped after finding out it's more breathing exercises than Tae-bo. The new Delicate Steve album Wondervisions is cohesive not despite of its wandering, psych-melodies and soundscapes, but because of them. You can buy it here.

"Butterfly" from Wondervisions

"The Ballad of Speck and Pebble" from Wondervisions

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Next week: A story based on "Bicycle Bicycle, You Are My Bicycle" by Be Your Own Pet, as suggested by writer Kevin Wilson.

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