Sunday, January 17, 2016


‟One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.”
– Carl Jung

Alchemy is the medieval forerunner of modern chemistry. It can also be seen as a symbolic metaphor for the growth of consciousness. The classic understanding is that alchemists were attempting to ‟turn lead into gold.” Too many people read this on a concrete level and think these silly old medieval magicians were actually trying to physically accomplish this. Some probably were. But a deeper reading of this phrase is all about taking the darker elements of your life and finding the positive aspects of it. It is ‟finding a silver lining in the darkest cloud” rendered in more esoteric language. It is creating a work of art out of the raw elements of your life.

I was reminded of this idea this week through a variety of experiences and encounters with art. I want to talk about them.

I’ve already discussed my reactions to the death of David Bowie in my previous blog, so I won’t dwell on it again, except in the context of this post. Suffice to say, that was how the week began and created a framework for where my head was all week. Bowie was diagnosed with cancer eighteen months ago. He knew he was dying. He spent the last year and a half of his life creating the album Blackstar. Knowing that now, listening to it creates waves of resonance it wouldn’t necessarily have otherwise had. He took the time he had and spent it creating art out of his experience. It was an attempt to sum up and make peace with his life, to say goodbye to his family and fans and life. It seems that he found meaning in his sickness and suffering through expressing it in his art. Ziggy Stardust may have been an imagined figure of light, but David Bowie made the darkness conscious by finding gold in the face of his own demise.

Wednesday at the comics shop saw the release of Rosalie Lightning, the new graphic novel by cartoonist Tom Hart.

I have a small connection to this through his wife, cartoonist Leela Corman. I don’t know Leela personally. Though we have never met face-to-face I have had the pleasure of collaborating with her. Last summer she drew the story I wrote about Raoul Wallenberg for the upcoming second issue of Chutz-POW!. Rosalie Lightning tells the story of the sudden loss of their two year old daughter in 2011. I didn’t know this about Leela when we were sending emails and scripts and drawings back and forth. There was no reason I should have. This graphic novel is an amazing work of bravery. Tom Hart lays bare the unbearable sadness and depression he and Leela experienced. It is a difficult book to read and I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried tears throughout. But it is a worthwhile read. I hope creating this book and sharing it with the world is a healing experience for Leela and Tom. As difficult as this subject matter is I believe it can also be a healing experience for others who have experienced a similar loss, and for creating empathy and understanding in those of us who have not. Tom Hart took one of the absolute worst things that can happen to someone and created transformative art.

Speaking of Chutz-POW!, on Thursday evening I was invited to speak at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh for their monthly Wechsler Session. Drew Goldstein, the Chutz-POW! project head, and MarcelWalker, lead artist for the comic, were also guests. We have all spoken about this project many times. The whole idea of Chutz-POW! from the beginning was to focus on the acts of heroism during the Holocaust instead of the horror and tragedy. We have been trying to tease out the gold from this dark time from the beginning and as the writer of the project I have been constantly amazed at the examples of shining human spirit in the face of some of the worst circumstances in history.

On Thursday we heard Holocaust survivor Moshe Baran speak. Mr. Baran was one of the five people I wrote about, and while I had met him before this was the first time I’ve heard him speak in public. He is 95 years old and a survivor of the Jewish ghetto of Krasne, Poland, and spent two years as part of a resistance group living in the forest and fighting against the Nazis. He told the same story I had written, the same one that Marcel had drawn. As he spoke we pulled out the comic and followed along. I have known from the beginning of this project that I had been entrusted with people’s lives. I took this very seriously. But, no matter how much research I have done, I have always worked at a remove. They are stories. Hearing him speak brought it to life. This was not just a story. This was his life! This narrative Marcel and I had created is a small window into this enormous true life experience. I hope that our efforts to keep these stories alive have an impact on those who read them, but it is Moshe, and his late wife Malka, a survivor of the death camps, who truly found gold in their experience. They were both active throughout the rest of their lives, through speaking engagements, through her poetry, through their faith and continued engagement with life, in keeping their stories alive and inspiring others. Mr. Baran said that he has been asked many times in his life how he was able to keep his faith, given everything he had experienced. He said that to give up his faith would have been the same as saying the Nazis were right, and he refused to give Hitler a posthumous victory over his soul. This is not just finding a silver lining. This is being a figure of light.

On Friday I went to the Arcade Comedy Theater in downtown Pittsburgh to see an old friend, David White, perform his one man show Panther Hollow. David and I were parts of a larger social group, and though he and I never hung out a lot back then we were at a lot of the same events and parties and I’ve been happy to stay in touch with him over the intervening years. David is an actor and a playwright. Panther Hollow, an autobiographical piece, premiered off Broadway this past November. For those of you outside of Pittsburgh, Panther Hollow is a ‟hidden” neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh where White lived during his years in grad school. The performance begins with the true story of the time he found a dead body there, hanging in a tree near his house. From there the performance is both poignant and hysterical. It is a collection of anecdotes from his life, centering on the theme of the depression he suffered at the age of twenty-five and how, at the time, he thought the guy hanging from the tree may have had the right idea. The show is brilliant, and I don’t say that just because I know David. It is honest and brave and funny in the face of despair. It’s also an important show, because it confronts the idea of depression and mental illness head on. These are still taboo topics for way too many people. David shares very personal and embarrassing moments of his life in a way that is gentle and caring and empathetic. If even one person who suffers depression comes away from this show better able to talk about it and not be embarrassed then David’s art has served an even greater purpose.

At one point in his script, David says, ‟I put my head on his shoulder no matter how uncomfortable it is because sometimes you have to feel uncomfortable so that someone else doesn’t feel so alone.” I guess maybe that’s what I’m trying to say about art with all of this. The best art is the act of transformation. Of taking some of the darkest moments of your life, the ones we all have simply by virtue of being human, and transforming them into something greater, something that rises above the dross of merely being, something that touches the spirit of other human beings and allows them to recognize a piece of themselves in your suffering.

Something that says, as Ziggy Stardust did in his final song, ‟You’re not alone!”

Give me your hands.

 Because you’re wonderful.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Busting Up My Brains for the Words

Fame... What you get is no tomorrow.

Or, as Neil Gaiman put it, through his characterization of Death, You get what anyone gets... you get a lifetime.

David Bowie died, and here I am, attempting to join the throngs of memorials being written about him. It probably goes without saying that I never knew the man. Why does his death affect me? Why does the death of a celebrity affect any of us? I still have everything I have ever had of Bowie, except the knowledge that he was alive. All most of us have of him is the music, art, and creative legacy he left behind. That will remain, and my life goes on with no real, personal loss at all. Yet I’m still compelled to add my tiny voice to the outpouring of tributes that have already appeared.

I came to Bowie around the same time most of America did, with his Rebel Rebel single. I was eleven when The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was released. Contrary to how the album is perceived now it didn’t leave much of a splash in America at the time. I was just starting to explore real music at this time. Rebel Rebel was one of the earliest Rock 45s I ever purchased (the actual first record single is lost to memory, but this was close). I discovered this around the same time I first heard Alice Cooper’s School’s Out (which was a couple of years old before I first heard it). These were the two songs that launched adolescent Wayne into the world of Rock fandom. The opening riffs of both of these are the two most primal rock hooks in my personal lexicon. Both are songs about rebellion against authority and societal standards. Perfect for a twelve year old.

Other than a few pictures I didn’t see much of Bowie at the time. I now know he was in the process of moving past the Glam persona and experimenting with his white boy American Soul era. I think had I seen more pics of the Ziggy era I might have been more into him from the beginning. As it was I really didn’t listen to a lot of Bowie in the 70s. As much as I loved Rebel Rebel and Fame (which I also bought on 45), I simply never invested in the albums. I remember looking at Diamond Dogs in the stores, but full albums were still a little beyond my budget yet. By the time I started really buying records I was hooked on Alice and KISS and a bunch of other 70s hit bands and Bowie had moved to Berlin and become too experimental for the radio stations I was listening to. As far as I knew he had completely dropped off the musical landscape. I don’t remember ever hearing Heroes on the radio back then.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) was released in 1980 and pretty much escaped my notice at the time. I vaguely remember hearing Ashes to Ashes and Fashion as part of the radio background of the time, but I was taking my first tentative steps into New Wave and Punk right then and it just didn’t register for some reason. I saw the Ashes to Ashes video and thought it was pretty cool, but at the time my access to MTV was pretty limited, so it wasn’t as much of a constant as I know it was for a lot of other people.

Somewhere around 1981 I bought a used car, a blue mid-70s model Ford Granada. It had a factory installed 8-track player in it and the previous owner had thoughtfully left a copy of Heroes in it. At that point in my life that album was the most challenging thing I had ever listened to. I immediately fell in love with the title track (and, gun to my head, I may still consider it my favorite Bowie song, if such a thing is possible). But the rest of that album was a revelation and changed the way I thought of what Pop music could be. Not long after I bought Space Oddity, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane and was promptly blown away. I was pretty primed by the time Let’s Dance blew up in America. Though I heard most of his other work in the 80s, I didn’t invest in his entire back catalog until the CD revolution in the 90s.

I only got to see him once, on the Sound and Vision tour in 1990. My first visit to Star Lake was to see the Starman.

Smaller moments... I was in a dance club called Tin Pan Alley in Wheeling in 1980, bored by the disco floor and too scared to talk to the girls there. There was a band in the upstairs room and the only thing I remember about them is they covered Space Oddity. The grad school apartment I shared with five other guys had a poster of the cover of Aladdin Sane in the living room. The first time I saw the Dancing in the Streets video with Mick Jagger was on the big screen when it was played before some movie I saw at the Edinboro discount theater.

I realized recently that I have spent more time as a fan of his first twenty years of work in the last twenty years than I was when it was new. And, like a lot of others, while I haven’t ignored his output since 1990, it just doesn’t resonate in the same way. I’ve read several biographies. I’m fascinated by his interactions with Marc Bolan, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. I’ve read analyses of his lyrics and his concepts and recently an entire book of pretty heavily academic essays about him and his career. I’m currently reading a book called Ziggyology that is not a biography of Bowie, but of Ziggy, an attempt to pull together all of the musical and cultural influences that led to his creation.

So, I’m a little obsessed. The question is why. Why does this one person’s creative output lead me, and many others, to not just listen to his music, but to devour his career? Obviously, a huge part is the music. I like it. That’s pretty simple. It entertains me. I’m aware that there is a lot more going on in his oeuvre than there is in many other musicians I like, but I’ll leave it in the hands of those who are much more musically savvy than I am to talk about that.

For me, a lot of it is image. My two biggest life-long hobbies are comics and music. They were doorways for me. They opened on to a bigger world. They were the entrance to Narnia in the back of my closet. They were a TARDIS that took me away. They were the technicolor world of Oz in my sepia-toned Appalachian youth. I came of age in era where, at least for me personally, comics and music overlapped. Bowie, and Alice, and KISS, and Queen were superheroes, at least visually. My heroes, on the page and on the stage, were the weird outsiders that every teenager feels like. They showed me that the things that made them different were actually their strengths. What a great lesson. Loving the alien means loving yourself.

Somewhere in my brain, developing very slowly, is an entire thesis about identity and persona and costumes and personality and myth and pop culture and how these things relate.

Part of the genius of Bowie was that he showed us that we all wear masks and personas, and that it was possible, through these, to remain true to your authentic self. For all of his permutations of image, Bowie always followed his own path, distracting the world with style while creating his truth through art and music.

What we lose in his death is whatever he may have gone on to do beyond this. The potential for more. That is what we always lose when someone dies. The potential for more.

We will only ever know David Bowie through his masks and personas. Only his closest friends and family can say any differently. But through these characters and through his art we glimpsed a burning creative talent. We can simply enjoy what he gave us, or we can use it as an inspiration. We are all stardust. We can be heroes, forever and ever. The Starman that is waiting to blow our minds is our own potential for more.

And, as we’ve been told, if we sparkle he may land tonight.

I’ve been ending my blogs with a video. I’ve spent the day trying to choose the right one. In the end I decided it wasn’t about which one was exactly right, or summed up what I want to say in the lyrics. In the end it’s the one that made me a fan.

We like dancing and we look divine
You love bands when they're playing hard
You want more and you want it fast.

Listen to that guitar riff.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Musings

I’m not much of a list maker. I have a tough time coming up with an absolute ‟Favorite” anything. I get obsessive about certain topics and delve into them deeply, but I’m a dabbler at heart. There are too many things to learn about to stay the course with any of them. Renaissance Man or Master of None... You decide.

So, in that spirit, here’s a list of random things that I enjoyed/experienced in 2015, in no particular order.

Comics: Given my profession, I spend a lot of my time recommending comics to my customers. There is an art to this that goes beyond just suggesting my favorite books. The ideal is matching a book to a specific person’s tastes, whether I am in agreement with those tastes or not. But obviously, I have my favorites. Few things that were completely new in 2015 really stand out to me. I’ve been reading East of West on a monthly basis since it started, but sitting down with all four TPs made me really appreciate it. The same happened with Low, Manhattan Projects, Black Science, and Manifest Destiny. There is some disagreement on the topic, but I personally really liked The Sculptor by Scott McCloud. Both Marvel and DC had big events this summer that completely lost me (and a lot of other readers as well). We Can Never Go Home from Black Mask was a surprise hit for me, as was Giant Days.

Music: Though I listen to a lot of music I feel more distanced from genuinely new artists and albums than ever. I’ve been working my way through a project where I’m listening to a lot of classic albums from the last 60 years or so (more on that specifically in a future blog), but I’m just not being exposed to a lot of new stuff. The 2015 release I have probably listened to the most is Hollywood Vampires, a project by Alice Cooper, Joe Perry, and Johnny Depp (with a host of other guest stars). Alice covers classic rock songs by people he was friends with, all of whom are now dead. It’s kind of a no-brainer for me. Alice is probably the vocalist I am most familiar with, heard here singing lots of classic songs I know well. The mix works. Plus there is an added level of poignancy in knowing these people died, mostly of drugs and alcohol, and Alice is very aware that he could easily have been one of them. I like Dodge and Burn, the new album by the Dead Weather, though I haven’t listened to it enough for it to really sink in. I listened to some great bluesy slide guitar by a new-to-me artist by the name of Seasick Steve. Leonard Cohen put out a new album called Popular Problems that I like a lot because... Leonard Cohen.

Concerts: This was the year of cancelled concerts for me. I had tickets for The Replacements, but they cancelled and announced their breakup two weeks later (luckily I saw them twice back in the 80s). I had a ticket for Paul Weller in June, but a conflict came up and I had to miss the show. It was a good choice (more on that in a moment), but I had never seen him before and his stops in Pittsburgh are few. I had tickets for The Who with Joan Jett this fall, but they also cancelled. At least that has a rescheduled date in March. I did see Lloyd Cole at Club Cafe in June. Lloyd is one of my favorite singer/songwriters and I have seen him many times. A lot of his songs are part of a very personal soundtrack for me, and this year I saw him while in the middle of some soul-searching, so the songs had even more impact than usual. I saw both Richard Thompson and Neko Case put on great shows at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival. I saw Stevie Wonder this fall, performing the entirety of his Songs in the Key of Life album. It was something of a transcendent experience.

The highlight of my concert experiences this year was the reason I missed Paul Weller. The band Blue Coupe played a show in the living room of the famous Evaline House for a giant costume party there. Blue Coupe features Dennis Dunaway, the bass player for the original Alice Cooper Group, and Joe and Albert Bouchard, founders of Blue Oyster Cult. Michael Bruce, guitarist for Alice Cooper, was also there. You can read how this all came about in the article I wrote for the Pittsburgh City Paper HERE. As a lifelong fan of Alice Cooper, this was kind of a dream come true. I met the guys in the band, helped carry in their equipment, watched them rehearse the set of Alice songs (this was pretty much a private concert for myself and about five other people), and briefly shared the stage with them. It was a pretty magical night for this old rocker.

Dennis Dunaway and me. It was a costume party.
The bass guitar I'm holding is the exact one he used
when recording School's Out and many other classic
Alice Cooper hits. It's a Rock and Roll Holy Relic.

Me on stage with the band.

Books: This one is proving tough for me this year. I read a lot. Not as much as a few other friends of mine, but a lot. In looking over my Goodreads list this year not a lot stands out as really spectacular. I read a lot of stuff I really enjoyed and discovered a few new-to-me authors. Most of these fell into the category of fun reads but nothing very life-changing. I did really enjoy the aforementioned Dennis Dunaway’s autobiography, Snakes, Guillotines, and Electric Chairs. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes was a good Thriller/Time-Travel/Horror novel. I like it better than Broken Monsters, her latest one. I liked them both enough to check out more. Wow... you would think I would have more here to be passionate about. Maybe I should rethink my reading list for the coming year.

Movies: I don’t get to the theater very much either. I saw most of the big blockbusters: Avengers, Ant-Man, Mad Max, Star Wars. Thanks to Rowhouse Cinema in my neighborhood I’ve seen some great older films on the big screen. I appeared in AspieSeeks Love, a movie locally produced by Julie Sokolow about my old friend David Matthews. I used to see a lot of smaller, independent films, but I have gotten out of the habit. Two of my most enjoyable movie-going experiences this year fall in this category. Only Lovers Left Alive is a slow-paced vampire movie starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt. I know some people who found it boring but I was mesmerized. We Are the Best is a coming of age movie set in Stockholm in the early 80s. It follows three young girls who decide to form a punk band in spite of a complete lack of musical ability. This was just fun and beautiful.

TV: There’s a lot of really good TV right now, and I watch too much of it. Fargo was a tremendous amount of fun, if you can get through the pretty extreme violence it contains. I watched The Affair on Showtime and really liked the conceit of the storytelling. That faltered some in the second season. I continue to enjoy Game of Thrones, though I’m bummed that it looks like the TV series is going to go past where the books are. I would rather read it first. Even though I don’t watch all of them, there’s an overwhelming number of comics-based shows. Walking Dead is still a fave, and I'm a little in love with Carol. I didn’t like Constantine at all, though I admit my vision of that character is complicated and most renditions of him these days don’t work for me. I haven’t seen enough of Supergirl yet to have a firm opinion, though I like what I’ve seen. Agents of SHIELD is better this season (it almost lost me last spring), but I want it to be better. Arrow is fun but all too often jumps into really teen angsty places that I find tedious. Flash makes me really happy. I’ve been onboard as a Doctor Who fan since the reboot, but for some reason the latest season really, really grabbed me. Some of that is the performances by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman (who I didn’t like when she first appeared at all). Some of it is that I am painfully aware of how much many of this season’s themes really hit home for me right now.

Personal/Professional: Other than a handful of workshops I didn’t get to teach this year, which is a shame because I really love the experience of doing so. I was asked to join the Board of Directors of the Pittsburgh ToonSeum and currently serve on the executive committee. I finished the scripts for the second issue of Chutz-POW!, and inked 6 pages for it (coming in early 2016!). I had art exhibited at Most Wanted Fine Art gallery. I have been somewhat at odds with my creative endeavors, not writing as much as I would like with no real reason other than laziness and lack of motivation. I didn’t take a trip of any kind this year due to some work schedule changes and a lack of planning on my part. I plan on rectifying that this year. I had a very brief relationship that while it didn’t work out forced me to confront some issues I probably needed to think about (and for the record, there were no hard feelings on my part and I have nothing but warmth and regard for the woman involved. Thank you for being there and teaching me important life lessons). I continue to be blessed with a feast of friends, which I need to remind myself of when I’m feeling disconnected.

Okay, that’s it for now. 2015, like any year, had its highs and lows, gains and losses. Time passes and only we remark on it.

To be continued in 2016.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Meanwhile, Back in Time...

This is a short entry, meant as an update to my previous Time is a Ghost Town blog post about my home town.

As of today, Time is a thing of the past. I spoke with Mom this morning. The last house in the village has been torn down. All gone. 

In my previous post about this I mentioned that a friend of mine, Tara Kinsell, was writing an article about Time, which is what prompted me to write. She finished it. You can read it online HERE. The article is on page 8 and features my Mom and Dad pretty heavily. There's another article about me and my art and writing on page 7. There's another article about the church I grew up in on page 20 (a picture of which can be seen on the cover of my novel, Scratch), and another about the last house to be torn down on page 28.

I can't go home again, at least to the physical reality that was once there. Luckily Home means a lot more to me than just a place.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sail Away, Sweet Sister

K.C. died.

I found out from my Mom in the form of, ‟Didn’t you used to know this girl. I saw her obituary a couple of weeks ago.”

It has probably been thirty-five years since I’ve seen K.C. I occasionally run into her older brother and ask about both her and her sister. But I haven’t had any real contact with her since right after high school. The last time I saw her she introduced me to her boyfriend, who I know she married not long after. After that, I don’t have any real idea what happened in her life. I think the first marriage didn’t last. I think she remarried.

I think, but I don’t really know.

She’s been gone from my life for a very long time.

But in high school she was among that first group of friends who I ever considered to be family. She was someone I felt a bond with. Someone I loved in the intense ways of friendship that in the years since I have felt for many people (and I am thankful and blessed to be able to say that).

We didn’t date. I never kissed her or held her hand. For a time she dated my friend, G.I., and along with our friend B.K. (who I sometimes thought I was dating but I don’t think she ever perceived it that way), the four of us had many adventures. At the time I couldn’t imagine my life without any of them.  They were Forever Friends. Some of the first.

I lost track of all of them, and it happened very quickly. Our lives simply went in different directions and it seems that high school and proximity were all that really held us together.

There was a time when G.I.’s family made me part of theirs. I spent hours at his house, went on family vacations with them, was the object of his little sister’s first major crush. I have nothing but warm feelings and memories of all of them. G.I. moved and the last time I saw him felt awkward. We just didn’t have anything in common to talk about. I’m friends with some of his family on Facebook, so I could find him easily. But I haven’t.

B.K. met a guy at work and got married. She moved into the house she grew up in and settled into her life. I ran into her in the early 90s. I went to her house and had dinner and a great time getting caught up. I haven’t seen her since. No hard feelings between us. We just live in different universes.

I missed K.C.’s wedding. I sent her a card. In it, in addition to wishing her luck and congratulations, I wrote some lyrics from the song, Sail Away, Sweet Sister, from the Queen album The Game. At the time they seemed to say the things I wanted to say to her.

She was 52 when she died. In my brain she's still 18.

Time. Lost companions. People I loved who loved me back, even though none of us are those people anymore. Chapters and moments that make us who we are. Never lost entirely, just faded pieces of the puzzle of our lives.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Time is a Ghost Town

Part One: The other side of Time

Did I ever tell you I grew up just outside of Time? You had to travel through Time to get to my house? Well, actually there were several ways to go around Time if you knew where to look.

Seriously, it’s the name of the small (I mean like five houses small), village I grew up near. A friend from back home is writing an article about it and just last week sent me some questions, so that set off a cascade of thoughts on the topic of Time.

Time isn’t on a lot of Pennsylvania maps these days. I found the following images online.

Time actually appearing on an old map.
I grew up at the intersection right under
where it says Simpsons Store.

An old map listing the land owners.
J. Wise is my grandfather, James.
This is a tin type picture of my
grandfather, James Wise. He died two
years before I was born. He was born in
the early 1880s. Yes, you read that right.
Thanks to both my father and I coming
later in our parent's lives two generations
ago for me is close to 140 years.

No one who lived there actually called it Time. It was always ‟Dogtown” to the natives, even though there was a now long-gone Village of Time sign on both ends of town. It’s rumored to have had a post office at one time, but no I know remembers it (including my parents who have both lived there for over 90 years). They do remember a school. I vaguely remember a country store run by George McNeely and a barbershop run by my great uncle Clark. In talking with the folks I know there was another school, a couple of lumber mills, another store, and a grain mill with a water wheel on the creek in the immediate vicinity as well. Part of the stone foundation of the grain mill is still there if you know where to look under the vegetation.

That’s all gone now. Most of it has been for decades. The store and the barbershop were still there when I was little, but both were gone by the mid 60s at the latest. It has been a slow process, but at this moment in Time, everything is gone.

That whole area, Union Valley, is in the middle of coal mines and gas wells. Fracking has come to Time and most people who lived there have been bought out and have moved. My parents are two of the only people left in the valley. Every time I have gone home for the last several years something was missing. Houses are abandoned, their windows either knocked out or boarded up. Driving through Time two weeks ago it reminded me of several old abandoned towns I saw in the dry hinterlands of New Mexico.

Time is a ghost town.

There has never been a written history of Time. Why would there be? The only thing that remains of it are the memories of the people who lived there. My parents are the oldest and they only have fragments of what came before. I have even less. Even memories die eventually, and sometimes they don’t leave even a ghost behind. Some things are just gone.

I’m witnessing the slow passage of Time.

Part Two: Time Passages

I recently was asked to participate in a gallery show at Most WantedFine Art in the Garfield section of Pittsburgh. The show was called The Art of Blogging and featured art work by people who are more well known for blogging than for drawing or painting (that’s an oversimplification). It was great to be asked to participate. I identify as a writer much more than an artist these days, so having some focus on my art was gratifying.

As part of the info for the exhibit I was asked to write a brief, one hundred words or less, description of what my blog was about. That proved more difficult than writing the blog.

My friend Leigh Anne also blogs (go read her at You’ll thank me). In addition to being a superb friend in many way she is also one of the people I frequently talk about writing and blogging with and I value and trust her insights more than most. So, when faced with describing my blog I asked her, ‟What’s my blog about?”

Her answer?


I asked her to elaborate and part of what she said was, ‟You treat time as if it were something tangible and malleable to work with... though you do seem to focus on the past and present rather than the future... you don't take anything for granted. You treat everything as if it’s important without coming off like a pompous ass, which is no mean feat.”

Hmmm... I hadn’t thought of it that way but she’s right. I often talk about memory and how it changes, about the past and nostalgia, with a focus on how these things impact our present and future. I’m very aware of the stories we all tell, and how they differ due to perspective and the passage of time. Our memories are ghosts and we can never be sure they’re real.

Part Three: I remember doing the Time Warp

Okay, I’m going to talk about Doctor Who.

Like a lot of people I’m a fairly new convert to the Doctor. Because my hobbies included comics and science fiction I think I was always vaguely aware of the show without ever getting a chance to see it. Though I know episodes aired on PBS in the 70s, television reception wasn’t very good in Time. I was pretty much limited to NBC and CBS affiliates when I was little and ABC as a teen when we moved a whole hundred yards up the road closer to Time. I saw photos in magazines and drawings of the character in comics form, but I don’t think I ever really understood the concept back then.

This was primarily the Tom Baker era Doctor Who. Even then, not knowing anything, I liked the look. I never really cosplayed back then, but in the 80s I took to wearing a trench coat, an Indiana Jones fedora, and a long scarf. I don’t think this was a completely conscious attempt to look like the Doctor, but I can’t say I was totally unaware of it either.

At some point I saw an episode or two, too late for it to really hook me. Slow stories, cheap looking special effects... It just didn’t grab me. I have known many friends who were huge fans though, friends who tried many times to get me to try it. I’m pretty sure it was Steve Segal who finally convinced me to start with the reboot featuring Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor. Okay Steve... You were right.

Steve edited and wrote a lot of the entries for a book called Geek Wisdom a few years ago. I know he wrote the entry about Doctor Who. In it he makes the point that some time in the last ten years the Doctor replaced Star Trek as the cultural touchstone for those of us involved in the geek lifestyle. He refers to Doctor Who as ‟a grown-up Peter Pan, always collecting new young friends and teaching them to fight the good fight on Earth rather than in Neverland,” someone who has an ‟unsullied, childlike vision of a universe where all things ought to be possible.” In the same article he quoted Craig Ferguson as saying the Doctor represented, ‟the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism.”

I happen to think those are remarkable qualities for a role model.

I’ve been accused of being something of a Peter Pan myself. There are good and bad things about that. There is a difference between being child-like and being childish. I think I still have child-like wonder about many things, and a youthful spirit. I value humor and play (the title of my blog isn’t an accident after all). I don’t think I’m an immature brat who needs others to take care of me. I’m pretty good at living in the moment and could be a little better at planning for the future. I do seem to have an ever-changing cast of young companions who look to me for guidance of some sort, many of whom become genuine friends because I know I learn as much from them as they do from me.

Remaining youthful in outlook while getting older in wisdom is an act of internal time travel.

I’m really enjoying the current, Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who. After two young-looking incarnations of the Doctor (David Tennent and Matt Smith), they skewed older with Capaldi. I thought this was a good move, just for the show in general, but also because oddly enough I skew older than I used to. I knew it would change the dynamics of the show and it did. Doctors 10 and 11 could easily be seen as romantic interests for the companions, and this plot line played out to some degree with both of them. With Capaldi being older it more firmly moved into the role of mentor than romantic leading man.

The 12th Doctor began as a little rougher around the edges than his immediate predecessors. Matt Smith was just over the top cuddly and lovable. Capaldi was crankier, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and seemed to have an arrogant disdain for humans. As I watched his first season unfold I started to see this not so much as a disdain for people than a way of emotionally distancing himself from them. I believe all of the Doctor’s regenerations, the new person they become, have roots in who they were before. If this is true then his need for emotional distance was something of a learned response from his last years as the 11th Doctor.

This became clear to me this season in his interactions with Ashildr, played by Maisie Williams, a character he made immortal. She refers to him as the ‟man who runs away.” As an immortal he spends time with humans, but leaves when things get too tough for him. Ashildr had lived for 800 years and simply couldn’t remember everyone she had known, even those who had been close to her. She was wounded by the passage of time and the things she had lost to it. To survive she had stopped allowing herself to get attached to people who were just going to die and leave her.

It was her mention of 800 years that did it for me. The 11th Doctor, in his last season, spent more than 800 years living on the planet Trenzalore while it was in a constant state of siege and warfare. In this case he wasn’t the ‟man who runs away,” but the man who stayed. In that time he watched generations of people live their entire lives and die while he continued on. By the time he regenerated into the 12th Doctor he had become used to losing people and out of the habit of caring for the mayflies, as he called them in conversation with Ashildr.

The ability to care is something he had to relearn. The ability to care, even when you know something may be short-lived, even when you know you may lose it, is the essence of being human. I think that is the central theme for Capaldi’s Doctor.

As a quick aside, I think his growth as a character can be seen through his clothes. When he first appeared he wore a frock coat and a severe white shirt buttoned up to his throat. Very formal. He still wears the frock coat, though it looks a little frayed and worse for wear this season, but he is wearing beat up t-shirts and a hoodie under it. His appearance has become less formal to mirror his attitude. I confess that I like this look a lot, partially because I’ve been wearing a frock coat/hoodie combo in fall and spring for years now. I feel like I’m participating in stealth cosplay every time I leave the house, much more so than when I wore the trench coat, hat, and scarf many years ago.

Part Four: It’s astounding, Time is fleeting

So I’m losing Time: my home town and the moments of my life. There are people and relationships I have lost. I relate to the current Doctor because of this. Some days I feel old and look at the enthusiasm of youth with the painful wisdom of knowing they don’t know what awaits them. The painful wisdom of knowing neither do I. It is more difficult to pursue and create meaningful relationships because I know many of them will not last. People go away, not because of failed friendships or relationships but because of Time. Many of the dearest are still out there. We have the metaphorical Tardis of shared space on social media (much bigger on the inside), and the occasional reunion where we reminisce about old adventures but rarely actually share a new one. There will be new companions I love, but the old ones are always just the ghost of a memory away.

But Time isn’t a ghost town. It’s filled with people, just waiting to come into your life and change it. People who are waiting for you to appear like magic and bring them new adventures.

That’s the point of living with a child-like wonder. You never know what people will prove to be the best companions. Live in the moment, enjoy them now, dance with them in the playground of your life. Create the best future you can because the future is just nostalgia that hasn’t happened yet.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

It Was Great When It All Began

I was a regular Rocky fan.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that is. I’m not the first person to write about this, not by a long shot. I won’t be the last. But it’s Halloween and I have an annual ritual of playing the soundtrack in my car and loudly singing all the parts this time of year, something I did this past weekend. I also watched a BBC stage production of this on Saturday, so it’s on my mind.

My first exposure to RHPS was back around 1980 or so. I was in college and working as a volunteer teaching assistant for the secondary gifted program in Greene County. One of the students had a copy of the Official Rocky Horror Picture Show Movie Novel and the record of the soundtrack.

A janitor found the Movie Novel left in the classroom and lost his shit. He turned it in to the principal, believing it to be little more than pornography and what the Hell was being taught in that gifted class anyway. The teacher was forced to sit through a no doubt uncomfortable meeting about this, and to her credit, went to bat for the students, eventually convincing the administration of the value of discussing these kinds of topics. I don’t know how she managed it, but kudos. The book was returned to the student and we all got the stinkeye from that janitor from that point on.

Being out in a rural setting we had no access to actually seeing the film, so my experience with it was exclusively through these artifacts. It would be a couple of years before I actually saw the movie at a midnight showing at the GeeBee’s shopping plaza in Washington, PA. It was the full-fledged audience participation event I expected. All of the props, all of the chaos. I vaguely remember someone tearing a toilet out of the floor in the men’s room, so there was a level of vandalism not usually associated with this as well, probably explaining why it was never screened there again.

I loved it. How could I not? The film was, and forgive my obvious metaphor here, a Frankensteinian collage of my favorite things: science fiction, horror, rock and roll, comic books, and sex.

Which probably says way too much about my priorities.

What I didn’t recognize at the time is the extent of the Pop Culture nexus RHPS really is for these elements. There are lots of connections I want to explore, so bear with me while I work this out.

RHPS is pretty specifically a product of the time and place in which it was created. It was first staged in London in 1973, firmly at the height of the Glam Rock movement. Glitter, costumes, camp, and sexual ambiguity were the order of the day. T Rex, The Sweet, Roxy Music and David Bowie, among many others, were scandalizing the stodgy keepers of the status quo on record and on TV with overtly sexualized, gender-bending performances. Glam was a short-lived phenomenon in the music world (though I could make the case that it never went away, just reformatted). It’s lifestyle was too extreme. It served as a short transition from what rock music had been up to that point and what it was going to become.

In the midst of all of the Glam indicators in RHPS it is Columbia who most clearly represents it. Her costume is all glitter and sequins, with character references to Betty Boop and Sally Bowles from Cabaret (another influential film in the Glam Rock canon).

Little Nell

Liza Minelli

Betty Boop

Columbia is torn between the past and the future, as represented by her love for both Eddie and her obsession with Frank. It makes complete sense to me that Columbia was in love with Eddie. Glam was in love with the music of the 50s. A tremendous amount of the genre (the artistic achievements of Bowie and a couple of other artists excepted), was a return to the aesthetic of the past. The social consciousness of the 60s, the experimentation of the Beatles, the jazz-influenced jam band sound of the Grateful Dead, and many other signifiers of the hippy generation were eschewed in favor of the three-minute pop song single. Both Gary Glitter and Alvin Stardust had been 50s era crooners who reinvented themselves as Glam stars. A lot of the music itself sounds like it could have been written a decade earlier. Roy Wood of Wizzard tricked himself out in more makeup and gaudiness than most, but his songs were direct sonic throwbacks to old time rock n’ roll.

Glam wasn’t alone in its love of the past. A full blown 50s revival was in the air. Grease premiered on stage in 1971. AmericanGraffiti hit the big screen in 1973 and Happy Days was just around the corner on the small screen in 1974.

For all of its subversion, RHPS is drenched in nostalgia. The most obvious examples of this are the film references. The late night, science fiction picture show was part of 50s culture as much as doo wop. Frank was a mix of the horror movie icons of Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula, with Riff Raff as his Igor/Renfield. The reference to Fay Wray, followed by Rocky climbing a tower and getting shot down is less than subtle. Rocky himself is a parody of the Charles Atlas ads that ran in every comic book ever for decades (an exaggeration, but not by much). Body building, and the magazines dedicated to it in the first half of the 20th century are one of the direct influences on comic books and the superhero genre.

But Columbia fell in love with the future as well. Eddie only had half a brain after all, and Brad and Janet are the cliched archetypes of the 1950s teen. Nostalgia is at its heart, conservative. The belief that things were better in the good old days prevents growth and progress into new ways of thinking. These images of a somehow more innocent past are subverted not only by the clothing and sexuality of the film, but by actual history itself. By this time we were wounded by Viet Nam, and assassinations, and the death of the love and peace ideal of the 60s. In the middle of this moment we had Kent State and Watergate (Nixon’s resignation speech can be heard on the radio in the RHPS movie). To go back to the metaphor, ‟Darkness conquered Brad and Janet.” No wonder we were clamoring for some innocent nostalgia. But, once we remove the lens of sentimentality and acknowledge the darkness it’s impossible not to see it. ‟Still the beast is feeding.”

But as scary as the past may be, the future is more so. It is the great unknown. David Bowie’s Major Tom was alone in his capsule, the ultimate in alienation, while Ziggy Stardust was ‟a Starman, waiting in the sky,” who would, ‟like to come and meet us, but he’s afraid he’d blow our mind.” Frank N Furter exhorts us, ‟Don’t get strung out, by the way I look.” He knows he’s blown our minds.

And in the end both Ziggy and Frank had to die at the hands of their admirers. It was too much, too soon. The lifestyle is too extreme to carry into day to day living, but the encounter with it changes people.

In 1973 50s rock n’ roll was nostalgia, Glam was dying of its own excess, but RHPS anticipated what was coming. The leather and ripped clothes and makeup and anti-authoritarian mindset anticipated Punk, and in its use of horror imagery, more specifically Goth (Riff Raff and Magenta appear in the early scenes in Denton posed as the American Gothic painting). Not that this was the first appearance or only influence in music. Screamin Jay Hawkins, Arthur Brown, and Alice Cooper were openly utilizing these motifs in ways that probably influenced RHPS as much as it influenced what came after. It’s certainly debatable, but I can see direct lines from Glam to Punk to Goth (which I might talk about in a different post). To quote myself from one of my novels, ‟Goth is just Glam with the lights turned down.” Count the number of Glam songs covered by Bauhaus if you doubt me.

All of these elements come to together, and to tease out specific connections and influences can be difficult. To explore one example, as an aside (because we need one of those in a post that’s already tl;dr), I want to talk, briefly I promise, about the Runaways. There is an anecdote where their Svengali Kim Fowley took the girls out to see RHPS. This was significant enough that it was mentioned in at least two books that I’ve read, and possibly three (I don’t have them in front of me). Cherie Currie and Joan Jett are both on record as being heavily influenced by Glam acts (Bowie and Suzi Quatro, respectively, among others). Because of the timing they were lumped in with the burgeoning punk movement. You can see this clearly in their fashion. Cherie famously scandalized the rock press by wearing a bustier and thigh highs on stage when she was sixteen. Was this directly inspired by RHPS? Hard to say, but the imagery speaks for itself. Years later Joan Jett was cast as Columbia in a Broadway revival of RHPS and in the floorshow section of the play can be seen wearing an outfit remarkably similar to Cherie’s. Full circle.


Cherie Currie

Joan Jett as Columbia

RHPS was a failure when it was first released, but over the years developed a cult following in repeated midnight showings around the globe. It is perhaps the most viewed movie in history. Hundreds of thousands of people (millions? Is that possible?), have gathered in the dark to not just watch, but to participate in this cultural phenomenon.

My friend Dr. Michael Chemers has written about this (source cited below). He talks at length about the RHPS Performance Cult. The movie has transformed into a participatory experience as opposed to something that is simply watched. It has become a mystery cult, where virgins, those who have not seen the movie, are initiated into the shared group experience. There is a call and response, where the congregation shouts out specific lines in response to what is happening on screen. Props are brought to the theater to simulate the experience.

In many theaters there were performance troupes who dressed in costumes and acted out the entire film. You can see this in the movie Perks of Being a Wallflower, filmed here in Pittsburgh at the Hollywood Theater, which had a long history of showing the film (in 2008, when Chemers article appeared, Pittsburgh had only one of three theaters in the country that still did this). While I have certainly danced the Time Warp I never officially participated in these performances, though I know several people who did.

This level of identification with something is the essence of religious experience, and if I may go out on a limb, of intense fandom of anything. We identify with something larger than ourselves and wish to emulate it. Fans go to concerts dressed as Ziggy Stardust, Alice Cooper, and KISS. We wear the sports jerseys of our favorite players. Comics conventions are filled with cosplayers with dozens of Deadpools, Harley Quinns and Doctor Whos. We pull on the sacred raiments of our obsession and engage in Participation Mystique.

But, as Dr. Chemers points out, watching RHPS on DVD in the comfort of your home changes your interaction with it. Fewer and fewer people are having the shared communal experience. The mystery cult has no place to congregate. It’s a shame because it is in the shared experience that the lessons of the sacrament become embodied in the real world, and I think there are many lessons to be learned from RHPS.

The first is the obvious mantra of ‟Don’t dream it. Be it.” It is a statement that speaks for itself. It is Joseph Campbell’s ‟Follow your bliss.” But, as important as this may be, I don’t think it is the main lesson we can learn. While there are many factors in any major social change I can’t help but wonder about just how much of a cultural impact RHPS has had on our perception and acceptance of sexuality. For thirty years thousands of people participated in a world that embraced transvestites, transexuals, transgendered, queer, bi, and straight characters.

In 1973 these were topics that very few people discussed openly. Bowie casually hugged his guitarist Mick Ronson on TV and Great Britain lost its mind at the perceived overt homosexuality of the act. We now live in a world where these issues are being dealt with in a much more open fashion. We still have light years to go for full acceptance, I understand that, and in no way do I want to diminish the very real struggles many people still endure. But, I know that for myself, this movie was an open door into a world I had not encountered, one that changed my perceptions. In these over-the-top caricatured characters I was able to recognize truths that went beyond the campiness of the film. Under the glitter and the makeup and the thigh highs there was the possibility of very real people trying to find their identity, trying to connect with other people.

There was the possibility, for everyone, of finding a light in the darkness of their lives.

Chemers, Dr. Michael. ‟Wild and Untamed Thing: The Exotic, Erotic, and Neurotic Rocky Horror Performance Cult.” in Reading Rocky Horror: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Popular Culture. Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, ed (Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2008)