02 August 2005

Thunderstorm Blues & The Art of War

Signs, Portents, and Nonsense

Scientists tell us that when you get rain when the sun's out - that strange, bright, washed-out kind of day cut with raindrops that feel super-realistic, the kind of day where you feel like a grey film's been removed from your field of vision, that the world has been not polished but burnished into brighter color, the kind of day where edges lie sharp and every blade of grass and every shadowed pebble saws across your field of vision - scientists tell us that that is the Devil beating his wife.

And whether or not that's true - I'm told condensation is an old wive's tale - I hate to think what the Devil's doing to her during a thunderstorm like this. The head of it is directly over my building right now, the lightening hidden downtown so that the light's horizon to horizon and free of bolts, just a blinding flicker, like an ambulance on my street or a flashbulb in orbit or God's broken fluorescent light. The thunder crashes down on top of us in a strangely comforting way. It's a guilty comfort, like sleeping soundly while the neighbors are fighting, secure that they can't touch you through these walls. It punches through the soft music on the stereo and makes me worry about the TV exploding. I've heard this sort of thing happens. There's electricity in the air. I expect lightbulbs to burst. I expect the flatscreen monitor of this computer to melt and boil away into space.

I know as the rain patters I'll sleep soundly tonight.

I should mention at this point, as white light consumes the South End, that I dreamt last night of Los Angeles going up in a nuclear cloud tinged an ugly orange and red. I saw it mushroom up from the Valley soundlessly. I was on a sandstone-cobbled road next to a terraced cliffside cafe filled with the disapproving rich & elderly. They didn't seem to notice as I pointed. I thought it was strange and horrible at the time, but not wholly unexpected. My dream-self knew with quiet certainty that this had been coming for a while. L.A. was bound to end as ashes funnelled into aftermath or cracked down the middle and swimming. It was just a matter of when. Spanish tile learning how to fly. A half million outdoor swimming pools rising vaporous.

Steve Erickson's new novel, the irrational, beguiling Our Ecstatic Days, is set in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles. (Question: Can L.A. ever have been said not to be post-apocalyptic?) The city's drowning slowly underneath a lake that appears almost overnight in the middle of South Hollywood. And for our current purposes, we should note that at more than one point, we are told: "We are surrounded by signs. Ignore none of them."

And so we look for signs and portents: Walking through the South End today, I saw a banner draped against a row of townhouses: It Will Be 28 Degrees Before You Know It. There was no sponsor. It was professionally printed and glossy.

In the Banana Republic men's bathroom, the other side of the wall is the stockroom. The wall is paper thin. Walking into the breakroom to get some water, I heard stockers were playing death metal at full volume. As an uninformed customer, now, imagine walking through the quiet scuffed hardwood of our basement, into the restroom, and then hearing, faintly, but - yes, there it is - unmistakably, the sounds of somebody screaming to kill all god-maggots.

Finally, flipping through John Darnielle's Last Plane to Jakarta the other day, I came across a discovery of his that I'd like to share. As you look at this search page from the website of Charles Strousse, professional composer and architect of the theme to All In The Family as well as the musical Annie, I'd like you to note two things.

1) The deal Ebay is offering. In this End of Days, does the Internet ride a red horse?

2) Far more important, do you feel with me (and with John Darnielle) the weight of possibility snuffed and discarded? The trembling feeling of having seen an alternate future? - Don't get me wrong. I think (and hope) that this will never see the light of day. But it was done. The songs are already written. It exists, not just in potentia, but tantalizingly close to reality. And by the guy who wrote "Tomorrow." Imagine that. Over the years, I've more or less consciously decided that Star Wars can die lonely in the woods, but still. Tomorrow.

Think of how much has been done that we'll never know - and what could have been done but wasn't. Rumor attests to Robert Johnson, in the months before his death, touring the South with an electric guitar and a drummer. Shit, he was one scuffed left foot and a 'Yeah' away from rock & roll. Had he lived a year longer, he'd have been invited to Chicago, where the seminal live recorded blues festival of 1936 might have ignited the form twenty years early. Woody Guthrie could have gone post-punk in '63.

The thunder, by the way, recedes into the distance. Tomorrow - and there'll always be a tomorrow - it'll be like it never was.

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