Saturday, January 16, 2010

Old Men, My Friends

I'm listening to Leonard Cohen's Ten New Songs--he was in his late sixties when the album came out in 2001. I just finished reading Wounded, a novel by Percival Everett. The protagonist is a horse rancher who describes himself as old as dirt. Today I saw Crazy Heart, the new film in which Jeff Bridges plays a 57-year-old country singer alcoholic named Bad Blake. I listened to John Lee Hooker for nearly 3 hours straight while writing recently, and at the Getty the other day, I couldn't stop staring at photos of men working dangerous jobs--building the Empire State Building, trying to stop oil fires, laying bricks. The title of the exhibit was The Worker. I felt more affection for those images of men covered in coal dust then for the photos of secretaries and burlesque girls--even though I've been both of those.

These men are the people, the characters, and the voices that resonate most with me in the past months. I'm a 30-year-old blonde writer dancer woman with a Berkeley-feminist childhood and a pretty face, and the only people who seem to make any real sense to me right now are not just men, but men anywhere from 10-30 years older than me.

A psychologist would want to know more about my father. Blah blah blah. A feminist literary theorist would blame a phallogocentric culture with no true female logos. A historian might point out that women really weren't allowed to MAKE art unless they were crazed geniuses for most of Western history, and that when they did it anyway, they were suppressed or underappreciated. I understand this context, and I'm, of course, fascinated and humbled by it.

But tonight, I'm more interested in figuring out how to write in the world of Henry Miller without being called a "female version" of Henry Miller. And what to do about having a soul that seems strangely more like Tom Waits' or Henry Miller's than Erica Jong's.

I trust, love, and admire a goodly collection of women writers and artists. I think SARK has flouted the gendered demands of our culture with a wisdom and courage that is stunning. I read and wish I could have been roommates with Anais Nin. Sophie B. Hawkins is a hero of truth-telling and self-aware, mature sexiness. But has there been anyone since the 60s who was truly celebrated, in public, as a bad girl with frizzy hair and an un-Hollywood body who played guitar and drank whiskey? I feel sad tonight about the condition of gender. I feel that these old fart male artists are more my friends than the women I know, because they are less afraid of the world than most of the women I know. Everyone is dishonest. But in Crazy Heart, Bad Blake has at least one moment of wasting no time on image-maintenance in situations when it could have "helped" him to be more strategic--he tells his longtime agent "fuck you," does an interview without buttoning his shirt, and once he decides to get sober, does no grandstanding. John Hunt, Everett's protagonist in Wounded, always knows when he's lying, which means that he's got a constant self-awareness, if not a mandate to offer all his information to everyone. I used to feel some pity for men that they had to wear their sex organs on the outside, but now I am jealous. It's not quite penis envy, it's more like forced-honesty-envy.

Two nights ago I climbed into a limo with nine people who were dressed impeccably for a night out in Hollywood--men in nice shirts, women in sexy skirts, heels, makeup, perfect breasts. Lindsey and I were drunk on cheap Smirnoff, and we'd been in my Dollhouse talking and writing in our pajamas when we got a phone call from her friend and the whole night turned around. We didn't change our clothes, and on the ride into the hills, Lindsey said, "Ness, can you sum this up, the whole thing, everything up until now?" I was sprawled on the floor of the limo with my Target-bought Ugg knock-off boots balanced on the doorhandle and my ski-jacket halfway unzipped.

I said:

"Ok, I'll sum this up.
(A) Big Bang
(B) Dinosaurs
(C) Imperialism
(D) The Avant-Garde."

Riz Story, to my right, said, "I like that." Mark Batson, to my left, said, "Girl, wow."
Lindsey high-fived me, said, "Yes," and the women said nothing. Why? I don't know. They didn't listen because they were dressed up and I was in pajamas? They didn't know what I was "trying" to do? I really don't know.

I want a new way to be Woman, and I think Linz and I are stumbling towards it. As much as I admired Crazy Heart, I'm sick of characters like the writer Maggie G. plays, who falls for the bad boy Bad Blake and then has to self-protect when he does some inevitable destruction. Bah. I didn't buy it for a second--a woman like that would only be lightly curious, not truly turned on, by the darkness her lover saw on the edge of town, no matter how turned on she might be in the bedroom. It seemed there was a message about women there, and especially about mothers: all that darkness just can't enter the home where a child is being raised, and it is the Mama who will make sure of it.

So maybe that is the source of my identification with the alcoholics, the tortured bald poets, the deviant exiles and the truth-telling old men: my babies are stories, which actually need that darkness to live, and not real live children, whom it might destroy?


  1. susan Ariel Rainbow KennedyJanuary 19, 2010 at 12:56 PM


  2. i'm with you on this, but for a teeny bit of optimism, lucinda williams comes to mind? yes, she's been "prettied up" for greater mass-consumption, but she's pretty much as real and honest as it gets. and seems to be more like the men you identify with than most anyone i can think of...

  3. I was having a similar revelation a few months ago about the old men. If I wrote (a blog), I would have called mine, Getting High With Men Over 50. Anyway, I think you're right about it coming down to child-raising. Is there any way around it? Maybe wealth. Maybe letting the kids see everything. Dostoevsky says they can handle it.

  4. Your curiosity really is gorgeous, because your blog topics are always surprising. I share your shame and self-loathing at how much I often prefer male artists and intellectuals. I blame history for this and want to write a new history for the 21st century

  5. These men, reporters of midnights, dancers on rooftops, are the Duke Street Kings, who have heard the deep-night bells and been set loose so many times that their bodies never stop resonating. They are different than the desperate lovers who park on their pier, and the difference is that they lack the desperation. Foresight, affirmation, safety: they are desperate for none of it, and none of the trappings. No home, no job, no peace, no rest. I could never tell whether Bruce meant the Kings to be a street gang or a band, the only difference being the work. The work is what makes a life without desperation meaningful.

  6. We are trying to find women models that would actually exist. Even if we find one, see how hard it is and pointless it is! There are so few and they haven't entered our imaginary space yet wet.

    Darkness for children: yes they can. Problem: we know new borns can swim, no one is willing to try because of FEAR. It sums up being parents.

    Violence is in Frida Kahlo's paintings and in the language of France Théoret and Hélène Cixous. It's inner violence. Violence with the body.

  7. as much as the politics of the genre are frequently questionable, country music has a history of female stars with a different style of womanhood. loretta, patsy, dolly, tanya, emmylou, all sing about whiskey and sex and their love for both. their work certainly isn't limited to those topics, though. husbands, children, abuse, suicide also pop up in their work. maybe this lends their persona a more full quality? also today, gretchin wilson and miranda lambert operate in the "badass woman" subgenre of country. wilson had a hit with "redneck woman" which is a song about feminist class pride. lambert had a hit with the song "gun powder and lead" a song about shooting an abusive ex-boyfriend. c&w gets pegged as reactionary and backward a lot, and it is sometimes, but it is also righteous. a lot of the time the same artist will flow between lame and righteous on the same record. it creates stars who aren't consistent, aren't perfect within their own images. but i think that's a strength, it's more like listening to real people, real women, in this case.

  8. I love how much conversation this sparked--and for the suggestions for women for me to look up. Thanks everyone. It's also very true that once you go below the layer of pop/hollywood culture, a lot of these gender differences start disappearing. The stats on the indie scene, and on small businessess, and on higher ed, etc. are actually disturbing going the opposite direction!