Five years ago on the day after Christmas the Northeast was crippled by the Snowpocalypse. Myself and a filmmaker were trapped in a Brooklyn loft building for fifteen hours… until we woke up and had coffee and bacon and eggs. Then we put our dishes in the sink.
We grimly suited up to face the hoarfrost that would soon cling to our beard whiskers. I hated that I had to evacuate my colon after I was fully suited up in vest, jacket, two pairs of pants and scarf. When I exited the bathroom, my friend had also taken off the bulk of his lower half’s bulky clothing and deposited it on the floor.
“Watch out! I gotta shit!” he cried and bum-rushed the tiny shit hole in this large loft.
When he emerged I asked how he could do that with his jacket on?
“In Canada, you learn to shit fully-clothed.”
“What? Do Canadians pass this down from generation to generation? Do they learn from their grandfathers?”
“Did your grandfather teach you how to shit?”
“Yeah. You just learn.”
“Well, someone is around for most of your early years of shitting…er…toilet training.”
“You don’t need to be trained to shit in your clothes.”
Videos “Watch Your Step” and “Story Genesis” by Zachariah Scott (2011)
First, the dials on the instrument panel went nuts. They flung their individual arms from extreme to respective extreme. Then either steam or smoke began rising from under the hood.
“Damn.” the man said.
“What’s going on?” the boy asked.
“This damn…” he searched for the words that he meant. “Truck.”
He aimed the F250 at the only visible structure along the dark highway. It was an abandoned gas station with tufts of grass poking out in the concrete. When he cut the truck off it was really steaming. Continue reading “The Midnight Run”→
When I was twelve my older brother introduced me to the Beastie Boys. I bought the Sounds of Science when I realized how much catching up there was. My younger brother bought Paul’s Boutique. It was at the tail end of 1999. So it had been ten years since that album had been released.
The Beastie Boys made so much music that can come into so many people’s lives in weird and wonderful ways. My first experience was in a minivan with a CD player. My mom was driving. I’m pretty sure we played songs off of the first disc of the Anthology.
So far, Paul’s Boutique – A Visual Companion is one of the weirdest, most wonderful ways in which it’s come back to me:
My brother and I looked over the back of the Anthology and decided that there were enough hits and other things across those two discs to justify a concept album. I didn’t understand what a concept album was but I decided to use the term like I did. Our older brother talked about Paul’s Boutique with reverence and the back of the CD didn’t have a track listing. It was mysterious. Continue reading “Paul’s Boutique – A Visual Companion”→
When I was eight years old I became aware of my father’s cast iron skillet. It had been in our family for years.
I was getting interested in cooking. Encouraged by my mother and grandmother I graduated from mixing everything in the kitchen in a bowl to making buttery ramen noodles and frying eggs.
One morning after reading one of my Calvin and Hobbes books I decided that it was time to make pancakes. My mother and younger brother were cleaning the bathroom and I had the kitchen to myself.
I thought “They’ll be so happy and surprised to have pancakes for lunch.”
I mixed the Aunt Jemima batter and looked at the box. It recommended putting dollops of batter onto a hot skillet.
I thought back to my comics.
The only thing in the kitchen big enough to accommodate all of the batter I’d made was this wide, deep cast iron skillet. I put it on the range with some oil in the bottom and turned on the heat. I waited until I felt that I couldn’t wait any longer, then I began pouring the pancake batter into the skillet.
It went well enough at first. I watched for bubbles. None appeared. A minute went by. Still nothing. I tried to flip it as I’d seen my dad do with cornbread so many times before. The pancake broke into soggy pieces and began to smell funny.
Now there was smoke. MY PANCAKE WAS BURNING! I desperately tried to flip it.
It was no good. I took the skillet off of the heat and tried to dump the uncooked batter back into the mixing bowl. The skillet was heavy and pancake batter hardened on the skillet’s edges.
I looked around at all of the smoke. I took the skillet to the sink and ran water, hoping to soften the burned batter enough that I could scrub it off before anyone noticed. Then I walked to the back room where my mom and brother were still cleaning.
“Hey mom.” I said.
“Hey Sean.” she said.
I went back to the kitchen and began trying to scrub the pan.
She came in a few moments later. “What happened?” She asked.
I tried to make pancakes and burned them I answered. Truthfully enough…
She walked to the sink where I was scrubbing. She saw the cast iron skillet.
“Just go help your brother in the bathroom.” Her words trailed off.
When my dad got home he saw the skillet and knew something terrible had happened.
I had to explain to him what I’d done.
When I finished he could only laugh. The damage was done. “Oh boy. That’s not a pan that you should use.” he said. “You can use anything in the kitchen except that pan.”
Eleven years later he was showing me how to make cornbread in the skillet. I asked if he remembered what I had done so long ago.
“Yeah. I remember.” he laughed. “It took me until last year to get it seasoned again.”
I have epilepsy. It is something that runs in my family. My mother had it. A relative from long ago had it as well. She was killed while milking a cow in the 1930’s.
A basic definition describes it as a neurological disorder which causes repeated seizures over time. Causes may not even be knowable in individual cases, but doctors are able to provide best-guess scenarios. This can make it a confusing disease that is generally regarded as controllable.
When I’m feeling cynical I think that controlled epilepsy is just a medicated person.
In my case, the seizures began during my teens, which means that I’ve been dealing with it for a decade. I had to get a neurologist at 15yo who looked at my brain via EKGs and MRIs. He then prescribed a medication that would counter the wild electricity in my brain.
He told me that “We will see if this works. If you have another seizure then we will up the dose until we find something that works for you.”
Every painting features a home somehow. This makes talking to the painter Vilaykorn Sayaphet (b. 1976) difficult and frustrating right now. This guy is trying to explain to me what home means.
We are sitting in his studio on Flushing Avenue. The walls are tagged in marker and spray paint. Vilaykorn, or Vil, has been inviting me to his studio over the summer to watch him paint and prepare for his solo show at English Kills.
Some evenings it’s just us, a few paint lines and paint brushes. Other evenings eponymous taggers and artists swing through until the sun comes up. There would be a few beers, breeze coming through open windows, and ashtrays filling up over the course of the evening. No matter the scenario Vil painted.
He wasn’t so keen on me at first. I came through initially after an art opening and watched him work while a spontaneous group continued the party all around us. When he finally took a break I told him that I liked his work.
“Looks very old south. Could I interview you at some point over the summer?”
“Maybe.” scratched his chin, “Yeah, we could do something like that.” and asked around trying to figure out who I was, before ultimately extending an open invitation.
The second visit did not seem to go well. He was painting when I arrived. There were various artists hanging around like the cloud of smoke above our heads. Suddenly Vil began cursing at a painting in progress that wasn’t going right. I could see him semi-whispering to Chris Harding of English Kills. He was talking about me. Chris responded “It’s ok man. You’ve done a lot of work today.”
He is Laotian. His family emigrated as war refugees to North Carolina when he was young (1983). He tells me that this is one of the effects of the Vietnam War. I tell him that my father was a veteran of that war (1969). He tells me that his family had to flee the bombing.
He says that he wants to teach. That his dream right now, on this June night, is to go back to Laos, or to North Carolina, and teach. At this point in his work, he has an internal fulfillment that lends itself to generosity. That is the crux of the desire to teach.
He says, “I feel like I am a painter. That now I’m a painter. Not an abstract painter, or figurative,” or any pre-emptive adjectives. “I am a painter.”
But this is what is making it so goddamned frustrating to interview Vil right now. All of his paintings look like the mind’s snapshot of a home. And he is winging them out in impressionistic flights nearly every day in here. His desires and his truths are so self-evident to him that he can only iterate them in simple, but key, phrases.
This is also the zen of it.
A painter is a human being. They have to wake up and go to sleep. Eat and defecate. Breathe in and out. When he sits with his back straight, and touches his fingertips together and says, “I am a painter.” He’s taking us to the elemental parts of his self. “When I paint I envision myself as music.”
This is why a miniscule dollop of disharmony can send him into an uproar.
“Do you know the reason I got so angry the second time you came over?” he asks. “It was because you were here. You were this person. This writer, who I didn’t know, coming to watch me in a very personal setting. It sent me over the edge that day.”
I look at the works in progress surrounding us, there are things that I see that I would hope would stay the same. And when I think this, I have to remember that I shouldn’t comment too heavily on them. That I should let the course take its natural way so that I can observe it.
After all, that is what home does when one is no longer around. It changes, weathers storms, and sometimes it’s lost to memory. The paintings that I see one month could be new paintings the next month. And the only thing left is remembering what you can.
“There would be days when that wouldn’t have done it. But it’s good that it did on that day. I had to know that I could let you in, so I had to ask about you.”
There is one piece painted on the leather seat of a folding chair. It looks Scandinavian in its atmosphere and architecture. This is a piece that when finished, isn’t considered anymore.
“‘Why is it important that you paint?’ hmmm…” mulling over the question. “What do you do? Are you alive?”
How many people came through and sat on it? He nonchalantly told me to sit on it while we did this interview. There could have been many.
He picks up a spatula and begins carving dried oil paint off of a piece near him. He puts the paint chips on a chair that serves as a palette. “It’s important to be alive whatever it is you do. I guess that’s why I paint.”
Then there is the arresting depiction of a waterfront neighborhood of stilted houses. Mountains in the background. A path through the center of the painting leads to the next town. He has been working on this piece for quite a while now. The first time I saw it, he had done the sky pink with broad brush strokes and one house.
Over the course of July new houses were made from the original. The sky had gone to sundown sometime after the fourth. Then it remained untouched for a week and change.
I swung by one evening to see how the work was going and watched as a graff-dude shook a spray can and painted all over the piece. He used a brush, some oils, and the spray can to completely demolish the brooding landscape into a brightly colored vanishing point.
Vil sat in a chair and watched. His hand was rubbing his goatee lost in thoughtless, while his mind was analyzing the vandalism and searching out weak points in the composition.
“I like it.” He said when the graff-dude finally relented 1.5 hours later. “Yeah, it’s pretty good. I like the new colors. The middle there.” Pointing. “I’ll work on it tomorrow.” and then he sighed.
The first time we tried to do an interview, Vil talked about this body of work like it would be the last thing he would ever do. The pressure of presenting this body of work to the public at English Kills was welling up in him and gushed at any given outlet.
The people who came by in the dwindling months were mostly Chris and myself. It was near the beginning of August now and the pieces were stacking up.
He had just made two fresh works on panels. In the center of one he wrote ‘The End.’
“That’s the last piece for the show. I’m not making anything new. From here on out I’m going to be working on what I’ve made. I’m doing an English Vils pop-up in Brownsville in a couple of weeks. My work is done. It’s down to the editing.”
It’s the day before Labor Day. Most of the pieces that Vil made over summer hang on makeshift shelves in his studio.
“I want to make you dinner.” He says.
We are in his kitchen. He is grilling Brussels sprouts, ginger, red onions, and carrots on a George Foreman grill. He makes Udon noodles. He slices the ends off of a package of Andouille sausages and then gingerly breaks green basil leaves off of their stems.
“Chinatown is the place to grocery shop.” he says during knife work. “You don’t have to be a chef, or make extravagant meals every night. You just need something simple that has greens, proteins, and sustains you.”
It’s obvious to me now, watching him in this element, that he is a person who works in devastatingly simple rhythms. I can recall the brush strokes as vividly as the ginger being sliced in front of me.
He works in two square feet of space to make this meal because that’s all he needs. It becomes clear how and why he lives as he does. It’s simply all he needs.
The memory from June comes back, What do you do? Are you alive?
And from later in that night when he is telling me to make my hardships my source of strength. The things that are in us are our strengths and weaknesses. We have to fashion them into what we need.
The knife and the paint brush are only tools when they are in use.
“You don’t cut up the basil, or add it to the noodles too soon or it will cook the leaves and you don’t get the full flavor. You have to add them last. That’s the good stuff.”
He hands me the bowl once he finishes the presentation.
“Stir it up before you eat it. Get those flavors moving around.”
He sits outside on a fire escape while I eat. I look up at the paintings and into the bowl of food.
When I join him later, we watch the cloud patterns, play music, watch the cops down the block, drink tallboys, and talk about the summer.
It had been full of life.
It’s the Thursday before the opening. I get a phone call. It’s Chris, “Hey Vil is sleeping, he hung the show last night. Do you want to come by tonight and check it out?”
I do. The work and cumulative effect is such a different affair in the gallery lights. Especially after dark.
We stand in the vast back room of the show space. Our cigarettes somewhere between being lit and being smoked. Left and right are the works. The entire summer and everything it encapsulated in nineteen paintings.
I think of the journey that led here. No pictures or words are needed now. Tonight, I don’t even know what the name of the show will be*. Standing in the midst of the work in silence is my final leg of the journey. The doors will open in two days and something significant will have changed into something new.
*“Latmanikham & Thongsy” September 13 – October 12, 2014
We drove to South Point and out of there on to the Manago Hotel. I can remember this despite being stoned on cough syrup. I had had a cough to begin with. It was irritated by our persistent smoking. But I’d picked the cough up on the plane.
A guy with a beard parked his bicycle nearby and asked if we’d seen a brown jeep. I was sweating. The waves beat themselves on the rocks, covering us in a fine mist with each wind gust. This bearded guy was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and must have rode a long distance to get here.
“No,” I answered. “Haven’t seen anyone,”
‘at the end of the world.’
He rode east.
The hallucinations were kicking in now. I could see the clouds coming after us and the ocean knocking rocks off of cliffs. The rocks looked like lumpy potatoes.
“What are the snakes like on this island?” I asked the driver.
“Every snake you see has a fifty percent chance of being the most dangerous snake in the world.”
Go To Hawaii Buy A Ukelele
The driver uses an inhaler.
My list: Depakote, Keppra, St. John’s Wort, Acetaminophen, a bottle of syrup, marijuana, beers, and some jimson weed.
I think that the Acetaminophen was pretty benign, but the Depakote and Keppra mixed with the cough syrup was changing the world in an unpredictable way.
The St. John’s Wort and Marijuana were keeping things in friendly territory.
The beers and jimson weed kept a certain level of danger present when the unpredictability of the prescriptions stuttered.
What Hawaii Looks Like When You Drive Through It
I sat down on a rock and the driver looked through his camera lens. He was circling me and pointing the lens at my body. I wasn’t precise in my thinking, but I thought about water spirits and wave spray.
There were definitely wind farms here. This was confirmed by our second trip. During this first trip, I was taking pictures of the windmills. Some Cervantes fantasy was taking hold, the windmills needed to be fixed. They’d rusted and lost some propellers.
But the ocean was large and it swallowed the setting sun with ease. Nothing stopped the waves from eternally mashing the potatoes of dry land. My head ballooned and stayed that way for a few days as I drained cough syrup bottles so that I could continue to puff on the corn-cob pipe.
Morning In Hawaii
We walked toward the edge of the cliffs. He filmed as we walked.
“What are you going to do?” He asked.
I am barely able to recall this memory when watching the video.
“I’m going to take a piss off that cliff.”
The camera cuts off here.
“Don’t get too close to the edge.”
The edges of Hawaii are crumbling if they are stood on. The lava rock is good and all, but it takes time to build up for there to be interesting paths.
It was strange that this too was volcano-borne since it was grassy. However, I am not in charge of the Pacific Ocean nor its volcanoes, so it isn’t really my business.
I heard the driver shout. “Hey Sean! Go right there!”
A Taoist Piss Take At South Point
Our trip to South Point concluded at dusk, even though that trip and the time spent there never felt over. Blue water and wheeling gulls* followed us in our hallucinations and back to the mainland and back again to our own private islands.
How You Feel About Hawaii After You Leave
We are a lost people trying to escape in a sea. You can envelop yourself in memories and neglect the terribleness of the times and the slow smooth slide…
The earnest buskers howling just above the decibels of their acoustic guitars while trains whip the wind which whips the hair of onlookers are our subjects. These were some people who used to busk often on the Metropolitan Stop on the G Train, which connects with the L train at Lorimer. This is one of the settings in which we find them.
One of them doesn’t seem to busk there very often anymore. But you can find him in the back of a bar on Wyckoff Avenue playing and singing in a church band. That is because the church congregates behind the bar.
This guitar player’s stage name is Workman Song. His other name is Sean McMahon.
Most of his songs make for a good road companion. The individual songs have in them the “everyone-will-eventually-die” exuberant nihilism that a back country dirt road cohabits alongside Hank Williams Sr. cassette tapes.
With that said, it may be more truthful to equate McMahon’s music with Kris Kristofferson on an iPod.
It is necessary to modify the nihilism mentioned above with “exuberant” because the music is not something that sits heavy on the soul, it actually just reminds you of the nothingness. The ambivalence invokes the soul weary and vagabond qualities belonging to the American tradition of the folk-and-country arts.
Folk and/or country do not properly describe the music. Taken at face value it is not folk music, it is personal music written by one of our contemporary musicians. Nor, is this truly country music.
It’s more so that McMahon’s music does not describe nor vibe with the sedentary lifestyle of people who make their living off of the land. However, it does seem to have the same desires that folk music requires – honest description of life and momentary transcendence via personalization.
This is an act of mercy and honesty on McMahon’s part – songs about daddy-scratchin’-out-a-livin’-in-the-dirt-while-mama-drinks-moonshine-and-mends-his-shirt ring hollow in an age of farm subsidies and Nashville music assembly lines. Even if they are clever send ups of that style.
So we’re spared from making Bob Dylan or John Prine comparisons.
In describing what this music is not, we have not defined it at all. In fact it’s only grown more obtuse at this point. For this reviewer definition is not the job here – because: this is almost certainly being read within proximity to an internet connection and the reader could simply skip the review, stream the music from somewhere else and judge it for themselves. Instead I’ve taken on the job of enlarging the parameters in which to appreciate what this music aspires to be.
Why is it important that folk music and country music be taken into consideration in setting these parameters? Because: These are from where the comparisons will likely stem in evaluating the music. These are the traditions being drawn from most heavily in this music. And without acknowledging them, it is from where the most confusion will be drawn as well.
Let us reiterate the profound injustice done to our understanding of folk music that most modern music reviewers commit in calling any singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar (with emphasis on songwriter) a folk musician. It is akin to classifying Elvis Presley a bluesman for his ‘uh-uhs‘. That is to say, he may be closer than you and I are on that scale, but saying it doesn’t make it so.
With this acknowledged we can hear frills-free guitar playing and wailing-longing voice without dismissal by ignorance. Let’s take it a step further and take in the words, which touch on themes of reconciling good and evil within. They aren’t narrative heavy, instead they lean on proclamations. These are what ultimately makes or breaks each song. The movement of the songs have the fluidness of a game of billiards between 1:45 AM pool sharks.
It’s one thing to hear the recorded music – which truthfully, will not suffice for the thesis of this essay. The only way to really find out about this music is to hear it live. Be it during one of the many multi-state tours he’s undertaken in the recent past or in a church/bar. Preferably, it’s on the subway station where he’s wrestling against the rush and wind of approaching and departing trains, possibly hungry and counting the quarters as they are tossed in his guitar case, getting into the zen of guitar playing, being so kind as to keep going even though your nose is buried in another part of your life and smiling when no one is looking.
It’s here that McMahon’s music thrives. Where it calls on the past, comfortably emanates in the present and manages to feel like it will always be here. But that is the great trick of the American tradition: it’s relatively young but feels ancient. We assume that it will always be around because it’s the background over which we live and die.
Back to the subway troubadours: another one always comes around sooner or later. But in New York everything can change quickly – it’s been a decade since someone smoked in a restaurant during the dinner hour. In the rest of the country differentiations are disappearing as quickly as definable regions. Check out the jukebox selection in the majority of the south. Listen to the music that people turn up loud in cars. Go anywhere else in the country. See if it’s any different beyond the margins.
Once you’ve done this, listen to this music again and make a tough decision: Is this the soundtrack to a disappearance, or is it more background noise?