Thursday 23 October 2008

dad (1): one of the dragons is gay

(Extract from a phone conversation with my dad last night):

Dad: - So what have you been up to?

Me: - Well, been busy as ever.

- Good, good. That's good.

- Work mainly. A bit endless. Um, can't think. Oh, at the weekend I went to London to a kind of gathering of artists and intellectuals in Hyde Park. All sorts of people there. It was great.

- What sort of gathering?

- Well, a bunch of artists and others were presenting kind of manifestos, you know, they were talking about the state of things, what art could be or should be, that sort of thing. It was in the park near the gallery.

- Oh. What sort of artists? Any painters? Would I have heard of any of them?

- Well, no, no painters as such. But some other quite famous ones you'd probably know. Contemporary artists really. Gilbert and George were there.

- Oh were they. They're a bit odd aren't they.

- Um, well, they're certainly eccentric. But they're hilarious. Maybe they run the risk of turning into parodies of themselves, you know, a bit like Kenneth Williams turned into a parody of himself. But they're very funny ... Um, who else? Yoko Ono.

- Oh yes. There's a new biography of John Lennon that's just come out.

- Is there?

- I never much liked John Lennon.

- Really? Why not? He was way the most interesting of the Beatles.

- I didn't say he wasn't interesting. I just never fancied him much.

- Well, I didn't fancy him either, dad. But he was great. One of my heroes when I was a kid. But I guess a dope-smoking anarchist hippy's never quite going to float your boat, is he?

- I don't know why, was it because he didn't go to his father's funeral or something?

- I don't know, but I think he had an unhappy family life as a kid.

- Yes, probably ... so what was Yoko Ono doing?

- Well, she showed some videos, and talked a bit, and then we danced with her.

- Oh. What, you danced with her?

- Well, we all did. There were loads of people there. She invited us to dance and so we did.

- Oh. I see.

- I love her stuff. She's fantastic. She looks amazing, really great for her age.

- Yes, although she looks a bit freeze-dried and leathery.

- Dyou think so? I don't think she's had any surgery. She's just in really good nick. She must be all of 70.

- Is she.

- Sadly in Britain it seems she's most famous for being the 'weird' wife of John Lennon, and the supposed cause of the break-up of the Beatles. I blame the Daily Mail.

- Oh. Do you.

- But she's a super interesting artist, and she's really well known in her own right - she's done some brilliant things. She's a bit conceptual, a bit zen. Very witty. Does all sorts of different kinds of art.

- Oh. I don't think I understand conceptual art. All those instructions ... She does things with ladders, doesn't she?

- Does she? I don't know. What do you mean?

- Well I read something about her and ladders.

- Really? Mmm, I'm not sure. She's certainly used ladders in her work in the past, although I don't know that they're central. What was that thing where she met John Lennon in a gallery?

- I don't know.

- Didn't she have a ladder in the gallery, and you climbed up it with a magnifying glass, and there was a tiny 'YES' written on the ceiling ... Or was it that one with nails and hair, you climbed a ladder with a nail with a piece of hair wrapped round it and hit it into a frame on the ceiling, and the painting was finished once you could only see hair.

- Oh god.

- Something like that. Maybe the hair thing didn't have a ladder ...

- Oh well.

- Okay, who else was there? Mmm. Maybe you've heard of Marina Abramovic? She's really well known, you know, the performance artist. I think she's from what was Yugoslavia.

- I'm not sure. Rings a bell.

- Oh I know who you'd know: Eric Hobsbawn, the historian. Amazing old bloke. He's in his nineties and sharp as a button. A bit frail physically, but not intellectually. He was brilliant.

- He's a communist.

- Well, yes, he is, you're right; but that's alright isn't it, no reason to write him off surely.

- Like John Berger.

- I thought you'd like that book. And Berger's hardly some hard-line Stalinist. He's got a huge heart.

- I didn't understand that book. Something about a pocket.

- Oh well. Okay, okay. Um, who else was there? Partly I went to support some friends who were doing something.

- What, that lot you work with? The Lonely Twins?

- Lone Twin. No no, it was a different lot, a couple of friends in a group called SpRoUt.

- Sprout?

- Oh I know, there was that guy Owen or Evan, the economist who's on the telly. You know, the gay guy on the news, he's the economics reporter. You know who I mean - he's on 'Dragon's Den'.

- What, one of the dragons is gay? Which one is he?

- No no, he's the presenter, he's the one who interviews the people who pitch things to the dragons.

- Oh. No, I don't know.

- Well, he was there in the audience. Doesn't matter ... I tell you what, dad, London's dead weird after Devon, you bump into all sorts of people. It's quite surreal. I met Ian Wright in a shop.

- What, Ian Wright? Wrighty?

- Yes.

- Oh he's a nice bloke. He got into trouble recently for saying something or other about diving in the box.

- Did he?

- Yes, he was on telly. Something about Drogba. He said, well you'd do the same in his shoes, and he got into trouble for it.

- Oh, I didn't hear about that. Yes, he seemed nice ... I said hello.

- Good. Good. So ... any news on the job front?

Monday 20 October 2008

the body is a scar of the mind

The lord chisels still,
so don't leave your bench for long
(Gilbert & George, 'The Laws of the Sculptors', no. 4, 1969).

I spent the weekend in London at a 2-day Manifesto Marathon event at the Serpentine Gallery. Over 50 presentations, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, were given in Frank Gehry's agora-like pavilion outside the gallery in Hyde Park. Despite the cold in this glass-roofed wind tunnel, which by late on Sunday had turned the event into a muffled scarf'n'gloves durational epic, there were some very stimulating contributions and interventions.

Highlights for me, in no particular order, included: Nicolas Bourriaud, talking about the polyglot 'time-specific flightlines' of an 'alter-modernity'; Gilbert & George ('The Laws of Sculptors: Ten Commandments for Ourselves'), G&G giving the perfect economical performance of G&G; Marina Abramovic ('An Artist's Life'), conducted by Abramovic as a kind of reiterative chorale for a large group; Agnès Varda, in full costume as a dancing potato; a hilariously provocative Adam Pendleton, with an Amire Baraka inflected prowl called 'Black Dada' that included the phrases: 'aah, the white people; we ate you'; and the curiously impressive sneer, 'shalalalalala, man: fuck you, motherfuckers'.

My friends in SpRoUt, with an elegantly formal choreography of placards and beautifully crafted texts about multiplicity, with occasional banjo accompaniment; Charles Jencks & Tino Sehgal, both of whom separately interrogated the very notion of the manifesto in the 21st century - Jencks in particular with great wit in terms of its impossibility today without irony, and the need for a 'critical modernism' within which anger, laughter and serenity are conjoined; Jimmie Durham ('for the first time in history, we now have the chance & responsibility to meet each other' - the stillness of his gaze over his shoulder as a trio of birds chirruped past); Jonas Mekas, showing exquisite slides of strips of film, the projector's carousel miked up as hypnotic minimalist soundtrack.

The architect Claude Parent, playfully/seriously proposing a new architecture for Paris and London after their disappearance beneath the flood waters; Ben Vautier, staging a large number of Fluxus-related scores; a collaborator of Rem Koolhaas whose name I missed, calling for a renaissance of functionality and simplicity, 'a new type of modernism' in the face of the 'icon-excess' of cities such as Dubai, its skyline a copy-filled 'representation of cultural greed'.

The ever present Gustav Metzger, apparently immune to 'auto-destruction' himself, contextualising this current event through slides of earlier manifestos from the 20th-century avant garde, as part of what Obrist characterised as 'an urgent resistance to forgetting'; Vivienne Westwood, who looked fantastic in haughty Elisabeth Ist mode, although she rather drifted on a bit in her looong text proposing a notion of a trans-historical 'objective' self; Mark Wallinger, with an extremely funny and astute text, somewhat compromised by its being filtered through his deeply uneasy monotonal reading; as well as Richard Wentworth ('Da Do Ron Ron'), Karl Homqvist (You Blew Up My House'), Mark Titchner, Jean-Jacques-Lebel, and the extraordinarily intellectually energised 91-year-old historian Eric Hobsbawn.

Yoko Ono was a large part of my reason for being there - she's one of the great heroes - and in the end she stole the show. It would be all too easy to dismiss her intervention as naively idealistic - and to parody it cynically - but as always her proposition was deceptive in its apparent simplicity. It generated challenging thoughts in terms of the nature of resistances to the event of encounter; in particular here her invitational pedagogy of the imagination hovered around economies of the social/relational. I take her play-fulness seriously, for she creates 'restless spaces' (to borrow Jane Rendell's words), spaces that ask questions of our relations with each other and with the world, and gesture at possible futures. In this context in London, her 'onochord' involved us learning a simple morse-like call & response of torches flashing the words 'I love you', the 'onochord' video, a brief video of details within a photograph of her with John Lennon, then an invitation to a free-for-all dance with Yoko, immediately met by 50 or so running jumping people (including me). Music suddenly pumping, with a tiny buoyant Yoko, huge grin on her face, going for it in the middle of the crowd. A frenzy of camera flashes and bobbing bodies. In a matter of minutes, she transformed the formal separations inscribed in the chilly thorougfare of Gehry's structure into a little vortex of energy, fleeting encounters and exchanges. Her beautiful groove with Jonas Mekas. She took people's hands and danced with them. Some people hugged her in the melee. At one point she took my hand and looked me square in the eye. I couldn't stop grinning. Everyone was grinning. And that was it; she was off into the night, in her top-hat and white scarf, shades still perched on the end of her nose, leaving us with the words: 'The body is a scar of the mind'. Blimey. Now that's enough of a manifesto for me to be going on with ...


On the way back to the train station on Sunday, I popped in to a Shell garage shop on the Bayswater Road, looking for some short-term sugary fuel for my flagging scar of the mind - and bumped into Ian Wright, classy ex-football player and impassioned, one-eyed TV pundit. You know, Wrighty: Sean's dad. In worryingly oafish fashion, and for reasons that remain mysterious and probably not worth disinterring, I said with a little too much enthusiasm: 'Ian Wright! You're a legend, man!' (I very nearly said 'leg end', like I used to say to my brother as a kid in mock football commentaries when we knocked a ball around; but at least I managed to edit that one). Ian laughed and waved cheerily as he headed out the door to his glimmering silver BMW at a jog, patting his pockets for his keys. All you need on a Sunday, jesus, a nutter down the garage. What was I thinking? I blame it on the combination of declarative manifesto overload, cold bones, Mars bar and surprise. And maybe a slightly misplaced re-emergence of Yoko's universal love, and of her suggestion that we 'keep sending the message / to the end of the year / and beyond':

from ships
from the top of the mountains
from buildings
using whole buildings
in town squares
from the sky
to the sky
(Yoko Ono, 'onochord', 20o8).

As he drove off, Wrighty paused for moment in the forecourt to flash his headlights in the familiar rhythm. I - love - you, he signalled. Then he was gone in a silvery blur.


Photographs (from top): Gilbert and George; the original book version of Vivienne Westwood's manifesto; bouncers outside the Gehry pavilion, Mark Titchner in the background; Marina Abramovic and collaborators; one of the SpRoUts (Hannah); Adam Pendleton, with Jean-Jacques Lebel seated in the background; Ben Vautier; Mark Titchner; part of the glass roof in the Gehry pavilion; Yoko Ono x 3; one of the Sams from SpRoUt; Tracey Emin in the original book version of Vivienne Westwood's manifesto. All photos © David Williams

Thursday 16 October 2008

little charles the cat eater

“Paolo Di Lauro is known as Ciruzzo ‘o milionario, Ciruzzo the millionaire. A ridiculous nickname, but such labels have a precise logic, a calibrated sedimentation. I’ve always heard System [Camorra] people called by their nicknames, to the point where first and last name are often diluted or forgotten. No one chooses his own nickname; it emerges suddenly out of somewhere, for some reason, and someone picks up on it. Camorra nicknames are determined by destiny. Paolo Di Lauro was rebaptised Ciruzzo ‘o milionario by Luigi Giuiliano: one evening the boss watched Di Lauro take his place at the poker table as dozens of hundred-thousand-lire bills fell out of his pockets. “Who’s this”, Giuliano exclaimed, “Ciruzzo ‘o milionario?” A name born on a drunken evening, a flash, the perfect wisecrack.

The anthology of nicknames is infinite. The Nuova Famiglia boss Carmine Alfieri got his name ‘o ‘ntufato, the angry one, thanks to the dissatisfied sneer he wears constantly. Then there are ancestral nicknames that stick to the heirs: Mario Fabbrocino, the Vesuvius-area boss who colonised Argentina with Comorra money, is known as ‘o graunar – the coal merchant – because his ancestors sold coal. Other nicknames spring from Camorristi passions, such as Niccola ‘o wrangler Luongo for his fixation with Wrangler four-wheel drives, the System men’s vehicle of choice. A whole series of nicknames are based on physical traits, such as Giovanni Birra ‘a mazza – club or bat – for his long, thin body; Costantino capaianca Iacomino for his premature capelli bianchi or white hair; Ciro Mazzarella ‘o scellone or angel, for his pronounced shoulder blades that look like angel’s wings; Nicola ‘o mussuto Pianese for his skin so white it looks like dried cod; Rosario Privato mignolino or pinky finger; Dario De Simone ‘o nano, the dwarf. There are inexplicable nicknames such as that of Antonio di Fraia ‘u urpacchiello, which means a riding crop made from a dried donkey’s penis … For some unknown reason Ciro Monteriso is known as ‘o mago, the wizard. Pasquale Gallo of Torre Annunziata is ‘o bellillo, or bello for his sweet face. Others are old family names: the Lo Rusos are i capitoni or eels … the Belfortes are the Mazzacane – dog killers … Vincenzo Mazzarella is ‘o pazzo, the crazy one, and Antonio di Biasi is pavesino for his habit of munching on pavesino biscuits while out doing a job … As for Antonio Carlo D’Onofrio, known as Carlucciello ‘o mangiavatt’ – Little Charles the cat eater – legend has it that he learned to shoot using stray cats as targets. Gennaro Di Chiara, who bolted violently anytime someone touched his face, earned the name file scupierto or live wire. There are also nicknames based on untranslatable onomatopoeic expressions such as those of Agostino Tardi, know as picc pocc, Domenico di Ronza scipp scipp, or the De Simone family, known as quaglia quaglia, the Aversanos, known as zig zag, Raffaele Giuliano ‘o zui, and Antonio Bifone zuzu.

All it took for Antonio Di Vicino to become lemon was to order the same drink several times. Vincenzo Benitozzi’s round face earned him the name Cicciobello or fat boy, and Gennaro Lauro became ‘o diciassette, perhaps because his street number was 17. And Giovanni Aprea was punt ‘e curtiello – point the knife – because his grandfather played the role of an old Camorrista who teaches the boys to use a knife in Pasquale Squitieri’s 1974 film I guappi […]

Nearly every boss has a nickname, an unequivocally unique, identifying feature. A nickname for a boss is like stigmata for a saint, the mark of membership in the System. Anybody can call himself Francesco Schiavone, but there’s only one Sandokan …”

Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah (trans. Virginia Jewiss), London: Macmillan, 2007, 54-6

* For Roberto Saviano's website (largely in Italian but with English-language links), go here.
* For details of the La Repubblica international petition on behalf of Roberto Saviano, go here.
* For recent articles on and interviews with Roberto Saviano in The Guardian, go, here and here. In the Independent, go here and here. In the New York Times, go here.
* For a YouTube interview, go here.


three finger brown

Like those of the Camorristi as described by Saviano, American organised crime nicknames take generic forms: diminutives or childhood family names; direct or ironic accounts of particular ‘skills’ and functions (sometimes operating as threat e.g. the naming of weapons of choice); allusions to other/earlier trades; essential psychological characteristics (sometimes animal metaphors); physical particularities and anomalies; dress style or other distinctive use of accessories; culinary tastes and obsessions; geographical turf locations; simplifications, for ease of saying; plays on words or onomatopoeic sound games stemming from a syllable or part of a name; mis/translations and other anglicised versions. Here’s a partial listing:

Frank Abbandando: "The Dasher" / Anthony Joseph Accardo: "Joe Batters”, “The Big Tuna" / Joseph Aiuppa: "Joey Doves" / Phillip Alderisio: "Milwaukee Phil" / Willie Alderman: "Ice Pick" / Vincent Alo: “Jimmy Blue Eyes” / Albert Anastasia: "The Mad Hatter", “Lord High Executioner” / Joe Andriacchi: “The Builder” / Donald Angelini: "The Wizard of Odds" / Robert Attanasio: “Bobby Ha Ha”, “Louie Ha Ha”

Amato Baldassare: "Baldo" / Joseph Barbara: “Joe the Barber” / John Barbato: “Johnny Sausage” / Generoso Barbieri: “Jimmy the General” / Joseph Barboza: “The Animal” / George Kelly Barnes: “Machine Gun Kelly” / Louis Baronne: “Louie Lump Lump” / Vincent Basciano: “Vinny Gorgeous” / Charley Battaglia: “Bats” / Sam Battaglia: “Teets” / Otto Berman: "Abbadabba" / Ferdinand Boccia: “The Shadow” / Richie Boiardo: "Richie The Boot" / Frank Bompensiero: “Bomp” / Joseph Bonanno: “Joe Bananas” / Salvatore Briguglio: “Sally Bugs” / Tommy Brown: "Three Fingers" / Jimmy Burke: "The Gent"

Thomas Cacciopoli: “Tommy Sneakers” / Frank Calabrese: “The Breeze” / Peter Calabrese: “Peter Rabbit” / Mickey Callahan: “Cheesebox” / Stefano Cannone: "Stevie Beef" / James Capesso: "Fort Lee Jimmy" / Pete Capolongo: “Petey Cap” / Alphonse Capone: “Scarface”, “Snorky” / John Capra: “Johnny Hooks” / Michael Cardello: “Mickey Bats” / Anthony Carfano: “Li'l Augie” / Sam Carolla: “Silver Dollar Sam” / Frank Carrone: "Buzzy" / Martin Cassella: "Motts" / Anthony Casso: "Gas Pipe" / Paul Castellano: "Big Paul" / Joe Catania: “Joe the Baker” / Domenico Cefalu: “The Greaseball” / John Cerasani: "Boobie" / Phillip Cestaro: "Philly Broadway" / Anthony Thomas Civella: “Ripe Tony” / Carl Civella: “The Cork” / Vincent Coll: “Mad Dog” / Jim Colosimo: “Diamond Jim” / Michael Coppola: "Trigger Mike" / Anthonio Corallo: "Tony Ducks" / Joseph Corozzo: “Miserable” / Peter Cosoleto: “Petey Boxcars” / Frank Costello: “The Prime Minister” / Frank Cucchiara: “The Spoon”

William Daddano: "Potatoes" / Louis Daidone: “Louie Bagels” / John D'Amico: "Jackie the Nose" / Ralph Daniello: “The Barber” / Salvatore D'Aquila: “Toto” / Ronnie DeAngelis: "Balloon Head" / Angelo DeCarlo: “Gyp” / Simone DeCavalcante: "Sam the Plumber” / Nick Dedaj: “Nicky Nails” / Michael DeFeo: "Iron Mike" / Patrick DeFilippo: “Patty the Pig", “Patty from the Bronx” / Louis Delenhauser: "Cop out" / Carl DeLuna: "Toughy" / Frank DeMayo: “Chee Che” / James DeMora: “Machine Gun” / Lawrence Dentico: “Little Larry” / Samuel DeStefano: "Mad Sam" / Jack Diamond: “Legs” / John DiFronzo: “No Nose” / Joseph DiGiovanni: “Joe Church”, “Scarface” / Michael DiLeonardo: “Mikey Scars” / Joseph DiStefano: “Joe Shakes” / Giuseppe Doto: “Joe Adonis” / Sally D'Ottavio: "Paintglass" / Vincent Drucci: “The Schemer”

James Episcopia: "Jimmy Legs" / Natale Evola: “Joe Diamond”

Michael Falciano: "The Falcon" / Salvatore Farrugia: "Sally Fruits" / Carmine Fatico: "Charlie Wags" / Arthur Flegenheimer: “Dutch Schultz” / Stephen Flemmi: “The Rifleman” / Aladena Fratianno: “Jimmy the Weasel”

Carmine Galante: “Cigar”, “Lilo” / Ralphie Galione: "Wigs" / Albert Gallo: “Kid Blast” / Joey Gallo: “Crazy Joe” / Charley Gargotta: “Mad Dog” / Philip Giaccone: “Phil Lucky” / Sam Giancana: "Mooney", “Momo” / Leonard Gianola: “Needles” / Vincent Gigante: "Vinny The Chin" / Joseph Gioelli: "Joe Jelly" / Jack Giordano: "Handsome Jack" / Frank Giudice: "Frankie the Beard" / John Gotti: "The Dapper Don”, “The Teflon Don”, “Mr. Untouchable” / Salvatore Granello: “Sally Burns” / Salvatore Gravano: "Sammy the Bull" / Giuseppe Guinta: “Hoptoad” / Vito Gurino: "Socko" / Jake Guzik: “Greasy Thumb”

Max Hoff: “Boo Boo”

Matthew Ianniello: “Matty the Horse” / Alphonse Indelicato: “Sonny Red”

William Jackson: “Action Jackson”

Richard Kuklinski: “Iceman”

Cesare Lamare: “Chester” / Joseph Lanza: “Socks” / Edward Lanzieri: “Eddie Buff” / Vincenzo Licavoli: “Jack White” / Stephen Locurto: “Stevie Blue” / Joey Lombardo: “The Clown” / Phillip Lombardo: “Benny Squint” / Anthony LoPinto: “Tony Tea Bags” / Tommy Lucchese: “Three-Finger Brown” / Charlie Luciano (Salvatore Lucania): “Charlie Lucky” / Ignazio Lupo: “The Wolf”

Benny Mangano: “Benny Eggs” / Gabriel Mannarino: “Kelly” / Joe Manri: "Buddha" / Frankie Manzo: "The Wop" / Nicholas Marangello: "Nicky Eye Glasses" / Giussepe Masseria: "Joe the Boss" / Johnny Masiello: "Gentleman" / Charles Matranga: “Millionaire Charlie” / Angelo McConnach: "Sonny Bamboo" / Anthony Megale: “Machiavelli” / Joseph Merlino: “Skinny Joey” / Leo Moceri: “Lips” / George Moran: “Bugs” / Giuseppe Morello: “Clutch Hand”, “Piddu”

Dominick Napolitano: "Sonny Black"

Charles Panarella: "Charlie Moose" / Joe Pangallo: “The Ghost” / Rosario Parrino: “Sasa” / Joseph Pecora: “Jo Jo” / Alphonse Persico: "Allie Boy" / Carmine Persico: “The Snake” / Dominick Petrilli: “The Gap” / Tomasso Petto: “Il Bove” / Joseph Pignatelli: "Joe Pig" / Aniello Prisco: “Zopo” / Anthony Provenzano: “Tony Pro”

Anthony Rabito: "Mr. Fish" / Tony Rampino: "Roach" / Philip Rastelli: “Rusty” / Abe Reles: “Kid Twist” / Frank Rosenthal: "Lefty" / Paul Ricca: "The Waiter" / Harry Riccobene: “The Hunchback” / Patrick Romanello: “Patty Muscles” / Joseph Rosato: “Joe Palisades” / Benjamin Ross: “Benny the Bug” / Arnold Rothstein: “The Brain” / Ben Ruggiero: "Lefty Guns", “Lefty”

Anthony Salerno: "Fat Tony" / Robert Sanseverino: “Bobby Phones” / Frank Scalise: “Cheech” / Nicodemo Scarfo: “Little Nicky” / Gregory Scarpa: “The Grim Reaper”, “The Killing Machine” / Jacob Shapiro: "Gurrah" / Ben Siegel: "Bugsy" / Giuseppe Siragusa: “The Yeast Baron” / Charles Solomon: “King” / Michele Sottile: “Mikey Boots” / Anthony Spilotro: "Tony the Ant" / Arnold Squitieri: “Bozey”, “Zeke”, “Sylvster” / Joseph Stracci: “Joe Stretch” / Anthony Strollo: “Tony Bender”

Antonio Tamasulo: "Boots" / Alphonse Tarricone: "Funzi" / Ciro Terranova: “Artichoke King”, “Whitey” / Philip Testa: “Chicken Man” / Sam Todaro: “Black Sam” / Jimmy Torello: "The Turk" / Johnny Torrio: “The Fox” / Santo Trafficante: “Sam Balto” / John Tronolone: “Peanuts” / Dominick Trinchera: "Big Trin"

Joseph Valachi: “Joe Cargo” / John Vaccaro: “Popcorn” / Vito Vario: "Tuddy" / Paolo Veccarelli: “Paul Kelly”

Michael Yannotti: “Mickey Y”


Diabolik: Cosa Nostra & others

Gerlando Alberti: “U Paccare” (the imperturbable) / Giulio Andreotti: “divus Iulius” (the divine Julius) / Gaetano Baladamenti: “Tano” / Silvio Berlusconi: “Il Cavaliere’ (the knight) / Stefano Bontate: “The Prince” / Giovanni Brusca: “lo scanacristiani” (people killer), “The Pig” / Giuseppe Buscemi: “Pidduzzo” / Giuseppe Calo: “Pippo”, “The Cashier” / Michele Cavataio: “The Cobra” / Matteo Messina Denaro: “Diabolik” / Giuseppe Genco Russo: “Zu Peppi”, “Gina Lollobrigida” / Giovanni Gioia: “The Viceroy” / Antonino Giuffre: “Little Hand”, “Nino” / Salvatore Giuliano: “The King of Montelepre” / Michele Greco: “The Pope” / Pino Greco: “Scarpuzzedda” (little shoe) / Salvatore Greco: “Little Bird” / Salvatore Inzerillo: “Totuccio” / Lucianio Leggio: “The Scarlet Pimpernel” / Salvatore Lo Piccolo: “The Baron” / Michele Navarra: “Our Father” / Tommaso Petto: “The Ox” / Bernardo Provenzano: “The Tractor”, “The Accountant”, “Zu Binnu” (uncle Bernie) / Toto Rina: “Shorty”, “The Beast” / Nitto Santapaola: “The Hunter” / Michele Sindona: “God’s Banker” / Don Calogero Vizzini: “Zu Calo” (uncle Calo), “Bull Frog”.

Friday 10 October 2008

let it shine

And time gets somewhat muddled here
But no matter, no matter
Here come the events all tumbling down
(Nick Cave, ‘The Witness Song’)

Breakfast in a Californian motel. At the self-service counters, an unfamiliar array of food including a metal trough of despondent-looking burgers, fried potatoes, a variety of bagels, cheese sauce from a machine that looks like the base of a vacuum cleaner, and a griddle for making waffles as big as a Frisbee next to a bowl of ‘raspberry syrup’. Never eat anything bigger than your head.

Tim pours himself a whopping glass of the waffle mixture thinking it’s some kind of lassi.

In today’s local paper, the Daily News, a story about the new ‘Civic Musical Road’, a quarter-mile stretch north of Los Angeles. Its asphalt is grooved to play Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’ when you drive along it in a Honda Civic at 55 mph, the local speed limit. It’s engineered precisely for the Civic’s wheel base and tires. No mention of what it sounds like when played by a big fuck-off SUV cruising at 80. Local residents aren’t impressed; at a distance, they say, the road produces a high-pitched rhythmed drone that keeps them awake at night, and that all in all it’s far from ‘civic’. Other ‘singing roads’ have been built in South Korea, Japan and Holland, I read. I wonder what songs they sing …

Elsewhere in the same paper, alongside a story entitled MEGACHURCHES EVOLVE WHILE CONTINUING TO GROW and an ad for a cemetery plot for sale in the Hollywood Hills (‘“Eternal Love” section, lot 5322, $3200’): “Heaven is no longer viewed as an exclusive place by many Americans, according to a new survey from Baylor University. When researchers polled US adults about who – and how many – will get into heaven, 54 percent of respondents said that at least half of average Americans will make it through the Pearly Gates. But 29 percent said they had no opinion about the fate of the average American, a figure that mirrored those who thought ‘half or more’ of non-religious people would make it into heaven”.

On the TV, Sarah Palin on the campaign trail wading brashly into an approximate pronunciation of the words Ahmedinejad and nookular; OJ’s trial in Las Vegas; mysterious stop-start ball games, and Ryder Cup golf; endless ads in which competing products are dissed in order to persuade ‘the average American’, ours is so much better than yours (this also seems to be the model for much of the political campaigning pre-election) … Meanwhile, always and everywhere, a wash of FM music radio. There’ll be no justice if the Eagles make it to Heaven.


'All the silence of San Narciso - the calm surface of the motel pool, the contemplative contours of residential streets like rakings in the sand of a Japanese garden - had not allowed her to think as leisurely as this freeway madness' (Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49)

Places pointed out to me by a South American cab driver as he drives down into LA from the hills - in one section there are seven lanes of freeway in both directions: - That’s the San Fernando valley, ‘the valley, as in valley girls. That’s where I live. It’s the 4X capital of the world’. - That’s where Arnie Scharzenegger fell off his Harley. (‘Didn’t even have a license, man. Dyou know what we call him? Asshole. Cos he can’t pronounce asshole’). - Over that way’s where Rodney King was beaten by the cops. - That’s the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (‘Busby Berkeley’). - That’s ‘the famous Capitol Records’. - That’s where River Phoenix died (‘you heard about that?’). - And this is ‘the heart of what we call Hollyweird’. - That’s ‘the famous Pink’s Hot Dogs’. - ‘Hey hey what have we here? And this is where the Hispanics play soccer in the street’.

Ain’t there nowhere to run, ain’t there nowhere to go?
Yeah, look to the sky, Daddy-O
There is a light that shines over this city tonight
There is a light that shines over this city tonight
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
(Nick Cave, ‘There is a light’)

I’m astonished by the degree to which my conception of the look, feel and physical topography of LA is constituted by film, TV and fiction. Film in particular has colonised my imagination, and I look through its lenses. I ‘know’ so much of this city, somehow I recognise it and yet I’ve never been here before. Even the names of suburbs and streets trigger all sorts of stuff: Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Compton, Pomona, Ventura, Wilshire Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Cielo Drive. Everywhere the ghosts of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe, The Big Sleep, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Farewell My Lovely, Polanski’s Chinatown, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, Crash, Magnolia, Colors, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, LA Confidential, LA Story, Heat, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Short Cuts, the Terminator films, Blade Runner; not to mention a lot of TV-despite-myself viewing including Baywatch, Beverly Hills 90210 and the irony-free weirdness of American Idol. Then there’s Charles Bukowski, Joan Didion, Brett Easton Ellis, James Elroy, Elmore Leonard, the brilliant Nathanael West …

And my god it’s vast, this city, an apparently infinite sprawl of almost 500 square miles in a beach-side desert bowl on the Pacific Plate beside an unstable fault line, the San Andreas, running through the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’.

On the third day of the LA riots in 1992, in the wake of the initial acquittal of the four LAPD officers charged with ‘excessive force’ in their brutal treatment of Rodney King, King himself went on TV to say: ‘People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? ... It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice .... Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.


Somewhere I read that one of LA’s many sister cities is Lusaka, Zambia, where I spent the first 13 years of my life. This surreal connection completely baffles me. I can make no sense of it at all.


I met a beautiful, gentle man with bitten finger-nails who had looked after Kathy Acker during her last months of life. I met a dog with bright blue eyes who posed for a photo. I saw a road sign that said HOPE above a red traffic light. I saw a silver metal-clad building, its outline against the night sky like sails, like waves - or maybe more like hefty nuns in a brawl, using buckets as weapons. I met a fiery old man, his eyes rimmed with thick black makeup running down into his beard, carrying a cardboard hand-written sign: HOMELESS VIETNAM VET 69 70. I saw signed photos of Bill Clinton and of Bush Snr buying donuts in the same donut shop, shaking the hand of the rather generously proportioned Mr Donut; it seemed both ex-presidents had written ‘Thankyou for great donuts’, but, on closer inspection, I realised both were signed identically by the donut man himself (were the ex-pres’s in fact delivering donuts, spending their retirement days baking?) I saw a huge man with spider web tattoos all over his hyper-pumped arms, cradling a Chihuahua in a diamante collar. I heard about a college course called ‘GYST’ (Getting Your Shit Together). I saw the uncannily empty and manicured streets of Beverly Hills. Outside the 'freak show' in a seaside suburb like Paignton on acid, I saw a turtle with two heads and a dog with five legs. I saw a mobile phone transmitter disguised as a palm tree. I saw graffiti where SHAG ME had been crossed out and replaced with FUCK THE BRITS! I watched a dazzling basketball slam-dunk in a beachside game: an inverted man hanging from the basket’s frame, upside down & shouting for a full minute, while the crowd went wild around him. I read about ‘naked short selling’, and watched the stock markets crash on TV. I saw a barrel of a man up to his chest in a swimming pool, bourbon & coke in one hand, cigarette in the other, gesticulating & flicking ash dismissively as he did deals on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and ear (‘that's a bit louche’, David said poolside, eyeing the water with suspicion: uncharitably, I had him down as a small-time porn baron organising a shoot for the Louche Bros). I passed a man on the boardwalk playing electric guitar on a motorised skateboard, a mini-PA balanced behind his feet. I watched a man with thighs broader than my chest - the world’s 6th strongest man, supposedly - straining over weights for a new record, fit to explode, then finally breaking away disgusted; the bar hadn’t even moved. I saw Spiderman buying an ice cream.

Somehow I never saw the HOLLYWOOD sign. But I did see Nick Cave at his shamanic sharpest in the Hollywood Bowl, with the Bad Seeds ablaze, and it all made perfect sense for a couple of hours or so.


Like Pynchon's San Narciso, so many bits of Los Angeles felt like 'an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams became among our accumulated daylight, a moment's squall-line or tornado's touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnities - storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence'. It 'had no boundaries. No one knew yet how to draw them' (The Crying of Lot 49).


On take-off out of LAX on a plane called ‘Mystic Maiden’, with the sun low over the Pacific, we flew out over the beach and the ocean, turned left on a wide arc south of Palos Verdes, Long Beach and Seal Beach, then inland between Santa Ana and Irvine. Due west past Palm Springs, over the Joshua Tree, across the state line and into Arizona. As darkness fell over the desert, past the twinkling lights of Phoenix and Tucson; much of the sky now blue-black, like Elvis’s hair. Then, with only the horizon alight, a luminous apricot strip way behind us, we flew into New Mexico.

I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the window.

By Roswell it was night.

Now who will be the witness
When you’re blind and you can’t see
Who will be the witness
When you’re all so clean and cannot see
Who will be the witness there
When your friends are everywhere
Who will be the witness there
And your enemies have ceased to care
(Nick Cave, ‘The Witness Song’)

(Belated flashback fragments from trip to LA, 13-21 September 2008. See earlier related posts in September: 'angels, 'winging it', 'shadow flight' - © David Williams. To listen to Phosphorescent's song 'Los Angeles', head here)