Ode to the Lost Motels of the Jersey Shore

Exploring Seaside Heights, N.J., for the first time, and, sadly, I find no treasure-trove of midcentury motels like there are in Wildwood. Here, as testament, is an image of a Jeffrey L. Neumann painting of the Seashell Motel in Wildwood and my poem on the same subject (total coincidence, but not surprising, since Jeffrey and I cover the same beat: lost America).

 

"Sea Shell," a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

“Sea Shell,” a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

CHECKOUT AT THE SEA SHELL MOTEL

the caramel room
at the Sea Shell Motel
dollar store palm prints
and nicotine sills

cheap rum hangs in the shaft of sun dust
hula lamps hold the afternoon

dealings have come and gone —
Greek families, pimps, divorcees,
schmuck runaways, suicide watches

music plays no more
only murmurings and distant trucks
the scent of the bulldozer

‘Checkout at the Sea Shell Motel’

When I first saw the paintings of Jeffrey L. Neumann, in a gallery in Hudson, N.Y., I could hardly contain myself. I knew I had discovered a simpatico artist, a realist painter whose images of a lost America — faded motels, eateries and roadside oddities — could have illustrated much of the nourish imagery of my poetry and fiction.

Then, recently, in a kind of artistic kismet, I discovered a poem I had written years before I happened on Jeff’s work. The poem was about a motel in Wildwood, N.J., the very same seaside relic Jeff had painted in 2009. I shared the poem with Jeff, who responded: “Wow. I can hear this set in Waitsonian (re: Tom Waits) phrasing.” He agreed to let me use the image of his painting “Sea Shell” for this publication.

My poem, accompanied by Jeff’s painting of the same subject, follows.

"Sea Shell," a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

“Sea Shell,” a painting by Jeffrey Neumann

CHECKOUT AT THE SEA SHELL MOTEL

the caramel room
at the Sea Shell Motel
dollar store palm prints
and nicotine sills

cheap rum hangs in the shaft of sun dust
hula lamps hold the afternoon

dealings have come and gone —
Greek families, pimps, divorcees,
schmuck runaways, suicide watches

music plays no more
only murmurings and distant trucks
the scent of the bulldozer

Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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“Robert Frank’s The Americans” at the Metropolitan

I just saw the exhibit “Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’” — centered on the photographer’s seminal book by the same name  — on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through Jan. 3.

Born in 1924 in Zurich, Switzerland, Frank took pictures in Europe and South America during his early career, but it wasn’t until he crisscrossed the seductive roads of America that Frank felt he was finally making art with his lens. With his U.S. travels in the mid-1950s, his work reached a new level, and 83 of his road images were arranged into the book “The Americans.”

It’s no surprised that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction to the first U.S. edition of “The Americans (1959).” It raised eyebrows in the media for its brute black and white candor. But “The Americans,” like Kerouac’s own masterwork, “On the Road,” opened the door to the loneness of the country’s heart and spirit and, together, they inspired a generation of artists, musicians and thinkers.

Robert Frank's "U.S. 91, leaving Blackfoot, Idaho"

It’s interesting how foreign image makers like Frank, Mechelangelo Antonioni (“Zabriskie Point,” 1970), Louis Malle (“Atlantic City,” 1980) are able to capture the essence of the land better than most native auteurs. In fact, with the stir made by “The Americans,” Frank was compared to America’s original outsider observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose 1835 book “Democracy in America” helped to define the young nation’s unique character (Is it what America brings to you or what you bring to her?).

I believe a great artist is a conduit for “place.” His subject somehow finds him, speaks through him. The artist ultimately “sees” through time as the French photographer Eugène Atget described it. I believe such artists also see through other dimensions, some of which elude us, some of which speak through intersections of light and shadow, artifact and art, quietude and cacophony, moment and mystery.

It’s hard to describe “The Americans.” Language could illuminate it, could degrade it. Perhaps it’s like the stuff of dreams, the magic of which begins to disappear upon transfer to the conscious mind. So much spills from the bucket on its ascent from that deep, dark well.

But I try. Actually, I thought poetry might somehow have a special access pass to the world within photography. So I offer up the following images from my forthcoming chapbook “America, I’ll Have My Way With You”:

I MISS YOU ALREADY AMERICA

I miss you already America
and you’re not even gone

leave me your messages
by the grimed phone booth
how you joke of the truth
hat tossed to eternity
leave me your hay bales
in the sweat hum of the field
waiting on farm hands
and wayward girls
leave me your Ford grillwork
idle at the company house
preaching at the two lane

leave me your truck’s whine
at the crossroads
singing that heaven
is elsewhere in the night
leave me your green trailer
singular at the corner
monument to guts
leave me your shag heart
dusting the television night
with boredom and blood

You might view the video of my song “Miss America,” too.

I was surprised and pleased to see Frank himself link the worlds of photography and poetry in his description of his work:

When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.

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Breadbasket me, baby

Kind of a dream night here in Kansas City last night.  My wife, Roxanne took me to dinner. Lucky man, KC strips at the Golden Ox on 16th and Genessee. A 40s joint in the stockyard section, wood paneling, pleated bar, live jazz wafting in from the lounge. Even a brief departure from our glowy repast when, in the men’s room, I came face to face with a panoramic photo of the yards, circa 1910. The rawness of woodframed housings and pens, tiny figures of men burning remains — The hard terrors of the cattle industry churning my gut. And, yes, I turned from it, back to the paradise of the evening, which only got better.

We summoned our adoptive Pakistani cab driver, Al no less, who sped us back to our hotel, the Westin. Now it was a bottle of Riesling in the rooftop Benton’s (named for painter Thomas Hart Benton), where another jazz ensemble was playing, the Stephanie Laws Jazz Combo, with Wayne Hawkins, piano; Bob Bowman, bass; and Tim Cambron, drums. Even sans sax, they would’ve made Bird proud, moving like a long river through standards and pop surprises like Moondance. Even closing with “Over the Rainbow,” the tune Harold Arlen wrote in a rush on his way to the”Wizard” set; the tune Harold Arlen didn’t think had a shot. Oh yes, we are in Kansas.

And all the while, behind our couch was broad a picture window opening out onto the KC skyline. The Western Auto sign conducting the proceedings like a conductor with a neon baton, avenues of light funneling downtown.

Western Auto sign, Kansas City

Western Auto sign, Kansas City

Yes, I love America, and it doesn’t get purer to a junkie like me than the heartland. R’s like me. We revel in discovering the soul of a town. I need to feel its history, its music, its people. I need to peel back its layers, hear its long tales . I need it in the raw.

That’s what I’ve done in my songs over the last decade. I write about place. I try to see a city through time. That’s what I did in my debut album, “King Kong Serenade.” After all, New York’s my hometown. I drove its taxicabs, I sang on its streetcorners, I cooked in its kitchens and I wrote for its newspapers. As a sampler, try “Crossroads of America.”