Moronic Ox Literary Journal - Escape Media Publishers / Open Books
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David A. Ross
Like the interior of Vincent Van Gogh’s studio, Willie Weber’s visceral workplace was filled with empty bird’s nests, old mud-stained shoes, broken chairs, fallen limbs, and filthy peasants’ caps. Walking against the north wind from the Hotel America, he’d slipped inside the gray building on Amsterdam’s Paulus Potterstraat and spent the afternoon with the dead artist. From every picture and drawing, from every letter, receipt, and scrap of hand-written paper, Vincent had whispered to him: “You cannot be at the pole and the equator at the same time. You must choose your own line…”
The rain was coming down again as Willie passed through the neighborhood known as the Jordaan. The narrow alleyways and timeworn, working class, brown brick houses gave the quarter a dank, enclosed feeling. Here, souls tended to brood; and your neighbor was likely to be your aunt or your uncle. As Willie navigated through the wet streets, he could hear a rock band practicing nearby. He stopped to listen, but the buildings were situated so closely together that it was impossible to trace the sound of the echo. Like a confused rat in a maze, he chased after phantom drumbeats and nebulous bass lines to no avail. He was about to abandon the search when a peeling guitar solo helped him zero in on the basement where the tumultuous music was boiling over with rage, desperation, dreams, and oblivion. He walked down the cellar stairs to listen outside the door. The words were all in riotous Dutch, so Willie, a native German speaker, only vaguely understood their meaning; but the music was tough and hard, the notes and phrases condensed and wrapped tight as a bale of wire. These bloody and wounded drumbeats were as unnerving as an arrhythmic heartbeat, and a curious ensemble of techno-synthetic instruments seemed to be converging on some point of critical mass, at first catastrophic, then circling round to some implied reassurance.
Trying the door Willie found it not locked, and he boldly pushed it open. The chamber was mostly dark and smelled of hashish and whiskey. He squinted to see in this vat of murky water. Four phosphorescent eels swam in well-measured frequency through waves of tubular light. Like the avant-garde culture in which they lived, these four musicians were suspended in mid-song, like a team of trapeze artists caught with insufficient pendular momentum to execute a critical maneuver. For a time no one noticed him standing there. But as the song they were rehearsing finally degenerated into chaos, the sallow-faced, leather-clad singer approached him. The singer’s knees nearly buckled under the weight of his own ruin, and his sense of direction was battered by some blitzkreig of distortion generators, bizarre harmonics, and drugs. Careening and glassy-eyed, he looked sickly in the smoky basement of Calvinism’s worst nightmare.
“Daag!” he said. “I don’t mean to intrude,” Willie apologized. The young vocalist stared vacantly at him. Willie asked, “Sprechen-sie Deutsch? “Ja, Ich spreche Deutsch,” the singer smirked. “But since I was born in the Jardaan, some Hollanders say I don’t even speak very good Dutch.” “I heard the music and came to listen,” Willie said. “Come inside,” said the singer. Willie followed him into the crypt. “Where do you come from?” he asked. “Der Stadt Erlangen—north of Nürnberg.” “Der Fatterland!” The singer turned to his colleagues and recapped the conversation thus far in their own language. “My name is Axel Van Zoet,” he said. “Willie Weber.” Each band member shook his hand. “Are you sure you don’t mind if I stay?” Willie asked. “No problem,” said Axel. He took a bottle of Teacher’s from inside his leather jacket and offered Willie a drink. “No, thanks,” said Willie. “You sure? It’s okay, I don’t care.” Willie declined. Axel asked: “What brings you to Amsterdam? Hashish? Heroin? Other drugs?” “Nothing so easy to find,” said Willie. “Perhaps a rare piece of art—or just a memorable scene.” “The graffiti is good in Amsterdam,” assessed Axel. “But real art—I mean art in the contemporary sense—too many clichés for art to survive.” “What are your lyrics about?” Willie asked. “Stress.” “Stress?” “Stress and tension. That’s all.” Axel offered the whiskey bottle again. “Are you some sort of artist?” “I’m an engineer.” Willie’s thoughts retreated to his recent past. He saw before him certain specs of a motor he had once designed to drive a gimbal, or to move an optical lens—Element #6 for the Laser Doppler Rangefinder. It was later sold to the American Defense Department, he learned. In the beginning, those for whom he’d worked would not verify the motor’s true purpose; they were vague and evasive—an insult to his intelligence and his creativity, which they supposedly valued. Many times he’d asked that they simply tell him the truth, but they had not. “I’m trained as an architect,” Axel revealed, “but for now I prefer to fuck around with this music. Fewer constraints, more room for expression.” Willie nodded. “What kind of art are you searching for?” the iconoclast wanted to know. “Do you mean Rembrandt? Everybody who comes to the Netherlands wants to see Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But there are other possibilities.” “I’ve seen the Van Gogh collection,” said Willie. “Look!” said Axel. “Maybe you would like to go with me tomorrow night to see something very unusual. Art with a real impact! It involves sculpture, mechanics, and theater all at once. This group of artists—or maybe like yourself they are actually engineers—is doing something unique, I believe.” Putting caution aside, Willie said, “Warum nicht?” Axel smiled for the first time. “Meet me here tomorrow evening at seven o’clock. First we’ll go to Café Chris for supper, and then we’ll go to Mickery Theater. I know you won’t be disappointed, Willie Weber.”
To Theo’s frustration, Vincent was forever giving away his small stipend to those less fortunate than he—if indeed such persons were to be found! Left alone in Arles by the artist Paul Gaugin, misunderstood and suffering seizures and blackouts, Vincent preferred oblivion to the constant fear of epilepsy, and shot himself point blank in the stomach. Mortally wounded, he lay on his bed, bleeding, and smoked his pipe. Fragrant wreaths of smoke gathered in swirling clouds about his head, and the painter died amidst his own yellow vision.
Shortly after dark, Willie left his room at the Hotel America with flexuous Van Goth visions freshly imprinted on his mind: crows and wheat fields, dour and oblique-looking peasants eating potatoes, terrace cafés, Vincent’s bedroom, landscapes, skeletons, and the red and green and orange portrait of the artist himself, his ear bandaged, and looking quite mad. Outside it was raining again, and he walked quickly across Daam Square. Taking refuge from the mist in a cozy tavern, he ordered a beer and sat down at a corner table. The smoke from the cigarettes and pipes of a dozen other drinkers filtered out the clarity he sought to invoke. And yes, he’d made an unlikely engagement for tomorrow night with the punk singer-architect, Axel Van Zoet. He had no idea what to expect. That was fine. Willie took a sip of his beer. Then another. He looked at his palms and discovered that they were stained with the oil pigments of the primary colors—some reactionary stigmata. He bit his lower lip in reflection and searched for help. No one in the tavern saw the tears falling from his eyes.
Café Chris had been in business on the Bloemstraat as a beer tap since 1624. Axel Van Zoet’s studio was located just a few blocks away. Outside the café a spray of purple tulips grew in a window box and set off the clean lines of the well-maintained building. Red, full-length drapes hung inside the windows, complimenting perfectly the design of the dark green, wrought iron trim. The interior was finished with dark wood paneling. The lighting was subdued. Willie offered to buy dinner for his host. Axel was a little surprised, but he did not decline Willie’s offer to pay.
“Look,” he said. “This isn’t much of a place. Only simple food and good beer.” “Seems fine to me,” said Willie. They took seats in a far corner of the tapperij. There were no menus, only four pre-determined suppers written in Dutch on a blackboard behind the bar. Axel translated the possibilities for Willie, and the guest settled on a mushroom omelet with grilled onions. Axel ordered a crock of fish stew with brown bread. They each had draught beer. As Axel lit a cigarette, Willie examined his companion’s features. Axel’s sallow face and pointed chin and hollow cheeks suggested simple artistic poverty. And his dyed, jet-black hair was long and scruffy at the neck, while cut short and unevenly at the temples. He had a defiant cowlick on the crown of his head. Underneath his black leather jacket, he wore a t-shirt with faded lettering that read, ‘NL Centrum.’ “Amsterdam is small scale,” he said without prompting. “Very domestic, very complacent. Of course all the so-called hippies would have you believe it’s very chic. It’s not that at all. Here in Amsterdam, we live very close together. That is the real reason for civility.” “To an outsider, it appears as if nobody’s actually in control,” Willie observed. “Yes! Now you’ve touched the real issue,” said Axel, quite pleased. “Look, there are many forms of control, as there are many variations of freedom. In any society, freedom is only control by degrees. That’s what we’re really talking about.” “I’m not sure I follow you.” “Let me explain. Amsterdam is the great experiment in controlling people by giving them everything they want. If you want hashish or pot, they say go ahead, it’s okay. If you want heroin or cocaine, they look the other way. Sex? Here it’s lost all enchantment. In the end it all comes down to economics. Same as Deutschland, or England, or Japan, or America—a colossal commercial, that’s it!” “So you’re opposed to liberalism?” “Look, sooner or later the pendulum will swing back the other way. It’s predictable. Right? Left? But it’s all a great distraction, isn’t it? Meanwhile, fundamental issues are ignored. But on a grander scale—a worldwide scale—tension is building. Don’t you feel it?” “We’re all pawns: Is that what you’re saying?” Axel shrugged as he filled his mouth with stew. “As an engineer in Germany, I thought I was working on a weather radar system. As it turned out, my work was subverted.” “So that’s why you’re in Amsterdam?” Axel queried. “I don’t really know why I’m here,” said Willie. Axel moved closer, putting his face just inches away from Willie’s. “Look, if you stay here awhile, you’ll begin to see that it’s no different. A grand seduction, that’s it! All the hippies are lapsing into comas, and the punks are kicking ass and screaming anarchy! There’s no anarchy. It’s only made to resemble anarchy. What’s really going on is control. It’s compliance invoked by seduction!” Seduced by promises of recompense both direct and subliminal, bribes and rewards that, once attained, never quite satisfied, the perverse feeling of emptiness that resulted grew slowly but steadily into an accustomed, dull ache, and no longer had Willie Weber been willing to chase after phantom redress. There had to be something more—something that might restore a measure of dignity! After dinner they headed for Mickery Theater. The night was damp and the wind blew relentlessly off the waterfront. The arched pedestrian bridges were outlined with strings of tiny, white fantasy lights, and many of the boats and stately old canal houses were lit as well. “Just what is it we’re about to see?” Willie asked Axel. “It’s a performance by a consortium called Survival Research Laboratories, or SRL for short.” “Sounds serious,” said Willie. “Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s a metaphor, yes. But it also tries to stand all on its own. You see, the world theater maintains drama and tension through the perpetuation of greed and injustice and so forth. In this allegory, everything comes crashing down. So these performances are about creating more problems than they solve. Yes, it is theater with machines as characters, and each time the audience must be sacrificed!” Before four hundred open-mouthed onlookers, Mickery Theater was transformed by the members of Survival Research Laboratories into something resembling a prehistoric chasm populated by nightmarish, four-meter-high, mechanical creatures: steel dinosaurs, friction threshers, shock wave cannons, erector set mania. Born of inverse ingenuity and a blow torch mentality, these fortified joints and welded junctures, these dancing skeletons, flame throwers, dolts, and catapults were apparently built only to collapse upon themselves. Their mechanical sounds were primordial: shattering glass, fire bombs, cargo exploding, scaffolding crashing, animal outcries… In a collective movement, the audience recoiled as huge booms swung out over the first twenty rows, spreading scraps of fetid refuse. Loud speakers barked unintelligible castigation at one hundred fifty decibels. Axel Van Zoet, the die-hard rock musician, covered his ears and grimaced, while the girl standing beside him tugged tensely at her hair. All the while, the shock wave cannon fired wake-up calls at the audience. Rancid debris rained down like nuclear fallout. Willie laughed uneasily, but as the performance continued he came to realize that the creators of this theatrical whatever-it-was were engineers, and this was their personal dare with the world! “We’re witnessing the technocratic world at war with itself,” Willie yelled in Axel’s ear as Armageddon thundered onstage. “Yes, but it becomes even more!” Axel observed. “These machines are at ease in the world the artists have created for them. They take on a life all their own. Ultimately, the personality of the machine exceeds that of its operator.” Here no status quo expressions of talent were manifest. Each person who saw the performance was challenged to make up his own story about what was happening right in front of his eyes. A successful performance meant the development of new idioms! “I can’t imagine a production like this taking place in Germany,” Willie told Axel. “The polizei would close it down in minutes.” “Perhaps they would not understand it,” suggested Axel. “On the contrary,” said Willie, “I’m afraid they’d understand it all too well.” Once the performance ended the crowd filed out of Mickery Theater, but they did not immediately disperse. Instead, they stood outside the auditorium, waiting for the world to end. And for a new one to begin. Word began circulating that SRL’s fire cannon had been stolen. “With their consent, I suspect,” Axel said with a self-satisfied look on his face. “Though of course they’ll never admit it.” Willie stood by his new friend. Minutes later they heard a low-pitched hum, followed by several muted popping sounds. In time they could see clouds of billowing black smoke rising into the chilly night air. Scores of police were running in the direction of the commotion. “I knew something was bound to happen,” commented Axel. “I don’t understand,” said Willie. “What is it?” “Five minutes walk from here there was a long-time squat. Not anymore.” For they’d burned the entire ghetto to the ground!
Now available from
A Metaphorical Memoir
Alan Ramon Clinton
About the author...
Alan Ramón Clinton currently lectures at Santa Clara University in California and is the author of a scholarly monograph, Mechanical Occult: Automatism, Modernism, and the Specter of Politics (Peter Lang: 2004) and a volume of poetry, Horatio Alger’s Keys (BlazeVox: 2008). This fall he will appear as guest editor for a volume of 2nd Ave Poetry entitled New Poetics of Magic.Click here to add text.