The Rip Post                                                                                              


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Feb. 18, 2009

          "There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer.

          Winky the Criminal Cat has struck.
          It wasn’t enough for him to wolf down his food and then puke it all over the carpet. Wasn’t enough for him to drive me to spend vast sums of money to find out why he pukes all over the carpet. (Never found out. He baffles science.) Wasn’t enough that I had to cook chicken and rice for him for weeks---until, you guessed it---he started puking that up, too.
          I must conclude that he really enjoys puking. I know my carpet cleaner enjoys his puking. He’s made about $500 off it.
          And it wasn’t enough for Winky to beat up his sister, Maggie, all the time. Turning her into a defensive, nervous wreck who hides under blankets. Wasn’t enough for him to begin humping the bedspread and leaving it vaguely smelling of sulphur. (No, I have no idea.) Wasn’t enough that his “anal glands” required draining, in order to make him stop “scooting.” (This is a cutesy vet term meaning he uses the carpet as toilet paper.) Wasn’t enough that he has “anal glands.”
          Wasn’t enough that his cat box deposits should be studied by the Defense Department. Harness the olfactory impact, put it in bombs, and you win.
          Wasn’t enough that, without warning, he jumps into your lap, curls up, and purrs---after not allowing you near him for days.
          No. Winky has now found a new way to sabotage the remnants of my rosy dreams of feline/human harmony.
          He has begun “spraying.”
          Now, I’m not exactly sure what spraying is, and neither, I gather, are vets. Of course, it’s territorial. But he already owns this place, essentially, and we had him “fixed” when he was seven months old.
          One month late, apparently.
          Winky fired something into the front bathroom about a week ago. He must have been saving this one up, brewing a specially potent concoction of territorial demarcation fluid (probably because his sister, Maggie, likes to sleep there, in the sink.) Imagine a skunk blasting something that smells sort of like a cross between vinegar and the Lakers’ locker room. Heavily concentrated.
          It is, as was the smell in the car in that “Seinfeld” episode, an “entity.” It lives. Cannot die. Strength of a hundred smells. I have cleaned the floor with cleanser, 409, and vinegar. It has as much effect as reason on George W. Bush.
          It has taken over the condo.
          “Black Muddy River” is on the stereo right now. If you’ve never heard it, it is an exquisite piece of Robert Hunter poetry, matched in beauty by the stately music that Jerry Garcia wrote for it, and his inimitable, world-weary vocal.
          The song expresses, I think, the slight hope that there is, as Tom Waits once put it, “more than flesh and bone” after this whole Punch-and-Judy show ends. It is mournful, poignant, gorgeous, profound, simple. The music sounds a hundred years old. Or five hundred. The melody might have been sung by troubadors in the Middle Ages, or a cowboy in the old west. 

          Black, muddy river
          Roll on forever
          I don’t care how deep or wide
          If you’ve got another side. . .

The black muddy river, as I read it, is death.

          When it feels like the night will last forever
          And there’s nothing left to do but count the years
          When the strings of my heart start to sever
          And stones fall from my eyes instead of tears. . .

          Robert Hunter wrote the words, and there is no more underrated and under-celebrated songwriter in all of American music. Perhaps he likes it that way, I have no idea. His lyrics for Grateful Dead songs---the best of the Grateful Dead songs---have a depth and purpose you just don’t find outside of some of The Beatles, and some of Bob Dylan. And they have art, playfulness, imagery rooted in legends, texts, tracts, symbols, riddles, literature. It’s small wonder that Dylan has recorded a couple of Hunter tunes.
          For those who have never grasped the popularity of the Grateful Dead, suffice to say that without Hunter---the behind-the-scenes lyricist---the band would never have accrued the following and popularity that it did. Deadheads weren’t a weird cult, though they were hardly immune to some of the trappings. They were (are) a body of people who grasped, or at least responded to, the underlying philosophy of Hunter’s writing. You can’t sum it up, or at least, I can’t. You have to “get it.” But it does have much to do with kindness, appreciating the here and now, understanding the fragility of existence, and The Rip Post motto, “persevering through relentless absurdity.” Garcia’s roots in folk, bluegrass, R&B---and his instinct for writing immutable, ageless melody---was the right vehicle for Hunter’s words.

          When the last rose of summer
          pricks my finger
          And the hot sun chills me to the bone
          When I can’t hear the song for the singer
          And I can’t tell my pillow from a stone
          I will walk alone
          By the black, muddy river
          And dream me a dream of my own

          I played the song for my old man not long before he became fatally ill. It was one of our last times to sit alone together and shoot the breeze, when he was still healthy. Maybe the last. He sat quietly through the song, as I recall, and said nothing afterward, except to acknowledge its quality. Maybe it had no real effect on him, but I’m glad he heard it before crossing the black muddy river.
          Winky apparently likes The Smell fine. He goes in and out of the bathroom happily, as if it is full of roses. Of course, I have no evidence that cats appreciate roses. In fact, it could be quite the contrary, as I’ve held several cats right up to the fat, bushy, odoriferous double-delight specimens downstairs and gotten no reaction whatsoever.
But the smell in the bathroom has as much in common with roses as Michael Jackson has in common with Sean Connery. They’re both males (probably), and that’s about it.
          I have blasted the air conditioner. I have run the wobbly, clunky bathroom fan until it probably has driven our neighbor nuts. I have turned on two very expensive air cleaners which I bought some time ago for the purpose of clearing out animal dander so I would not sneeze to death at night.
          And, as a last resort, I have gotten out the black box. Yes, the evil black box that sits in the closet. A quack device that is built to emit ozone, for all those nuts who think that ozone helps them to breathe better. I purchased this in a moment of bad judgement one spring when I was hit with allergies so bad that they turned into a temporary, but nasty, case of asthma.
          Well, what can I say? It actually seemed to help me at that time. Probably predisposed me to six kinds of lung cancer, but whaddyagonnado?
          So now I have loosed the evil black box on The Smell. I have locked them together in the front bathroom, to let them duel to the death. After the first couple of hours, to my amazement, why, the box seemed to have an impact. The Smell became very muted---or at least smothered by the acrid smell of ozone. But then, I noticed a strange side-effect. It seemed to have fled, at least part of it, crawling under the door and down the hall in both directions, lodging somewhere else. Scent as ventriloquism.
          The other night, once again, I loosed The Box on The Smell, and I turned it all the way up. I also stuck an opened jar of peanut butter in there, because I heard it works against skunks. Maybe the salmonella will help.
          By the way, while I was sitting here, Winky entered the room twice, meowed, and hopped up on the chair next to me, where he now watches.
          I think he knows I’m writing about him.
          Double Naught Spy Car is the best band in L.A..
          Now I speak without authority, as I almost never go out to hear bands. I reject just about all contemporary pop music as pure crap. Pretentious, derivative, self-indulgent, unsophisticated, “impossible to categorize" (ha!), post-teenage teenage angst. Often with an All-American dose of psychotic hatred. Most of it is made by posing, extremely unhappy, neurotic naifs and waifs.
          Speaking of which, I am suddenly reminded of this poor girl with the probably assumed name of Kristin Diablo. She was singing and playing guitar and piano at McCabe’s, as opening act for good old Country Joe McDonald. Her songs were the undistinguished, weepy, plaintive stuff that you often hear from young women. The vocals had an unfortunate blurry quality, like a pathetic emulation of a smacked-out Billie Holiday. Most were the ubiquitous “me” and “you” songs, and tended to be about men not being nice. (No shortage of material there.) In between singing, “Diablo” made a little patter about having just moved to L.A., and said something along the lines of how, despite all the problems and traffic, there is so much sun and beauty here, well, “How bad can it be?”
          The crowd was stunned silent. I took it upon myself to answer, on behalf of Los Angeles.
          “Pret-ty BAA-aaaad!”
          The whole place busted up, big-time. Including Country Joe, in the wings.
          But back to Double-Naught Spy Car. Yeah, it’s a goofy name, but what else is new? At least it isn’t full of artsy-fartsy importance or some cretin's idea of clever spelling. Actually, it has a noble origin, steeped in American pop culture arcana: it comes from an episode of "The Beverly Hillbillies" in which Jethro becomes a "double naught spy." The members are teenagers, now in their forties. Typical line-up of drums, two guitars, bass. That's the only typical thing about it.
          I don’t know, tbe music is, oh,‘50’s science-fiction rock ‘n’ roll, or something. The bass player, one Marc Doten, calls it “surf music if surf bands could write music.” Which is to say, it’s fairly complicated. The lead guitarist, Paul Lacques, is a sort of mad scientist (a “shaman,” as Doten says)---a guy who has spent entirely too much time with a guitar, and has left the world, or at least bars, better for it. This is improvisational weirdness and wonderment of a like I really have never quite heard before. Dick Dale in Purgatory? Doten’s bass merrily and lyrically thumps along, a touch kinetic. The drummer, Joseph Berardi, stomps a four-on-the-floor when he has to, and executes changes that approach the frightening meter juxtapositions of Frank Zappa. Rhythm guitarist Marcus Watkins manages to gracefully complement the proceedings.
          One of the things I like best about the band, which I have only seen once---on a Sunday night at a little bar in West L.A. called (warning: cat tie-in ahead) Liquid Kitty (against a startling backdrop of projected burlesque and stripper films from the ‘60’s!)---is that there are absolutely no puerile, weepy, me-and-you, and otherwise revolting “lyrics.” This is because there are no lyrics. DNSC is an instrumental band, anomalously enough, and the titles of the songs perhaps suffice as “lyrics." A few:
          Marina del Hayride. Naked Lurch. Danger High Fight Song. Macedonia 6-5000. Kay Sara Sarah. Someone’s Creeping in My Yard.
          If the black box fails to kill The Smell that Winky Left, I will put a boom box in there with a Double Naught Spy Car CD.
          Maggie, Sister of Winky, has finally come around to a measure of sociability. In her fourth year. These were feral kittens, obviously taken too soon from Mom, and a touch of the feral remains.
          But Maggie (variation of “moggie,” British slang for kitties) who is a “patched tabby” (calico with tabby stripes), has “blossomed.” Which is to say, she no longer runs for her life when approached. She even has taken to being downright pleasant, for lack of a more exact word---every morning, just about all morning long.
          As I sit here, working hard on my bad posture, she enters the room again and again, meows, rolls over on her back, and waits to be tickled, thumped, rubbed, wrestled---at which point, she pulls herself across the carpet with her front paws. Purring insanely.
          I have tentatively concluded that this does more to engender happiness in the world than writing.
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