Saturday, December 18, 2010

Elsewhere in Mexico: Ancient Dinosaur Art, Artisanal Bread, and the Art of the Hoax in Acámbaro

Shreds and Clippings was a bit sparse on writing during August and September, and here's why: I visited a small central-Mexican town that is home to a collection of alleged pre-Hispanic sculptures that depict dinosaurs, camels, and extra-terrestrials, and were discovered by a German amateur archaeologist in the 1940s. Then I wrote an article about it.
The article is out now, in the November/December 'Art' issue of the Believer. The town where the figures were found looks like this:

The museum that houses the figurines looks like this:

And the sculptures look like this:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Adventures in Rhythm: Oh Captain, My Captain. Captain Beefheart Is Dead.

With the above words my good friend JWR in Connecticut informed me that one of the most creative musicians of the last fifty years died today.

It's strange because during the past six months I've been going through a bit of a personal Beefheart revival, after not listening to his music for years. In April, for Vice magazine's 'fine art' issue, I proposed interviewing Don Van Vliet, who devoted himself to painting since he gave up music and being Captain Beefheart in the early 1980s, but one or more of the editors didn't like the idea. Or they just realized that it would have been impossible since Van Vliet lived somewhere in the Mojave Desert and virtually never granted interviews. When he did he conducted them by fax.

In the meantime I satisfied myself by finding live performances of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band on YouTube. Among the best of these was a set of performances taped for French television in 1980 (one of which was featured on this blog recently), just before he stopped making music.

There are two funny things about these performances. One was that the Captain is much thinner than he was during his 1960s blues-ringleader days. Later I read that he just wanted to 'try out' being fat for awhile.

The other is that, as much as you have to thank French television for putting on so original an artist well after the height of his fame (whatever that means), you realize that they didn't really get it—in the way that I think the French have never exactly gotten American rock and roll. At the beginning of each song, a title appears on screen, and beneath that, in parentheses, "Van Vliet"—as if "Safe as Milk" was an old jazz standard composed by some Tin Pan Alley scratcher. After two songs, you kind of expect something other than "Van Vliet" to show up under the title of the next song, but I don't think Captain Beefheart ever felt compelled to do covers. The French station titles one song "Bat Chain Pullet," which clearly makes no sense, since the song is called "Bat Chain Puller."

But the best thing about these performances is that Beefheart has thrown off the warped blues trappings of his 60s and 70s bands, and actually sounds more unique than before. Even more you realize he never queued his musicians. The violent stops and starts no longer sound random—though they never were—and are now simply shocking.

So long, shiny beast of thought.

Mexico City: Scenes—Halloween

I kept telling people here how nothing can equal the pageantry of Halloween in New York City. But I have to stay that the folks of Mexico City impressed me mightily. We headed down to the main square of Coyoacan, a quiet and slightly traditional neighborhood in the south of the city. And it was madness.

At first, all we could see was this.

Then the lights went on, and we saw this.

Last-minute makeup adjustments in a truck window.

That's a real person.

Traditional Mexican pan de muerto. Some are ghost-shaped.

Sand painting in an ofrenda, or altar to the dead.

More of the ofrenda.

Then a costumed motorcycle gang showed up.

At one point while we were struggling through the throng some of my friends started saying, 'It's Changoleón! Take a picture! Take a picture! He's famous.' It took me awhile to realize they were talking about the damp guy in the Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. Apparently Changoleón is a beloved drunk who became famous after appearing on a Mexican reality TV show. There were fears that he had died in 2006, but he's still here, hanging around Coyoacan. His name means 'monkey-lion.'

These kids won.

The strangest thing was that the shopping mall where we parked had this huge Christmas scene in the lobby. I guess without Thanksgiving to conveniently mark the division between fall and winter, Mexicans can basically start gearing up for Christmas whenever they want.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Stranger with You: I Looked for the Hamster in the Chevrolet

Over a year and a half ago, while doing some work for the magazine n+1 in Brooklyn, I read a short story by Juan Villoro called 'Among Friends' in which a Mexico City detective, who is questioning a local screen writer about the kidnapping of an American journalist from an Oxxo in the Distrito Federal, constantly makes statements such as “This is pure Buñuel, God damn it!”

The claim that Mexico City is a surreal landscape is a popular one, and not just in literature. Several months ago I was in a meeting with a lawyer here when he gestured out the window excitedly, in relation to what I can't remember. "This is a surrealist city!" he insisted. "You could look out that window and see an elephant walking through the courtyard!"

I never found these assertions all that convincing. But then today I saw a man who looked like a body double for the ambassador from the Republic of Miranda in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie while walking to the metro.

Mexico City: Scenes

Horse topiary, near Metro Hospital General.

Kitchen of a friend and amateur herbal medicine practitioner.

El Chopo market.

Street-side altar, la Condesa.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stranger with You: One and a Half Episodes

Someone explains to me how this happens, because it's happened to me before.

I have seen the show Two and a Half Men exactly one time in my entire life. It was four months ago, in Guadalajara, at a friend's house. In that particular episode, the hard-living best friend of Charlie Sheen's character (played by Emilio Estevez) had just died; Charlie Sheen's character is worried about his own mortality, and the following joke is made during a funeral in a dream sequence:

  Emilio Estevez: Nice turnout.
  Charlie Sheen:  Yeah, standing room only.
  Emilio Estevez: Goes to show you. Give the people what they want...
  Charlie Sheen:  You mean the open bar, right?

Today, on my seventh day at a new apartment, my roommate turned on the TV in the living room and I heard the following dialogue:

  Voice of Emilio Estevez: Give the people what they want...
  Voice of Charlie Sheen:  You mean the open bar, right?
  Voice of Emilio Estevez: Sure.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Adventures in Rhythm: Your Hat's Too Small

Charlie Winston's "Like a Hobo": "Like a Virgin" for the hipster generation?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mexico City: Scenes—Party in a Salon

I went to a party at a hair salon. It was weird.


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Everyone's a Critic: What Justin Bieber is Good For

I listen to a lot of music on YouTube, and the most frequently used put-down in the comments section goes something like this:

If you don't like this go listen to your fucking Justin Bieber.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Funny Things About Serious People: Richard Yates, Dakota Fanning, Haley Joel Osment, and Tao Lin

I'm sick of books about weird people who turn out to have been sexually molested as children. Does the percentage of characters in American fiction who were molested as children reflect the percentage of actual Americans who were molested as children?

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Vampire Thing Never Dies: To Absorb as Many Lives

For the Best American Travel Writing thing I had to write a fifty-word bio. It was the longest bio I've ever had to write and I had a lot of trouble with it. I just came across some early drafts in my papers:

1. Avi Davis wrote, directed, performed six starring roles in, and was in the midst of editing the original version of The Undead Travel when his producers cut his funding (I still have the master tapes, you fuckers!!!) and handed over the project to Tony Scott. Davis is currently overseeing the construction of a winter bungalow in Tahiti.

2. Avi Davis was born and raised in Nepal, the only son of an American couple who ran a popular ecotourism lodge in the Himalayas. He gave up a promising military career in that country to pursue an in-depth study of socioeconomic barriers facing gypsy communities in the former Soviet Union. The fruits of his investigations will appear in the book Raggle Taggle Riff Raff (of which the present essay forms one chapter), set to be released by Vintage Books in mid-2011.

3. Avi Davis cites his formative influences as "my first dog, Ginger Bakersfield," and "being struck by lightning during a family camping trip in New Hampshire." The Undead Travel is his first published work on catamaran repair, a subject to which he hopes to devote more dead trees in the future.

4. Poet, essayist, statesman, painter, astrozoologist, actor, and model Avi Davis lives in a heavily-fortified villa in Cookesbury, a remote town in southeastern Maryland. He enjoys Chinese classical music and the occasional BDSM session.

5. Avi Davis' (Davis's?) (Davis'es?) (Davises'?) (Davisez'''?) work has appeared in Harphers, Harper's Bizarre, The Three-Thousand Penny Review (formerly the Two-Thousand Seven-Hundred-Fifty Penny Review), The Upper-Hudson Hippie Review, The Southern Misanthrope Cousin-Fuckers Review, The Kenyantiafrican Review, Open Shitty, Tin Spouse, The New Porker, WTF, BLROBL, Vizor, and Is This a Magazine?. He is a professor of creative writing at Escritito University in Utah.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Teaching English Joke of the Day

Friend: You have to meet my new apartment.

Me:      Sounds good. Only, in English you can't "meet" an apartment.

Friend: This one you can. It has that much personality.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

My Name Escapes

The Occidental Swamps! 

Teaching English Joke of the Day

Me:            Do you know this word: "grapefruit"?

Student:    Is it uva?

Me:            Nope, that's "grape". This is toronja. Completely diff—...well
                    now, that would make sense, wouldn't it?...

Spanish Lesson: The Mexican Rennaissance

This weekend some Mexican friends and I played that parlour game where you get a card with a character's name written on it stuck to your forehead and you have to ask the other people in the game yes-or-no questions to figure out who it is. One guy received Miguel Ángel. I had no idea who this was. Someone from the Mexican Revolution? I remained silent throughout the guy's questions, and only became more confused when I found out this historical personage was neither Mexican, Spanish, nor Portuguese. About three questions from the end of the round I realized it was Michelangelo.

The day before, I had been equally confused by a bus with words the Pato Lucas and a picture of Daffy Duck painted on the back. That night I learned that in Mexico, Daffy Duck is called Lucas. No idea why.

Here's how one friend explained the rules of the game to another: "Have you seen the movie Inglourious Basterds?...."

Adventures in Rhythm: Paco Solo


El Camarón de Isla accompanies Paco de Lucía with his knuckles.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Vampire Thing Never Dies: They Put it in a Book

Apparently I write "travel writing." My piece on vampires and tourists for last October's Believer is featured in this year's Best American Travel Writing. It's guest-edited by Bill Buford. I was excited because I thought I knew who that was, but then it turned out I was thinking of Bill Bryson. It's cool though—Bryson did in fact guest-edit Best American Travel Writing at one point.

Somehow I ended up in the company of heavy hitters. The volume has a piece by Ian Frazier, a New Yorker contributor who wrote a book called On the Rez that I read years ago when I volunteered on a Lakota Indian reservation in South Dakota. There's David Sedaris, that guy who writes whiny stuff, also often for the New Yorker. Then there's Christopher Hitchens, who writes bestsellers about Henry Kissinger and God. Also there's a guy who hosts an old-timey radio variety show.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Antiquariana: Old Tibet

I happened to find a first edition copy of Seven Years in Tibet in a bookstore and bought it for some reason. Put off by visions of Brad Pitt's bleached hair, I avoided Heinrich Harrar's 1953 memoir for months. I'm glad I finally opened it. Among its most memorable passages are those about  witnessing religious events or dealing with yaks:

"And after long and enjoyable chaffering we bought a yak. This was the fourth in our line of Armins and he was no different from the others except that perhaps he was naughtier."

"While at Sangsang we had made friends with some Sherpas....They gave us valuable advice regarding our preparations and helped us to find a new yak, which was a real service to us, as we had hitherto invariably been swindled when we bought one of these creatures. We noted with satisfaction that our new yak was a well-behaved beast....In his youth his horns had been removed and the operation seemed to have improved his temper without diminishing his strength. He wore the usual nose-ring. With a very little encouragement one could get him to exceed his average speed of two miles an hour."

"The medium became calmer. Servants held him fast and a Cabinet Minister stepped before him and threw a scarf over his head. Then he began to ask questions carefully prepared by the Cabinet about the appointment of a governor, the discovery of a new Incarnation, matters involving war and peace....I tried to pick out intelligible words but made nothing of the sounds. While the Minister stood humbly there trying to understand the answers, an old monk took them down with flying pen. He had done this hundreds of times in his life as he was also secretary to the late Oracle. I could not prevent myself from suspecting that perhaps the real Oracle was the secretary. The answers he wrote down...relieved the Cabinet of a heavy load of responsibility."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Stranger with You: Coyotes in the Burg

During the first week of September I had to go back to New York unexpectedly. I took the L train out to Brooklyn to have dinner with a friend. The first thing I saw when I stepped out at the Graham Avenue stop was a shiny new restaurant called Mesa Coyoacan. It had a sign featuring howling coyotes. This was very strange. Coyoacan is a leafy upper middle class neighborhood in the southern part of the Distrito Federal that used to be a separate city. Diego Rivera and Freida Kahlo lived there. It would be like if you went to Mexico City from New York and the first thing you saw was a restaurant called The Park Slope Table.

Does this mean Mexico City is trendy now?