Thursday, April 30, 2009

Animal Nightclub

The preceding excerpt is from Animal Nightclub: a cartoon collection by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Never Reliable Press in may 2009

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Facts and Speculations about Jandek

The following excerpt is from Facts and Speculations about Jandek by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Brooklyn Wednesday Books in May 2009

The Facts

In 1978 an independent label called Corwood Industries released a record album attributed to Jandek and titled Ready For The House. Independent label may overstate the operation by connoting a grandeur that does not apply. Jandek is the only artist signed to the label and, although I have no numbers to back this up, the print runs of Jandek albums must be very small. If you write to Corwood Industries for a catalogue the company mails a single sheet of paper with a list of typewriter written Jandek albums.

Since then Corwood Industries released 55 Jandek records. This is roughly one every 6 months. By the time you read this the number is closer to 57 or 58. Maybe even 60.

Corwood Industries presses a few albums every year and places ads in music magazines that read “Jandek on Corwood P.O. Box 15375 Houston TX 7702”. That’s all. No graphics, logos, or ad copy. A few brave souls order the records and receive Jandek albums of clanging guitar noises and solipsist and somewhat disturbing lyrics.

The music is very hard to describe. Applicable words would be atonal, weird, haunting, cryptic, and according to many, unlistenable. Jandek strums on what is either an out of tune guitar or a guitar with some other tuning that he has devised on his own. On some tracks there are drums. On other albums there are no instruments for several songs; just a single voice singing into a tape recorder in a quiet room. Jandek’s lyrics are troublingly opaque. I once saw a book of collected suicide notes and the most striking similarity of the letters were how the writers all felt these letters explained everything when they actually left the readers struggling for answers. Jandek’s lyrics have the same worrying effect. They express a great deal of emotional anxiety but with absolutely no context or insight into what is causing this. To top it off, these removed yet disquieting words are delivered by a young man’s voice that may have been unnaturally aged by dire circumstances and/or lifestyle choices.

How confusing would it be to receive this in the mail, unseen, and then place it on a turn table?

Somehow, over the years Jandek developed a small audience. Somewhat smaller than a cult audience and a little larger than a local book club. His music couldn’t be more outsider and easier to dismiss yet a few people have tried to contact only to be him shunned. Almost nothing is known about him other than the photos of a red haired man that appears in some of his album covers.

Fans uncovered that he is most likely named Sterling Smith as that name endorses the cheques sent to his PO Box. He has only granted 2 interviews in 30 years and one of these was to a journalist that followed him to his house and even then he would not admit to being Jandek but only that he was an employee of Corwood Industries.

In 2004, he started to perform live but still wouldn’t come clean about being Jandek in contracts, posters, or even introductions to the stage. Instead he referred to himself as a representative sent by Corwood Industries.

These are the facts.

The Speculations

I once saw this play where a guy bought a blank canvas for a great deal of money because it was modern art. The play followed the reactions of his friends to the work of art. Because this was a blank canvas, they projected anything they wanted on to it. This is how I feel about Jandek. He is the only musicians I can listen to without placing any projections onto him. Other musicians cause me to react to their fashion, their clothes, their politics, their esthetics.

Maybe I would like Kanye West if he didn’t annoy me with acceptance speeches. Maybe I couldn’t even pay attention to Elvis Costello songs if he was covered head to toe in distracting, stomach - turning lesions. I’ll never know.

I don’t have this problem with Jandek as I know nothing about him. The best thing I can say about Jandek’s art is that it is unsettling but if I were forced to give a traditional record review I would have to give all 55 records a thumbs down, or 2 stars, or a trash it, or generally call it an unenjoyable experience. However, this decision isn’t informed by his haircut or his view on gay marriage or some movement / revival / scene that he is part of.

All I can hear is the music and try to speculate on who he is. These are some of my favorite speculations so far.

#1 – Extreme Therapy

One theory is that the music is actually part of a treatment to deal with a form of mental illness or as part of an addiction rehab program. It seems like a possible explanation. I wrote to Corwoord Industuries for a catalogue and received a reply with some notes from a representative of the company scrawled in the margins. I am not big on hand writing analysis but this block printing seemed to be saying something or was written with a non dominant hand to disguise regular handwriting. Putting out albums every 6 months with no audience and no promotion could easily be seen as the result of a disorder that might require therapy. If this is an act of therapeutic art, it doesn’t seem to be working. The music keeps coming and any changes or development in style or subject matters happen at a glacial pace. There is no cathartic breakthrough. If anything the music is growing bleaker and bleaker.

#2 – Celebrity seeking anonymity

In the 1980’s Stephen King released a series of books under the name of Richard Bachman as an experiment to see if he could recapture any of his earlier success without his powerful brand name attached to it. Imagine if Jandek is the work of a very successful mainstream artist trying to see if his / her art was a viable form of expression with out yes men, promotions, and commercial necessity propping it up. What if Corwood Industries was a division of Dan Akroyd’s production company? What if the representative that Corwood Industries sent to perform at indie music festivals delivered the songs of Danielle Steele? What if J.D. Salinger isn’t as silent as we thought? What if Jandek was a glimpse into the soul of Tony Danza?

#3 – Money Laundering Scheme / Front for illegal business

The goal of money laundering schemes is too look as unapproachable as possible. I once wandered into beat up used bookstore that was clearly some kind of a front once in the door. There must have been 50 guys in the back room when this place could barely afford to employ a staff of one. A rough looking man came out looking very annoyed that I was there and told me that all paperbacks in this store cost $10 each. I was sure he would have raised the price higher until I left. (if I stayed longer) Nick Tosches wrote an article that included the tale of a gangster’s front located in the legendary Brill Building where a young songwriter wandered in and wound up delivering them a hit record. So sometimes fronts fail and attract rather than repel customers. Drug dealers, gangsters, etc. have lots of street smarts but they could easily underestimate the need of hipsters to search out and listen to obscure music that nobody else knows of.

#4 – Coded Spy Messages

Spies send messages through all sorts of unconventional methods. Sometimes short wave radios in London will pick up static broadcasts of people reading lists of nouns and other random words. The British government recently admitted that these were spies broadcasting. Other spies send messages through classified ads, invoices, flashing lights, and even smoke signals from cigarettes. If there is a spy out there with a decoder ring that can decipher lyrics like “Don’t burn golden eagles just to feel sublime” or “Don’t got no synthetic fibers, no foil products” I would certainly like access to it. I just hope that none of the messages have resulted in assassinations.

#5 – Alien

Have you ever read “The Man Who Fell to Earth” by Walter Trevis? It’s about an alien. The nearly last of his kind that comes to earth, becomes addicted to gin, and records strange jazz albums so that they can be played on the radio and broadcast on invisible waves that will eventually carry the sounds back to his home. The alien is so frail and venerable that moving up a floor in an elevator will snap his fragile bird like bones. He is androgynous and detached from all human emotion because, well, he is not human. See the movie adaptation where the alien is played by androgynous and detached David Bowie and suddenly it doesn’t seem impossible. Listen to Jandek and suddenly it doesn’t seem implausible. In fact, when listening to Jandek the only thing this that doesn’t seem implausible about an alien recording jazz music to contact his home planet via radio waves is not the extra terrestrial part but the getting radio play part

#6 – Very Clever Artist

The most cynical response to Jandek is that all of this is orchestrated in order to create a legend. There are thousands of people trying to get famous. Shouting as loud as they can to be heard. Watch a Shot of Love with Tia Tequila or whatever degrading reality show is successful in the particular 6 month cycle that you are reading this in and see what I mean. Sometime the only way to make people listen is to whisper. If Jandek gave more interviews would I even take the time to try and listen to him? Other artists give endless interviews to promote their work. There are so many promotional interviews that all the art is lost in the white noise of the entertainment industry. I have heard enough interviews, reviews, and commentary on the new Coldplay CD that I am tired of it and it’s new direction and it’s radical departure and blah,blah, blah and I haven’t even heard it. I don’t think that this music is any less personal and expressive but what are the odds of me sitting down and listening to the new Coldplay and thinking about it enough that I would come up with theories about aliens, or spies, or Tony Danza. Nil. That’s the odds. Maybe Jandek is shrewd enough to know that I will listen intently if I am I aware that this all that he going to tell me.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Dolenz Encounters

The Following excerpt is from The Dolenz Encounters: a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Frodis Caper Books in May 2009

I know three different people that have met former Monkee Mickey Dolenz.

Mickey Dolenz Encounter #1

My friend worked on a very low budget Canadian game show in the 1990’s. This was a common daytime Canadian game show that seemed to be produced entirely to fulfill Canadian Content regulations and had little concerns for ratings or turning a profit. The grand prize on a show like this would be something like a microwave or another household appliance that would be used as a door prize given to random audience members on an America game show.

The particular show was called “Acting Crazy!” but it was really just charades. Charades isn’t that enticing on a title.

There were regular cast members and celebrities would also show up and play. It should be noted that this was in early 1990’s when there was no film industry in Vancouver so the idea of using celebrities on a show based in Vancouver was a little like counting on the star power of Denver, Colorado to fuel your game show line up. As a result the line up was pretty eclectic. Typical guest stars would include Jimmy Walker, Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits or a local weather man.

When Mickey Dolenz was the guest, my friend introduced himself buying say “ Hey, Hey, You’re a Monkee!” and held out his hand.

Mickey smiled and laughed graciously.

Mickey Dolenz Encounter #2

My friend is a rabid Monty Python fan which means I will rarely discuss Monty Python around him unless I want to be verbally pelted by bad British accents and Neeps.

There is one Monty Python story of his that I do enjoy.

He found out that Monty Python would be reuniting along with the ashes of Graham Chapman on the stage of the Aspen Comedy Festival. He cashed in some RRSPS and bought a last minute, over priced flight and arrived in Colorado to watch the show.

He also paid an outrageous amount to attend some sort of mixer after because the Pythons might also be attend. He met them all and got pictures with them and then found himself standing at a party all alone in a city where he knew nobody.

I have been in this situation a few times and know how awkward it can feel but I don’t know how much that awkwardness is compounded by standing around at a party while Steve Martin and Bob Costas are mingling.

He stood in line for a drink behind Steven Wright and finally worked up the nerve to say something. He tapped him on the shoulder and said “I auditioned for a play today. I never got the part but they cast my shadow.”

Steven Wright looked at him, nodded silently, and walked away.

He stood alone drinking after that until finally feeling tipsy enough to attempt to speak to another famous person he approached Mickey Dolenz and said “Hey, Hey, You’re a Monkee!”

Mickey smiled and laughed graciously.

Mickey Dolenz Encounter #3

A friend was leaving a fine restaurant in Montreal.

As he exited Mickey Dolenz was standing in the lobby while the hostess flipped through the reservation book to find his table. Obviously hired for her appearances and not for her abilities she struggled as she looked through the book.

As he walked by my friend said to the hostess “Hey, Hey, He’s a Monkee!”

Mickey smiled and laughed graciously.


I don’t know Micky Dolenz. I never met him and I can prove that in court of law if required. I probably never will.

However, in my very peripheral understanding of the man I know three people that have met him and said “Hey, Hey, You’re a Monkee.”

If a fourth person were to tell me they met Mickey Dolenz I would be able to guess what they said to him and it would be tiresome for me. I can only image how many times Mickey Dolenz has heard this.

At a conservative estimate of once a day for the past 40 year it would be 14,600 times.

Yet every time he seems to smile and graciously accept his fate and never once resorted to violence.

This essay will be formally submitted to nominate Mickey Dolenz for a Noble Peace Prize. ( As soon as I can figure out how that is done.) He serves an example to remain positive rather than fight the things you can’t change.


One marginally related story – A friend of mine was a teenager in New York and saw John Lennon walking through Central Park.

He started yelling “John! John! John!”

John smiled and nodded at him but kept walking while deliberately setting his body language to let him know that they were not going to stop and talk.

“John!” he yelled “When are the Monkees going to get back together?”

Lennon laughed, stopped and chatted for a minute or two, saying “I haven’t heard that one before” in his cool Liverpool accent.

Patience is rewarded. Don’t always go with the first thing in your head.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Colliders

The following excerpt is from The Colliders by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Moe Green Publishing Ltd. In May 2009

Mark called his Mother from the office in Switzerland.


“Oh Michael, I wanted to talk to you about Christmas.”

“Yes, Yes, that. I won’t be able to come back home. There is a lot of stuff going on with the Collider. I’m going to have to stay here.”

“Hmmm.” She said. The noise sounded like two pieces of Velcro being ripped apart. “Well, you’ll just have to see if you can come home.”

“I’m sorry Mom. I can’t come home. There has been some serious side effects from the Hadron Collider.”

“Your Father will want to know if you are going to come home.”

“I’m not coming home. I have to ask you about the time you visited the collider.”

“Are you coming home for Christmas?”

“No Mom, people that were here when we activated the Collider are experiencing a temporal disturbance.”

“If you tell your Father that you aren’t coming and then you show up it will be very confusing for him. I’ll say you don’t know yet.”

“No Mom. I’m not coming home. Have you been experiencing the same things over and over again?”

“Well I do need to plan for Christmas. It would be good to know if you were coming home.”

“Mom, I can’t. Think. Please. It’s important. Have you been feeling this way? Like that movie Groundhog Day?”

“I’ll tell people that you don’t know yet. It would be a shame if you did make it home there wasn’t enough food.”

“I’m not coming. Mom, what day is it today?”

“The 2nd. There’s not much time left to plan. Are you coming home for Christmas?”

“I can’t do this Mom.” Mike sighed like a faulty whoopee cushion. “ I don’t know if you are in a temporal disturbance or if you are just being a bully about the Holidays. I don’t know if this is repeating because of a rupture in time or if you are just trying to get the answer you want.”

“Well I could get off the subject if you would make up your mind.”

“I’m not coming home. Let me know if you experience any recurrent events.”

“Okay. Bye Kiddo. Let me know when you find out about the holidays.”

“By Mom.”

Mike hung up the phone. He was frightened of how many more times he would have this conversation in this time line alone. He was frightened of how many other time lines might exist.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Broken Heart Policy

The following excerpt is from Minimium Rage: A Poetry Collection by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Spam Dagger Press in May 2009

Broken Heart Policy

We break
We cry

You break
You buy

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Animated Conversation

The following excerpt is from Animated Conversation by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Colin Campbell books in May 2009

Mark drew caricatures in Stanley Park.

For the price of a nice lunch Mark sketched pictures of tourists visiting Canada for the day via cruise ships. Older men and little boys were transformed into amusingly stoic mounties sitting majestically on their steeds. Couples became nose snuggling Eskimos cuddling on drifting ice flows while pink hearts floated over their heads like snowflakes.

Mark finished the drawing of a little girl from Germany. Her tiny head was now huge with a wide toothy grin and her miniature body paddled in a canoe. In the background were beavers and totem poles.

Her father paid and the girls giggled. Mark looked at the stragglers that had watched the sketch. Often just seeing the cartooning was entertainment enough and nobody stepped up to make the next purchase.

“Anyone else?” asked Mark, surveying the onlookers.

“I’ll go.” Said a young man and he sat in Mark’s folding chair.

He was old enough to grow a beard if he wanted to. The right side of his face had a heavy 5 o’clock shadow even though it was only 11 am.

The left side of his face was tragically burned. The skin had bubbled and scarred like a fleshy Panini. The upper left side of his lip was pulled back in a toothy snarl. He head was spotted with burned patches of skin like crop circles.

“I’m from Vancouver, “ He said “ So you don’t have to put in all the Canadian references, but I am a huge Canuck fan if you want to work with that.”

His lidless glass eye stared at Mark.

“Sure” Mark’s voice cracked.

Mark sharpened his pencils in preparation. This was done in actuality to buy him some time while determining how to approach this.

The goal of a caricature is to exaggerate a person’s features until there is a comical effect.

This guy didn’t need any feature exaggerated. They already overshadowed every part of his life. Every relationship. Every encounter. Every time he came into view of another human being.
Mark drew the outline on his head on the page, a large oval like an upside down egg. His hands shook a bit.

The key to caricature is to keep everything good natured. Don’t exploit every feature on the face. Draw attention to the features they the subject is already comfortable with. Make the pleasant smile wider and happier. Make the eyes brighter and sparkling with a blinging diamond.
Don’t blow up that mole like a basketball. Don’t paint those teeth in traffic slowing yellow.

Don’t be mean.

But there were no safe features here to focus on.

The closest that Mark ever came to this was a British tourist with a nose of Cyrano de Bergerac proportions. Not knowing what else to do Mark reduced the nose by about 20% and dropped it from an eagle perch to a budgie perch.

“He even drew the schnozz.” Laughed the Brit, unaware of how generous Mark had been.

Mark began the draw the young man’s preserved features on the right side of his head. Each one was a preview of the awkwardness to come when he began the left side of his head. He drew a sloppy comic strip ear with a dangling earlobe while thinking about the charred nub of gristle lurking on the left side.

Mark thought back to the caricature class he took at the community college shortly after the animation studio laid him off.

“What do I do when we have to draw really ugly people.” Asked a student with more forethought than Mark.

“Lie” said the instructor “Visually lie.”

But there was no lie he could draw here without erasing the young man’s head.

The onlookers began to shuffle away, embarrassed.

The park was quiet. A Stellar’s Jay laughed.

“So, ” said Mark and cleared his throat “you were in some sort of an accident.”

“No.” He said.

Jesus, the denial is so deep, thought Mark, should I draw anything at all.

“It was no accident, I tried to kill myself. I set myself on fire” Said the young man.

“Good God! Why?” Mark asked it before he had time to consider if this was rude to ask.

“Who knows?” He said. He smiled with his mangled grin.” I broke up with some girl I didn’t belong with and failed out of some program I didn’t belong in.”

“Fair enough.” Said mark. He finished the head with minimal burn tissue sketched. The poor guy didn’t need to be kicked while he was down.

“Anyway,” he continued “It seems so pointless now. That stuff was so meaningless. I used to take everything so serious. Almost killed me. It’s actually kind of funny that I cared about that shit. It’s all so funny. I didn’t even know what real troubles were. I don’t take much serious anymore. It’s all funny now.”

“Good way to live,” said Mark “I started cartooning after dropping out of art school, trying to be a serious artist. I wore a lot of black then.”

The young guy laughed. Drool fell down his lipless chin. “The sad part is now that I found the humour in stuff, everyone treats me so serious. People are afraid to laugh around me."

Mark looked at the caricature he drew.

The injuries were subtle and subdued. It was less of a caricature and more of a respectful portrait.

He drew a flare of yellow and orange flames burning off the top of the young man’s head.
In the background he drew a fire truck full of Keystone Cops style fireman rushing to the scene and two boy scouts held marshmallows on sticks ready for roasting.

“I love it!” He shouted. He grinned as wide as his tight scarred mouth would allow.

Post Script: I don't know what this is but it seems like someone translated this excerpt into another language and then back into English and then posted it on their blog.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Rock and Roll is a Hard Life (Part 2)

The following is an excerpt from Rock n. Roll is a Hard Life: a Mitch Metzger Mystery by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Suicide Club books in May 2009

After someone dies you forget lots things about them. You forget a lot negative traits. When Johnny Squeegee died there was an instantaneous memory loss of why he was a considered an inconsiderate jackass just a few moments ago. If there was a Squeegee T shirt anywhere in my top dresser drawers I would have put one on and helped form a larger tribute with Graham.

When someone dies you forget lots of things about them but you also remember a lot weird things about them too. Strange details of Johnny Squeegee rose to the surface of my memory like words floating to the surface of alphabet soup.

Johnny was always in some various stage of facial hair. He was always two or three days into a goatee or a moustache or a soul patch and then he couldn’t commit and he would shave it off. After a few days some new hairy design would start to surface on his face.

Or the memory that the police would often try to confiscate Johnny’s squeegee and say it was stolen from a gas station. As proof he bought a new one and had the receipt laminated. He wore it on a shoelace around his neck like a backstage pass. He was never seen with out it

The strongest memory was what was now going to be known as his last show. The Squeegees were called onstage for an encore. It was something that they rarely gave into because they only knew about forty five minutes worth of songs and they played every song they knew in order to fill out a full set. When it came time for an encore they were tapped out. Tonight Johnny came back on stage and played “Broken condoms and broken promises”. It was the song that they had opened the show with but this time Johnny had dusted off the old ukulele that he used in his busker days.

At first the song got a lot of laughs but it became clear that Johnny didn’t care if was playing on silly little four string Hawaiian guitar covered in punk rock stickers. He played the song with the same alley fight intensity as when he opened the show. He barked out the last few lines in a rage that made them illegible. Ronnie dropped his drumsticks and started punching his cymbols.

Johnny raised the raised the ukulele over his head by it’s neck and then smashed it on the stage. The crowd went insane.

A lot of undeserving musician have become legends after they died. Its an easy joke that death might be the best career move in rock n’ roll. Just ask the Big Bopper. Johnny was one of the few on the scene that didn’t have to die. He was living the life of a legend all along and didn’t even care if you noticed.

He used to give the same over the top ukulele show outside of the Nanaimo sky train station. You just had to wander by.


“Good god the phone won’t stop ringing”

My roommate Chuck runs his hands over his face and kneads the heel of hands into his forehead. Chuck drives a cab from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. which makes him a fantastic roommate. He is out all night and he sleeps quietly all day. He wakes up as I get home from work and tells bizarre tales of the drunk passengers from the night before for an hour or two then starts his shift. He is less of roommate and more like a guy that drops by for a few hours in the evening and then pays half the rent.

When a roommate is this agreeable it is a bad thing to drive him crazy with the endless Johnny related phone call that must be flooding the apartment.

Fortunately Chuck has a coping method. He has been up in less time than he needs to make a cup of coffee or to properly tie the front of his robe shut for that matter but he is already to the kitchen table rolling a joint.

“What the hell is going on? Fucking everybody is calling for you. Not just that student loan lady. You win some money or something?” Chuck holds the joint tight in his lips and squints his face up like Popeye then leans down to the red burner on the stove and lights it.

“No, I think everybody wants to talk to me because Johnny Squeegee just died and I’m probably going to be the one that write about it in the Inquisition.”

Chuck holds the rank pot smoke in his lungs and puffs his chest out like a partridge. While he holds it in as long as he can he makes eye contact with me and waves his arms around. He has something he wants to communicate to me it will have to wait the few seconds it takes for the THC to mingle around in his lungs. Finally he lets out a huge cloud in a dramatic exhale.

“Shit, Johnny Squeegee died. I knew those guys. They used to clean my windows whenever I drove by Main and Terminal. Hell, they were hilarious. They were so funny they were the only squeegee kids that customers would make sure to pay them just clean the cabs windows. It was like they were putting on a show.”

“Ya you should have seen the live shows. It was like the Marx Brothers or something.”

“So he O.D.ed?”

“I guess so. Maybe some other kind accident. I don’t even know. He was only twenty, maybe twenty one. What can you die from at that age?”

There was just a natural assumption that he had died of drugs. Graham hadn’t bothered to offer an explanation and I didn’t even think to ask for one.

“Man Alive. That is so young. He was barely old enough to get into a bar.” Says Chuck.

I have just graduated from university and Chuck spent his time after high school saving up enough money to travel South East Asia. We feel like we have learned a lot about life but we are reminded how young we really are when we realize how shocking it is to have someone younger than us die.

“Well that's it,” says Chuck “ I’m not giving any more money to those street kids. I don’t care how funny they are. I give them money and then they o.d. and I feel like I’m responsible. Selfish little maggots” Chuck drops the final remains of the joint in the ashtray and with a moment of stoned dignity he make sure the front of robe is tried shut. I am relieved that he has finally closed it tightly.

The phone rings. “It’s for you.” Says chuck “There are your other messages” he points to scattered system of loose scrap of paper with names and telephone numbers scribbled on them with sleepy handwriting.



“Yes, speaking”

“It’s me it’s Dan. We need to talk.”

“Ya what’s up? I guess you heard about Johnny Squeegee.”

“I guess you did too. It’s really horrible. We wanted to run the last interview he ever gave as the cover story this week. You know as a tribute.”

“Well how about I write a tribute. I could interview all the other musician and people on the scene and we could do that as tribute. People’s memories of him. Almost an oral history of Johnny Squeegee.”

“Every paper in town is going to do that. We need to scoop every one and do it as the last interview with Johnny Squeegee. Make it look like we were the only paper with the street cred that Johnny wanted to talk to.”

Death can bring out strange things in people. In Dan’s case it brought out things like an aging hippie publisher saying words like street and cred. “Do you really think that other papers are going to give that much attention to Johnny Squeegee? We really are the only weekly in town that pays that much attention to punk stuff.”

“Are you kidding me?” asks Dan “ A former street kid makes good, forms a band, and on the eve signing to major label someone kills him. It’s not the kind of story that happens in this city a lot. Even the mainstream papers will cover it. Not just the weeklies.”

My head jerks back a bit. Even sitting at the table Chuck sees that something in the conversation makes my body language jolt and he begins to openly evesdrop trying to hear what words could have made my spine stiffen up like that.

“Wait, wait, wait a minute.” I say “someone killed him. Someone killed Johnny Squegee.”

Chuck lifts up his eyebrows and lets out an exhale.

“I thought you knew,” says Dan “Someone stabbed him. They found his body in the alley behind The Bricks.”

The Bricks was a hardcore bar on the edge of gastown where the tourist blocks met the skid row blocks. It was on the block were the cruise ship passengers spent a few hours before leaving next to those that had no chance of ever leaving.

There is a feeling of shame that it was just assumed that he died of some sort of overdose. Trying to think of something to say that might redeem myself all I come with is “That is going to be a big story. I bet the Sun puts it on the front page.” After that statement the feeling of being cold and shallow grows a little more.

Dan doesn’t notice the callousness of what was just said. “It most certainly will be. That’s why we need to run the interview with him. I don’t know when he was killed. Did you manage to get that interview with him before it happened.”

The directness of Dan’s question is stunning. Talking in such frank business terms seems disrespectful to Johnny’s death but rather than object I just stammer out an answer “No, they never showed up. I waited around but they never came. They were probably upset about Johnny. I don’t know when they found out. I don’t know when he died.”

“That’s okay”

“What’s okay?”

“The interview. We still have the scoop. Even if they never talked to you Janet Mah still has the last interview with Johnny Squeegee.”

“Janet Mah? Why didn’t she say something at the meeting today.” It was strange for Janet to hold out on a chance to scoop me on an interview.

She once scooped me on an interview with a visiting German art rocker. She used a German to English dictionary and wrote out all the questions and then called him in Frankfurt. She read of all the questions phonetically from eight by ten cards and recorded the answers. Later she used the tape and the dictionary to translate the interview word by word. This was all because she heard that I was waiting to have my German friend sit down at the interview and translate rather than attempt the interview on the phone.

“She wasn’t sure of the quality. At the show she was at on Saturday she was interviewing some singer songwriter guy and Johnny Squeegee came up all drunk and grabbed her tape recorder and started talking into it. Bev called me when she hear what had happened” said Dan

“That’s what you are calling the last interview? A drunken rambling into her tape recorder.”

“Well it’s all we have. You didn’t get the interview at the The Only like you planned”

“Well I guess I didn’t. He was dead. If you want I can interview him with my Ouija board.”

Even the garbled jumbled of letters a Ouija board might produce might make more sense than recording of drunken Johnny. Did he even make sense? Would they print the words in the slurred patter he spoke them in? Yesh for yes and wahtchalookinat for hello.

“I know it might not be the best interview but our presence on the punk scene is very important. We need to have the best coverage of this in the city. People will e looking at us so I need to run Janet’s interview and her tribute.”

“Janet wrote a tribute too or is she going to transcribe the message he left on his voice mail?”

“Janet is writing a tribute as we speak and it will be the cover this week” There didn’t seem to be much room for negotiation in the way Dan said that.

“Alright can I write a tribute too.”

“I don’t think there will be room Mitch.”

“Why not? How long is her piece? She hasn’t even written it.”

“She told us that she would take the story elsewhere if we didn’t let her write the tribute we wanted and run it as a cover piece. I think she knows it will make a great clipping. She wants the piece to be 4000 words.”

That many words was unheard of at the Inquisition. The average cover story here ran about 1,500 words. The longest story the Inquisition ever ran was an indulgent 2,000 word piece that was written by Dan himself in 1980 for the John Lennon tribute issue. Foe several pages Dan gave a second by second account of how John Lennon said “hello mate” as he walked past him in central park a few years earlier and how that event changed Dan’s life.

“It is lengthy. I’ll admit that” says Dan

“Lengthy, It’s a bloody novel.”

“Well I agree with her. We need to run the interview.” Just like that I am down graded from the cover story to reviewing a skid row chowder bar.

“Should I hand in my notes to her?”

“No Mitch, don’t be like this. I still want you to run the memories that people have of Johnny. Ask some people for statements.”

“Thank you Dan. How many words do you want?”


“500? My horoscope is longer than that.”

“Mitch it’s the best I can do. We can run it as a side bar.”

“Alright Dan. I’ll try and make them 500 really good words.”

“You always do. Thanks Mitch.” He hangs up the phone.

Chuck is still sitting at the table. “Wow, you got a raw deal my man” It’s nice that Chuck doesn’t try to insult me with pretending he didn’t just listen to the whole conversation. “I bet your story would have been way better than Bev’s. I’m sorry”

“Thanks man.”

“I’m sorry Johnny died too.”

“So am I. I didn’t really know the guy but I’m sorry.”

I pull up a seat at the table. It is hard to understand that Johnny is dead. That he was murdered. Proximity to murder is something that hasn’t been experienced in my life before. Death is something that has been pretty much avoided in my life.

My grandparents died very early in my youth so it was never really experienced It was like they were always dead and just existed some childhood wonder back when there was still a belief in things like Santa Claus, or Easter Bunnies, or Grandparents.

The only person my age that died was a girl from junior high that had some sort of heart defect. She would go away to the hospital periodically and the trips started getting longer and longer. We were told that she had died on the last trip the hospital but it was more like she had just gone on one more trip and never came. That’s how it felt with Johnny too. I had to keep reminding myself that he was dead and there was hell of a lot of things that twenty year wasn’t going to get to do. Still, I felt more like he had just gone on tour.

We both sat at the table. Chuck in a stoned silence and myself in melancholy one. Finally chuck got up and said “ We’ll I better get ready for work.” His eyes were bloodshot slits.

“Are you okay to drive that cab?” I ask”I don’t know. I better roll one more. I don’t want to get grumpy.”

He giggles and starts twisting some pot in a rolling paper.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Rock n' Roll is a Hard Life (Part 1)

The following excerpt is from Rock n’ Roll is a Hard Life: A Mitch Metzger Mystery by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Suicide Club Press in May 2009

Since The Squeegees were a band that did everything they could to present themselves as group of homeless punks standing on street corners begging for change my original idea was to interview them at soup kitchen. Ethically It was pretty hard to justify going down to shelter and taking away a couple of bowls of soup from some hard up guys that really needed it just for a gimmicky publicity shot. So it was agreed that the interview would be held the ‘The Only’ seafood restaurant.

‘The Only’ is actually pretty close to being an actual soup kitchen. It is located at number 8 Hastings Street in an area where feral looking drug addicts spend the entire day swaying back and forth on the sidewalk in front of it. None of them even attempt to hide their drug deals with subtle hand offs any more. They pass money and drugs back and forth and then smoke them right there.

“The Only” has a great classic neon sign hanging over top of it with a sea horse lit up by tubes of blue and green gases. The bus to the coffee shop would pass by it every day and the sign would always look cool but it was hard to imagine eating at such a run down seafood diner.

It wasn’t till the Vancouver Sun ran short history of the building that I deemed it worth visiting and its great seafood was discovered. It had been an oyster bar in1911. That may have been when the last coat of paint was brushed on but you can still order a half a crab for eight bucks.

Men coming back from the Great War ate there in the twenties. A block up the street during the Depression out of work men organized at Carnegie Hall then marched down Hasting and on to Ottawa almost causing a revolution. In the 60’s broke draft dodgers ate soup here. That may have been its peak. ‘The Only’ seems to have been on a steady decline for the past 30 odd years.

A group of smelly punks that looked like they had been on a steady decline since birth ought to fit right in.

The bell above the door rings as I step in from the streets out front. ‘The Only” is a very small operation. There are two small curved lunch counters with maybe six stools at each counter and two small booths that seat four each. It’s all in the space of an area the size of most newsstands. Sitting down at the lunch counter the tiny Chinese waitress brings me a cup of coffee, a menu, and smiles at me as if to thank me for coming down to the troubled downtown eastside to spend money.

It’s already ten after two, which means that the Squeegees will be predictably late. Since they refuse to submit to any of societies stupid conforms including the concept of time it’s hard to gage when they will be here.

A creamer is poured drop by drop into my coffee. Each drop of coffee looks like a tiny cumulus cloud in a black coffee sky. With a spoon they are stirred away and the stirring is continued long after the cream is mixed together. Who knows much time is going to have to be killed waiting? I order a clam chowder.

The spoon scrapes across the bottom of the soup bowl and The Squeegees still haven’t arrived.

I flip through my notes on the band to prepare for the interview.

The Squeegees act like they have seriously damaged their brains by huffing glue which is what makes them brilliant.

They are four punks with three chords and maybe two nickels between them. Each of their songs are less than three minutes long not because they want to leave you wanting more but after two minutes you are ready for the next song. Every song is about some simple basic primal want.

They are notoriously under rehearsed so once it was a huge surprise to see them come onstage and place a set list at Johnny’s feet. They looked like they were trying to act professional for once. After the show I realized it was all a joke. The set list read “SEX, DRUGS, AND ROCK AND ROLL”

This basic template for a band doesn’t make The Squeegees any better or worse that the fifty or so other bands that scraped together some instruments and got a few gigs at the downtown eastside punks bars.

Any kid in the suburbs can get it together to form a band. The Squeegees got it together enough to form a brand.

While those other bands were listening to Ramones songs, The Squeegees listened to what made the Ramones great. Before they had even written any songs they changed their names to Jimmy Squeegee, Johnny Squeegee, Derrick Squeegee, and Ronnie Squeegee and designed a logo with a squeegee and a baseball bat crossed like a coat of arms.

They were all met at the corner of Main and Terminal, below the sky train, where they squeegeed car windows for pocket change. Johnny said that he used to make more money as a busker so he saved up enough money for buy a ukulele at a pawn shop. It was easy to learn and simple to carry and people laughed and gave him more money when he played punk standards like London’s Burning on it. People loved to see a big scary punk with a silly little guitar.

It inspired the other three and they were going to buy ukes themselves but Johnny knew if there were other ukulele punks it would ruin the novelty and put them all out of work. He convinced them all to buy other instruments and start a band.

The Squeegees were a marketing force from the beginning.

They hung out at the corner of Main and Terminal and very time the squeegeed a car they handed out a photocopy for the shows they were at. They started to make more money cleaning windows and soon every one with a car in Vancouver heard about this band. They started getting booked at more places. When a carload of kids drove by the kids, they went out of the way to give them some coins. Soon they were pulling in ninety dollars a day in pocket change.

To a nineteen year old kid that only wants a futon to crash on after he drinks himself sick that can seem like a lot of money. They rented a two bedroom slum for the four of them and spent the rest on the band.

They made two thousand stickers with the baseball bat and squeegee logo on it and sold them out at Main and Terminal for three dollars each with a complimentary windshield cleaning.
It made more people come to shows so after that they made another two thousand.
Once while a cop car waited at a red light Johnny slapped a sticker on it and then ran like hell.

The legend grew.

They sold enough stickers to get a thousand t-shirts silk screened and they sold all of them. After a few gigs and more Squeegee money they booked four hours of studio time. 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. when the time was the cheapest. They recorded twenty two songs and it clocked in at thirty six minutes. They pressed one thousand copies of an album called “self titled debut”.

After they paid for it they had to start cleaning windshields again right in from of the studio because they had spent every last penny and couldn’t even buy a 99 cent slice of pizza.

They sold every last copy and now the labels are interested in signing them.

The word on the street is that they are dragging out the process of getting signed because they want the label to take them to more dinners. Maybe this is why they haven’t shown up yet. They have gotten used to a higher standard of food than the The Only.

By three thirty its clear that they are probably not coming but some much time has already been invested that it’s hard to leave. From three thirty to three fifty I try and take some more note to prepare for the article. I fought like hell to pitch this story and now Janet Mah is going to scoop the music section from me.

There is nothing else about the band that can noted so soon the notes just descend into mindless doodles and amateur cartoons.

The cook staggers from the back freezer holding a giant grey halibut to his chest in a fireman’s carry and throws it down on the kitchen counter that is clearly visible from the lunch counter. He starts hacking into it with a cleaver like the fish owes him a great deal of money or slept with his wife.

There is no longer any reason to watch this. After two hours it’s time to take a stand.

If those guys don’t want a free bowl of clam chowder it’s their loss but I’m not waiting around any longer.

Outside the sky is a typical grey Vancouver overcast. The colourless sky clashes with garish red and yellow of the Chinatown storefronts. The sidewalk is crowded with produce that is rarely seen out side of this part of the city. Buckets of sea cucmbers. Plastic tubs of razor clams. What looks like an entire family of BBQ duck, descending on order of size hang in a shop window by their beaks. One man has small speaker and and a microphone and patters about his great produce in Chinese. Every now and then he throws in an odd English word like “John Wayne” or “ Big Mac” and it seems impossible to even guess what he might have been talking about.

From Chinatown it was a sharp right turn onto Main Street. The fact that these ungrateful little punks stood me up make me too mad to hop on the bus. It seems better walk the entire length of Main and burn off some of the anger.

At Main and Terminal I stopped for a minute or two and looked for the band. Maybe they were out working the intersection but they were nowhere to be seen. With the label wining and dining them talking to coffee server slash music writer is beneath them, so wiping bug innards off a Volvo must be out of the question.

The only evidence of their presence down at their old place of work is the fact that The Squegees stickers are plastered all over flat surface available. They are on newspaper boxes, the bus stops, even on the garbage can. The only place you didn’t see stickers was on the Starbuck located under the sky train tracks. Obviously they were slapped there but diligent employees peeled them off the corporate surfaces for a few dollars an hour.

The only other reference to the group was on one of the concrete pillars that held the skytrain track in the air. The pillar was scribbled all over like front of a high school student’s textbook. Mostly there were illegible graffiti tags with the letters twisted and bent into hip hop hieroglyphics but there was the occasional cuss work or anger fuelled political slogan like “Fuck you fucking pig cop.”

In the middle of this someone had written “EVEN IN HEAVEN JOHNNY CANT SQUEGEE THE TARNISHED HALO CLEAN” Assumedly this was from a Squeegee’s song.

It seemed a bit maudlin for Squeegees lyrics. Most of their lyrics began with phrase I WANNA and then something involving drugs, sex, or maybe rocking.

Maybe they were trying to reach a larger audience if they were going to get signed to label.

Maybe should take advantage of national distribution pull in some of that disposable teenage girl income.

Maybe I’m just grumpy because they didn’t show up.

From terminal I hike up Main. It’s a long slow haul up a steeply grade hill to Broadway and the street gets trendier as the altitude increases. The shops change from industrial suppliers to cafes that serve vegan food and play industrial music. At the corner of Main and Broadway there are three espresso slash internet joints on four corners of the intersection.

Standing outside of the coffee shop on the left side of the street is Graham. He is pulling on a cigarette like a doctor told him he didn’t smoke he might die. Graham works the espresso bar there and when I’m buying coffee, we share stories about the idiot customers at our prospective coffee jobs. He probably has some other ambition but he hasn’t told me what it is yet.

He is wearing a black squeegees T shirt and it makes him look like he has a bit of a belly.

As I walk towards him Graham gives me a bit of a nod in acknowledgement as a way of saying hello.

“Nice shirt” I say

“It’s a bit of a tribute,I guess."

“Those guys are a pack of jackasses”

“What?” Graham looks at me wide blinking eyes. He seems at in disbelief like I just walked up to him and punched him in the nose and he is trying to decide how to react.

“I was supposed to you interview those dicks today at The Only and they never showed up. I just sat around at the dive for two hours. Selfish asses.”

Graham keeps staring at me with a look of confusion. He never appeared to be such a squeegees fan but it doesn’t look like he likes any criticisms of them. He raises his cigarette to his mouth, stops and pauses like he is about to say something, changes his mind and takes a drag and then says “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Johnny Squegee is dead.”

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Ghost Tweeter

The following excerpt is from The Ghost Tweeter by Ben Shakey. It will be published by T. Dolby Press in May 2009

When Andrew became the first American to win the Osaka Cherry Blossom Haiku contest he thought it might look good on his next grant application.

He didn’t expect to be called to the home of the musician, and notorious screw up before the paparazzi cameras, named Havoc and offered employment.

The work was offered by Havoc’s assistant even though Havoc sat in the same room refusing to communicate with anything other than points of the chin and nods from his faux hawked head.

“Since you are able to express large artistic terms within small confines, Havoc would like to hire you to write his Twitter updates. We will pay you $50 an update with a minimum of 5 updates a day.

Andrew rarely received more than $15 for any poem he actually sold. He accepted that day and quit his job at the bookstore.

He never used Twitter before and he wasn’t really sure what the point was but the challenge of such a small canvas was appealing.

“Just follow Havoc around” said the assistant “and then write it up. He doesn’t have time for that shit.”

Andrew was amazed at the shit that Havoc did have time for.

Andrew began his updates.

Havoc just took another Xanax.

Havoc is watching homemade pornography with women of undetermined age.

Havoc is buying into 9/11 conspiracy theory as he tragically uninformed.

The assistant called him to a spare room.

“Is this shit supposed to be funny?” He yelled “Just write about his feelings and connect to his fans – and for fuck’s sake don’t write about illegal shit!”

Andrew never talked to Havoc before. He had no idea what feelings to write about.

He watched Havoc slumped on the sofa, mid-day, watching Scarface again. The curtains were drawn while two blondes sat on either side of him. One rubbed his shoulders after trying to achieve a contact high of fame. The other dropped a pill into his mouth like a candy.

Andrew wrote the update: “Havoc is held in cage of loneliness”

Neither the Havoc nor the assistant said anything.

After a few days it was clear that neither were reading this and Andrew felt safe writing anything.

Havoc is as empty as a dry coffee mug.

Havoc is breaking like the light returning from an eclipse.

Havoc is fading like a rained on snowman.

Soon he stopped meeting with Havoc at all. Havoc and the entourage travelled to Europe for two weeks. Andrew stayed in LA writing updates

Havoc is transcending, rising like a drowned diver’s final breathe.

“What is this shit!” yelled the assistant. He held a NY times profile in his hand with the headline “HAVOC: POET OF TWITTER”

Andrew was fired and returned to the bookstore, although they could only offer a part time position now.

A little before closing he saw a guy wearing a pork pie hat and an undershirt that cost more than any single belonging of Andrew’s. It was Havoc.

His eyes were red and he was high or had been crying or possibly both.

“I read your twitter updates” he said “How did you know that stuff about me?”

“I didn’t,” said Andrew “I wrote about myself. The personal is universal.”

Havoc nodded like he was giving Andrew some sort of approval that was never asked for.

“What the fuck’s a haiku?” asked Havoc.

Andrew thought about how to explain this. Many of the responses in his head sounded condescending so he tried to keep it straight forward.

“It’s a short Japanese poem. It only has 17 syllables so has a small space to evoke a very specific image within. It also has to have a seasonal reference. A lot of them refer to various flowers blooming to establish that.”

“That’s a lot to get across in 17 syllables.” nodded Havoc.

“You’d be surprised at what you can do.” said Andrew.

“Dude, I read your fucking haikus. I love it bro. I’ve been setting them to music. Can we cut a deal?”

“Well, I can’t imagine a song based on haiku that would be more than 17 seconds long.” explained Andrew.

“Ya, it’s the perfect length. I already have a bunch of ringtone providers signed on. It’s the first single written specifically for a ringtone.”

Andrew never applied for a grant again.
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