I’m on the bus home, watching closely as a hulking nondescript cradles an oversized black hardcover book
in his arms. Its paper edges show a spattering of some kind. I am always curious about people with books,
and I wait patiently for him to open it. He is a large man wearing larger clothes: black drooping synthetic
pants; a bulky maroon overcoat; a yellow knit cap pulled down low on his forehead, the words "TUBORG
GOLD" inlaid in burgundy around its rim. He shifts in his seat and opens, showing the backs of pages
speckled with light blue, the pattern from a robin’s egg spread across the dull white paper. I can see
the vague impressions of dark dense drawings showing through from the other side.
He looks slightly lost in the world, yanking on the waistband of his trousers as he stands to exit at
the same corner that I do. I slow and follow him, first across the street, then into a convenience store,
then out again. I cross the street again behind him, then sidle up as we hit the sidewalk, deciding to gather
from him whatever I can.
"Do you ever show anyone your art?" I ask him. He is instantly smiling and offering me the book, saying
"Eyeah, all the time," in the voice of The Rain Man. "Eyeah," as I begin walking backwards into the snow
to protect the contents, marveling at what I find. Each new page reveals the tangled threads of a very
particular vision, all focused on a small central image inked in black, surrounded by tiny patterns and
repeated figures that mutate as they move outward. Each with his scrawled signature: Frank Novel.
"How do you do it?" I ask him, between my exclamations. He is a beautiful child in a large man’s body,
and I am asking him to articulate something that is at root unsayable.
"I do it at art class or... a restaurant... or bars. I have something to drink, and then I do that."
"How long does it take you to do something like that with all those lines in it?
"Eyeah, just an hour..."
"Does it make you feel good to do it?"
"Eyeah. Sumthin’ to do y’know."
Something to do you know. There it is, the creative urge pared down and cored, leaving nothing
but a few seeds and a bit of stem. Something to do. Frank Novel tosses aside centuries of critical thinking
and analysis and developments in our search for a way to talk about wordless expression.
"I got fifty other books like that!" he tells me, astonishing me, revealing to me that he is compelled.
As we walk on he points to his destination, an art school in a low building across the street.
"He teaches me something," says Frank Novel, teaching me something.
And I, with all of my book knowledge and my life-long pursuit of the creative impulse, envy him
his uncomplicated and unhindered view of the creativity that comes pouring out of him, wondering
how I have come to my version of "something to do."
Amazingly, his drawings reminded me of my own, and especially of the way that I began to draw
after I had become sick of the way I drew. I pursued perfect renderings in my youth, but as I grew
and acquired a more complex take on the world, I began to feel that my drawings were only dealing
with one side of an extremely valuable coin. They did not accommodate or account for the chaos,
and so felt incomplete and false to me–a kind of wishful tinkering. What I wanted, regardless
of the medium I was working in, was a more accurate reflection of the place in which I created.
A picture, or text, or musical pattern that, while being ordered by my experience, my technique,
and my emotional response to the world and all of the incredible things it was revealing to me,
woul also contain a share of its madness, too. This is how I came to Motherwell, Duchamp, and Barron
in the visual arts; to Faulkner, Nabokov, and Beckett in literature; and to Ornette Coleman, Anthony
Braxton, and Cecil Taylor in the realm of music.
My Version of Something to Do
Where do I go, what do I say, when words are required? To hell in a hand-basket... To imperfect
and inadequate terms; words that hit the wall and fall with a dull and
disappointing thud to the floor. I look to Frank Novel and his total lack of the means or a need to
try and lay out with words an idea-trussed architecture that might support and illuminate even a fraction
of what is revealable. And yet I do have the need. I do have the means.
I also have the knowledge that the exercise and its perceived goals are only attainable in small and
sporadic increments that, when gathered together and inspected, appear as a humiliatingly sparse
and nearly unnoticeable trail of crumbs. I imagine all of the lost and unlucky searchers, scrabbling
through the dry underbrush, as good as blind and having no idea which way I’ve gone.
Crumb / 1989: Record Review excerpt–Chet Baker’s Let’s Get Lost
"...Now on a cramped low stage in a stranger’s heaven
backed by the soft brush
of piano, drums, and bass
his lover’s voice
his father’s voice
his gentle man’s voice
Lips pursed he hands us his heart
(Pulsing) on polished brass..."
What am I doing here? Trying for a mood, the kind that puts the reader into the place where
It happened, where this kind of thing happened. Late night, a dark venue, the music quiet,
slow, and beautiful. Groups of alluding rhythms: the first line a melodic phrase; the second
and third a developing syncopation; the next three a hushed triplet to define the tone; and then
another full melodic phrase– with a pause for a parenthetical reminder of the rhythm and then
the phrase’s tag–all aiming to recreate the essence of the subject’s performance.
Crumb / 1995: Description of Another World–Nine Inch Nails’ Downward Spiral
"...it is dense and enthralling and it sounds like everything—and honest to God in places it reminds
me of Material; Talking Heads/Eno; Sinatra's Only the Lonely; Public Enemy; William Gibson;
early Pink Floyd on really aggressive acid; Sankai Juku trembling and chalk-covered; The Beatles;
Rutger Hauer soaking wet pushing a spike through his hand; Bela Lugosi; both incarnations of
King Crimson 23 miles away from a college FM station whose range is 3 blocks tops; Hendrix on fire;
the Alien flicking its tongue into Sigourney's ear; the torture chambers of the world heard through
a mile-thick wall of cotton; thrash beyond; white noise heaven; the spheres; Koyaanisqatsi;
my childhood swing-set after a particularly hard rain; The Carpenters' world moments before
Karen's last breath; Harry Partch; the Industrial Revolution..."
What am I doing here? Trying for an extreme opposite of mood–a layering of aggression,
complexity, and variety of sound-scape that hopes to mimic with imagery what the music does
with density of sound. A cybernetic apocalypse piled high with distortion and hints of underlying
beauty, all adding up to a completely subjective take on something that is explicable in part only
to someone with similar listening experiences. Taken out of context it appears to be nothing more
than a jumbled list. What is Sankai Juku and its Butoh extremism doing in the same sentence
with a ballad-filled Sinatra saloon album? How is it that the music of "the spheres" could be
juxtaposed alongside a ghastly and private scene involving The Carpenters? And yet, in reference
to the post-modern aural layering of Nine Inch Nails, where a vast array of dissonant elements are
woven together to form a cohesive whole, it can all make a perfect and communicable sense.
Crumb / 2000: An imagined impossible last gift at her last moment–
(Handing the Music of Cecil Taylor to my Grandmother)
"...I got Cecil Taylor and The Unit way up in the cloud doing the truly religious music,
the kind's got no time for simplistic fairy-tales and neatly boxed stories.
I want Aquinas and "all my words are as straw"
I want the Upanishads and "that from which words turn back"
I want the Unnameable the Unknowable the face that cannot be seen
I want deep diving into essence
and the horrifying ordered chaos of the serious world outside
where everything is miraculous
but has nothing to do with petty wished-for miracles.
In this scenario the foam cups go flush around her ears and she is suddenly transported to a place
more complex and layered than she has ever known,
a soundtrack for an approaching storm in infinite-frame stereo,
the voices like reeds like voices like reeds like voices like reeds
the Whole swarming out in front of her the All appearing undeniable and crystalline
chorusing out across her fading horizons and she is HEARING it music of the spheres
and catching it catching the beauty the shimmering beauty the depths of it.
All this as her light trembles and her filament quietly snaps to dust
and she goes out and out and ever outward...."
And what I am doing here is impossible. There is no trick, or plan, or method. There is only
the torrential flow of emotion pouring out of my desperate head. That I am able to do this at all
is nearly unbelievable to me–how I do it is entirely out of my reach, and always has been. When I read it,
it overwhelms me, because it is as if someone else had done it and because it is beautiful and because
there is no accounting for it and because it fills me with anguish that it is not accessible to me as a mode
of continuous BEING. That it goes as quickly as it had come. As if it were not really mine.
Why do I instantly fall back to me?
Why is the expression limited to these rare moments?
Why is the rest so difficult?
So many levels. From Frank Novel’s unknowing innocence at one end, to my channeling mad
linguistic spirits at the other.
Eyeah. Something to do, you know. That if not done...
Chet piece from "Poetic Wax", a record review column I did in the late ’80s.
NIN bit from my Baseball & the 10,000 Things, Vol. 1 no. 4, 1995
Seizures... from my LUCILLE, A Reverential Journal of the Care of the Beloved Hag, Month 2 / February-March, 2000
All material © Rick Lopez 2006