Charlie Russell (and the gun)

The rumor went around quickly: “Charlie’s dead.” It spread by word of mouth: guys he’d played with in various bands, an ex-girlfriend, a housemate. By this time Charles S. Russell had been gone from Rochester for about a decade. But in those years we kept hearing about his exploits: making a precarious living as a backgammon shark, running the soundboard for the Grandmothers of Invention (after Frank Zappa died), witnessing Goethe’s Faust performed by a cast of mentally retarded Germans.

What was true about Charlie? This much I’ll stand by. Of all the musicians I worked with, he was the one who I thought would make it into the Big Time. He was a great bass player. He had big bountiful hair and aplenty of optimistic ambition. He put out a 33 rpm single in 1987: “Daddy’s Gun (Handful of Nails”) on which he played all the instruments. He built, and lived for a while, an art-car named “Cinnabar Charm.” I’d coined the phrase and used it first as the title of a poem. He joined Health and Beauty (the best band I was ever part of) and contributed two pieces. The first was a totally un-ghetto rap (“My name is Charles S. Russell, I’m the King of Rock. I’ll be beating my thing around the clock.”) The second was his maniacal cover of “Daytripper.” He played Lennon’s riff perfectly, but as exactly-even eighth notes with no rests, like an autistic machine, while I bellowed at the baffled audience, “Me hungry! Me hungry!”

The last time I spoke with Charlie was in New York City. He’d told me to call next time I was in town. I got through, but he said he was three days into a game of poker with rich Israeli arms merchants and it would be very unwise to quit just then. “Maybe next time,” I said.

So when the rumor went around that Charlie was dead, I didn’t doubt. By that time, Charlie was living in the desert on an abandoned military base. No water, no power, no sewers for his trailer.

I called Sean, a drummer he’d worked with, to confirm the bad news. Though he wouldn’t tell me the cause of Charlie’s death, Sean said that Charlie really was dead. Soon, someone had the brilliant idea to call Charlie and make sure. He answered, having gotten no word of his untimely demise. It turned out it was his father’s obit (same name) that triggered our confusion and grief.

A few days later, Charlie posted a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The caption: “No, this isn’t a cry for help. And no, I’m not dead.”

So a year or two later, when news of Charlie’s death began recirculating, I said to my informant: “Yeah, right. He’s dead again.”

This time, the story was true (or at least truer.) A friend had left him sitting at a table in his trailer. When the friend returned the next day, Charlie was still sitting there, at room temperature. No gun, no obvious signs of drug abuse, no funny suicide note.

The first band Charlie had been in was called Woody Dodge. I ran into Sean, the drummer, not long after Charlie’s second death and he gave me a fakey hippie Woody Dodge T-shirt. I doubt very much Charlie would’ve liked the tie-dyed design.

I hardly ever wear it. I suppose I’m saving it for the day when I hear Charlie has died again. Third time is the charm.

Wes Kobylak (and Lulu, nude)

I made myself a White Russian (Kahlua, vodka, Splenda and cream) and there appeared before me the ghost of Vaclav Kobylak. I don’t care much for girlie mixed drinks. But I was alone, far from home, and the ingredients were there for the taking and using. Wes (as I knew him) wasn’t Russian. He was Czech. Nonetheless, this drink, his favorite, conjured him from the land of the dead. We’d met a quarter century before, in a claustrophobic academic office: six badly-paid teachers, three desks, no windows, no future. Wes read a couple of my early novels and said, with no irony, that they were “worse than obscene.” After a few semesters he moved on to a job that provided health benefits (and some modicum of dignity) and we lost all contact. One year before his heart and lungs shut down, Wes got drunk and e-mailed a dozen people from his old teaching days. “Sure. Let’s get together,” I replied, “but why does your message read like it was written by a retarded thirteen year old?” On the phone, Wes’s words were a raspy whispery remnant of his classroom voice. “You’re the only one who responded,” he said. “What’s wrong with you?” In the interim years, he’d read all my books that he could get a hold of. There is no one on the planet about whom the same thing can be said. He claimed to dislike my work, but kept returning to see what else I’d published. There was always - at least around me - an astringent bite to Wes’s words. He mocked me for not playing any sports in high school and I mocked him for playing too much football without a helmet. He insisted, when playing cards, that there always be a winner and a loser. Our last game against each other came out exactly even, so he demanded that we cut cards to see who came out on top. My queen of clubs beat his nine. Knowing there was a winner, all the way to the end, seemed to give him some sense of comfort. He lived in a studio apartment crammed with houseplants and pictures of the supernally beautiful Louise Brooks (AKA Lulu). After Hollywood and Berlin, she moved to Rochester, just a few blocks from Wes’s apartment, and took up the pen, trying to make sense of her life as a movie star. A gorgeous nude shot of Lulu hung in Wes’s bathroom. Wes once asked me about my relationship with my mother. I said, “cool.” (I didn’t mean Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk cool.) “Why?” “You’re so totally messed up,” Wes said, “but you get along so well with women.” There was a flicker of envy in the statement. I called in July of ‘15 to see if Wes wanted to play cards. Diane, his girlfriend, answered. Still in shock, she said, “Wes died three days ago.” I knew he’d been sick - toting around an oxygen tank - but Diane’s words came from nowhere, pitching me into a state of numbed vertigo. There was no funeral. Some of his friends got together at a greasy chopstick restaurant (Wes’s favorite) and told tales (mostly true) about him. A few weeks later, the nude photo of Louise Brooks arrived in my mailbox. With her hands raised and fingers extended, she’s a girlish hierophant casting a spell. She gazes down at me as I write these words: gorgeous, pale as the moon, serene in her nakedness, supremely cool.

HALLELUJAH DAGON

Well-worn musical icon of countless Christmas rites, “The Hallelujah Chorus” is Handel’s most famous piece. But he celebrated the slimy fish-god Dagon with as much verve, and far more wit. The same month that he completed Messiah (September 1741), Handel had started Samson. As he went to Dublin for Messiah’s premier, he was just finishing up his next oratorio, which begins with a chorus of crazed Philistines writhing and wailing at their pagan altar.
“Awake the trumpet’s lofty sound!
The joyful sacred festival comes round
when Dagon king of all earth is crown’d.
The solemn hymn and cheerful song:
be Dagon praised by ev’ry tongue.
In notes of triumph, notes of praise
so high great Dagon’s name we’ll raise.”

The music could be right out of “For Unto us a Child is Born.” But it’s a hymn of praise to Lovecraft’s favorite squamous deity instead of Jesus. Half man, half fish, and all eldritch, Dagon rises roaring from his deep-sea bed while the baby Jesus lies cooing sweetly in his cradle.

Samson, the dreadlocked Israelite muscleman, had made his name killing a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of dismembered donkey. But no asinine mandible could protect him from the charms of Dalila.

Like the Rastas who take him as their mightiest exemplar, Samson had joined the secret society of the Nazarites, devoting himself to slaughter and God by vowing never to drink wine or beer, touch a corpse or cut his hair. Wild sex, however, was another matter. And The Book of Judges details his various conquests and one night stands. Whores and hussies, virgins and pagan votaries feel the irresistible urge when he flexes his muscle of love. Dalila’s relationship with the throbbing hunk of Nazarite manhood is far more complex. She may fall for his bulging biceps, but when offered cold cash by Philistine kings, she turns betrayer.

With his eyes torn out, captive in their temple, Samson endures the taunts of the Philistines as they pray to their vile fish-god in a last drunken chorus:
“Great Dagon has subdued our foe
who brought their boasted hero low.
Sound out his pow’r in notes divine
praise him with mirth, high cheer and wine.”

Yes, there is a somber resolution. Samson dies as he pulls down the Philistine temple, off-stage. But like Paradise Lost, where Satan gets all the best lines, in this one, Dagon gets the best music.

Ah! Böwakawa Poussé Poussé

 Rudy Kilowatt is a love-mad healer with twenty guitars, ten thousand gleaming steel needles and a head full of Maximum Shiva Mystic Ooze.

            I see Rudy every few weeks, at his headquarters down in Livingston County. I lie on the magic bed and hear Sanskrit chants while I dream of big throbbing color blur. He tells me that “the purple ooze is coming from your crown chakra” and a minute later, he’s trying to get me to see a band he loves, “if you’ve got the sonic itch in your pants.”

            For Rudy, rock and roll and true mind-melting mysticism are manifestations of the same cosmic power. This started early for him, listening to the Monkees, the Mamas and the Papas, and the Beatles. He grew up in a small town, a few minutes bike ride from the Letchworth Gorge, New York State’s Grand Canyon.

            “When I was sixteen, I went to some teen rap sessions - that’s what they were called - at the White Church.” This was the most conservative and benighted church in a fairly conservative and benighted rural town. “It was hard core missionary evangelical baptist. And we were down in the basement.”

            The rap sessions were supposed to be open discussions, but they were more like debates, with a topic to be argued at each session. One such debate was about God’s punishing nature. Was God’s love or his desire for retribution more important?

            Rudy was on the forgiveness side, telling the rap session leader, “I have compassion for all beings because even the darkest of them, their actions have purpose. They carry a terrible weight and I can forgive them.” Then he told the group that the Jahweh of the Bible was a petty vindictive thug. So, he announced, “if that’s who runs heaven, send me to hell.”

            “There was a kid there that night who quoted chapter and verse about God smiting with boils and blood. He was sure that I’d better get myself on the narrow path or I’d get my eternal ass kicked.”

            Rudy, already deeply immersed in his own private church of Rock and Roll, told the others that love had to be God’s true nature. The Hard Core Smiting Kid of course argued that Rudy’s favorite music was “infused with the Devil. He was convinced that there was some Satanic secret ingredient in Rock and Roll. He said that my ‘All You Need Is Love’ thinking was a sick hippie panacea, and was of the Devil.”

            As a perfect example, he brought up John Lennon’s song, “Number 9 Dream,” which had been released as a single in late 1974. The chorus of the song goes “Ah! Böwakawa Poussé Poussé.” That seemingly nonsense phrase, the Kid told Rudy, was “a Haitian incantation for Voodoo.” Rudy argued back that the phrase, Lennon had said in interviews, came to him in a dream and was pure nonsense, like Little Richard’s “Womp bop a loo bop a bomp bam boom.”

            “It’s satanic. It’s from voodoo,” the Kid insisted.

            “Number 9 Dream” is beautiful, dreamy, about as far from voodoo drumming and Afro-Carib ululation as one could get. The song is drenched in a wash of strings, as though stuck in a ghost-loop groove. A slide guitar reiterates the eerie melody. The chorus - “Ah! Böwakawa Poussé Poussé” - is the secret pop cult mantra, a spell chanted millions of times, converted to microwaves and poured out around the globe. In the background, a woman’s voice whispers “John,” and then “Nahj” - the name run backward.

            On this tune, Lennon is the somnolent mind-traveler returning again and again to the dream-site. He chants about the unfolding of the “spirit dance,” drifting out and upward into the atmosphere - half awake and doubly alive.

            Almost twenty years after the teen rap session, Rudy was living in New York City, living the life of the “Bugs Bunny Brooklyn shaman, making it up as I went along.” His mystic reading and hours of meditation blossomed in the spring of ‘97.

            “I was aware of what a mantra was, aware of what Terrance McKenna called the Ur-sprach, the primal timeless language. The universe speaks to you in a language that you know - which makes you sound like you’re insane. The poetic details of your life make you seem schizoid.”

            Rudy’s ur-sprach mantra in that magic spring was “Ah! Böwakawa Poussé Poussé. Sha la la.” Knowing that the first part came to Lennon in a dream, as did the “Jai Guru Deva Om” chorus in his “Across the Universe,” gave the sounds deep-brain trans-rational power. The second phrase shows up in a hundred different rock and roll songs, but Rudy traces it back in his own personal mythology to the Beatles’ “Baby It’s You.” Al Green’s “Sha la la Means I Love You” also floats as a possible source. “The specific meaning of the mantra was this: ‘magic inspiring love and love inspiring magic.’ And it’s reversible, like the Hari Krishna chant.”

            Rudy and some friends had checked Maya Deren’s The Divine Horsemen out of the public library. This was in the pre-video days. They screened it in their basement in Williamsburg Brooklyn (“before the gentrification”), watching the voodoo rituals captured by Deren on film.

            Soon afterward, Rudy was walking down 14th street in NYC and saw the guy they called the Bead Man. He was, Rudy knew, originally from Africa, but now made his living selling trinkets on the street of NYC. He wasn’t just a huckster, but had some kind of connection back to “black ecstatic religion.”

            Stopping to buy items for a ritual he planned to perform at Strawberry Fields in Central Park, Rudy got talking to the Bead Man and mentioned his mantra. “He was stunned. He stared at me and said, ‘Where does an American white boy learn about that? How do you know those words?’ I told him they were in a pop song, played on a million radios all around the world.”

            The Bead Man was amazed. “On the radio?”

            “Yeah, John Lennon,” Rudy told him. “Number 9 Dream.”

            “That is very very powerful. Ah! Böwakawa Poussé Poussé! Very old magic.”

            Rudy is still laughing. “So the kid in the church basement was right. At least about one thing. He knew something about those words. Even if he was wrong about everything else.”

Undercover Mormon Unleashed

When a not-exactly-normal guy cooks up a fake name, buys some white shirts, shaves clean, and enters the Mormon church, what does he find?

When most people hear the word “Mormon,” they think of Utah. But the real sacred sites aren’t in the desert. It all started in the boondocks of western New York State, which was, once upon a very strange time, the hottest hotbed of wild religion in the world.

Th. Metzger has lived his whole life in Rochester, just down the road from the cradle of Mormonism. He’d seen the crazy hyper-happy pageants and heard all about the polygamy, getting your own personal planet when you die, and of course the magic underwear. Going undercover as a man on a spiritual quest, he discovers that the answers he’s been seeking for decades aren’t at all what he expects. Undercover Mormon chronicles his hilarious, revealing and bizarre search for the truth.



In an hour long conversation, I talk with writer and scholar of weird-and-wild religion, Erik Davis.
Check out the Podcast on Expanding Mind Radio show. Plenty of arcane wisdom and secret strangeness is revealed.




Knocking on Heaven's Door



The heart of Lon Chaney Jr. stopped dead on July 12, 1973. Medical students dissected him, as he’d dissected fake movie corpses a hundred times before. Lon’s lungs looked like moon rocks and his liver might’ve been a chunk of scorched iron meteorite. To this day, these organs are kept in jars as specimens of what extreme alcohol and tobacco use can do to the human body. There’s no grave to mark the final resting place of the rest of him.


That same week, Bob Dylan released “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” his lament for Lunar Lon. A more mournful top 40 hit can not be found: weary guitar, minimal bass, dirge-drum and disembodied women doing the descending “oohs.” Repetitive and obsessively simple, Dylan’s recording is barely a song. It’s more funeral chant for a mythical thug than a pop tune: the perfect - and perfectly obvious - opposite of the glam-rock, prog-rock, and Jesus-rock that flooded record stores that season.

Lon Sr. was the Man of a 1000 Faces. His son was the Man of a 1,000 Shitty Roles. After playing the Wolfman, Lon Jr. spent the last thirty years of his life in bottom-feeder schlock, sliding farther and farther down the horror flick food chain. His father still looms huge over Hollywood, with talent, ambition, power and imagination. Lon Jr. became a parody of himself: half Wolfman and half Lenny, the idiot man-boy murderer he played in Of Mice and Men. At the end, he loomed as “The Monster” at Universal studios: drinking, fighting, and helling around with his buddy, Broderick Crawford.

While Lon was dying in a hospital bed a few miles from the summer home of Richard Nixon, in San Clemente California, Dylan was in Mexico shooting Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he plays a nonentity called Alias. During the filming, Dylan recorded a slim album of soundtrack music, with one song in the voice of Billy himself.

“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is addressed his mother: “take this badge offa me. I can’t use it any more.” Powerless and nameless, Dylan begs, “Ma, put my guns in the ground. I can’t shoot them any more.”

The Wolfman is the damned son, who returns to the ancestral home to become his destiny: controlled by occult forces beyond his knowledge. The moon is the eternal female: linked to the ebb and flow of fertility, menstrual blood-rhythms. The Wolfman is hyper-male but still a slave to the mother goddess. He’s the son trapped in the mother’s lunar power, howling at the womb: brilliant birth-orb and doorway to the next world.

The Moon-Birth-Mother hears his prayer and gives no answer. The Sky-Death-Father hears and denies. Lon-Billy-Dylan is not merely fighting the Oedipal battle for sexual ownership of the mother, but for access to the moon, which is the doorway to the sky, to the realm of the ancestors.

The crucial cinematic moment shows Billy on his knees, with an old man holding a shotgun to his chest. This isn’t Sheriff Pat Garrett, though, but a Bible-spouting deputy who keeps goading Billy to get ready for the next world. Billy’s in jail, chained to the floor. The religion-mad deputy quotes Ecclesiastes: “there’s a time to live and a time to die.” The old man says he’s got a shotgun filled with silver dimes - the metal of the moon, the only thing that can kill the werewolf. After refusing to pray, Billy overpowers the old man and breaks from jail. With the load of magic shrapnel, Billy blasts him into the next world.

“Behold,” Bob Dylan intones, “it’s getting dark, too dark to see.”

“Behold,” Jesus proclaims in the Book of Revelation, “I stand at the door and knock. and whosoever hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and enter him.”

Death is the door and guns are the key - guns, cigarettes and hard liquor. The moon is the door in the sky - a hole in heaven. The son knocks. On the other side of the door is the old man: God the Father, the Phantom of the Opera, Pat Garrett. The old man with the badge and a shotgun, the Lawman, the father who opens and demands the son’s death as payment for sin.

And Dylan sings, “that long black cloud is coming on down.”