MONUMENTS AND RUINS

I begin this story in the deep state of insanity, God knows where it will end. It is your fault as much as mine, that it has happened. For, you see, I was the one who came knocking all those nights you chose not to answer the door. But I have waited, without thanks or encouragement. Good things come to those who wait, my mother once told me. So here I sat, in this darkness, waiting for you to acknowledge me.

You didn’t kill me with your slings and arrows. Or your bullets and blades. No. You were crueler. You ignored me to death. I couldn’t find it in myself to forgive you. For you knew what you did. I bled in pain and, finally exhausted from hanging on too long, I suffocated.

I was taken down from my cross by the few who loved me, wrapped in cloth, and buried behind a rock to make sure I didn’t keep coming back like Judy Garland.

But I did. Many didn’t recognise me as I stepped into the spotlight on the stage of Carnegie Hall. But there I was. Transformed. In living colour. “At the top of his game,” wrote one critic, a friend of the producer. “He’s a laughter machine,” wrote another. “What the Fuck?” was the headline of the New York Times. That last review killed me. Again.

I wasn’t used to the warmth of the spotlight so my face hurt from smiling. My hand hurt from shaking others. My back from being slapped by strangers. And stabbed by a few friends. The crazier I became, the louder they laughed. My jokes were all at my expense, hence my well-publicised bankruptcy. I had no idea where I was going, so that became my plan. It has been emulated by many since, and they’ve all ended up in the toilet. Some of us have been in the toilet so long, people are talking.

Your love only gave me cancer. You kept begging me for closure, but you were really nagging me to death. I see it all now. For in death, we all become safe, don’t we? And then others are free to rewrite their memories so they can live with them. And you become enjoyable dinner party chat (gossip that, now you’re dead, becomes safe enough to become fact), to sophisticated listeners on their own way to the big fade-out.

I have kept on living just to spite you. You stole the joy from my life so that I could be as miserable as you. You paid me back for having friends. For having a future. For having a past. For having a positive attitude. For having bothered to put up with you.

I knew that by falling in love with you I’d be destroyed, so I only have myself to blame on that count.

You have more in common with those you detest than you realise.

The years I spent with you weren’t wasted as I learnt more money needs to be spent on mental health.

I’ve been on the streets and caught its madness. Even the traffic lights are wrong. Yesterday the TV lied to me. The toaster has the shits about something. The bathroom has turned right wing. And the refrigerator no longer engages in late-night conversations about literature.

I loitered on the corners of Dream and Nightmare, where I died waiting for a handout. A leg up. A racing tip. A sporting result. A kind word. A smile. A passing ex-wife. Anything.

“Live The Life You’ve Dreamed” was a framed quote on the wall of the local drug dealer.

I have found Life to be quite addictive. Like an Agatha Christie mystery, you keep wondering what’s next.

I can’t afford to travel as much as I used to, so I spend my days going up and down in the elevators of tall buildings. Besides, it does you no good to get away I’ve discovered. Jesus knew that.

I can’t go home any more because too many strangers are living there. And I’ve been away so long nobody remembers me.

I spend most of my days gathering food for the homeless. I call it lunch.

We know what got into Chet Baker’s arm, but what got into his head? Have you noticed that nobody seems to care about the important stuff once they have their headline?

Where is that black girl who showed me that Life was meaningless? She said the less you cared, the more luck you got. I have some questions for her. But I think I may have lost her by confessing that I loved her.

My father always told me that if Hitler had been able to get out of bed each day before noon, he’d have won the war. I’ve not been quite sure what I was supposed to have deducted from that advice. So, subsequently I’ve forced myself to be an early riser for fear of becoming a lazy fascist.

My dear ol’ dad took things to extremes, and no matter what time of the day or night I got out of bed, my father was always awake. I suspect he feared that if he slept in it could lead to him invading Poland. A terrible burden for a man to carry to his early grave. But so you have it. That’s all I was left with.

But what do I know?

It came as quite a shock to me when I was asked to write a book and share my wisdom with the world. I was also somewhat confused when I delivered the finished manuscript to my publisher and he laughed out loud at all the places I’d cried whilst writing it. When I inquired as to why this was, he laughed so hard he fell off his chair and shrieked, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright!” And collapsed in hysterics again on his expensive carpet. I had to step over him to get to the door.

Later that day I returned to his offices to pick up my hat (I’d left it behind), and was told that a board meeting was in progress discussing my book and it’d been going for hours and I couldn’t interrupt it. I listened at the door and heard many people squealing with laughter, and gasping for breath.

I cried all the way home.

But no one noticed me. Anyway, I see nothing in the eyes of strangers I pass on the street. Nothing. Just an abyss that goes so deep you can’t scramble back from it. I have found myself on occasion, falling. But then, I always lost me again. So I’ve kept falling over and over and over in search of something familiar. In the end, the falling became my life.

I was shunned by everybody and then told to make my own way. I wasn’t in the club. I hadn’t gone to the right schools. My parents were poor. I’d read about universities but didn’t know where they were. This was in the dim dark days before Google Maps. When the Labour Party believed in who they were. And so did we. Everything I learnt I achieved by doing, and not from some academic book. So, I became the eternal outsider. Always looking in on others easy-come good times. Watching them through the window as they munched on expensive Government funded  finger-food and sipping vintage French Champagne. Some of the organisers saw me standing outside in the rain, looking in, and felt sorry for me. They said I could come in if I promised to dry off and only have a cup of tea with the kitchen staff.  But such treatment only made me stronger. And hungrier. So I developed the necessary resistance to haunt them. Eventually they thought they should give me an award as my alienation was becoming obvious. So, they gave me an award nobody had ever heard of but it had my name on it. It lasted a few years before it fell apart. Beating me by a few months. But while I was somewhat together, it got me a few easy lays and a social disease. And, for a time, it felt good to be noticed. It reminded me that I was alive.

It’s best summed up in the words of Ballsack who once said, “There is something out there that stems from something that makes no sense whatsoever to anything other than the something you may attach meaning to.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

I do sometimes remember to look around at the exquisite beauty of nature and am filled with humbling wonderment as well as contrasting anger at man’s obsession with destroying anything he hasn’t had a hand in. Such is our envy. Such is our insecurity. Such is our shortsightedness. Such is our spiteful will to bring about our own destruction. Although, in those last despairing moments of our self-inflicted demise we will cry and whimper like the true cowards we are. And shake our fists at our mothers for bringing creation to us and thus sentencing us to death.

Exist-tense, if we stick with it, rewards us with a present. A gift, if you will. But that can only be fully appreciated if we turn our backs on the past because what happened then was just a series of presents that we initially devalued but either gained from or lost our minds over, and here we are. At the crossroads, going forward or being pulled back into the abyss of “What if?” or “Why?”

People with rooms to spare won’t take in a friend who is homeless. Why not? Because they’re afraid you won’t leave. They don’t mind killing you as long as you don’t die on their premises. And once you do depart this life, there are so many stories they can twist to elevate themselves.

I recently saw workers erecting a monument to someone. It wasn’t finished yet so I couldn’t define who the subject was. But the shoes looked a lot like mine. I wondered whether this monument was a tribute to me and my life. A life in which everything I had ever loved I’d reduced to ruins.

 

(c) Frank Howson 2019

 

UNEASY RIDER

“All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be…”   The Ballad of Easy Rider.

I was recently saddened to wake to the news that Peter Fonda had died. At my age it has become a regular occurrence, almost daily, to hear about a dear friend, acquaintance, associate, or a boyhood hero checking out of this world.

When I lived in Los Angeles for nine years I was very fortunate to have met a large number of actors, musicians and directors that’d inspired me during my formative years. Some of them became friends, others I’d see around here or there and we’d give a nod and a smile. They were mostly nice people dealing with their own pressures, families, problems and all those things we too juggle. Just on a much bigger scale. The few I encountered that were mean or monsters were the pretenders. The ones who’d seized a spotlight or some power through bluff, marketing or manipulation.

The bigger the talent, the nicer the person is what I found. Mostly.

Which brings me back to Peter Fonda. I only met him once. It was in one of my favourite books stores, Book Soup, on Sunset Boulevard, and I was browsing the latest releases when Peter came in with some people and they began setting up a table for him to do some book signings for his autobiography, “Don’t Tell Dad.” The title referring to his father, the legendary actor Henry Fonda, who was described by his children as being strict, uncommunicative, and unaffectionate. He never told them, ever, that he loved them. One of those closed men from an era when it was deemed unmanly to show your feelings. Perhaps this explains why both Peter and his sister Jane became rebels. Pushing the boundaries, striving to achieve and seeking approval from others. Running wild in Hollywood.

Peter had nothing in common with his father other than looks. I chatted with him that day and he was a genuinely nice, kind, loving individual. Before the crowd arrived he even signed a complimentary copy of his book for me. He was a hippie, spiritually, until the end.

Carving out a film career had been difficult for Peter. When he started out he had to stand in the very large overpowering shadow of his father. Remembered not for his work, but for being Henry Fonda’s son. Then later, he would be referred to as Jane Fonda’s brother. It must’ve been a creatively lonely and humbling existence for him. In fact, in most of his early films he looks stilted and uncomfortable, devoid of any identity of his own.  If the trick to great acting is total relaxation, he was a long way from it.

Not making much of an impression in movies such as “Tammy and the Doctor” “The Young Lovers” and other forgettable fluffy fare, the offers dried up as he sat on the sidelines watching his father continue to shine in major movies, and his sisterJane soar in one film after another. It must’ve hurt Peter to have been thought of as the “loser” of the family, but perhaps those forces also shaped him as the gentle, unassuming, empathetic, kind man he became. He knew, in his own way, what it was like to suffer. To be ignored. Or dismissed.

Like many outsiders of the big slick Hollywood machine, Peter stumbled into the conveyor-belt Roger Corman “B” grade movie productions churned out for drive-in market. These exploitation films had budgets less than what real movies spent on catering. Some of them were shot in two days! And those that worked on them, usually had two or more jobs to perform. But Peter joined an illustrious company of other young, eager outsiders who couldn’t get a break in mainstream movies either. People like Jack Nicholson, Francis Coppola, Robert DeNiro, Bruce Dern, etc.

The brilliant thing about the Corman movies was that you learnt on the job, from experience, seeing yourself on the big screen and seeing what worked and what didn’t. You can now observe in these mostly crappy movies how Fonda and Nicholson go from stilted, self-conscious actors to guys who  become so comfortable in front of a camera, their true self shines through and magic is born. We see this in Fonda’s performances in “The Wild Angels,” and the LSD fuelled “The Trip.”

And so it was, with a small budget film called “Easy Rider” (directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Peter, who also co-wrote the script and co-produced it) that Peter Fonda became a huge international star in his own right, and a cultural icon to a whole generation of baby boomers. His character Captain America oozed quiet confidence and the cool factor in abundance. The way he moved, how he dressed, the manner in which he spoke, had us boys all trying to emulate him. He became our martyred hero who, like us, was so lost, confused and despairing about the world, that we dropped out of the ranks of what was expected of us.

One of the last lines his character utters in the film, just before his date with destiny is, “We blew it.” He doesn’t elaborate. It is a beautiful, sad, famously enigmatic line that in a way is a eulogy to a lost generation.

Although Peter went on and starred in many movies and won Golden Globe awards and nominations for Oscars, it is his character in “Easy Rider” that still haunts us. That cool, disenchanted, silent-type loner, searching for the meaning of life on the coolest looking motorcycle we ever saw.

The advertising by-line to the movie “Two men went looking for America, and couldn’t find it anywhere,” best sums it up.

Peter screened the final cut of the movie to Bob Dylan hoping that the famous troubadour would give permission for his recordings to be used for the movie’s soundtrack. But Dylan was so angered by the movie’s tragic ending, he said he’d only give his songs to the movie if the final scene was reshot and the bikers won. But Peter explained that the two leading characters had to be martyred. That’s what happened at that time, at that place, in America. Young people couldn’t beat the system.

So Bob took a piece of paper and scribbled these lines on it, “The river flows to the sea. Wherever that river flows that’s where I want to be. Flow river flow, let your waters wash down, take me from this road, to some other town…” He handed it to Peter and said, “Give it to Roger McGuinn to finish. He’ll know what to do with it.”

And do he did. Roger added the lines, “All they wanted was to be free, and that’s the way it turned out to be.” And “The Ballad of Easy Rider” was born. Dylan declined a credit as he’d given the lyrics to Peter, and the film, as a gift.

Peter Fonda was born to be wild. He is now free from the chains and restrictions of this earthly world. Free to ride the wind. To be a part of that beautiful dawn. To be as still and wise as the trees. And to flow with that river to the sea.

Farewell, dear Peter. Take it easy.

(C) Frank Howson 2019

A JOYFUL WOMAN

We tried to live a simple life in a complex world. Surrounded by all the dangers, temptations, frustrations and good intentions gone south. We had a simple love, in that sweet naive time before the reptilians took over and the war designed to have no end began. 

All I knew was that I loved you, and you loved me. Nothing much else mattered. And if the world we knew came to an end, I’d love you in the next too. 

Your beautiful face and inner joy were the only drugs I needed to keep going.  You made me smile. You made me dance. You made me hope for more when I’d given up hoping. 

Each day we’d plow the fields, sowing for the harvest that would keep us full during the winter months. 

Life was good and the people we knew were fun. Until they weren’t anymore. But they weren’t as lucky as us and life made them bitter. 

Sometimes I’d whisper your name in a reverential prayer when my road narrowed and  the nights became too dark to see ahead. 

 Some people became envious of our joy and sought to steal it, foolishly thinking they could replicate the recipe, but they burnt the base. 

They burnt us too. 

These days I don’t punish myself by thinking of love, and have accepted my life of solitude. Sometimes we have to sacrifice joy to obtain wisdom. Sometimes I long to be a happy fool again. For there is a penalty in knowing too much. 

My wisdom has told me that angels must leave. They weren’t meant to be chained to this mortal earth, or to us flawed humans. And so, it is as it should be. Fly on, my darling, fly on. It was all my fault, dreaming that I could keep you. 

But perhaps our time will come. Again. And I’ll not awaken my wisdom, and instead, pretend I don’t know the ending. 

And so on. And so on. 

 

(C) Frank Howson 2019

 

 

THIS GREY PLACE

I died a week ago
About the time you left me
But no one has seemed to notice
I’ve been haunting some familiar bars
Speaking to strangers without getting an answer
I guess they’re dead too
There’s a lot of this going around
I think it’s called Limbo
The waiting room
Before we can move on
I’ve heard we are stuck here
Until we can make sense of it all
The room of the lost
I guess heaven is reserved for the winners
So that won’t be such a change
From what I’m used to
I don’t know what I did
Or didn’t do
To lose you
I hope I work it out soon
Because I can’t move on
You see?
Without some closure
Me, the one who vowed to love you
Forever
May be here a very long time
In this place where nothing grows
But remorse
This grey place
I kept my vow to you
Didn’t I?
And now there’s all hell to pay
What room are you in?

(C) Frank Howson

Photograph by Frank Howson.

THE BRIGHTEST LIGHT

Where do you find someone
Who’ll give you their heart?
And won’t take it back
Just to tear you apart
Someone who is
Everything she seems
A dream you wake to
When you wake from dreams
I’ve been searching so long
And learned to live alone
You kinda park your life
In a holding zone
But I believe one day
If you keep on giving
You’ll stumble in the dark
And find your reason for living
For it’s a contradiction
That in the darkest night
We see in the faraway distance
The brightest light

(G) Frank Howson

WHERE, IN THE WORLD

We live in a world where voicing the truth can have you socially banished.
Where children from the time they can walk are taught to not trust grownups. Then we grow up to not trust anybody.
Where Satanists teach the word of God.
Where marriage is for a few years at best and then you have the house to yourself.
Where an allegation can end your career.
Where originality will get you remembered after you die of hunger.
Where friendship is seen as an “investment”.
Where it’s okay to lie about everything and invent your own realty. This was once called “delusional” but now it’s called “faking it till you make it”. Make what?
Where giants are brought down by dwarves.
Where the mainstream media no longer has any credibility.
Where music is disposable and no one cares who wrote it, produced it or played on it.
Where the majority of movies are based on comic books.
Where integrity is seen as old fashioned.
Where you can steal someone else’s idea and not only call it good business but be able to look at yourself in the mirror without flinching.
Where to win at any cost is admirable.
Where a text message may offend unless you post LOL after it.
Where we know everything about ourselves and zip about others.
Where justice is not blind it is biased.
Where if your political candidate loses you must hate, riot, rally and unsettle things so that the winner can’t do their job. In the old days this was called being a sore loser after the majority of the people (which is democracy) have spoken.
Where our heroes are edited out of history because they were flawed in some way that doesn’t sit comfy with our current PC beliefs. Even Jesus lost his temper and took to moneylenders with a whip. Proving nothing other than he was human.
Where wars are invented for profits or to take the heat and attention off homeland scandals.
Where the past is never learned from because it is not respected.
Where people gleefully buy the lies that will bring about their own demise.
Politicians reach out to the poor in their election campaigns but cynically know they won’t resolve their situation as to do so would lose them their voter base. Keep the needy needing.
Where TV reality shows teach the young that if you lie, deceive, backstab, and play everyone against each other, you will win.
Where people fear the existence of a God because they fear being judged.
Where sex is mistaken for intimacy.

(C) Frank Howson. 2019

THE FINAL STAGE – Adrian Rawlins review of what he called “My lost masterpiece”.

It started out like a normal day for the man of the house. He had breakfast with his wife. She was no warmer or cooler towards him than she had been for a long time. He read the morning paper, donned coat, picked up his briefcase and left for the office.

She reminded him that there was no office anymore. He had to acknowledge that all that is now part of “the past”. Putting aside momentary chagrin at the loss of anticipated freedom he feels safe. There will be no more journeys into the outside world.

He and his wife relapse into a conversational sortie we know they have ventured into often before, their discourse, though completely Australian, throws up the cliches and truisms of everybody wisdom and in almost Pinteresque way introduces echoes of Oscar Wilde’s sublime parable “The Happy Prince”.

A telephone rings but nobody answers. It has no dial – like the clock face in Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”

There is an unexpected knock at the door and a man with failure written all over him seeks admission. He has about him the air of a failed vaudevillian/cabaret performer. Like T. S. Eliot’s narrator he has seen the moment of his greatness flicker…but…”I am not Prince Hamlet…”

The dialogue is cryptic, enigmatic, redolent with oblique references to poems, books and cultural assumptions, skirting banality while continuing the Pinteresque reference to the daily metaphors which have been the cliches while still retaining their nugget of “the truth” and providing many moments of genuine “comedie noir”.

Another visitor bursts in, this time no stranger. Stinky Radford is an actor, lover, a forceful extrovert character, beloved by both Man and Wife. Asked about his life, he bravely lies while we see that he too is not Prince Hamlet, nor was he meant to be.

While the husband muses upon the remembrance of the past, Stinky makes love to his wife, who was once his wife too. Then, girding up his loins, he leaves to…try again?…to solve the riddle?…face the music?

By the time the audience have accepted the essentially metaphoric nature of this work of cinema: the room is none other than the stage on which Sophocles presented his vast and mighty tragedies, or Aristophanes his satires: the same stage which Shakespeare saw as emblematic of the world, “on which stars in secret influence comment”.

Another visitor – a youth, streetfighter, violent, working-class poet and thug – shades of Jean Cocteau here – bursts in and now we are given our first inkling of the exact nature of the metaphor we have been watching. Despite his bravado and overt displays of machismo, he is terrified by the wife’s advances. We are justified at this point feeling that perhaps all of the male characters are aspects of the husband’s psyche and that we are witnessing a revelation of Everyman/Everywoman in a decidedly contemporary encapsulation.

The wife reminisces volubly about a lover, a lawyer with an earring in one ear.

Stinky Radford returns, having failed to discover anything. The streetkid wants to go back but Stinky assured him “there’s nothing out there”.

The husband has already asserted “we are kindred spirits,” and “this is the room of the lost”.

Finally, Music and Light and mysterious opening of a door heralds the moment when Man and Wife must Face the Music in an upper room (the Upper Room?). He is the Happy Prince, denuded now of all his finery, and she, the Swallow who will not leave him. They are translated into Light.

Immediately they are gone, another figure bursts through the front door, demanding explication. He is obviously the Lawyer who has been the wife’s lover, and in the manner of lawyers he threatens to sue everyone until “you’ll wish you were dead!”.

As his three auditors laugh and laugh we now know exactly where we are and the form of the film, which has been hovering at the corner of our consciousness now snaps into place – and everything makes sense.

“The Final Stage” is, at its deepest level a work of art covering in an original and ground-breaking way the same philosophic and metaphorical terrain covered by Jean Paul Sartre in “No Exit”. It is also a funny, sad, poignant, piquant, witty and disturbing story which amuses us while it reminds us of the – dare we say? – eternal verities of Life and Death.

Because of the way “the story” unfolds – similarly to the creative method employed by Peter Carey in his best short stories – the film is decidedly out of the ordinary – its unusualness and the charm and variety of the performances, induce us willingly to suspend our disbelief. Those viewers familiar with poetry, the theatre, and great literature will find echoes of those other forms and discovery of such connections gives the film’s delightful tension. Theatre-goers, one hopes, will appreciate more fully the slightly theatrical edge to the dialogue. But everyone should be able to see that “The Final Stage” makes a significant, even historical contribution to our understanding of film form in the deepest sense.

– Adrian Rawlins
Critic &. Poet
1994

Review written for Farrago.

Produced, Written & Directed by Frank Howson starring Adrian Wright, Abigail, Tommy Dysart, Michael Lake, Zachary McKay & Tiriel Mora.

photograph by Luzio Grossi.