It was in the months before the first lockdown that I finally embraced the unreality from which I had long suffered. I accepted my ghost-like identity and stopped worrying about how I drifted through the days, dispensing with dialogue and communicating instead by sharing books and art with others, usually through the mail, but sometimes online. One by one I pulled in my remaining outward facing activities and spent my afternoons at the “office” space I rented at the club down the street, where I got on the house tables and DJ’d immaculate aural collages for the empty dance floor and darkened mirrors. For years I’d gone out under a bunch of different names, usually while wearing a mask, and played sets at a variety of spots, but in 2019, I started moving my stuff over to streaming platforms, and received a monthly revenue check for my cleverly tagged and easy to make droned out “music to study to” and “nostalgia for things that never existed” mall-wave mixes. DJing used to be perfect because it let me be at a party and remain apart from the crowd, but as time went on my focus had switched to finding the place where a sweet beat or a sampled riff becomes unbearable when played on repeat.
“It’s a live exploration of how pleasure inevitably turns into pain,” I told Swim, who stood transfixed off to the side of the emptied floor while I played the line, “The hero would be me, but heroes often fail,” from the Gordon Lightfoot tender jam, “If You Could Read My Mind”, 40, maybe 50 times in a row like a badly broken record. They smoked and smiled and gave me a wink as the crowd turned on me.
“Either you were born too late, or born too soon,” I remember the kind-faced boss at my oldest running weekly gig saying with a sigh as I stared at the reflection of what I thought was the full moon in a puddle on the sidewalk. I was captivated by the pure white in the filthy, trembling water—I’d never seen it so perfect and bright. When he was done talking, I turned around to behold the actual moon, only to find it was hidden somewhere among the long black smudges of the old manufacturing buildings. What was it that I’d seen? I was so freaked out I stabbed my foot into the puddle and turned and walked away as fast as I could to the subway, and it wasn’t until I was almost home that I realized I’d been fired.
Those pre-pandemic months at the empty club gave me the space to experiment without pissing anyone off. Everyone should have such a time. I drifted around in my handmade hoodie made of sewn together, thrifted black heavy metal T-shirts, singing and smudging the vibes with sage. I could be loud or quiet. I could pray or nap. In the evenings when the dancers arrived, they let me stand behind them and watch as they went through the serious business of putting on their wigs and make-up. They seemed like next level humans. They had lean, muscular bodies that in a short while would be hanging upside down from aerial silks or grinding away at visible and invisible lovers inside a metal cage. There was a thereness to them that was missing from my own translucent skin—they radiated a sexual energy as they leaned forward to inspect themselves in the mirror with their heads held high. I practiced doing the same, but it wasn’t easy for me to pull off, coming across instead as “Nervous Goth White”. Sometimes they gave me “transformations”, using their powders and pens to turn me from one imaginary person into another, something I’d already been doing under the surface. They laughed while I simultaneously recoiled and melted under their touch. Then I went home and spent the night adding and deleting from the never-ending labyrinth of my W.I.P., my dream-fractal-glimpse into the larger story of it all. I created soundtracks and scratched out drawings for the written texts I tapped out in various flow states, lost in the hypnotic perfume emanating from the drying herbs and flowers that hung from my doorways and overwhelmed by the feeling that something was coming, something dark was emerging from the streets and from my pores that I wouldn’t be able to stop.
(Tap, tap, tap, like the branch of the Callery Pear tree on Swim’s old window. Tap, tap, tap: a reminder from another, ancient way of being, a fist around my heart closing in from the new/old world.)
Tap, tap, tap
When the pandemic hit, I wondered crazily if it was the culmination of my own retreat, the official end of going outside. Is all this happening because of me, I was insane enough to ask. This is the danger of being alone too long—one loses oneself in the sweet spot of self-obsessions that are the opposite of living a meaningful life, let alone of making meaningful art. So, in March of 2020 when an edgy and scared Swim asked to hang at my place, I said yes.
(I didn’t yet fully understand my problem or that having them over every day was the solution, but in retrospect it’s clear)
They were having anxiety attacks, and I was having delusions of grandeur: I was a reminder of their inbuilt superhero nature, and they were a reminder of my humanity.
They came to me at this time for an important reason, I reminded myself months later, as I watched them picking out and putting back the biggest blue tortilla chips from the bowl before pouring more into it a few minutes later.
Another thing that came to me was this book, Deus Irae, a second or maybe third-rate PKD novel co-authored by Roger Zelazny. I was led to it by my solstice dream, which compelled me to investigate PKD collaborations with the hunch that there was something unfinished about them—something I was meant to help with--a task I needed to take up that would do nothing short of giving meaning to my existence. 8 months later and I can still feel the dry texture and slight yet significant weight of the scroll that the aged Philip K. Dick gave me, his white beard adorned head nodding slightly as I took it.
I found and ordered a vintage first edition copy online and started Deus Irae in January and now, months later, I’m finally near the end.
“How can it take you so long to read a book you believe is going to change your life?” Swim asked me recently, amazed at my snail’s pace.
“Because I know it’s going to change my life,” I said, laughing. “Duhhhh.”
From a basic critical level, it isn’t a good book. The plot is at once meandering and chopped up, the characters aren’t given enough depth, but that doesn’t stop them from spouting philosophical and theological ideas that are clearly those of the authors. The book is a battle between so-called good (the Christian belief in a benevolent and loving God) and evil, the post apocalyptical religion of worshipping the God of Wrath, based in the belief that a Job-like suffering is the only real truth of existence. There ARE some dope moments—The Great C and some of the mutant inhabitants of the busted Earth are classic Dick—but overall I was reminded of the old Gathering times, when I used to go to terrible, popular movies on the day they came out to tune into the multitude of syncs, so many more, I marveled, than a really good, artsy movie. I realized this was the case because when a movie was good, I lost myself in its world, and lost the distance necessary to acknowledge syncs that connected outward to the larger pop culture universe. The same was true with Deus Irae, I could read it and stay a little outside of the action, watching and taking notes. I grokked what PKD was trying to do through his protagonist, Tibor McMasters--a mutant, disabled painter with mechanical grippers in place of hands who is confined to a cart pulled by a cow because he was born without legs. He is representative of the horror of a post-apocalyptic world, as well as all artists everywhere who are inspired and amped up enough on their own ego-trip to believe they can give life to an otherworldly subject, (like PKD with this book or Tibor’s pilgrimage to find and create a portrait of Carlton Lufteufel, the human form of the God of Wrath who initiated the nuclear war that destroyed the world.)
“It’s here,” I told Swim. “Part of the message we’re trying to decipher is in this book.”
(I didn’t, and still don’t, want to spell out to them—an artist and sensitive soul—that I feel the real condemnation of this book is upon the artistic process, the ego fueled drive to believe that we lowly beings can depict and transmit the inherent truth within something boundless, non-human…god or mind or both, linked together and expanded out forever in every direction.)
“Why are we wasting time trying to unearth some secret, hidden meaning?” Swim says as we continue our work, in which we use bibliomancy to select passages from VALIS and feel out its resonances. We document the strands of how one “clue” leads to another, using online searches that point to other books and writers and movies and the actors in them and where they lived and what airport they used to fly to the set of the movie that would soon and forever become a classic.
“What, if anything does any of this mean? If this shit really is a warning, we need to figure it out because time is ticking.”
I remind them that is only true from the limited perspective of believing in linear time, to which they angrily yanked at their eyes to show me the bags under them and pointed out the silver streaks on the side of their head.
For all their intelligence and good heartedness, they were unable to see that instead of an overpriced railroad apartment in Bushwick we are in a gilded space, made available to us by karma or blessings or pure luck or all of the above…a place where we have the health and the cash that allows us to stay inside during a terrible scourge and not have to go out to work—so that we may explore the nature of the communication we are receiving full-time.
“For reals though, why can’t PKD come to you in another dream and tell you what’s going on?” they asked me, and I could feel how annoyed, tired, sad and scared they were.
“Because,” I said, eyeing the empty bottles on the windowsill.
“The only way out of the maze is for each one of us to figure it out ourselves.”
Image: Alex Merritt
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