Tuesday, August 26, 2014


idol thoughts

End of summer, end of summer; to me those have always been the three saddest words in the English language (Henry James, forgive me).  Today I'm taking advantage of a foggy cool morning by folding up most of the summer linens, packing them away, and washing flannel shirts.  I love flannel, and sweaters, and the woodstove, and hot tea, but after the extremities of last winter I must say I am dreading the return of cold weather.  I've lived in Maine all my life, and I do love it in its varied seasons, but this was the first winter I truly thought I don't know if I can do this.  Not that I have an alternative.  It was so cold for so long, it felt like some kind of wild nineteenth century winter straight out of the Little House on the Prairie books.  But enough about the weather - what will be, will be.  I'll shelve these worried thoughts with all the unknowns of life and talk about those other things we love to shelve.

Books.  I continue to love shopping at library sales, because I can always pick up a stack of books to read that I never would have otherwise sought out, much less bought new at their retail prices.  At the last library sale we attended I bought two such - a hardcover of Bowie: A Biography by Marc Spitz (Crown 2009) and a fat softcover entitled Freight Train Graffiti by Roger Gastman, Darin Rowland, and Ian Sattler (Abrams 2006).  I paid a dollar and fifty cents, respectively.

First - the David Bowie bio is a tell-all fanboy rave and in retrospect I think I learned a little too much about one of my idols.  I mean, I knew that during the course of his multifarious career there must have been sex, drugs, and (of course) rock'n'roll, and lots of it, but I had no idea of the scope and depth of his addictions.  I came of age during Bowie's Let's Dance phase, when he was clean and sober (I think...?) and handsome and pop mainstream, yet still edgy and androgynous and gorgeous.  A wildly successful misfit.  A perfect teen idol.  And I think my first major crush to boot.  Well, the biography goes into all the dirty details of his life before and after this time period, so I don't need to.  I'm glad I read it, and I did learn all kinds of interesting facts about other people in Bowie's circle.  (Brian Eno, for example.  I used to love his ambient album Music for Airports.  Now I know that his full name is Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.  And he composed the start-up tone for Windows 95.)  All in all, the book seemed like a long costume drama, with characters in full make-up throughout, trying to be themselves and yet other at the same time.  

Second - Freight Train Graffiti is a 350-page brick of a book, illustrated with full-color photographs, and another kind of tell-all text. Also edgy, and also full of people also using aliases.  I read it with the rapt attention of an outsider looking in at this highly specific subculture with its own history, evolution, rules, and language.  I've always been fascinated by trains and hobos (I wrote about this recently here), and in fact we used to keep an eye on the local train tracks to spot certain monikers and pieces of graffiti.  One writer in particular seemed to have tagged every train car - someone called The Solo Artist.  We saw this tag and its accompanying quick scribble-drawing for years and years on boxcars around here.  Long ago I resigned myself to the fact that I would never know anything about this person - not exactly an idol of mine, but someone I wondered about, being interested, as I always have been, in the denizens of fringe cultures of many kinds.  But, as I was browsing in this book - holy crackers - here he is!  Quoted at length, with photographs of the evolution of his moniker.  The authors say this (p.300):

"The Solo Artist is so well known that even graffiti artists with little knowledge of monikers still know of his work.  He is equally respected and revered in both the moniker world and the graffiti world."

I really couldn't believe it.  One of life's mysteries is illuminated for all time.  He is never identified by his real name (the only named people in the book are writers who have died - graffiti being, um, illegal), but he does talk at length about how he started writing graffiti and how his moniker came to be.  Googling led me to this Utne Reader article, "The Art of Freight Train Painting," in which the author says, "An American man who signs himself The Solo Artist is said to have autographed 100,000 cars over 20 years."  Amazing.

More things I love to read about, rather than participate in. Well, after reading these two books, I'm thinking there's certainly nothing wrong with leading a clean-and-sober, straight-and-narrow, law-abiding life.  In fact it is a blessed relief.  The fog is lifting - time to go hang some clothes out on the line and soak up the last of the summer sun. 

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