Category Archives: Brendan Behan

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“Most artists work all the time. They do, actually, especially good artists. They work all the time. What else is there to do?” — David Hockney

FROM THE CHELSEA TO EAST PILSEN

Reading about the time Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe lived in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel got me thinking about a few years that I spent living and working in a similar milieu.

The Chelsea was the storied Manhattan locus of artists, writers, actors, musicians, and many other ne’er-do-wells. Arthur C. Clarke lived and wrote there — he penned “2001: A Space Odyssey” in his cramped room. Dylan Thomas wrote and died there. Mark Twain spent time there. So did O. Henry, Leonard Cohen, Arthur Miller, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Brendan Behan, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Thomas Wolfe.

The Chelsea’s visual artists included Christo, Julian Schnabel, Frida Kahlo, R. Crumb, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Willem De Kooning, and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

More musicians than can reasonably listed here called the Chelsea home as well. People from Edith Piaf to Iggy Pop received their mail at the Chelsea.

The Chicago art scene at the turn of this century was centered around the East Pilsen neighborhood just southwest of the Loop. In 1998, I moved into a first floor apartment on 17th Place and, later, lived at Carpenter Avenue and 18th Street. I spent my days clacking my keyboard at the Hardware Cafe coffeehouse on Halsted, one of the neighborhood’s social centers.

The Chelsea mixed creative types with drag queens, hookers, and poet-wannabes. East Pilsen melded working artists with gang-bangers and people who claimed to be artists mainly because they couldn’t keep a day job.

One night I watched two neighborhood toughs stroll out of Pauly’s Tavern at 18th and Union, conversing and laughing, looking for all the world like the best of friends until one guy cold-cocked the other, dropping his pal to the ground like a sack of sugar. The puncher picked up the punchee, brushed him off, and the two resumed conversing and laughing as if nothing had happened.

The writers, actors, painters, sculptors, and other societal misfits of East Pilsen learned to steer clear of the thugs and hellions. But we found each other. We were not as celebrated as the Chelsea artists, but we worked as hard. Then again, none of us labored as diligently as our New York counterparts at becoming celebrated, so there is that.

Below, I present a reprint of a story I wrote for the Chicago Reader 12 years ago.

ON EXHIBIT: A SECRET SOCIETY SHOWS ITSELF

A year ago this month I was abducted by a tough-looking character with a filterless Camel dangling from his lips. He placed a callused hand on my shoulder and said, “Come with me.” I hesitated. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You won’t get hurt.”

He brought me to a nondescript storefront in East Pilsen, where I was forced to listen to a CD of some Deep South banjo picking. A group of people got up from a table full of steaming food, danced around me, and placed leis and chains around my neck. A cape was draped over my shoulders and a titanic sombrero balanced on my head. A fellow who looked to be the leader of this mob handed me a two-foot-long pipe brush. “This is your scepter,” he said.

“Welcome to the weekly meeting of the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lampreys,” this fellow — we’ll call him K — said. “You’ve been selected as our adjudicator. It is your duty to judge the art that’s been made over the last week by our members. Tonight you are all-powerful. You are a deity. Wield your power wisely.” He motioned for me to sit in a chair.

For the next two hours I watched and judged as some two dozen sculptures, drawings, paintings, poems, and musical pieces were paraded before me. All the artwork, I learned, was inspired by a single word: “bodacious.” The Lampreys fittingly are a bodacious bunch.

“A couple of years ago I was sitting around thinking, ‘All I ever do is make stuff for clients,'” says K, a tall guy with a Dixie accent and hair that changes colors as often as the wind changes directions. “I do architectural ironwork and ceramic and marble work. I enjoy making objects; it’s a good way to make money. But I like to make sculpture. I like to make useless objects. So I brainstormed with my buddy S, my roommate at the time.”

K and S had met when S crashed one of K’s parties. K throws parties at the drop of a hat. He’ll even celebrate the night before a party. His semiannual pig roasts are known far and wide, attracting hundreds of artists, musicians, old hippies, bikers, manic-depressives, bookies, and schoolteachers. K took an immediate shine to S, a sculptor from Australia, and hired him to work in his metal shop. A couple of weeks later, S and his girlfriend, L, moved into K’s spare bedroom.

“We were drawn together,” K says. “He had a similar problem.” S spent every waking hour making art for his portfolio. His only concern was the business of making art. K and S brooded over glasses of whiskey one night. They mooned over their idealistic days as aspiring artists. “It was a blast back then,” K says. “Then we started taking ourselves too seriously.

“So we decided to make an object once a week that’s not related to our portfolio, our clients, to anything. It would be absolutely non-marketable. L told us about this big Sunday brunch at her family’s house in Australia. Everyone had a standing invitation and would get fed well.”

K found it impossible to pass up yet another excuse for a party. He and S planned to make new pieces for a brunch the following Sunday. “That first week, there were the two of us,” K recalls. “L thought it was kind of cool, so the next time there were three of us. Someone heard about it, and the next week we had four.” Within months the revolving cast of artists and hangers-on numbered in the dozens. Soon the brunch became a ritual that had to be codified.

“We decided we would no longer own our pieces,” K says. “They would become property of the group. We also figured if we were going to present our pieces formally there should be some kind of ceremony with someone chosen to preside over the presentation.” Thus began the tradition of kidnapping some unsuspecting sap to be the adjudicator.

“The adjudicators are dressed awfully silly,” K acknowledges. “You cannot have a secret society that doesn’t have a set of absurd rules. With this comes a great deal of pomp and circumstance. We take it to the extreme by allowing the adjudicators to believe they are all-powerful. There was one adjudicator who demanded that we all get naked. We thought about it but then realized there were some members who didn’t want to. So there was a coup. We shouted, ‘The King is dead; long live the King!'”

The adjudicator bestows an array of fanciful awards. A scrap of polished wood is known as the False Gem of Hope. A well-worn wig is the Matted Hair of Revulsion. The Sardines of Delusion is a can of (what else?) sardines, while the Banana of Ill Repute is a two-year-old black, shriveled banana.

“This whole idea caught on,” K says. “Everyone we invited to the meeting started participating. We come from a lot of different backgrounds. We have trolley drivers and carpenters. There are some people who’ve never made art before. One guy, a computer programmer, joined us for the word ‘spicy’ and sewed 400 chili peppers to a pair of boxer shorts and wore them and nothing else, dancing into the room.” With so many making art, it became obvious a weekly theme was in order. So at the end of his or her term, the adjudicator has the task of choosing the next week’s word. “Our first word was ‘structure,'” K says. “Then we had ‘symmetry.’ We had ‘beef.’ Then there was ‘lagniappe,’ a little something extra. Then there was a made-up word from sci-fi, ‘grok.'”

Early on someone suggested the group needed a name. A lightbulb went off over K’s head. “Society has always viewed artists as lampreys, sucking on its soft, fleshy underbelly,” he says. “We decided to claim the name. We suck.”

These being artists, a late-morning starting time for the brunches was as welcome as a 3 AM alarm clock blast. The Lampreys began to gather later and later in the day. Now dinner is served at around 8:30 or 9 PM.

In November 1998 the Lampreys erected an altar to the memory of scientist Nikola Tesla for a Day of the Dead exhibit. “Tesla was a nut,” K says. “He was a Lamprey.” Someone described it to Chuck Thurow, director of the Hyde Park Art Center. Thurow dropped in on a Lamprey meeting and decided, almost on the spot, to offer the gallery to them for an exclusive show.

“3½ Months of Sundays” will open this Sunday, March 5. The group will erect altars to such overlooked geniuses as Sen No Rikyu, who several centuries ago elevated the simple Japanese afternoon tea to a formal ritual, and Philo Farnsworth, who invented the TV picture tube but had to sue RCA to earn royalties. The altars will surround a centerpiece containing 2,000 Lamprey pieces, displayed together for the first time.

“One of the problems with showing Lamprey work is it’s not very commodified,” K says. “It’s not something we can sell. We can’t be shown in a typical gallery because there’s no money to be made off us. It’s more about the process and the meeting each week. The object becomes de-emphasized and less precious. The collection becomes fascinating.”

I was fascinated that Sunday night a year ago. After I’d reviewed all the art and passed out the awards, K told me I had one final duty: choose the next week’s word. I pondered for ten minutes and then wrote on a big chalkboard the word “mortar.”

Immediately K stripped off my royal raiment. “Now you’re nothing,” K shouted gleefully. The tough-looking character with the filterless Camel dangling from his lips smirked. “You’re just like one of us,” he said. I couldn’t wait to come back the next Sunday.

The opening party for “3½ Months of Sundays” will be held from 4 to 6 PM this Sunday at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park Blvd. A closing party will be held from 5 to 9 PM on Saturday, April 15. Call 773-324-5520 for more information.

— M

(Originally published in the Chicago Reader, March 2, 2000)

The Pencil Today:

TODAY’S QUOTE

“I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and the old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.” — Brendan Behan

THE LOST WALLABY

So, an Evansville guy has lost his wallaby.

Yep. The man has (or, more accurately now, had) an albino wallaby named Kimba.

Typical Albino Wallaby

A week ago today, Ron Young let the critter out in his fenced backyard and, next thing he knew, Kimba had taken a hike. Well, actually four hours later, the animal took her hike.

Wild creatures can figure out many ways to escape a fenced enclosure if you give them four hours. Hell, if I left Steve the Dog out in a fenced yard (which we don’t have) and came back four hours later, I’d find the yard empty save for a pair of fence cutters dropped in haste on the grass.

I mean, Steve likes me and The Loved One well enough, but the allure of out there is irresistible. And this is a  pampered hound who looks at me as if I’m from the moon when I suggest he go outside in a light mist to do his business.

“I Like Youse Guys But Gimme Half A Chance And I’m Outta Here.”

Anyway, Young is a former director of the Evansville Zoo. You’d think he’d know better. And not just about leaving an animal unattended for such a long period of time.

Just having a non-native animal in Southern Indiana seems rash to me.

Wallabies, I’ll hazard to guess, don’t want to be here. Were we to give the macropods a vote in the matter, it’s a good bet they’d overwhelmingly elect to stay in Australia, New Zealand, or any of the nearby Oceania islands they inhabit.

Which reminds me of an egregious example of humans introducing a non-native species to a strange geographical environment.

A wealthy goofball named Thomas Austin brought a couple of dozen cute little bunnies to his estate in Victoria in 1859. He’d wanted to shoot at them for fun and games. See, rabbits had never before lived in Australia and a man can become bored blasting away at the same old 755 different species of reptile as well as countless platypi, echidnae, kangaroos, koalas, wombats, emus, kookaburras, dingoes, and other mammals and birds native to that land.

Apparently, Austin never bagged his limit because the surviving bunnies did what bunnies do — that is, they bonked and bonked and bonked until they’d essentially taken over most of the continent within forty years.

You might say, So what? What can cute little bunnies do to a continent? The answer: devastate it.

The hundreds of millions of rabbits who now hold sway over the entire landmass have eaten so much foliage that exposed soil and land erosion is now a major problem in many huge swaths of Australia. Not only that but a significant number of plant species have now gone extinct, thanks to the voracious rabbits. And since the plants have disappeared, at least two mammals species, the bilby and the bandicoot, have essentially vanished.

Australian Rabbits Are Heavy Drinkers, Too.

Some estimate that the damage caused by Austin’s rabbits costs the Australian economy more than A$500 million a year.

Not that we have to worry about wallabies taking over North America now that Kimba has escaped her pen. She’s probably dead now since wallabies really don’t know how to live in winter climes.

Folks, if you want a pet, go adopt a dog or cat from the City of Bloomington Animal Shelter.

SHUT UP AND EAT

When I was a bartender at Club Lago, an Italian restaurant in Chicago, one of our cooks was a funny man named Chico. He loved to concoct new dishes using only the stuff that was leftover in the kitchen at the end of the night. He’d serve up plates of the scrumptious stuff to the waitstaff and me after we’d locked the doors.

Occasionally, a new hire might ask before digging in, “What’s in this?” To which Chico would swiftly reply, “Just shut up and eat.”

I found his directive to be sensible and easy enough to follow.

Not that Chico was worried we’d learn he’d been dumping toxic substances into his skillet or pot. His philosophy was if you really love to eat, just eat. The act of consuming comestibles should be enjoyed without worry or fear. Eat!

Admittedly, one might want to question the company that whips up, say, Spam. A wise person wants to know how many species have sacrificed their lives for that rectangular hunk of “meat.”

“Food”

But Chico’s dishes were made of fresh vegetables, succulent seafood, lovingly-stirred sauces, and prime meats. Just shut up and eat.

Which brings me to a recent study that indicates the food fetishists of this holy land — thousands of whom seem to have settled here in Bloomington — ought to try to hew to Chico’s axiom.

Apparently, according to the study, people tend to think a food is more nutritious, is safer, and is more pure only because it carries labels like “fair trade,” “natural,” or “organic.”

It’s called the “health halo” effect. And it’s pretty much bullshit.

Yeah, It’s Natural — But It’s Still Junk Food

Now, the organic designation is defined by federal law. It means simply that the grub you’re jamming into your mouth is reasonably free from certain prohibited substances like dangerous pesticides or controversial additives. The organic designation in no way affects the taste or nutritional quality of a food. It’s conceivable, for instance, that Hormel Foods could apply for and receive the USDA’s approval to slap the organic logo on its cans of Spam.

“Fair trade” and “natural,” on the other hand have no legal definitions. I could market cow flop tomorrow, calling it “all-natural” — which it is — and be well within my legal rights. And making sure some Colombian coffee growers get a fair price for their crop doesn’t make my cup of joe any different from yours.

Still, the study found that people will go so far as to believe a piece of fair trade chocolate contains fewer calories than one not marketed under that label.

So, yeah, we’d like to make sure we’re not screwing the world’s farmers to death because we need to stuff ourselves with sandwich cookies. And it’s good to know there isn’t a cupful of Red Dye No. 3 in that package of Jujubes.

But let’s try to be reasonable. Just shut up and eat.

WHO ARE THE KARDASHIANS?

For the longest time, my mind has refused to retain information about the Kardashians.

The gray mass inside my cranium is like that. It has also prohibited me from understanding basic economic precepts for many long years. For example, I’d ask somebody what the national debt is. Not how much it is, but what exactly it is, as in its definition. Financially savvy pals would explain it to me in excruciating detail and I’d nod my head as if I were taking it all in.

But — swear to god — ten minutes later all those words and ideas would have spilled out of my ear and onto the floor, only to be mopped up by the bartender or busboy at whichever saloon or restaurant I’d just had my lesson in.

Not Even IU’s Nobel Prize-Winning Economist Ellie Ostrom Can Help Me

Same thing with the Kardashians. I must have asked at least three dozen different people through the years who the Kardashians are and why this holy land knows of them.

And every time the knowledge imparted to me simply departs my brain, leaving no forwarding address.

When  it comes to the national debt, I feel bad about my ignorance. But I’m proud of my Kardashian stupidity.

Duh, I Dunno

Apparently, many others in the Great United States, Inc. also are less than enthralled by the K-clan. This despite the fact that all corporate news outlets must record and recount the family’s every muscle move.

Ranker.com come has compiled a list of the 40 Americans least deserving of their fame and fortune. Within the top ten on the list, there are three Kardashians: Kim, Kourtney, and Rob.

Now I don’t feel so out of touch. On the other hand, who the hell is The Situation?

Um, Uh, What Was The Question?

WHITE ROOM

Right off the bat, I’m not advocating the use of heroin. Lemme put it this way, back in the days when I and my circle were willing to ingest anything for a high, the very idea of heroin scared the bejesus out of me.

I’d met a young woman when I was about 23 years old. She never missed a chance to extol the wonders of heroin. I asked her what it was like. Her eyes turned dreamy and she said, “It’s the greatest feeling you’ll ever know. After heroin, sex is nothing.”

I vowed at that moment never to try it — and I never have.

Eric Clapton waged a well-documented, years-long battle against heroin addiction. He’s been clean for nearly forty years. But his heroin-free output includes such treacle as “Tears in Heaven” while his “White Room” with Cream was recorded at the height of his horse ride.

I’m just saying.

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