The Writings of Bern Nix

June 2017


IDIOT’S TALE: A CHRONICLE OF NONEVENTS

He decided to catch up on his reading. Most of his life has been about trying to catch up on his reading. The Voice has a cover story on a young black comic who does catchy post-modern material on race. Evidently race still does matter but how? Back in the sixties, it was quite different. The New York Review of Books contains an article on Saul Bellow. He read the article even though he could never read the work of a Noble Laureate like Bellow. Over in the corner a young couple was having an intense discussion. Are they arguing? They look like they might possibly be addicts. A waiting room in a large public hospital is really an object lesson in democracy. Various races, classes and types commingle with one another. Everyone is eager to get it over with. Waiting to see a doctor can seem like having a preliminary encounter with the grim reaper. Life itself at times seems like an ailment: the nausea of it all can engulf you at the damnedest moment. The physician has a beard along with an aloof yet concerned manner. It is possible for the doctor to feel like a mechanic or harried cobbler with one pair of shoes too many to contend with. The patient’s withered sexagenarian nuts could be a pair of leathery high-top shoes from another time.  Any..? No. There..? No. Are you..? Yes. A man-child in his mid-sixties who never really figured anything out about much other than music. By now he knew the five lines and four spaces well enough to understand that meaning has arbitrary distinction determined by history and happenstance. Was happenstance the right word? Watching Nick Lucas sing and then banter with Liberace on Youtube made him even more conscious of how varied musical expression can be. Albert Ayler drowned in the deep blue sea of his own despair. Why? Nobody wanted to tipetoe through his tulips. Chet Baker fell from a window in the Netherlands. This was probably due to the fact he liked poppies more than tulips. Is your narrator being too arch? Self-conscious attempts at cleverness can be disastrous.  The more things change, the harder they are to change. Whether you march or not a rose is still a rose, a raisin is still a raisin painfully burnished by the heat of a hostile sun. A proclamation of freedom is often a matter of sonorous rhetoric at variance with the painful reality of a complicated liberty blurred by the narcotic haze of Madison ave, a place where fantasy glazes existence with a sugar corn syrup-like veneer that’s potent and incrementally virulent. All the talk about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington made him think that way. In ’63 he was an adolescent dreamer who thought about the future. In some ways, he was quite fortunate; he had been able to realize his dream of having a go at a career in music. He had just come to consciousness. The Fall atmosphere only adds to his desire to sleep. Where does the time go? So much of his life has been spent in earnest pursuit of a dream that seems less viable with each passing year.  Back in ’75 when he came to NYC as a socially awkward young musician fresh out of music school, the bankrupt city seemed like a place where anything could happen. Dreams could be realized; it was a matter of persistence; hard work and dedication were bound to be rewarded or so he thought. How do you make a narrative out of it all? Living it was hard enough. Someone once said NYC was a city filled with stories. While running around the neighborhood on errands he ran into the now former wife of one of his musical colleagues. She spent nearly an hour describing the agony of divorce. For years she had played the role of musician’s wife; she was the one with regular employment that generated financial security. Her husband pursued the haphazard life of a musician; one day a hit record was bound to happen. Her daughter started to intimate that after twenty years or so of marriage Daddy had acquired a girlfriend. No this couldn’t be true. Daddy and I are trying to make it all work. We’re even seeing a therapist. The relationship means a lot to both of us. Daughter dearest turned out to be right despite all of Mommy’s protestations to the contrary. Often it had occurred to him that trying to write anything was like endeavoring to rewrite Madam Bovary on the head of a pin with his own blood. Could it be that he was just another neurotic narcissistic perfectionist with unrealistic standards? By now it was obvious he was nowhere near the likes of a Flaubert or for that matter Mr. Prufrock. Agonizing over artistic aspiration, vocational unworthiness, and other matters was part of an elaborate effort on his part to avoid looking at the truth about his squalid little bug infested room of a life.

published on Arteidolia May 2016

SLOUCHING TOWARDS HARMOTOPIA

My first guitar teacher was probably in his late fifties or early sixties. This short, stocky man had a semi-bald head, pale somewhat ruddy skin and a harsh autocratic voice that allowed him to speak in a crisp abrupt manner. He almost invariably wore a tie, dress shirt, freshly polished shoes. Something about his demeanor and sartorial style reminded me of male movie characters from the thirties, forties and early fifties.

His style of playing was also redolent of another era. One could hear echoes of Eddie Lang, Nick Lucas, Karl Kress and others. After all he did start teaching in 1927. I met him in the late fifties, a time when rock and roll was an acensive art form. In fact I remember when a young man sporting a DA strolled into the store and interrupted my lesson in order to find out how many lessons were needed to play like Duane Eddy.

The store was full of vintage color illustrations: cowboys and cowgirls playing guitars around the campfire; youngsters who looked like members of Our Gang and The Deadend Kids playing acoustic guitars or ukes while sitting on the stoop. Next to these pictures was a display case containing guitar picks, strings, pitch pipes and other musical items.

There was also a rack of sheet music, song folios and various guitar methods. Nick Manohoff, Mel Bay, Harry Volpe, Eddie Lang- these were some of the names that seeped into my consciousness after seeing them on page after page of different publications. Various guitars were on display in the window of the shop. The one instrument that always caught my eye was a sunburst Les Paul.

One of my early lessons centered around learning how to play Taps a melody that accommodated the standard tuning of the guitar in a manner that makes it relatively easy to play. My teacher never tired of telling me to tap my foot: one and two and three and four and; down up, down up, a quarter note gets one beat; a half note, two beats; a whole note four beats.

As stated earlier, normal speech for Mr.Shornack was little more than a slightly modified growl that implied imprecation. Once he actually hit my guitar due to frustration over my lack of musical alacrity.

I enjoyed music and wanted to play but was frightened and in the clutches of performance anxiety. Learning the notes below middle C was problematic. Consequently Reuben and Rachel was a melody I learned by rote simply because fear kept me from understanding the concept of ledger lines.

All hell broke loose when I was found out. My teacher’s face turned beet-red as he yelled at me.

My father had been showing me off to various relatives. On command I would go through my repertory of chestnuts culled from the Eddie Alkire Method.

Dear old dad was also dismayed when he discovered my subterfuge. For him this incident was yet another example of my lack of musical progress. Like my teacher he gave me the Buddy Rich treatment. My mother tried to dissuade him from yelling; it was to no avail. The whole scene provoked another one of my sobsister routines. I was crying; in fact I was always crying and men don’t cry.

My father told me I was acting like a little girl. He grabbed my guitar and tried to play it. He had played the trombone as a young man. Once I actually ran across a piece of sheet music with Tommy Dorsey’s picture on it in the attic during one of my childhood foraging exercises.

Eventually my father and my teacher had a stormy confrontation. My teacher opined in the most stentorian manner possible that investment in my musical future was a waste of time.

My desire to play music intensified despite my teacher’s dire prognostication.  Immersion in the world of music helped me contend with my parent’s marital discord and consequent divorce. It also allayed so many problems attendant to entering the hormonal hell of adolescence.

I saw a picture of Charlie Christian on a Columbia album cover, when I was around 14. Since I was something of a jazz nerd I was familiar with his name. In fact I had actually heard his recording of Honeysuckle Rose with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. It was fascinating. I wanted to learn how to play all those notes: in short to improvise, play jazz.

To be blunt about it I was also fascinated and surprised by the fact that he was black. So many plectrists of that era cited him as an influence but I knew very little about him other than the fact that like Keats and Stephen Crane he succumbed to TB at an early age. Later I was to discover that he had grown up with novelist Ralph Ellison in Oklahoma.

Maybe there was hope. Artists in general seemed to have immunity to the tedious rigor and banality of routine existence. They didn’t worry about  becoming a scout or receiving Communion on a regular basis. They had a stern discipline that saw them through the quotidian madness that passes for normality. In many instances they even modified the norm in a manner that was novel as well as amenable.

Reading Downbeat, Mad magazine, and listening to Lenny Bruce records only abetted this attitude. One could contend that this was the idealized attitude of a socially maladjusted fourteen year old but it’s still with me.

published on Arteidolia September 2015

CHURCH GOING

Some things never seem to elude the rusty iron claw of memory. They are indelibly engraved in every aspect of  Your being with or without a madeleine.

Toledo, Ohio. St. Anne’s Parish. Grades 1 thru 8.

The fifties.  Father Springer, a tall thin, grumpy, bespectacled man with a grayish buzz cut often walked the church grounds while brandishing an air rifle used to shoot the numerous pigeons that overwhelmed the vicinity with blotches of excrement.

The good father had all the charm of Sgt. Joe Friday on a bad day. He was harsh with his young penitents. Sometimes the confessional seemed like an echo chamber for his strict, censorious voice as he applied unstinted spiritual opprobrium to the withered brow of some hapless sinner. It was hard not to be frightened while waiting your turn to enter the confessional, that sanctum sanctorum of pietistic wrath and humiliation.

Fear of incurring the wrath of this priestly  task-master led me to avoid confession. All this spiritual stricture compelled me to believe the body was an impure vessel housing an immortal soul that came into this world bearing the taint of mortal sin. Heeding the rules and regulations of holy mother church provided one with transcendence of the flesh thereby guaranteeing entrance into heaven, a blissful, ethereal exurb where things ran smoothly for ever and ever, Amen.

Anyone who died with mortal sin on his soul joined non-Catholics in hell, a place that made Russia, the home of godless, atheistic communism, seem like Disneyland with rough and unvarnished edges.

Purgatory was a halfway house, the gulag for lost souls that provided cold food for picnics on rainy days and the possibility to audit endless reruns of “Going My Way” along with performances by Bishop Sheen and his rival, Milton Berle. Residents who finished their homework on time also had the option of watching Davy Crockett or Annette Funicello do dance routines with Mickey or Goofy.

The clutches of holy mother church led me to regard sexuality as something both guilt ridden and utilitarian. Good Catholics married for keeps. They never had sex outside of marriage. The sole purpose of intercourse was to beget candidates for canonization.

Sins of impurity ranked high on my things to do list. Onanism was a hobby not unlike kite flying or stamp collecting.  During one grueling confession the good father told me I would be thrown out of school if I was ever caught with any of the pictures that inspired my Diogenes-like behavior.

To make things worse, I once even took Jesus in my mouth after having breakfast. My classmate refused to pass me by in leaving the pew for his wafer even though I told him I had eaten breakfast. Jesus and oatmeal don’t mix. Combination of the two is a gastronomic as well as spiritual mishap of major consequence. For this reason I was severely punished when my act of spiritual malfeasance was discovered.

These shortcomings were complimented by certain academic deficiencies. Although I enjoyed reading and writing I spent three or four sessions in summer school taking remedial arithmetic classes. Seemingly the more I applied myself the worse I got. The same was true for learning to tell time.

Despite everything I was painfully conscientious. I wanted to please my parents, my patron saint and perhaps even the Swiss Guard; there was also the Lovely Lady dressed in blue and what about St. Dominic Savio?

Anxiety generated by the dismay I felt over spiritual and academic matters was exacerbated by seeing a photo of the mutilated body of Emmet Till in Jet Magazine. Midwestern racism was far more genteel in it’s myriad forms of manifestation.

My parochial school education provided me with an early object lesson. For a couple of years I tried to become a Cub Scout, but was discreetly passed over. Whenever my classmates discussed scouting activities my comments and queries were greeted with seemly inexplicable laughter.

One day during recess I talked to one of my classmates about my dilemma. “Your’e a nigger. Niggers can’t be Cub Scouts.”

I didn’t know how to respond. That word was not yet  painfully familiar. After all we were all good Catholics. Catholicism was the one true faith and that was all that really mattered. Protestants, especially Lutherans were really déclassé and more than likely headed for hell. Why couldn’t I be a Cub Scout like everyone else?

I was overjoyed when my mother consented to become a den mother. My new uniform was a source of pride. I had finally made it- a scout among scouts. There was a general meeting. Things seemed to be going well. As the evening came to a close, another scout made a comment that further contributed to my incremental awareness of race.

“All the colored kids are in your den.”

published on Arteidolia April  2015



One response to “The Writings of Bern Nix”

  1. Bern was a great musician and a cool person… sorely missed…