It’s 2:42 a.m. and I’m in my office — a hopelessly cluttered space sealed off from the rest of the basement by a large wood and paper screen. There are precarious hoodoos of books on every available surface, including an old ironing board that now functions as a sideboard. There are cobwebs, mouse droppings and towers of shoeboxes filled with heaven-knows-what. There’s a threadbare and water-stained Oriental carpet that covers up the pock-marked burgundy painted cement floor. There’s a bookcase, a goldfish bowl half-filled with my collection of fortune cookie fortunes (preserved from many years of eating artery-clogging chow mein and eggrolls), and the gold-painted plaster bust of Richard M. Nixon that I bought for one dollar and fifty cents at a garage sale last year — an item no truly modern office should be without. There are several statues of Buddha, a black velvet painting of Venice, and a cork notice board covered with several layers of quotations, postcards, family photos, children’s artwork, and business cards. There’s a hotplate for brewing pots of tea, a small cedar box filled with marijuana, wooden matches and Zig Zag rolling papers. There’s a particularly crappy stereo system. The smell of ancient cat pee hangs, spectre-like, in the early morning air.
I have this probably-idle fantasy that one day I’ll start my own low-powered radio station from this cramped and disorganized space. It’ll be an outlet for my after-midnight philosophical rants and state of the soul addresses. Its musical content will appeal to those few kindred-soul, attention deficit disorder insomniacs willing to listen to Eric Satie followed by Jah Wobble, ABBA on the heels of Art Blakey, Corrosion of Conformity neatly segueing into Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives.
Right now I’m listening to a CD that my friend has loaned me, a compilation of music from jazz guitar magus Bill Frissell, and it’s 2:42 a.m. music if ever there was such a thing. Like the best surrealist paintings and Monty Python sketches, it’s a series of quirky juxtapositions, an inspired matching of seemingly incongruous components. The bowed and plucked strings are sometimes rich and dark as Turkish coffee. At other times, they are crazily syncopated, a haywire sort of clockwork that brings to my mind visual images from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. There are sounds like the cry of seagulls calling out of the fog above a sea of radio static. There are cheesy, Dr. Who-like space-age warbles and wobbles, and creaking beams from a haunted house. There are beautiful melodies, like half-forgotten lullabies, suddenly interrupted by demonic, screeching guitar feedback.
Somehow, like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and the experimental films of British director Peter Greenaway, this music seems to me to capture the very essence of modern life in Western society — the peculiar realization that nothing quite makes sense, and yet everything is somehow connected. We flip through television channels, or cruise the information superhighway, and watch scenes of beauty and horror squeezing up against each other like the ribs of an accordion. There is footage of the Dalai Lama, followed by a commercial for mouthwash, followed by scenes of devastation in the Middle East. Like the European sewer systems that connect brothels and cathedrals, palaces and crumbling tenements, our virtually unlimited access to information joins all these things together, all these strange jumble sale items scattered about our messy cultural home. And with the kind of inspired insomniac lunacy that sometimes visits us at 2:42 a.m., many of us are desperately trying to make some sense of it all.