Posts Tagged ‘Black Rock Nevada’

THE TERRIFYING CRACK AND ECHO

November 3, 2008

Black Rock, Nevada, 1860. In the bleached and cracked playas and buttes of what was once Lake Lahontan, the Pauite Indians are under attack from Kit Carson and a buckskin battalion of pale faces. Carson and his troops are armed with 50 caliber round, lead balls that fire with a velocity at the muzzle of 1200 feet per second. The Pauite’s armament is mostly sticks and stones; they are terrified of the white man’s weaponry and the sounds whizzing by their heads. They fear the sound as much as they fear the imminent tearing of flesh.

Vienna, 1887. Logician and physicist Ernst Mach is attempting to isolate the psychoacoustical source and rationale for the psychological terror associated with gunfire. He tries to understand why soldiers engaged in battle with firearms are so emotionally volatile.

Mach endeavors to explain the how of what the Pauites already know: The sound of the air ripped asunder is an immediate reminder of one’s own mortality. At any given millisecond, something as precious as life can be snuffed. Shell shock. Faster than sound. Instantly. A crack and an echo.

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THE ROAD TO BURNING MAN (Black Rock, 1996)

November 3, 2008

“For my next act, I will set myself a-fire,”Craig Breedlove, moments after nearly drowning in a brine pond in Bonneville while becoming the first man to travel 500 mph.

Picture this: a transmigration towards the center of being, the Pauite Spirit Land where, according to Injun’ tradition, white and red brothers had been separated at creation, Black Rock, Nevada.

Picture this: a Blind Hippie and three compatriots on the road to the Burning Man festival there, a sort of free-form techno-pagan celebration with colors and music and a giant, sky-scraping wooden effigy of a stick man set on fire as a sort of act of atonement for the sins of post-industrial America.

If the culture is to seek penance, the Black Rock desert is as good a place as any. Injun’ Conflict and conflagration, war games, amateur rocket launches and sundry manifestations of tweaked machismo have been perpetrated on this very chunk of longitude and latitude. Atonement is a nice gesture, but it’s really to ease the soul of those still breathing, as those who have vanished and vanquished have been incorporated into a landscape whose scale and magnitude renders such gestures superfluous and futile.

Still they come: in vans, cars and caravans.

Roving bands of naked percussionists – Marching Drug and Bong Corps, if you will – jammin’ on high and so blissfully oblivious to their own arrhythmia that it eventually becomes a rhythm, snake through various camps of pierced performance artists and tattooed torture artists, Fuller-ites with portable Geodesic domes (!), etc., etc.

The Burning Man. It resembles a star-shaped power line stand that supports the high tension lines cutting across the Mojave between LA and Vegas. The resurrection of a skeletal Trojan Human with nothing hidden, its structure as blank as the desert that houses it, its message empty excepting whatever meaning any one of the gatherers wants to foist upon it. And with that done, the whole thing will be set on fire, of course. These projections, like the edifice itself, which will be consumed by fire at the culmination of the festival. Woodstock meets the World’s Fair, whose finale is Jimi Hendrix electronically vomiting out the “Star Spangled Banner” while the Hindenburg immolates. Or something.

The festival is held on the Black Rock dry lake bed, a location with serious overtones of ancient civilizations of Pauite Indians and genocide, and WW II war games.

This dry lake bed is a flat ball of string with the triumphs and transgressions of Western Man and the Noble Savage he supplanted all intertwined. The spiritual, the cosmic and Western Man’s “fucked male energy” are all there… it is the only logical place to set the Man on fire and attempt to purge the sins of Modern Life and some how get right with nature.

Beyond its status as a pagan festival, Burning Man is a gesture. It is a metaphor. A reactionary statement about life at the ass end of the 20th century, whereupon technology has taken a strange turn.

The whole gag was form over function. A bio-mechanoidal convergence. The least functioning the sculpture the better. Technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives, nay, our very central nervous system(s). Thematically, Burning Man is a commentary on technology gone awry, a re-enactment of 2001, when the mainframe computer on the space station in 2001 went haywire and makes a cognitive decision to lock the pod bay doors in an attempt to deprive the astronauts of their oxygen. The astronauts were in a battle of wits with the computer and the computer was kickin’ some serious Homo Sapien ass. So anyway, Burning Man is/was a contrived attempt to dis-empower technology, to relegate it to its proper status as a tool and not the command center.

Technology is an extension of humanity, and takes the Venn Diagram one step further, it is an extension of nature. Burning Man was a contrived and somewhat precious attempt to detune technology to the basics: punch cards, strobe lights and pulse jet go-karts…

All of which is sheer spectacle and an exercise in entropy and pointlessness.

The festival ends with thousands of post-modern hippies, punk rockers and other bohemian-types wiped out on the dry lake bed. They were drugged out, drunked out, fucked out. The Man is cinders, caught in the ethereal, basso profundo winds that blow across a desert bed that one sci-fi writer referred to as “the afterlife.”

There was nothing left to burn.

The only thing left was to “pack it out.” Dutifully, the Blind Hippie begins to help clean up the trash. The next year he returns. And stays.

VESUVIUS (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

En route to Black Rock, and with the motorized class struggle in our rear view mirrors, we continue to fight our way through the crosstown traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway, arguably the most constipated thoroughfare in Los Angeles. As we pass through East LA, traffic is really beginning to tighten up and the radio man says that just beyond Pomona the freeway was an absolute parking lot. Cuz’n Roy and I take a slight detour. We go drag racing.

Top Fuel cars are running out at the drag strip in Pomona that same day, which is pretty tough for us to blow off: aye, getting dosed by nitro-powered projectiles reaching a terminal velocity of 300 mph in 4 seconds, the ground shaking like Vesuvius, buckets of raw, liquid explosives seeding the ionosphere like the Devil’s cornfield. It sure beat sitting in traffic, watching the temperature gauge needle weld itself to the red line. Once the sun set in Pomona traffic would thin to a tolerable density and we could ball the jack into San Berdoo and Barstow and continue to retrace Breedlove’s steps at night, as least as far as Tonopah, Nevada, out by the missile silos and the proving grounds of Area 51. All things considered, an afternoon at the drag races seemed like the perfect overture for a trip to the desert…

The detour makes sense on many levels, not the least of which being that Breedlove himself had raced on this very chunk of asphalt back in early 1962, shoeing a railjob propelled by two small block Chevies with pump gas for its fuel. It was a deconstructed machine known as the Freight Train, and as part of the race team’s schtick, they often wore railroad engineer’s caps in the Winner Circle. Breedlove drove the car only for a couple of weekends as a prelude to his initial Land Speed Record attempts, and well before the choo-choo hats became part of the wardrobe…

Indeed, throughout the 60s and early 70s, Breedlove used the drag strip as a test bench for various aerodynamic theories and propulsion systems, but whenever the fastest man in the world returned to the 1/4 mile asphalt, one got the feeling he was really slumming and passing time until all systems were “go” for another crack at the Land Speed Record out on the Salt Flats.

Cuz’n Roy and I park the ‘71 Grand Prix at a taco stand that stood behind the drag strip’s timing tower, hoof it a couple of blocks into the pit entrance gate, then grab some track steaks and a couple of beers and cop a squat on some aluminum seats near the finish line. Top Fuel cars come roaring by our perch in pairs at speeds of 300 mph or so (“WHHHHAAAAAAHHHHHHUUUUUUHHHHHNNTT!”) and as often as not – due to finicky track conditions and an envelope of smog that was starving these rapacious dragsters for oxygen – blow up overamped engines and propel shrapnel into altitudes of absurd elevations (“PPPOOOFFF!”). The dragsters pound the pavement with such ferocity that car alarms are triggered in the parking lot after nearly every pass. The explosions are a great spectacle, but the car alarms bum our high.

“When does that fucking noise stop?” I blurt. “Is that constant squeaking, squealing and honking the soundtrack to our entire existence nowadays?” It is the noise of fear, dread and neurosis, and it had invaded the otherwise peaceful confines of an afternoon at the drag races. It was one thing to hear the sounds after an accident on the freeway, but quite another to have it interfere with our enjoyment of gratuitous explosions at the drag strip. I take a hit off of my paper cup and tried to block the shrill sounds from the parking lot out of my consciousness.

Another fuel dragster blazes by on fire, the crew chief having miscalculated the fuel mixture and atmospheric boost levels, the infernal roar drowning out any superfluous noise from the parking lot. As flak rains from the heavens I tell Roy I feel like Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, dodging fragments of molten metal while trying to maintain a cogent discourse. In this instance, rather than debating Duvall’s take on whether or not the Red Chinese used surfboards in Vietnam, the conversation is about the strange turn the land speed record took once Breedlove shunned the traditional internal combustion engine used by both passenger cars and Top Fuel dragsters in favor of jet propulsion that was, in essence, liberated from the trash bins of the military industrial complex.

POMONA SEX MACHINE (Pomona, 1996)

November 3, 2008

Nearby a couple of old time railbirds are smoking nails and have overheard Cuz’n Roy and I ruminating about the dueling topics of a) the absurdity of these race cars stressing a pushrod engine to 8000 rpm in four seconds; and b) the Spirit of America. One of the bleacher bums – the more portly of the two – is sporting a t-shirt with the caption, “This Ain’t A Beer Gut…This is a Fuel Tank for a Sex Machine.” He asks if we need tickets for the races for the rest of the weekend as he had extra. We tell him thanks but no thanks as we were just passing through, en route to see Breedlove attempt his supersonic record runs out at Black Rock, Nevada. We tell him that we would be on the road right now if the San Bernardino Freeway wasn’t so bollixed.

The skinnier guy chuckles, takes a pull off of his beer and relates how he and his partner knew Craig from the old days of car club gatherings on the Westside of LA, as well as when Craig himself was running dragsters out here all those years ago, back in the days before there were very many freeways, when the hot rodders congregated at hamburger stands like The 19 in Culver City (“… on the corner of Jefferson and Sepulveda,” the skinny guy said, “named after its 19 cent hamburgers”), the Clock Drive-in (“Sepulveda and Venice, across the street from the Shell Station”) or the Foster Freeze on Hawthorne Blvd. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon they took surface streets to the sundry drag strips such as Saugus, Santa Ana, Riverside, Fontana Drag City or Pomona – that is, if they bothered to take it to the drag strips at all…

“One night at the Clock, Craig Breedlove was draggin’ it out in some guy’s 3-window deuce,” the skinnier old timer says. “Craig crashed out by the railroad tracks and just about broke his friggin’ neck…”

“He went through the roof…”

“…We thought he was dead until the guy who owned the deuce called the police and an ambulance.”

“… I can’t believe none of us went to jail.”

“After that, Craig took it to the strip,” the sex machine says. “Eventually, he ended up driving for John Peters and Nye Frank for awhile, in 1962. Two blown and injected small block Chevies. They called the car the Freight Train. The whole crew wore engineer’s hats.”

Both bleacher bums chuckle at the memory of the train engineer’s get-up.

“Craig didn’t drive the Freight Train very long,” the fat man says as he exhales on a butt and pitches his cup. “It probably wasn’t fast enough for him.”

INFINITY AND THE NOTES WITHIN THE NOTES (Black Rock, 1997)

November 3, 2008

Four hippies are traveling east out of Grass Valley, CA in a beaten ‘89 Ford Taurus station wagon, brownish yellow as sun-beaten adobe and trimmed with a personalized California license plate that reads “EIEIOM.” Like a perpetual motion machine powered by cough syrup, the Taurus chugs up and over the Donner Summit, gathers downhill momentum and coasts across a state line that gradually smears into the funky, gaudy Babylon of Reno. After exiting the interstate at Fernley, the Ford heads north on a ghostly two lane highway snaking towards a dry lake bed some ninety miles up the road, burning the proverbial midnight oil in a grimy crankcase.

With an eggshell of a summer moon as their beacon and a hissy, unbiased cassette tape of Schoenberg compositions as their soundtrack on a factory stereo with no noise reduction, this ragtag new age entourage journeys past the ramshackle shanties that serve as suburbs of the nearby Indian Reservations. It is a menagerie of adobe shacks, satellite dishes aimed at the heavens, rusted Chevy Vegas and sandblasted pickup trucks with weathered bumper stickers that read “SURE YOU CAN TRUST THE GOVERNMENT JUST ASK AN INDIAN,” and sundry forsaken hardware (washing machines, refrigerators, teevee sets) whose sole practical application is that of lawn sculptures. This scene is supplemented by a lunar-lit landscape of buttes, mesas, the placid veneer of Pyramid Lake, and lava rock that had been spit up 150 million years ago out of the parched and ancient Lake Lahontan. As it climbs into the thin air of the high desert, the dingy Ford is conspicuous as the only object in one hundred square miles to exhibit any motion, a reality punctuated by its dull, low octane ping.

To these travelers, this pinging was another intermittent, syncopated rhythmic element that accompanied the cassette tape of Schoenberg.

Among the four hippies is Danny Jo, a blind visionary riding shotgun and meta-grokking to the sounds of Schoenberg, as his exceptional sense of hearing was piqued by the minor detonations inside the combustion chambers of the engine. (The sound of vehicles in motion always spoke to him, as did twelve tone compositions by German cars with umlauted names.)

Schoenberg used every note in the Western scale – all twelve tones (the black keys and the white keys) that was his modus operandi and his signature as a composer. His critics considered this technique busy and gratuitous. To the blind hippie, however, these compositions were not busy enough (!) and when the low octane pinging subsided, to compensate the blind hippie would begin riffing on the notes within the notes.

The notes within the notes. It is interesting how the mind travels. The notes within the notes reminded Danny Jo of the Ancient Greeks and their conundrum about infinity – and the infinities within the infinity. Between 0 and 1 were an infinite amount of fractions (1/2, 1/10, 1/100, 1/100,000,000, ad infinitum).

The higher the denominator, the lower the value. The higher the denominator, the closer you are to zero. But you can never get to zero. That’s the paradox of Infinity.

The knowledge warms him with glee. He begins to meditate with “In-fin-uhh-tee” as his mantra.

As the Taurus passes by the shells and hulls that dot the Reservation town of Little Nixon, the blind clairvoyant’s meditation is interrupted by a flaming telepathy, as Danny Jo begins to involuntarily decode spiritual overtones of massacred Injuns. Furthermore, he is enveloped by sound patterns of what he considered an extraterrestrial presence. He feels both death and… the presence of spaceships in the desert.

Despite the exotic and transcendental nature of these telepathic interruptions, the blind man considers both signals not only superfluous to his purposes but even ultimately distracting to his mission, and he begins to filter out these pulsations by dialing in the sound of a freight train as it chugga-chugga’d down some lonesome railroad tracks. And from listening to a videotape of Bad Day at Black Rock, that old Spencer Tracy flick, he knew that Gerlach was nothing more than the intersection of railroad tracks, the highway, a gypsum mine and a prehistoric lake bed. This must be the source of the sound of the train.

A train is the perfect construct to drown out the other psychic noise. The blind hippie remembers to back when times were bad, when he lived near the railroad tracks in Olathe, Kansas before he had found himself a good woman with a gold station wagon, and how he had to create a way to tune out the extraneous din that clouded his head and his being. Once, in the midst of a particularly vicious and dark argument with his woman, he had heard a railroad engine off in the distance. As it moved closer, the freight train began to drown all of the infernal hollerin’. And when both the train and the domestic situation had passed, the blind hippie unchained his relationship with that harridan shrew – not unlike a boxcar at the station – and moved out west to find him a peaceful woman with good karma. So from that day forward, in order to create a device that would reject the negative vibrations and that would streamline the metaphysical signal-to-noise ratio to an acceptable level, he had fabricated a sort of post hypnotic suggestion for himself in the guise of an oncoming train steaming its way down the tracks, whose sound suggested to the blind hippie that good tidings were coming. His heart was filled with glee. An oncoming train. A Juggernaut of Positive Vibrations. And by extrapolation, A Glorious Portent for the Millennium.