Friday, December 14, 2012

"Happy Hour," Fred Nettelbeck (1950-2011): "That's what makes the jukebox play"

Fred A Nettelbeck (1950-2011)

(Bellemeade Books is posting a selection of holiday gift ideas from this year's reviews)

"From the Tear Stain Lounge"
F.A. Nettelbeck

the angels don't give no
change when you pay
your dues so hang onto
that box of wine and a
few favorite photos it
won't get no better just
because you're in the
club and a university
has your shitty poems
locked away in a climate
controlled room some
of your best friends are
dead and this ain't the
same country you went
junkin' with your grandpa
in so you might as well
stay and listen to a few
more sad songs the wars
and hatred will always be
king but because she was
your first choice and you
ain't with her that's what
makes the jukebox play

F.A. Nettelbeck has gone on ahead a few yards, just scouting the country as it were, looking for a new place to set his box of wine. He might have been an American poet in the style of Han Shan (Cold Mountain), describing a world of jukeboxes, booze, and sand instead of rivers, villages, and mountains. An observant reader gets the idea that Fred really wouldn't care for that comparison, though -- Fred was too much cantankerous flesh and bone and blood to be quiet about such things.

His poems are loud American declarations, and some are the observations made between drunks in a dive bar. They are poems real enough to make you squirm with the 101-proof kick of American truth. When Bukowski comments "he was a fraud of an artist, and a fraud of a human being," it's the sound of another poet whistling past his own rep and wondering where Fred hid that half-empty bottle of Evan Williams. It's around here somewhere.

F.A.'s friend Stephen Kessler writes a tribute to the poet who "was organizing swap meets and supporting a family of five on virtually no visible income" but always writing and drinking: At the end he was brought down not by his liver, as I expected, but by a spinal infection that surgery could not repair. He was left paralyzed but clearheaded enough to ask to be taken off life support, a decision that seemed to me both reasonable and courageous.

Kessler is also honest enough to acknowledge Nettelbeck's transgressions and out-of-control behavior, so "obnoxiously uncool" at one point that Kessler writes I fled the scene as soon as possible. I couldn’t abide that kind of behavior — by now it is so passé and cliché, no longer amusing nor the sign of some Bukowskioid or Kerouackian genius. Alcoholism may be an illness, but so what.

Here's more of Kessler's clear-eyed tribute:

... Fred, as Nettelbeck was known to his friends, was a loyal comrade and a no-nonsense partner in conversation, but I can’t say he was easy to get along with. Born in Chicago in 1950, he came to LA with his family as a boy and grew up in Inglewood, gravitating to the bohemian shores of Hermosa Beach and to the sun-baked streets of Watts for his cultural education.

At 20, during what’s now called “the mimeo revolution,” when hundreds of little journals were springing up across the United States, he started his own magazine, Throb, which featured writings by and interviews with such then low-on-the-totem-pole and under-the-radar bards as Charles Bukowski, Gerald Locklin and Susan Fromberg Schaeffer.

In the later years of his career as a publisher he put out a series of tiny folded pamphlets called This Is Important with a half-dozen or so texts by distinguished renegades like William S. Burroughs, Tom Clark and Wanda Coleman, among others. Fred would photocopy a few hundred of these little poem-bombs and place them like evangelical propaganda in unlikely places like Laundromats and public rest rooms—a guerrilla assault on a-literate complacency.

...What I saw in him, beyond the belligerent drunk, was an artistic brilliance and drive to create that nothing could stop. I found a lot of his writing to be too harsh and hardboiled and vulgar for my taste, but it was also powerful, unique and honest, formally inventive and tight and true to his experience, so I couldn’t escape its integrity.

Like the music of Howlin’ Wolf or Albert Ayler, the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Hubert Selby Jr., the lowdown assemblages of Ed Kienholz or Robert Rauschenberg, Nettelbeck’s verse might at first puzzle or repel, but you could, if you paid attention, feel its soul and its peculiar beauty. Unsentimental yet sensitive as hell, his lines were a conduit for an unruly current of discontent and chaos barely contained beneath the surface of civil society. His alienation was both intelligent and visceral, and his ear for the tones of contemporary American speech impeccable.

No Place Fast, 1976. Bug Death, 1979. Americruiser, 1983. His literary magazine, This Is Important (1980–1997). Happy Hour, 2010: Forty years of poetic sleight-of hand. Fred's manuscripts, poems and papers are now at the Ohio State University archives. The irony of Fred's words winding up in a climate-controlled room of their own, I'm sure, must provide hours of hilarity between those two loudmouth drunks at the end of the bar -- and then provoke an argument over who pays for the next round.

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