July 8, 2012

Any Sane Man Would Have Given This Up by Now


I’m trying to put things in perspective here. Twenty-five years ago this week I was listening to Black Flag, Killdozer, Wagner’s Parsifal, Elvis, Sinatra, The Residents, and Blue Oyster Cult. I was angry at the world, and avoided company whenever it was possible. I ate my dinner sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the television. I smoked and drank a lot. I had no money, no job, no prospects, and most of my clothes were in tatters. But these days, see? These days things are a lot different, because I . . . ahhh . . . well, I, um.

            I was in another city, I suppose that’s something. Ronald Reagan was still president. I could still see some. And though I wasn’t married yet, I was well on my way there. Plus the place I was living in was carpeted. That’s something, too. And all those records I was listening to were on vinyl. And I could smoke in bars like a civilized (or at least partially civilized) human being.

            Well, okay, apart from the smoking in bars, Reagan, the vinyl and the carpeting, not a whole hell of a lot has changed. Point being that it was twenty-five years ago this week that I started writing this column. That amounts to roughly thirteen hundred of the damn things now, which honestly doesn’t strike me as that many. About 1.5 million little words. Three years ago I reached the point at which I’d been writing it every week for half my life. I’m still trying to wrap my shrunken head around that one, and remain a bit dumbfounded at times that I’m still at it.

            “Slackjaw” was a very different beast in those first months at The Welcomat in Philadelphia.

            The paper’s editorial offices were up on the third floor of an extremely narrow, ratty building whose entrance was in an alleyway just three or four blocks from my Twenty-first Street apartment. Two doors down from the office was a Chinese whorehouse. Every week I’d trot over to the paper with my poorly-typed copy (although I had a new Mac SE sitting on my desk, I’d never turned it on, insisting on the typewriter on principle.). I’d chat a bit with Toni, the delightfully crass and boisterous hippie receptionist, then trod up to the top floor to see Derek. Against the better judgment that would have guided any rational man Derek had given me a job, and had become my first friend in Philly. I was being paid thirty-five dollars a week, which doesn’t seem like a lot of money these days (more so in 1987).

            But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or behind myself, one of the two. Let me step back a ways, there. By the time I moved to Philly in that summer of ‘87, I had developed a very bad habit. When I got bored, bad things happened. I stole things, smashed things, assaulted strangers in one way or another, or attempted suicide. All in an effort to distract myself for a while. Boredom and I do not get along.

            So one boring afternoon not long after my arrival in that strange and ugly town, I tried something I’d never done before. My future ex-wife was still in Chicago and wouldn’t be arriving for another month or so. I had no cats yet, no friends, no job, and nothing to do. So I dragged out my cheap blue Smith-Corona, set it up in the middle of the bedroom floor, scrolled in a sheet of paper, and typed up a review of the album I was listening to that afternoon (Life Time by The Rollins Band). I never had any thought before that or at that very moment of becoming a “writer.” I’d just read a lot of record reviews is all, and it looked easy. It was something to try.

            But as I slowly and painfully pecked out the keys (I never did learn how to type properly) a funny thing happened. The further along I went, the less the piece was about either The Rollins Band or this new record of theirs. Instead I found myself writing about some of the more entertaining schizophrenics I’d met in recent years. It seemed to make sense somehow, and to be honest it seemed a more interesting story than anything that was on that album.

            When I was finished, I shrugged. Then on a whim I sent it off to the two local weekly papers. Again, I had nothing in mind here—it was just something to do. I was curious to see what kind of reaction my drivel would get. I found out about a week later, when one of the editors yelled at me and said I was a bad person, and the other told me to write something else. That surprised me some, but again I reacted with a shrug. I guessed I’d write another story. Something to do.

            So I went to see Iggy Pop play at a local club, and that night after getting home I pulled out the typewriter again, sat down in the middle of the floor (did I mention it was carpeted?), and wrote another long and rambling story about a whole lot of different things—most everything that was on my mind at the time, in fact, which did not include the Iggy Pop show. I’m the first to admit it was not a very good story. Can’t think about that story these days without wincing a little. Still, I brought it over to the Welcomat and handed it to Derek.

            That initial record review I’d written never did run any place, but the sort-of-Iggy Pop story did. And for some reason, bad as that story was, it made a lot of people very angry. What kind of pathetic, no-life loser gets upset about a fucking concert review? Well, whatever they are there were a lot of them, including the guy who sent me my first death threat in response to it.

            I wish I knew who that crazy son of a bitch was, because I owe him quite a bit. More than any other single thing, that letter was what convinced me I might have found something worth doing. I set out to write another piece for the next week’s issue. Secretly, I think my real goal was to see if I could earn myself another death threat. (It took me a few weeks, but I did.)

            I suppose it’s worth noting that the Iggy Pop review was not officially called “Slackjaw.” That title (and the regular weekly space in the paper) was still a few weeks away. I think Derek wanted to see if I could keep it up, or if I would just drift away like most did. I think it’s also worth noting that when it officially began, “Slackjaw,” as mentioned above, was a very different animal. Derek wanted me to use the space to cover odd little underground events around Philly. The problem with that, though, was that Philly’s art and music and weirdness circles were all quite small and quite incestuous. It didn’t take long to realize that everyone knew each other, and that all the same people were making up the crowds at all these shows. I did what I could, but it wasn’t long before the columns were reading like that rambling concert review. Eventually I dispatched with “covering events” altogether.

            Honestly, I never expected it to last. Maybe a few months, tops. Long enough to snag a few cheap yuks and then move on to whatever was next (prison, most likely). But it didn’t work that way. So here we all are again a quarter-century later. Thinking about it, I still write this column every week, and will continue to do so, for the same reasons I wrote that initial, unpublished record review—I’m just trying to stave off something bad. Boredom and I still don’t get along, and I don’t care to consider what might happen should I let it creep in. So I write to keep it away. And if only by accident, this column in the process has become as close as anything to what I can call a memory.

            (Which is why I’m pissed a computer glitch cost me a year and a half of those early Philly columns, because I no longer have any idea what the hell I was doing back then.)

            Twenty-five years from now when I’m in my seventies, I suspect I’ll still be writing it, though it will probably be beamed directly into the frontal cortexes of millions of unsuspecting citizens. I’ve no doubt that I’ll still be eating dinner while sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of my antique television, and I’ll likely mark the anniversary by telling this same damn story.


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.