July 2, 2017

My Original Delusions of Failure (July 7th, 1996)


Author’s Note: Some point in mid-July marks the thirtieth anniversary of “Slackjaw.” Three long decades, over half my life, of writing about myself week after week after week. Lord, What was I thinking? If only I’d had a hobby of some kind. Given that with only a small handful of exceptions, none of the columns prior to 2006 exist anywhere except my own files, I thought I’d mark the occasion by dredging up a few vintage “Slackjaws,” just for the hell of it. The first is kind of a cheat, as it was a tenth anniversary piece that ran in the New York Press. Weird thing is, it ran in 1996, a year before the actual tenth anniversary. Well, arithmetic was never my strong suit.

            This week marks the beginning of the tenth year of “Slackjaw.” Every single goddamned week for the past nine full years—except for the one week I was away at a funeral and had G.G. Allin write it for me—I’ve ground out, to greater or lesser effect, my stupid little stories for one paper or another. Almost 500 columns about my own hapless little existence. Hoo-hah, as they say.

            Trapped as I am in a nation obsessed with anniversaries, I guess there’s some sort of law on the books which obligates me to mark the occasion in some fashion. So here goes.

            Yesterday, I was digging my way through The Book of Doom—a folder I’ve kept for years, a kind of archive, filled with odd newspaper clippings (“Special Thanksgiving Meal Includes People,” “Happy Day Ends in Death”), strange fliers, pamphlets from tourist attractions no one would ever want to visit, war atrocity photos, documentation of my old bands and old pranks. It’s about as close as I get to anything approaching “nostalgia.”

            Well, hidden amongst the rubbish was a folded, crumpled and soiled piece of paper. Unfolding it and smoothing it against the table, I found myself staring down at what was, essentially, the original, badly-typed copy of the very first (and until now, unpublished) “Slackjaw.”

            Actually, I shouldn’t say that. The first true “Slack” was still two years away. I mean, I had already acquired the nickname by 1984, but this was—

            Well, maybe I should just tell the damned story from the beginning, just to save us all the confusion of backtracking.

            In 1985, my old cohort Grinch and I were bored, so we formed a political organization—just the two of us—called the Nihilist Workers Party. Very few people got the joke. For us, it was just an excuse to cause trouble and pull silly pranks under the rubric of “an organization.” What’s more, an organization which had been officially recognized by the University of Wisconsin.

            So we’d set up a table in the student union a couple of times a week and load it down with silly things. We had a bake sale in which we sold Hostess products. After hearing the slogan “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” one too many times, we filled the table with religious pamphlets, science textbooks from the 1920s, and Catholic “Marriage Manuals,” and sold ignorance real cheap. (Oh, shut the fuck up—we were in college). It was something to do—or rather, it was Nothing to do.

            One day during all this foolishness, I received a catalog from an anarchist bookstore in San Francisco. Cienfuegos Books, I think it was. On the back of the catalog was a list of toll-free numbers from a variety of televangelists and evil corporations like Dow Chemical, Coors Beer, Morton Thiokol, General Electric and other “baddies.” The deal was, every time you call one of these numbers, it costs the company in question one dollar just to pick up the phone. The longer you talk, the more it costs them. Idea being, if you call again and again and again, it’ll cost them a fortune. Old news, and now a federal offense, but at the time we thought it was damned good fun.

            So we made a few hundred photocopies of the list, stuck the name “Nihilist Workers Party” on it, put the stack out on the table in the student union, and pretty much forgot about it.

            The next day I was flipping through the student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, when I found this same list, with these same instructions, reproduced on the editorial page. What’s more, the editors of the paper had given the N.W.P. a byline. What followed the publication of that list (a bungled F.B.I. investigation, a write-up in Time magazine, various death threats) doesn’t really matter here. What does matter is the fact that, given that byline in the paper, Grinch and I simply assumed that the editors had just granted us our own column, completely out of the blue. I mean, it just seemed obvious.

            So that night, I sat down at my trusty blue plastic Smith-Corona, never having had the slightest inkling to become a “writer,” fired up a Phillies Titan, and wrote our next column (and the first one which hadn’t been stolen from some goofy anarchist book catalog). And here it is, unedited and unmodified, in its entirety:

How to Build a Cheap Bomb

Don’t you all agree—ah, you all must agree—that there comes a time in everyone’s life when we all want to be Elvis, when we all want to be Joan of Arc, we all want to be Jerry Lewis, we all want to be Jean Kirkpatrick, or Golda Meir, or John Stuart Mill, or Jackie Gleason, or Jocko the Apeshit Boy, or Veebo the Born Philosopher, or Bozo the Evil, Axe-Wielding Clown, or a large bottle of Top Job, or some dehydrated tomatoes, or a brainwave, or some Silly Putty, or some Schmaltz E Dige artificial chicken-flavored fat, or a squashed toad, or Samuel J. Mecklenburg, or Jesse James, or Fatty Arbuckle, or any Arbuckle, or Elvis again, or an Elvis impersonator, or an Elvis impersonator impersonator, or a prayer rug, or a black velvet painting, or a militant plumber, or a pen scratch, or a hang gliding gnu, or some hooves, or a set of non-toxic watercolor paints, or one-quarter of a horse, or some mildewed peaches, or glumness, or a book bindery, or Gumby’s tiny brown muscular alien friend, Mike, or Archie and Marlene of the Nashville North Show Lounge, or matzoh, or a famous composer of commercial jingles, or Kirk Douglas, or a thin line of spittle hanging from someone’s lower lip, or a dent, or nostrils, or maybe even a creature once thought extinct, like the coelacanth except not a fish but something much larger and not so slimy, or one of the Osmond clan, or a puddle, or a waste dump, or a dental hygienist, or dialectical materialism, or the categorical imperative, or the reason why a hammer is not a plaything, or the phrase “moms like it, too!” or Aunt Jemima, or the jitterbug, or a cricket nailed to a piece of corkboard, or some old dead guy that nobody liked, or Betsy the Boilsucker, or hair, or a mile of unpaved road, or “that funky disco beat,” or some convulsions.

      Am I right? So be careful, dammit, and don’t blow off any fingers.

It took me about fifteen minutes of hard labor to churn that out—hard labor, mind you—and those sonsabitches at The Daily Cardinal refused to print it, too busy as they were documenting the atrocities taking place in Nicaragua or South Africa or El Salvador. Pfffft!

            Two days after breaking into the Cardinal offices to leave our first, brilliant foray into journalism (we were thinking of calling the column itself either “Nihilism: Who Cares?” or “Nihilism: What’s in it for Me?”) on the editor’s desk, we stopped by during business hours to find out why it hadn’t run yet.

            Marcia, I think, was the editor’s name. Long straight hair, chain-smoking, heavy bags under the eyes, a carefully cultivated world weariness about her.

            “Guys, c’mon,” she told us, patient as can be, gesturing to the badly-typed manuscript on her desk. “Let’s be realistic—this just doesn’t make any sense.”

            “Makes sense to me,” I said.

            “Perfect sense. Absolutely crystalline,” Grinch added. We were very serious. We never cracked a smile.

            “Guys, Jesus—’everyone wants to be Elvis’? What the hell does that mean?”

            Grinch and I looked at each other. Now she was the one who wasn’t making any sense.

            “I wanna be Elvis,” Grinch said.

            “Me too,” I added, “No question. I wanna be Elvis.”

            “Chip, too. Chip wants to be Elvis.” Chip was a grad student in the political science department, a friend of ours with a fetish for guns, acid and television. Marcia knew him too, and was afraid.

            “I can name several professors who want to be Elvis—”

            “And frankly, Marcia, I’m a little worried about the fact that you don’t want to be Elvis.”

            Soon thereafter, we were quietly ushered from the office and asked never to return.

            Thinking back on that scene now, I realize that we were every editor’s worst bugaboo—the worthless writer without a hope in the world who simply will not go away. Fortunately in our case, we had no interest in being “writers,” no egos to be crushed. No, we were perfectly happy just being bugaboos. Who could’ve possibly imagined where being a simple pain in the ass would lead me all these years later?

            I never published anything else in The Daily Cardinal (intentionally or unintentionally). I didn’t even attempt to publish anything anyplace else for two years, until a dumpy little man with a long white beard suggested that maybe I could write something for his newspaper. I’d never done anything like that before (really), but I was pretty far down on my luck at the time, so I decided to take him up on it. Then I decided to name it after myself. It’s been nothin’ but bad news ever since.


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