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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Go Fly a Kite and Other Mild Insults (transcript)

Published February 1, 2020

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Yes, it is I, I and I, risen – risen? – yeah, that’s right, risen from the dead silence of the past three months. Four or five months, I suppose is more accurate, since it’s been four or five months. Everyone needs a break, you know. We moved, then me mum died, and me doggie died, and somewhat inevitably, all me money died, and things were, and are, a bit cruel and crucial, as the kids say.

Death, you know. The older you get, the more it hovers around the fringes of everything and everyone. Waiting there. And when times are bad you start to think, or I start to think, that standing in front of a microphone pontificating and cracking jokes is far too frivolous a thing to be doing. Too unimportant, ya dig?

When I was a kid the stores used to sell these paper kites in the summer and fall. Just a big kite-shaped piece of paper and a couple of sticks. I think they were fifteen cents. Every year you bought a kite and either lost it in a tree or just left it out to blow away or be eaten by raccoons.

There were a couple dozen designs printed on the kites, but the one I always wanted was the black kite with the skull and crossbones on it. Every time I saw a pile of those bundled up kites at the corner store or the drug store I’d dig through them looking for the black ones, checking the labels for the Jolly Roger. Never could get one. I was always too late, or maybe they didn’t make a lot of Jolly Rogers, figuring very few pirates were also kite fliers. I don’t know.

But then when I was eight or nine years old I was staying at a cousin’s house overnight or for the weekend or something – later when my family was briefly homeless I’d live in that cousin’s basement for a few months, sleeping on a pool table, but that’s another story – anyway, we walked to the corner store near their house and there was the little bin full of kites, so I did what I always did and rummaged through them looking for the mighty kite of black death and malevolence.

I knew it was pointless. The coolest kids in town must have been on some kind of mailing list that told them when the pirate kites would arrive and they bought them all up and flew them in my face every autumn. But then, like the answer to a stupid prayer, there it was. The pirate kite.

My hands may have actually been shaking as I laid it on the counter with my dime and nickel. I was worried that the store owner might see that I wasn’t skull and crossbones kite material and turn me away. Stick a kite with a unicorn on it into my hand and tell me to never come back. But he didn’t, so I walked out of the store with that tight little bundle of paper and sticks as triumphant as an eight year old goober can be. How cool was I going to be? Flying the Jolly Roger a mile above the high school football field.

Shit, it would be so high the older kids wouldn’t even be able to see how cool it was. I could picture the whole scene, I could taste the triumph in the cool air. But that might have just been what everything in Minnesota tasted like in September, I don’t know.

My cousin said, “Come on, there’s a shortcut home,” and I followed him into a cornfield. That wasn’t terribly unusual or anything, walking into a cornfield. The cousins lived in a regular town, it wasn’t the middle of the wilderness or anything, but they were at the edge of town, and across the street from their house were bean fields and cornfields as far as an eight year old can see. Bean fields are easy, the beans are no more than a foot off the ground, you can cut through them like walking down a sidewalk.

Corn fields are another matter. It was just before harvest time, so the corn was at least a few feet taller than we were, and the plants very full. I don’t know if you’ve ever walked through a cornfield, maybe people only do that in horror movies now, but it’s a narrow path between the rows and you can’t see anything but the path 10 feet in front of you. Otherwise you may as well be on the floor of a rainforest. You know, a rainforest full of corn.

My cousin confidently trudged through the corn like he knew where he was going, and I confidently followed him, but it seemed like we were in there for a long time. because we were. The corn rows are very straight lines, as you know if you’ve ever seen them in someone’s hair, but my cousin would occasionally cut across to the next row and continue on, so we were half a dozen rows away from the one we started on.

And you’d think that a bunch of straight rows would eventually come to an end somewhere and you’d step out and look around and be like, “Oh, there’s the house,” and next thing you know you’d be inside eating peanut butter out of the jar with your fingers, but not so for us. We wandered around in the corn for what felt like hours, me asking my cousin where we were and him telling me, over and over again, “It’s right here, we’re almost there.”

Then the sun set behind the corn stalks. I mean, the sun didn’t set, it just dipped below the tops of the corn, but it was getting late. We’d probably realistically been marching through the cornfield for 45 minutes, but when you’re a kid doing something you don’t want to be doing, 45 minutes may as well be 10 years. The darker it got the more worried I got, and I started yelling at my cousin. “This isn’t a shortcut, we walked to the store in 10 minutes. You don’t even know where we are! We’re lost!”

He kept saying we weren’t lost, then eventually he stopped and said, “Maybe we’re lost.” So we started to walk across the rows, thinking maybe that was a better way to find the edge of the god damned endless corn field.

Walking across the rows means walking between cornstalks every three feet, and corn stalks are not soft and silky like – like something soft and silky. You fill in that blank. Corn stalks are rough and scratchy and quite damaging to delicate pre-adolescent flesh. So it became our little death march. No offense to those who went on real death marches. But when you’re a kid every emotion is amplified beyond reason, so the smallest inconvenience or discomfort feels like death.

After a few minutes of struggling between corn stalks, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I had to relieve myself of my burdens. But the only burden I had was the magic kite. The long package got caught on every stalk and it was becoming battered and tattered and I was becoming panicked so finally I just said, “AAAHHHRRGH!” and snapped the kite in half over my knee and dropped it there in one of the rows of corn.

Then, of course, about two minutes later we came to the edge of the field and there was my cousin’s house, about a hundred yards away. We were lost, he didn’t know a shortcut, but we got lucky with our exit. Lucky in that way, anyway. But the kite, my prized possession and salvation for that brief time, she was gone forever.

If you could take an aerial view of that cornfield, or look at it on a Google map now, it was probably only five acres or so. It wasn’t like we were lost in twelve square miles of corn. But when you’re only four feet tall and incapable of rational thought, an acre may as well be a mile. A fifteen foot square backyard patch of tall corn can seem endless when you’re standing in the middle of it.

And I know that’s what’s happening to me now. Even though I’m really old and should know better, the bad times still feel like they’re going to go on forever. I mean, I know they won’t, but then the realist in me says, “Hold on, how do you know that?” But I know things will get better. Probably.

So don’t feel no way. I’m not here to bring you down, but rather to uplift us to the heavens where we can dance on the clouds with Jesus or Buddha and drink Mai Tais and go barefoot. because that’s what we should be doing, you and I. Maybe not with Jesus, but you get the idea. Buddha looks like he knows his way around a drink menu though.

So yeah. Here we are. Six months in the desert. It’s still as great as it was the first month, only a whole lot colder and windier. It snowed on Thanksgiving, and all day the day after Christmas, piling up six or eight inches deep. So yeah, the climate seems to be very in tune with the North American holidays. But you know how weird it is to move. To be suddenly occupying a completely different space sometimes in a completely different town.

We lived in very different places in Los Angeles. I mean different from each other, so moving was always weird. Not as weird as leaving Los Angeles though. There’s something very strange feeling about that. I lived there for most of my life. Or, you know, sixty percent of my life. And sometimes I feel like the high desert here is still Los Angeles, because we’re only a couple hours away, but it isn’t. It’s a different county and a different world.

There’s this bullshit called metadata that follows us through our lives. There are thousands of pieces of metadata attached to you, and I’ll bet you never even think about them. because why would anyone think about metadata? They wouldn’t. On websites though, you have to think about it, or you should think about it if you want the rest of the world to be able to find you.

Anyway, I changed all the metadata on the mjp Books site, replacing Los Angeles with Joshua Tree, and it felt really strange to erase Los Angeles from my online metadata identity. Forget for a minute what an idiotic concept “my online metadata identity” is and try to remember what it felt like last time you made a significant move.

So here we are, and here I am, and there you are, and la dee da. “Come on mjp, say something. This isn’t entertainment. Entertain me, you useless son of a bitch!” Okay, okay. Jesus. It’s like Showtime at The Apollo up in here. Remember that? Is it still on? The first time I was in New York, in 1980 or 81, I told the guy we were staying with that I wanted to go see the Apollo Theater and he just about slapped me off the broken chair I was balancing myself in.

He said, “Don’t be an idiot, you can’t go up there. Besides, it ain’t open.” He was telling me truth, the Apollo was closed down, had been for a couple years, apparently. And he was telling me the truth, at that time anyway, when he said I really probably shouldn’t go up there to 125th street. I did anyway, when I failed to get off a train once and looked up and was at some stop in the hundreds. But I digress.

Well, I guess I don’t digress since this story wasn’t going anywhere. But you know, come to think of it, my friend Free Joseph, who used to be called Tex Joseph, went on amateur night at the Apollo, some time in the early 90s, and was ceremoniously booed off the stage, getting the hook from Sandman Sims. Which may be cooler than having people applaud. Tex wasn’t an amateur, he was an established reggae artist, but the Apollo amateur night audience doesn’t care about any of that. If the booing reaches critical mass, you’re outta there.

I’m glad the Apollo managed to reopen and is still there. Hopefully in 10 years there will still be some black people left in Harlem to patronize it. Patronize, not patronize. English, what a language.

Well, however you say it, the beards are taking over Harlem, just like they took over Brooklyn, and soon all of New York will be a millionaire enclave of apartments that only have people in them three weeks out of the year on streets full of stores selling $2900 pairs of artisan hiking boots that never taste dirt.

Have I digressed now? What do I have to do to digress around here? I live on the digress. That’s where I thrive and get my oxygen, on the digress. Jesus. All these years and you don’t know me at all. You think you know me? Then which Sex in the City character am I? Ha, trick question. I’m all of them.

You ever play those Facebook game quiz things? To find out which Game of Thrones character you’re most like or something? I don’t, but I see posts from people I know and they seem to take those kinds of things very seriously. See though, I don’t know any Game of Thrones character names, so I had to dig way back to Sex in the City, which was probably on so long ago that only old people know about it.

I’ve always known, in that theoretical way that you know things you haven’t experienced, that America ignores and discards its old people. I knew that as an idea, or a concept, but now I’m getting old and I’m knowing it as a reality. When you can’t get a job in an industry that you helped to invent, you have to look around and wonder what the problem is.

Assuming the problem isn’t me personally, which I can never completely discount, I have to think that potential employers are looking at my age and going, “Ewww.” Well, that’s enough of that. If you’re old, you know what I mean. If you’re not old, your time is coming. I take no pleasure in breaking that news to you.

On Christmas I asked Carol if she wanted to hear some Christmas music and she said, “Sure!” so I put on our Christmas records, but that music…it’s all about Jesus, and we’re not Jesus people, and you’ve heard them all so many times, and Elvis Presley, well I think he was high as a kite when he made his Christmas album. A unicorn kite. So we turned that stuff off and listened to Van Morrison then the Wailers A to Z and that took care of that.

The Wailers did sing “White Christmas” in their ska days, so there was that. I’m not sure who Christmas is for, anyway. Families I guess. But my family is small, and neither of us seem to care much about the holiday. We ate steak and stuffing, a new combination that works in the way that anything works with a good steak.

I remember good Christmases, but I was a kid, so every Christmas was good because it meant I was getting stuff. The rest of it, as I got older, felt forced. All of those classic Christmas cartoons came out when I was a kid in the 60s, Charlie Brown and the Grinch and that creepy stop-motion Frosty the Snowman, so I think that was the pinnacle of Christmas as a thing that everyone did and felt reasonably good about.

I don’t know. Maybe you still love Christmas. I doubt that you listened to the Wailers all day on Christmas, but maybe you should try it. Hit me up, I’ll send you the Wailers A to Z and you’ll be set. That’s not a real thing, the Wailers A to Z, I put it together myself. It’s 255 songs that clock in at about 14 hours, so that would be quite a box set. Someone at Universal Music should get on that.

Now people get together with their families at Christmas and they can’t even talk because if dad starts in on how great President Trump is, there’s going to be a fistfight. I get that, it’s better to focus on what we have in common than what separates us, but if we can’t talk about politics – and we can’t – we’re kind of fucked.

That’s not news, that we’re kind of fucked. If they put a Democrat into office today nothing would change, so we may as well talk about politics with our families. because who gives a shit? I know, I know, a lot of people do. They spend all day listening to those right wing puppetheads spewing their hateful catchphrases and they believe that shit is real.

What’s real is that most of us are more fucked than we used to be, and politicians made that so. All of them. So go ahead and cradle Trump in your ballsack, that’s fine with me. I just think you’re wasting your time, and being distracted by shiny black helicopters while the rich pick what’s left of your pocket.

But people who believe in the politics of the right will go to their graves angry, and probably poor, and their last words will be, “Lock her up.” It’s too bad. A little unity without uniformity would do us well, but how does that happen? We can’t even stop cops from killing random black people, and it’s 2020. 2020! I have to laugh when I think back 35 or 40 years, thinking to myself back then how things were on the upswing and we were going to get over all this shit. Ha. Still waiting for that.

Maybe being old has its benefits. I can’t imagine the world your kids are going to grow old in. If they get that chance. I hope they do, but the odds are stacked against them. Joe Strummer had it right, in the later years of his life he gathered people around campfires and took drugs and stayed up all night talking and everything was groovy.

If we all just sit around some fires and relax we’ll see that we’re all the same. We’re all nothing. Or the opposite of nothing, I suppose, since we’re the particles that make up the universe, so that’s pretty important if you think about it cosmically. I know it’s hard to believe that your particles and Trump’s particles are the same, but miraculously, they are. It’s all miraculous but still nothing but a great cosmic accident, yet we walk around in our shoes and socks continuing to think we’re all that.

“We’re guarding the palace so majestic, guarding the palace so realistic.” Bob Marley said that, or sang that, and he wasn’t talking about the palace being “realistic” in the realm of particles. But “I and I,” the thing Rastas say instead of “we,” is the same thing, isn’t it. You are I, I am you. I and I. Particles.

Then again, Peter Tosh sang about not wanting peace, but wanting equal rights and justice. And Bob also sang, “If I say what I really want to say, they would take me away.” But that’s the thing that I can’t understand, or overstand if we’re speaking patois, I don’t know how any rational, reasonable, human person could think, “Yeah, you know, I’m not for equal rights.”

Yet here we are, and a good part of humanity thinks your equal rights are just more laughable shit to be scraped from the bottom of their loafers. Equal rights for people who aren’t white, for women, for people who feel like they might not fit into the skin they were born into. Anyone different from white men, anyone who says maybe we should think about looking at each other as equals – they’re seen as the enemy.

What are those white men and their white wives and children afraid of? Is it that they know, deep down, that maybe they’re not all that and if they actually had to compete with the rest of the non-white man world they might not end up on top? Could that be it? That’s a rhetorical question, because something tells me that’s exactly what it is.

I say that as a white man. You know, more or less. As a white person, anyway. I say that recognizing the privilege I was born into. There was nothing better than being a white American man in the 20th century. I had a conversation a couple months ago with an old friend of mine, I hadn’t really spoken to him in many years, and it was kind of a shock to me that he couldn’t see that privilege.

It’s a pretty common thing, white men saying, “Hey, I had to scrape for everything I have, I didn’t have any advantage.” I understand why they say things like that. But you have to be kind of – I don’t know what you have to be to not see what’s right in front of you.

I was trying to point out to him the unconscious biases that we all have and I said, “If you and a black guy walk into an office looking for the same job, and the person doing the hiring is white, you know who’s more likely to get the job.” “Probably him now,” he said, which I guess was a comment against affirmative action or something, an old idea that doesn’t even really exist anymore and if it does, doesn’t really benefit most non-white, non-male humans.

I watch a TV show called Survivor, maybe you’ve heard of it. Every season is exactly the same, but since people are endlessly fascinating I keep watching it. Well, in the last season there was an older white guy who was very…touchy, and he creeped out some of the younger women who didn’t appreciate being touched or having their hair petted or being rubbed up against while they were asleep. Things he never did to the older women, by the way.

But this guy, he had no concept of any view other than his own. He worked in entertainment management or something, working with Hollywood types and when the subject of him creeping out the young women was brought up, while he was trying to dismiss it and defend himself he said something so telling, he said, “I work in the industry that allowed ‘#metoo’ to happen.”

Oh, you ALLOWED it to happen? How magnanimous of you to ALLOW women to complain about the sexual harassment that you’ve been perpetrating for 10,000 years! But that right there, that sums up everything. We can’t see the other point of view anymore. Maybe we never could, I don’t know. If you can’t put yourself in someone’s shoes it’s hard to feel for them or see their side of things.

But again, I don’t know why people can’t do that. I don’t understand people, is what I’m saying. I never have been able to. Well, that’s not true, I understand people very well. What I don’t understand is why most of them are the way they are, that’s the thing. Maybe. I don’t know.

Once Trevy said to me, “I’m going to teach you patois.” Trevy was a friend of mine from the Caribbean, and I worked with and eventually played in his reggae band Boom Shaka – and he was saying he wanted to teach me the patois that a lot of Caribbean people use.

Kind of a stew of English and Creole and some African language influence and, when Rastas use it, purposely mixed up words and reversed meanings. Like when I said “overstand,” before, Rastas consider the word “under” to have negative connotations, so they don’t understand something, they overstand it. I mean, it’s English, mostly, but with a lot of things a non-native or non-local person wouldn’t understand if it wasn’t explained to you.

But when he said he was going to teach me patois I was kind of offended. Like he was saying my patois game was weak. I said, “I know patois, I understand everyone.” Which was true. I thought. If we were in a room full of people from the Caribbean I knew what they were talking about. Generally. But when I said I knew patois, Trevy just said, “No you don’t, man,” and he was right.

I don’t know why I’m telling you that, except maybe to say that even when we’re all speaking the same language we really aren’t. I did learn a lot of patois from Trevy and other people from the Caribbean, but even then, I didn’t grow up hearing it or speaking it, so I never really zeroed in on it. It never became a natural way of expression for me. And really, it shouldn’t have.

There was a keyboard player in Boom Shaka for a while, Taharqa, who never really liked me. He didn’t think a white guy was necessary in the mix of a reggae band, and he may have been right, but I was there anyway, and I was just like an annoyance to him. One day he asked me, “How come when I say Jah, you never say Rastafari?”

Rastas have a thing where one of them will say something, make some statement, and follow it up with “Jah!” and all the other Rastas answer, “Rastafari!” It’s like a call and response exclamation point on the statement, and it’s quite the thing. It’s a powerful kind of vibe to be around when everything is rolling in the right direction. But Taharqa was right, I never said “Rastafari.” I might have had long dreadlocks, but I didn’t have the words or the insight at the time to give him a good answer. Or even know myself why I didn’t say it.

I know now. Maybe not because I have any more insight, but I do have hindsight. And I know that I didn’t say it because I didn’t believe it. I wanted to believe it. I was neck-deep in Rasta culture, but I could never reconcile the man Haile Selassie with any kind of concept of God as a person or a thing, so that’s why I didn’t go around shouting Rastafari.

I had a lot of respect for Rastas. They were the only people I could see anywhere who yakked about the bible all day but actually behaved as if they believed in the words in the bible. Not that I believed in that book either. Again, I wanted to, and I tried, I just couldn’t. But if you’re going to wave a book like that around, you should live up to the good parts of it. I felt like most of the Rastas I knew did, but I can’t say that most Christians I knew did.

I don’t know, man. I was drawn to Reggae and Rastafari for reasons that to this day I don’t understand. Only my particles can explain it. I can’t. But what I know now, and what I felt back then but couldn’t put into words when I was younger is that it wasn’t my club to belong to. Not Rastafari or any black culture. I could never pay the price of admission.

I wasn’t born with the right kind of ticket. I didn’t have the history or the experience or the knowledge, and most importantly, I didn’t have to walk around all day in their skin, dealing with everything that skin means in our world. So even though I was accepted by the Rastas, I would always be a tourist.

Ultimately all I could do was appreciate it from the outside and pay my respect and show my admiration from a distance. Which is all any of us white folks can do. I don’t mean black and white musicians can’t play together. Music is different. Music is music. If you feel it you should play it.

I guess I’m talking about adopting the culture that surrounds any kind of music. How deeply you can become ingrained in it before someone goes, “Hold on there, sport, you’re taking this too far.” It’s dicey territory to even talk about, isn’t it. But we should be able to talk about it. Or at least listen and really hear what people are saying.

And now it occurs to me that I’ve been saying ‘black’ and ‘white’ when talking about people and that seems completely archaic these days, but here I am. Now you can see why Taharqa didn’t like me.

It’s a funny thing man, to think about the things you go through when you’re still warm out of the oven and wet behind the ears and trying to figure out who or what the hell you are. I don’t know if it’s a common thing when you’re young to not understand that you don’t have to be someone to love and appreciate them or what they do. But it took me a minute to figure that out.

But really, we are all what we are because of cross-pollination of art and culture and ideas. I guess it’s just a fine line there between appreciation and appropriation. But I’m not sure all appropriation is necessarily bad. It feels sometimes these days like maybe we’re losing the ability to make subtle distinctions and we’re just painting everyone and everything with too broad a brush.

Seems to me there’s a big difference between wearing some kind of racist costume and wearing the same shoes or jacket your favorite singer wears, but what do I know. Then again, white people who tried to wear those oversized Cross Colours jackets in the 80s did look like jackasses.

So there’s some digression for you. How the hell did we end up here? I’ve just been thinking about Trevy lately, and then talking to people I knew when I was younger – all that shit, I think about it and wonder how it all happened, or if it did happen. Or if the world we see is really all one big ‘now’ and our ideas of past and present are foolish. We’re all particles after all.

Or the space between particles. Which, now they tell me, isn’t really empty space at all, but waves. See how confusing shit gets? Life is easier if you don’t think too much about life.

And on that note, I’ll take my leave. But not before reminding you that still, here in 2020, a DJ is not a musician, and being a DJ is not a profession, so stop telling people that you “are a DJ.” Every kid in their bedroom playing records since 1955 has been a DJ. Stop it. If you must define yourself by the fact that you play records, when people ask you what you do, say, “I’m a record player.” It’s honest, it’s accurate, and the world will appreciate your refreshing take on doing something that can be done by anyone who can work a turntable.

Or a computer now, since I see you “DJs” hunkered over laptops with one side of the headphones over your one ear. You’re organizing computer files, you aren’t curing cancer or even picking up garbage. Stop it. And stop the one side of the headphones thing. There’s no reason for it, it makes you look like an idiot, and you’re only doing it because you saw a picture of Grandmaster Flash doing it in a coffee table book at your grandma’s house. Stop it.

And Jesus, if your house uses natural gas, thank your favorite god, because we moved semi-off-the-grid and I’m here to tell you that propane is expensive and you need a truckload of it every couple months just to keep from freezing to death in the winter. So pay your teeny little gas bill happily. And on that note…is there anything else? I think that covers everything. Or enough.

We went from flying kites to co-opting black culture to propane, and I have to say that I don’t know where else we can go from there. So take it easy, put your feet up, it’s a miracle any of us are breathing, so look at the sky and kiss whoever happens to be next to you. Wait, that sounds like a mass wedding performed by a cult leader in a hockey arena somewhere. Only kiss the person next you if you know them and are fond of them and they’re into it.

Okay, next time.