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The first time I ever experienced extreme discomfort while watching a live performance was in 1981, and I'll never forget the experience. I was flipping between the big three channels on Friday night in the barracks, and I'd settled on a show called Fridays – ABC's answer to NBC's Saturday Night Live.
It was a skit – a restaurant skit – and one actor had just decided to break character in the middle of it all, and refuse to say his lines. Just like that – on live TV – the guy just decided that this performance was not going to turn out as planned, and the panic was right there on everyone's face.
Live television, and like a classic nightmare, they were getting roasted by one cast member who'd simply chosen to take the skit in a whole new direction. And it wasn't funny. In fact, I remember having to get up and pace the room – to burn off the anxiety a little – as my eyes stayed glued to the disaster playing out in real time for that high-wire comedy troupe as they all fell, without a net, to the floor below over the calm belligerence of that one anarchist whose new spelling of TEAM featured “i's” and nothing but “i's”.
Mercifully, the drama ended with a full-blown melee, and a cut to commercial, because I don't think I could've taken much more. That brief moment of unpleasant reality – revealed as a fulfilled potential that exists and has always existed in such vulnerable circumstances – had been too much of a revelation for me. Its impact one me – someone who'd been live, on stage, and without a net many times by then – had been literally physical, and I was exhausted. The rogue actor's name was Andy Kaufman, and it wouldn't be the last time this monstrous performance art genius would rip apart the professional assurances of those who dared to work with him.
Years later – once he'd become safely deceased, and no longer the immediate threat that was the true gift he gave to the world of entertainment – Andy would be widely heralded as a comedic mastermind, but in his own heart, it was never comedy. To him, it was a performance – pure and uncorrupted by concern over how it would be received. Raw performance for the sake of performance alone. And to hell with the collateral damage.
Whenever I think of my brother Jeff, I'm reminded of Andy Kaufman. When I'm reminded of Andy Kaufman, I think of my brother Jeff. Two complex and disquieting men. Both gifted in a similar manner, with only one who took his show onto the stage. One who crafted vignettes suggesting the writhing, lonely hells of earth, as the other reached for you to show you exactly where their bathrooms were located. And Jeff, unlike Andy, knew where all those hells' bathrooms were, but as anyone can tell you, there's no paying market for the kind of harrowing performance art that doesn't provide space between the performance and the audience.
Some people have pretended that there is, but their tours of anguish and haunting loss involve video and props and staged environments, and when you go that far in the manufacture of expression, whatever art there might've been in the intent is lost forever to the technical requirements of craft. And art isn't craft. Well, maybe it is – a little – but not to the degree of production analysis and scripted retakes. But then, this world wouldn't know art if art staged an insurrection deep inside its colon that ended with SWAT team penetration and unacceptable casualties.
Okay, I'm sorry for that visual, but I put that in specifically for Jeff's sake, since I know he would've loved hearing me read something ugly like that to folks like you in a place like this.
You see, like any true artist, the one dependable constant with Jeff – as he wound his way through life – was that he was driven to somehow initiate a visceral response. From others as well as from himself.
And like one of Kaufman's disturbing masterworks – escaped from its stage and roaming the streets in search of primordial impact – Jeff was brilliantly gifted with a moment of discomfort or even vague threat, lent to an instant that could've been – or maybe what should've been – anything but uncomfortable or threatening. And the beauty in Jeff's version of dangerous performance involved the truth of how authentically dangerous it all might truly become; to himself and to whomever it was who stood too close when he'd choose to detonate.
Not that Jeff ever hurt anyone else, but that the damage he'd inflict upon himself would often leave a nasty stain on the sensibilities or even the life of anyone too naïve to understand the truth that reality is inherently dangerous. That a red light doesn't really have the power to stop cars on the street. That a crosswalk really isn't a force field between you and oncoming traffic. That the unexpected can reach right out and have its way with you, and that sometimes it will, and that it might just do so for no other reason than because it can and because you gave it the opportunity.
Jeff and I had a complicated relationship, and anyone who knows either of us knows this. As we got older, and physical proximity was replaced by a cable modem, our complicated relationship transitioned to the written word. And while our mutual understanding never improved, I was able to save Jeff's more emotive eruptions, and examine them at times in retrospect. And most of you know what I mean about Jeff's breathtakingly blistering creations. They could be rough, to say the least. But I want to share something about them that I learned early on. Something I learned about the artist that Jeff probably never even realized that he was. Something you may want to try yourself later, if you've still got one of Jeff's more substantive outbursts sitting live in your inbox.
It was a long rant – easily 2,000 words of better – that he'd ripped off to us brothers when he'd begun to realize that his working relationship with an immediate supervisor wasn't going to ultimately be the positive experience that he'd hoped for. Not for him or for that supervisor.
So, he'd taken out his keyboard and dumped his immediate disdain and regret – like bitter ejaculate – across the open text field and sent it off; obviously without a moment's edit or even verification of nominal sentence structure. In essence, it was pure Jeff as written expression. Blistering, indignant, self-flagellant, and packed to bursting with those cryptic inside references he stored, that I (for one) could only watch sail right over my head as I read the thing.
Usually, I would delete these emails, quietly acknowledging his pain, and trudged back to my own edition of purgatory; grateful for the fact that I was me and that I had my own comforting failures to deal with. But this time I recognized something in the bits and phrases that lay scattered in fragments before me, and I took the entire email – word for word – and formatted it into free style poetry stanzas. Now, I'd been writing poems and songs for decades, and had been studying great writers of dynamic street verse for longer than will ever make any sense to anyone. I knew a great poetic release when I saw one.
And this was one great poetic release.
The cadence was complex, with scats of extraordinary internal rhythm, as the throbbing repetition of clean, unmitigated disgust set an anchoring drone that gave the whole piece its hopeless fatalism. Like a caustic dirge, locked in tight and solid by the sound of broken glass, as one bottle after another – launched against a brick wall – provides a jagged, crystalline backbeat of visceral angst and futile rage. The kind of rage that knows exactly how futile it all really is, and yet refuses to accept the inevitable fall. The kind of refusal that seeks to make as much of a miserable mess as possible, but beyond that....I don't know.....what is there beyond that in most situations?
Within this screed, the textured asides were exquisite – profound enough to stave off a maudlin devolution, but not so brilliantly precious as to ruin the brutal honesty that wove through the whole like a frayed lifeline tossed from the very soul of the man himself. A line that Jeff knew would never reach shore, or anywhere else that might provide a deliverance from what he knew to lay just ahead.
But then, this eruption was about expression; the essence of art itself. This wasn't about seeking rescue. Maybe in the front of his mind it was just a raw scream from hell's waiting room, but somewhere, deep in the glop behind his eyes, I saw trace evidence of an artist who'd insisted on slipping that volcanic masterpiece through, and when I later posted it anonymously on a poetry forum, my suspicions were confirmed when his poem ruled that patch of the Web with power and distinction for weeks.
The raw majesty of that diatribe, once properly presented for what it was, was breathtakingly intimidating for those aspiring craftsmen who urgently worked to learn what they could from this one-off emotional reaction, exhaled by an unconscious creativity that most of them would've traded their souls to possess – to even fail miserably to master. Even to simply feel its authenticity, regardless of the terrible price one pays for such revelation.
And I remember trying to explain this – what I'd discovered – to Jeff, but like a true artist who knows his life's medium better than someone like me who experiences life in detached observation, he dismissed any talk of turning to the safe and pedestrian world of literary expression; pushing on as the performance artist he'd become in an increasingly conspicuous response to the life he'd developed to that point, and through it, the maturing of his inimitable personal brand.
And as the performance artist he was, Jeff could be a heartbreaking rendition of the brutal indifference of life, and the impact of the predators that grind up a lot of what might've been wonderful if not for the free reign given to all that works to punish the beautiful for the mortal sin of being available to it. But then he could turn right around and be that harrowing violation of the natural order, and snatch that sympathy right away from you, as you sputter and do your best to understand what it was inside of him that could ever inspire such............such........
But then, if you could ever completely grasp the true nature of such art as it emerges, well, you'd be the artist.
Watching Andy Kaufman's brilliant art was like surfing a whirlpool. As the mayhem drew you in, all you really wanted was to find a way out. Like a carnival ride that ends up being more fun once your feet are back on solid ground, what he offered the world aged better that expected. Jeff will also be best understood in retrospect, and as the artist that he was, through the careful interpretation by someone who could appreciate what was happening – even as Jeff, himself, was too busy creating to realize the nature of his own work.
My brother Jeff was a performance that never went on break, and as he progressed deeper and deeper into the intricacies within that performance, the artistic quality of it became less and less accessible to the mainstream – as is always the case with significant versions of art. Like Andy Kaufman's challenging public masterpieces, Jeff's life was a brilliant expression that could only appeal – in the moment – to a hyper-analytical niche within the community whole, but then, as is the nature of difficult art, Jeff's artistic contribution will only ever be appreciated in retrospect. When all feet are back on solid ground, and the critical lessons have been fully internalized by those he chose to share his difficult art with.
The four of us brothers are like points on a compass. I'm an observer. Brion is a salesman. Tom is an engineer. And Jeff. Jeff was an artist. Remember this about him as you move forward toward the rest of your own life.
Art is not craft, and the artist doesn't choose his art. Art chooses the artist. And when it chooses the artist, art chooses what that artist will be required to illustrate. And important art is never easy.
- Vincent Van Gogh died a strange man who painted chaos and caused more trouble that he was worth for those who knew him.
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died a tiresome party boy whose music – at the time – was seen by most as excessively egotistical, and fatally self-indulgent.
- And Andy Kaufman died an embarrassing public spectacle whose antics had enraged millions with their rude examples of just how inappropriate a person could be within a given situation.
In short, this world wouldn't recognize art if it......well....let's just say that it doesn't have a clue about how to understand challenging art when confronted by it.
Sometime, long after the art has been left scattered about, the world finally catches on, acknowledges the contribution, and mourns its loss. But much more often it closes the book and moves on in search of the kind of genius that – yet again and again – it'll never recognize. And yet, the art is what it is in spite of recognition. In spite of appreciation. Like a strange and uncomfortable moment on live TV, as the traditional version of quality sweats under kleig lights, true art simply is what it is, and the true artist simply does what an artist does.
As we grew into who we'd each become, this is how I grew to understand my brother Jeff. An unapologetic visceral artist, whose art could be more than I could handle at times. But a brilliant artist nonetheless. His was a powerful medium that I would never have had the courage to pursue. His own life as his canvas; his words, actions and tragic decisions, as the tools in his hands; and his willingness to become the dark reality that others might only dare to depict; Jeff was an extreme creative force of truly dangerous art.
And going forward, this is how I'll remember him.
Originally posted by blazenresearcher
My heart goes out to you...you were the strong one! Yet Jeff had to have much strength too to go through his trials and tribulations. I've always heard that addictions are not for the weak...it takes a strong constitution...
Reading your thoughts, Jeff seemed like an extraordinary individual, not the norm...maybe not even from this realm or world. Tortured and struggling to maintain normalcy. You are a good brother to care and revere his qualities.
My sympathies to you...and to the beautiful, creative and sensitive lost soul that graced this earth and his name was Jeff and he was your brother. Peace to you!
Oh Gawd...see now I'm tearing up!edit on 6-10-2011 by blazenresearcher because: (no reason given)
Originally posted by NorEaster
Sometime, long after the art has been left scattered about, the world finally catches on, acknowledges the contribution, and mourns its loss. But much more often it closes the book and moves on in search of the kind of genius that – yet again and again – it'll never recognize. And yet, the art is what it is in spite of recognition. In spite of appreciation.