Writer. Idiot. Et cetera.
[DISCLAIMER: In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m obliged as well as proud to acknowledge that Brandon Schmitt and I have been friends and collaborators for over a decade. We’ve played on one another’s records and covered each other’s songs. We’ve shared beds and rankled in each other’s stink. We’ve shared meals out of dumpsters and never even flinched. In any other context, this would be indicative of a blatant conflict of interests. However, anyone who knows me and calls me a friend—and at this juncture, there’s probably only three or four despicable dudes who’d openly make that shameful claim—can attest that being my friend does not entitle you whatsoever to any mercy or leeway. If anything, it damns you to the most needling scrutiny. So let this be the preface to what follows: I wanted desperately to hate this record, and as per the norm, I did not get what I wanted.]
Brandon Schmitt’s last full-length record, Send Off Smoke—by turns both rollicking and contemplative without ever abandoning its firm toehold in the foot-worn arena of country-inflected rock—ended with the crippling one-two punch of “One More Sad Song” and “Positively.” The former was a sort of one-last-time-for-the-road act of letting go, like two lovers coming together for a conclusive bittersweet night before parting ways for good. The latter was the next logical step: admission that things have been pretty damn bad but have also been pretty good, too, that this cycle will repeat forever without end so maybe let’s not take it too seriously, okay? This was our point of departure. This was the new manifesto. Not everything has to feel so bad all the time.
So maybe it comes as something of a shock (although anyone who happened to catch Schmitt’s 2012 split-cassette with Blind Pelican probably could’ve seen this coming) that Red Blood Blues is an amazingly dark record. Not just lyrically but in its overall mood and execution, layered rich and terrifying with wailing feedback and the (very) infrequent rumble of drums. It’s unsettling to say the least. Like Schmitt’s been somewhere outside this world and has somehow made it back to report what he’s seen beyond the pale. It reminds me of the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, wherein the unnamed main character awakes from a dream about wandering
[…] in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granite beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell.
I have no doubt that the songs on Red Blood Blues were recorded in this loveless cave, on the lipping shores of this ancient lake. The sightless beast—spider-egg eyes and glass bell skull—is the session band in total, crouching and moaning low over the record’s every song. Schmitt traveled alone to this place, and he brought a mic and a guitar. What results in an album that doesn’t bother trying to sugarcoat the truth because the world doesn’t contain enough sugar to cover up the bitter taste. Its desolation is matched only by its seethe. All of which leads to the overwhelming question: What the hell happened to thinking positively? Maybe Schmitt forgot that these were supposed to the good times. More likely, life gave him a not-too-subtle reminder: he was wrong. The good days come and go. But the bad days are here to stay.
All the songs on the record, at their core, carry the unmistakable hexmarks—the chord progressions, the rinse-repeat lyrical patterns—of the oldest sort of blues (although “Wolf Mountain” bears the distinct sound of a California roadhouse country outfit made up entirely of shambling reanimated skeletons). But everything spiraling madly from that anchor of genre is straight out of a nightmare. There are references to blood burning into thick beads of smoke and references to white holy pine singing the shadow heart, treacherous serpents and rivers on fire, spooky details made all the more spooky—more real—by the intermittent concrete detail: Schmitt admitting to living in his car (again), that the last time he saw his grandmother, her eyes were closed (the delivery leaves no room for doubt: she’s dead), the almost threateningly plaintive, “I heard you got a new friend in town.” These direct depictions of human life in the human world are the pinions locking this record firmly to the ground, reminding us whenever we need the reminder that, as end-of-days scary as these songs get, all of this—from the beast slouching in the cave to the lamplight flickering wetly off flowstone—is unmistakably real. A flesh-and-blood man singing the songs of our brick-and-mortar world. Which might be the most terrifying part of all.
Yet, as much as this record might feel like a departure, this is by and large classic Schmitt, expanding his distinctly unusual landscape by means of a well-established symbolic language of thickening skin and blood and bones and nearly everything burning up into an ineffable lexicon of smoke-signals and swaying shadow trees. What’s new is Schmitt’s abject lack of hope. Or anyway, near-lack, for even at the record’s darkest moments, Schmitt acknowledges that he’s wandered from the path, that he’s seeing things all wrong. It’s a humbling moment—you can feel his humility—in “Black Smoke Blues” when he sings,
I keep this lamplight burning
until just the embers shall remain—Oh
let it go.
Well I need to let it go.
There’s a palpable exasperation in the way he interrupts himself. You can tell: he’s remembering his earlier promise of no more sad songs, of thinking positively. In this dark and sterile cave, he’s holding the last bit of light that remains in all the world. He’s holding it high. But the flame is sputtering. It’s almost out. Schmitt knows just how he wants to be. But at the end of the day—the end of every day—the world just will not let him go.
This anthology, which will blend new material along with some of the “greatest hits” of the past three years, is slated for release this April. To help curb the substantial up-front printing costs, the Stoneslide Corrective is holding a Kickstarter campaign starting today. At its most basic level, this is a great way to pre-order your copy of what is proving to be a gorgeous, strange anthology of stories, satire, and photography. At the other end of the spectrum, your donation can earn you a large-size print of any photo in the journal, a Stoneslide T-shirt, and an editorial consultation on your own work.
Published in the final seconds of one year and just in time for the next, “A Rich Man’s Knees” gives 2015 an auspicious beginning.
John walked through the backdoor and for a while things got quiet, then there was a shot and John came out the front with two guns in his hands, his and his brother’s. He held the guns in the air like he was surrendering in his brother’s stead, or maybe was showing us the evidence of what he’d just done, and there was a tense and unified silence before finally, everyone raised their hands and cheered. In the back of the crowd, the band struck up a round. We could finally have our goddamn funeral.
My first overt foray into (what at least in my imagination is) the Western genre, this story is dedicated to the musician Brandon Schmitt.
In keeping with their name, Per Contra has released the story “Gold & Rust”—an extended meditation on suicide and infinite regressions—to coincide with the ubiquitous festivities of the holiday season.
The clouds thinly keep the sun wound up in a gauze, and there’s a constant whisper, some secret: the sound of all those stalks of grass touching and slipping together as Cuth weaves in among them. He tries to break it down, to hear not ten thousand blades but only one, just one narrow finger of grass, the individual that makes up the whole. But he cannot. He can’t identify the one from the many.
More than a few psychological studies have been dedicated to documenting the problematic phenomena inherent in free-will: the more options one has, the unhappier one becomes. It can be paralyzing, having to select the one from the many. Life is much easier when your options are reduced. Take, for example, Denis Johnson’s Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, wherein the lead character only finds a sense of peace when he’s sent to prison, where all choice has at last been mercifully repealed. Or, on the more pedestrian end of things, the simple agony of deciding what to order on your pizza.
Of course, having zero options is just as defeating as having too many, and there is plenty of historical evidence to prove that point as well. But a couple options? Yeah, a couple options is best. Which is why Pilot Editions has now released a second edition of my novel To Sleep as Animals. This new version—enigmatically known as the “Medallion Edition”—is slim enough to fit in your back pocket, features new black-on-black cover art by Will Thorneater, and is a few dollars cheaper than the original ultra-austere edition, which—of course—is also still available.
Meanwhile, the mini-collection Hot White Sun is now available exclusively at Space Gallery (538 Congress Street, Portland, Maine) as part of their Goods and Services exhibition. This hand-bound booklet, limited to twenty-five numbered copies, continues the story of Coleman that began in Brand New Moon. Sad and gritty and steeped in fortified wine, Hot White Sun will be available through the end of the Goods and Services show (closing January 31st, 2015), then will be gone forever.
“Arena,” featured in Issue 7 of the Australian journal Tincture this past September, has been re-posted in its entirety on the publisher’s blog . Composed as part of a fellowship with the I-Park Foundation, “Arena” documents the first moments of meeting between two men in jail.
But one day he didn’t feel like doing that anymore. What he wanted to do instead was drink brandy. It was a means to lie on a rock by the beach for days without feeling too guilty. He’d close his eyes with the bottle pressed to his lips and think “this is the life”. Then he’d fall asleep in the sun. Now and then, he wishes he could have made it last. But something must have happened because shortly after making the choice to drink instead of work, he found himself being led to a cell. He remembers: it felt right when they locked the door. He was grateful.
The issue of Tincture in which this story originally appeared can be purchased and downloaded directly from their online store,
Praise for TO SLEEP AS ANIMALS
"A disturbance of a very specific flavor...Milliken's writing is urgent yet finely considered--a literate pleasure."
~Carl Skoggard, author of Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood circa 1900.
"A distinctive and often vertiginously frightening psychological landscape... bracingly disturbing."
~Megan Grumbling, author of Persephone in the Late Anthropocene.
Praise for BRAND NEW MOON
"[T]hese stories...glow with some sort of holy light, as if every moment were magic, like footage of your family picnic on super 8."
~The Portland Phoenix
Praise for WHITE HORSES
“Douglas W. Milliken takes his time unveiling the savoring of the moment in a narrative of extremely gracious intimacy. The dignified personal. Expert surreal grounded prose. Pragmatic poetics that serve the whole. This man is a master of simile. And it never gets old because the associations are always complex and unexpected. Worked accuracy but seamlessly so. Wow throughout the heartbreaking sensuality. Its core a felled forest of need. The title story, ‘White Horses,’ cannot be improved, which is another way of saying it is perfect.”
~Melody Sumner Carnahan, co-founder of Burning Books.