Harpo Mission Data Repository
In a 19th century manner of strange coincidence, our former high school classmate, the man E__, was to later reappear in all of our lives- we, the band members of Harpo- separately, on four different continents, briefly and with little comment- little more than a passing face seen through a drenched window of a city bus, or a guest at the same party, observed from across the room. It is clear he wasn't following us, or we him, but still the unscheduled appearances continued. At discrepent moments in our lives these coincidences have seemed to us providential, blessed, evil, and cursed- all instigated by the presence of someone the Germans might call luftmensch- an air person.
The portrait in our minds is grainy and shifting. Like us, he grew up in smalltown North Western Montgomery County in the halcyon 90s, an unheralded student with an unremarkable talent for withholding any and all explanation of his thoughts and action. He was ignored by the opposite sex, regularly omitted from our English teacher's otherwise indiscriminate and chronic shoulder-patting, and treated as a harmless dweeb by the woodwork instructor.
Only now, after twenty years of the Chinese fan unfolding, is it possible to see his flight as something more than a series of one-act plays, unburdened by plot or apparent thematic connection, save an increasingly debauched and low-brow arc of narrative degeneration. And the more we played and spoke, the more we uncover- his project is our project. Only when the first two members of Harpo began meeting and playing in early 2013, did we began to piece it together. And now as we all gather in the basement of a row house on 3rd St in NW Washington to practice, it is possible to imagine him weaving in and out of our lives like a needle and thread; a slow-rising melody of an old aria played in the green light of an empty karaoke hall in a hotel in the Caribbean, that reappears across the world in the bright and aspirational voices of the choir of African immigrants practicing at night in one of the rear chambers of Moscow Immaculate Conception Catholic Cathedral. As we now gather, it is almost possible to believe that such a person actually exists, and that, now, something has come together.
We all went to school with him in the same town. About the town: the glass counter at the deli was too often an idiot quorum on race relations. Burly men with toddler nicknames waged truck wars. When the reclusive drug addict commonly known as the greatest contemporary Russian writer noted that “first you try to understand what people will like and then you hand it to them in the form of a lie,” he probably had his artillery trained on some larger global-historical game, rather than a thing as prosaic as Maryland suburbs. During the Civil War, there was a Corps of Observation stationed there of 20,000 Union soldiers, but it was now a highly detailed 3D model, a pickled memory of fake rustic manors, ignored chandeliers, and grill masters wide as truck beds. If you stayed long enough you could see the sons and fathers up and down the block growing into energy drink-fueled inverted approximations of each other- the callow sons grew old-man hair and affected prickly libertarian indifference, while the elders wore baggy shorts and lewd t-shirts and coyly challenged their boomer peers with frosted tips and frequent public indiscretions involving light beer and youthful chauvinism. Co-incident and possibly arising from these seemingly harmless efforts, many were psychologically maimed and lost their sons, daughters, brothers and sisters forever- a social epidemic unsung and possibly unapprehended, but easily treatable with a range of available pharmaceuticals. Any stray dog knows the possibilities of flourishing and growing plump in this landscape, with its daily onslaught of muscle shakes, frozen waffles, and industrial sized bottles of ranch dressing. A town dithering between suburb and country, whose most prominent exports were conspicuous deer hunting and confused, needful teens- he was among them. Some nights he made juvenile demands of no particular God- let me die standing, solidly in an alter ego, wearing the overpriced houndstooth jacket of my secret identity, far away from here.
So it was usually there, on the periphery, that we saw him in his full flannel angst. We were too busy trying to learn small things from each other to pay him much mind- recommending albums, trying to draw portraits of one another on paper napkins, reading casualties and wrinkled survivors in the pantheon of counterculture. The napkins probably remain somewhere under the floor mats in junk-lotted cars, alongside the emotional code and lyrical scrawlings on mix tapes, now ground to dust by an endless march towards the next big guitar sound. Survival tactics for a mileau of manicured lawns included mock sincerity, insular coded language, College Music Journal, and affordable late-teen exit strategies. Like prisoners on a jailbreak penetrating opposite sides of a penitentiary, we did not pass each other on the way out.
Later, I counted just five or six large white pixels that made up his teeth in his only existing high school yearbook picture.
But for all our dreams of escape, the town's DNA endured in the lint of all of our pockets, the clanging notes of imprecisely dispensed middle-class irony, our limited knowledge of fabrics and fine garments. His own excuse for leaving that he left behind for his family was chasing a girl halfway around the world. He finally cornered her with calm and cash in an oblong sweat lodge at the soft termination of a post-college vision quest and, after a week playing at homelessness, gorging himself on his romantic inspiration, and what may have been giardia, he sat dimly on a teaching sinecure at a British English school for two years. She painted, courted gurus, and decorated interiors. Like Hawkeye Pierce before him, he gamely worked at a critically acclaimed routine of extracting bullet-sized units of affection from her in the society of his adopted land. Later he received an emoticon on his mobile device that he deciphered as a request from her side to begin an uncredited audit of their relationship, owing to lack of resources and interest in investment opportunities. Like us, he explored the world and tried to make his fortune in police states, communist states, klepto-states- countries where life was cheap and one could speed faster than usual on a road of excess towards whatever inevitable wrecked point where the ride stops. I imagine that, like us, he killed slow minutes in the early morning hours at a cash exchange window somewhere by listening to music made by gutter punks, country blues, cracked visionaries, scotch-guard laden pop, lesser saints of country folk, krautrock, faceless teens whose voices somehow fondled all the old synapses in all of the unhurried corners of the world in some kind of everyday nano-magic not even worthy to mention here. But living abroad was not just boring and morose talk in cheap bars about possible economic upheaval, latent fascism, natural disasters and social unrest. There were a few nights when it seemed as if the buzzing harmony of beautiful peoples, linguistic discovery and time release revelation of the place would carry him upwards into the rare and hot ozone that just might burn away inherited notions of nationality and tradition and the Corps of Observation in a slow rain of ash over the ocean. A play at transcendence. I imagine he was mostly alone when he absorbed the basics of method acting, the New York City transit system, container carrier shipping routes, modal jazz, disability fraud, autograph forgery, Gurdjieff, quarks, and the birth names and discographies of everyone who ever played with the Magic Band.
He left, he came back, and he left again; the last time we saw him was outside on the street at our first show, ambling up and down the block in Hamilton, in Northeast Baltimore, looking worse for the years and dangling a cigarette. It was fitting we saw him that night- everyone in the band had charted a similar migration, and the sum of our attempts were something like a rite of passage taxonomy in the tension and rebirth and drifting and self-abuse and reinvention and reappearing and fumbling toward a collaboration of ecstatic unions. In a new understanding, everything was patchwork and paintwork.
Neither low gossip nor passenger seat oral histories yield the character of his return- whether he arrived bruised and undaunted, carried swiftly on a hot cloud of a spotless elevator pitch, or landed alcohol-addled and elegiac. But return he did, mostly to the suburbs of Washington, to volunteer teach and give a series of lectures on crippling lust, cooking for one, and “why can't I still can't win a medal” at the local public library. At the Q&A panel afterwards, he was accused of staying out too late and pilfering the moral clarity of husbands from his old camcorder buddy-flicks.
There are no statues in Washington to the eventual mellowing of anarchism, to middle class assimilation. Yet, he knew that even here hermetic private worlds could expand and increase through time.
The thing is, when we first met him (and each other), the worst things out there were unexpected wasp nests, vindictively cute girls, the vile smell of sewage pumps, crack cocaine, and bestiality of the town fool. We returned to a world of perpetual war, murderous drones, religious zealots, government surveillance, commodity fetishisms, hysterical poverty, militarized police, the television filled with smug hypocrisy, affected indignation and faces fat with tears. But there was much to regain from the return. The polaroid quickness of reappointed friendship and mutually curated reminiscences, something better than culinary nihilism and even now children. Celluloid perversions of old magazines and basement records nestled in the fake neon grass of his mind like lewd East German iterations of Cadbury Eggs. Much had not changed. There was still a bull market for new age merchants of mental health and large rubber rats still swung from ceilings in punk dorm rooms all over Pittsburgh. Julie Christie's closed eyelids trembled at Father Yod's sonorous brogue. A tear streaming down each cheek- two translucent pistachio shells of water and salt spilling towards an evening gown laid on a shag carpet: something like a sacrament to his addled mind, and he wrote as much of it as he could remember on his left arm. Learn, he said to himself.
The skin on our faces still shows traces of gone-away passions which any numbed veteran of online dating can identify as the fault lines for new desperation. The lines chart our different routes of escape, our paths back. Punk dirges, new wave balladry, psychedelic children's music, cheerful misanthropy, and singers singing through a plastic tube whilst submerged in water, all in elaborately furnished cages of contemporary adult punk.
Although we heard the rumor that he sold his ass out to the government to become a well-fed spook and now drives an Audi to and from the 17 football fields of the Utah Data Center, I heard from his kid sister that he is raising money for something called the Ganz Hydraulus, using holograms, animated fly-throughs and new syntax to weave a gilded thread through the pockets of Silicon Valley magnates. I like to imagine him rumpled and upright, playing an old synthesizer in a single-level home out on the coast, facing out towards the grey waves, stoically suffering the indignities of living in the post-90s flat realm of co-dependent data-selves.
The world shakes with explosions and our understanding falls away like large dumb tinsel-sprayed bulbs from a dead Douglas Fir. We all sing together, map inner terrain, and merrily mock the false idols. They won't even know because when the lights are off, our instruments are unplugged.
B.K., Belgrade, 2014