April 2, 2016

West Exit

Every day it does not rain, and many days when it does, this man walks three miles to the Pike Street public market in Seattle to play long alien notes on his Chinese instrument.


You walk by him on your way to the Athenian Cafe in the market. He's got a couple of bucks and change in his begging cup so you toss in a couple more. When you come out of the restaurant an hour or so later, he's got what he had, what you gave him, and a couple of quarters more. Almost everyone is ignoring him. He plays on.

Seattle is a second-level city mostly famous in popular culture for a second-rate rock band who did not so much invent "grunge" as simply show up on stage playing and wearing it. The band and its lead singer have been in different stages of dead for decades now, but their style lives on in Seattle like the galvanic twitches in the corpse of a frog long after it has been pithed. Seattle's left with a zombie pop culture whose only hope for survival is feeding on the brains of the bovine young. That's thin gruel for a zombie, but Seattle's "cultural scene" is eking out an undead living with inspirational shows such as this:

Lest you misunderstand, the names on the portable outhouse door are band names. If you attend this venue of "cutting-edgy" and oh-so-transgressive "creativity" you can hear hymns to little monsters, excrement, liquid excrement, maimed animals, and vague apocalyptic rumors. If you are fortunate your ears will not bleed as part of the "fun." Make no mistake about it, the names of the bands will be the best thing about them. In fact, the poster itself tells you so in no uncertain terms.

I don't think the old Chinese musician in the market will get into this club, unless it is to make five bucks for scraping the roaches, rubbers, and lost drugs works off the floor, and to mop out the toilets. It's pretty much how "youth culture" rolls in this second-level city.

Postmortem effects. The twitching of the pithed.

But of course that's just "pop" culture and it's pretty much drained of the new, the beautiful and the true everywhere. There's always "haute" culture to turn to, isn't there?

Let us go then, you and I.... to the acclaimed and recently redone Seattle Museum of Art. It's just a couple of blocks from the old Chinese musician in the market. It's recently undergone one of its relentless expansions under the watchful gaze of Bill Gates mom. The entrance is vaulting. Vaulting enough to have room for an extremely awful sculpture of five or six bad cars hanging from the ceiling with sticks of lights spurting from them in a vague pattern. What does it all mean? Well, in the words of R. Crumb's Mr. Natural, "It don't mean shit."

But wait, surely with the Gates family doing the heavy fund-raising lifting, this cathedral to high art in the 21st century is light years beyond the grunge and excrement of the pop culture music scene? It just has to be, doesn't it.

Of course not. Here's what you see enshrined in the dead center of the main exhibit floor of the Seattle Art Museum:


Yes, that's a museum quality ceramic toilet by one of my old art teachers, the late Robert Arneson. I studied under him for a couple of terms at the University, and he was an amazing man, and not a bad sculptor, but still second-level when confined to his era. He'll be virtually unknown in another 50 years and this particular piece will be part of the reason. Even though it gets pride of place in the Seattle Art Museum, it is -- to say the least -- one of the worst Arneson's around and he has many. Still, a third rate collection in a second level city has to take what it can get.

On the wall to the right is, as it happens, another third rate work by another of my instructors, the painter William Wiley. Wiley can be an interesting and amusing, if obtuse, painter, but the one seen here gives you no more close-up than it does as a smudge in this photograph. It fits right to the collection of SAM though. It's a museum where many artists are represented but none well. The museum seems to buy the names but not the quality. Deep down, it's shallow.

The single area in which the museum excels is the one area, of course, that is given short schrift; the totem poles, lodge carvings, masks, and ceremonial costumes of the Native American tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America. The collection, so I am told, is vast and world-class. Hence SAM hides most of it away so that more toilets of clay can be exhibited.

It's to be expected since in culture high and low these days, we are it seems a country half in love with easeful death and half in love with excrement.

Long ago, the natives of Seattle wore clothes like this:


Today, the descendants of those same tribes wear clothes like this:


Just the gear for a great night out at The Funhouse listening to "Shit Gets Smashed" and "The Hershey Squirts."

When I went back to the market to catch the bus I passed by the Chinese musician again. He'd made another couple of bucks from putting the music of a thousand years ago into the streets of the second level city of Seattle. When the bus finally came, I was encouraged to see that there was even more haute culture coming our way:


First Published: 2009-05-04

Posted by Vanderleun at April 2, 2016 1:41 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Your essay nicely summarizes the source of my on-going struggle with depression: it is not for myself that I am unsettled but for the lost and forgotten, the ways that were, and the missed opportunities for excellence. I used to be angry at the waste of time and effort, the intentional regression to infantile rebellion, but lately all that just makes me unspeakably sad. Why are so many pieces of our lives intentionally inferior and second-rate, and devoid of beauty, reason and logic? Self-loathing? No self-respect? The standards that marked the exceptional from the mundane have long faded, replaced by non-competitive and non-judgemental praise of all that is expressed and none that is worthy.

If you come across a phantom such as the old Chinese man you will learn a great deal about yourself by how you listen. And if you aren't paying attention the Hershey Squirts are ready to belittle and insult you for a modest cover charge.

Dan Patterson

Posted by: Dan Patterson at May 4, 2009 5:13 AM

This is my favorite work you do best. Feel like I was there yesterday afternoon. When you back again and listen to the old Chinese man, please put a dollar or two in his cup for me...

Posted by: Webutante at May 4, 2009 5:24 AM

Home sweet home. Dookie town. Poop Culture.

Posted by: Andy at May 4, 2009 8:52 AM

Thanks for this Gerard style, expose of the unseemly slouch toward Gomorrah, If I ever visit Seattle I will know the levels of banality to avoid.

Posted by: qp at May 4, 2009 9:16 AM

Thanks Dan. Nice response. And thank you too, Web.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 4, 2009 10:59 AM

Ah, the youtes that go to hear the Poop Players. If they think it all they think that they and the band are putting one over on the rest of the people, that they see clearly when they say everything is shit.

They are the gulled. They are accepting shit when it is offered to them when they do not have to.

So strange.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at May 4, 2009 11:13 AM

Hurrah! Hurrah! /clap clap

Posted by: ninme at May 4, 2009 11:27 AM

Hurrah! Hurrah! /clap clap

Posted by: ninme at May 4, 2009 11:27 AM

OUR Arhoo player (Washington, DC) gets bucketfulls of dollar bills. Sad that the black hole at the center of the American Galaxy would be more generous than Seattle, but my motivation is that I have this idea that "giving the Arhoo player a buck brings me good luck." I don't know, but my reasoning makes some kind of ancient Chinese sense, doesn't it? Besides the preceding phrase rhymes.

I guess in Seattle they don't even believe in luck, or much else.

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at May 4, 2009 12:13 PM

That second tier grunge band wasn't really from Seattle, you know. They were actually from Aberdeen.

I tell the story this way:

"[Name of lead singer goes here] was from Seattle. Until he committed suicide - then he was from Aberdeen."

A better description of Seattle culture will be found nowhere else. Great post.

Posted by: KCK at May 4, 2009 3:38 PM

The Enlightenment lurches toward its logical conclusion.

Posted by: kkollwitz at May 4, 2009 5:40 PM

Mr. Patterson, you do not yet realize that there is no difference between beauty and ugliness. Just ask any tenured professor of literature or art.

Posted by: Bleepless at May 4, 2009 6:59 PM

I read the name of the one band on the flier you posted as:

"The Heresy Squirts"

That would be my band: We'd strive to play melodiously and not offend the senses. Then we'd wipe our asses with pages of the Holy Q'uran.

And then people would throw bottles at us, we'd get booed off the stage and we'd get death threats. Soon, the brave, open-minded Seattlites would be afraid to come to our shows. Now that is cool!

Posted by: Gray at May 4, 2009 8:22 PM

Wait! Wait! I've got the best Seattle story.

I was on leave from training at Ft Lewis in 1989. A few buddies and I were walking up Yessler (near the triangular parking structure thingey). Some dopey white guy was walking towards us and he suddenly got a deer-inna-headlights look; started crossing the street; thought better; steeled himself to walk towards us and said with a clenched fist:

"I wish it had happened for you guys!"

We gave him the 'International WTF Look' and continued on our way.

Reading the paper the next day I suddendly realized he was talking about the rained-out, so-called "Aryan-Woodstock" of 1989. He thought we were skinheads! He was trying to ingratiate himself so we didn't pound him! Hahahaha!

Posted by: Gray at May 4, 2009 8:39 PM

If the young and hip think life is s**t and enematic now, they have a big surprise coming. It could get genuinely and truly worse, to the point where sellers of ersatz crap will find themselves hip deep in the real thing.

Posted by: Boots at May 4, 2009 10:29 PM

Despite all the posing and the sham...I still love Seattle.

A question about art from a non-schooled "peasant"...Jackson Pollock...genius or just a guy who framed his dropcloths and sold them to chumps who desperately wanted to appear "not square"?

Posted by: Mumblix Grumph at May 5, 2009 4:50 AM

Jackson Pollock? Both. Plus a Drunk.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 5, 2009 10:41 AM

Once again.

I love it when your posts inspire a worthy comment section.

Dan's comment made me want to cry, but let me say this: I live in fly-over country, in the suburbs of Toledo, Ohio. Take heart. A new crop of families have moved into our old development as former owners retire or move up into now affordable McMansions. These new owners are young, hard-working, decent people raising good kids who know how to work and care for their younger sibs. Four kids on our north side. Five on our left. Maybe my little microcosm census doesn't make a trend . . . but, still - it's heartening to hear America working next door.

Posted by: Cathy at May 5, 2009 3:31 PM

So I'm reading through this again, 'cuz it bears re-reading, and my 2 1/2 year-old little guy sees the picture and yells:

"Daddy! Potty! Potty! Daddy!"

I told him he has a career as an effete po-mo art critic.

Posted by: Gray at May 6, 2009 9:05 PM

The instrument being played is an ERHU.

One of the weirdest experiences of my life occurred in Hong Kong when I got off of the MTR (Mass Transit Railway = Subway in U.S. terminlogy). You can walk for blocks underground before ascending up to street level.

I heard some music, faint and in the distance. I continued walking to find a little old man playing the erhu as well as a harmonica that was in a bamboo harness in the manner of Dylan.

Here I am, halfway around the world, and he's playing not only folk music from the American southeast, but *archaic* folk music- "Oh, Susannah".

At that point, I fully expected to hear Rod Serling start expounding upon the scenario...and yes, having been a busker in my past, I tipped the musician.

Posted by: Yanni.Znaio at May 7, 2009 10:31 AM

Oddly enough mere minutes before I read your post, the words of an old Joni Mitchel song were running through my mind.
"Now me I play for fortune,
And those velvet curtain calls
I got a black limousine and two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls...
And I wanted to ask him to play me a song
Maybe put on a harmony
Cause the one man band
by the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good for free."

Posted by: stuart at May 27, 2011 9:15 AM

The Seattle music scene once nurtured Ray Charles and Quincy Jones. But, that was a very long time ago.

Posted by: Fat Man at May 27, 2011 9:22 AM

I posted above 2 years ago, where I said I gave the DC arhoo player a buck each time to "bring me good luck."

It worked. I have a full-time job with good pay and serious bennies, and a hefty bank account. Seattle may want to follow my example. :-)

Posted by: Roderick Reilly at May 27, 2011 11:35 AM

Perhaps a quick YouTube video clip (or at least the audio) would be nice next time, unless you're sparing us from something awful, like a hippie drum circle.

Posted by: StephenB at May 27, 2011 12:05 PM

Great story. The best treatment of modern art was "The Painted Word" by Tom Wolfe. It explains things so well.

Posted by: Duncan at May 27, 2011 1:31 PM


Posted by: Duncan at May 27, 2011 1:35 PM

I watched an unintentionally profound exchange after the death of the aforeunmentioned rock star: MTV was covering a vigil in Seattle after and the reporter asked one young fan for his reaction. The young grunger (grungee(?)) looked morosely into the camera and said "I only listen to Nirvana and Screaming Trees, so it's a real bummer for someone like me." I could not have made up a more deeply shallow statement if I tried.

Posted by: Jonathan at May 27, 2011 2:03 PM

The place: Bellevue mall, one of the glitziest temples to consumerism in the entire Seattle area. We were herding a gaggle of my grandchildren through a display of Nirvana schmaltz, trying to shortcut to the nearest ice cream. A retro-grunge couple of uncertain years, dubious gender and certainly impaired mental functioning sadly watched us go and blessed our backs with a parting "tragic, man, those babies will never get to hear Kurt in person."

Only in Seattle.

Posted by: raincityjazz at May 27, 2011 6:57 PM

I have my favorite long-time musicians at Pikes, and this gentleman is one of them. My son will be moving away from Seattle soon and I'll greatly miss our adventures there 4 or 5 times a year. But as long as I have Vanderleun stories of the emerald city from time to time, I'll be ok.

Posted by: robinstarfish at May 27, 2011 10:55 PM

it is first to be announced by the fans of the andylau:at see over this son hereafter word by word and sentence by sentence, my heart can''t be calm once in a very long while, shocking!why would like a son that like?!

Posted by: 71nz.taobao at September 13, 2012 9:58 PM

And you got through it with your critical thinking skills intact. Congratulations.

Posted by: creeper at April 2, 2016 6:46 AM

You don't see the word drug "works" much these days, at least not in recent circles.

I was just hired yesterday to design a large affordable housing complex in Seattle. We'll see.

Posted by: ghostsniper at April 2, 2016 6:59 AM

Used to be a guy like that at one of the 6 train stops downtown, Astor, Spring? Anyhow, he got his ass handed to him by a competing performer with sticks and plastic bucket, one night. Never saw him again. Music business is tough I guess. Best thing about the punk era were the band names. "Rash Of Stabbings" remains a favorite.

Posted by: Will at April 2, 2016 8:39 AM

Worth a second comment, because it is one of your best.

After Duchamp unirinalled all over us, I'd say that subsequent toilet motifs are derivative. The SAM (and the TAM) really do detail the second city vibe: you are well-witted and someday we may meet up and get well wetted (alcohol talk).

I walked many miles of Seattle's spleen streets. I wasn't there but I figure the 20s-30s were about the nadir for Seattle. It was gritty stuff in the 60s and 70s, I can report that first hand.

I still can't recognize a Nirvana song when it's played. So much for my hometown heroes. Maybe I'm just a decade early, and a dollar short. I did tip a musician in Austin last; maybe I'll get some karma out of that.

Take it easy.

Posted by: Casey Klahn at April 2, 2016 1:32 PM

That musician looks like a woman to me. Note the necklace, the contrasting collar and buttons on the coat, the varicolored yarn in the cap (which looks feminine, not masculine). And there is delicacy in the face, I think. The body posture---see the gracefulness in the lifted foot and and tilted knee.

Posted by: Fontessa at April 2, 2016 2:36 PM

On the upside, Seattle did produce Alice in Chains and the second loudest NFL football stadium in the US.

Posted by: Snakepit Kansas at April 3, 2016 6:39 AM

Its funny that you re-post this now.

I travel for a living (airline pilot) and was out for a walk in your fair city on a beautiful spring day last week when I walked past that woman strumming on whatever that is she's strumming on. It is a strange, haunting sound to a Western ear, but not entirely unfriendly.

Howover, I am moving on to another plane in my not-too-distant future, and won't be back to Seattle on business. As I was out for my walk, I considered writing something about how Seattle reflects both beauty and failure simultaneously. But I decided against it, as I didn't think I could say anything positive without adding the negative.

As it turns out, you've written about it better than I could ever have.

Posted by: azlibertarian at April 3, 2016 12:04 PM

Art school, Gerard? Are you any good?

Posted by: Clinton at April 3, 2016 2:30 PM

I don't live in Seattle but I sure do love visiting. I think it's a beautiful city especially when it's sunny. I can take it for about 2-3 days and then it's weird REgressivism creeps in. But that's OK, Pikes is grand, the food is excellent, wonderful restaurants, good sights to see, Elliott's Bay is beautiful, cool downtown buildings and a good art glass scene.

Plus the love of my life lives there and I just like walking around knowing she's in the city.

Posted by: MMinLamesa at April 3, 2016 6:12 PM

Seattle doesn't deserve you Gerard.

Just kidding.

If Seattle's so awful why do you stay?

But while we're on the topic third rate culture perhaps you could discuss the contributions of Penthouse.com.


Posted by: Arthurstone at April 5, 2016 9:21 AM

Who says I have stayed?

Posted by: Van der Leun at April 5, 2016 10:26 AM