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Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock

Some humble suggestions for stuffing the X-mas stocking ‘toward the Noel, that mort saison’

Marx planned to write a massive commentary on La Comédie humaine, Balzac’s undivine epic made up of innumerable novels and short stories. Given the Corn Laws chapter and the obsessive money-commodity-money chains of Das Kapital I, surely he would have followed the diets of Balzac’s people with a similarly intestinal feel. From food we naturally descend to other commodified stimulants: time modifies circulation and value by the ‘glittering money form’ and down to the heaving belly – then to void, deluge or uprising. What’s the point in revolution without general regurgitation? For further analysis, go to Balzac’s loopy and droll Treatise on Modern Stimulants, published for the first time in English by the Wakefield Press.

Written in 1839 as an appendix to an early Gastronomic study (Brillat-Savarin’s 1825 Physiology of Taste), this little pamphlet shows that Balzac was one of the first been-there-done-thattypes when it comes to modern vice: coffee, smoking, and booze. He left Baudelaire the fourth (dope), though historical hearsay shows that Honoréindulged in more than a little hashish. Sometimes a wry prude; at others, a cynic denouncing the reader as a hypocritical stupid-ass, Balzac writes on excess with a refreshingly perverse clinicism. His ghoulish theories on the amount of stimulants in a hanged man’s bloodstream sound like the late David Carradine’s notes for a school hygiene filmstrip; folk-tales and superstition haunt fancy words probably cribbed from his late-night party guests. It is hard to tell – and irrelevant anyway – if Balzac really thought lousy diets and too much hooch turned poor people into lousy ogres, whether the classical Three Humors theory of the body is correct, or if the French Revolution was the work of a colonial PR firm to push coffee and Gauloises. He is hardest on caffeine and liquor because he recklessly binged on both. As for smoking, he claimed to loathe it but indulged with trusted friends. The Afterward has some good cartoony anecdotes about the Great and Chubby Author: Balzac approaches a plate of peas with ‘lips quivering, eyes alight’, his hands ‘trembling with joy’. When was the last time anyone did that before a tor of mushy peas, or at the lip of a can of Green Giant? There’s a touch of the saint in such rites.

Kassy Hayden’s translation is verbose, snide, and perfect easy-going fun. But the author of Père Goriot, unlike today’s pop hedonists, was a Realist who knew that the last joke was on himself. He died at 51, probably the result of his tireless mania for coffee.

Algiers, 1stNovember 1954 (cassette release)

Commemorating two Toussaints – Tousaint Rouge (fil jaza’ir, Algérie française), as well as L’Ouverture de Haiti – this goblin musical thread of burnt-out cars and bloody poplars is a good example of how to do the Contemporary Ghostly right. Fanon’s redemptive violence provides the militant pitch against bleed-throughs of increasingly-paranoid state bulletins, secret police dossiers, and faded images from ancien (& CNN) colonial screens.

Algiers is a racket from Atlanta via Azusa Street which could fill-in for Test Dept playing Temptations covers, most of the time. Metallic KO usually takes a back seat to their red swagger and swing, but on this furtive release the antique futurist machines free the hazy bled that backs their negative space. The tape comes with a strange confessional booklet which gives an administrative/serial killer gloss on the chromium damage you’re hearing; an opaque brief left at the Omni Coliseum by Jacques Vergès. Algiers is killer on stage (bitter PiLs and all), with singer Franklin James Fisher cracking and holding in genuine holy ghost desperation. On this tape, he’s apparently gone Vega and vaguer, hopping around somewhere deep under the feedback and traffic-light tones (or there not at all), made by regular members Ryan Mahan and Lee Tesche and other illegal residents. The music is heavy Giallo, but old rock-and-roll radio memories appear in dusty husks, peacock mirages– funerary, medical and menial shop work, wormtail-like but in no part ‘jam’ (lhamd’illah).

Usually this kind of band ephemera is outtake and time-kill. Product shifting in low-press numbers for fetishists and collectors and rebel schoolmen. Algiers’ zine is more like alternate takes waiting for an elusive choral setting; the end of side one does a Ganja and Hess incidental devolution. The second ‘improvised’ side is Aylery with a little sonic reducer sheen – which reminds you that the title of this periodic release is also what the city morgue uses to denote every John and Jane Doe. Day, number and time + action, time and vision. Algiers’ channel broadcasts in braille this reel, burning underside. Abolisao!

If you can find it bootlegged or used, a copy of Albert Zugmsith’s singular 1962 Confessions of an Opium Eater is a sound Yuletide investment. Though it has nothing to do with De Quincey’s famous junkie autobiography, this mad patchwork of Orientalism and dashing schizophrenia is a particularly beautiful and impenetrable one-off. The setting is Chinatown by the Bay and the dreamlands of a Jack London relic looking for a Sea Wolf (played by the immortal Vincent Price). Far less self-conscious and more honest dime-store than other eccentric flicks from the time such as Night Tide or Jack Smith’s, Opium Eater wades through a hammy-cheese icewater with nothing but its own pasteboard to heave to. A Saturday morning adventure serial too Juliet of the Spirits for its own good, things get increasingly derailed and more and more spastic the leaner the $25 budget becomes: When a typically-stupid honky cop is shocked at how good his English is, a wily Chinaman tells him that he also speaks ‘Russian, Italian, Spanish and Hebrew’; a vast conspiracy of Tong assembled in the bowels of Chinatown looks like Sam Gompers’ worst nightmare; odd slow-motion sequences are punched into the rickety plot like palm-wine stains on Formica. The proceedings don’t so much end as stop: the whole underground stage floods out with the main two characters, turning and spinning down the most poetic subterranean freeway since Krazy Kat or Jean Vigo – Après nous, le rêve. Director Zugsmsith is best known for producing Welles’ Touch of Evil, but he was clearly a genius in his own right. Sadly, his cinema seems pretty obscure today. Some of the titles look promising, tho: The Phantom Gunslinger; a soft-core Krafft-Ebing tie-in called Psychedelic Sexualis; and the biblically-inspired Private Life of Adam & Eve.

Just the thing to watch after you have a drink at the Li Po and renew your Counterpunch sub for next year.

Addendum: Your Christmas party music should be rounded-out by Jimmy Smith’s epochal Christmas ‘64 LP; Culturcide’s ‘Depressed Christmas’ and the classic Slade holiday 45. Finally, after the traditional Sim Scrooge, put on the old seasonal shocker Black Christmas, starring the much-missed and most lovely Margie Kidder. And to all, a good fight.

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Martin Billheimer lives in Chicago.

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