Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Travels with Matt: Remembering a Walk on the Wild Side

After the heaviness of my last two blog entries I thought I’d lighten the mood by reminiscing about my past travels. Sometimes when I am in a lull my mind hearkens back to journeys past and experiences felt or savored.

The other day, while walking, I found myself remembering a day spent in Amsterdam during my Benelux tour of the Europe in September 1999. During my tour I stayed in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Luxembourg City with forays to other nearby cities or towns of interest. I had visited Amsterdam before in 1986 but it was only a fleeting visit so I never really got to explore the richness of the city. My journey in 1999 was meant to rectify that. I did the usual touristy things in Amsterdam—visiting the Anne Frank House, taking a canal cruise, visiting the Rijksmuseum and the Vincent Van Gogh Museum (a magnificent place to savor the fullness of Van Gogh’s art, life, and genius). But the memory that comes to my mind right now is the day I decided to explore the infamous red-light district of Amsterdam.

The red-light district of Amsterdam has always been a locus for those seeking to walk on the wild side of life. At all hours a parliament of humanity comes filtering through the labyrinthine warrens, alley-ways, and side streets of the district, seeking sex, drugs, or both. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands and prostitutes have licenses to practice their trade, are entitled to health care, and are liable to taxation. If you read travel guides for Amsterdam they always tell tourists to avoid the red-light district during evening hours because of the hustlers, dealers, and thieves who roam the area. My journey took place during the day time but I still took precautions. I only had a small amount of cash on my person and I kept my credit card wrapped in a handkerchief and stuffed deep inside my shoe.

If you don’t know where to find the red-light district, just go to the Oude Kerk—the oldest church in Amsterdam. Why there? Because, in what has to be the most incongruous setting I’ve ever seen, the church is totally surrounded by the famous girls in the glass booths. Imagine Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City or the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem completely surrounded by porno houses, strip joints, and adult book stores? Well…that’s how it is with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam.

When you start exploring the red light district certain things jump out at you. Even though you are in a European country, the vast majority of prostitutes that work the red-light district are not European. When I was there in 1999 the ratio of prostitutes went like this: out of every ten hookers five were African, three were Oriental (Indonesian, Thai, Filipino, etc.) and only two were European. And of the hundreds of prostitutes I saw during my peregrinations I only thought three were “desirable” looking and worthy of interest—had I been inclined to indulge which, praise the Lord, I wasn’t.

What’s it like seeing women of from all over the world displaying their software? If you’ve ever passed by a Victoria’s Secret in a shopping mall try to imagine real live women standing in the windows wearing sexy lingerie BLATANTLY COMING ON TO YOU instead of mannequins. But, having said all that, it’s also important to note that not all the prostitutes were stunning beauties. I noticed some very sorry-looking females; sorry enough to make you wonder how they make a living. I remember one that was in a booth around the Oude Kerk. I would describe her like this: she was five foot five by five foot five and wearing the skimpiest underwear imaginable. When I had the misfortune of seeing this grotesquerie of flesh I ran inside the Oude Kerk—I desperately needed some good time religion after having my senses assaulted like that.

In an area where anything goes there is a protocol when you explore the red-light district. Just because the prostitutes openly display their finery to the world doesn’t mean you can stand there and stare at them. The motto in the red-light district is “do it or get off the pot.” If you are gawping at the hookers you will get angry stares or obscene gestures and if you are still staring they will open their doors and shout obscenities—in perfect English too! And don’t think you can find a blind spot where they can’t spot you. Guess again, they see everything and everyone.

I never stopped and stared. During my explorations I was moving constantly with my head on a swivel. I seldom ever stopped because I didn’t want to attract attention from hustlers or pickpockets. I kept one hand on my wallet at all times. Luckily I never got accosted by anyone.

There was one funny moment that I will always savor. The vast majority of visitors to the red-light district were spectators like me. There was one exception. I was making my way through a narrow alley lined with girls in glass booths. There was a line of guys following in my path. I paused for one second and heard a little commotion behind me. When I turned and looked at what was going on, I saw that a group of four Britons hovering outside a glass booth. One of them: a man with a distinctive Cockney accent actually dared to knock on one of the booths. At that moment everyone within ten feet of that booth stopped and stared at what was going to happen—and I was one of them. The girl that emerged from the booth was unforgettable. I had noticed her earlier before. In fact she was one of three “desirable” looking hookers that I mentioned sooner. In fact she was the prettiest looking hooker in the whole district. She was a college-age girl with golden blonde hair that cascaded on her shoulders. She had a magnificent body packaged in black lace lingerie. Bluntly speaking she was the product of perfect Aryan breeding if you’re into that type of ideology—which I’m not!

When she opened the door and stood in the doorway, the Cockney gentleman went up to her and whispered in her ear what he wanted her to do. I remember she flashed a demure, coquettish smile and then she leaned over to him and whispered in the man’s ear what it was going to cost him. When the guy heard the price, he spluttered, “Wot! Bloody fooking hell, Albert. Fifty bleedin’ guilders. Fook that!” and he and his friends slinked away while the rest of us laughed uproariously. (And what did the hooker do? She shrugged her shoulders and went back into her booth).

In 1999 fifty guilders was worth $25 U.S. Dollars. My guess is the guy wanted the girl to perform oral sex on him.

Sometimes you would see empty booths and you could look through the windows and see what they looked like inside. The booths are rather Spartan in appearance. There is a chair, small cot and table with tissues, condoms, lotions, and various other items to enhance the experience. The doors and the windows have shades. If a customer goes inside the shades are drawn for privacy. If you see a booth with the shades drawn almost certainly there is something going on inside.

Soon it was getting dark and it was time for me to leave but not before I had another good laugh. I was making my way back to the Oude Kerk when I saw two young ladies standing outside the church looking down at something on the sidewalk. They stopped me and asked if I knew what it was. It was getting a little dark and the object in the shadow of the church steeple. I bent down to look and saw the following thing: a brass cast of a man’s hand fondling a woman’s breast. I started laughing and when I told the two ladies what it was they collapsed in hysterics too. Since the ice was broken we got acquainted. The two ladies were sociology students from a nearby university just up the way from the red-light district. They were working on a research project and they were busy interviewing prostitutes for their studies. I told them who I was and we both remarked on the environmental theater that was the red-light district.

With that, my exploration of the red-light district was complete—or so I thought. After returning to my hotel to freshen up and relax before dinner, I wrote a song about the experience titled Window Shop Women. I came up with that title because I realized if you go to the red-light district for sex what you are doing is literally window-shopping for human flesh. There is no better way to describe the process and the song I wrote captured the aesthetics and emotions of doing that sort of thing.

Afterwards I was walking towards a restaurant near my hotel to eat dinner. I was going down a narrow street and was looking around when I saw something strange in a window overlooking the street. I couldn’t make out what it was. I stopped and looked and saw a middle-aged woman wearing a beige slip reading a newspaper with her reading glasses. When I realized what I was looking at I did a double-take. I thought I was far away not to attract her attention but I was wrong. She lowered the newspaper and locked her eyes into mine with a look that said “well?!”

All I could do was shrug my shoulders and give her a “oh dear, me!” look and scuttle away.

Like I said before, they come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and age groups.

If you’re reading this and asking yourself why I didn’t indulge myself sexually all I can say is what a Chicago vice cop once said to author Connie Fletcher in her book What Cops Know, “where’s the romance?” (Don’t laugh I once wrote a song based on what that cop told Connie Fletcher, pretty good song too!)

Call me crazy but the idea of purchasing sex as one would purchase an ice-cream cone or a pretzel doesn’t sound thrilling or erotic to me. I’m not prudish by any means nor am I casting aspersions on the prostitutes themselves. It’s just that the act of buying a hooker is too cold and impersonal and demeaning for all parties involved. I’ve never reached that level of desperation to do something like that—and I never will.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Kurt Cobain: a 40th birthday that never was

Kurt Cobain would have turned forty years old today—if he were still alive. Amazingly (though not surprisingly) he occupies a large niche in the iconography of American youth (if not world youth). If you go into a record store or a souvenir store which caters to young people, you will see Kurt Cobain posters or t-shirts adorned with his haunted image or his equally haunting lyrics. Last year I saw a story posted on the Internet that Kurt had become the top-money earning dead celebrity (passing Elvis Presley). If that remains true then it speaks volumes as to how much impact Kurt Cobain made in rock music and in youth culture as a whole.

Kurt’s suicide in 1994 was a landmark moment in the memory of America’s youth. It’s been quite common since then for young people to discuss where they were and what they were doing when they got the news about his death (police determined that Kurt killed himself, on or about April 5, 1994, but it was three days later on April 8, 1994 that his body was discovered). I remember the day vividly myself. It was a gloomy Friday on the East Coast and I was driving home after having spent the whole day day-tripping and sight-seeing in New York City. It was after 6:00PM and I heard the news on the radio about his body being discovered. At the time I was not a devoted Nirvana fan. I had heard his music and liked bits of it but knew nothing of what was going on with his career or life. I had been vaguely aware of what we now know was his first suicide attempt weeks before in Rome when he deliberately overdosed on sedatives.

What was my reaction? Naturally sadness that he took his life but, deep inside, I was not surprised by it. Somehow I had feeling that his death was a pre-ordained conclusion. It was the aftermath of his death that affected me. It was seeing the youth of the world go into intense mourning of his passing; it was seeing the pundits of the entertainment world pooh-pooh his suicide and make derogatory remarks about why he would want to kill himself when he was the number one rock star in America. There was a concerted effort from the establishment to avert their eyes at the image of his corpse, right fist clenched in rigor mortis, and say that Kurt was an aberration and should be filed and forgotten.

But, as it turns out, the establishment was wrong. What the so-called experts could never understand about Kurt was that Kurt Cobain was not an aberration in the consciousness of youth. Instead he was a norm; a real example of what American youth faced then, faces today, and will continue to face as long as this country continues on its ruthless quest for materialistic satiation at the expense of genuine communication, self-examination, and the willingness to work hard to establish dialogue with our children. Kurt story’s has been repeated countless times in countless communities in America: the firstborn child forced to confront the divorce of his parents at a tender age, the custodial shuttle-cocking between parents; the slow drift into alienation, taking refuge in the fantastic, ephemeral, all the while seeking counsel from the dead, departed, and the deluded; then, with the onset of adolescence, the descent into truancy, drug-use, vandalism, and the confrontation with one’s own self-doubt, fear, and inner rage about what he felt was betrayal by his parents, school, and society as a whole.

When he turned twenty, Kurt formed Nirvana and, after several personnel changes, innumerable gigs in dingy clubs throughout America and the world, he would write the greatest album of the 1990’s when Nirvana released Nevermind in September 1991. (For the remainder of the decade many bands would try—and fail—to surpass the impact that Nevermind had—and still has—on the canvas of rock music).

We forget what a seismic impact Nevermind had in music. The album represented a restoration of some badly needed rock values that had been neglected during the 1980’s. 1980’s rock music was inundated with synthesizers, digital sampling, MIDI’s, and Fairlight drum machines. It was getting so that you no longer needed musical talent to become a rock star. You could fake it (and a lot of hit acts were doing just that—and some like Madonna or Jessica Simpson still do!)

What Nirvana did in Nevermind was remind people what rock and roll is really about: that its three, four, five, or more dedicated individuals getting together, playing their instruments and sweating their balls off making outrageous music that makes the ears bleed, bodies vibrate like tuning forks, and voices hoarse from screaming in ecstasy at what was one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time. What other singer would deliberately blow his voice out like Kurt did in Territorial Pissings? What other band could write grunge classics like Smells like Teen Spirit, Come as You Are (that was the first Nirvana song that spoke to my heart), Lithium, Breed, In Bloom, and On a Plain (when you listen to that song it’s like you’re sailing on winds of fire)?

Nevermind did all that—and more.

When Kurt played live, nothing was sacred not even his own body. What other performer would topple his speaker stands by throwing himself bodily into them? (Not even Pete Townshend or the late Keith Moon of the Who ever did that).

But it ended way too soon. Two and a half years later he killed himself, leaving a wife (Courtney Love) and his 20 month old daughter behind.

It was his death that sparked my interest in Nirvana and my quest to read and learn more about Kurt Cobain. And it was after listening to his music and learning about his life that I came to the realization that there was a part of Kurt Cobain in every American child and a good part of our selves could be found inside of him.

(I think Kurt knew that himself which is probably why he wrote my favorite lyric of his, All in All is All We Are in All Apologies from the In Utero album. That line defined his generation—the same generation that sought out, and in some instances achieved, connectivity on the Internet—for all time).

Reading about his youth and what he faced in school, I found common cause with him because I (as well as countless other kids) endured the same things. We read the same school text books, watched the same cartoons, and listened to the same albums. Although he did some things differently from what I did—I never did drugs or committed vandalism or played truant—I felt the same anger, alienation, rejection, fear, desperation, and hollowed out emptiness that afflicted him.

He sought solace in his art and his music. I sought solace in reading and writing song lyrics. (I used to write the same type of songs as Kurt but his were a million times better!)

When the end came for Kurt and he surrendered to death, I was going through my own personal crisis at the time. I was in the fourteenth month of an 18 month depressive spell. Actually I should say I was in the 30th year of a 30 year depression which began the day I was born but I hadn’t realized it yet—back then I still had illusions or should I say delusions?

When I realized the synchronicity of Kurt’s life with mine, I saw his suicide as a message to myself. (I wonder if other people experienced the same type of realization in the aftermath of his suicide). I questioned my own existence as well. I wondered whether I really wanted to live or die myself. Contemplating death wasn’t new with me. I’ve been pondering death since I was eight years old and there were times when I was 10-11 that I would pray to God at night that I wanted to die because I hated the way my life was going and what was being psychologically, emotionally, verbally, and, sometimes, physically inflicted upon me by my parents and brothers, peers, relatives, teachers, and certain SDA church members.

I had a lot of anger inside me (like Kurt had in the days leading up to his suicide). I remember one night I called my “brother” Chris and called him every filthy, disgusting, obscene name I could think of because of the many betrayals he perpetrated upon me during the past. I felt bloody good doing it and—to this day—I’ve never regretted it. My only regret was that I didn’t do it years sooner—when it would have meant something.

What I remember about that time period was a feeling of indifference to future life (later I would read that Jim Morrison of the Doors had the same feelings when he went into exile in Paris). I didn’t have a gun or a bottle of pills (thank God!) nor was I inclined to purchase either but I remember being supremely indifferent as to whether I really wanted to live or die. I remember telling a psychiatrist later that if some crook had put a gun to my head and told me that he was going to kill me, I probably would have said, “go ahead and shoot. I don’t give a damn.”

I remember doing a lot of song writing at the time. (It was my way of purging my inner anguish and rage).

I forget when I made the decision to get counseling. It was probably May or June of 1994 but I did do it. I decided that I wanted to live instead of die. Don’t ask me why. The counseling did help to a certain extent but it didn’t resolve the cause of my emotional wasteland: my family. That would take longer and it happened in July last year when I made the long-deferred decision to cease all interaction with my parents and brothers (save for my oldest nephew Frank DiBiase III—a Kurt Cobain fan who decided to become a musician, songwriter, and performer like his idol was. Every time he writes a song or does a gig he makes me proud of him. May he succeed in his quest!)

Trust me it wasn’t a rash decision. It was something I had been thinking about since 1983 when I came to the realization that my “family” really didn't love me or care for me at all. What stopped me from doing it was a forlorn hope that they would change and love me as I was and what I could be. Sadly, they refused to—and I paid a heavy price for it then and, in some ways, I’m still paying for it now. (Those who are really close to me will know what I’m talking about. Those of you who aren’t, I’ll try to explain it to you some day if you’re willing to listen).

In some ways, Kurt Cobain’s life and death opened my eyes and made me look hard at myself and decide what I was all about. I wonder if other people were so opened and so affected to make a change for the good or for the bad. I’m still here because, unlike Kurt Cobain, I do not possess the will to die. Yes, folks, the will to die. People talk about the will to live. There is also the will to die. Kurt Cobain possessed the will to die. If you read the biography of Kurt written by Charles Cross, you will find that Kurt came so close to killing himself many times before his suicide. What’s amazing was that he survived as long as he did. But when someone possesses the will to die then no person on Earth can stop someone from killing themselves. In time, Kurt found the right time and moment to consummate his will to die—and he did.

(I remember my nephew Frank asking me whether Kurt could have been saved. I told him no; that his death was inevitable).

But I’m still here. How and why I don’t know. I think about Kurt too. (Whenever a Nirvana song comes on the radio, I listen to the very end).

I miss what he gave to the world. I don’t condone his suicide. (The most inexcusable aspect of it was that he abandoned his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain. Even if you can’t live for yourself, you still need to live for your child. With regards to his wife Courtney Love let me say that if I had to be married to a woman like that I might have seriously contemplated giving head to blue gun metal myself. Thank God I’ve never had to go through that at least!)

Seven years ago, as a way of paying homage to Kurt, and to exorcise my own feelings about him. I wrote this song. The lyric is to be spoken and not sung while an electric guitar with a fuzz tone wails madly in the background.

Happy Birthday! Kurt. Wish you were here.

Kurt Cobain

We promised to meet
Five years hence
I managed to make it
You did not

Dead at the scene
No need for autopsy
They found you dead
They found you dead
They found you dead

We promised to live
Settle our debts
I managed to pay them
You did not

Dead at the scene
No need for autopsy
They found you dead
They found you dead
They found you dead

We promised to save
Resolved to sense
I managed to feel it
You did not

Dead at the scene
No need for autopsy
They found you dead
They found you dead
They found you dead

We were young
Never aged to lie
I reached thirty
You did not

We wrote songs
Stained glass, a grave
I kept singing tunes
You did not

Dead at the scene
No need for autopsy
They found you dead
They found you dead
They found you dead

…the pump
Shotgun shells
No reaction to anti-toxin
Instant reply
Rohrschach test
Left for fucking
Rite of Election
West Bank Nation
Coney Island
Tax forms
Sound barrier
Car crash
Fade to ending…

Dead at the scene
No need for autopsy
They found you dead
They found you dead
They found you dead

© 02/26/1999 by Matthew DiBiase

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Poem: February in Four Stanzas

I. A Time of Season

February (with its attendant terrors) always comes with a fury


(That peculiar wasteland we call boredom)

Imposes its will upon the broken heart



All comes collapsing

Bursting forth

With its futility and envy and senses deprived

What I would give for a moment on the Piazza Navona

(Watching lovers on motorbikes navigate through the catacomb streets of Rome)

What I would give for a moment in Hollywood Cemetery

(At the foot of a famous writer’s grave, basking in the breeze of the River James)

Yes, the fury comes

At night, clutching at my blankets
Fists clenched in poetic nervous strain
My left arm twitching in response to the psychic biting of the emotional parasite

It comes with the cold
It comes with the wall of snow driven by the lake effect winds
It comes with the emptiness at night

The emptiness of being forgotten by life

It comes with the dead horse


Like a good Kentucky Derby winner

It comes with the dead celebrity


With a bosom Western close-up

It comes with the rain-slicked lies

That falls with ease

Upon the numbed breasts of a bottle-fed electorate

It comes

And we must endure or suffer or maintain

Despite the ugliness which dwells deep in the inhuman heart

It comes

And we must sleep secure in our sleeplessness

It comes

II. A Twist of Fate

Forty years ago today (You could look it up)

I moved with my family to a new town

Where I died for twenty-five years

The hatreds of the hunters
The anger of the huntresses

The evil which lurked between the suburban tracts
And the highway

The evil that smote me dawn to dusk

The evil that emptied and corrupted and corroded

Until there was nothing left when I finally left

To revisit the crime scenes
And the bad dreams
And the windscreens

It was never my home

(Lying dead in the child’s playground)

III. The final chord

From little acorns…

A song was born from a fevered mind

Fueled by illicit substances

Inspired by reading the news today Oh Boy!

Sugar-plum fairies in an echo-chamber

Echoes from an old piano

24-bars and the alarm rings

What comes crashing down?


The sound of a chair squeaking

IV. Testimony

Kill me and be done with it
Kill me and bill my estate later
Kill me and sell the rights to my tele-movie
Kill me and show the footage of You Tube

At least Saddam Hussein got a proper send off

(Make sure the noose is to the left of the left ear so that the neck breaks properly)

Like the outlaw Bill Longley said, “Hanging is my favorite way of dying.”

Just ask the Easter Day Rebellion rebels of Ireland

© 02/10/2007 by Matthew DiBiase