When I See a Train, I Want to Take It in My Arms
Raymond Pettibon with the sparest of lines and simplest of words made me unashamed to love odd beauty, to pass through struggle and embrace my own weird affections and subtle intuitions without self-consciousness. His work haunts me.
The problem of haunting in art is a serious one. Writers create atmospheres of sound, of scent, of taste, of sensation through the simple substance of words, each sentence an incantation that summons a whole world. They make me yearn for places that don’t exist, plumped with incidental symphonies and unusual aromas, fleshy textures and ornate flavors, characters more real than fiction should allow. The imaginary specters of literature curse one with nostalgia before you have even finished their book.
For me, visual art haunts with glimpsed visions of what could be. Some astonished moment of seeing, an epiphany, a portal. Each sighting, its own astonishment at the possibility in myself, in the world, measured against the passage of time. Art can reveal in a single frame some shackling fear, and the bravery of its creation both a liberation and revelation, a redemptive break in the hellish illusion that most people accept as reality. The window is like Barthes’s photographic punctum, the puncture is personal, what reveals and frees each of us is individual. Our communion comes not from the shared affection for a single haunting picture, but for that shared experience that we’ve all seen a tear in the veil.
By the time you read this, I will likely have a picture by Raymond Pettibon tattooed on my body.
If my editor had chosen differently, I could have just as easily ended up with a tattoo of George Stubbs’s Whistlejacket as a back piece or black triangle over my shoulder and the words in German, “And the gods said paint the right corner black!” inked above my clavicle or Frans Snyder tongue-kissing death on my bicep.
I grew up like Pettibon, lower middle class in a SoCal beach suburb, barely enduring its sunstroked crypto-fascism. I saw a skinhead give a Mexican teenager a curbie, open mouth placed on a concrete curb and a steel-toed boot knocked out all his teeth in a squelching crunch. One of my friends, a 14-year- old black kid named Kevin had been shot in the head by the local police. The bullet bounced off his skull. He wasn’t ever the same after, a malice infected him. The local ultra-rightist congressman sent my house regular postcards of himself surfing. The Richard Nixon Library was a half-hour drive away. The old, idealistic hippies we knew drank themselves to death under bridges.
The whole time I was reading Artaud and Kerouac, Céline and Bukowski, Joseph Campbell’s myths and Aldous Huxley’s acid trips, Ian Fleming spy novels and lush Anne Rice vamp porn, secretly listening to the Velvet Underground and the Doors alongside the gangsta rap my friends and I would blast whilst watching worn VHS pornos, playing Mario Kart, and smoking spliffs. I hid all of it, all the high and low culture. Every poem composed, every novel read, every picture clipped out of old art history textbooks and studied tucked out of sight. My mother would often steal my books if I left them out, read my poems and stories for incriminating knowledge later to be lobbed at me with punishing force and on occasion handed over to the authorities as evidence.
It all fell apart when my brother went to jail with half his gang. I ran away and survived on my own in the world for a time, becoming a loner long enough to learn that the cold passion for truth hunts in no pack, that the battle was no longer physical but spiritual. I understood that to throw my body on the machine like I was doing was just suicide. Spiritual rebellion could cause one crack to blossom through songs, pictures, words into a multitude. A single punch with a thousand blows.
This all happened before I was 13.
I first saw Pettibon’s work like most punks, in the blunt force anger and defiant humor of a Black Flag record cover. Later, still a teenager, I stood in a room devoted to his work in a London museum tracing the spidery weave of India ink, reading each line over and over like prayers. Pettibon loved all that he loved, high and low, with bitter abandon. He documented the crushing force of subtle and unsubtle fascism in everyday suburban life in these American states, and he did so with an intelligence and grace that exceeded the simple revolutionary knee-jerk of punk and evolved into something tender and strange, nuanced and intellectual, into art, without ever forgetting the authoritarianism and intolerance of his origins, a regime that killed more than a few sensitive souls, murders and suicides and early graves of beloved too sad to list here.
“No Title (When I see a train…)” (1986), I first saw on a t-shirt. A birthday present from a buddy, I wore it to ghostly thinness. It disappeared in one of the constant moves normal for a certain transient varietal of poverty.
The clank and book of greasy black iron punching the air with a thousand tons of punishing force, the lost dream of a Hank Williams tune and the hobo fantasy of a thousand lost crust punks. I feel a surge of unalloyed joy every time I see a train. Is it a false nostalgia for some 19th-century Americana fantasy of Depression-era rambling? A boyish affection for some Freudian symbol of virility or maybe just a dream of escape? It doesn’t matter. The feeling is real and immediate, electric and beautiful and earnest, a poem. I don’t care what it means or reveals. It gives me joy. Perhaps this feeling of a free affection is born out of all the struggle against the casually cruel forces that put a price tag and a brand on every noble impulse, place a prison guard at every spiritual passage: a painfully earned joy, perhaps, but true and unfettered.
I don’t care that the myth of Raymond Pettibon has become some symbol of picked over underground cred, a hipster signifier. That he’s cool or successful for being a fucked-up weirdo who’s friends with Kim Gordon, a punk with a fortune, that it might make me look subterranean cool for liking him or his drawings. I am not now making a nickel off writing this, but write it wholly out of uncommodifiable affection. The one time I curated a show with Raymond (a collaboration with Yoshua Okón), I did it unpaid and spent hundreds of my own few dollars to make it happen, something I never told Ray or Yoshua.
Besides, this one drawing might be the least hip of all his drawings. No surfers muttering noir koans or burn-out hippies arguing about Manson over bathtub acid. No acerbic critique of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. It doesn’t make me relive the anger and dream of my punk youth now that I’m a corporate stooge. It doesn’t hang above my desk at the record company.
Every time I see a train, I want to put my arms around it.
Late at night where I live now, I hear the long lonesome whistle of the freights tracking a steel path through the eastside slums, pounding with lethal force through a sleeping city bathed in the sick orange glow of streetlights. The sound deep and ancient, a dynamo in the heavenly night, a song that fills me with an almost tearful exultation.
I lived a youth afraid of ever showing who I really was lest something horrible happen to me, as it often did. The quiet tyranny of life in conservative, suburban America strips you down to nothing, they will take away everything and suddenly. The nuns and teachers and parents and bullies and cops could break or steal anything that was precious.
The working class, like my family, gets tattoos because it’s something that can’t be taken away, a struggle we wear in our skin. My brother has our last name between his shoulder blades. My sister has one of her photographs, the shadowy torso of a mannequin, inked into her flank. I have a poem scarred into the top of my right foot that says “Once again as ever free.”
We wear our spirits on our flesh and when the repo man comes, he can’t skin us. At least not yet. As Susan Sontag wrote, consciousness is harnessed to flesh. The rebellion is more spiritual than physical now, but our bodies are the first and last site of our individual and collective fight for deliverance. This naked and unembarrassed joy I will now wear with lumpen pride on my flesh without judgment or fear, with simple pride and defiant affection, until the end.
Andrew Berardini is a writer in Los Angeles and a contributing editor at MOMUS. A finalist for the Premio Bonaldi and winner of an Andy Warhol/Creative Capital Grant for Art Writers in 2013, he has a book forthcoming from Mousse on Danh Vo and is currently at work on another about color. Berardini is the co-founder of the Art Book Review, and edits for numerous other publications, including Artslant and Mousse. He has been a regular contributor to Art Review, LA Weekly, and Artforum.