It’s the last day of 2012 and I’m listlessly drifting from one thing to another. My wife and son are visiting parents and grandparents in Alabama; I’m home alone on New Year’s Eve. I have my iPad in my lap and the TV on in the background.
I’m thinking about starting Transmetropolitan, a much-admired comic series by Warren Ellis, whose Planetary is my favorite comic ever. I download the first issue. The setting seems to be near-future. It features a journalist named Spider Jerusalem — that name is almost enough to discourage me from looking any closer — who lives in a remote mountain cabin, relishing his distance from the human world. (Clearly a Hunter S. Thompson echo; later the echo just gets louder.) But Spider is broke, and the book editor who, five years earlier, had given him a big advance, only to get not a word in return, is now demanding either words or money. And won’t be put off again.
But as much as Spider loves the pure, clean air and perfect solitude of his alpine redoubt, he gets no ideas there. If he’s going to write, he’ll have to receive stimuli from the city he hates — or thinks he hates. Because as soon as he arrives in the City — that’s its only name — he starts to get excited. The smells of a dozen different cuisines at once, the incredible variety of faces and clothing and behavior and language, the energies of creativity and also (yes) of corruption, all start to work on him. The mountain-man beard and wild long hair disappear, giving way to a completely hairless but heavily tattooed body which he drapes in a black linen suit. He heads out into the street and thinks, “I’m home.”
Meanwhile, I see from the corner of my eye that there’s a college football bowl game on, one of those minor ones, I guess, whose name changes every year or two. Chris Fowler and Jesse Palmer are calling the game for ESPN and are for some reason unknown to me singing the praises of New York City. I have to do a quick Google search to discover that this is the New Era Pinstripe Bowl and it’s being played in Yankee Stadium. (Pinstripe — get it?) But anyway, Jesse is now talking about a restaurant in the Village he loves: it used to be a speakeasy, back in the Prohibition era, and now has a chef who came over from Per Se. The screen is filled by a pan shot across the restaurant, with rough brick walls and white tablecloths and a big fire blazing in a fireplace. Jesse adores New York: it’s the place where people come who really want to “make it,” he says. Both Jesse and Chris live in New York, though Chris seems slightly embarrassed by Jesse’s enthusiastic boosting and boasting. Eventually they turn their attention back to the game.
Just last night I was reading a review, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, of a recent biography of Tom Waits. Much of the review considers Waits’s longtime residence at the Tropicana Motor Hotel in West Hollywood — a dump, a dive: exactly the kind of place that might enable a young musician to invent himself as Tom Waits. But as the 1970s moved along the Tropicana’s romantic trashiness gave way to something more dangerous: “I found myself in some places I can’t believe I made it out of alive. People with guns. People with gunshot wounds. People with heavy drug problems.” Eventually, Waits came to realize, “You live like that, you attract lower company.”
His salvation came when, while acting in Francis Ford Coppola’s film One from the Heart, he met a screenwriter named Kathleen Brennan. He would later say, “I’m alive because of her. I was a mess. I was addicted. I wouldn’t have made it. I really was saved at the last minute, like deus ex machina.” He and Brennan married and moved to rural Sonoma County, in northern California, where they live with their children.
Los Angeles was poisoning Waits, and he had to escape it. Probably Spider Jerusalem was feeling the same way when, five years before the start of Transmetropolitan, he left the City and took refuge in that mountain cabin.
(to be continued)