Andrew Gebhardt has published in several genres, including essays, poetry, and translations. His work has appeared in many places, including The Antioch Review, Rattapallax, and Global City Review.
The Wrong World
Mr. Spock can’t remember
how or why he got sent back to twentieth century Earth,
to stifling Bethlehem, PA, at that.
He doesn’t understand
how he knows what he is, but not who…
He believes he could
pinch unconscious anyone in this bus terminal,
he could mind-meld with “Juan” pushing the broom
or with “Angie” selling postcards.
At the Greyhound counter, Spock’s hands tremble,
“I need passage to Vulcan.” The teller
squints suspiciously, “Maybe next window.”
Best to wait, he thinks, & in the depot bar
orders beer with a lemon wedge
as a man with a scar on his forearm
elbows his buddy, aiming his bottle at the Vulcan—
“Where you from?”
Outside, a vendor
scalps a coconut’s green cranium,
pokes in a white straw, for a buck.
Spock watches, catches a whiff
of smoke, of urinals stuffed with mothballs,
& fumes rising off the asphalt—
these might be clues.
A roach scuttles from a crack in the wall
& stops beside Spock’s left boot,
antennae twitching, as though it too
had suddenly entered the wrong world.
Near the entrance, on straw mats, long white potatoes
knobby as elderly feet
nudge russets knotted into mud caked fists.
Green-skinned gourds surround them
next to shaggy heads of lettuce, a box of limes
& the shriveled tongues of prunes.
For a couple bucks, you can buy
wind-up Godzillas that burp sparks,
imitation Levis, or a pocket-sized portrait of Jesus
who resembles a gory Goldilocks.
Under a sun-bleached tarp, salmon
lay mouth to mouth in crates of crushed ice—
once driven by an irresistible compulsion,
lumped now in rows with the wincing cierra.
And soles, whose eyes once migrated across their heads,
gaze now to mud glittering with shaved scales.
Amid the bickering hawkers, chickens
stacked in wire cages
squawk & coo their fearful stink,
& hacked chunks of beef draw flies
on a sticky wooden block
while high above, hawks
drift in vapor currents
eyeing the land like distant investors.
Charlemagne or Sitting Bull
Like a fine snow, dust has settled on my plate,
on the table, & across the room I can
see it falling. I make out the tv
in the corner, morning news on mute.
It’s the season of dust. Fuck this.
I’ve been eating it & breathing it so long– of
course, we all have. Here’s
to us! Trace your finger & write
your name in it. What is it?
Flakes of skin, bits of lint, flecks of something
adrift in our common element.
Maybe it’s ash–
the municipal incinerator’s not far off
& the crematorium’s just
on the other side of the river.
I do know these fine black particulates
aren’t soot but rubber talc from radial tires
ceaselessly circling the freeways.
And all this, whatever it is, is
swept around by invisible forces
that really aren’t hard to detect,
but are flush with the unexpected–
atoms from the last breath
of Hannibal or Lao Tsu,
Charlemagne or Sitting Bull,
scattered through this weird weather
& settling on my plate like a fine snow.
I hear nothing in this room except for a single fly.
I believe I could be in touch with the infinite
silence of the universe were it not for this fly.
He or She circles, zags, seems to leave a trail of black light,
unravels my patience & good will.
I’m reminded that I’m not the type who wouldn’t hurt a fly.
I would, I have.
We share a surprising number of genes with fruit flies,
that’s why so many labs use them.
Ditto: rats, mice, & worms–as earthlings
we’re pretty close on the dna totem, or close enough.
Do we share the same kinship with houseflies, horseflies, & blue bottle flies?
The latter thrive on corpses, apparently.
Visiting village ruins,
what struck one correspondent more than
the ripped face strewn beside the knuckle with a ring
was the familiarity
of the flies’ characteristic sound, how thousands
of them together grew monotonous as a motor in the background.
Sort of like how, here, war itself might seem.
Well, this fly has no such luck as those blue-bottles
& must make do in this land with what fortune brings.
Clouds sail through late July blue over unfinished skyscrapers.
Rain dots the pavement.
Storm winds can carry off flies for miles,
even from one country to another, as the
system dissipates. I don’t imagine any of this
makes much difference to a fly.
They seem to do pretty well, regardless.
Excerpts from “Welcome to Minecxio” (2004)
They have composed an opera to fish dying of heart attacks and a piece for baritone, tenor, contralto and soprano whistling kettles. They have recorded the sounds of a chicken coop to create the 10,000 Chickens Symphony. They have played concerts to plants and dry ice. They claim their music comes from an imaginary land known as Minecxio. One of their outdoor shows overpowered even Buenos Aires traffic sounds and stirred up neighbors to complain to police of noise pollution. The group responded with a “silent” concert, plugging their guitars into pumpkins, but the police told them to leave so as not to scare off tourists. They have also “played” the Eiffel Tower (as in, recorded wind howling through its frame) and they have used the sounds of protests as well as the rustling of immigration papers in their music. They are Reynols—Alan Courtis, Roberto Conlazo and Miguel Tomasín—perhaps Argentina’s weirdest musical offspring.
I first heard of this remarkable trio in the late 1990s when a musician friend in New York who knew I had lived in the Southern Cone asked me about their concerts. Were they as crazy on stage as they seemed in their recordings, he wanted to know, and what kind of following did they enjoy in Buenos Aires? I had no idea, and none of the Argentines I spoke to had ever heard of the group, either. A few years later in Buenos Aires, I had my first—and appropriately unusual—encounter with Reynols, or rather with a facsimile of Reynols. As I was walking on a main street downtown, a gust of wind kicked up a few papers from the sidewalk, one of which pinwheeled toward me and stuck to my thigh. It was a flyer for a Reynols show that had occurred the night before. It featured a blurry photocopy of the band, all wearing their trademark enormous dark sunglasses with Miguel Tomasín, the band’s founder and drummer, in the center holding his drumsticks like a cross or a plus sign.
That was in the fall of 2001, just before the Argentine economy tanked and popular protests erupted around the city, driving president De La Rua from office as well as three of his immediate successors in rapid fire, domino action. Soon young people would be hurling molotov cocktails at La Casa Rosada (the Pink House, Argentina’s presidential palace), middle class mobs would destroy banks that had frozen their accounts, police would shoot protesters in the back, and the congress would declare a state of siege. Reynols recorded some of the massive cacerolazos, spontaneous protests where thousands of ordinary people rushed to the streets beating their kitchen cacerolas, or pots. Reynols captured the tinks, booms, thuds and scratches of this unruly orchestra of banging cacerolas and then tweeked the sounds, distorting them, adding Reynols’ own unique stamp.
Their fans comprise a small but loyal coterie that spans from Japan to Egypt, from France to Colombia and includes, in the U.S., popular musicians like Beck and Sonic Youth. To listen to Reynols is to hear one of globalizations’ soundtracks, a cacaphonous vortex where political and economic theories of globalization intertwine with theories of experimental music. If you want to understand Reynols, you must appreciate something about their social context, because music is, among other things, a social phenomenon. Similarly, if you want to comprehend something about the science fiction-like realities of Argentina, you must look not only at World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies, but at obscure and fantastic voices like Reynols. Reynols may very well constitute a vanguard, a sodality of the bizarre with important messages for us all.
The bizarre should not merely be shrugged off and dismissed because it’s marginal. Just the opposite: Reynols is significant and we should prick up our ears or our antennae and tune in. Their soundscapes may be beautiful, hilarious, frustrating, boring, solipsistic, or haunting—and sometimes a single song may share all of these qualities. Their sound challenges ideas of what music is for and what it can be, and their presence is no less provocative. Whether on stage, radio, television, in photos or in interviews in magazines, Reynols always leaves a powerful impression, one that invites us to consider the world from new perspectives.
If you ask Alan Courtis how his band came together, he’s likely to tell you that Reynols has always existed in some form and that in it’s current manifestation they have played since the early 1990s. Or perhaps he’ll say enigmatically that Reynols doesn’t exist. But all band members agree that their extraordinary genesis owes something to a special music class where Alan Courtis and Roberto Conlazo, who teach music to children and adults with disabilities in Buenos Aires, met Miguel Tomasín, who has Down’s Syndrome. Tomasín introduced himself by saying “Hi, I’m the greatest drummer in the world.” At that moment, high above the gray dome of the Buenos Aires sky, stars collided and light flowed from great space into great space and a fruitful, highly unique relationship began: a legend was born. Tomasín has said that Reynols came into existence in 1967, when he was a baby but before the other band members were alive. He also claims to have invented Courtis and Conlazo in the year 1000.
Sometime in 1993, shortly after they had begun to play together anonymously, the group was lounging in Courtis’s apartment as a chihuahua scampered around. The dog stepped on the television clicker, and a scene from a Burt Reynolds movie appeared. The band members paused, looking at each other in recognition that something significant had transpired. Eureka— The Burt Reynolds Ensemble was discovered. Later, they shortened the name to simply Reynols, removing the ‘d’ to avoid any legal repercussions from Burt Reynolds. Burt Reynolds is an impressive figure from U.S. popular culture to invoke; he resonates on several frequencies, as the band might say. He’s a registered member of the Cherokee tribe, was the first male centerfold, and one of the most popular and highly grossing male leads of Hollywood cinema whose opus includes such classics as Smokey and the Bandit, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Cannonball Run, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and Cop and a Half. In the parallel universe of Argentina, which was the launchpad for the Reynols trip to the Minecxio of Tomasín’s mind, the specter of Burt Reynolds could mean anything. In Reynols’ world, Burt Reynolds is what semiologists might call a free-floating signifier.
Miguel Tomasín’s singular abilities play an important role in Reynols’ artistic dynamic, although, according to the band, it’s reductive to describe this dynamic merely in terms of Downs or disability. Miguel Tomasín is Reynols’ creative engine. He comes up with almost all the lyrics, titles and ideas for songs. His vision is utterly unique and apparent in everything he does. During one interview, for example, he caresses plants and makes ice melt with the power of his mind. Courtis and Conlazo liken themselves to faithful and devoted scribes of his extraordinary talent. As Courtis puts it: “Miguel Tomasín is what comes after intelligence, the Mega Mind that controls everything without controlling anything…the subliminal helix that keeps rotating in the retatimo frequency from the beginning of time…Miguel says that the universe we can see is the eyeball of an albino flea, and as far as we know they are nine flea sisters.” This imaginative, dadaist description is classic Reynols, and shows the affection and creative interplay between band members.
Asked if Courtis and Conlazo feel they’re exploiting Tomasín, they explain that they see their music as an extraordinary collaboration, one that’s unique in some ways, but not too different from the communal creative process of many bands, particularly those with prolific and charismatic leaders. They also explain that it’s important that parents of special kids see Tomasín as an example of what their own children might aspire to. They’re fiercely loyal to Tomasín, and also, to some extent, to Argentina. In another interview, Conlazo says “[m]ost Argentinean bands want to be like their English counterparts. Instead, we want to be Argentineans; we’re contented to be what we are.” Standing close to a space heater in the corner, Tomasín chimes in “We are Argentineans!”
Reynols’ concerns shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Argentina over the past several decades. These guys, born in the late 1960s and early 70s, grew up in a political and cultural environment that is worth mentioning.
The first context of course is the infamous Dirty War. In the 1970s and 80s, military dictatorships took power in the Southern Cone with the direct assistance of the United States, and ruled populations with a reign of terror. Kidnapping, torture, murder, and disappearance were common official practice as was press censorship and the banning of oppositional political parties. In Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, social programs were gutted or discontinued and recently nationalized industries were reprivatized and in many cases sold to foreign companies. Of course, national histories, as well as the duration and character of the dictatorships were not identical in every country. The Dirty War in Argentina lasted from 1976 to 1983, during which about 30,000 Argentines were killed and thousands more fled to exile (from a country of about 12-14 million). It was a dizzying and insecure time to grow up in Buenos Aires, as Reynols did.
The Argentine dictatorship was famous for elaborate torture scenarios involving costumes, reenacting plays, broadcasting classical music, blindfolding victims while torturers walked naked, and the like. The police and death squads would also abduct people from their homes, the university or right off the street, then torture them, inject them with drugs, place them in a helicopter and then drop them into the river or the ocean. During the Dirty War, it was not unusual for bodies to wash up on Uruguayan and Argentine beaches. Artists have undertaken many strategies to record and represent this traumatic history, with a lot of work focussing on problems of memory and the body. A few years ago, Fito Paez, who is one of Argentina’s best known rock stars, reenacted a common scene from the Dirty War at one of his concerts in Buenos Aires. He had a helicopter hover above the crowd and drop dummies into the harbor. Many people found this performance disrespectful or distasteful, believing that a rock concert is not an appropriate venue to recreate scenes of private and public horror. Hebe de Bonafini, the head of Madres de la plaza de mayo and a friend of Paez’s, disapproved of the performance but stated publicly that she respects his right to artistic freedom. Reynols has a totally different approach than Fito Paez. Their political critique is much more oblique, but by shaking up musical and social conventions, perhaps more radical and fundamental.
Most historians agree that the Dirty War ended only when the Malvinas War (Falkland Island War) began. Due to spiraling inflation, economic crises and resistance to military policies, the military government had become unpopular. General Leopold Galtieri seized the Malvinas from the British to distract attention from Argentina’s appalling political corruption and economic mismanagement. President Videla found an easy issue to motivate popular support in the Falklands, a small island a thousand miles off the coast of southern Argentina. It has almost no strategic or economic value—the island hosts a small population of sheep farmers and some moss covered stones, more or less. But it was a British protectorate, and Argentines, who had been colonized briefly by Britain, were stirred into a nationalist frenzy to fight off Margaret Thatcher’s gunships and troops. The British prime minister, facing domestic troubles of her own, found a similar opportunity in the Falklands to appeal to English national pride. A Latin American country, regardless of its size, must be punished for the effrontery of challenging Great Britain. Jorge Luis Borges once summed the conflict up with this witty remark: “The whole war was just two old bald men fighting over a comb.”
Economic prosperity never returned to levels before the dictatorship, when Argentina had a sizeable middle class. Buenos Aires had been known for decades as the Paris of South America, due among other things, to economic clout (at the turn of the 20th century, Argentina was the seventh wealthiest country in the world, ahead of even Scandinavian countries), its large number of white citizens, and the adoption of the tango as a European ballroom dance. But the dictatorship tainted Argentina’s image to that of a brutal banana republic. It wasn’t until the 1990s under President Carlos Menem that Argentina attained economic stability, and of course now it’s clear that many of the economic policies from that era, such as pegging the peso to the dollar, were disastrous in the long run.
In addition to the steady economic decline, over the course of the past several decades Argentines have become inured to corruption. To choose a couple of examples at random from the 1990s: George W. Bush went to play tennis with Carlos Menem (they were great chums) where they allegedly discussed a secret oil pipeline deal that would enrich a few executives while siphoning off one of Argentina’s natural resources. Also, Menem privatized electricity and waterworks projects, selling them to Spanish and other non-Argentine companies who are not accountable to local people, and unsurprisingly, public services have plummeted. State funds for a much-needed upgrade to sewage and drainage system in the capital simply vanished, and now flooding around the city is more commonplace. Scandals like these have contributed to a general malaise. Conditions have deteriorated to the point that today in some Porteño neighborhoods, gangs of scavengers carry pistols in turf wars over garbage collection.
Reynols’ first musical contribution to the world, Gordura Vegetal Hidrogenada (Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil), was a “dematerialized” compact disc, an empty box. Their logic: by dematerializing the cd, everyone could therefor have access to it—everyone, including “Aristotle, Napoleon, and Jim Morrison.” Not many people purchased Gordura Vegetal Hidrogenada, but then again, by the group’s logic, not many needed to in order to hear it. With projects like this, it seems inadequate to simply call Reynols a band that plays music—they seem like a larger and more diverse cultural phenomenon.
In Argentina, they have gained notoriety less as musicians and artists in their own right than as a kind of studio band for a television program called “La salud de nuestros hijos” (The Health of Our Children), which is broadcast on the state run channel. After their first appearance several years ago on the show, where Tomasín was invited to play and to speak about music, the band has regularly returned. On that segment, Conlazo held up a tattered album cover of Nico and the Velvet Underground as well as several other records from the 1960s and flatly stated that these were Reynols’ latest releases. Few people, apparently, questioned them. The band also played a spontaneous “unplugged,” with Tomasín tapping his drumsticks on a table while the long haired and bearded Courtis and Conlazo improvised on guitars not connected to amplifiers. The primary viewers of the state channel, particularly during the afternoon when “La salud de nuestros hijos” comes on, are the elderly and pregnant teenagers. This prompted Alan Courtis to declare that the bands’ true fans in Argentina consist of fetuses and the almost-dead. The show’s host, Dr. Socolinsky, has been on television for over 30 years and is a kind of national celebrity—perhaps resembling a cross between Mr. Rodgers and Oprah Winfry. He has taken a personal interest in Reynols, not only in repeatedly inviting them to his show, where they play standard covers of classic rock songs, but in collaborating with them on other projects. Socolinsky himself is a musician—a rather gloomy pianist—and he and Reynols have recorded several songs together (i.e. The Bolomo Mogal F Hits). One of these cd singles appeared as an insert to Socolinsky’s monthly magazine.
Sadly, in January 2004, Reynols decided to break up. In a farewell communiqué to fans posted on the Internet, they write that after over a decade of production, “Reynols’ life-cycle has come to its natural end.” It was not a traumatic decision, they say, and fans can still anticipate more records from the hundreds of hours of unreleased music. “And mind we are talking about Reynols’ terrestrial death,” the note ends, “the band will always be alive in Minecxio. So head that way whenever you feel like paying them a visit.”
Walt Whitman wrote, “If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.” If you want Reynols again, turn to their music inspired by, in Alan Courtis’ words:
Miguel Tomasín carrying empty bottles, Miguel Tomasín playing golf with lamps, Miguel Tomasín shaving an octopus, Miguel Tomasín visiting invisible museums, Miguel Tomasín singing with his glottis, Miguel Tomasín watching the stars, Miguel Tomasín guiding the subway, Miguel Tomasín pointing to the infinite, Miguel Tomasín drawing the Himalayas, Miguel Tomasín dressed as Santa Claus, Miguel Tomasín putting candles in the fridge, Miguel Tomasín drilling Antartica, Miguel Tomasín refracting energy with his toothbrush, Miguel Tomasín playing chess with his forehead, Miguel Tomasín fishing dematerialized sardines, Miguel Tomasín throwing a computer as a javelin, Miguel Tomasín painting a disposable zebra, Miguel Tomasín cooking triangles, Miguel Tomasín writing letters to the presidents of countries that haven’t yet been discovered, and Miguel Tomasín wearing a mask of the faces of everyone reading this.