Mark McCawley RIP

“I had become periodically insane, with long bouts of horrible sanity…”
–Mark McCawley, “Sick Lazy Fuck”

I knew something was up on 3 counts: I had just posted something on the 19 April death of Richard Lyons of Negativland, the samplodelic media-hacking collective I admired for their sinister deconstructions and decompositions of society’s hypocrisies and played to death on my WFMU radio show. I’m positive he liked them too, but we never talked about them, never got to. The audio tactics to subvert the status quo with scurrilous humor marks the greatest of Negativland’s moments and indubitably was a strategy that Mark totally embraced… But, no, Mark didn’t respond as expected. Nothing. Silence. I thought, that’s not like him, but you never know… maybe the rodeo was in town.

Mark McCawley
photograph of Mark McCawley by Nicole Manning

And then, we had this long online conversation of a shared fave – Beefheart. I thought his work related to dyslexia – his absurd word salad-like poetry, his unique approach to creation, which hinted at another way of hearing language, not unrelated to dyslexia – I thought Beefheart might have been dyslexic. My daughter is dyslexic and it is through her that I discovered I may be too and so I was going to produce a Wreck This Mess radio show on the subject.

His response? He sent me 100+ rare, outtake and alt. versions of Beefheart tracks, including rare spoken word stuff he’d collected over time to Dropbox in a file called “beef for bart.” And as if 100+ tracks wasn’t enough: “Let me know if there are any particular Beefheart tracks you want and I’ll see what I can share with you. Mark.”

And it’s a little like me – not always responding to these gifts immediately; his always-there ubiquitousness leading to a typical human slack response: I’ll get to it tomorrow and then tomorrow doesn’t come for a long time – although, to be honest with myself, tomorrow does eventually arrive, with me returning to whatever thread I’d left hanging.

Yes, in that maelstrom of blurry everyday busyness, where social media is the enemy of artistic concentration, I did not get to these Beefheart files until after I heard Mark had died. Regret is a sizeable messy component of grieving. It happens when an artistic force dies inopportunely, untimely, like just before you actually read some of his stuff, like before you get to tell him how much you appreciate him and all of his support. Luckily I did periodically thank him for his friendship and generosity – he published me some 20 times in Urban Grafitti productions going back to the earliest years of the 21st century.

He indeed had a knack for generosity: well aware of my obsession with yodels, he’d send yodel links such as “Tennessee Houn’ Dog Yodel” by Native-American singer Marvin Rainwater & His Tomahawks or cowboy Stompin’ Tom Connors’ “Take Me Back to Old Alberta” as contributions to a future yodel-oriented radio broadcast. [The first track I had, the second I had NEVER heard of! – Thanks Mark.]

Or he’d arrange an interview with me to thrust my work out into the bitmapped ether. Or he’d express his dreams of micropressing “our” work, reissues, reviews – the list is way long, musing: “Why I don’t see your novels published and in print more than I do is almost criminal if you ask me.” Yes, the internet can wring a few tears from even a hardened vet like moi-même. “There is obviously an audience for your writing, bart, but of course having an audience has never been a guarantee has it? it’s all work, work, work on the authors end (and if he/she is fortunate) that effort will pay off, not necessarily in publishing, but in other less tangible and more esoteric ways.” All this enthusiasm and concern despite a lot of medical anxiety and pain, which ultimately led to his being disabled, pushing a 4-wheel walker, the result of a “stubbed toe back in 2010. Toe got infected. Foot got infected. … Long story short, I’m part of the disabled crowd now.”

I also did not get to his stark post-Selby-Bukowski-Trocchi-William-Kennedy short story “Sick Lazy Fuck” that he posted on Sensitive Skin until … well, yes, after his death made me aware of my negligence. Fucked-up irony for sure: reminded of someone’s life-work after he dies. “SLF” is a brutally honest type of verité brilliance about illness, hospitals, a disintegrating love relationship, and despair that pushes the envelope of fiction. Plus he quotes Genet and illustrated the story with a photo of Ninja, the ugly/compelling/intense rapper from Die Antwoord, the South African outsider rave-rap group that has, in its turn, pushed the creative envelope of popular music by regularly confronting the industry’s many clichés and hypocrisies – their videos are truly wild style. Just like him to be into them, just like me to discover just a minute too late another thing we had in common. This is what lands in your lap and wraps around your heart: What a dumb fuck for not reacting more robustly. Like, if we had all reacted to him with the level of concern and enthusiasm he had for us, maybe he’d still be alive today. I don’t know what I’m saying, but I’m saying it anyway.

I suddenly have this notion, being ever grumpy toward any gesture of my own, that it sometimes seems that my being moved by the death of a friend is, in part, related to my need to cut to the front of the line so I’m in the front row when it comes time to reap the “benefits” of grieving over death such as being moved to some profundity by my proximity to a death. Call it homage or recycling the muse or something. I remember being actually envious of classmates in school who had loved ones – parents, brothers, uncles – die before their time, sometimes graphically or dramatically. They seemed to gain depth, character, understanding from these tragedies – I thought – something that I was unfairly denied. All I had was a turtle that ran away and the Yankees being in dead last place. [It wasn’t until some 30 years later that I came to hear the darker side of my family: that my mother had been pushed down a staircase by her stepmother, that my father had survived working as a forced laborer under the Nazis outside Berlin…]

When my father died in 2002 [self-inflicted euthanasia?], after 11 years of medical complications due to a head-on collision he survived, my mother’s doctor suggested anti-anxiety medication, prescribed something like Xanax, to “help” her through the breavement. This irked me – 3 friends of mine had by then committed suicide – and I thoroughly believed you had to sit up at night, hold a vigil, see their faces in the flames of a campfire and meditate on them so that their memory could push who you are up a rung. So I had a long, heated talk with my mother about the value of suffering clearly as initiation rite into a new level of awareness. And not be buffered by some fuzzy feeling of narcosis. She didn’t know what the hell I was talking about and, anyway, she preferred her doctor’s professional advice to mine. I got so upset I threw whatever medication I found away. And the well-meaning cards with their expressions of sympathy were … touching, no really. But they also served as a soporific in the form of hackneyed sentiments courtesy of Hallmark Cards that predispose you to the notion that one must consume to obliterate grief or be consumed by it.

But the whole grief thing is not something that is just going to evaporate or resolve itself (and rightly so) – writing as therapy and all that. That’d be too easy. One should embrace the full head-on force of grief without escape clause or medication or easy solace. Death is a gift – I keep telling myself until I am starting to believe it – that can further knowledge. Embrace it, learn from it, albeit some of that knowledge no doubt leads to the following proposition: Since Henry Kissinger is still alive and Mark is dead – 1. There is no god, 2. There is no justice or logic, 3. Sense is elusive, 4. What the fuck are we doing on a daily basis?

Writing eulogies does not get easier with practice. There’ve been a number; part of the exponential growth related to getting another year older. But writing isn’t therapy, it’s engagement. Although, in the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] you might find Writing classified somewhere between Anxiety Disorders and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders. Otherwise, I don’t believe writing is an escape plan and I don’t believe confessing one’s sins to a craven, compromised priest will get you to heaven. You commit a sin and all you have to do is confess it and you still go to heaven. That’s some friggin’ escape clause. So, if there were a heaven, one might find clever pricks like Kissinger up there because they knew the racket.

Maybe you could look up famous people’s quotes about death: Take your pick – Oscar Wilde, e.e. cummings, Twain, Helen Keller, Gandhi. Everybody’s got something to say about pushing clouds. You give it a twist of slang and you can sound cocky-cheeky, come off like it slid off your shoulder like a raindrop off a mackintosh. He probably would’ve dug Bukowski’s advice: “Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain you of your all.”

Or I could see Mark printing out and taping Hunter S. Thompson’s declaration: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’” to a kitchen cabinet door, behind which one might find a sugar bowl and a pile of prescription drug capsules and amber pharmacy vials.

Honestly, I’ve never been one for retrospectives or hindsight appreciations – reissues and all that. Someone dies and suddenly everyone is celebrating his or her life’s work. It just smells like us trying to ease our own consciences, assuage the guilt for having ignored the deceased for some time already. Regret spilled back in your lap.

We found ourselves on the same side of many literary-political discussions, one supporting the other on sometimes brutal Facebook threads. He was brave to the point that others would maybe describe him as imprudent, the way he almost single-handedly went after the straight literary world of Canada. This must be fairly unique up there – attacking the world of entitlement, nepotism, those who flatter power, “ass kissing to get your associates to publish your book,” endowments, the benefactors of largesse, of rarefied universities that purged their collections of zines and literary journals to make room for cappucino machines, of those rewarded for their mediocrity and conformity. Yes, Canada as microcosm for what ails the world of literature… That he had these kinds of issues probably led me to him or him to me and – I’m pretty sure – through me he was opened up to the world of people that float loosely around in my circle of art, music and writing camarades and for that he was grateful – as were those he befriended and then published – among the Unbearables, for instance. As he once noted: “I quite literally had issues of [Michael Carter’s] REDTAPE smuggled into Canada aboard a train by an engineer I knew.”

The great thing about Mark was he loved the Autonomedia books and downtown stuff and took the time to actually read your work, a gift of incomparable value in a world of LIKES and clickbait headline scanning. I’ll say it again: He actually read my writing AND wrote reviews, championed, reposted, praised and publish the work of others – all in an effort to right wrongs, push the agenda of alternative, transgressive, and critical artists who he saw as confronting the hegemony of our culture of consuming and coopting transgressiveness – the Ramones and Che tee shirt phenomenon.

Most recently, he asked me to contribute to his fine Urban Graffiti Mix Mixcloud radio show, which he described as “Transgressive, discursive, tracks concerned with the struggles of hard edged urban living, alternative lifestyles, deviant culture – presented in their most raw and unpretentious form: music, fiction, poetry, monologues.” He went onto describe his last upload, Urban Grafitti Mix #19, as “an in-your-face, R-rated, avant-garde audio response to the increasingly fictive, overly-commodified, G-rated Disneyfication of contemporary fiction, poetry, music and spoken word. Old and new connect where Temporary Autonomous Zones cross and individual creativity bursts through. Wickedly naughty, angry, boisterous, tempestuous. A stiff middle finger to the status quo tendency towards insularity, as well as intellectual and creative censure of socially and culturally uncomfortable subject matter.” An apt description of his literary-political stance: literature as purposeful contrariness. As Mark, always the gloomy optimist, noted: “I like to promote these audio tracks as well as possible. I’ve noticed since I first began streaming these mixes, that the authors who participate have their posts visited much more often, which was ultimately the aim in the first place.”

And that 3rd occasion? It also occurred just at the bend, at the crux, of where everything turns to nothing, the moment when breath vacates the body for the very last time. Life may be unfair but death is unfair only when it grabs the wrong person at the wrong time.

I was in the process of divorcing my publisher in England. He had promised to publish 2 books, PARIS SCRATCH and NY SIN PHONEY IN FACE FLAT MINOR, as not only e-books – those had been out since early 2013 – but also as paperbacks and that promise was now stretching into ridiculous – way over 3 years of very polite patience – no really. It became clear he was incapable and/or unwilling to fulfill the agreed to terms of publishing these print editions. And so, I asked the 2 most reliable and supportive magazine editors I know whether they would be interested in taking over publishing responsiblities. Bernard at Sensitive Skin Books got back to me PDQ, which I half-expected. But I heard not a peep from Mark. This, again, was totally unexpected. Usually he’d be all over this kind of publishing adventure. Nothing. That same silence. I’m not saying I am psychic or anything but there is this weird thing about silences; sometimes a silence has a different nature, like how a very late-night phone call always feels like bad news. There is a depth and gravity that grabs a hold of your consciousness in a way different from less consequential types of silence. As if the waves of silence can display a variety of frequencies. Think of how sub-bass frequencies are felt but not heard, provoking unease and nausea without your even being aware of the cause. Maybe he was simply coming up with a grand scheme, some new strategy – but nothing, a longer, meaner silence, that sub-bass kind of psyche-prickling, nausea-inducing type of silence … Nothing …

And for whatever reason, I decided to change my FB profile pic that same fateful day from a somber one to a decidedly cheerier one. And not a minute after posting it I got a message from Bonny Finberg: “I just heard from R** that Mark McCawley died a few days ago of a heart attack!”

A heart attack?! I had no idea he had that kind of issues. Someone else mentioned he may have died of a large heart. Dying of a too-large heart. That’s about right. But just as you’re thinking too metaphorically that a big heart must be good, with it’s booming bass drum beat and ability to embrace with verve, Mark leaves the building.

But, in the end, who the F#*k was Mark McCawley? I can honestly say I was just beginning to know. We had vague plans of meeting face-to-face. Two years ago. Maybe some year. I imagined meeting halfway between here and forever, halfway between New York and Edmonton, somewhere along US Highway 2 at a rest stop with a view of an undescribable sunset.

For more about Mark McCawley, you can read an interview I did with him a few years ago, a Wreck The Mess audio tribute, Rob McClennan’s homage, and his Sensitive Skin contributions.

-bart plantenga