Scab Vendor 39 – Sins of the Father

Jonathan Shaw is a world-traveling outlaw artist, novelist, anti-folk hero and underground philosopher, writing in the literary tradition of Celine, Bukowski, Henry Miller and The Beats. Once widely-known as a legendary tattoo master, since his disappearance from the skin-trade, Shaw has redefined himself as an avant-garde literary figure. His chilling drug-a-logue NARCISA, OUR LADY OF ASHES earned him praise from the likes of Johnny Depp and Iggy Pop, who dubbed him “the great nightmare anti-hero of the New Age.” Rolling Stone Magazine has named him “the new Bukowski.”

Shaw’s upcoming memoir, SCAB VENDOR – CONFESSIONS OF A TATTOO ARTIST is scheduled for release on Turner Publishing early next year. Here’s a short excerpt.

The next day, the tattoo man is at work again, shading in a large section of black on the kid’s shoulder. As his hand repeats the familiar motions of his craft, he pictures his father’s hands, fingering at the air of his living room as he talked late into the night; as if the old man were still playing an invisible instrument after half a lifetime away from making music. Cigano wonders if it will be the same for him after he quits making tattoos.

R. Crumb illo for Scab Vendor by Jonathan Shaw
illustration by R. Crumb

As he works on, he reminisces, falling deeper into the hypnotic rhythm and cadence of his work, remembering another conversation with his father; so many long evenings spent with the old man. Artie Shaw would talk on for hours, and always the old jazzman’s fingers absently playing at the air; talking about himself, his life; downloading his memories into Cigano, as if trying in some fumbling way to make up for all the time he’d never spent with the strange, tattooed bastard son he’d long ago abandoned. As the buzzing lulls him into a familiar trancelike state, Cigano thinks back to a dinner with Artie; and then he’s there again, composing the words, writing down his recollections and impressions in the journals of his mind.

“Ya want me to drive, Artie?” I ask my father as we walk over to his car, parked in the dimly lit driveway.

“What?” He shouts into the darkness, gripping his cane with one hand, adjusting his hearing aid with the other. “Can’t hear a fucking thing with this goddamn thing. I’ve hadda take it back three times already, goddamm it!”

I repeat my offer to drive his car over to the restaurant.

“Nah, I can make it. You can park it for me when we get there,” he concedes; an afterthought, as if speaking to an underling, a servant. “I don’t see too good in the dark…”

“Great,” I mumble as we get into the car. Artie doesn’t hear.

Speeding along the dark Ventura freeway in his fully-loaded new Lexus, the old man’s hand seems to take on a weird life of its own, playing with the radio dial in a most extraordinary way, and suddenly my ears are assaulted with a loud surreal cacophony of gangsta rap, evangelical radio preachers, Mexican news broadcasts, fast food chicken ads, folk songs and frenetic techno music. It’s as if he’s in a trance of some sort. If that ghostly white hand weren’t continually fiddling with the radio dial I’d think he’d fallen asleep at the fucking wheel. The car careens across the blurry white lines at 90 miles an hour and suddenly I feel like a helpless little kid again, sitting on Mr. Magoo’s Wild Ride at Disneyland. I look around and realize there’s nothing to do but pray. I start to pray. Yea though I walk through the shadow of the Valley of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me.

He tunes into a screaming rap music station “word up, yo, word to ya motha’ yo yo yo, niggas” with his head cocked to one side like a distracted parrot. I sit beside him, feeling my asshole pucker like a sea anemone caught in a swirling whirlpool of hip-hop and horn-blaring Mariachi music, static, easy listening, Opera, more static, Heavy Metal, Classic Rock, then Opera again. Fuck. I’m watching the highway, frozen silent in escalating waves of terror as he sideswipes thundering 18-wheelers, narrowly avoiding instant annihilation for us both. Morbid thoughts race through my brain like wasps… Fuckin’ bastard’s 92 years old. Every hour above ground’s a fucking bonus for his wore-out wrinkled old ass! What about me? I’m just getting started again now, ya selfish old prick!! God, please don’t lemme die here with this demented old crow! Not now, please! Not today!

Finally, the old man looks up from the radio like a sleepy basset hound and explains that he’s looking for the news station. “Riders on The Storm” is playing… Into this life we’re born… into this world we’re thrown… and then we’re hurtling down an off-ramp and I can feel myself breathing again. Yes! We’re gonna make it one more time. Another day. Thank you, Jesus, for another dinner with this narcissistic old mummy, my father, and now I’m gonna get to pick up a hundred dollar check at some fancy suburban eatery again cuz Artie only gets the bill when he drives us to that cheap greasy Chinese heartburn factory next to the taco stand in the strip mall. Fucking tightwad old bastard really thinks he can take it with him. Fuck!

We pull to a lurching halt in front of La Dolce Vita Trattoria. Artie snatches his heavy silver tipped hardwood cane from the floor, almost bopping me on the chin with it as he unfolds himself from the car, cussing and complaining, one pissed off irritable old bone at a time.

Cigano stops to wipe the tattoo clean, still thinking, remembering. It must have been awkward for the old man. Yeah, it had to have felt pretty fucking weird to suddenly find himself sitting with a middle-aged son he’d spent a lifetime neither acknowledging nor caring to know. But as intimate as Artie’s long, rambling monologues ever were, he always maintained a certain clinical distance; that subtle defensive barrier, as if the old man unconsciously feared this imposing stranger with grinning gold teeth and a face like the devil himself had come back from the dead to avenge the helpless child he’d abandoned; as if some guilt-ridden primal core of his father shuddered at the notion that now in his old age, facing the specter of death and teetering over the grave, this scarred brutal-looking tattooed thug had crawled back from the depths of hell just in time to give him a final shove.

As he works on, squinting into the void of memory, Cigano thinks of how maybe that’s where Artie got his mean streak, from an unconscious resentment against Death itself. As if somewhere deep in his core, his indomitable ego simply couldn’t face the idea of its own mortality. He can hear the old man’s voice again, humming in his inner ear, as if arguing with the Grim Reaper, saying: I’m Artie Shaw, fer crissake. You can’t take me! Don’t you know who I am? That fucking voice! Calm and assertive, yet always kept in check somehow, with that odd, underlying egocentric edge; a subtle, urgent something bordering on a shrill manic hysteria.

“… I used to have this dream about a crazy woman, coming at me with a knife.” The old man rambles on as he eats from his 29-dollar plate of Linguini. “Found out when I was in analysis that it was about my mother. Later, it was Doris, your mother, coming at me with a fucking gun. Same thing. It’s a strange world. It’s amazing people ever survive…”

“But if ya knew she was so messed up, Artie, why’d ya wanna marry her in the first place?” I look at him, remembering the pile of corny, almost childlike love letters I’d come across in my mother’s garage.

The old man grunts dismissively as he shoves a massive shrimp into his mouth. “Yeah, well, ya never really know how fucked up they are till the mask comes off. Your mother and I got along for a while, till we got married. Hah! The great institution of marriage! That’s the great destroyer! After that, we did nothing but fight. But she convinced me that having a kid would make things all right. Well, what did I know? We really planned it, you know…”

As Artie chews his food and talks, I set my fork down and push the plate away. I picture a young Doris and Artie sitting in a plush living room in the country, smoking cigarettes, drinking cocktails and fighting. My mother has a significant bun in the oven under a fancy designer maternity dress. She’s drunk, yelling, spitting, and raging at her famous husband. I can almost hear her angry shouts bombarding me in the womb… “I shoulda gotten the abortion, you bastard! If it’s a boy, I swear to Christ I’ll put its goddamned eyes out and drown it at birth, so help me God!”

“Yeah, we planned it alright.” The old man drones on. “And then you were born. Oh boy, you were the goddamn baby Jesus! And she was Mary, Mother of God! Argh, what a business! She was fucking nuts! When we split up and she moved away to California with you, I told her, ‘Jesus, you’re not hurting me, Doris, you’re hurting him. You’re taking the kid’s father away from him!’ But she wouldn’t hear it. She was gonna show me! Hell hath no fury. So, what are ya gonna do? She just wasn’t very good mother material. You at least found the mental muscle to get out. How old were you when you left home? Fourteen, fifteen?”

I nod, absently picking at my 18-dollar plate of Eggplant Parmesan again, relishing the tiny spark of validation my father has finally tossed my way.

The old man snuffs it out. “… Well, there’s still a lot of her bullshit in you, kid. I can see it.” He snorts into his plate.

“Yeah, well whaddya expect, man? She did raise me, y’know. At least she gave it her best shot…” I can hear my voice turning shrill as I bite my tongue to hold back the words fighting to get out… That’s more than you ever did, ya selfish old prick!

“Well, her best wasn’t very good!” the old man spits back.

I can feel a black pit of anger swelling in my gut. I push the food aside and throw my napkin on the plate. Longing for a cigarette, a drink, anything to take the edge off, I take a deep breath and the smoldering rage begins to subside. I can hear myself speaking again. “Well, I survived, didn’t I?” No thanks to you, ya self-centered old bastard. “I guess that’s all that matters today.” I hear myself going on calmly. “And today is all I got…”

A long, surly silence.

I break it. “So what about your mother, Artie? What was she like?”

Artie devours another greedy mouthful and looks up, as if noticing me sitting there for the first time. “Arrgh, my mother was pretty tough. I mean I loved her, sure, she was my mother and all that. I had a hell of a time getting rid of her. As I got older, she was like a fucking Jewish albatross hanging around my goddamn neck. And me traveling around the country with a band.” He guffaws. “Just picture it, man, this old lady following her grown up son around like some lovesick cunt, like a fucking groupie or something, for chrissake. I was a rock star in those times, ya know, like fucking Elvis, Mick Jagger, and here I’ve got my mother along with me on tour, on the bus, backstage, coming to parties with the band, can ya picture that? Arrrgghhh. Very weird scene, man. Mothers just don’t know how to get outta the way. They keep wanting to be ‘Mother.’ They keep wanting the authority of that, ‘I’m your mother!’ What the fuck is that supposed to mean? You were my mother when I needed a fucking mother! At eight, I didn’t need ya anymore! Get the fuck outta my bag, man!” The old man pauses and looks away, staring off into a realm of phantoms, memories, ghosts.

“I couldn’t go to her deathbed.” He begins again in that shrill, defensive, self-assured tone. “I was feeling hate. And love. Mostly hate, yeah. For what she did to me, trying to make me into a surrogate husband after she ran my goddamned father away…” Artie trails off.

I break into the rare pause in the old man’s endless monologue. “So your childhood… ?” I’m prompting my father for more information, feeling like a junkie whining for a fix.

Artie snorts. “What fuckin’ childhood? Arrgghh, I musta been like most kids, a real pain in the ass. Boy, I really did some stupid things!”

I hear myself reply, as if from very far away. “Yeah, me too.”

Coming up for air from a sea of memory, Cigano sets his tattoo machine down on the table and throws the rubber gloves in the trash. He pulls a cigarette from the pack, lights up, and looks over at the kid.

“Have you written about how you first got into tattooing?” Jaco asks.

“Funny you should ask that, man.” He grins, lighting up. “Must be all this tattooing’s giving me ink on the brain or something. I was just gonna read you this thing I wrote about the first time I ever saw tattoos, back in the 60s.” He grins. “I’ll always remember. It was around the time of the Watts Riots.”

“What’s that, Jonathan Shaw?”

“Funny you should ask that too.” Cigano mumbles, leafing through his notes. “I been rereading some of this stuff, and wondering if it wasn’t maybe getting too heavy on some of the historical background part. I was thinking about cutting most of it out, but since you asked, here goes…”

As he stares into the page like a deep sea diver, reading through a cloud of smoke, the words stir up a new flurry of memories; the first time he ever saw those mysterious little symbols which would someday make up the roadmap of his destiny.

-an excerpt from Scabvendor, a novel by Jonathan Shaw, to be published in 2017 by Turner Publishing.