Black Napkins

It’s a paradox that often bad events are the material to create something, sometimes, even special. The most obvious cases are when love goes sour, when someone betrays another, or perhaps when it’s reached its end and the people drift away to find someone and something else.

It’s possible that the music genre known as the blues consists of this single cause. We all know it well, it’s been parodied to death: Woke up one morning, my woman done left me, (there’s a mule kicking in my door). With this sure knowledge it seems ridiculous that so many musicologists and film makers have asked the question ad nauseum: What is the blues? Well, it’s really quite simple. In fact, it was Son House who had the answer and it was love, or the loss of it.

One of the best books Graham Greene wrote was The End of the Affair, full of impotent rage and pathos for the love he could never have. It almost perfectly encapsulates the power that bad luck, misfortune, can have on turning out a great work.

Other much larger tragedies have been the material for great art: Guernica by Picasso is one that springs to mind; the other would be If this is a man by Primo Levi. Others have been personal, such as the swirling, vertiginous, pictures by the mentally ill Van Gogh; a man and artist struggling with internal demons and all the vexations of life.

Amongst this catalog of desperate calamity and hard luck it seems odd that a revolting Thanksgiving dinner might be sufficient to inspire a classic tune. It did. Yes.

The instrumental Black Napkins, (here is a particularly incendiary end of gig performance) was named in memory of a disgusting Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Zappa said he had had the song for over a year “but it was finally named last Thanksgiving when we were having this horrible Thanksgiving dinner in Milwaukee. Sliced turkey roll with the fucking preservatives just gleaming off it, and this beat-up cranberry material. The final stroke to this ridiculous dinner was the black napkins, sitting next to the dishes. That really said the most about the dinner.”

Black napkins and purulent, seeping, cranberry sauce. It is a dreadful image. If there had been lyrics the song’s pain might have been made more obvious which is not overt in the instrumental; though its sense of anguish, almost universal, is conveyed.

We have all sat down to a meal somewhere, tired, away from home, when the creature comforts are so important and familiar food can restore us but instead we are served some unpalatable malodorous meal: gray dry meat, peas and carrots boiled to a homogenized sludge, and jaundiced fried potatoes while an uncaring waiter grins at us and offers some cruel wish for us to enjoy the repast.

If lyrics had been written for the music it might have been too painful. During that era Zappa had turned a prosaic metaphor of love, one that hippies had used at the time, “being into….” between musician and fans and applied the present perfect tense “have been into” and made the metaphor a bland statement of fact.

As it is Black Napkins reminds us all that adversity is out there somewhere, in a diner, in a mall, a pizza shop, perhaps in a supermarket, and that all it takes is the creative mind to grasp it and transform it into something great, which will reach other people.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2014. All Rights Reserved.



Waiting is at the center of many lives and jobs. The creative ones, anyway.

Cohorts of expectant writers, and other artists, have whiled away their time in bedsits, cafes and bars, doing nothing in particular in many places around the world. During that time they may have been exercised with a book, a picture, a song, but if they had no object, they did very little, apart from drinking, and that can be a serious task if pursued correctly.

Doing that waiting in Paris in the 1920s was like being given a visa to be an artist. Sit, wait, talk, drink, wait, smoke. Repeat. And the other thing, too; really a critical reason to go to Paris, after all. It beats Cedar Rapids; no offense. It also helped that the franc had collapsed by 70% against the dollar and it was therefore cheap to wait, even with a rather bad burgundy for company.

Today’s diligent achievement oriented, but somewhat ethically protestant society, frowns on waiting: it’s assign of a dissolute soul, of fecklessness, of a lack of ambition, an inability to set goals (some of which are made ruthlessly), and as the personal coaches instruct: of not being what you can be every day.

It’s a palliative to know that a university has a course to correct this hyper utilization of time. The course is predicated on time wasting with the Internet, and will involve staring at screens for three hours and only using chats, IM and other technical media to communicate. It proclaims, perhaps with Huxley’s voice in the background, that laptops and Wi-Fi will be the only connection available. Tablets might have served just as well. A course underpinned on Wi-Fi is intriguing, but rather like joining a new age cult. The ultimate aim is to create works of literature from digital raw material through the process of doing, what seems to be, nothing at all.

This is rather like sitting in the Closerie de Lilas (when the prices were reasonable) and looking out absent mindedly on the boulevard Montparnasse and watching the traffic and pedestrians while drinking wine. Or taken another way, it’s an affront to writers. If people find out that writing is really just doing anything else or not writing in some way, everyone will want to do it. The hours are great.

Psychologically and epistemologically there are questions as to the foundations of how or why such an immersion into very large chunks of information could, or should, lead to anything. This is almost the monkeys, typewriters and Shakespeare paradigm. Take a number of subjects and make them look at the Internet for hours and see if they can write a book. A good one would be preferable. Everyday logic and the ability to manage a household budget suggests that taking this course is not going to yield much on the other side.

The technological basis to the course doesn’t quite add up, either. The principal behind the program had at one time advocated downloading the Internet, a quixotic aim, and one that Arj Barker had also proposed, although in his case it was to remove all the 18+ material to protect the innocent. In this case the design is static and sedentary but equipped with a mobile connection, when the fastest growing element of online content is video and viewed and shared on mobile connections. The assumptions of creativity and distribution is already passing into history.

And while we’re on technology, it could be time to update those poor outdated monkeys with a new notebook and Wi-Fi, otherwise they have no chance at all of aiming for Henry IV Part One.

Back on the boulevards of Paris and bars of New York and pubs of London there have been many, many writers and artists waiting and drinking and getting wiser out of a bottle and some went on with their idea, which was really something, while others returned home to find something else, and still others acquired an unhealthy addiction.

If writing like anything creative was so easy and based on streamed data it wouldn’t be so hard. Three hours with a Wi-Fi connection and a laptop or Le Dôme; I know where I prefer to waste time.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick. All Rights Reserved. 2014