This is an unabashed paean to one of my major culture heroes, Ace Backwords. I’ve gone on record calling him a genius more than once, and when everybody else reaches the same conclusion I’ll be already there, reclining in a hammock, sipping lemonade and grinning “I told you so.”
If music were the only thing Backwords had going for him, he’d still rank as an artist. If cartooning were the only art he practiced, he’d still be from the very top shelf. If he never did anything but write prose, he’d still be great. And if community building were the only thing he’d ever undertaken, he’d still be a star. Put it all together, and what we have here is one brilliant sumbitch with a roster of accomplishments anyone could be proud of. Especially taking into account that the guy has been on the streets for pretty much all of his creative career.
Ace Backwords went from “soft li’l suburban pup” to bum (his word) so long ago that “homeless” wasn’t yet part of the consensus vocabulary. His book, Surviving on the Streets, describes the lifestyle of a displaced and disenfranchised soul who feels like “an actor in the wrong movie” when confronted by the exigencies of contemporary American life. His purpose is not to romanticize the street life, nor to minimize the hardships and horrors, but to testify that wealth and security are not the ultimate goods of life. It may not happen this year or this decade, but at some point in the future Surviving on the Streets will be recognized as a seminal work in the areas of sociology, philosophy, psychology, pop culture, urban studies, you name it.
That doesn’t sound so crazy when you consider prolific author Colin Wilson, whose breakthrough book, The Outsider, was written in the British Museum’s reading room by a man who slept in a park. It’s enough to make you wonder how many of the aging ragamuffins hanging around the public library are undiscovered philosophers. There are some remarkable people living in squats, in alleys and sheds, and under highways. Bringing their stories to light is one of the things Backwords does. For many years he’s been the guiding spirit behind the Telegraph Avenue calendar, and he oversaw the making of a CD of street musicians’ work. He’s written a number of profiles of individual homeless folk, and the cartoons have helped raise consciousness and awareness.
Loompanics, publisher of Surviving on the Streets, also brought out Twisted Image a few years back: a collection of Backwords comic strips, most of which first appeared in his own indie publication, also called Twisted Image. For years his comics ran in Maximum Rock’N’Roll and High Times as well as in countless zines, including mine. As an editor (Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics) my appetite for his stuff was insatiable. Whatever theme issue I dreamed up, he had material to fit, and I was honored to showcase it. Even better, Ace Backwords sometimes made it known that he liked something I wrote. It knocked me out! A good word from that direction meant more to me than selling a hundred copies. Not exactly the accepted recipe for success – but I’ve always been funny that way.
Being a humorist is no joke – especially for the few who do a really spectacular job of using comics as a medium for social commentary. Not only must you draw well enough so the targets of your satire can be recognized, you must also make a point and, of course, be funny. T. S. Eliot said that when one is forced to write within a certain framework, the imagination is stretches to its limits and produces its richest ideas. Nowhere is that more true than in the cartoonist’s art. It requires great ingenuity and mental agility to take the immense, intractable stupidity of humankind and break it down into four-panel increments.
The thing is, no matter how thickly he lays on the sarcasm and the cynicism, everything radiates from a center of deep primal innocence, a dyed-in-the-wool decency that’s impossible to disguise. There’s an extraordinary level of empathy, hypersensitivity to hypocrisy, and a finely-tuned bullshit detector. Ace Backwords is not only a maestro of irony but the king of cognitive dissonance. One of his favorite targets is the person capable of believing two mutually contradictory things at the same time. It’s a trait he never ceases to be amazed by – even in himself.
And then there’s the music: hundreds of songs. The ones I’m most familiar with are on a tape of nine songs, made last year, called Really Stoned: The Jann Wenner Experience. Made on a 4-track, the album has plenty of heart, plenty of attitude, painful honesty, and honest pain. Like Jerry Jeff Walker says, “A man can’t lie when he tries to sing, it betrays him every time.” In fact this material reminds be of some Jerry Jeff Walker tunes on Hill Country Rain, and of some Edgar Winter numbers on Not a Kid Anymore. I don’t want to use a corny word like “mature,” but there’s the same kind of vibe – the unpretentious voice of a former wild child who eventually got his shit together.
I’m a sucker for lovely, melodic songs – Billy Vera’s “At This Moment,” George Michael’s “One More Try,” Robbie Robertson’s “Broken Arrow.” In other words, I love a good ballad, and “Where Ya’ Going?” definitely is one. My musical vocabulary is inadequate but I find, for instance, the plangent one-note-at-a-time accompaniment strangely affecting. The song “You Know We Will Miss You When You’re Gone” makes me smile because a reference in the lyrics takes me back to what someone once said of me: “Your problem is, you’re always lookin’ for the fuckin’ Great Beyond.”
I read a memoir once by a Russian woman who happened to learn the prisoners’ tapping code, never dreaming that one day she would be in solitary confinement with the tapping code her only lifeline to sanity. This is why it’s good to have a book that aims to help you “prepare for a camping trip that could last for the rest of your life.” If I wind up homeless, I’ll be equipped with the insights and precepts of somebody with true street cred. Surviving on the Streets is packed with practical advice on self-defense; how to use time to your advantage; what you really need and what will only weigh you down; and the identity of your best ally. And how to feed yourself – that chapter is the biggest eye-opener in the whole book.
There’s no fat here. Each line is vital, and every now and then one comes along that shines with gemlike purity. “Your relationship with Nature is akin to a relationship with a demanding dominatrix; if you learn to please Her, she will reward you extravagantly.” Never pious or shrill, Backwords is both tough and fair, and he says the things that need to be said. It is his hope “that the homeless activists’ appeals for help on behalf of the homeless will be balanced with equal appeals for the homeless to get off their asses and start helping themselves.” And he’s the man to lead the way, showing how to not only survive but thrive – how to “skate through the urban landscape, basically doing whatever the fuck you please.”
One of the downsides is being unable to escape from people. When it comes to that impulse, I’m a sister under the skin. Merely to be left the hell alone is one of the hardest things for a person in any social class to accomplish. Backwords says he’s always been a private person “…but when you’re on the streets, you live in public, 24 hours a day…your true self comes tumbling out, in all its glory and hideousness, simply because it’s just too much effort to maintain the act all the time.”
If you lack a permanent address, you will frequently be in dialog with peace officers, who often seem to give more attention to the homeless than to higher-priority offenders. “It’s a running joke on the street scene that maybe we should start killing people so then the cops would leave us alone.” The best relationship to have with the authorities is none. But if you must encounter them, the book contains helpful hints that could save your life.
The best relationship to have with housed people is, don’t go out of your way to piss them off. And give yourself a pat on the back for your contributions to society. “The nocturnal life…can be seen as a public service that we perform to help alleviate the crowdedness of city life. We’ve volunteered to go on the night shift….” Another valuable service performed by street people is to utilize some of the amazing amount of stuff that gets thrown out by this wasteful society, thus reducing its collective guilt for squandering the earth’s resources.
Relating to other street people is what you’ll do most of, and a lot of that relating consists of hassles. In some ways the street tribe is like a big, dysfunctional family. Some are out there because they’re crazy, others because it’s the only way they know of staying sane. Many, says Backwords, “find a sense of community and belonging on the streets that they’ve found nowhere else,” which is a damn sad commentary on life in these United States. Among the homeless are vulnerable victims and violent predators, and a vast majority who just get along the best way they can. A friend who lived in Oakland once told me the public demeanor to strive for is one that subtly broadcasts the message “Don’t fuck with me – because I just might be crazier than you.” Backwords endorses this tactic of looking preventively formidable – up to a point. Look dangerous, okay. Actually be dangerous, no. He did, in his youth, experiment with carrying a very sharp knife, but when it ended up being used against him, he gave up on weapons.
As a homeless person, you want to watch out for con artists – but they’re easy to spot, because if they really possessed any expertise in their chosen field of hustling, “they’d be in the Senate attaching their parasitic tentacles to the public trough.” The analysis of the Asshole Syndrome alone is worth the price of the book. The upshot is, Plan A would always be to – walk away. “It’s a big world after all, and the whole point is to occupy a part of it that doesn’t include The Asshole.” But sometimes walking away doesn’t work. You’ve got to have a straight talk with yourself and mentally define where you want to draw the line. And be prepared to hold the line.
The same advice goes for love. As in every stratum of society, a romantic relationship can turn out to be far more trouble than it’s worth. “You very well may meet some beautiful, alluring siren and wonder to yourself what this beautiful person is doing on the streets. Sooner or later you will find out.”
Ace Backwords takes a jaundiced view of the Sixties era, all its various revolutions, and its legacy. “It cracks me up when I hear these so-called ’60s icons congratulating themselves for the greatness of the ’60s….Virtually every aspect of American life has gotten worse since the ’60s. Much worse.” He looks at the basic philosophy of every brand of counterculture from then until now, and finds them all inadequate, especially the concept that alienation from society is a badge of honor. “Can anyone explain the universal scorn I keep hearing being heaped on “yuppies” these days? It just means you’re young, you live in the city, and you’ve got a fucking job.”
Drugs? Don’t get him started. The Backwords Theory of Drug Rotation is classic. In fact there’s a lot of funny stuff in here, like the amusing riddle:
“What does the street person do when he gets sick?”
Backwords reflects extensively on a subject that also occupies my thoughts: materialism. Having stuff, and the stuff you then need to store and maintain your stuff, and how many hours of precious life you want to give up to income-producing activity in order to continue storing and maintaining your stuff and getting more stuff. Backwords describes the process of paring down consumerism to the minimalist nub, where the only things purchased are socks and underwear.
I’ve been on both sides of the economic fence so many times – okay, never actually on the street. But when things get too comfortable I always find a way to cut my income. I’ve had long periods of voluntary poverty, and some spells of a bit more poverty than I had volunteered for. Interspersed with these have been more prosperous eras. (I define prosperous as being able to have a tooth fixed instead of pulled.) I’ve drawn some lines. This sounds like a ludicrous problem in our era of casual dress, but it used to be an issue: high heel shoes. There came a time when I decided to never again take a job where I had to wear high heel shoes. And I never did. And I grok the anecdote where Backwords passes a street crew and imagines a worker thinking “Man, this job might suck, but at least I’m not sleeping in the dirt like THAT poor slob!” And Backwords is thinking, “Man, sleeping in the dirt might suck, but at least I’m not standing in the middle of the street, holding up a stop sign, and listening to jack-hammers all day long like THAT poor slob!” Or wearing high heels.
I adulate Ace Backwords because he’ll say anything. I don’t mean, like, say “shit” in church, or some trivial jive like that. Here’s a writer who will reveal the bottommost layers of his psyche – like Yeats said, “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” And who will speak for viewpoints guaranteed to reduce a Berkeley liberal to tears of incoherent rage. Such as alleviating homelessness by reducing immigration. He also has plenty to say about the utter stupidity of clean needle programs.
Backwords quotes Dylan: “To live outside the law, you must be honest.” He also quashes any myth about the supposed nobility of the non-materialistic lifestyle, “Fact is, most of us street people are just as greedy as your average Wall Street junk bond crook. We’re just not as good at it.”
On the street, I probably wouldn’t last a week. But in previous lives, who knows? I think there was a time when I spoke Rommany and never spent a night beneath a roof. I think in other existences I was a wandering mendicant monk in India; a naked aborigine in Australia’s outback. And life was good. Without sugarcoating the reality of homelessness, Backwords reminds us that, like any other condition of life, homelessness can have its spiritual aspects. But you have to work at it. “It is all too easy for your very soul to be twisted like a pretzel into a grotesque thing in this world of gargoyles.”
A truly remarkable thing is, all his wisdom for living on the streets also applies to those of us who are snugly housed. Here’s my favorite line: “You’ll know when you hit on The Truth, for it will soothe your soul, it will get you ALL THE WAY OFF, while Pollyanna wishful thinking will only cock-tease you to distraction. Let that be your guide.”
And in the writings of Ace Backwords, I feel that sensation again and again of having hit on The Truth. Here’s an example, from one his interviews. “I feel confident that the homeless and the ‘downtrodden’ don’t necessarily suffer one iota more than the rich and affluent. In fact, in many key aspects, the rich may suffer more.”
To me, hearing that is like a cool drink of water in the desert. I know it’s true. I’ve known some miserable rich people. And some beatific paupers. Which doesn’t mean I’m in favor of children starving or any nonsense like that. It’s just the way things are, here on planet Earth, notwithstanding any amount of PC nanny-state propaganda, and it’s a helpful precept to keep in mind. For anybody.
Call me a cultist, a fanatic, whatever: Ace Backwords is the best, and you heard it here first.
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