By Gary Lain

All rights reserved.

In their address to the sky, the poles of Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field often wear the aspect of antennas, awaiting signals from beyond the earth. 

     They cannot be mistaken for objects from the past: the poles significantly suggest objects of the future.

In Hollywood the streets are deserted, a vast stillness at the heart of things.

     Billboards line Sunset Boulevard, their colors saturated in the hard winter sun. Aviator shades on, Corvette top down, Ashley coasts down the boulevard.

     In the dim light of Elektra Sound Recorders Studio, Ashley finds Iggy and the Stooges drinking, smoking and bullshitting on a vast Persian rug, their amps resting on either corner, drums middle back, hardware faintly gleaming. She’s introduced to the band as a journalist; they’re rude, spoiled, insular–incredibly, the guitarist wears a Nazi uniform. They offer her a Stroh’s. Al Green’s new single, “Take Me to the River,” plays on the studio monitors, loud and exuberant, deepening the textures of the long afternoon.

     Iggy (shirtless with poolside tan, thin and hard muscled in torn jeans and black boots) finally approaches her: “Hi. I’m Jimmy, the singer. You must be Chas’s sister, ‘The Intellectual.’ I’d like to, you know, hang out with you; you seem like an interesting person.”

     Ashley: “Thanks Iggy, for the compliment–shall we meet later for a drink?”

     “Yeah, that’d be great.” Iggy looks her up and down. She’s tall, slender, fashionable in denim jacket and slacks, peasant blouse, Moroccan scarf. Dark hair, inquisitive green eyes.

     “So you’re what, five foot ten?” Iggy, like most rock musicians, is not tall. Her height is attractive. She seems like someone he needs to know intimately.

     The band begins to play. The music is loud, primal, driving-rock reduced to essentials. Iggy flails around the room, working himself into a spasm.

     When he somehow arrives at the microphone to sing, he represents to Ashley something new to popular music: an anti-singer, primarily interested in surfaces, textures, intensities. Emotional precision, nuance and delivery, the common currency of pop singers, are wasted on him.

     There is to this music, Ashley realizes, a totalizing quality: The Stooges, despite their foregrounding of Iggy as a random factor (part of his appeal is that one never knows what he’s going to do next), embrace a vulgar, anti-intellectual reductionism for its own sake.
Iggy and the Stooges are a precursor of some fatally-compromised, newly-emergent mode of cultural production–they represent the future.

Under the terms of a visit to De Maria’s Land artwork The Lightning Field,there are never more than six visitors permitted and all are required to spend a full day there. The restored log cabin where they stay overnight not only has no communication systems, but there are no art history books or journals, no publications on the climate, history or geography of the location. Those who come to see this work in its remote desert plateau in New Mexico are offered food and shelter and no ancillary information. Visitors must instead focus on the immaterial–the ever-changing light, the elusive special dimensions, the specificity and singularity of the shifting relationship between the sculptural grid and the land and sky.

Iggy sits cross-legged on his bed at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Blvd., Morrison’s favorite place to crash in L.A. Iggy’s too wasted to rest, the sun banded by the Venetian blinds playing across his naked chest. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” plays on the turntable; Iggy listens to the lyrics with his whole body.

     Iggy feels that finally, after years of close listening, he understands that the plaintive quality of Berry’s voice on this track.

     Iggy gets up from the bed, pulls on his jeans, lights a Marlboro, grabs a Coke from the kitchenette. He goes to the window, opens the blinds. The sun catches the fronds of the tall palms surrounding the hotel plaza swimming pool. A mockingbird plunges from above the rooftops to land at the edge of the diving board. The mocker looks up at Iggy, cocks its head.

     On the ground floor across the plaza, a young couple is leaving their hotel room. Surrounded by baggage, they absently tend to their two young sons. The boys, towheads, sport shaggy Beatle haircuts, wear t-shirts, shorts and sneakers. The older boy struggles with a bag too big for him. The younger one sees the mockingbird, smiles; then he looks up, sees Iggy and waves.

When crossing the first row of poles, the sensation is unmistakable, yet it is not the feeling of entering architecture. Although the Field’s grid structure is evident from the outside, within it you sense the rapport among the 400 elements that connects to the entire expanse of space the work claims. 

Wherever I look, there are alignments of poles receding regularly, while others, more distant, fall into less recognizable patterns, like microtones within the intervals. Built into the work is the appearance that one part of it measures the others as you pass among its perspectives. The distant poles look like hairline calibrations against the mountainous horizons. A step in any direction alters the configuration. 

     The poles allow you to see your own movement as an event in a field of shifting relations.

Stoned, Ashley and Iggy drift along a car-lined Hollywood side street until they find a house party spilling out across the sidewalk, denim-clad longhairs smoking and drinking, talking over the loud music blasting from the darkened house. They go inside, weaving through the press of the crowded halls. In the backyard lit by tiki torches they smoke a joint with two marines just gone AWOL while on leave in Hawaii. They robbed a liquor store in Waikiki for airfare to LA. Ashley admired their vehement refusal to return to Vietnam, to the endless war. Ashley raises her beer cup to the deserters, “Semper Fi, boys.”

     They laugh.

     Later, Iggy and Ashley rest on the shores of the still harbor as oil derrick plumes flare.

     Iggy rests his hand on her thigh. He kisses her, sweetly, she thinks. They go back to his hotel, have a glass of red wine and a cigarette; Iggy plays Coltrane’s and Johnny Hartman’s version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” on the turntable. They kiss; she removes her blouse, he fumbles with her bra; they fuck through the long, neon-fired night.

     In the morning, they go out for coffee, slightly shy in the way of new lovers. They share a smoke in front of the Gold Cup. “I’ll call you tonight.”

     They leave each other. Ashley calls her mentor Herbert Marcuse, undergoing a stormy tenure at the University of California, San Diego. He is glad to hear from her: “Come as soon as you wish, Ashley.”

     Iggy goes to the studio to listen to mixes of the Raw Power LP, dope in his pocket, off to work.

     That night they meet again at the Whiskey-A Go-Go. After a subdued chat, a few cigarettes, they go back to Ashley’s room at the West Hollywood Hyatt. The next morning they fuck tenderly without holding back–now they are coupled.

After an hour of walking and pausing, I find by counting poles that I am nearing the south side of the Field. I am already enthralled by the shifting inner harmonies of the work’s geometry when the sun appears with full brightness for the first time. The poles to the east of me suddenly blaze with reflected sunlight, so bright that I can be sure of seeing the farthest row. (Those to the west are almost invisible, as I can see only their shadowed sides). The radiant poles turn from solid objects into beams of dazzling light that pierce the air like tones. They lend themselves to light. The change suggests such an increase in energy around me that I can hardly believe it doesn’t disturb the wide silence of the plain. 

     Now, with an idea of the spectacle the whole Field will offer, I head for the west end, hoping to see all the poles ablaze at sunset.

One of the Field’s most amazing aspects is the way the poles amplify the light lingering after sunset. As dusk comes on, the poles take on a soft silver-whiteness that appears nowhere in the landscape except in the sky. They turn the color of the emerging stars.

     Ashley dreams that she and Chas are back home, as children, standing on a ridge overlooking a great valley.

     The valley is obscured by a sort of haze, but an Arcadian glade is visible through a rent in the mist. Ashley tells her brother to hurry back to the house for the camera; she needs to document the lush green grasses and trees, the fawn at the stream’s edge–but when running back to his sister, Chas drops the camera, breaking it. In her frustration Ashley scolds him–and instantly regrets it. She consoles him, arm across his thin shoulders, as they return to the ridge.

     The fog has lifted, and now the valley is revealed as a vast agricultural project: tractors plow and spread chemical fertilizer, their smoke rising into the sky; men and women wearing orange jumpsuits stoop over the lettuce and strawberries under the hot sun; a bi-plane spreads pesticides in the distance, a buzzing dragonfly riding a rainbow tide of marine poisons; the glade, she sees now, is a section of the landscaping for this industrial farm’s CEO, and is walled and hidden within his vast complex from the teeming fields.

Each pole is a length of stainless steel tubing, two inches in diameter, seamlessly welded to a solid stainless tip. The tips taper to needle-sharp points with the arc of a curve six feet in diameter. Though the poles are elaborately anchored underground, they bear no obvious traces of the processes of fabrication and installation. They simply emerge from the ground as if growing there. After a week at the site, I have an intense desire to see trees again. The scrubby ground pines that lie to the east are not enough. I find myself envisioning the poles as the trees of America’s future.

Iggy and Chas are out to score dope near Hollywood High. Lost somewhere near North Highland, they hear live music and a crowd’s cheer off the main drag.

     “Hold on Chas–sounds like a party.”

     Iggy walks into a corner store, buys a case of Bud and two packs of Marlboros.

     Up the block they find the house party. Inside, they weave their way through the milling teens, finally reaching the band. Iggy introduces himself. The band, The Equals, is an interracial group of young London Mods dressed in Sta-Prest slacks and Jaytex dress shirts, brogues, yellow cardigans, pork pie hats and shades. They’re a ska group, but they’ve heard of the Stooges, and are game.

     “Come on guys,” Iggy shouts–‘Louie, Louie!'”

     The drummer’s snare drum sounds like a rifle shot as they launch into a reggae-inflected version of “Louie, Louie.” Iggy yells, contorts, crawls on the ground, leaps from the sofa into the bemused crowd. The kids shout, dance, laugh, smoke dope, spill drinks.

     Iggy and the band charge through an impromptu set of garage rock standards, all filtered through the same Indies rhythms: “Gloria,” “Fortune Teller,” “The Last Time,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Route 66,” a sexually explicit version of “Louie, Louie.” Finally, The Equals surprise Iggy by closing with a straight ahead version of The Doors’ song “The Changeling.”

     The party lasts until the broken hours of morning. In a back room, Iggy shoots up smack with Jerome, the drummer.

The aesthetics of the poles suggest that the mechanization of production has resulted in a mystified way of seeing objects that represents obliquely a view of human reality and a tactic of power. The poles resemble the bulk of commodities produced by American industry only in bearing no recognizable traces of human labor. As the sometimes extraterrestrial atmosphere of The Lightning Field confirms, a world filled with objects having this quality is difficult to see as the crystallization of imaginable human actions. In such a world, the connections between the individual’s own activity and the possibility of changed social reality must appear arbitrary, fanciful, or a matter of covert manipulations. 

     In a manner that only sculpture can achieve, The Lightning Fielddiscovers in the aesthetics of industrial fabrication at its most refined a repressed and repressive consciousness of power. Though their fixity seems absolute, up close, the poles–through their compelling evocations of speed and force–display their formal affinities with weapons (the spear, the bullet, the missile) and with instruments (antennas, probes, needles).

Stoned on Thai stick, Ashley and Iggy stop on Hollywood Boulevard at a wall of color TV’s, news images of USAF napalm bombs burning the green Vietnamese jungles.

     Iggy says, “Hey, total flow.”

     Ashley yearns to be outside. This yearning is in her posture, the cadence of her speech, the shine of her eyes, the inquiring cast of her mind, her voice at night on the telephone, smell of her sex, books along the shelves of her study, the way she viscerally reacts to TV images of the war in Vietnam.

     “Have you read him, Raymond Williams, his book Television? Total flow is one of his key concepts. Television, he argues, because of its simultaneous and continuous mode of distribution, cannot be accurately analyzed as media in terms of its discrete units, as the sum of its programs. Implicit in this notion is the loss of ability to distinguish, to differentiate, toremember, within the broader cultural context.”

     “Umm… nope–never heard of him,” Iggy tosses his hair from his eyes, lights a Marlboro.

     The napalm rains across the jungle canopy, rains on the heroes of Vietnam, behind the glass of the storefront window, behind the glass of the cathode ray tubes.

Standing on relatively high ground at the Field’s southwest corner, I am enjoying the immense stillness of the plain when an explosive, resounding crack splits the air, so loud I sense it with my whole body. It will take some time to recover the feeling that grips me in the moment before I hear the distant rasp of a jet and conclude that the big noise was a sonic boom. 

A little later I will remember that when I scanned the horizon after the sonic boom, I was looking for mushroom clouds. And then I will realize that since I first set foot on the Lightning Field, the work has been daring me to indulge the secret terror and thrill of isolation in these times: to imagine that the absent world has destroyed itself, to take seriously my flippant conviction that the world will destroy itself simply because it has become technologically possible. In this way, the work forces the recognition that even deep in nature there can be no escape from history. Walking among the Lighting Field’s coordinates often feels like being within a target area, which compels you to acknowledge how much everyday life in today’s world feels like being within a target area.

At the Amtrak station in downtown San Diego one of Marcuse’s grad students–a taciturn, fiercely-bearded young man–meets Ashley, gives her a lift in his battered VW microbus.

     As they drive along the coastal highway, Ashley sees the palm-lined boulevards, the surfers and hippies hanging out on the endless beaches. The scene is relaxed, idyllic: cool breeze, hot sun, the hills scattered with eucalyptus and Torrey Pines running down to meet the blue sea.

     But Ashley understands the social realities here: the vast Navy and Marine bases, and major defense contractor facilities; San Diego is also dominated by a relentlessly conservative media apparatus. Add a large population of military veterans and transplanted Midwesterners, and the resulting social dynamic is almost pathologically retrograde. Ashley can think of few cities less inclined to welcome the radical political/cultural critique of Western industrial society as formulated by her former professor, friend and mentor, Herbert Marcuse.

     Indeed, the Frankfurt School scholar, pilloried as an ideological threat to American youth in the editorial pages of the San Diego Union, had been recently hung in effigy from a flag pole in front of the county administration building.

     Loyal UCSD students had formed an ad hoc armed guard, posting a twenty-four hour escort for Marcuse at his home and on campus.

     When her driver, Eddie, pulls into a gas station, Ashley gets out of the van to stretch. When Eddie bends over the gas pump, Ashley sees the .38 holstered on his belt.

     Marcuse greets Ashley warmly. They sit in his living room. Marcuse senses her unease.

     “How is your work, Ashley?”

     “I’ve been busy writing an article for Rolling Stone. Something my wayward brother Chas set up. I need the money, unfortunately. And I’ve also become involved with the subject of my work, a rock singer named Iggy.”

     Marcuse, out of his element, lights a cigar. “So this singer… Ziggy? He’s an intelligent young man, surely, to appreciate you.”

     “He’s more of the intuitive type, more Dionysus than Apollo.”

     “Ah, well,” he says,”I have every confidence in your judgment, as always. Shall I make us some tea?”

     While Marcuse, humming, bustles over his samovar in the kitchen, Ashley pages through the new Art in America. She stops at a photo essay on a recent work by the sculpture Walter De Maria. The Lightning Fieldconsists of a network of poles erected across a western New Mexico mesa. Apparently, there’s a cottage nearby where visitors can stay, waiting for the monsoons from the Sea of Cortez to arrive. When The Lightning Field erupts during these summer storms something essential is presumably revealed.

     After tea, she leaves Marcuse smoking a cigar in the front yard of his tract home. She takes the Surfliner back to L.A. The track runs along the coast, passing the San Onofre nuclear power station, crossing the desolate stretch of the Camp Pendleton marine base. Ashley sees a Red-tailed Hawk, circling high above on the thermal currents.

     Over lunch at Denny’s on West Sunset, Chas sees that Ashley is unhappy. Maybe things aren’t going well with Iggy, maybe it’s something deeper.

     That evening, at a Hollywood Hills party overlooking the over-lit city below, he takes her outside to rest on the chaise lounges by the pool. They gossip, reminisce, dance around the subject, until Chas says, “Look, sister, maybe you should get out of town for a few days; you know, recharge your batteries.”

     Ashley fumbles through her purse for a cigarette.

     Chas continues: “I’ve heard about something very cool, an art work, anearthwork out in New Mexico. Neil Young told me about it last night. I thought you might dig it, so I’ve bought you a train ticket to Santa Fe. But, you know, if you’re not hip to the idea, it’s cool with me.”

     Ashley looks at her brother, laughs, lights her Old Gold.

     “Chas, this is the second time this weekend The Lightning Field has come up. I guess I have to go, don’t I?”

     A few years later, shortly before his death, Chas will dream he’s in a derelict, sun-bleached pink mansion along a south Florida shore, waiting under the greenhouse sun for Iggy and the Stooges to arrive. Centuries later, the Stooges pull up in a battered van; the group piles out, exhausted, hungry and dirty, but in high spirits. Chas directs the assembled punks and Rastas to unload and set up the rock equipment. Someone brings a keg of beer and a gross of red plastic cups. Once the sun goes down, The Stooges begin to play. The primal music is sublime. The over-bright stars burn the sky all night long.

Our last visit to The Lightning Field included for me what was one of the hardest moments to describe. I decided to take a walk on the Field in late afternoon. The weather had been turbulent all day with bursts of sun and sudden squalls of wind and snow. Having warmed myself well at the wood stove, I donned almost all the clothes I had packed and set out due south from the cabin. About halfway through the Field, tiny pellets of snow began tickling at my right ear and face. Looking to the west, I saw a snow squall billowing my way like an atmospheric avalanche. The light behind it was strangely green. Soon I was engulfed in a fusillade of granular snow sent horizontal by a merciless wind. Behind me the cabin had disappeared. Murky green light enveloped what little I could see of the landscape, curtaining off horizons and sky. The few poles visible in each direction had turned to black silhouettes so fine that, blinking into the wind, I could not be sure how many I was seeing. It was if I were suddenly seeing the work in negative…

Her story is meant to end with a long train ride across the Painted Desert during which Ashley recovers herself after her troubling affair with Iggy. She chats with the tourists on the train, bonding with a charismatic, volatile, sexy, Russian physicist–Nadia. Together they drink and smoke in the saloon car.

     In Taos she meets with her group; together they will make the pilgrimage to De Maria’s sculpture The Lightning Field. Her party includes an uptight professor of mathematics from Ohio State University; a wayward and rather uninteresting art student from San Francisco; and Alan Ginsberg.

     Bearded, bespectacled, smiling, grooving in his faded jeans and stained serape, Ginsberg totes an Indian-weave bag stuffed with papers, books, pens, dope and paraphernalia. He takes a liking to Ashley immediately.

     After their arrival at the Lightning Field, they eat an early supper. The storms arrive and Ginsberg shares some peyote with Ashley. She is separated from the rest of the group.

     As the lightning falls in sheets across the barren mesa Ashley begins to run. She arrives at a doorway in the sand. She enters the portal, where she is transformed, bathed in white light.

I turned my back to the wind and waited, watched, and shivered as the squall finally withdrew eastward, the brightening sky behind it returning to the poles a silvery glow. But only for me, who experienced them, can words or images invoke the needlelike snow, the wind that blew through me as if I were a ghost, or the surprise of seeing the air turn green and the air turn black.

This is a false ending, a narrative construct. In reality, Ashley never travels toThe Lightning Field. Separated from Iggy, she goes to the movies, the beach; she reads, writes.

     One evening she rests on the balcony of her Hollywood Hills apartment. The city sprawls below her: vast, overdetermined, exhausted by its own criminal excesses.

     To the west the sun glitters hard across the pacific. The hills are speckled with the blue flowers of the California Lily, the simmering reds of the South African grevillia. From her window the cars sound like waves along the beach.

Post Script

I had a real home once in Berlin. I found a deserted city. When the Germans lost the war the Russians came in and all industry vanished practically overnight. What remained was a city of beautifully constructed factory buildings, with these huge loft spaces, all built in the twenties and thirties. They had wonderful architects and it’s all free space now, that’s why artists and musicians are flocking there.

     That’s why I loved it. It was like being in a ghost town. The police there have a very laissez-faire attitude. Anything goes. It’s such an alcoholic city. Someone is always swaying down the street. They also don’t care much about drug use. Many laws are not enforced and the police are usually very polite and sensible about the laws they do enforce. The city is open 24 hours a day. Something left over from the Weimar days: when one brace of clubs is closing the next is opening. This just goes on around the clock.

     We used to go out and get lost, wash off every shred of America, just wash it off. Taking a walk was like showering off all the filth my upbringing put into me.

     I’m terrified of my country, of the USA. The values here are foul: independent thought is marginalized; instead it’s just war all the time–kill, kill, kill. We’re the most violent fucking industrialized nation. It’s part of my stage act, you know; I’ve internalized all of this American aggression and I act it out on stage, for ten thousand bucks a show. The people here are sad without knowing it, like a persistent flu that warps your mind. It’s a crime the way people are restrained; I’m in favor of something else, some radically different way of life.

Iggy Pop/I Need More

(Note: the italicized passages in the main body of this text are slightly altered quotes from Kenneth Baker’s study, The Lightning Field. The quote from Iggy’s I Need More has been altered.)

Gary Lain lives in San Diego, California with his wife and two young sons. He has published fiction, reviews and essays in Fiction International, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Texas Review, American Book Review, Belphegor, Crash Test, City Works, and online at Locus Novus, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Sixteenth Letter.

This story is included in issue #44: DV8. Copyright © 2011 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.

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