DEATH METAL

When Paul Walker died in the fiery crash of his Porsche Carrera GT on 11/30/2013 in Valencia, California, it was an eerie reminder of James Dean’s death in a Porsche 550 Spyder on 09/30/1955 just outside Cholame, California. Here was another successful star of youth oriented movies dying relatively young (40) in a car crash. Both Walker and Dean were car enthusiasts; both were with companions when they died—Dean’s as passenger (he lived), Walker’s as driver (he died). Both stars raced, both owned exotic Porsches, both died in exotic Porsches. It is a little early to tell if the impact of Walker’s death will rival Dean’s. Probably not. I doubt there will there be a movie November 30, 2013   dramatizing the impact of his death as September 30, 1955 did with Dean’s, but some signs are already there that his death means something special to some fans. You can see it in the unauthorized ceremonies that have already taken place at the crash site: the piles of flowers, the small planes trailing banners over the site with messages like “R.I.P. God be with Fast and Furious star Paul Walker.” And then there all the heartfelt tributes to “one of our own” posted at the scene as well as the ritual processions of mourners past the site, some in cars that had already been modified to look like the star cars of the Fast and Furious franchise that has already grossed over $2billion. There are less respectful responses to his death like the collecting of relics at the crash site: an eighteen-year-old was arrested shortly after posting a picture on Instagram of the roof panel he took from the scene. Walker’s crash has already produced what is probably the key element in transforming an actor’s death into myth—conspiracy—that Walker and Roger Rodas, who was driving the Porsche, faked their deaths. That claim was on the Internet within days of Walker’s crash. After Dean’s death there were many such stories. I remember one in particular about Dean’s growing tired of Hollywood and faking his death so he could race in peace in Canada. Auto deaths of famous people seem to generate an inordinate number of conspiracy theories and hoaxes.FIG #1--paul-walker-s-crash-porsche-carrera-gt-suspected-of-failure-72244-7

The Remains of Paul Walker’s Porsche

Walker is just the latest in a long list of famous people who lost their lives in car wrecks: Hollywood royalty like Jane Mansfield and Dean, actual royalty like Princess Diana and Grace Kelly as well as artists and writers like Jackson Pollack, Albert Camus, Nathanael West and W.G. Sebald. The list of musicians killed in crashes is long and cuts across genres. It includes Marc Bolan, Eddie Cochran, Harry Chapin, Clifford Brown, and Lisa Lopes. It doesn’t include rappers shot in their cars, like Kenny Clutch (Maserati), Future (Maybach), OG Double D (Maybach) Notorious B.I.G. (Suburban) and, the most famous, Tupac Shakur (BMW 750).

XzHtJcS.jpg

James Dean’s Spyder–What Remained After The Crash

There is something about car crashes that demands our attention. It partly has to do with the fact that they are always somehow dramatic, sad, shocking and unprepared for. But there is something else. Plane crashes are noteworthy no matter who dies in them because they are unusual. Car accidents are commonplace, ever present. Our flights might be measured in the dozens. Our car trips, long and short, in the thousands. Every time we take to the highway we risk an accident. We have a sense of relief when we pass an accident on the road. We feel hat it is less likely we will have one of our own. The odds have tilted in our favor. We are safe. For a time.

We have all experienced that guilty sense of satisfaction in finally seeing the twisted metal of crashed cars after a long wait in a rubbernecking line and our equally guilty disappointment, as if we have been robbed of something, if the accident scene has been cleared when we get there or it wasn’t that serious to begin with. We don’t want to see bodies, but the wrecked cars, yes. There is more than crude, heartless voyeurism at work here. Karl Shapiro’s “Auto Wreck” conjures the existential questions an accident, any serious accident, raises for those involved and for those who merely witness its results:

 

The traffic moves around with care,

But we remain, touching a wound

That opens to our richest horror.

Already old, the question, Who shall die?

Becomes unspoken, Who is innocent?

For death in war is done by hands;

Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;

And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.

But this invites the occult mind,

Cancels our physics with a sneer,

And spatters all we knew of dénouement

Across the expedient and wicked stones.

From the Keystone Kops to Fast and Furious movies have long played a role in helping us dispel the anxiety that follows us on the highway like a blacked out van, that sprouts from car wreckage, and that often creeps into the souls of drivers and passengers alike. We know, we always know, in the back of our minds that 35, 000 Americans, more or less, will die on the highways in any given year (NHTSA). Movies relieve some of the pressure of that knowledge by making the chase and the crash, whether comic or dramatic, simply absurd. In a collective repetition compulsion we watch car chases over and over again in movie after movie to insulate ourselves. But the price of any compulsion is that the stakes have to be continually raised. We expect that each new chase will outdo the ones that came before or we are bored. This need has made the car destroying car chase into more than a dramatic plot device. It has become a film’s reason for being. There is a whole genre of chase movies both good and bad from Thelma and Louise to The Chase, from Vanishing Point to Smokey and the Bandit where the chase is the plot, the only plot. When we tell someone to “cut to the chase,” we are asking for what matters most. The chase has become a synonym for what’s important. Everything else is inconsequential or irrelevant.

Although car chases have been a staple of movies since the silent era, the use of a high energy, virtuosic chase scene as the action center of a dramatic film was pioneered in two iconic chases—Bullit with Steve McQueen) in a Mustang GT 390 fastback (1968) pursuing a Dodge Charger through the streets of San Francisco to the Freeway and ending with a fiery crash into a gas station and Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) in a ’71 Pontiac Lemans in a mad (and unauthorized) chase under the Brooklyn El in The French Connection (1971). These chases emphasized driving skills. Avoiding collisions was the real test of skill here. In recent years the goal seems to be maximizing collateral damage. The key chase in The Bourne Identity (2002) through the streets of Paris damages about a dozen cars, none seriously. Bourne’s cute little Mini whips around squares, through narrow alleys as it leads BMW motorcycles down stairs and onto a highway against traffic before it escapes. The chase is exciting fun like an amusement car ride. (See also The Italian Job, both versions.)

More recent chases are simply orgies of destruction. In 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard an armored truck pursues a Mercedes Benz step van through the streets of Moscow. They are in turn pursued by John McClane (Bruce Willis) in a commandeered Mercedes SUV (an example of good product placement that has grown more important in chase scenes). The twelve and a half minute chase scene (about 10% of the whole film) early in the film includes a sequence of driving against traffic at ridiculous speeds (already a cliché in contemporary chase scenes), a number of high speed 180s, and many rear collisions The chase cars routinely leave the highway entirely to fly from one level of the highway to another. The piece de resistance involves McClane’s SUV leaping onto the top of an auto carrier and then driving across the tops of jammed vehicles between him and the bad guys. Thanks to CGI almost anything is possible.

The chase in A Good Day to Die Hard (ignoring the mildly disturbing implications of the title) consumes 75 vehicles, most of them seriously damaged. They are squeezed, sideswiped, and smashed, as well as driven underneath, on top of and through other vehicles and various structures. The not surprising thing about this chase is how little damage is done to the people inside the cars. In fact, what seems to be the rule is that no one dies or is mangled in this sort of chase unless they have been certified as villains, but not the lead villain. Lead villains can survive almost any crash no matter how severe until the very end of the movie. Even those who drop 20 feet from one level of highway to another in mangled cars are usually just bruised and stunned especially early in the movie.

In general, no matter how outrageous the chase, we see only scratches and some blood, but no detached limbs, no screaming innocent victims, no pieces of flesh hurled across the highway or any lifeless bodies. The bad guys are able to shake off the effects of the crash and to continue the gunfight in the street or on the highway with renewed and undiminished enthusiasm. Because there is no real suffering we are free to enjoy the pure spectacle of cars crashing into each other without worrying about the serious questions Shapiro raises in his poem. We are amused rather than horrified when car chases veer onto sidewalks or into malls scattering pedestrians, al fresco diners and shoppers because we know there will be no sickening impact of metal against flesh. We are provided with a fantastic shield around our psyches to ward off the anxiety.

A recent Nissan Rogue ad parodies such extraordinary feats by showing a woman avoiding traffic by driving up a ramp and leaping over a barrier to land on top of a fast moving train and then hopping off the train at her destination as the ad warns the viewer that “this is fantasy, cars can’t ride on trains.” There is the sensible warning not to try this ourselves. And a big wink.

For those who tire of fantasy chases there are plenty of real high-speed police chases and accidents, often bizarre, on TV and You Tube. They often climax in spectacular collisions—a stolen Corvette that rear ends a truck at more than 100mph and completely disintegrates, or a pickup that meets a high speed train at RR crossing and instantly turns into John Chamberlain sculpture. Here death is rare but always a possibility. The Corvette driver for example, amazingly walks away from his crash. We are told the pickup driver didn’t. But we don’t see the body just an off screen voice telling us solemnly that the driver was killed.

Contemporary artists have been drawn to car crashes as well as to the raw material of car wrecks. Artists like John Chamberlain and Cèsar use fenders and hoods in abstract shapes or in literal pieces of auto-cubism. There is Antfarm creators of the iconic line of half buried cars known as “Cadillac Ranch” who created “Media Burn” where a remote controlled Cadillac crashes into a wall of televisions. These artists remind us that decay, destruction and death are embedded in the very existence of the automobile.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

John Chamberlain Sculpture

Robert Williams, the Hieronymus Bosch of Kustom Kulture paints antic and violent scenes featuring tumbling hot rods avoiding voluptuous women and toothy monsters in his own mixture of cartoons and surrealism—Tex Avery meets Salvador Dali.

More recently there is the work of Jonathan Schipper who is known for staging actual car crashes in galleries in both Europe and the United States. They are slow moving crashes to be sure. “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle” takes six days of almost imperceptible movement across the gallery before two American muscle cars crash into each other. In another piece, “Slow Moving Crash” a VW Golf takes a month to crash into a gallery wall. According to Schipper, the piece is about “a dramatic inevitability that reflects our own mortality.”

An artist very much identified with car crashes is Andy Warhol with his silkscreen Death and Disaster series. His “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” recently sold for $105million.

 

Fig #3Andy-Warhol-Silver-Car-Crash-Double-Disaster-2-528x341

Warhol’s use of grainy newspaper photos often repeated across the canvas multiple times distances us from the crash turning it into what he called a “black and white design” rather than a subject of horror or pity: “When you see a gruesome picture over and over, it really doesn’t have any effect,” he says. One of the things that he does with these images is to remind us of the anonymous, repetitive, detached, unemotional tone that we find in the coverage of fatal crashes of the non-famous in the media. Warhol’s images function in the same deadpan way that newspaper descriptions deal with sudden death. This is just another way of distancing ourselves from the questions Shapiro asks. Here is a report from the September 10, 2010 The Morning Call in Allentown, PA (notice the repetition):

“A 32-year-old East Stroudsburg man was killed early Saturday morning after he lost control of his car and struck a tree in Monroe County, according to state police. The unidentified man was driving along Marshalls Creek Road in Smithfield Township when his car veered off the road and struck a tree, according to state police at Swiftwater. The accident happened shortly after 2:30 a.m. The man was pronounced dead on the scene by the Monroe County coroner’s office, state police said.”

Fig#4AndyWarholCarCrash1

The most disturbing, and most profound, exploration of the cultural significance of car crashes is found in J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash (1973) and the admirable, if disappointing, film made from the novel by David Cronenberg also called Crash (1996). Jean Baudrillard calls the Crash “the first great novel of the universe of simulation, the one with which we will all be concerned—a symbolic universe, but one which through a sort of reversal of the mass-mediated substance (neon, concrete, car, erotic machinery) appears as if traversed by an intense form of initiation” (S&S 119)

The novel Crash excises nature almost completely. It exists only as backdrop (“rust stained grass”) or as weather (mostly rain) or as an occasional obstacle (the lone tree Ballard crashes into). Nature is supplanted by airport roads, streaming traffic, warehouses, service buildings, highway ramps and flyovers, tall anonymous apartment buildings, parking garages and laboratories– a modern Dickensian landscape, full of diesel smoke and sickening dust. The only light here seems to come from headlights or taillights or cameras.

Crash is the story of a movie director named Ballard coming to terms with the effects of his own car accident, which put him in intensive care. And took the life of the husband of Dr. Helen Remington. He relives the crash again and again. It has become “a model of some ultimate and yet undreamt sexual union.”

When he leaves the hospital he find himself drawn to highways and traffic. Sex now seems possible only in a car, near crash sites or in anonymous parking garages and parking lots in the non-places that exist near the London airport and along the highway. For Baudrillard, “It is the Accident that gives form to life. It is the Accident, the insane, that is the sex of life. And the automobile, the magnetic sphere of the automobile, which ends by investing the entire universe with its tunnels, highways, toboggans, exchangers, its mobile dwelling as universal prototype, is nothing but an immense metaphor of life. “(S&S 113)

As Ballard, his wife, Dr. Remington and others obsessively explore the myriad erotic dimensions of the violent marriage of sex and metal, they embody (literally) the ultimate wedding of eros and thanatos that propels the whole novel. These drives are not opposed forces but fused together, welded together, so to speak, through violent impact. The novel is filled with connections between car body and human body, the union of tissue with metal, often described as a marriage with all the implications of that word. The novel also is rife with the mixed aromas of semen, mucous, lubricating oil and engine coolant. Almost every physical detail links the organic to the mechanical: “The sheen of moisture on the skin around her mouth was like a bloom on a morning windshield.” This is truly a genuinely autoerotic novel.

But it is more than just the visual, aural or olfactory similarities of car and body that arouse Ballard. Any evidence of the deformed, the disfigured and the maimed whether in metal or flesh he and his companions find excitingly pornographic:

“The apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking light switches. Together they formed an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire.” (C-90)

The body is a machine, the machine is a body, but that identity is manifest, for Ballard (both writer and character) only in the alchemy of a crash.

According to Beaudrillard, “Technology is never grasped except in the (automobile) accident, that is to say in the violence done to technology itself and the violence done to the body. It is the same, any shock, any blow, any impact, all the metallurgy of the accident can be read in the semiurgy of the body—neither an anatomy nor a physiology but a semiurgy of contusions, scars, mutilations, wounds that are so many new sexual organs on the body.” (S&S-112)

But in his attempt to claim the novel as an emblem of post-modern simulation Baudrillard misses some key elements of the novel. He claims that the novel’s marriage of body and technology represent just the ”diffracting of bewildered signs through each other.” He claims the novel is without psychology. It offers “no flux or desire, no libido, or death drive.” He wants to turn the mysterious artist, a man named Vaughn, who is the real driving force (pun intended) of the novel, and to a lesser degree in the film, into an Andy Warhol:

“The shining and saturated surface of the traffic and of the accident is without depth, but it is always doubled in Vaughn’s camera lens. The lens stockpiles and hoards accident photos like dossiers….This universe would be nothing without the hyperreal disconnection.” (Crash 117)

But Vaughn has much more in common with a character like Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans’ great decadent 1884 novel Against Nature. In fact Ballard’s novel is better read as an example of fin de siècle excess rather than as a pioneering post-modern text (or perhaps they are the same thing). Like Des Esseintes, Vaughn is a new kind of artist, an obsessive who devotes his life to finding and creating new sensations. Like Des Esseintes Vaughn is extreme in his pursuits, but not detached and seemingly indifferent to his subject matter like Warhol. He is completely absorbed by his sense of mission:

“Thinking of Vaughn now, drowning in his own blood under the police arc-lights, I remember the countless imaginary disasters he described as we cruised together along the airport expressways. He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrages (sic) of their brain tissue flowering beneath the aluminized compression chambers and reaction vessels …He thought of the crashes of automobile stylists, the most abstract of all possible deaths, wounded in their cars with promiscuous laboratory technicians…Vaughn dreamed endlessly of the deaths of the famous, inventing imaginary crashes for them. Around the deaths of James Dean and Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield and John Kennedy he had woven elaborate fantasies.” (Crash-13-15)

While all accidents on highway are stimulating for Vaughn, he knows that it is only the deaths of stars, the famous or notorious that truly rise to the level of myth, where death brings apotheosis. Where Des Esseintes suffers from ennui and Warhol from indifference, Vaughn suffers from hyperactivity. The opposite sides of the same coin. A Jonathan Schipper on speed staging elaborate accident scenarios at full speed and not slo-mo.

And like Des Esseintes Vaughn is a scientist, scholar and artist. He fantasizes car accidents. He photographs them. He organizes them in books. He collects films of car crashes. The Zapruder Film is a sacred text to him. He attends performances of crashes at the Road Research Lab. He studies their literature: “Mechanisms of Occupant Ejection,” and “Tolerances of the Human Face in Crash Impacts.” He re-enacts or anticipates the great crashes of history: James Dean and Jayne Mansfield in the film, (Liz Taylor in the novel). His failed masterpiece, the one that finally ends his life, involves crashing into Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine with his Lincoln Continental convertible, the car closest to the model John F. Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated. When the Lincoln becomes so wrecked that it can’t be driven, he drives Ballard’s car towards Taylor’s. He misses her and misses his chance for immortality, but even in failure his death furthers his own project:

“At the accident site, under the high deck of the flyover, at least five hundred people had gathered on every verge and parapet, drawn there by the news that the film actress had narrowly missed her death. How many of the people there assumed that she had already died, taking her place in the pantheon of auto disaster victims?” (C-221)

It is a scene not unlike the one in Valencia shortly after Paul Walker’s crash.

Ballard, Baudrillard and Cronenberg all agree that the car crash signifies a new relationship between man and machine. But what Cronenberg’s film fails to show, what it can’t show, is the intense imaginary of the narrator—what the connections between man and machine feel like, what they remind him of. He doesn’t show how the smell of Vaughn’s car and his jeans stimulate Ballard so, how these smells play in his imagination. The novel lets us see what keeps Ballard on the road looking for accidents, excitedly risking another crash. The film misses both what he experiences internally and what he imagines. Cronenberg misses the intensity of Ballard’s (both narrator and author’s) extraordinary vision and turns James Spader’s Ballard into a passive onlooker, an automaton. Cronenberg’s Ballard is more Baudrillard than Ballard’s:

“I unshackled the left leg brace and ran my fingers along the deep buckle groove, the corrugated felt hot and tender, more exciting than the membrane of a vagina. This depraved orifice, the invagination of a sexual organ still in the embryonic stages of evolution, reminded me of the small wounds of my own body, which still carried the contours of the instrument panel and controls…I dreamed of other accidents that might enlarge this repertory of orifices, relating them to more elements of the automobile’s engineering, to the ever-more complex technologies of the future.” (Crash-177-178)

The novel transcends the question of whether we are the masters of machines or their slaves. The machine and human have become one in their own dance of death. As Ballard says: “These unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed a series of disturbing modules, units in a new currency of pain and desire. (Crash-134)

Ballard’s novel and Baudrillard’s review both precede the great digital revolution that began in the 1980’s. The man and machine interface (even that word reflects the changes that have taken place since Ballard’s 1973 novel) is no longer mechanical. It is now about information and code. It’s about the union of binary code and genetic code. The cyber age is more Turing machine than Henry Ford’s Model-T. While Ballard’s vision is prophetic (and Baudrillard sees that), the instruments for realizing that vision could not be seen by him in 1973. Ballard settles for the crude crashing of machine into body. The union is ultimately only found in death. Near the very end of the novel, after Vaughn is dead, Ballard writes, “Already I knew that I was designing the elements of my own car-crash.”

Today we don’t have to imagine our union with technology. It certainly doesn’t require a violent crash. We are already one with our new digital machines. We have Siri and her imitators. We have smart phones, smart houses and smart cars whose job is to prevent us from crashing. As we become our machines technology and entertainment reinforce that connection between us. We have “Intelligence,” “Person of Interest,” You Tube, Instagram, the X-Men and the X-box, Matrix, Avatar and avatars, Her, and countless variations of cybernetic heroes and villains. The “Six Million Dollar Man” is a dime a dozen. Baudrillard’s hyperreality has become a commonplace. Today there is simulation to a degree that makes his famous essay “The Precession of Simulacra” look quaint with its focus on television and Disneyland. In this context our continuing and seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more spectacularly impossible crashes in chase scenes is evidence of the persistence of nostalgia for a world that still about humans, in places that don’t exist in a cloud in coded cyberspace. So we make videos of ourselves crashing in cars, on skateboards, on bikes, on foot, through walls, off roofs and into the water that we post for everyone to see.

 

Key sources for this essay:

  1. G. Ballard, Crash. Picador, 1973.

Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994. (Original French publication 1981)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memories are Made of This: Jimmy Karcher’s Ford

In the mid Fifties, when I was in my early teens, the streets of Stamford, Connecticut seem to be invaded by a whole new class of car. Without warning chopped and lowered Fords and Chevys, Mercs and Oldsmobiles appeared on Main Street, on Bedford Street, in the Ridges, down by Long Island Sound, up on the Merritt Parkway. They looked mean and low, painted in deep maroons, bright blues or wild purples. Some were unfinished with primered patches on hoods and fenders covering the spots where chrome had been removed and holes filled. But that was still cool. Even cooler was how they sounded as they announced themselves to the world with a deep rumble of steelpac or glasspac mufflers or even straight pipes. They were the coolest things we had ever seen.

My friends and I were so taken with these cars that we talked about them non-stop every chance we got about whose car was the coolest, the fastest, or just the best. We snuck car magazines to class and hid them inside our textbooks. We rode our bikes to the many gas stations that dotted Turn of River in High Ridge to hang out all night just to see the cool cars that would pop in and out as they made the circuit from the Ridges to downtown that we called “checkin’ town.”

We were like fans of rock’n’roll groups waiting by a stage door for just a glimpse of a member of the group, but we just wanted to see the cars. We didn’t care so much about the drivers. But there were stars: Jerry Herold with his stripped down channeled Model A coupe with a huge Buick engine, Joe Boccuzzi and his chopped deep green ’49 Chevy convertible, Jimmy Kenny who drove a blindingly violet ’55 Ford Crown Victoria, and Eugene Ferranti who built a chopped red shoebox Ford convertible.

On one night in 1956 or 57 we heard that Jimmy Karcher was building a 1950 Ford convertible in his garage and his younger brother offered to give us a look. Their small garage was just around the corner from the station where Jimmy worked. We walked down Cedar Heights and Jimmy’s brother opened the door and we saw the car sitting there in a tiny one-car garage that barely contained the car. Jimmy was there. It was a night that had such an impact on me that, years later, I wrote a poem about it, which was published in 2008.

Jimmy Karcher

I saw the convertible when Jimmy Karcher

brought it home. Broken top. Canvas hanging like ribbons.

Broken glass. A fender twisted like a crumpled piece of paper.

A thin disease of rust covered it like frost.

We laughed. What did we know? We were fourteen.

Jimmy was twenty four. One of the original Ridge cowboys.

Married. A kid on the way. He hardly said anything to us.

He did talk to Roger Arnow about the old days.

And to Sonny Bennett. And Moppy Buchanan. Always about the old days:

the races, the fights & losing the cops up in the Ridges.

But mostly he was silent, brooding, intense like

that day he walked around the car looking and looking

at rough edges and dents and the ugliness of neglect,

his hand moving like a dancer’s in the air

above the car as if he were touching something smooth.

I could see his eye following his hands as they turned the dull

gray metal, hardly a Ford, barely a car,

into a brilliant red dream with a chopped top and an Olds mill.

It was some pure kind of seeing–

looking at that wreck of a car and seeing what we couldn’t:

the many coats of hand rubbed impossibly red lacquer,

the 9 inch cages that would hold the Packard Clipper lights,

the curved Buick strip along the smooth sides,

all dropped to the ground like some sleek, low animal.

“Don’t worry, boys. It’s gonna be beautiful. Beautiful.”

That night had stayed with me a long time. To me it was the sort of night that you might remember if you had a chance to see Jackson Pollack when he first started dancing around a canvas spread out on the floor with a stick dripping in his hand. Or to hear Allen Ginsberg read “Howl” in San Francusco. I treasured that memory as much for what the car became as for what I remembered of that night. We all knew (believed) how perfect it was going to be.

The cars in Stamford were almost all ownerbuilt, but it was rare to see such a radically altered homebuilt car so well designed and perfectly executed. The great custom cars out of California were almost all built at the famous custom body shops whose cars reached us through magazines like Hot Rod, Car Craft and Rod & Custom: the Barris Brothers, Gene Winfield, Valley Custom, Joe Bailon and the Ayala Brothers. A notable exception was Duane Steck’s driveway built ’54 Chevy

“Moonglow.” Gene Winfield, the great California builder, once told me that the trouble with owners who wanted to radically alter their own cars “was that they know what they want to do with the front of the car and they have a good idea of what they want to do with the rear. But they don’t think about how they work together. Their cars have no flow. They need to walk around the car and look.”

Generally East Coast cars didn’t measure up and were largely ignored by the big West Coast magazines But Karcher’s car could hold its own with the west coast cars. It was that good. It had flow. (See Figure 1)

Fig 1 springfield

Figure 1. Jimmy Karcher’s Ford on exhibit at the World Fair Auto Show in Springfield, MA. in about 1960. This version of the car is gold pinstriping over red paint. This was just before the car was damaged en route to Puerto Rico

 

About a year after the poem was published I got a letter from Ray Soff who had found and restored Jimmy’s car. We had met at a car show in Macungie, Pennsylvania. Since he collected all things Karcher, I thought he might like to see the poem so I sent a copy to him when it was published. And then he, without my knowing, sent it on to Jimmy. A couple of months later Ray included Jimmy’s reply along with his letter.

Jimmy questioned almost all the details in the poem: “I found the information provided by Jack DeWitt interesting if not totally accurate.” He went on to point out that the car was never a wreck. There were no signs of neglect—no dents, no broken glass– when he bought it from a policeman in Stamford. In fact it was in pretty good shape before he began to customize it. He also pointed out that they might have “raced in the ‘Ridges’ “ but they never tried to lose the police. I had even gotten the time frame wrong. He had started work on the car long before he was married and it was already in shows before he was 24. It became clear to me that I hadn’t seen the car when it first arrived in Jimmy’s garage, but sometime after he had already begun working on it. What I saw was actually a second version of the car being built. According to Jimmy the first version had frenched stock taillights not Packard lights..

I also realized that what I had remembered as wreckage was simply the necessary deconstruction required before the finish work could begin. Yet Jimmy’s letter still upset me. This memory that I had carried around for years and had revisited many times was one of those signature memories that we use to define ourselves to ourselves and to help us chart the course of our lives. It was a key event in my narrative. If I hadn’t been there that night, would I have started writing about hot rods and customs as works of art ? Would they have meant so much to me if I hadn’t had this dramatic moment of inspiration? And what about the other memories that are part of my story? Are they equally distorted, condensed and displaced. Now I am pretty sure they are.

Ray Soff had also been deeply affected by Jimmy’s car. In 1962 when he was fourteen, about the same age I was when I first saw the car, he went to an auto show in New York City with his father. At the time he lived in Garfield, New Jersey where he was just a kid who liked custom cars. And he had always liked the look of ’49-’51 Fords, “shoebox Fords” as they are known. At the Coliseum he saw Jimmy’s car painted deep green lacquer but with same De Soto grille and Packard lights that I had seen taking shape years earlier.   At the show he remembers telling his father, “I want that car.”

Ray couldn’t let go of the memory of the car and in 1978 he began his quest to find it. He went to Stamford and, when he found that the Karchers had moved, he walked up and down Cedar Heights Road knocking on doors trying to find where Jimmy was living, with little luck. He put out ads asking for information about the location or even the existence of the car. Finally, in early 1979 he got a message, “ I know where it is today.”

Ray discovered that the car had had three owners (four if you count the guy who owned it for a day) in the previous decade. The current owner who acted like he was selling a stolen Rembrandt agreed to show him the car where it was secretly stored in a warehouse district in Commack, Long Island. It seemed so shady that Ray brought a friend, a big friend, when he went to check out the car. As the deal went down—Ray was determined to buy the car whatever the condition—he found that it had no interior, the engine wasn’t running, the hood was off, the wiring was gone, the brakes lacked shoes, the master cylinder was missing and there was some damage to the body. But he did get a box of parts with the car. And on February 10, 1979 he put down a deposit on the car. Ray told me, “I don’t forget that date. Ever.” (See Figure 2)Fig2-krch-redicovered004

Figure 2. Here is the car with its third or fourth owner painted deep green in the sorry decade after it was sold by Karcher. At this time it needed a full restoration, but it didn’t get it until it was bought by Ray Soff in 1979.

Ray, who wears a tee-shirt and carries a business card that declares him an “East Coast Rod and Custom Historian,” had a number of choices that historians and art restorers have to make. He had to decide what version of Jimmy Karcher’s Ford he was going to bring back to life. Which version is the most authentic? What really constitutes the essence of the “Connecticut Yankee” as it was known in the magazines and on the show circuit (it was always “Karcher’s Car” to us)? According to Jimmy the car had been painted seven times. He began with a Buick Titian red and through the years the car had also been painted two different reds, candy blue, metallic gold, briefly, a strange bluish silver and, finally, a deep green, roughly in that order. But Jimmy, according to Ray, often gets confused about the sequence.

In one version of the car the red exterior was pinstriped in gold and in the others it wasn’t pinstriped at all. The interior went from pink and black Naugahyde to pure white bucket seats.   Through the years the car evolved from being essentially the embodiment of Fifties custom strategies to incorporating newer Sixties touches. In the space of just a few years, 1957-1962, the car changed annually, sometimes more frequently. Some of the changes were necessitated by Jimmy’s needing to have a fresh looking car for the shows. But some changes came about by accident, literally. For example, after the car was damaged in transit to a show in Puerto Rico a year or two before Ray saw it in New York, Jimmy removed the bumpers and molded the front and rear ends—a very Sixties modification. At the same time he swapped the Dodge Lancer hubcaps for chromed naked wheels.

Not surprisingly Ray decided to restore the car using its original color scheme, “Red is the color for this car,” he says and not the dark green he had seen at that show when he was fourteen. But he decided to maintain the molded front and rear end of the later version and not put bumpers back on. Although he sees the car as essentially a Fifties custom, he recognizes that its history is a blend of Fifties and Sixties kustom kulture and that he shouldn’t he a slave to either style or any one version. (See Figure 3.)Fig3-krch-soff double008

Figure 3. After Ray Soff rebuilt the Ford it appeared in a number of magazines. Here it is paired with an earlier version of the car in candy blue when it was the cover car of the March 1962 issue of Speed and Custom.

But before he could paint the car there was a lot of restoration to be done. Jimmy had worked in metal. His friend Sonny Bennett, whom Jimmy called “a magician with sheet metal and welding torch,” had done most of the welding and Jimmy used lead for the filler, lead “donated” from a plumbing supply house. Ray soon discovered that one of the previous owners had used “tons” of plastic filler to try to straighten out body panels and fix dents. It all had to be ground away.   Ray, a body man by trade, who worked in metal and body filler, found that the work he needed to do was much more extensive that he had imagined. It took years rather than months to get the body looking right. Along the way he had to replace many pieces including floorboards. He also added disc brakes, and rack and pinion steering. He decided not to replace the fairly new 351ci Ford Windsor that a previous owner had used in place of the 1955 Olds engine originally in Jimmy’s car. He decided to keep the automatic transmission as well. The engine ran strong once all the parts in the box were reinstalled.

The more Ray worked on the car the more it became his car and the less it was Jimmy’s. It always was Jimmy’s car, but it was Ray’s dream. Ray needed to add something of himself to the car to make it his own. He respects the car. He loves the car, but he feels that he also has the right to put his own signature on it.. So he added Appleton spotlights, a very Fifties accessory. He preferred ’57 Caddy hubcaps to the Dodge Lancers that Jimmy had used. He chose a bench front seat in white with red piping rather than either the original pink and black or the white bucket seat interior.

But Ray changed only details, the essential elements that identify the car: the lowered body (6 inches front and back) the shortened Desoto grille in the molded grille cavity made from two ’50 Mercury shells, the rounded and louvered hood, the side trim from a ’55 Buick, the signature ’55 Packard Clipper taillights in the extended rear fenders, the six inch top chop, and the distinctive red paint (now a brilliant 1991 T-Bird “Electric Current” that is much better than Ray’s first attempt to recreate Titian red) all remain. He kept the lakes pipes running along the side of the car, making it seem even lower. Those key elements allowed me to recognize the cars from hundreds of yards away at a show in Macungie, PA where I saw it for the first time in 30 years and said to a friend, “I know that car! My God, that’s Jimmy Karcher’s Car.” (See Figure 4.)Fig 4-soff-macungie002

Figure 4. Ray’s restoration as it appeared in Macungie in the ‘90’s where I re-discovered it. There was no mistaking it for any other car.

Ray has now owned the car for 35 years—decades longer than Jimmy owned it. He sees himself as a custodian of the car. It’s guardian. He has also become a scholar relentlessly hunting down the stories and fates of many important early East Coast customs, especially those from Stamford where, by coincidence, he used spend his summer vacations as a boy. His garage in Saddlebrook, New Jersey, weirdly about the size of Jimmy’s old garage, is now a museum dedicated to the car and to all things kustom kulture. The walls are filled with vintage photographs, show posters, car club plaques, and club jackets and cards. He is keenly following the restoration of Russell Grady’s radical ’57 Oldsmobile, “ The Oriental,” one of the few shop built cars in Stamford. It was built by Herb Gary on Long Island. And he hopes to show his car and Grady’s side by side soon at a show in Connecticut He has had numerous offers to buy his car, but he says “if you offered me any car that I could name in a equal swap, I can’t think of any car that I would want instead of this car. “ (See Figure 5.)

Fig5 Ray's garage

Figure 5. Ray Soff standing next to Karcher’s car in his garage that it  more museum than a place to store your car. He doesn’t drive the car as much as he used to. He takes it to shows and on some cruise nights.

But Ray received his own critique from Jimmy when the restored car was featured in magazines. He wrote to Ray that the car had been painted seven times not four as Ray had thought. He objected to Ray’s story about an unscrupulous show promoter. “One more thing the story you sent me about the Puerto Rico show promoter was just a fictional story. I remember the events very different.” He also questioned Ray’s characterization of his having no more interest in the car. Their relationship at times has been strained, but Jimmy sent Ray a plaque from the Twin Ridge Auto Club that now hangs on the rear of the Ford. In the letter about my poem he tells Ray that he thinks, “the car looks great.”

Despite his dogged research Ray got some things wrong. I certainly got things wrong. I generally trust Jimmy’s account of things, but he seems to get things mixed up, too—like the sequence of his own build in his letter to Ray when he says that the Packard lights were installed after the bumpers were removed. There is pictorial evidence to the contrary. (See Figures 3 -check the bumpers and taillights.) And I know for a fact that Roger Arnow, Moppy Buchanan, and Peter George (disastrously) used to regularly try to out run the cops. My poem, Jimmy’s memory and Soff’s restoration of Jimmy’s car each condense time, mix details and add embellishments. I guess that’s how it must be when you take a dip in the river that is history. As Cratylus said when he modified a famous saying of Heraclitus, “you can’t step into the same river once

NOTE; I am extremely grateful to Ray Soff for agreeing to talk to me at length about the car, for sharing his extensive photo collection and, especially, for allowing me to quote from his letters from Jimmy Karcher.

 

 

Motoring On

BUY THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

There is a horsepower war going on now that is much more intense than the first great war, fought largely on American soil by the Big Three from the mid-60’s until the mid-70’s, in what is also known as the Muscle Car War. This is the war that produced the legendary Pontiac GTO, Plymouth Roadrunner, Dodge Charger, Shelby Mustang and Olds 4-4-2. Celebrated in song and film, they define an era that still has a powerful pull on the American imagination. Today, these cars often bring six and seven figures at auction (at a recent Mecum auction, a 1969 Boss 429 Mustang sold for $417,000; Hemi ‘Cudas routinely sell for more than a million). They continue to define a kind of raw machismo in movies like The Fast and the Furious and TV shows like NCIS and Burned. That first horsepower war was ended by the oil embargo that resulted in long gas lines and high gas prices. It was the first time Americans had to pay close attention to world gas prices. The power-robbing regulations of the Seventies essentially killed the performance car market for almost two decades. Just ask anyone who drove a late 70’s Corvette.

Cars Star on TV

BUY THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

The first car to be a real star on a TV series was Norm Grabowski’s “Kookie T”on 77 Sunset Strip (1958-1964). Driven on the show by “Kookie” Kookson III, it was part of ABC’s semi-successful attempt to launch a teen idol in the form of Edd Byrnes. (Grabowski received almost as much media coverage as Byrnes.) A car jockey in the parking lot next to the detective agency, Kookie was known for his comb and for uttering words never spoken by any self-respecting teenager, “like she’s the ginchiest, man.” The car was the reason to watch 77 Sunset Strip even if its appearance lasted only a few seconds. It was enough to prove to the rest of the country that such fantastic cars actually existed in Southern California. It was that amazing.

Rat Rods

PURCHASE THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

In the 1997 Kirk Jones, a graphic designer, and Jay Ward, an art department production assistant, put on a small hot rod and custom car show. 26 cars showed up. They called it Billetproof, the “world’s least important car show.” They were in their mid-twenties.

Billetproof proved to be very important. It was the “Salon des Refuses,” the New York Armory Show, the first Café Voltaire Dada performance of kustom kulture. In rejecting the art and culture of the times, it launched a movement.

Larry Watson: Painter

PURCHASE THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

During the week of July 20th 2010, the New York Times noted the deaths of James Gammon, “a squint-eyed, froggy voiced” character actor who played the manager in Major League; Billy Loes, a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers; Wye Jamison Allanbrook, a musicologist “who altered modern ways of thinking about Mozart”; Kenny Guinn, a former governor of Nevada who fell off the roof of his house at age 73; David Wayne, who created the prototype for the “black box” fight data recorder; Larry Keith, a “veteran television and stage actor” who was the first American actor to portray Henry Higgins on Broadway and Lt. Gen. Peter Wells, the last commander of white Rhodesian forces in what is now Zimbabwe.

Missing was any mention of Larry Watson who died on July 20th at age 71.

The Cars of American Graffiti

BUY THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

American Graffiti was the surprise hit of 1973. Made on a budget of $750,000, George Lucas’s depiction of 15 hours in the lives of a group of teenagers as they cruise the streets of Modesto, California in 1962 earned more than $55 million in its original run. But American Graffiti had more than financial success. It earned 5 academy award nominations including best picture, best director and best screenplay. It also won a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Award. In 1998 American Graffiti was included in the American Film Institute‘s list of the 100 Best American Films of all time.

Songs of the Open Road

BUY THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

In 1909 the Futurists dramatically declared “that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” This was intended to be a shocking pronouncement, a wake-up call to a sleeping Italian populace lost in the glories of its past and largely uninterested in the future.

The Hirohata Merc—So Cool

PURCHASE THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

I was doing some reading on the concept of “cool” for a course I teach on New York in the 1950s. I looked at Birth of the Cool by Lewis MacAdams, Cool Rules by Pountain and Robins, Hip: A History by John Leland, The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank, and American Cool by Peter Stearns. And there I found the usual and not so usual suspects and subjects from Jack Kerouac to William Gibson, from be-bop to hip hop, from existential hauteur to post-modern irony, from the beats to the punks, from Baudelaire to Bob Dylan, from the Bird to Notorious B.I.G., from Jackson Pollack to Andy Warhol, from the trickster to the hipster, from the Bowery Boys to Boyz N the Hood, from reefer madness to heroin chic. What I didn’t find in any of the books was any serious consideration or even recognition of the place of cars in the world of cool.

The American Hot Rod

PURCHASE THIS ISSUE OF THE AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW

In Call Me Ishmael Charles Olson writes, “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.”

He could have just as easily and accurately written SPEED because it is just as fundamental to the American experience. Americans race everything from lawn mowers to jet skis, from hospital beds to tricycles–anything that moves. It always seems to come down to who is the fastest—with a gun, a car or a CPU. As Thomas Wolfe once wrote, “ Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America—that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement.” Or as Neal Cassidy said, “Go! Go! Go!”