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Author’s Note: The following is a collection of five short stories about “The Thin Man,” which were written over the past few months. This post completes his Singapore chapter, which sees him wash ashore after an extended period on a submarine, take a corporate espionage gig out of necessity, and land on his feet although he probably doesn’t deserve to. The Thin Man is my protagonist. I don’t want to say hero. He is a kind of avatar of my own character if I had no ties to the material, social, or familial world. They say “write what you know.” I’ve spent a lot of time at industry events, in hotels, and in bars, so that’s what I’ve written about. All of the original pieces as well as Andrea pieces (my heroine) are over at kyotokibbitzer.com. I hope you like the work.

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Dedication:

For Eyes. Long may you bat baby


Part I:

Here comes a regular
Paul Westerberg
It’s predicted to rain on landing/ I predict we’ll have a drink
Paul Westerberg

Once upon a time in the lost city of Atlantis, a thin man rolled up looking a little the worse for wear. This was probably only to be expected; after all he had been sequestered on a submarine for a period of 22 years, or was it 27. After that long at sea, who can really tell?

It was approaching Halloween, and the proverbial Spooky Lady’s Sideshow was in full effect. The barmaids were called Eyes and Baby, their real names we presume. Or was she Baby Blue? In any case, the thin man and Eyes made eyes, in an innocent way, at least so the story is told.

Groggy as the thin man was, he had had a specialized role down then on the sub. You see, he was a bit of a mechanic, a card shark. Now, a card shark can work clean as well, and the thin man worked clean down there on the ocean floor. He saved his best moves for away games, just like Mike McD in that film Rounders. That’s an oldie but a goodie!

In one corner of the bar stood a pool table, where, of course, the nine ball is always on. The thin man could play a bit, although Eyes sized him up quick. A game was proposed, a game for two players.

But of course no game is really ever between two players alone. Baby Blue was watching—tough to tell her rooting interest. And the bar as a whole, the field so to speak, was tuning in to the frequencies of the game as the regulars made small talk and the travelers weak-tea passes at the local girls. Local girls are no push-over; sometimes folks get the wrong idea on that end. Certainly Eyes and Baby Blue could take care of themselves.

The game began; the thin man potted a few easy balls. Eyes surged back, she’d been around more than she looked. She was an expert at drinking what the punter was drinking. That’s a key part of the art of the barmaid, an underrated profession at the best of times.

The game was nine ball, what else? Eight ball is for rookies, a southerners game. The thin man hailed from the north and he knew a thing or two about sequencing. It goes with the territory of an undersea mechanic, after all.

The thin man was beginning to feel a bit ill–the combination of sea legs, Eyes’ Eyes, a cheeky Cognac or two, and the unfortunate wafts of burning tires from the docks (it all goes down on the docks, as is told). He carries on nonetheless, and takes a two ball lead when Eyes surges back, tying it up with only the 9 ball to go. It’s a touch and go situation. The skeletons muse over the action with as much interest as they can muster from beyond the great blue veil. The couple on the rail stops sniffing whatever they are sniffing, and ask the thin man to join them for a round. No time for that nonsense. Sea legs and beady cat eyes aside, the game is the game.

A couple of desultory shots bounce about as the players size each other up. Baby blue leans in; the skeletons whisper sweet somethings, even the bartender sneaks a peek. Everyone is getting paid, except the thin man. He is just there for the action.

Eyes edges the nine right up to the pocket, leaving the thin man a clean shot. He leans in from the left and drops it, silky smooth like. Baby claps and Eyes bats. Game over, though the thin man knows that Eyes could have had him the whole time. She was just being hospitable. A good host for a weary traveler.

Elevator music plays soft in the bar as a dandy and a courtesan dilly and dally. Jack and Jill went up a hill. It’s an old story.

The thin man has a date with a pretty lady later, not exactly a lead, more of an assignation. Promises are promises though; the clock on Eyes and crew is ticking, regretfully. The thin man always did like the locals; heck, it’s part of the travelers creed. After all, everybody is local somewhere. Time to extricate himself. See her around.

The thin man bids his goodbyes and staggers out into the night. His coat and his hat are still in his possession, all he needs really to get through the night. He picks up a walking stick from the side of the road and issues a thanks to the one who left it in place. This will help him with the uphills; the downhills he has always managed fine. The spirits are about and the air filled with magic and mystery. The thin man tugs on his cap, keeping his head down. Others may prefer to waste away with Margaritas and Mojitos in the lazy afternoon, however the thin man has a new assignment. Kicks off at 8 AM sharp. Time to get a move on.  He pretty lady is lost in the night.  Gotta cede that one, not for the first time.

He had to leave most of his belongings on board ship, and he carries only the stick and the clothes he has on him. A beggar man approached him earlier and the thin man was able to make a wee bargain, a pot of soup and coffee for the beggar in exchange for his pockmarked and moth-eater coat. Anything is better than nothing, muses the thin man. Another traveler’s rule.

Without an inn for the night, the thin man has but one option, a local church. After all, churches are supposed to offer food and shelter to the poor man, and the thin man, underwater respiration skills aside, has rolled into town pretty destitute. An old man opens the church door. A place for the night, the thin man asks? Nothing like that, however we do have a cellar, says the gatekeeper. That will do fine, replies the thin man.

The cellar turns out to be a taxidermist studio, with eagles and bison on the walls. It is what is is; the thin man muses, and falls into a deep dreamless sleep.

Upon waking, the room is transformed. No more heads of the dead, instead he awakes in a cloister with pure light steaming in through the window. The clarion call of church bells, the Nine Taylors if you will, ring out across the square. Not a bad deal, thinks the thin man. A peal is better than a deal after all.

Part II:

The cry of a peacock, flies buzz in my head/ ceiling fan’s broken, there’s a heat in my bed/ street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Bob Dylan

Dateline Singapore: Late Fall During the 200th Anniversary of the End of the Great War:

This little country, such an unlikely success story, such a strange winding of forces. The Thin Man has been on land for two weeks and his sea legs have mostly subsided. His stomach is still in limbo; years of gruel below the waves have seen to that.

Now there is nothing more that the Thin Man wanted after washing up here earlier in the season then a long weekend. Say, five years. Five years in the hammock, five years frolicing with the lovely ladies at the bar with the occasional flyer over in Macau. Five years out of the swim of modern capitalism, if you can even call it that. Five years clean. That was the dream. Twelve days in and the Thin Man was looking for work, the money gone in a haze of long days and longer nights. Wine, women, song, and a speedboat ride or two will add up quick. C’est La Vie partner. That’s what comes from burning holes up to heaven, in the words of the bard.

The Thin Man is a gamer, and is constitutionally unable to categorize situations as problems. No problemo senor, no worries mate. Instead, he has a few issues. The first being, he is barely employable. It turns out that a few decades on the ocean floor running the house game prepares him for casino work, underground games, and giving blood. That’s about it; he wants no part of card games and giving blood makes him nauseous. Also, he has a limited quantity. So, he asked around, kept his ear to the wind. A shipmate turned him onto a broker of services of sorts, the kind of individual who specializes in assisting upstanding institutions with their shining mission statements and their CSR campaigns navigate the grey areas of competition and market position. The broker, like all of his kind, couldn’t give a shit who he was pimping as long as he got his 8% commision. It was he that took the Thin Man’s data points and turned them into a resume which accentuated the high stakes, low reference point nature of his previous work. A bite came back within 36 hours. The broker knew his lane, apparently.

The man from Company X introduced himself as Alejandro, and Alejandro came bearing work. “What sort of work,” asked the Thin Man. Alejandro’s smile was thin as a razor. “The best kind, the kind where you get in and out.”

“I deal cards,” replied the Thin Man, “I’m not a safecracker.

Alejandro’s smile widened fractionally. “Of course not. We are a respectable company with a 400 year history. This work is simple. The company is in negotiations around a merger with Green Group Ltd. They are playing hardball and we need to know their real intentions.”

“Basically you want to know if they are bluffing?”

“Precisely. And who better than an operator such as yourself to find this out?”

“And what do I have to go on?”

“The Green Group will be having a party at the Swissotel downtown tomorrow night. There will be 200 guests. You will infiltrate the party and get the lowdown. That is what you British say yes, the lowdown.”

The Thin Man was not British but it didn’t matter. “Yes, that’s right. OK, book me a room on the club floor. I’ll need a new suit, a haircut, and a cell phone. How’s $500 a day for expenses and $20,000 for the job?”

Alejandro eyed him carefully. “What about the broker?”

“That’s your end,” said the Thin Man. My end is $20,000.”

“Deal. Don’t fuck up.”

“I don’t intend to.” And with that the conversation was over. The Thin Man had acquitted himself well, but only by the grace of god. Several things were running through his mind:

i) was $20,000 a lot or a little for a one-night stint of corporate espionage? Alejandro had bit right away so perhaps he was underselling his services. Or, Company X was desperate;

ii) 200 people at the party and the Thin Man knew not a one of them. He’d have to research, chose a few likely targets. Two weeks of carousing and there wasn’t a lot of research energy to spare. He’d need to make minimal and efficient moves;

iii) he had no bank account. His severance had been paid in cash and he did not intend to stay in Singapore forever, however appealing the locale. He’d need to get legal sooner rather than later. The very thought fatigued him, so he grabbed the Handy phone the hotel provided and headed to the bar.

Dateline Singapore, that evening, around 17:07.

Well apart from the things that I touched/ nothing got broke all that much/ and apart from the things that I took/ nothing got stolen babe, and look.
Matthew Houck

The Alligator Pear is the poolside bar at the Swissotel, and the Thin Man figures tomorrow’s party will be at held around the pool. Thus, this visit is classified as reconnasaince. This visit is billable, baby. A single couple lingers over a menu across the way. “What’ll it be?” asks the bartender? “Do you have any eggnog” asks the Thin Man, more out of habit than preference. The bartender gives him a sideways look, as if he is not sure who the joke is on. “No sir, I am afraid we only serve eggnog during the Christmas week. How about one of our signature Manhattans?”

Manhattans, they taste like mouthwash.

“Sure a double Manhattan. And pop an egg in it would you?” This time the bartender doesn’t even blink. “Of course, sir. One Manhattan with a raw egg.” The drink is served and the Thin Man knocks it back straight. It is as disgusting as an adult beverage can be. “Perfection,” says the Thin Man. “I’ll take a double martini with a sprig of Rosemary please.” As the barkeep makes his second drink the Thin Man turns to survey the space. Despite knowing no one and nothing about tomorrow evening’s party, he has a few advantages. First, event spaces are inherently permeable. More on this later. Second, he has nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever. The $20,000 is what you call a titular payment. Hypothetical. His sainted mother has long passed; his poor dear widowed sister may as well exist in a different century. The Costa Rican chick who claimed he’d knocked her up in ’04 was probably still out there, but he had no confidence in her presentation of events. He was only on shore for 48 hours and months under water tends to take a few miles off a guy’s fastball. She was sweet, but it was probably a hustle. So like I say, nothing to lose, and therefore easy to underestimate. That’s what the Thin Man is counting on. He’d better; the bastard’s precious little else.

The martini is served and the Thin Man takes a deep drink. Three men approach the bar, lanyards around their neck, ties beginning to come undone, voices high. The Green Group, thinks the Thin Man, excellent. He takes a deep breath and turns his head slightly to the right, cementing his presence in their field of vision without being at all threatening or intrusive. “Can you fuckin’ believe Bill?” asks one of the men. Pulling up sick on a day like this, the company going to shit?” “I think he’s faking,” says the second man, a lifer in his early 50s. “He’s always been weak like that. Looking to cover his ass.” “Fucking wanker, if you ask me,” replies the first man. “Pussy.”

The Thin Man looks up at the men and smiles. He sympathises. He will be their good friend tonight. Corporate espionage, he decides, is like everything else. It’s just a matter of intention.

Read the rest of this entry »

CCF95F5A-32C0-406F-9649-C5EE4E982B3F.jpegNote: This piece was originally published on thekyotokibbitzer. The original piece is called “a breakdown.” For the collected works version we have changed this to “a close reading.” They basically mean the same thing.

In this piece we will breakdown Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.” A breakdown is basically what the young folks these days call a “deep dive.” Only we’re not spending days falling through interweb rabbit holes to get there. That kind of action is reserved for Tusk and matters of that ilk. Tusk ilk is pretty thin on the ground.

Instead, a breakdown is just a close look at an item of interest. We’ll start with a couple of songs, see how the method wants to evolve.

To Beat the Devil appears on Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album from 1970 on Monument. It is, by any standard, an astonishingly good record, featuring “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” along with the ol’ Devil. That’s four absolute classics right there for ya.

{Sunday Morning features an opening quatrain that most other songwriters would trade their career for:

Well I woke up Sunday morning/ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ so I had one more for dessert

I could play this game all day—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern features another couple life-work worthy couplets:

The first two lines of “Super 8”:

Don’t wanna die in a super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well

And from “Different Days”:

Time went by and I left and I left again/ Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.

We’ll do a Different Days breakdown a little later on. If I’d written a song that great I’d call it a career and sip martinis on the house for the duration.}

Sunday Morning and Bobby are probably objectively better songs than To Beat the Devil, yet what I like about this one is that Kristofferson states very clearly a kind of founding intention for his life in song and art, right out of the gate. The only parallel I can think of is Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady, whose first album Almost Killed Me kicks off with “A Positive Jam.”

Here’s the master telling it like it is:

I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ so I started a band/ we’re gonna start it with a positive jam/ hold steady.

Rock on Craig baby.

Anyway, let’s get to the focus of this piece. And if you’d like to experience it sans interpretation, here you go:

TO BEAT THE DEVIL

Kristofferson opens with a spoken intro.:

A couple of years back I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio. And while he was reciting some poetry to me that he had written, I saw that he was about a step away from dying, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me.

Here the singer is looking up at his idol who is both “great and wasted.” I wasn’t around quite yet in 1970, yet I can easily imagine Ginsberg’s “best minds” line hanging over talented folks across a lot of zones. Klosterman wasn’t quite there either (June 5, 1972–a mid Gemini of course), but he was close, and to indulge not for the last time in a little Klostermania, the zeitgeist seemed to be making people thirsty.

The singer receives some scraps of poetry, shards of shattered inspiration, and a song “occurs” to him. He doesn’t state it directly, however we imagine the song arrives fully formed, like “Pancho and Lefty,” or “Kubla Khan.” Thus, To Beat the Devil is also both an answer and an offer of redemption to his idol, who here is John(ny) Cash.

I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted, and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped showed me how to beat the devil.

The singer takes up the mantle of the master, and in so doing opens a possibility window onto redemption for his senior. This is no exaggeration—Cash also recorded To Beat the Devil in 1970 and we are basically stipulating that Kristofferson’s genius, descended from Cash while also original to himself, helped rescue Cash from addiction and the whole deal there. We won’t be deep diving into the archive on this one—as we said we’re just keeping it local and breaking it down, so you’ll have to take my word on it or search it up your own self.

Here’s the first verse, and we’ll tread a little lightly from here and let the words speak for themselves:

It was wintertime in Nashville
Down on Music City Row
And I was looking for a place
And to get myself out of the cold
To warm the frozen feeling that was eating at my soul
Keep the chilly wind off my guitar

A classic down and out in the big city piece of scene-setting. The singer is physiologically and psychologically frozen, a cold wind gusts across his art. The man needs a break. Read the rest of this entry »

333Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at jungianintimations.wordpress.com

Dream: Series of loosely connected dream incidents, but in the dream itself they flowed seamlessly into one another. First, although of course something was happening before this as well, I am watching my son play in the PGA. He is on the 16th hole, and the only kid in the field. Later I learn that it is unusual for kids to play in the PGA championship, but at the time this does not seem odd. You do not have to qualify, only sign up. He is playing well for his age, but nowhere near winning. Suddenly, he slows up and shows signs of being tired. He walks off the course and his group moves on. The leader is in his group. I take him off the course and he says he wants to quit. I tell his that’s OK, but he only has two more holes. He jumps up and runs back to finish, but his group is already done (very fast) and the player from his group who was leading has won. He is accepting the trophy, and plays the two holes quickly. The course is mostly clear.

Jump cut to a field in what seems to be Venezuela, but is never absolutely demonstrated to be so. I am a soldier, probably an American, with a pack on my back. I am in a platoon and we are moving. The grass is pretty high and we are in a small valley, perhaps. There is a sense of tension, but not of great danger. We sit down and open our packs to eat. There is barely enough food to subsist, and I have a few dollars US and a few pieces of Venezuelan currency. Later, it will emerge that I have about 17 US and maybe 80 or so of the local currency. This does not seem sufficient, especially because I get the sense that this money will need to last for a while. Other soldiers have the same meager food rations, but appear to have more money.

Jump to a bar/ food area that same night. Still in the same country. I want to eat, and drink, so I circle the choices, but everything looks expensive. There are many people, some soldiers, some businessmen with women, maybe locals, and some random expat drunk types. The scene is not very dignified, but people appear to be having a good time. It is pretty loud. As far as food and drink go, there does not appear to be any other choice in the city. So, I order a red wine from a very nice woman at a bar. She says I can pay her a few dollars. I pull out my American money and the local currency, and she nods at the American. I lay down three, and she shakes her head. I add another five, which I feel should be sufficient. She shakes her head again and quotes me her retail price, which seems absurdly high. I pay her another five American which is nearly all I have. She is still not happy, but is placated, and I leave quickly. A few people are watching. I look at food stalls, especially one offering pastrami sandwiches. The price is quoted in the local currency, and I just afford one sandwich. Although I am very hungry, I do not purchase one. In fact, the whole night passes without my having anything to eat.

Sometime later, after more wandering and an interlude in another bar which is well lit (or is that later?) I find Kelly Rudd, one of my oldest friends. He is fully himself. We decide to go to an outdoor bar where there is a tent shelter structure, pretty large, which we sit in. I look at the menu and can afford just one drink. I tell Kelly this, and he halfway indicates that he will take care of the bill. I am unsure about this. I want to tell him about my life–maybe we haven’t seen each other for a while, but on the other hand maybe he is a soldier in my platoon. I begin to tell him about a shotgun I have smuggled into the country. Although I am military, he reacts like this is a highly dangerous act. Thinking more about it, I probably didn’t smuggle a gun, because my luggage is not large enough. Aware that I am probably fibbing, I continue with the story. A waitress asks us through the tent wall what we want to order. Kelly orders red wine, after a lot of trouble getting her to hear us. I look around the edge of the tent, but somehow it is clear that we need to communicate through the tent wall. Looking around the corner I get the sense that she has been listening to our conversation for some time. Maybe not so long, but long enough to have heard about the gun. I am concerned that she will go to the police. I tell Kelly about some of the things that are on my mind, and he seems only partially interested. He gives me little in return. We are drinking, and I am almost finished with my drink when I realize that it is a Corona, not red wine. I am mildly put out by this, but more puzzled by why I didn’t notice. All of the sudden we are no longer in a tent but on a blanket or ground sheet in roughly the same position. However, there is a large auditorium (whose shape I know from previous dreams, I think) behind us. I see the head of my high school, walking downhill toward us. I think that he is going to censure me about some various work issues, but instead he walks a short distance away behind some bushes and urinates. He is quite drunk. Several more people from work stumble by, some of them urinate. Then, the blind teacher, who retired last year, comes down the hill with his cane. He is looking for a place to urinate. My mother’s aunt, indicates a spot just a few paces past our blanket. I tell them that it is too close, but it is too late. Somehow I am given to understand that I am supposed to be in the auditorium for some kind of speech or ceremony. I decide to avoid this if at all possible and stall by getting up and milling around.

Jump to the inside of a large gymnasium. This may or may not be the same building, possibly not. Instead of the ceremony, I am at basketball practice. There are a couple of coaches, and the head coach is in a white T-shirt. I am kind of involved with the play, kind of talking to the coaches. John Innes may or may not be a coach. Practice seems to go on for a long time. Not much happens. Then, on the far side of the floor I am talking to the coach and see a play developing. A strong point guard is driving the right side baseline and beats his defender for a lay up. Most of the players are female, and this point guard may have been a female at the start of the drive as well. The defense gives up, but I can tell he/ she will miss the layup. I circle in from the left and, taking the rebound, I dunk it without coming down. The dunk transpires in slow motion. I expect everyone in the gym to be amazed, but only a few people notice. Practice is moving on, but I try to call it to a stop by explaining how the weakside defenders should have been blocking out and how when defenders don’t a player can get offensive rebounds. A few people start to listen, probably because I seem like a coach/ adult figure. Then, more people are listening, then they are sitting down, they they are all in the bleachers as I talk. I go through the matter in detail. My father becomes the coach. I can’t see his reaction to my speech, but at some point I realize that it is time to cut it off. Practice is over, and the players spill out of the gym. My father comes over and takes me by the arm. He tells me that some of the more intelligent players may have been able to follow what I said, but that most players are not intelligent enough to follow more than one idea at a time. I don’t really know what he is talking about, because, although I spoke for a while, the ideas were pretty simple and obvious. I try to push back a little, but he becomes increasingly strident. Finally, we are outside and I see my mother. I tell my father that he is obviously uncomfortable with complex ideas, and shake free of his arm. My mother makes an inquisitive face, but I just shake my head. Out of the dream, a little timer beeps, and I wake up. It is just after 6 AM.

That’s the end of the dream proper, but either after this of before it, or running throughout, there is anxiety on my part about how I will get out of this country (all the basketball activity took place in the same country). I visualize the border crossing, which I seem to have been to before in a previous dream. There are logs across the border and soldiers. It is not terrifying, perhaps because I have been there before and crossed, but it does create anxiety. Again, it is not clear when this anxiety comes to me, if it is a postscript to the dream or sort of a running commentary.

First interpretations: This dream is about communication, specifically my poor communication skills. At different turns I am frustrated by my inability to communicate clearly and with my audience’s lack of interest and/ or capacity to understand. Whether negotiating the price of a drink (small matter) or talking about my life to an old friend or giving a speech to a large group, what I expect in terms of a reaction and what I actually get are at odds. It is not clear who is at fault in any of these incidents, and in fact in the dream I feel an alternating sense of frustration with others and frustration with self. Especially with the bar woman, I am aware that I “do not speak the language” and should be more intuitive about what she means, but also in the basketball speech, even as I am speaking I know that I am going on too long, and insisting on the importance of what I am saying too much. This dream seems important in that it encompasses most of my life stations, parents, my own family, work, and friends. Interestingly, my communication with my son seems to be the most effective, and the golf is the only incident that does not seem to take place in Venezuela.

Impressions: At least two things in the dream reference other dreams–the auditorium and the border. Thinking about it while awake, I have memories of both of these dreams. Of course, not having kept a dream journal at the time, I am not absolutely clear whether these dreams really took place in previous months or if there were in fact part of last night’s dreams. I had a lot more dreams last night as I woke up from dreams several times, and this dream sequence here recorded was, I think, only the last tail end bit.

The drunk coworkers, one of them literally blind! are instructive. First reaction is perhaps overly positive–although I am poor at communicating, they are worse and require me to take control of communication. Finally, the long night trope is a staple of my dreams, especially those I remember well. This dream fits very well into the long night theme, although the basketball practice was in the late afternoon, and may have therefore been a flashback. Especially the drunken revelers, the various types of ladies of the night in the background, and the stumbling from place to place are characteristic of my “long night” dreams.

sh-000386Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally written for classicalsympathies.com

This post takes as its source the song “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” by Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright, in turn, bases the song on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV.  Let’s dive in. Prince Hal in Shakespeare deliberately consorts with riff-raff and drunks as a young man, so that his later conversion to an upright king may appear all the more sympathetic.  Speaking to Falstaff and assorted drinkers:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
Th unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Hal continues:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better that my word I am,
By so much I shall falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’re my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Paraphrased, Hal is saying: “I’ll drink and cavort with you lowlifes for a time, but only in pursuit of a larger goal, namely to be seen as redeemed and reformed when I renounce this current lifestyle and my present crowd, and take up the crown.”  Hal, in other words, is a political animal who uses Falstaff and his friends in low places as a stepping stone to the throne.

Loudon Wainwright takes up this unlikely hero in his song “Prince Hal’s Dirge.” A cult figure, Wainwright is still best known, if at all, to my parents’ generation for the joke song “Dead Skunk.”  But, Wainwright has produced over the years an output worth exploring in depth, and “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” originally on the album “T-Shirt,” but reprised on “BBC Sessions,” is one of his masterworks.  The song opens with Hal fully immersed in debauchery:

Give me a capon
And some roguish companion,
A wench and a bottle of sack.
Take me to the ale house
Take me to the whorehouse.
If I vomit, keep me off of my back

Wainwright sets Hal here fully in the demimode of debauchery–there is no suggestion of baser political motives as Hal calls for food (a capon, apparently, is a chicken), wine, and women.  But the next verse establishes Hal as having an inner core of confidence. This is my favorite verse in Wainwright’s repertoire, and one of my favorite sections of any song ever written:

My father, he thinks, I’m a good for nothing
that I won’t amount to much.
But he’s not aware of my secret weapon.
I can count on myself in the clutch.

Here, the eloquent, but rather base author of “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill/ Redeeming time when men think least I will” is transformed into an altogether different creature–the overlooked son of an overbearing father, who nonetheless is able to draw upon an inner core of self-confidence in order to master any situation, including the elevation to being king.  In Wainwright’s version, Hal is not so much using his barfly friends as a base from which to pivot off of in order to be king as he is biding his time until that day when he sheds his drunkard’s skin and emerges as a leader and a man of courage and distinction.  But, Wainwright’s Hal at the same time doth protest too much when he launches into a variation of the classic theme of the drunk when he lays out what he will, in future, accomplish:

Show me a breach,
I’ll once more unto it
I’ll be ready for action any day.
I’ll straighten up, and fly most righteous.
In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray.
I can drink you under 25 tables,
Fight and be a ladies man.
But all this will change,
When I’m good and ready,
To become the king of this land.

Moved as we are by the line “In a fracas, I’ll be right in the fray,” the giveaway here seems to me to be the phrase “any day.” Any day, as Wainwright, an experienced observer of the alcoholic, fully realizes, can suggest, without actually meaning, tomorrow–that is the immediacy implied by the phrase quickly fades into the wishful thinking of “someday.”
In the end, “Prince Hal’s Dirge” presents us with a more sympathetic, arguably less effective, Prince Hal than does Henry IV.  But the appeal of Wainwright’s Hal is the same as Shakespeare’s Hal–both draw on an inner confidence to support their sense of self-worth, their egotism, and hence their political effectiveness.  Singing “Prince Hal’s Dirge” in the shower before work, I realize the importance of having a sealed off, all but untouchable inner core of confidence that, while benefiting from self-reflection, cannot be derailed, damaged, or even scuffed by external negativity or negation.

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