Thursday Morning, March 26, 2009
John Ashcroft visits Austin TX and seeks EP.TC for comfort and shelter from the adoring crowd.
— An exclusive first person report —
We should point out first that we have a recent album completed. Here's a teaser:
Announcing LIVE AT HARRY'S LOFT (2009)
New music from Ethan Persoff.
Enjoy working record players, skin, weirdos, kooks and acid heads. See the entire community frightened by a wanton way-out crusade for sex and kicks. This is today's underaged generation, Live at Harry's Loft.
The Fight Against V.D. (mp3)
Full album downloadable for free at
And now, the good stuff:
Ethan Persoff and John Ashcroft holding hands, tightly. March 25 2009, Austin TX
I should begin this by saying I already have a rich relationship with John Ashcroft. He was my muse during the most terrified moment of my life: The peak of Bush Era before the second election, during the administration's height of power over this country, 2002-2004. My good friend Mack White commissioned work from me for his Bush Junta anthology with Fantagraphics. I produced two pieces, one on the PATRIOT Act with illustrations by Jasun Huerta, and another by myself on Ashcroft himself: A biography focusing on his years in Missouri. The piece outlined his attacks on minorities and women as a foreshadowing of his attacks on all our civil liberties. Which you can read in its entirety here.
Freshman flaws to the work aside, it is successful for its one moment showing John Ashcroft reaching a sexual climax, which I'm still proud of. From page four:
"hm hrmmm... I'm sorry. Sorry! I'm S -Pop!-"
Following the completion of this work, SXSW came to town in March 2004, and I produced one of the better giveaways. A two-sided card featuring Ashcroft (with Mack White art of the burning twin towers on the reverse) promoting the book. Ashcroft had just recently endured a blast of karma and the card enjoyed exploiting this as a reason for his absence from the festival. It became wildly popular, and was even ebayed for twenty dollar sums. Here's side one of the item:
The Bush Junta book didn't hit the right chord with people, possibly because of the lecturing and clueless Alex Jones introduction - which I still regret not arguing against (first notes and all, not a fan of Alex) In retrospect, given that Ralph Steadman did the back cover I've always wondered if a still-alive Hunter Thompson might have welcomed the opportunity to viscerally introduce the comics and agenda of the book. I don't think anyone asked, but I do remember Molly Ivins as another possible name that was shot down. Regardless, the book is a nice piece of creative history --- and, jumping to the present, I was DELIGHTED to accidentally find out that Ashcroft was speaking in Texas this week. There was very little promotion outside of conservative circles. I found my flyer for the event, appropriately, in a toilet stall, floating among foam.
Still, a date's a date, and I made every opportunity to arrive hours early to get a good seat. I should mention here that there was no intention of disrupting the proceedings, nor did I. I was genuinely interested in seeing Ashcroft speak. Not because I consider him deadly. But rather, after spending over a year researching his history I wanted to see him in prison. Excuse me, I mean I wanted to see him in person. And see him among his fans. The event was sponsored by The Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is akin to an event sponsored by the Fat Overeaters of Obesity. It would later fill to a room full of white clapping sloths.
The event, incidentally, was rationally titled:
Can OBAMA ...
KEEP AMERICA Safe?
An Evening With John Ashcroft
The weather leading up to the event was an unrelenting flood of wind, thunder, and rain. Dark clouds were unprecedented given the week's gorgeous weather, making the atmosphere seem symbolic. It also meant an empty house two hours early, allowing me my pick of seats. I took row four, center, aisle seat. For the next few hours I would see drenched guest arrive after drenched guest. Republican host argue with Republican host. An early benefit occurs when a seemingly homeless man in dirty clothes and bruised face, musk scent released by rain, arrives to choose one seat over from me in the same row, leaving a seat between us untaken. He tells me he is happy that Ashcroft is brave enough to speak here and teach us. As the room fills, the seat is never filled. Little did I know the benefit of this person's placement, but at the time this person was bothersome. He wanted nothing more than to talk to me, even while I was writing. But I'd already arrived and chosen my seat. No musky skunk would move me. And I'd learn to enjoy the buffer. Many of these Alex P Keatons unnerve me.
About an hour later, my dank homeless friend alerts me, "Ah, John's here." And appropriately the room begins to swell. By now the room is full. Some protesters had arrived earlier, but they've wasted their opportunity at good seats by flashing handmade signs at the entrance for 45 minutes. And what an empty gesture. Almost as if trained to delay, they're now relegated to the back, standing, surrounded by fifteen cops. I wonder why they wasted their effort. Who sees anyone back so very far from the stage? Why couldn't they separate, and why did they need to announce themselves with signs? It seems a wilfull neutering of their appearance. And it works. Everyone in the room knows who to avoid and not care about. It's the late-arriving sign holders, pushing up the back wall with dim chants. The most they'll ever achieve all night is to be told to shut up by some top income bracket tax payer, always to applause.
But forget that. Who can pay attention to group-think protesting when the belle of the ball is making his entrance. There's no dimming of the lights or glittering shimmer, but you still feel something special. John Ashcroft is now in the room, and, not surprisingly, the loyal line up quickly to greet the Assembly of God. I have to notice: it seems the line begins right at my seat with a line down the entire room. Ha, and Oh man.
Ashcroft moves to the crowd. He's in full kissing baby mode. Loud mouthed and working the room. A very intelligent man, he surprises me with his dumbed down amazement. "Where you from? New York? CITY? How did you GET HERE!?" This is a quote. I thought only Hillary Clinton feigned amazement at people, pointing at lamp posts. But maybe she learned it from John. He shakes hands and moves, points at no one, feigns surprise with a laugh, and shakes and moves, and points, repeating. Getting closer, getting closer. Man, he's right in front of me. And man, in a room of the rained on, I have to say. The man has no smell!
Pearls, and tweed, and kakis and blazers with brass buttons and salmon pink tailored shirts. The sounds of laughter and glee. For twenty minutes I watch people proceed right to me. And the whole time, ding ding, I see John Ashcroft's polished shoe a centimeter from tapping my unpolished canvas and lace.
Finally, there's a moment where a group of sports coated kids are arguing over who is next to meet John. I don't want you to think this is just a story about me getting a photo with the former Attorney General. Trust me there's a pay off. But the photo is still a great personal event. Seeing a pause in the circus, I spring up, hand my camera to one of them and flash a grin. "John I loved that book you wrote about your father" And he smiles, and:
Those two eyes of his, always looking the opposite directions away from each other, like they're running away in separate directions from his skull. One of them has to be innocent, right?
Please note the tight grip John and I are sharing. There's an explanation. I was trying to find bone. But there is none. Gripping John Ashcroft's hand is like searching for a human. His hand is all flesh, wrapped around flesh. It's like shaking hands with a cold sixteen ounce chicken breast.
I sit down, and continue to watch the procession. It's everything from Republican donors to sad situations where Iraq vets thank him for their injuries. One veteran mentions he went to the same base as Ashcroft's son. Quickly John pulls out a pad and jots down the person's name. I have to question what will come from that.
Name taking, from my seat, no zoom.
And now the main event.
About twenty minutes pass, and soon John is asked by an aide what the policy is on journalists recording his presentation. In the time that has transpired, Ashcroft has gone from being friendly and generous to seeming legitimately cracked by the endless line of photos and conversation. You can tell people are not his comfort zone. It's clear that some threshold has been breached with this public act. And the question about journalists (which pinches his face) has finally affected his shell. He seems to shut off from the crowd, and makes a sort of moanful mercy sound. I can't blame him. Who can handle all these admirers. And now this, a question about journalists with their fucking recorders. Christ.
He seems very sour on the idea, but cautious in his response. "Oh -- just don't say anything" But you can tell he's extremely unfriendly to having the event, and his words, documented.
I decide to double my bet. I lean up. "Mr Ashcroft, I'm sorry and I know this is tacky. Thank you so much for the photo. But can I also have an autograph?"
And then the unexpected. The reason you've been reading this far.
My arms outstretched with a paper and pen, John ejaculates, "I can do one better. Why don't I just sit down." Let's remind you: I happen to have the only seat open next to me, and there's still a crowd of Republican pariahs, swarming him for face time and introductions. It's clear Ashcroft is not seeing our homeless companion. Instead he's seeing a safe space, possibly with me as a friend. I quickly make room and gesture a welcome hand.
Down John plops. We're shoulder to shoulder. You can tell he's still irked, considering the request about journalists bootlegging his performance. I look at him, and I am a happy fan. I am a face of sympathy and I want to listen. I also have sheets for him to doodle signatures on. And a nice black pen. He looks relieved.
An incredible moment of candor:
"These journalists. They all talk about wiretaps and spying. I'm not going to say they can't record me. I can't do that."
I nod sympathetically. Who can not understand the inner strain.
Then, very bitterly, he punches, "It's as if they think I want to eavesdrop on what kind of PIZZA they're going to order" curling the word pizza like someone else might say fungus, or dead animal.
So many options on how to respond to this. Immediate is "What DID you spy on, then?" But my instinct is 'holy shit, I have John motherfucking Ashcroft right here. I don't really want to burn him, or run him off. I want to TALK with him.
"I do hear that." I confirm understandably, looking around and then pausing. "Been to Austin before?"
The Ashcroft politician affirms himself. "Yes, great town. Excellent city. I love it. Austin, Texas" Then you can tell he's uttering the tourist brochure. "Sixth Street... Austin City Limits..."
"Ha, you know We just had a big music festival down sixth street. South by Southwest." (personally thinking back to the Ashcroft card from 2004, and of the two hookers I saw pissing in an alley five nights ago)
"Yes - that ended on the 22nd," he tells me. I can't believe his information. He must have been told at dinner, or is still getting FBI briefing. "Right!" I say delighted, "And you followed!"
There's a pause. "I love music" He tells me.
"I know." I'm so excited to tell him the next bit. "I have your TRUTH Album!"
Now, this is true. Ask anyone who has ever visited. A tour through the EP.TC library of vinyl anomaly is nothing without a closing finish of religious flipper baby crooners from Waco, GG Allin test pressings, and John Ashcroft singing TRUTH on vinyl. My copy is mint and purchased sealed. And I keep a count of how many times it has been played. Fourteen, to match his years in Oklahoma governance (28 played sides). Otherwise I let the record spin without needle contact and play a burned CD. (note the album is also available as a download here, which I've taken the album art from during this late night post, I'm too tired to pull out my copy of the LP and shoot a good photo)
His eyes go white in delight. "That's over thirty years old"
"I know! ... The one with Bacon"
"MAX Bacon. Yes!" ... Ashcroft is genuinely swimming at this moment, even rocking back and looking up to the sky, above the ceiling. I'm clearly a fan. I've also got him at hello. I enjoy a perverse thought of mounting him and stroking his hair. Would he kiss back? Would I be tazed? But yet, more than anything, I can't help but be a speculative vinyl collector.
"How many of those were made, do you think?" (dammit Ethan, don't spoil it with valuations!)
"Oh I have no idea"
"Oh forget about that, sorry. Great crowd." Reminding him of the swarming, preying crowd. He sinks further into his seat. "Autograph!" I say delighted.
"Yes, he says." Squinting at my blank sheet. "Hold on I can't see anything. I'm blind." He actually says this. Admits to being blind. I avoid the immediate laugh - a tough moment of restraint, and see him reach to his coat pocket for thick glasses.
He writes with my pen (soon to be framed) "Put it to Ethan" I say and He writes, "To Ethan, John Ashcroft" You can tell he does not want to get up. "Give me other names, let's fill it up" He says. Normally this question from John Ashcroft would terrify you. Names? But I can tell he just wants to not get up from this safe space. He's holding a pad of my paper with fifteen other sheets - and flights of fantasy begin to swirl in my head. Arabic names, Obama, puns on using the toilet (Amanda Poupon) even genuine friends. But I can only think of one - a gift of thanks to Paul Krassner for the Realist Project. "To Paul" I say. "To Paul, John Ashcroft" he quickly dashes. Christmas in July.
Ashcroft looks genuinely more vulnerable with his large glasses. I remember I have a camera.
Photo! I say. And holding my hand forward with the camera in a gesture normally held to close friends and loved ones, I extend my arm and lean. I squeeze the shutter twice.
And then, the inevitable occurs. Despite my fortune I suddenly have no idea where else to go with this guy. It's really a fizzling date. We have uncomfortable silence. We hear the crinkling of the seats, each of us shifting.
John looks up, uttering out a name, possibly pointing at no one. But someone shows up. It's an older man who looks local, but I don't recognize him. They share hellos, and then John gets up graciously and ambles with his escort away from the crowd and into a holding area to prepare his lecture. I'm buzzing. I'm also certain the entire crowd of protesters thinks I'm a total ass, and I even feel a few glares. But you only get a high score in Donkey Kong by jumping towards the monkey. I'm glowing.
Then follows is his two hour talk. Which is as boring and tedious and full of hostile threats as two day old shit.
My thanks to The Conservative Republicans of Texas. And John I hope you enjoyed your visit to Austin. Like they say on the bumper sticker, it's like no place else on earth.