Posts Tagged ‘Phoenix’


by Zeke Teflon

My longtime friend Gary Lee Russell, best known as the guitarist and songwriter for the punk/new wave band Killer Pussy, died yesterday. I knew him for over 45 years. He was a really nice, funny, talented guy.

We first met in Phoenix in the early 1970s via mutual friends, and were soon involved in various types of drug- and alcohol-fueled insanity. One version of that madness was KDIL (“The Big 16” — “Getting it said for Satan!”), a pirate radio station that took its name from a paperback book one of the DJs found at a book sale, “Dildo Torture.”  After a period of gathering equipment, we were on the air in early 1972. (One polluted late night shift a few days after we went on the air — I don’t remember a thing about this, but my brother swears it’s true — Bob the Gimp and I read the entirety of “Dildo Torture” aloud over the air.)

Tunein.com has a good description of KDIL, using phraseology from the station itself:

KDIL’s studio high atop the Satanic Tabernacle of Wickenburg

“KDIL is a pirate broadcaster from the 1970’s in Phoenix and Tempe, AZ. A religious broadcaster, the legacy broadcast originates from the Satanic Tabernacle in Wickenburg, AZ. KDIL features Rock, Rap, Dance, Swedish Blues and the inspiring German vocals of Heino. The KDIL DJ talent lineup includes Buster Hymen, Roger B. Protection, Ellis Dee, Harley Farley, Hal Murray, Eddie Satan, Dick Nixon, Rollo Sabatello, and The Countess.” [Gary, among his other DJ monikers, was “Richard Nixon”: “This is Dick, sticking it to you.”]

“KDIL has run many great contests, including the ‘Acid Swarm Phone Ripoff’ and the ‘Off the Pigs Weekend’ with big prizes. KDIL’s sponsors include Mr. Rory’s Hyena Tripe drive-thru restaurants, Cactus Patch Citizens Band World, and Zorba’s Adult Books in Scottsdale, AZ.”

Of these “sponsors,” Zorba’s is the only one that actually existed. Gary worked there around the time KDIL was on the air, and we would often hang around after the place closed smoking dope surrounded by skin mags, dildos, and autosucks.

One evening, for lack of anything better to do, we decided to pay a visit to John Sage during his evening talk show. Sage was the local equivalent of Rush Limbaugh, and broadcast on, as I recall, KHEP. The studio was a tiny glass booth in the middle of a mall on Central Avenue, and the place was entirely deserted in the evening except for Sage ensconced in his booth.

To prepare for the visit, we looked through the skin mags at Zorba’s searching for the most disgusting, most explicit ones we could find, and finally settled on a gay fist-fucking mag and one titled “Truckin’ Mamas,” featuring 400-pounders.

That evening we drove with our pal Harley Farley in his pink Cadillac from Zorba’s on Scottsdale Road over to the KHEP booth on Central. Once there, we carefully removed the centerfolds from “Truckin’ Mamas” and the fist-fucking mag and taped them up on the glass booth, at eye height, directly in front of Sage. He was the only one there, so he had to either avert his eyes or look at the photos at least until the next commercial break. (This was well before surveillance cameras were the norm, so we didn’t even try to disguise ourselves when we taped up the photos.)

We drove away listening to Sage and enjoying his angry denunciations of the “maggots” who were plaguing him. For some reason he didn’t mention specifics.

At the time, in addition to DJing on KDIL, working at Zorba’s (and previously, along with yours truly, at The Back Door Theater — “Parking and entrance in the rear, for your privacy”), Gary was playing guitar in funk bands. The one I remember best was 30 Weight, in part because one evening I saw them playing at Fridays & Saturdays, a sleazy rock joint (black popcorn ceiling, red velvet on the walls, shag carpeting, tiny little tables, half-clad waitresses in slit skirts) on the river bottom between Scottsdale and Tempe. That evening, their drummer got loaded on reds and passed out, slumped over his drum kit in the middle of a set.

30 Weight were a popular band, and in 1971 or 1972 Gary told me that they got hired to play the Miss Watts Festival in L.A. He told me that he was the only white guy there out of five or ten thousand people.

In 1974, I escaped from Phoenix, and saw Gary only sporadically over the coming decade, usually when I made my once-a-year obligatory holiday trek to visit my parents over xmas.

Toward the beginning of the 1980s, Gary had his nearest brush with fame, as guitarist and songwriter for the very much tongue-in-cheek Killer Pussy. They were part of the early ’80s Phoenix punk scene, along with The Meat Puppets and The Feederz (biggest hit, “Jesus Enters from the Rear”), and were quite popular. Not enough so that any of them didn’t have to have day jobs, but popular nonetheless. Among other things, they toured California and appeared on “New Wave Theater” on the USA Network.

Around the last time I saw Gary in the ’80s, Killer Pussy had their biggest hit, “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage” (1982), which subsequently was packaged by Rhino Records as part of its “worst records ever recorded” CDs. Shortly after the release of “Enema Nurses,” the band disintegrated, largely because of people quitting and because of the death of the band’s drummer and Gary’s good friend, John E. Precious (another nice, talented guy who died far too young).

After the band expired, Gary went into a downward spiral of alcohol and drug abuse (crack, meth, tobacco), and eventually ended up on the street for the better part of a decade. The drug/alcohol abuse and depression were due, in part, to his musical dreams crashing; he had always thought he’d make it as a musician, never developed any job skills, and ended up working awful, low-paying jobs. When he worked, he work as a cabbie and later, when he could no longer do that, as a dispatcher.

To avoid jail, because of DUIs, he left Phoenix in the mid 1990s and moved to San Diego to be near to his sister.

In the  early 2000s, after (according to Gary) seven years on the street and more than 200 public drunkenness arrests, culminating in a threat by a judge of six months in jail if he didn’t stop drinking, he pulled himself out of his nosedive, got on SSD, did quit drinking and doing drugs for several years, and began living in a trailer park in Lemon Grove. During those years I talked with him on the phone on a regular basis, mostly joking around, talking about old friends, and shooting the shit about music. He even got it together to record two self-produced CDs, as the Turquoise Orchestra, which never went anywhere.

Then things went to hell. About five years ago he started drinking again, and was soon drinking heavily (cheap whiskey and malt liquor). He continued to smoke heavily, and two years ago got rid of his phone so that he’d have more money for cigarettes and Steel Reserve.

I never spoke with him again. There was no way to reach him, and he never called me (or any of his other old friends).

Last year Gary could no longer care for himself and went into custodial care.

He died yesterday.

What a damn tragedy.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. Its protagonist, “Kel Turner,” is based, in part, on Gary Russell.

Free Radicals front cover

 


Sharp & Pointed: You grew up in Phoenix, but I can’t imagine you as a shitkicker. What kind of music were you listening to back then?

Al Perry: I don’t know about that. I have some definite shitkicker elements. I’m an intellectual redneck! (Someone else called me that). So it was country around the house, like Marty Robbins and Eddy Arnold. Spent a lot of time in my room with a little transistor radio listening to the AM top 40 of the Sixties, and what was considered oldies back then.

Sharp & Pointed: Who were some of your favorite bands and solo artists then?

Al Perry: I started out with the Beatles, like many of us that age. Then went to Cream, Airplane, Hendrix, and such.

Sharp & Pointed: Has your opinion of them changed over time? If so, how and why?

Al Perry: I don’t like hippie or psychedelic stuff so much any more. Hendrix is still good though I didn’t listen to him for many years. Some of the Cream stuff is too self indulgent for me now. Still like the Beatles, though now I don’t pay as much attention to them as I did. You could not escape them then. They were on the radio all the time. Same with the Beach Boys, who I’ve loved for a long, long time. I don’t even listen to hardly any rock anymore. Bores me. I got through the Seventies on jazz and blues. Parker, Coltrane, Dolphy, Muddy, Clifton, and the like.

Sharp & Pointed: When did you start playing music? What instrument(s)? What styles were you playing?

Al Perry: Had piano lessons for a short time, then guitar. Like this was in third grade. Glad I had them though, they really helped out later. But really, it was well after high school before I became interested enough in playing to take it up. By that time I was sick of rock and was starting to explore blues and jazz. Seventies Rock got REALLY stale. ‘Til the Pistols shook everything up and got me interested again.

Sharp & Pointed: When did you start playing in bands?

Al Perry: In college.

Sharp & Pointed: What kind of music?

Al Perry: My first band was the Subterranean Blues Band here in Tucson. We did OK for the short time we were together. Played parties then later got some great opening slots: Roy Buchanan, John Cougar, Blasters, Fabulous Thunderbirds, maybe more. Don’t remember. Then I was in the Hecklers, a sort of “roots punk band” that was very loud and pretty fun, we were reviewed in Maximum Rock n’ Roll, and Jello Biafra was a fan. I’ve known him for decades now. The Hecklers morphed into the Cattle.

Sharp & Pointed: Who were some of the bands and musicians you were playing with then?

Al Perry: George Howard was vocals and drums in the Subs. Also the late Pat McAndrews on guitar. My buddy Lee Poole. We are still in touch a lot. Same with George.

Sharp & Pointed: Did you do vocals when you started playing in bands, or did that come later? If so, when?

Al Perry: After the Subs I played bass for a couple months in a Southern Rock Band. We actually did an album. Whoa! My first record. Highly prized collectable now. Not. I was only meant to be temporary and left. Lack of interest in that stuff. Then it was the Hecklers. I sang a little in that and wrote all the songs. That morphed into Al Perry and the Cattle.

Sharp & Pointed: You moved from Phoenix to Tucson ages ago. When and why?

Al Perry: I moved away at the first available opportunity, which was school. Had to get out. Hated it in Phoenix.

Sharp & Pointed: Why didn’t you ever move back to Phoenix? Why not?

Al Perry: Haven’t you ever been there? It’s HORRIBLE. Even when I go up I come back as soon as I can. I still have many great friends there though. It’s gotten better there, but I would not want to actually live there. 

Sharp & Pointed: When did you start playing cowpunk (alt-country? whatever)? Why?

Al Perry: I guess that was the Hecklers and then Cattle. Both bands explored roots type music, doing that stuff but with a modern energy. Punk was happening and that injected some fresh whatever into rock. I did not really think that mixing stuff up inappropriately was unusual. It was just what you did. I didn’t try to do anything, it just sort of happened. I guess I was an early inventor of “cowpunk” or at least it’s fun to frame it that way. HAW!

Sharp & Pointed: What’s the best experience you’ve ever had playing music?

Al Perry: Too many to mention, my friend.

Sharp & Pointed: What’s the worst experience you’ve ever had playing music?

Al Perry: WAY too many to mention! HA!

Sharp & Pointed: You play both in bands and as a solo performer. Which do you prefer, and why?

Al Perry: I like bands of course. It is fun to hear your songs fleshed out. It’s also like a gang. I only do solo because I am so lazy anymore.

Sharp & Pointed: What do you like about playing in bands?

Al Perry: Fuckin’ rockin’ out LOUD dude.

Sharp & Pointed: What do you dislike about playing in bands?

Al Perry: Guys messing up my vision. Idiots who don’t have musicianship. It is important to play for the song, not for yourself. Some clowns don’t get that.

Sharp & Pointed: What do you like about solo performing?

Al Perry: The only thing I like about it is that it’s ME and me only that is responsible for the success or failure of any given performance.

Sharp & Pointed: You’re a prolific songwriter. What’s your songwriting process? Or is there more than one?

Al Perry: I am absolutely not prolific, unless you count these instrumentals and stuff, that I just consider thrown together. To me, songwriting is really a vocal, lyrics, verse chorus kind of thing.

Sharp & Pointed: How has the music biz changed over the years?

Al Perry: No one is interested anymore and there are way way way too many people in bands.

Sharp & Pointed: Is it harder or easier to make a living playing music now than it was 20 or 30 years ago? Why?

Al Perry: Much harder. People are not interested.

Sharp & Pointed: Has American pop music (everything from jazz to rock to country) been getting better or worse during your lifetime? Why?

Al Perry: Worse, of course. But I am interested in so many things, there is always something new to discover.

Sharp & Pointed: Are there any aspects of current American pop that you particularly hate?

Al Perry: I actually like some current pop stuff. That comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Kelly Clarkson, Meghan Trainor. Super cheese factor stuff.

Sharp & Pointed: Among relatively recent American bands and musicians, are there any that you particularly like? Why?

Al Perry: I mostly like the groups of my friends. As I said I’m not so interested in rock anymore.

Sharp & Pointed: You have a Youtube channel. What’s its name and what kind of stuff are you putting up on it?

Al Perry: It is alperryism. I put up these dumb little videos I make on imovie. I do some instrumental soundtracks, those are fun.

Sharp & Pointed: What are your musical plans over the next year or two?

Al Perry: I’m officially old now. I find my interest is declining.

Sharp & Pointed: Do you have any advice for young musicians? If so, what?

Al Perry: Buy some drywall tools and learn how to use them, because you are never going to make a living with music. Go into real estate. You are in for a lot of heartbreak and frustration otherwise. Unless you have a trust fund.

Sharp & Pointed: You also do artwork in addition to music. When did you start doing that?

Al Perry: I have always dabbled in it. But in the last few years I started doing these watercolors. It’s actually gone pretty well, and I have even sold some. I was part of a group show at the Fleicher/Ollman gallery in Philadelphia, an established gallery, and it was quite an honor.

Sharp & Pointed: Where can people see some of your artwork?

Al Perry: I think you can look around online. Or get hold of me. I’ll mail you a postcard.

Sharp & Pointed: Other than music and art, what are your other interests?

Al Perry: Drugs, alcohol, contempt, boredom. What kind of question is that? Music and art? Hello! What else is there?



by Keith McHenry, author of Hungry for Peace

Even though I have shared meals with the hungry for over 35 years, in a time of ever-rising profit and productivity, the numbers of the hungry and homeless have risen, not fallen, over that time. In many of our cities, it feels as if we’re still living in the Great Depression.

The National Center on Family Homelessness published a study in 2014, based on a calculation using the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education and the 2013 U.S. Census, which found that “2.5 million children in America—one in every 30 children—go to sleep without a home of their own each year.” A society that lets a over two million children live on it’s streets is a society that is collapsing.

The most common government response to the suffering of those being forced into homelessness is the passage of laws against being homeless. Laws against sleeping, sitting, asking for money, living outside, or what officials call “quality of life crimes” make this bad situation even worse, and make the lives of homeless men, women, and children even more miserable.

Another aspect of this punitive response to homelessness is passage of laws prohibiting the public sharing of meals with the hungry. The hope is that hiding from public view the problem of homelessness will make it go away. This is an all too common tactic in cities across the country. Over 70 have passed laws that ban or place restrictions on the public sharing of meals. Orlando, Florida has a twice-a-year limit per park on providing free meals to the hungry. Ft. Lauderdale restricted the meals by requiring a permit and making it illegal to provide meals within 500 feet from any building, and provide toilet facilities, essentially eliminating all possible locations and making it impossible to comply with the permit restrictions. To justify all this, municipal authorities are citing a new theory that claims that “street feeding is unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of [substance abuse] recovery programs.”

One of those seeking to drive the homeless and groups that share food from public sight, and to make public food sharing impossible, is Janet Fardette, founder of the Leveelies — a group of volunteers that pick up trash along the San Lorenzo River levees in Santa Cruz, California. In her 2009 letter to the local paper, “Time to take back downtown Santa Cruz,”  she wrote, “Our city no longer belongs to us. It has been taken over by drug addicts, homeless, panhandlers and the like.”

One can understand her annoyance. It must be frustrating to property owners to see an ever increasing number of people seeking shelter in doorways, sidewalks, and along the
levee. Seeing people living outside, near or on their properies must be disheartening.

What’s not so understandable is the attempt to hide the homeless from public view without doing anything to address the root causes of homelessness or doing anything to aid the homeless.

As part of her campaign to drive the “homeless problem” out of sight–including an online petition, phone calling local officials and the police, and speaking out during the public comment portion of a board of supervisors meeting–Ms. Fardette suggested that officials look into “Robert Marbut’s widely successful” theory, mentioned in the NPR story “More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless” that feeding homeless people helps to keep them homeless.

Marbut puts it this way: “Street feeding is one of the worst things to do, because it keeps people in homeless status. I think it’s very unproductive, very enabling, and it keeps people out of [substance abuse] recovery programs.”

Marbut’s proposed way to end homelessness focuses on correcting the behavior of those forced to live on the streets, treating people as though they were naughty children. A failing economic and political system with low paying jobs, high rents, underfunded education, and little access to both physical and mental health services isn’t the culprit. Rather, as outlined in his “Guiding Principles” for solving the problem of homelessness, it’s the homeless peoples’ bad behavior that keeps them from being able to pay for housing.

Marbut’s “Guiding Principles” include:

* “Positive behavior should be rewarded with increased responsibilities and more privileges. Privileges such as higher quality sleeping arrangements, more privacy and elective learning opportunities should be used as rewards.”

* “Too often there are no consequences for negative behavior. Unfortunately, this sends a message that bad behavior is acceptable. Within the transformational process, it is critical to have swift and proportionate consequences.”

* “External activities such as ‘street feeding’ must be redirected to support the transformation process. In most cases, these activities are well-intended efforts by good folks, however these activities are very enabling and often do little to engage homeless individuals. Street feeding programs without comprehensive services actually increase and promote homelessness. Street feeding groups should be encouraged to co-locate with existing comprehensive service programs.”

The last Guiding Principle is  “Panhandling Enables the Homeless and Must Be Stopped.”

Marbut’s program might not be as successful as those who cite him hope. The Rivard Report’s February 10, 2016 article and video, “No End in Sight for Homeless Camps in San Antonio,” claims that Marbut’s theory has not been as effective as promised even in his own home town. After ten years of implementing Marbut’s program via Haven for Hope of Bexar County, there are still thousands of people living outside.

Those promoting his approach may have big hearts, and if Marbut’s theory worked it would be great. But Marbut’s theory is not working for most people in the cities that have hired his services.

The Associated Press cited a case in point in a September 2011 story on homelessness in St. Petersburg, Florda:

“St. Petersburg’s struggles with some of the most rampant homelessness in the country reached a crescendo when police officers with box cutters slashed up a makeshift tent city near downtown.

“Enter Robert Marbut, a former San Antonio councilman and White House staffer who came to town last fall wielding what he likes to call a “velvet hammer.” City leaders hired the $5,300-a-month consultant after buying into his idea of forcing the homeless off the streets but taking them someplace better — a sprawling, one-stop complex where people could be housed, fed and start to get help with mental illness, addictions and the other problems that put them on the streets.

“More than a just big shelter, it would be a ‘transformational campus’ like the one Marbut helped establish in San Antonio.

“Marbut was the architect and first CEO of a similar shelter compound in San Antonio called Haven for Hope. The 22-acre, $100 million complex with room for about 1,000 was built with private and public money. It opened last year and is filled to capacity.”

This means that some, probably a great many, are not being helped on Marbut’s home turf. They’re still out on the streets — and hungry.

The Tampa Bay Times reports that “St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has said the city will eventually begin arresting homeless people who sleep in parks or on public rights of way, with Safe Harbor [a ‘transformational’ jail] an eventual destination for them.”

Riann Balch, head of Phoenix’s Human Resources Department, launched a program in September 2016 called the “Street Feeding Collaborative,” asking local churches to stop “street seeding,” because there are “better ways to help [the] homeless.”

Balch told AZ Family, “'[Our] mission is to educate faith and community-based groups about why street feeding can do more harm than good.’ Balch said that giving someone a meal will encourage them to stay on the street and wait for another one.”

It is clear that blaming the victim isn’t working, especially given the inadequate, underfunded programs to help the homeless. Hundreds of people still live outside in St Petersburg, Ft Lauderdale, San Antonio and the other cities that have adopted Marbut program, and
many homeless people still rely on the outdoor meals shared by Food Not Bombs and other groups.

While it is great that some people in some cities have transitioned into homes through the shelters and programs inspired by Marbut, the number of people living on the streets in those cities has continued to increase.

Those who would like the homeless crisis to disappear from Santa Cruz are lobbying officials to adopt Marbut’s approach and drive Food Not Bombs and its free meals from public view. (The $5,300 a month they might spend on hiring Marbut could be much better spent on maintaining 24 hour bathrooms. That would improve the lives of the homeless.)

Food Not Bombs is not a charity. We share our vegan meals in the most visible locations possible with signs and literature encouraging the public to support social and political change so that no one is forced to live on the streets or depend on soup kitchens for food. We can end homelessness if we just divert some of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year preparing for war, and instead spend that money on the real national security of a living wage, affordable housing, guaranteed work for those who want it, and high quality education and healthcare for all.

Blaming the homeless for their condition is clearly not working.

Keith McHenry is a co-founder of the Food Not Bombs movement and the author of Hungry for Peace and The Anarchist Cookbook.

To reach Keith go to www.foodnotbombs.net.

_____
More Cities Are Making It Illegal To Hand Out Food To The Homeless

St. Pete making progress with legions of homeless

No End in Sight for Homeless Camps in San Antonio

“Janet Fardette: Time to take back downtown Santa Cruz


scottsdale

(For those fortunate enough to never have set foot in the place, Scottsdale is one of the most loathsome suburbs of Phoenix: rich, nearly all white, right-wing, snootier than hell, and spreading like a cancer on what used to be a beautiful part of the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to fellow refugee from Phoenix, Al Perry, for passing on this completely-nails-it graphic from his co-conspirator, Hashimoto Nukeclear.)


Al

Over the last few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know alt-country player Al Perry. Despite his crusty exterior — I’ve always thought that a great country stage name would be “Crusty Sheets” — Al is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Also one of the funniest and most insightful. One thing we have in common is that we’re both from Phoenix, and loathe the place. (Tucson is better — much smaller, more scenic [lusher desert surrounded by 9,000-foot mountains], not quite as hot, better arts and music scene, more politically progressive.)

Al sat in a couple of times with my last band, Pinche Blues Band, at gigs, and I was surprised that he’s a really good blues player in addition to being a great alt-country player, vocalist, and songwriter.

As is typical in modern-day America (“We’re number one!”), Al is not well rewarded. He lives in a shit hole about a mile-and-a-half southeast of me, albeit in a slightly less scary neighborhood (fewer shootings), though with a much greater infestation of UofA students.

Despite a fair amount of acclaim over the years — he’s toured Europe four times — Al’s music income has nosedived since around 2000, as people have simply downloaded his songs for free. He hasn’t shared much in the remaining source of income for working musicians, touring, as he simply doesn’t do it of late. He occasionally plays clubs in L.A. or New York, but that about it: it’s not a significant source of income.

A couple of years ago he told me that his income from CD sales had fallen 75% over the previous decade. Both of his CDs are now out of print, so his income from them is now zero. We’ve talked about starting a label (with our CDs and those of other artists/bands we know here in town and up in the Bay Area), but what would be the point? It’s a dead business model.

One other thing we have in common is that we both hate self-promotion, which in large part accounts for why neither of us have been commercially successful — you have to be damn lucky or very well connected to succeed without an onerous amount of self-promotion. (If you can stand doing it and are assiduous at it, you’ll probably succeed — regardless of your talent, or lack of it.)  Al’s (and my) attitude has always been, “This shit is so good you’d be crazy not to buy it. Recognize it.”

Unfortunately, most people don’t.

You can still catch Al around town (Tucson) occasionally as a solo act, and very occasionally with a full band. Once I get another band going, Al will — I hope — be sitting in with us on a regular basis.

In the meantime, you can catch a lot of his new stuff on Youtube. He’s written a couple hundred songs, the vast majority unrecorded, but he’s  putting up new material on Youtube seemingly every week or two.

Here are a few lines from one of Al’s best songs, “Little by Little”:

 

Livin’ with a crazy person since I’ve been livin’ by myself

Got me a big old house

But it seems just like a cell

Sittin’ alone

Without no reason

To ever leave my chair

Checkin’ out the four walls

With a blank and vacant stare

 

The rest of it is just as funny. The self-mockery in it is priceless.

Al Perry is an unrecognized national treasure.

 

(If you’d like to get ahold of Al, you can reach him at alperry@kxci.org. Speaking of KXCI, catch Al’s unique and wonderful show, “Clambake,” on Tuesday nights at 10 pm MST [05:00 Wednesday mornings UT].)

 

 

 

 


The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, front cover(The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi. Knopf, 2015, 371 pp., $25.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Following his frightening yet entertaining corporate capitalism/GMO sci-fi-disaster novel, The Windup Girl (2009), Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a string of young adult books. He’s finally delivered another eco-disaster sci-fi novel, The Water Knife. I’ve been anticipating this book keenly, as it’s set mostly  in the city in which I grew up (Phoenix), and revolves around an unfolding ecological and socioeconomic disaster which I experience on a daily basis (drought, record heat, month after month, year after year).

Set primarily in a near-future Phoenix (roughly 20 to 40 years hence), Bacigalupi’s novel concerns the results of the ongoing (since the late ’90s) and worsening drought in the Southwest, the archaic allocation of water rights in the Colorado River basin, and the consequent wrangling among the various states in the basin over water.

In The Water Knife, the drought situation has gone far beyond the most pessimistic projections in climate change models, and as a result competition for water has soared as the supply has fallen. The water authorities in the various basin states are engaged in something akin to a cold (and sometimes hot) war, with closed borders between states, murderous paramilitary forces, hired thugs (“water knives”) who engage in torture and murder, and waves of Texas (“Merry Perry”) refugees landing in Arizona trying to find a way to  get to the promised lands of California, Nevada, and the Pacific Northwest.

The tightly written novel’s three central characters are Angel Velasquez (the “water knife,” who’s in the pay of the Nevada water authority’s corrupt boss, Catharine Case), Lucy Monroe (a journalist), and Maria (a teenage refugee from Texas living on the streets of Phoenix). Following rumors of a document assigning game-changing water rights, Case sends Angel to Phoenix, where he finds that everything has gone pear shaped  in the Nevada espionage ring in that city, including the head of the ring, Julio (a murderous sadist), and that mutilated bodies have begun turning up, apparently with some connection to the water rights document. At that point, while doing her job, Lucy stumbles into the picture and is sucked into succeeding events. Meanwhile, Maria is hustling to stay alive, and through that hustling meets one of the principles in the water rights document imbroglio, and is also sucked in.

Once the main characters are introduced, the point of view shifts between them chapter by chapter. The p.o.v. is close third person, so you get to know these characters well, and quickly. They’re all believable, and Bacigalupi does a fine job of developing their characters, particularly that of Angel, who’s initially loathsome but becomes increasingly sympathetic throughout the book.

Another noteworthy feature of The Water Knife is its social subtext, which strongly suggests that given the wrong circumstances almost anyone can be forced into doing things they find abhorrent. Toward the end of the book, Angel makes this point explicit, stating that (this is a paraphrase) “they can get to anyone,” forcing them to violate their own consciences.  The point of this is that it’s wrong to judge people who act under coercion, which is a point rarely if ever made in science fiction novels, or anywhere else.

A third point in The Water Knife‘s favor is that it does point to the seriousness of the drought situation in the U.S. Southwest.

But The Water Knife also has problems. One is that Bacigalupi has apparently never set foot in Phoenix, the novel’s main setting, and apparently didn’t even bother to speak with anyone who’s ever lived there. There are only two references in the entire book to local landmarks: a vague reference to the Central Arizona Project canal, and another vague reference to South Mountain–and Bacigalupi gets even that wrong. South Mountain (a hill that rises a thousand feet above the surrounding desert) is not “south of Phoenix.” It’s been a city park since the 1920s, Phoenix’s boundaries have extended to it since the 1960s or 1970s, the orange groves and flower farms along Baseline Road (a few blocks from the park’s northern boundary)  have long since given way to housing developments punctuated by the occasional Circle K, and Phoenix metro already extends well to the south of South Mountain.

Bacigalupi even refers to (again, a paraphrase)  “half the city burning,” which would be quite a scene given that at present Phoenix metro extends from south of Chandler north to New River (approximately 45 miles)  and from Apache Junction on the east to west of Buckeye (approximately 65 miles). Given that sprawl is the hallmark of Phoenix, with houses on spacious lots, and occasional open spaces, arroyos, and hills (that the locals optimistically call “mountains,” buttes,” and “peaks”), a fire engulfing half the city is all but impossible–something anyone even remotely familiar with Phoenix would know.

Beyond Bacigalupi’s vague references, there’s nothing. No references to local landmarks, geographical features, roads, the canal system within the city, suburbs. Nothing. The “Phoenix” that’s the setting for The Water Knife bears essentially no relation to the real Phoenix. It’s simply Bacigalupi’s invention set in the same geographical area with the name “Phoenix” slapped on it. I found this intensely irritating, though readers not familiar with the place probably wouldn’t even notice.

A more serious problem is the novel’s gross oversimplification of the reasons for and the nature of the water crisis in the Southwest. Yes, The Water Knife is a novel, and Bacigalupi does mention in the book’s afterword that he engages in “confabulation.” But the scenario he paints is seriously misleading nonetheless. The Water Knife presents the current and worsening water shortages in Arizona and the rest of the Southwest as if they were entirely the result of climate change and urban overuse of water. This is simply wrong. The problem is primarily due to the nature of water use here.

In Arizona, for instance, agriculture uses 70% of the water, the mines another 5%, and cities 25%. (In California, agriculture uses 80% of the water.) Everything else pales in comparison with agricultural use, and a great deal of water used in agriculture is squandered on water-intensive crops that are outright crazy to grow in this region: cotton, alfalfa (for cattle feed), pecans and other nuts, and even irrigated pasture (again for feeding cattle). The same holds for other agricultural areas of the Southwest.

Why do farmers grow these crops here? Two reasons: 1) Because farmers pay almost nothing for water, the crops are profitable; 2) In some cases, if they don’t use their full allocation of water they lose the rights. As long as the antiquated legal system that allows farmers to mine water (pump it) from the water table for the cost of electricity and that allocates surface water on an archaic first-come-first-served basis continues to exist, this problem will persist. That’s the bad news. The good news is that these are human-made legal problems and that there are human-made remedies for them. But good luck on this broken system being fixed anytime soon.

As for the drought reaching the level implied in The Water Knife, it’s very unlikely. Bacigalupi outlines a scenario in which there’s apparently been almost no rain for years on end, and in which saguaros (essentially spiny, very tough skinned water balloons) burst into flame (!) during fires. We’re currently 16 years into a drought, and precipitation here in Tucson has been about 15% lower than average during those years. By mid-century (the period in which The Water Knife is set), worst-case projections have the amount of precipitation in Arizona falling to 50% of the amount that fell in the latter half of the 20th century. That translates to four inches per year in Phoenix (down from eight inches) and six inches per year in Tucson (down from twelve). That’s not much water, but it’s a hell of a lot more than none.

So, The Water Knife‘s positing that the Salt and Verde rivers will dry up is very probably wrong. And the implied pessimism about there being nothing that can be done to prevent urban catastrophe is also very probably wrong. The water is there–eliminating agricultural misuse in itself could solve the cities’ water supply problem–and there are steps that could be taken in Phoenix to hugely reduce water waste. (The Phoenix area has over 200 golf courses; there’s a network of canals running through the city that allows residents to flood their yards–to grow grass–on a weekly basis; there are dozens of “communities” throughout the metro area that surround artificial “lakes”; and one suburb, Fountain Hills, even takes its name from a massive, towering fountain that’s a monument to hubris and waste.)

As a result, per capita water use in Phoenix is about 185 gallons per day, and  in the rich, right-wing Scottsdale suburb about 220 gallons per day. In contrast, in Tucson (one-fifth the size of Phoenix metro) per capita consumption is only 130 gallons per day, and Tucson has barely begun to get serious about water conservation. So, there are solutions to the upcoming water crunch in Arizona.

What’s likely to happen? There will probably be no major revisions to the allocation of water rights. There are too many entrenched interests and the political system is too broken (under the iron control of the rich and their corporations) for this to happen, short of a revolution.

Instead, Phoenix and its suburbs will have to make a real effort to conserve water. Agricultural use will decline. And some farmers will become very rich as they sell their water rights to cities, with urban residents (among them yours truly) getting financially hosed in the process. There will be major ecological impacts from the drought, but the cities are unlikely to dry up and blow away.

The two good things about The Water Knife‘s treatment of the drought and water use crises in Arizona and the Southwest are that it does alert readers to the seriousness of the problems, and that it repeatedly and favorably mentions what’s probably the best primer on Southwest water use issues: Cadillac Desert.

Don’t look to The Water Knife for information on the looming megadrought or water use problems. But do look to it for a very well told story with well drawn characters and an unusual and spot-on social and economic subtext.

Recommended.

* * *

Reviewer Zeke Teflon, author of  Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia, grew up in Phoenix, has lived in Tucson for decades, and has been  concerned about water use and misuse in the West for a very long time.

Free Radicals front cover


“Other news and notes from a [Spring Training] day in Surprise (the surprise is that anyone lives here):”

–CSNbayarea.com’s Alex Pavlovic on Surprise, AZ, a surface-of-the-moon suburb of Phoenix

(a comparison which is probably unfair to the moon, which is starkly beautiful

in its own way; the same cannot be said of Surprise)