Monthly Archives: April 2011

The Drag of Dorian: A Meditation On Thirty In One Act

And now I present to you a first in the history of Twenty Pounds of Headlines: a work of fiction. But first, some back story.

When I was a senior at Temple University in 2003, I participated in several manifestations of something called Guaranteed Overnight Theatre (GOT), which were produced by the (now defunct) Brick Playhouse in Philadelphia. The conceit went something like this: On one particular Friday night every month month, the playhouse invited local writers, actors, and directors to participate in an interesting experiment. Drawing randomly from a hat, teams of two actors, one writer, and one director were formed to create a short, one-act play in 24 hours. To make it even more interesting, the writer had to draw three different random cards that contained a prop, a phrase, and (if I recall correctly) a theme, all of which had to be included in the play.

I signed up as a writer for at least four of these GOTs, and the experience was always exceedingly interesting. After our Friday night meeting, I would retire to my studio apartment at 19th and Spring Garden to compose a cohesive and (hopefully) entertaining play that had to be delivered to my director by 9 a.m. the following morning. These exercises in severe deadline writing were far more challenging than I thought they’d be, always keeping me up for the duration of the evening, only completing a manuscript after many pots of coffee had been brewed, the sun had evolved from glow to radiation, and the morning traffic crawled out onto the city’s sleepy streets. Only then was I free to rest, as the director and two actors rehearsed all day before bringing the play to stage around 8 p.m.

Did I produce anything genius? Certainly not. But the task was formative in my evolution as a writer, brutally stripping away the temptation to dally or procrastinate, and instead focussing my energy on the composition of swift, compelling narratives.

So why post this particular play? Not—to be sure—because it was my best, but because it deals with a topic close to my heart these days: Turning 30.

I stumbled upon The Drag of Dorian last week while going through some old files for a colleague who was interested in my catalogue of fiction. And while I didn’t send him this one, I was struck by my 22-year-old self”s impressions of 30 reflected here. Why I chose to make 30 the presiding theme of this play I can’t recall (perhaps I drew a card with that number written on it). Either way, it was entertaining for me to read, which I hope it is for you as well. And so, submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I give you The Drag of Dorian:

The Drag of Dorian


Nick DiUlio


The Players:

Dorian Seymour—The quiet one.  Shy with a hidden sense of soothing simplicity.  Dorian is on the verge of his thirtieth birthday.

Brison Stoltz—Younger and more energetic.  Brison’s theories drive the duo.  His own sense of self-mythology is all too apparent.


We see DORIAN SEYMOUR standing on one foot in the center of the stage.  He wears an old revolutionary war hat and has his hands in the position of firing a rifle.  As he stands motionless, BRISON STOLTZ comes from upstage in a hurry.

BRISON: All right.  We’re on in twenty minutes.  You ready?

Dorian nods.  Brison begins to pace back and forth behind him.  In his hands, Brison holds a copy of Hemmingway’s FAREWELL TO ARMS.  He clears his throat and begins to recite from the book.  As he does so, Dorian looks distracted, continually looking at his watch and, in doing so, loosing his balance.

BRI:  “We had a fine life.  We lived through the months of January and February and the winter was very fine and we were very happy.  There had been short thaws when the wind blew warm and the snow softened and the air felt like spring, but always the clear hard cold had come again and the winter had returned…Outside we could hear the rain. (addressing Dorian but still reciting from the book) ‘Do you think we ought to move into town?’” (Dorian does not respond.  Brison takes the book and smacks Dorian over the head with it. Dorian’s attention is gained.)

DORIAN:  What?

BRI:  Your cue?

DOR: Oh right.  (he tries to regain focus and gets into his second position, bending over completely.  He looks at his watch again.)

BRI: No no no.  Jesus.  That’s the ninth position, not the second. (Dorian vacantly stares up at Brison, unsure of what he is supposed to do.) You don’t remember the second position do you? (Brison walks over to Dorian. He lies down on his back on the floor while Dorian watches and tries to follow his lead.  Brison begins to thrust his pelvis up in the air continually.)  Remember? Thrust and thrust and thrust!  Make love to the muse of the sky…and all that crap. (Dorian feebly begins to thrust, a poor imitation of Brison’s instructions.  Brison accepts it however and gets back up, book in hand.  He starts to pace again and reads from the book.) Ok, here we go…“‘Do you think we ought to move into town?’”

DOR:  (dryly) “‘What do you think?’” (the thrusting gets weaker and weaker)

BRI:  “‘If the winter is over and the rain keeps up it won’t be fun up here.  How long is it before young Catherine?’” (Brison notices that Dorian’s thrusting has completely stopped and all he is doing is lying on the floor, looking at his watch.  Brison temperamentally throws the book on the ground and lies down next to Dorian.  Brison props his hand behind Dorian’s back and forces him to continue thrusting.  The two of them thrust and thrust, Dorian less interested than Brison.)  Now is this so difficult?

DOR:  I’m sorry.  I’m having issues…personal issues.

BRI:  Issues?  Issues?  How’s this for an issue?  Unless you do it like this, you are going to look ridiculous. (No matter how much he tries, Brison cannot seem to get Dorian excited about the routine.  He gives up.)  Ok, how bout we try a different one. (Brison gets up, taking Dorian’s hat and replacing it with a blue fisherman’s cap.  Dorian stays on the floor as Brison sifts through a pile of books and CDs.) Something with a little more…intellectual eroticism. (He returns to Dorian with a copy of THE STRANGER and a CD he puts in the small player by their side.)  Look, if you’re not into this it’s going to look like we don’t know what we’re doing.  And we don’t want that.  Trust me, there are plenty sweet young pseudo intellectual girls out there who would rather be home listening to Belle and Sebastian right now, but we need to do our part to make sure they don’t regret coming out tonight.  We need to make them want us.  And post-modern chicks hate superfluous idling.  So just clear your mind of whatever you’ve got bouncing around in that vacant, dusty attic of a brain and…get a little existential for Christ’s sake.

Dorian puts on the hat and stands up. Brison sits in front of him Indian style on the floor.  Brison hits play on the CD player.  Beck’s LOSER comes on.  Brison holds up THE STRANGER on a beat.  Dorian stands still until the rhythm starts in full swing.  When it does, Dorian starts to shimmy back and forth like a third rate stripper.  Brison begins reading from THE STRANGER.

BRI: “Then, I don’t know why, but something inside me snapped.  I started yelling at the top of my lungs, and I insulted him and told him not to waste his prayers on me.”  (The music continues as Dorian shimmies and shakes, now and then looking down at his watch.  Brison seems to be waiting for yet another missed cue by Dorian.  He waits and waits, finally turning off the music out of frustration.  Dorian does not seem to notice that the music has stopped and continues with the ridiculous dance.  Brison just sits on the ground, a matter-of-fact frustration on his face.)  You’re not shouting.  (Dorian seems not to hear.)  I said, you’re not shouting! (Dorian lets out a pathetic little shout and continues to shimmy.)  Look, don’t think I want to get into this.  Because I don’t want to ask you, I really don’t. But you leave me no choice…what issues are you having Dorian?

DOR: (still shimmying) Zelda left me this morning.

BRI:  (uninterested) Really?  Why?

DOR:  Because I turn thirty in exactly…(he looks at his watch), five minutes and fifty two seconds.  Fifty one, fifty, forty nine, forty eight, forty seven—

BRI:  Wait a minute.  Just—would you stop for a second?  (Dorian stops his shimmy and plops down on the ground, sadly gazing at his watch.  Brison goes over to his pile of books.  He frantically searches for the right one as if life hung in the balance.  He finds THE GREAT GATSBY.  He leafs through it to find the right passage.  When he does, he reads it out loud.)  “Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair…So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”  (Brison stands in absolute horror as Dorian still stares at the watch.)

DOR:  I appreciate the consolation.

BRI:  Do you have any idea what this means?

DOR:  (Reaching over and taking the book from Brison he reads out loud, matter-of-factly.)  “A thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning—(Brison snatches the book from him.)

BRI:  Don’t be trite.  (Dorian lies down and starts to moan.)  This is a disaster.  This is a goddamn travesty of consequence.  A placard of doom emblazoned with the blood of my very own heart.  Sixty-two straight days of rehearsal only to find out…this.  (Brison starts to panic and slightly hyperventilate.)  How did you fail to mention this to me?  (He goes to his pile of books and searches through them even more frantically.  Dorian notices his panic and goes over to console him.)

DOR:  Aw, thanks for being so understanding man.  But don’t beat yourself up about it.  I’ll get over her.  (pause)  Ha, Zelda!  What kind of a name is that anyway?  Sounds like something you don’t want in your food.  Excuse me, waiter?  There’s a Zelda in my soup! (Dorian starts to laugh hysterically at his own joke, forgetting his sadness for a moment.)

BRI:  (pausing his search for a second) What the hell are you talking about?  Zelda is not the issue my solipsistic friend.  If you could consider for a moment a world outside of yourself you might learn something.  (he goes back to searching)

DOR:  Alright fine.  (Dorian spots a CD on the ground.  He picks it up and goes to put it in the player.)  Look, let’s just use this to our advantage.  Keep it simple.  We can do the uh, the pitiful um…what was it called?

BRI:  (he looks at Dorian to see what CD he’s putting in) Oh no.  That one was your idea.  Pitiful post-modern Sinatra right?

DOR:  (smiling) Yeah.

BRI:  (in disgust) You are to be the death of me.

DOR:  (He hits play.)  Come on.  I liked that one.  Just nice, simple, and sweet.  (Dorian tilts his fisherman’s cap down over his eyes and starts to sway to the piano like a crooner.  He mouths the words of Sinatra as they are said on the CD.  He seems to be coming out of sadness through the soothing sounds of the piano.)  “This is the part of the program where we sing a drunk song…drunk songs are usually done in small bars and bistros, in the wee hours of the morning…usually talked or sung by a fella who’s got problems…like uh, his broad flew the coop…with another guy and all the bread.” (Dorian escapes into the world of Sinatra and the artificial laughter of the audience.)  “So if you will uh, assume the position of a bar tender, this is the way these guys behave.” (Dorian starts to lip-sync with the words.)  “It’s quarter to three.  There’s no one in the place.  Except you and me…set ‘em up Joe.  I got a little story, I think you should know.  We’re drinkin’ my friend, to the end-”

BRI:  I got it!  (Dorian stops his routine.  Brison runs over to the CD player and shuts it off furiously.  Dorian’s sadness returns.  Brison holds a copy of Jame’s Joyce’s DUBLINERS.  He recites from it.)  “Those venal and furtive loves filled him with despair.  He gnawed the rectitude of his life; he felt that he had been outcast from life’s feast…he was outcast from life’s feast.”  That’s it! (Brison stands in triumph of his realization as Dorian’s hopes are quickly shattered.  Dorian looks down at his watch sadly and then over at Brison who has a wide smile on his face.)

DOR:  Well, you really know how to cheer up a guy.  (He walks downstage and sits back on the floor.)

BRI:  No no.  You’ve got it all wrong.  You should feel good about this.

DOR: (sarcastic) Yeah, you’re right.  Ya know, since I can remember I’ve always thought, “I can not wait to be outcast from life’s feast.  What a glorious day that will be.”  (Brison walks over to Dorian.)

BRI:  Look, all I’m saying is that those post-modern chicks out there don’t want thirty.  There is nothing hip, controversial, or relativistic about thirty.  Thirty is the five o’clock shadow of life my friend.  The storm before the storm.

DOR:  So what?  I’m not looking for anyone right now anyway.

BRI:  Yes you see, but I am…and you should be too damnit!

DOR:  (shrugging) Eh…

BRI:  Do I need to remind you why we got into this in the first place?

DOR: No. You said that performance art was the new fast track, and I quote, “to lots of ass.”

BRI:  And have I been wrong?

DOR: Well, so far there has been little truth to most of your claims.

BRI:  Oh, such as?

DOR:  Um, such as, “Dorian, you have no idea what it’s like to make love to a woman who’s read all of Kafka’s works fifty times over.”

BRI: So?  What’s wrong with that?

DOR: Or, “Dorian, you don’t know what sex is until you’ve had it with a vegan Buddhist palm reader who makes genitalia sculptures from old humus and tofu tasty cakes.”

BRI: All in good time.  Trust me. (Brison walks upstage to look behind the wall that separates them from the audience awaiting their show.) We just need to get past this problem before we go out there.

DOR: Past what problem?

BRI:  (he looks around, as if in fear of someone hearing him, and speaks in a whisper.)  To you…turning thirty.  I did not go into performance art to be dragged down by some aging fart.  Contemporary chicks have no discerning palate for the taste of death’s door.

DOR: Well, you’ve got exactly…(he looks at his watch), two minutes.

BRI:  Damn! (the two stand there, dumbfounded and confused.  Finally Brison gets an idea.)  I’ve got it. (He takes out his cell phone and starts to dial.)  I’m gonna call my cousin.

DOR: What does he know?

BRI:  Oh my god he’s brilliant!  He speaks like seven languages and has perfect pitch and all that.

DOR:  Great, I’m sure he can sing me back down to at least twenty-four, twenty three.

BRI:  Listen, this guy was reading Nietzche in utero. All right? (Dorian looks confused.  Brison turns his attention to the phone.)  Seamus! What’s going on man?  It’s Brison.  How’s it…yeah we’re going on in about ten minutes… oh, it’s ok. I understand.  You’ve got a lot on your plate right now and…wow really?…But how do you get the midgets into the soda cans…ha ha!  That’s awesome.  You must get so many chicks man, I tell you.  It’s like I always say—

DOR:  (he clears his throat and points to his watch.)  One minute.

BRI:  Oh right!  Shit.  Um, Seamus, I’ve got a question for you.  Dorian’s about to turn thirty…yeah, in one minute.  I know, tell me about it…Listen, I need to know um, what I can do to, you know, stop that from…uh huh…yeah, I think I have that…(he looks down at his CD collection.)  Yes, I’ve got it right here…ok…(he puts the CD into the player.  He pushes play.  It’s The Village People’s MACHO MAN.  Brison goes over to Dorian and says something into his ear.  Dorian then starts to jog backwards in a circle as Brison sits in the center dictating what Seamus tells him.)  OK faster…faster! You’re reversing your spiritual mileage…Are you seeing anything?  (Dorian shakes his head “no.”)  Keep it up. (Dorian looks at his watch.)

DOR: Thirty seconds.

BRI: (Into the phone.) Thirty seconds!…(to Dorian) He just says go faster…He says it might help if you recite the first three paragraphs of War and Peace…in Swedish…(he gets more desperate and hurried.) He says you should be seeing…

DOR:  Ten, nine, eight, seven…

BRI:  (More hurried.)  You should be seeing visions of yourself in a pool of Jell-O….surrounded by squirrels…

DOR: Six, five, four, three…

BRI:  (more hurried still) And your umbilical chord shooting like a rocket into the stars!

DOR:  Two, one. (he stops running, out of breath.)

BRI:  (hanging up the phone and turning off the CD) Shit!

DOR: (walking over to sit down with Brison) Well, that’s it.

BRI:  That is it.

DOR:  I’m thirty.

BRI:  You are thirty…you stupid thirty year old bastard of a man.

DOR: Look, I don’t think I had much to do with all of this.

BRI:  Oh, you had everything to do with this.  How do you think I stay so young? Magic?

DOR:  You’re twenty-six.

BRI:  And when thirty roles around you better believe I’ll be a little more prepared than you are tonight…thirty…you should be ashamed.

The two of them sit in silence for a few moments, not knowing what to do.  They look around in separate directions.

DOR: So…what now?

BRI:  (standing) Well, I suppose I’m going to have to make some excuse as to why grandpa is with me.  Hopefully they’ll take it well…if not, get Dick Clark on the phone and start taking some serious notes.

Brison walks off downstage.  Dorian quietly sits on the ground, looking around, and begins to  try and thrust his pelvis in the air.  Correctly. Determined.  Neil Young’s OLD MAN fades in softly.


You’ve Got A Soul, Use It: A Review of “The People’s Key” from Bright Eyes

Something big and heavy has been happening to Conor Oberst lately. I’m not sure what that something (or somethings) may be, but the transformation is written all over his latest record, The People’s Key, and I think it’s one of the most interesting stories of the year.

As the eighth full-lenght studio effort recorded under the soon to be retired Bright Eyes moniker (meaning, primarily, Oberst, soundscape wizard Mike Mogis, and synth specialist Nathaniel Walcott), The People’s Key finds the one-time Nebraskan wunderkind about as far away from his solipsistic genesis story as one can imagine; that is to say, where Oberst once seemed content to craft songs about some of the smallest, most nuanced aspects of his life and times (subway rides to Brooklyn, barroom poesy, reading a newspaper in a coffee shop while nursing a hangover), The People’s Key concerns itself only with THE BIG STUFF. Humanity’s origins. Reincarnation. Time-as-illusion. Rastafari. Father, son, and ghost. The thematic rundown here reads like an ambitious merger of Edward Cayce, Thich Nhat Hanh, Carl Sagan, and the Apostle Paul—a very ambitious record that listens like a cyclical meditation on a whole host of sweeping human conflicts and contradictions at once both modern and ageless. Also, it may be one of my favorite Oberst efforts to date.

Early examples of Oberst’s obsession with all things Conor are too numerous to recount here in their entirety. But consider, for instance, this chain of lyrics from “Hit The Switch,” a rollicking—if not dour—reflection on self destruction and twenty-something, post-modern existentialist angst on 2005’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn:

I’m staring out into that vacuum again
From the back porch of my mind
The only thing that’s alive, I’m all there is
And I start attacking my vodka
Stab the ice with my straw
My eyes have turned red as stoplights
You seem ready to walk
You know I’ll call you eventually
When I wanna talk, ’til then you’re invisible

Cause there’s this switch that gets hit
And it all stops making sense
And in the middle of drinks
Maybe the fifth or the sixth
I’m completely alone at a table of friends
I feel nothing for them
I feel nothing, nothing.

To be sure, Oberst’s journey away from this sort of navelward songwriting (which, by the way, seemed so vital and “yeah man!” real when I was 23…we’ll see how it holds up) has been a slow train coming. For instance, Bright Eyes’ 2007 release Cassadaga not only took its title from a 116-year-old spiritualist camp in central Florida, but also included several tracks that hinted at a new Oberst in the making; a young man in perpetual search of broader understandings and peace that can’t be found at the bottom of a vodka bottle. Even Cassadaga’s album art speaks to this transformation, containing as it does myriad phrases and meditations that can only be seen with a “spectral decoder” included inside the record’s jacket. Consider:

  • “Dog faced apologists pleasing themselves on the burning sand”
  • “These myths are sacred and profane!”
  • “Rocks beneath the water” (which is what “Cassadaga” means in the Seneca language)
  • “Citrus slaves throwing dice in the dirt, amusement”
  • “Swollen saints bathing in a backwards river under a sliver of a moon”
  • “Mighty Saturn enters your eighth house”

Follow this with Oberst’s 2008 self-titled solo release, which opens with “Cape Canaveral,” a simple, bittersweet acoustic number that begins:

Oh, oh, oh brother totem pole
I saw your legends lined up
And I never felt more natural
Apart, I just came apart

Please, please, please sister Socrates
You always answer with a question
Show some kindness to a petty thief
Forgive, you did forgive

What sets The People’s Key apart from the rest—and thus marks Conor’s most bold step yet toward the purely spiritual—is that Oberst doesn’t waste a single track on anything trifling or desultory. Here there is no “First Day of My Life” or “Lua” or “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now” (all excellent, by the way). Exhibit A: The album’s opening track, “Firewall”, begins with a spoken-word sermon of sorts from Randy Brewer, a Texas musician Oberst met on the road who appears sporadically throughout the record.

“If there is no such thing as time, you’re already there and you’re controlling the cycle,” proclaims Brewer over some awesome, eerie ambients. “You say, ‘Man, look what we found here Einstein,’ or whoever you’re talkin’ to. Tesla. Whoever you’re talkin’ to. Problems of the future can be solved by mankind because you create ’em.”

If there is a single, unifying through-line theme to be found amidst the caterwaul of spiritual confusion and understanding on The People’s Key, it can perhaps be found in this opening monologue; namely, that Oberst is trying his damnedest to reconcile his immediate, superficial, self-absorbed self (i.e. the one we all struggle against) with the more pervasive eternal truth’s that seem perpetually just beyond humanity’s grasp.

In the second track, “Shell Games,” Oberset proclaims:

If I could change my mind, change the paradigm
Prepare myself for another life
Forgive myself for the many times
I was cruel to something helpless and weak

But here it come, that heavy love
I’m never going to move it alone
Here it come, that heavy love
Tag it on a tenement wall
Here it come, that heavy love
Someone got to share in the load
Here it come, that heavy love
I’m never going to move it alone

I was dressed in white, touched by something pure
Death obsessed like a teenager
Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar
I’m still angry with no reason to be

Perfectly, it doesn’t stop for all 10 tracks; abstractions and incantations; lyrical minimalisms and epic reaches; aliens and pharaohs . On one of the record’s greatest tracks, “Haile Selassie” (right?!), Oberst brings the listener into some pastiche fever dream of eventual redemption and mind-clearing Knowledge that we are all single drops in the same infinitely expansive ocean, all waiting for that moment when the savior (literal? metaphoric?) arrives:

What if this leads to ruin?
You got a soul, use it
All this despair forgiven
Rolling away on the Wheel of Sevens
Sings like the Queen of Sheba
Voice through a Blonde Speaker
One dropping bubble and Leslie
Calling me home like Haile Selassie

Pilgrim beside the fire
It’s been a long winter
We got a lot in common
Cover our heads as they split the atom
All of our days are numbered
I’ll take in some comfort in knowing the wave has crested
Knowing I don’t have to be an exception
Children they fill the bleachers
One is the next Caesar
Keep all their minds collected
Until he comes
Until he comes

Want just one more? Near the end of the record comes “Ladder Song,” a tune Oberst hammered out on the piano in tribute to and reflection of a close friend who recently committed suicide in Omaha. Its opening stanza:

No one knows where the ladder goes
You’re gonna lose what you love the most
You’re not alone in anything
You’re not unique in dying
Feel estranged every now and then
Fall asleep reading science fiction
I wanna fly in your silver ship
Let Jesus hang and Buddha sit

I’ll be honest, I was not an immediate fan of this album. Upon a first (even second, or third) listen, The People’s Key has an oddly discordant soundscape that utilizes some shrill and cutting synths as well as uncharacteristically drubbing (and equally bad-ass-tight) guitar riffs. Those who might be looking for Oberst’s younger proclivities for Americana and Alt. Country may be disappointed. When combined with the severity—nay, the uncomfortably revelatory nature of the lyrics, The People’s Key takes some getting used to. But should you surrender—and make no mistake, there is a degree of surrender required for maximum enjoyment here, as with anything of significant spiritual value—you are going to rejoice in not only one of the greatest songwriters of our generation, but also a man who seems to have very significantly taken to heart the axiom of the lyrical predecessor to whom he has so often been compared: he’s very (very) busy being born, and not too fond of dying.