Blood and Rockets

The weathered rear end of a 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport. With taillights that could double as octopus suckers or robot eyes, it seems that it could just open up like some giant bivalve and consume a dairy cow. They were likely meant to convey the appearance of booster rockets, an effect enhanced by the recessed chrome rings that imply a swivel mechanism. The message here was clear: Go Fast and Explore. If you wrap yourself in a missile, who knows what you’ll discover? When you encase your body in steel you are immortal and glorious. Cars have always been our clothes, our armor, our doppelgangers, but it’s been awhile since they were designed to resemble our wildest dreams. But maybe that’s because we don’t have dreams that wild anymore.

When cars were designed to resemble jets and spacecraft they were made right here by proud Americans who looked forward to some future where things would always be getting better, faster and more efficient. Gasoline then was ubiquitous and cheap so the image of a fire-breathing steel rocket was of no concern to the Detroit marketeers who conceived of this prime example of American muscle; nor were we as a nation too worried about the billions we were spending on waging the Cold War under the guise of space exploration.

Gemini rockets and the first space walk were still vivid in the nation’s consciousness when this beauty rolled off the line, as were images of Soviet rockets on the ground in Cuba. But we weren’t going to let a little money, the distraction of the Civil Rights’ movement or even a developing conflict in a country called Vietnam stop us from dreaming big and then chasing those dreams down with a stick. We weren’t going to just build rockets, we were going to drive them.

When this car was still sitting on the drawing board, the men responsible for tapping into our dreams, the car’s designers, still had the fresh images of the Zapruder film clicking through their nightmares. But trauma doesn’t stop us. Violence doesn’t quell the fantasies of who we think we are; or should be. We just put our heads down and move on. Americans don’t dwell long enough on our tragedies. It takes more than the death of a president to shake us and, after all, wasn’t it Kennedy’s dream to begin with? Space? The rockets? He made it his dream in his moon speech; which was really his I have a dream speech.

Those two dreams, equality of space and equality of race defined a set of ideals we were just not ready to accept, at least not together. We could believe in the one but not the other, even though the one we chose, blasting off into space and escaping, was the most far-fetched. Between JFK and MLK the muscle car took off. Three years after this very car hit the streets they shot him too, Martin King, but nothing was going to stop our rockets. We had to escape. The moon was all that was left, all snowy white and smooth. We sure needed a sea of tranquility. We needed a summer of love.

But nobody sees this when you look at the car. We don’t see a steel vault of dreams. We don’t see a golden age of possibility and promise as embodied by the hands of our once proud labor – Michigan manpower, Pennsylvania steel, Madison Avenue sex appeal, good old American know-how. The golden days of Detroit iron. Aepyceros melapus. High-horn. Black foot. The impala. A Zulu word for gazelle. A fast antelope from Africa, the cradle of human kind. Our first hunts, our first chases, were for antelope. Speed, power, grace. This is a car we’re talking about. Or is it? This is us. This is what we imagine that we are. To drive is to inhabit a machine, like some mech-warrior on the asphalt plain. But when was the last time you got in your car and became something else? Something tangible? This car was a dream you could wrap your hands around. Long, wide, streamlined, shark-like, ray-like, manta, skate, sea-life like – and after all isn’t the undersea world as delivered to us by Jacques-Cousteau the closest thing we can get to space? Chevy got us to space in metal sea creatures that hovered in the air at 70 mph. And we’re right there, inside that dream again. All this from a taillight.

But that’s the point of a photograph. The picture as portal. The image as talisman. On the day I shot this in San Francisco I wasn’t thinking about 1965, the year I was born. I wasn’t thinking about all the fixtures and forces, as Bob Dylan put it, that were shaping the world when this car rolled off the line. I was wandering the back-alleys South of Market behind the courthouse just looking for anything that might capture my imagination. This car did. Ostensibly it was form. I am drawn to the shapes, the geometry of the car. Beneath that there is myth. The Muscle Car. Bigness. Speed. Invulnerability. Only later did I make the other connections. This car embodies an epoch, a zeitgeist.

1965 is my year. I was born into a world seething with war, violence and hatred. We should have seen what was coming in 1963 when a single, angry lunatic destroyed the leader of the free world with a well-placed miniature rocket. But sometimes you sleep on, even though you hear the wake-up call, because you just don’t want to leave the dream. People say to me: Where does all your darkness come from?  Where indeed. I was not an unaware child. I heard the radio. I saw the T.V.. Riots, Manson, Bobby Kennedy, Nixon and Vietnam. I wasn’t watching. I absorbed.

Everything is energy and we’re filled with it, whether we feel it viscerally or not. But we’re so numbed out and dumbed-down that we’ve lost our ability to hear the messages and read the signs. My eyes, my heart, my intuition – dowser’s wands. The closer I look the more I see, and the camera gives me time. That’s all it is. The camera, the photograph. Time stoppers, to render things as they are, to preserve the now. And when you stop and look around, you see connections, and messages and meaning in the most seemingly insignificant of things.

 o O o

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