KIRKIN O’ TH’ TARTAN
A Scottish-American tradition – that began in Washington D.C.’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1941 – in which families bring their “tartan” (the distinctive plaid of their “clan” – historically, Highlanders) to be blessed; the roots of this traditional service date back to 1745, after the Battle of Culloden; the British tried to destroy the morale and culture of the Scottish clan system by banning both the wearing of tartan – and playing of bagpipes; Scots subverted this law by hiding bits of tartan on their bodies when they went to the “kirk” – or church; so, in this secret fashion, their tartans – and their clans and ancestors represented by the cloth – received a blessing; I went to a Kirkin o’ th’ Tartan service this year at an old Virginia church (that dates back to 1670 – though the current brick structure wasn’t completed until 1735); I have no strong sense of my Scottish heritage; I went because it sounded amusing, and I think bagpipe music is cool and hilarious – like a chorus of naggy, flatulent ducks; everyone at the service seemed to take their family’s tartan quite seriously – and wore it on handkerchiefs, scarves, hats, and draped across their chests; I don’t know what my family’s tartan looks like, and neither does my mother, but if we chose, I suppose we could pull quite the Scottish-heritage trump card; I’m a direct descendent of John Knox – leader of the Protestant Reformation, founder of the Presbyterian Church, and witch-burning enthusiast; I don’t mention the John Knox relation to people that often – not because I’m embarrassed to be related to a murderer of women accused of witchcraft (I’m also related to slave-owners – on both sides of my family) – but because I find most types of ancestor worship and national pride to lead quickly to a virulent strain of Nationalism; I mean, put simply: I’m related to some folks who did good things as well as some monsters; so what?; so are you, and you, and anyone who reads this; so, as I sat by myself, waiting for the service to begin and the bagpipes to start wheezing, a fellow in his 60’s that I’m a casual acquaintance of asked if he could sit next to me; I said yes; I noticed he was wearing a tartan handkerchief in his jacket pocket; this guy – Craig – lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and the Hamptons before retiring to Virginia; Craig is a fan of colorful socks, seersucker in summer, and wearing his cloud-puff of white hair in a manner that reminds me of Graydon Carter (editor of “Vanity Fair”; modern-day dandy); after graduating from college in Maine, Craig moved to New York and got a job (he was apparently unqualified for) in A&R at Columbia Records; he had to accompany Iggy and the Stooges for much of their tour in support of “Raw Power”; Craig wasn’t there for Iggy’s infamous peanut butter incident, but recalled: “It was the coolest job on earth but it was also awful. I had to check the Stooges in and out of hotels. I was the ‘company guy from New York’ – a babysitter. Iggy didn’t understand that being a rock star was a performance. He actually did…everything”; Craig then told me about hanging out with Bob Dylan (who left Columbia for Asylum Records for a couple years in the 70’s, only to come right back ) while he was in the middle of recording “Blood on the Tracks” – a breakup album with few peers; I was especially curious to hear about the impression Dylan left on Craig – even though it was a bit surreal to hear these rock n’ roll stories from a man decked out in a plaid suit and tartan, sitting in one of the oldest Christian churches in America on a Sunday afternoon; Craig was just about to tell me a Patti Smith story (involving an episode with Robert Mapplethorpe) recounted in her recently released memoir, “Just Kids,” when the nasal humming of bagpipes began; men in kilts marched in, playing fife, drums, and bagpipe; there was a sermon, a blessing of the tartan, much Scottish pride; I ducked out early; last week, I received a well-read copy of “Just Kids” in the mail – Craig’s copy; on the cover of “Just Kids,” Patti Smith is dressed in a headband and high-waisted men’s pants, rolled up to mid-calf, and Robert Mapplethorpe dons tight jeans, a mesh shirt, silk scarf, a tilted hat, and clenches a white cloth sack (of laundry? Food?) – like a Brooklyn punk Navajo princess and a homeless hustler, wearing or carrying every item of clothing they own; I’ve never taken too much pride in my clothing – the fit, the fabric, the layers, the patterns – but I sometimes admire (and sometimes resent) people that do.