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New York Dolls, 1973— Bob Gruen

PA Adrift

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PA Adrift

Eyes Adrift on Friday night was about what I expected. I was thrilled, but I suspect the majority of the crowd were rather disappointed. Eyes Adrift was not Nirvana, Meat Puppets, or Sublime. They were much closer to the spirit of bands that were traveling around before the pre-packaged punk in the wake of Nirvana started filtering onto the air waves. The show had a lot in common with that period of time in the late 80s when people actually played music because they liked it, instead of as a stepping-stone to being a corporate lackey.

As a fervent indie band supporter of the late 80s/early 90s, what I mean by saying that the show had a lot in common with that time is that it was fucked-up. The small venue quickly filled up with the all-ages crowd of grunge wannabees, with their knit caps and flannel. Laguardia (the Philadelphia one) took the stage and nauseated me with the sort of whiney college-band crooning that drove me from the scene way back when. But they got better. When they weren’t trying to be Wilco, they were actually pretty good. It was the keyboards that got me most of all. The natural sound of a keyboard is a drone. I don’t go to a club to be droned to death— I like rock, not atmosphere. Mercifully, after droning a bit, they picked up guitars. The next tunes were reminiscent of the paisley underground crowd, Rain Parade in particular. It was a cool tone, and fair tunes. I just tired of the self-involved nasal whine that never seems to go out of fashion. They were just on the loud side of what the house PA could handle, but the sound was good overall.

When Eyes Adrift came on stage, it all went to hell. They were much quieter, and the guitar was nearly non-existent. Curt Kirkwood couldn’t hear himself either, and the drums sounded like beating on polyethylene tubs. They stopped partway through the first song to get the guitar working, then soldiered on without much ado. It took until halfway through the set before the sound was passable. But the tunes were strong, and the desire to play them was stronger. Once I could hear him, Kirkwood’s guitar playing seemed as good or better than ever. Novoselic was his usual dry self, though he did loosen up before the end with some of his signature clowning. It was punk rock. I don’t think the crowd was ready for that. I mean, it was sloppy, heartfelt, touching, and not factory-fresh perfect crunching. I had a great time. The crowd was cool and distant, until the last Grateful Dead style guitar freakout. They loved it. I could have survived without it.

Still, it was a great break from the plastic music world of today, with its strings and horns and drones and whines. It was a good set of tunes, played under the worst of circumstances without complaint. I don’t know what happened. The sound guy at this venue is usually great, but something got screwed. Laguardia got a better go of it, and it makes me sad that there was an opening band at all. Laguardia fit with “today’s sounds” and Eyes Adrift were completely out of step with the market trend. That’s why I loved them. I don’t care for much of what I’ve heard in the last few years, because it all sounds the same. Eyes Adrift don’t sound the same as their previous bands, or the current crop. While I’m not going back to the club to pick up my jaw from the floor —I brought it home with me intact— I did have a good time, fuck-ups and all. It seemed more like real music that way.

Mowed Down

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Thanks for snapping this for me, Rex

Mowed down

Yesterday was weird. First, I get a phone call telling me that I’m delinquent on a cell-phone bill. I don’t own a cell phone. I wouldn’t carry one if you gave it to me. Someone stole my personal information, and applied for credit in my name. My identity has been stolen. Now, I’ve got to deal with all the paperwork and forms. It shouldn’t be a major problem to resolve, though. Someone attempted to do this a while ago, and I had my credit reports flagged with a fraud alert. This time though, they did manage to get it through.

I’ve been telling lots of stories lately. One of them is about waking up one Saturday morning to a guy mowing my lawn. My wife (now ex) looked out the window and asked, “Why is that strange guy mowing our lawn?”

He was mowing my lawn because he had no money; Dewayne wanted me to do publicity photos for his band. He saw that I had an overgrown jungle out front, and hoped that I would trade my skill for his. He didn’t ask me beforehand, he just did it. It’s the kind of guy Dewayne was. Now I find out he’s getting mowed down too.

I know both of these guys; there are Lanny Ray stories to be told too. But not today. I don’t have the stomach for it.


Video capture of Kurt Cobain at a record store gig and signing— near the final frame


Part of the media frenzy lately has been a renewed interest in music. Once upon a time, I could recall the names of most of the members of the bands I liked, and could recite discographies or lyrics at will. Much of that is lost, pushed aside by an avalanche of reading. For the first time in my life, I think my book collection actually outweighs my collection of audio media (in sheer poundage). Moving is a really scary concept.

Earlier in the week, I was reliving Contemplating the Engine Room by Mike Watt. Today it was Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen. Musically, changing eras always seem to be centered on deaths— Hendrix in 1970, D. Boon in 1985, Cobain in 1994. Watching an uncut version of Nirvana unplugged a few days ago, I thought of a weird connection. Pat Smear was a founding member of the Germs. “Drove up from Pedro” pretty much credits the Germs with the inspiration for the founding of the Minutemen. My how things come around. I never was a fan of British punk like the Clash or the Sex Pistols; punk rock for me always had the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets at the center. As the eighties turned, it seemed to me like the Minutemen were the new Dylan, and the Meat Puppets were the new Hendrix. But the real difference was that fame was local, and taste was individual. I never met another punk who agreed with me. Everyone had their own centers.

After Nirvana, it seemed like the discord died, and the great diversity of music which was the 80s (at least for me, I never listened to hair bands) went with it. Corporate rock remerged stronger than ever— packaged and processed, shrink-wrapped for your pleasure. Freaks on parade didn’t cease, of course, but it just has seemed to me as if most of them are marching in lockstep to some new tattooed and pierced drummer, pounding out the rap’n’roll beat. It’s nice to buy some new records by people who aren’t marching to anyone’s beat except their own.



Syncing Feeling

With the discovery that audio CDs sound much better on my older Apex player than they do on my new Sony, I was sent on a strange spin. Rex called from California last night, and we were talking about the “golden age” of audio equipment. I was trying to figure out just when people stopped caring about how things sound. We both pretty much agreed that it was when CD’s entered the scene. Funny how a supposedly superior medium would start a chain of compromise which left the shelves of audio stores filled with inferior crap. It has to be better, it’s digital. Maybe Baudrillard was right in that respect; we now live in the age of simulation. CD’s simulate music, rather than presenting it in all its imperfect glory of harmonics and subtle modulations.

I’m not really a luddite. Every time the technology has changed, I have moved along with it. Rex and I were pondering the diversity of formats that we have chased in our lifetimes— from four-track tapes to eight-track tapes, from mini-cassettes to micro-cassettes, from LP to CD, and a thousand variants along the way. I’ve owned most types of audio delivery systems, mainly because getting the data requires owning a device that can cope with it. But there’s a rupture between digital data delivery and analog sourcing. Analog’s main problem is noise, whereas digital’s main problem is sync. Though I think the funny little blocks of color created by malfunctioning DVDs or VCDs are beautiful in their own right, glitches in audio are downright disturbing. When analog fails, the failure is usually harmonious (background hiss of pink-noise, or harmonic modulation of the sound through feedback). When digital fails, what comes out has no discernible relationship with the original. Of course, the die is cast— it’s now a digital world.

I was watching a history channel program about Rome, and that phrase supposedly uttered by Julius Caesar as he crossed the river to conquer Rome —“the die is cast.”— stuck in my head. The phrase has two possible connotations since the dawn of the machine age. In Caesar’s day, it meant that the roll of the dice (the randomness of fate and history) was done, and what would happen, would happen. The phrase made me wonder though— because my father was a bit of an amateur machinist, with cases of tools and dies in the shed— that it could also mean that destiny was fixed, rather than random.

A die is a machine tool now, rather than an instrument of chance. It stamps out identical replicas of whatever it was formed to produce. In the case of audio, we stamp out approximations (though fairly good ones, most of the time). There is a limit to how good something can be, once it is cast on that little silver disk. We’ve settled, in expediency, for something that really can’t be brought closer to the source— cold and metallic, shiny and pretty— unlike the ragged imperfect licorice pizzas with their warps and propensity for damage. Though both of these reproductive technologies are produced by dies, they have little in common. The grooves in a record trigger vibrations, just like the vibrations of a speaker which moves the air that sends the sound to you. Grooves are first cut then stamped. The needle just plows along the furrow, harvesting the swings of fate (and dustspecks) along the way. CDs are first burned, forming little pits which are stamped into thin foil. The dark forest of vinyl is replaced by shiny mirrors that either catch the light, or don't. Chance can wipe away the map of a CD quickly, leaving it totally out of sync— a coaster or ornament for a wind-chime— dead, rather than merely annoying to listen to.

Strange how the verb version of “die” has such a different meaning— to cease to exist. Were did the nominal version of die come from? I was looking at the OED, and it appears to have come from the Latin datum. The same root as data— but with rather a different connotation. The past participle of dare to give— “It is inferred that, in late pop. L., datum was taken in the sense ‘that which is given or decreed (sc. by lot or fortune).’”

It’s back to Apollo and Dionysus I suppose. Cold geometry, arithmetic perfection vs. wild and uncontrollable worlds of vibrations. It’s a matter of how you view the data— cast with precision— or tossed by fate. Either way, it gives me a sinking feeling.

Back from the storm

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Back from the storm

I was thinking about my first obsession. When I heard Electric Ladyland when I was ten years old, I rapidly felt the desire to possess it. But the kid who played it for me wouldn’t part with it. I could only to manage to trade my Rand McNally world globe for scratched-up copy of Smash Hits. I think I was thirteen years old before I figured out that Jimi Hendrix was black. Even after I did, it didn’t seem important at all. It didn’t make him any more different, or exotic, or interesting. I think its because there was nothing that could possibly make him more interesting— I had already made up my mind that I had to have everything he ever recorded. Maybe it was the publicity surrounding his death that made me think about it. The media mentioned it, but the color of his skin seemed positively trivial. What was important to me was the music, and the idea that the incredible music could stop.

No one was like him. It was like an incredible new language that I could understand like few people I knew could. I suspect that’s what bonded me so deeply with my brother Stephen. I could tell that he felt it too. It wasn’t the words, it was the sound. The sound of a mind at work. I used to joke, as I turned into an adolescent, that I needed to put a sign on my door: Jimi Hendrix spoken here. My mind traced and soared with every nuance of those solos. It was if they took you places, places that no one else traveled. They didn’t follow a standard progression, or if they did, there was always a deep curve at the end that lead somewhere. I didn’t find his music ethereal, but rather incredibly concrete. Hendrix never left you hanging in space, and to this day when I put on his music it’s like traveling down the streets of my hometown, a hometown in my mind. Long before Shelley’s Skylark, there was Hendrix’s Nightbird.

I had to try to explain last night why William Blake was so special to me. The best term I could come up to describe the interaction between text and image was that it was a conversation. Sometimes, the image undercuts the text. Sometimes, it reinforces it. Sometimes it nuances it. But it always interacts with it actively, neither part is ever lazy, or rote, or meaningless. Listening to Hendrix today, I realized I could say the same thing about him. The music and words are inseparable, and while the music is often dominant, like Blake’s words, they cannot be separated without a great cost to this process of making meaning. As I find myself lost in thoughts too complex to relate, I can’t shake the urge that it has to go somewhere. You just can’t fade away into space— a lesson that far too few musicians or writers fail to heed.

I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to chase the thoughts down, and see where they lead? I wonder if that’s why I feel the need to bring this all together somehow? I need to figure out how words and pictures fit together, beyond the program of their separate meanings. Though I don’t think about it that much, I suppose Hendrix and Blake are my skylarks, and like Shelley, I wish they could—

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now

Maybe one day I’ll be able to hear Blake in my head as well as I hear Hendrix. I no longer need the albums I was so driven to collect. I can hear each one in my imagination, on demand. Those notes have been seared upon my brain. Now that I think about it, I probably only pull something out once every couple of years. But sometimes I’ll see something, and hear those notes in my head. It happens when I get near home.

Pull Down


Pull Down and Pull Toward You

It was a good trip to Hot Springs. I saw four films, the latest paintings from Warren Criswell, and watched the freaks. Going down there is always like entering some sort of redneck time warp. I saw a grizzled guy wearing a Damn Yankees tee shirt, more Chuck Norris look-alikes on Harleys than I could name, and actually heard a car stereo or two. I remember my first impressions of Arkansas were based on the busy main-drag of Hot Springs. It was silent. No sound from car stereos, no music coming from the bars, no spill-over muzak, nothing— just the occasional horn or siren. No loud voices, no arguments, no struggles— just strollers, by the hundreds. It was more like a wake than a party.

The look this time was different. Film festivals draw a different crowd. Lots of people wearing square black-framed glasses. Lots of queer-as-folk. Lots of professorial types, and lots of people who seemed to be too-hip for their own good. And then there were the citizens, smiling friendly helping the tourists find their way around. I arrived just in time to rush into the theater to see Photos to Send.

It was a good film. There was a sense of discovery to it, as if the filmmaker allowed the chance happenings of the story itself play a role in the result. The theater was full when I got there, but I negotiated the balcony (which is a lawsuit waiting to happen) to find overflow seating at the front edge. I’ve never looked down on a film before. It was in progress, and I walked in to footage of a man riding a bicycle on country roads. You could hear the filmmaker say “I can’t believe it’s him!” repeatedly. A moment later, the original Lange photograph came on the screen. Yes, it was the same man on his bicycle that Lange had photographed. I got caught up in it, feeling much the same thing.

The director located and interviewed survivors, and relatives of survivors that Lange had photographed and juxtaposed it with quotes and pages from Lange’s journals. There were a few audio voice-overs taken from a 1964 interview with Lange regarding the project, and interviews with her son. The looks of the people as they saw for the first time photographs of their parents, and relatives that had passed on for the first time were priceless. What a great project. The faces of those people, looking at the photographs, reminded me of what I used to do. No amount of theory can strip away the power of the document to provide a window on the past. Photographs may be lies, but in a larger sense, so is life— and there are some lies we are compelled to embrace, to make it bearable. One of the fragments from Lange’s notebooks hit me hard:

Never straight-on. Always from the curves.

For years I struggled with the dead-on perspectives of Walker Evans and others. It was when I started to come at it from the curves that I really started to grow. There will always be artifice. The evidence of Stryker’s influence was all over some of the notebook passages, notes for things to research, like “Why no trees?” Ireland has changed since Lange was there, but as the filmmaker noted in the end— it was the things that had remained the same that were the most striking, not the differences. To see relatives sitting against the same backdrop as their parents, to see the continuity of life, seems to be one of those “lies” of photography that seems absolutely essential to living. As one of the descendents said regarding his farm, passed down for six generations— you get the feeling that you aren’t alone. Someone had been there before you. Somehow, that seems to be more important than the disruption and changes of time.

The second film I saw was David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. It was outstanding, also. Several bits of information stand out, including Joshua Reynold’s portable camera obscura which folded up to be disguised as a book. I really liked the assertion that “intellectual property” was a part of life long before the juridical apparatus was there to support it. The technology used by the painters in the Middle Ages has been lost to mystery, however, because of this drive to protect it. However, as Hockney’s tee shirt proclaimed— optics don’t make marks. The idea that these painters used technology does not undercut their ability as artists. However, I’m not so sure about his proclamation that technology now will allow us to free ourselves from single-point perspective. Single point perspective is one of those comforting lies that I don’t see disappearing any time soon. However, the assertion that we are “in the world” rather than standing outside it looking in (the lie) is certainly food for thought as well. I remember seeing Hockney’s photo-collages on the beach in Venice, California in the mid-eighties. There was a sense of completion for me, in seeing this film. From the birth of an idea, to its fruition. Watching Hockney adjust the camera obscura, to sketch things at different points of focus reminded me of some similar experiments I was doing in the darkroom about that time too, trying to find new ways to see.

I wandered off after that to look at Warren’s latest at Taylor’s Contemporanea . Warren seems to be a bit time obsessed lately. There’s a little digital clock that keeps showing up in his paintings, always just after midnight. His sense of humor hasn’t dulled a bit though, Six Cent Still Life stood out to me, as did Books and Toilet Paper. Though the real connection is just a feeling that runs constantly through his work of flight. The web versions just don’t do the paintings justice— my favorite by far was Flash Flood. I walked the length of the strip, ordered a cappucino that came out of the same Krups machine I use at home, and went back to see the films we were supposed to see for the class.

Watching Daddy and Papa brought out memories of a different sort. The moment they flashed Anita Bryant on the screen, I started to get ill. Why can’t we just give Florida back to Spain? It might solve many of the country’s problems, though we would lose many fine beaches. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me that there is so much noise over gay adoption. It is so hard to find people who really want to be parents. Are group homes, filled with neglect really better “moral” environments for children? What a sham, and a disgrace. If people want to be parents, regardless of their sexual preference, I don’t see what the big deal is. Given the urge of children to rebel against their parents, it seems to me that if anything, it would increase the straight population.

The last film we watched was a real hoot. Georgie Girl is the story of the first transgendered MP in New Zealand. It seems to me that survival in such a difficult life role would be a guarantee of great political skill. The vintage footage of sex-clubs in New Zealand alone was worth the paltry price of admission. What was most interesting to me was a TV interview where the interviewer was just certain that there must have been a huge change in attitude once she had her genitals snipped. As if the root of identity was in a person’s genitals, and any change there must have had a profound effect. We went out for drinks afterward, and I’m sure I talked too much. It was a good day though. It’s just such a weird setting to see these films in. Hot Springs wants to be San Francisco (a few days of the year, anyway), but they really don’t have a clue. San Francisco is loud; open communities don’t come from silence and deserted shop-fronts.

In the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate dinner there was a towel dispenser that reminded me of an old album from the San Francisco band Hot Tuna: First Pull Up— Then Pull Down. It was named after the instructions on toilet seat protectors. The towel dispenser seemed more to the point: “Pull Down and Pull Toward You.” I like that advice better.