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The Art of Art

29 May

On a trip to Venice, Italy, I visited the Palazzo Ducale, the Renaissance-era Venetian palace of…Ducale, I guess. It was definitely impressive, in fact it captured my mind (and about 1 GB on my camera’s memory card) days before I visited the actual structure. Once inside the palace, I was struck dumb by all of the ornate woodwork, gold leaf trim on everything, and depictions of Jesus paneling the ceiling. Lots of pictures of Jesus. Lots and lots of pictures of Jesus. Jesus up on the cross, Jesus down from the cross. Jesus doling out bread and fishes, Jesus standing gloriously outside of a cave. There were some images of the Virgin Mary and assorted cherubs, but–Jesus Christ!–there were mostly paintings of Jesus Christ. I thought about the guys who painted this stuff, it was probably their lives’ work to decorate the ceiling of the Palazzo Ducale. And here I am, about half an eon into their future, snickering at all the naked boobs.

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I figure the people who painted all of these Jesuses on the ceiling probably got really good at painting Jesus after a while. I remember seeing a documentary on Charles Schulz in the 1980s: a camera filmed his weathered hand as he drew perfect depictions of Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and Lucy Van Pelt in ink without any pencil guides. I was pretty impressed at first, then my dad pointed out that I might have seen the ten-thousandth time he’d drawn these particular characters. Years later, while ruining page after page of my looseleaf notebook trying to come up with new graffiti styles, I noticed that I developed a different relationship, a sort of understanding with the letters I’d chosen to compose my tag. These phenomenons are what happen through regular practice, through routine. Any action performed over and over, day and and day out will become rote after a time. When you first learned to walk, you had to concentrate on keeping in one direction without falling down. Now you walk and fall down without even thinking of it.

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It seems like art in the Western world, specifically beginning in the second half of the twentieth century, is about self expression: we only paint Jesus when we want to. My friend Justin points out that it’s an outgrowth of the American Dream, that you can be whatever you want to be and live freely to throw paint buckets at a canvas. There’s certainly something to that, it appears as if many people get into art because they believe it to be contrary to the shackled, work-a-day world of regular pay and health benefits. There’s also the possibility that you roll the dice on Life As an Artist and come up with a financial boon. But is this something worth gambling over? You can make the most trite, banal song and license it to a commercial for lots of money. You can scribble a few lines on a page and upload it to the internet to be viewed by millions of people. Will someone stand before your work and regard it in five hundred years? What intrinsic value has been created outside of the temporal context of its creation? If financial gain is the objective, then I tell you that you’re better off at that work-a-day job collecting a paycheck.

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My impression is that, based on some of the modern art I’ve consumed, that a lot of people need to go back and paint some more Jesuses. So much output in the digital age is derivative, belying their creators’ lack of acumen. Paint your Jesus, write your essays, work on your robot conqueror every single day. You will get better at whatever you pursue, and you’ll understand new things about your craft as it continues to be exercised. Don’t talk about it, be about it. And once you’ve put in your time, paid some dues, then you know that when you paint boobs, you’re doing it as an artistic choice and not for some churlish idiot to snicker at.

Scene to Be Seen

5 Feb

I have had the arguable fortune to be involved with two “scenes” in my lifetime: one surrounding New York City Hardcore music, and another tethered to hip-hop’s international popularity. I wasn’t anyone important, you won’t find me in any oral retrospectives or graduate theses about these times, but I attended a lot of shows and developed a cabal of like-minded friends, with whom I could argue redundantly about our scene’s particulars. He’s wearing a stupid hat. She’s got the wrong shoelaces on her Doc Maarten’s. Ultimately, we united in order to process our scenedom–a scene within a scene. And the main thing that unified us was our collective dismissal of anyone out of touch or new to the genre.

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Apprenticeship is nothing new, indeed its traditions stretch back to humanity’s earliest days. There’s no easy way around it, you’ve got to pay dues before you can effectively talk shit. In the work-a-day world, this makes good horse sense: I wouldn’t want an untrained surgeon poking around my smelly bits, nor would I want a budding plumber to take his first whack at my leaky toilet. Job training is a place where a would-be professional can be humbled by his mistakes without pissing off a client, or worse, killing someone. Being part of a scene, however, offers no such luxury: one must take their lumps in full view of the old guard, who already sneer with derision at your existence. You clique up with other newbies, pay your dues together, and heap shit on newer, smaller fans of whatever a particular scene revolves around. Mind you, most music scenes last three years at best, so this cycle is reiterated at tremendous speed. It’s only a few generations of supplicants before a genre devours itself and becomes irrelevant.

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I wonder how important that kind of scenester apprenticeship is today. To be acknowledged at hardcore and hip-hop shows, I bought and listened to a lot of music, wore certain t-shirts and accessories, steeled myself for interminable discussions about every aspect of the genre in question. I paid those dues, often literally with actual dollars, and earned the right to wear a long-sleeved BURN t-shirt. Today, you could download all the music I’ve ever owned and read the liner notes from the album covers in a weekend. All of that arcane knowledge passed down from asshole to asshole is right there on the internet, free for the taking. Do scenes even exist anymore, or is culture something to be devoured and assimilated before going on to newer things? Really, I have no idea. The only scene I’m looking at joining in the near future is the scene of dudes about to get their first prostate exam. I hope there’s someone experienced in the waiting room to instruct me on the finer points of having a gloved finger shoved up my butt.

More Shitty Movies That Are Great

11 Oct

I shared some of my favorite movies once before, and if you’re so inclined you can check out my prior offerings. But just to recap: I’ve been watching crappy horror and sci-fi flicks for almost as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a venerated tradition, passed down from parent to child, and one I’d like to pass down to you since kids are assholes who can’t appreciate true cinema, or anything not fully-rendered in computer graphics that leaps off the screen like projectile vomit.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, 1971

If you’ve never seen a Godzilla movie, this is not the one with which to start, because it is hands down the most tripped-out and darkest film in the series. It carries a strong ecological message thoroughly diluted by surreal cartoon segues and inexplicable scenes, like when the human protagonist goes to a night club and hallucinates that everyone’s got fish heads. I don’t mean that they’re holding fish heads, I mean that their human heads have been replaced with oversized heads of fish. Then, the Smog Monster–a gigantic, shuffling turd with eyes–steps up to a smokestack and pulls a righteous bong hit (which makes his eyes glow super-red…totally). Another unusual thing about this movie that isn’t canonical with the series is that a lot of people die after whiffing the Smog Monster’s smoky farts. That doesn’t stop the survivors from whooping it up on the slopes of Mount Fuji as an Armageddon Eve celebration. The DVD version allows for English and French subtitles, but I suggest you watch the dubbed version if only to hear the awesomeness that is the theme song.

18 Again!, 1988

There were few kids-as-adults type movies that hit theaters in 1988: Big, Vice Versa, Like Father, Like Son. But there’s one that gets overlooked…okay, so all of them get overlooked, besides Big because it was the only one that didn’t seem like a made-for-TV movie. But the most overlooked one is 18 Again!, starring Charles Slattery and that irascible, cigar-chomping vampire George Burns. George slips into a coma and is visited by his grandson, played by Charlie, and then through some sequence of events that I forget they trade spiritual places, so that George is an old man in a young man’s body and Charles is…I guess some old guy in a coma. The movie is worth seeing for Slattery’s crummy George Burns impersonation, but I’ve always been tickled by the fact that this was probably George Burns’ easiest job ever since he spends almost the entire movie lying in bed, feigning sleep. This is acting? I sleep at work all the time, no one has offered me any Academy Awards. I don’t recall a whole lot of the plot, but it’s an 80s comedy movie so you’re bound to see some tits.

Rappin’, 1985

The inclusion of hip-hop into mainstream American culture was not completely organic or seamless. There were a lot of attempts, both credulous and ludicrous, to bring rapping, deejaying, breakdancing and writing graffiti into places beyond American urban centers. It’s difficult to stand here, decades after the fact, and determine if these attempts actually aided hip-hop’s emergence into the spotlight, or if they were symptoms of a growing cultural awareness of what was going on in the South Bronx. It’s not difficult, however, to spot an impostor, as we do with the movie Rappin’ starring Mario Van Peebles and featuring Kadeem “Dwayne Wayne” Hardison of A Different World fame. The movie is about Mario’s character, newly-released from jail, seeking to rehabilitate his beleaguered neighborhood by winning a rap contest. He proceeds to succeed in his endeavor by delivering some of the shittiest, corniest rap lines this side of “Rappin’ Rodney.” It’s worth watching until the end credits, when the entire cast kicks verses about their roles in the movie, essentially reiterating what you’ve just watched. In fact, you can fast-forward to the end and spare yourself the pain of watching Mario Van Peebles try to act hard in a mesh tank top and sensuous Jheri curled hair.

Mormons: Morons, or More “On?”

26 Jan

Growing up in New York City, I didn’t get the opportunity to interact with a lot of Mormons. In fact, until I was in my late twenties, I encountered exactly zero Mormons, at least to my knowledge. I was aware of Mormonism, however, through a series of awesome commercials that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would run on Saturday mornings during my cartoon time. When I was very young, I thought they were another of the morning’s public service announcements, like the one where a bunch of sock puppets warned you not to take your mother’s Sucrets. By the time I was nine years old, I realized that I was actually being pitched to by a religion, and a Christian one at that. It didn’t really bother me, except that religion was cutting into my personal Saturday time, when everyone knows that church and evangelical television programs belong on Sunday.


My first exposure to actual tenets of the Mormon religion–besides their famous and salacious allowance for polygamy–was from watching the movie Plan 10 From Outer Space. This remains on the list of weirdest movies I have ever seen, and I could spend this entire essay trying to explain the plot. Pertinent to this piece were some of the facts about Mormonism as presented in the movie: that God came from a planet called Kolob, and every Mormon gets his own planet in the afterlife. It was starting to sound more like science-fiction than spirituality. A couple of years later, I started dating someone who had a copy of the Book of Mormon, which I promptly borrowed and read and never returned.


I truly think that every literate person should read the Book of Mormon, because it is one of the funniest and most insane books ever written. If you’re like I was, you probably think the book is full of a bunch of new age baloney and pseudo-holy mumbo jumbo that isn’t worth your time. But you’d be wrong. The Book of Mormon is the unbelievable and ludicrous story about Jews living in America during biblical times, how they warred among themselves, and how a faction of the Jews named the Lamanites angered God were turned into red-skinned Native Americans as punishment. The book claims that, during the three days between Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and his resurrection, he zipped over to what would become America and imparted some sage wisdom to its multitude. I mean, that just blows my mind. That means the Book of Mormon is partially an account of Jesus’ “lost weekend.”


In 2003, I read Jon Krakauer’s wonderful book Under the Banner of Heaven. It’s a compelling, well-written account of the history of Mormonism interspersed with a more current story about a Mormon woman murdered by her brothers. The book is really about a Mormon sect that is not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints–that would be the “official” Mormon church, but like any religion there are lots of splinter groups with their own ideas. Some of them still practice polygamy and engage in incest as proscribed by scripture, and Under the Banner of Heaven makes clear that these practitioners comprise the smallest portion of Mormons. In fact, they would not even resonate as Mormons as we know them. Turns out that the ones practicing incest and killing their wives were a far cry from the short-sleeved, starched shirt missionaries with precise haircuts and shit-eating grins that one would normally associate with Mormonism. I still came away with the notion that Mormons are a strange, backwards people, well worthy of my ridicule.


It was around this time that I actually met a guy who was Mormon, the idea of which tickled me to no end. Imagine my disappointment when he didn’t try to explain that the Garden of Eden was in Jackson, Missouri, didn’t tell me about Heavenly Father’s plan to give me my own, personal planet in the afterlife. He was, annoyingly, a very pleasant, polite person that liked a lot of the same comic books that I do. I plied him about his faith, and he pretty well pulled my card: “You’ve read the Book of Mormon,” he said, “you know what we’re about. If that doesn’t appeal to you, then fine. It doesn’t make me want to stop talking about Batman.” I was very embarrassed. Here I was, hoping to meet a kooky, wacky Mormon that would regale me with ridiculous stories about Jesus visiting America, all along I was the nut job hovering around, pressuring him to say something that I could laugh at. It occurred to me that practically every creed and belief sounds like complete bullshit when you voice it aloud: “I believe that the universe was spontaneously created and that the invisible air around us actually contains tiny particles whose structure and movement matches that of our solar system.” Weirdo. I lost touch with this Mormon friend a while ago–he lost touch with me, actually, probably because I was such a pain in the ass about his church. But I resolved from then on to judge people by the things they do, not by my regard for their beliefs.


A couple of weeks ago, I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway. I’m a fan of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, and really enjoyed the episode of South Park which details a basic history of Mormonism. The musical was hilarious, too, and if you’re not shy of some seriously blue language, you should check it out. However, the play ends implying that working together and helping each other are the real major tenets of Mormonism, not the stuff about golden plates and multiple wives. The important things are the values that they espouse, because everyone believes in some retarded-sounding shit whether they know it or not. The episode of South Park dealing with Mormonism ends in much the same way. Many people I’ve known say that they respect religious scripture and spirituality, but reject churches as inherently corrupt. Mormonism kind of turns that idea on its ear, a religion based on scripture that sounds like a load of donkey loafs, but realized in a church that actually fosters community, family, and good works. You really can’t hate on that.

Could It Be…Satan?!

14 Nov

My brother was a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, but I never got into the stuff. Truthfully, I was a few years too young for it even in 1985, when the craze for role-playing games was dying out. The whole thing seemed too complicated to me, a lot of charts and weird-looking dice, and I was never into the fantasy genre. Still, you couldn’t get away from Dungeons & Dragons and a few other similar games in the early 80s. Their popularity seemed to grow alongside the mounting hysteria surrounding these games’ connection to teenage depression and the occult. My brother often quoted a most likely false tale about a kid who was so obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons that when his character died while playing the game, the guy went home and committed suicide. My brother would grin with glee while telling this story, proud to be dabbling in something so dangerous and wicked.


I wasn’t raised a Christian, so I wasn’t told that God is an all-seeing, all-knowing vain asshole who requires my persistent patronage and adoration. But I did know that Satan was a force of evil, I was made aware of this by news reports of satanic ritual abuse and talk shows about satanic cults and pamphlets and magazine articles and movies all telling me that Satan was looking to steal my soul. Strangely, it never occurred to me that Satan was in an eternal struggle with God, I thought it was us versus Satan; either we let the devil make us bad people, or we decide to be good. The punishment for siding with Satan would be eternal damnation and torture, but the reward for being good would simply be death. Mind you, this is something I determined when I was nine years old. I can only imagine what kinds of berserk shit I’d have been thinking had I been raised a Catholic like my friends and specifically told what tortures lie in store for me should I ponder upon a bosom.


The fear generated by the belief in a worldwide Satanic conspiracy during that time was unbelievable. Satan was everywhere: in our music, in our television shows, in our board games. He preyed mainly on standoffish adolescents and cooing infants, though he wasn’t above the occasional demonic possession of a retiree. Stories about massive cult blood orgies and ritual sacrifice of kidnapped children began popping up, each instance awakening the repressed memories of former members or victims of these cults, their flashbacks recorded while under deep hypnosis on a therapist’s couch. These satanic organizations comprised a highly organized network of devoutly evil people who had infiltrated every town, every suburb, every neighborhood. The most insidious thing about it was that anyone could be a secret satanist: your teacher, the bus driver, even members of your very own church could be paying lip service to God while shitting on a crucifix in their spare time. The main concern were those targeted by the prince of darkness: children. And so a lot of corny shit was justified to insulate the average child from inducement into evil by way of Black Sabbath records and fantasy board games.


No one considers themselves a bad person. We always do what we think is right, which pretty much justifies any act. The guy killing prostitutes at the suggestion of the voices in his head is only doing what he thinks is right. It’s a lot more palatable to believe that the fucked up stuff we do to one another is beyond our control, all manipulated by hoary forces and complex machinations that work incessantly to foster your poor choices. Demon bullies, essentially, or comic book super villains that are committed to evil for evil’s sake. Growing up, my Christian pals told me that God had given all of us free will, which boiled down to the freedom to choose between believing in Christ the messiah or eternal hell fires. This struck me as odd since it implies that our natural state is to be bad, that we have to work to get into God’s graces or we can relax and act naturally for a free trip to Hades. I figured that after all this time, that many billions of souls condemned to hell had to have figured out a loophole. I mean if there’s anything the human race excels at, it’s justifying and even reveling in its own laziness.


The notion that evil forces are invested in making our comings and going as nefarious as possible is a scary one, but far scarier is the reality that there are no evil forces, that we hurt our loved ones and fall short of our potential because we are selfish, and small-minded, and hopelessly locked within our own skin. There is most likely no final reward, no waiting punishment, no foundation to the ideas of karma or cosmic balance or divine retribution. We’re a component of a universal design so complex so as to render us practically irrelevant, and whatever little squabbles we have with each other, no matter if we kiss or kill each other, our most important function is to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Our lives are not significant enough to warrant speculation by demons and devils. Our best hope is that, along the way, we’ll get to roll the twenty-sided die a few times and end up with an extra bit of treasure or a Cloak of Wisdom or something.

Confessions of a Teenage Idiot: The Blog that Links to Another Blog

19 Sep

Many apologies to my multitude for the recent lack of updates, rest assured that our technicians are aware of the issue and are working to remedy it as you read this. In the meantime, point your thingamabobs over to syffal.com and read my guest blog, Confessions of a Teenage Idiot, wherein I detail how fucking cool I was before I had fully developed secondary sex characteristics. While you’re there, poke around the website a bit and see if you can’t make it ooze pus.

Best,
Reggie

You Would Be the First to Get Vicked

26 May

Nostalgia is big business. The biggest concert tours in the world are, for the most part, fueled by people’s nostalgia for their youth, when they gave a shit about music. eBay exists primarily to supply upwardly-mobile adults with rescued and rehabilitated toys from their childhoods. I think that the business of nostalgia was invented by Joe Franklin, who used to have a late night talk show on WWOR TV that ran for something like ten billion years. People have always gotten wistful for the good ol’ days, but it was Joe Franklin who dusted off those relics of the good ol’ days and stuck them under harsh studio lights for people to fawn over. Stories of yesteryear no longer need to be passed down from generation to generation, you can now record and relay the actual artifact for future historians and pop culture junkies to puzzle over for all eternity. So you have many lenses through which to view history, be it through the land disputes and wars which have created the world’s borders we know today, or through a subtle progression of the Coca-Cola logo.


There’s so much media reference for the twentieth century that it’s difficult to know which memories are our own and which have been created by nostalgic reverie. I remember when the space shuttle Challenger blew up, I was in the sixth grade and a special assembly had to be hastily arranged to inform students and allow teachers a space to cry. In my mind’s eye, I can recall sitting in a classroom with a bunch of students, watching the space shuttle lift off and soar towards the clouds, then suddenly vanish in a bright puff that spewed two other smoke trails to either side of the craft. I can recall everyone gasping and holding their hands up to their mouths, my teacher wide-eyed in shock at the occurrence. The thing is that I didn’t watch the Challenger lift off live on television, my sixth grade teacher didn’t arrange for us to watch it during class like some other teachers had. However, I saw repeats of the disaster after school and for many days afterward, viewed footage of classrooms around America watching the horror unfold on television sets rolled in by maintenance. So my actual memory of the event, which should include that I knew nothing of the space shuttle’s planned takeoff or that it had civilian passengers until after the fact, is faulty.


Despite my not actually being aware of its scope, I was alive and cognizant for Challenger’s fatal flight. But I can’t remember a thing about the 1970s. In fact, one of my earliest memories is watching President Ronald Reagan speak on television, Jimmy Carter a forgotten footnote already by the time I was five years old. I grew up on the Northeastern end of Queens, and if my parents took me to Manhattan before I was in kindergarten, I don’t remember it. I recall going into “the city” with my parents during the 80s, terrified of the rocking subway with its windows and maps darkened by spraypaint and indelible ink, the lights flickering off for minutes at a time, conductor announcements crackling loudly through distended speakers that rendered them completely inaudible. I remember a lot of filthy winos and fat cops who lazily watched people drinking and smoking dope outdoors from behind inscrutable mustaches. It all scared the shit out of me and made me want to rush back to my native Flushing with its endearing neighborhood drunks and white trash weirdos. These were the last vestiges of 1970s New York, though I couldn’t comprehend that at the time. And it looked fucking awful.


It’s easy to romanticize New York City of the 1970s, what with all of the books, movies and music that make it seem like a hedonistic utopia. Sure, flicks like Taxi Driver and The Taking of Pelham 123 ain’t all sweet. There’s a lot of anger and tension in the works of The Last Poets. But the ideal is that 1970s New York was a place where you could get away with shit, where you could drink a beer while walking outdoors past peep shows, savoring the aroma of unwashed junkies. The subways were glittering canvases of color, punk rock an urgent expression of malaise. One gets the impression that budding artistic geniuses populated every block in Manhattan, each of them coiled and ready to splatter game-changing mindfucks on a street smart populace thoroughly jaded by repeated mindfucks. This was a time before AIDS, a time before crack cocaine, when potential rewards appeared to outstrip their respective risks.


I love it when some goatee-having hipster dressed like Sammy Davis, Jr. on vacation complains about the current state of New York City and whines that he wishes it were more like it was in the 1970s. What the fuck do you know about it, dude? You like the Talking Heads and you watched The Warriors and thought you had it all figured out. Buddy, you would be the first to get robbed. The very same cop who might look the other way while you smoked a doobie in Lincoln Center would likewise ignore the four teenagers digging through your pockets while holding a box cutter to your throat. Is not being able to read any signage or see out of subway windows worth bringing back graffiti on trains? Because from my experience in the 80s, for every spectacularly-painted train car there were twenty that looked like they’d been through a war. Yeah, you’d like to have seen Blondie’s inaugural performance at CBGB’s but you probably aren’t willing to be on the receiving end of a Doc Marten steel tip to the mouth. Your version of 1970s New York City mercifully dismisses the homicides, the disenfranchised non-white people living on blocks of burning buildings, the squalor. Your favorite bagel joint on Bushwick Avenue. was once a looted storefront when the neighborhood was held under siege for two weeks in 1977. And if you resided in that neighborhood then, you would be dead.


Today New York City is homogenized, pasteurized, fortified with vitamin D. Its teeth have been capped, its nails have been tastefully filed, and you can enjoy a shopping mall experience like you might in almost any other major American city on the map. What made New York interesting has all but been eradicated. But what made the place interesting was never the danger, it was not the filth and grime. It was the people who challenged the status quo, who refused unjust and pointless laws and who knew the value of minding your own business. I know you like running around Bedford Avenue with your can of Montana spray paint, scrawling inanity on the sides of buildings and on lamp posts. But you should know that if you tried that thirty-five years ago, you could have gotten your meat lumped. Not by picky residents on a coalition for neighborhood beautification, but by other writers who wanted to steal your shit. And that would have been a blessing, because if the Savage Nomads caught you out there, it would be over.

Artists are Fucking Assholes

23 Apr

In producing a variety of pointless creative ventures, I’ve had the opportunity to work and interact with many different artists. I do this for two reasons: one, because my craft and ambition are severely lacking, and two, so I can split the forthcoming derision and jeers with another person. Frankly, I’m more prone to blame the whole thing on them: “I didn’t want to make a Ku Klux Klan robe out of Tyvek home insulation! It was all her idea!” Whatever the case, I’ve known many artists that are proficient in a variety of media, and by and large I can say that most artists you’ll meet are fucking assholes.

Interestingly, artists seem to align their poor behavior along their chosen form of expression, meaning that a musician will be a different kind of an asshole than a writer, though they both be assholes. Here’s a short list of the kinds of experiences I’ve had with certain kinds of artists (or arteestes, as many prefer to be called):

Musicians


The rare times you’ll see a musician wearing a wristwatch, know that it is just for show: no musician can actually tell time. People that make music are habitually late to everything, and seem to operate on their own internal clocks. Perhaps musicians can’t understand numbers except where they define a time signature, because they appear to have a fuzzy concept on money and value as well. A music maker will either work themselves to the bone for a pittance, or fart around and waste time yet expect a bundle of cash for it. Whatever they’re paid, most musicians will spend their money on drugs and booze anyway. Musicians like free liquor, well-worn concert t-shirts, and people that take their inane chatter seriously. Musicians dislike sunlight and fiscal responsibility.

Painters and Sculptors


It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and if you happen to talk to the artist who made a particular piece, you will probably hear all of them. No painting or sculpture can ever be bad, in the creator’s eyes, merely misunderstood. And they’ll have no compunction about explaining it to you until you understand or acquiesce. These types of artists don’t ascribe to normal social conventions like tact or bathing, and consider their implementation to be a kind of oppression. Despite the fact that they work in visual mediums, a lot of these artists look like slobs. Painters and sculptors like weird caffeinated drinks, expensive art supplies, and unventilated gallery shows. Painters and sculptors dislike supermarket cheese and commercial art.

Actors


Some artists pursue art because they want to share beauty with the world, or because they believe they have something important to convey. The only reason people go into acting is to escape their shitty childhoods. A profession where people are paid to lie, acting should be very emotionally taxing, and yet off stage or behind the camera actors are usually more mercurial and prone to hissy fits than anyone else. There may be genetic reasons behind why so many actors are sucseptible to bouts of sickness which cause them to cancel on their engagements at the last minute. Actors like attention, melodrama, and wearing scarves. Actors dislike monogamy and other actors.

Filmmakers


Being the youngest of all media discussed in this essay, you’d think that most filmmakers would be humble and mindful of past masters. To the contrary, no artist wants accolades for reinventing the wheel more than the person behind the camera with the megaphone. In another life, these people might be fascist dictators; in this reality, they are curt taskmasters who, when they need their shoelaces tied, will employ thirty-two assistants, one for each eyelet on their shoes. Directors and producers are some of the most loathed people in existence (mostly by the people they work with), ranking slightly above proctologists but well below trained ninja assassins. Filmmakers like trespassing, yelling, and making people stand still for long periods of time. Filmmakers dislike disobedience and editing film.

Writers


Never call a writer a “writer,” instead call him or her an “author,” unless you like being haughtily corrected. Writers tend to regard deadlines with suspicion and will usually miss their target dates out of spite. People who write will never say “hide” when they can say “obfuscate,” will correct your use of a semicolon, and often mispronounce words that they’ve read but never heard spoken. They are also fat and have stupid names like Reggie. Writers like solitude, comfortable chairs, and the letter “e.” Writers dislike paper cuts and criticism.

Rapture is Not a Rap Song

20 Mar

Something about the album cover to Blondie’s Autoamerican thrilled and frightened my five year-old mind enough that I stole into my brother’s bedroom and peeked at it at every chance I’d get. It was the back cover, you see, that implied the band had jumped over the edge of a high roof. Committed suicide. And yet I could listen to the ethereal strains of Angels On the Balcony and Do the Dark, voices of the recently dead as depicted in the two-panel comic strip of the album cover. I knew that the band was quite alive, and yet indulged this fantasy every time I heard tracks from the album blasting from the recesses of my brother’s domain.


I’m aware that many Blondie fans consider Autoamerican the beginning of the band’s decline, and they’re entitled to that opinion. For me, the album is a trip down memory lane where the line between my appreciation for the music and reliving a memory from my distant past is completely blurred. Like anyone overly familiar with the album, I skip The Tide is High. I don’t listen to the weird intro track where Debbie Harry gives a speech every time. But I do still listen to the album somewhat regularly, and when I do, I play the tracks in order and (for the most part) all the way through. Over the thirty years since this album has been released, my feelings and opinions on nearly every moment of every song has changed in every conceivable way. Except for one: I have never, at any point, felt that Rapture was a rap song.


We can debate whether or not it is a new wave song, or a rock n’ roll song, or an 80s pop tune, but I cannot be convinced that Rapture is a rap song. I’ve heard it enough by now that I don’t really need to hear it ever again, but still I won’t say that Rapture is a bad song. It’s a fine song, one which employs a rap verse but is not itself a rap song. I can’t say why my kindergarten-aged self made this distinction, being that I had a tenuous grasp on the burgeoning world of recorded rap music at best, but it struck me as phony. In Rapture, rap lyrics were being used as a gimmick, like in Honeymooners Rap and Rappin’ Duke (two songs I loved, incidentally). I don’t think Rapture comes from a malicious place, and in fact I am quite aware of Debbie Harry and Chris Stein’s involvement with the early 80s East Village hip-hop scene. I just don’t think it should be considered a rap song.


Only the most insignificant percentage of the relatively small number of people who have ever heard Rapture would even give time to consider whether it was a rap song or not. I don’t think most people think about things like this, they don’t obsessively categorize and define their world in such rigid terms. However, there’s a significant segment of the population, many of whom seem to stem from my generation, that do. These are our future hoarders and sweaty weirdos who rock themselves into a hypnotic stupor while riding the public bus. People who care about continuity on Saved By the Bell, people who collect back issues of Word Up! magazine, people who care whether or not Rapture is regarded as a true rap song.

If You Don’t Watch These Movies, You’re Racist

15 Feb

Fifth Avenue was slow in adopting hip-hop, but once ad agencies and marketing departments realized there were Big Buck$ in that beat, they took to it like gangbusters. Today, it’s hard to imagine a jingle or pop song without the familiar boom, snare, boom boom, snare, a beat that backs many forms of modern music, from country to country western. T-shirts emblazoned with logos and designs are common fare for the Wal-Mart rack, while graffiti seems to grow and grow worldwide. Hip-hop is a culture that has intermingled with so many mainstream cultures that it’s become the undercurrent to our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine a time that hip-hop wasn’t ever present in our society.


But such a time did exist, and relatively speaking it wasn’t that long ago. Hip-hop didn’t get absorbed into popular culture until Bill Clinton’s second term, though it had, by then, made significant inroads. When I was a little kid, hip-hop didn’t even exist, at least not in my cloistered world. I didn’t hear a rap song until radio station Z100 played “Jam On It” by Newcleus around 1985. In fact, rap music and hip-hop culture had to be presented to much of America, white or otherwise, before it took hold and spread like wildfire. The following four movies were earnest attempts at doing just that.


Style Wars, 1984
Of the four movies presented in this essay, Style Wars can be said to be the most “real,” in that it is a documentary instead of a fictionalized account of hip-hop culture. Originally planned as a documentary about break dancing, producers Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant began concentrating more on graffiti and rapping as the fad of break dancing started to die down (this film, along with Flashdance, helped revive it for a little while in the mid-eighties). You don’t have to be a fan of hip-hop to enjoy this engaging and well-made documentary, so quotable that some of my friends and I can speak solely in Style Wars language. We greet each other with “Gigolo! What you know?!” and describe a weekend plan as “everybody getting united at the bench, 149th Street, Grand Concourse.” This is probably my second favorite movie of all time after The Human Tornado.


Wild Style, 1983
This movie has been called an addendum to Style Wars, and it may be, at that. Featuring everyone in the hip-hop scene that wasn’t in Style Wars, Wild Style is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story about a graffiti writing couple’s struggle between staying true to the underground or blowing up and becoming minor celebrities among Lower East Side phonies. Or something like that. It’s an indie film at its most indie, which means it’s short on plot and technical ability, but it is long on actual footage of rap parties and writing graffiti in train yards. It’s rather touching that this movie attempted to be a crossover film to the mainstream by including Patti Astor in a miniature role. Wild Style is so bumbling, it’s adorable, and that’s besides the fact that Lady Pink is an 80s cutie throughout the movie.


Krush Groove, 1985
A fictionalized account of record label Def Jam’s early days, Krush Groove is different from the previous two movies I mentioned in that it doesn’t bother with many other elements of hip-hop besides the rapping and deejaying. Blair Underwood stars as Russell Simmons, and Russell Simmons stars as a nightclub promoter, and that’s just about the only thing coherent in the film. There’s a whole story about how Simmons’ acts get poached by another label and then the meat heads from House Party 2 beat the snot out of him for a while, but you can content yourself with watching a teenage LL Cool J in his big screen debut, as well as Fat Boys gluttonous montage “All You Can Eat,” a worthwhile reason to watch the movie by itself.


Beat Street, 1984
This would be the White Devil of the four movies presented here, being that it had the biggest budget and was distributed by MGM. Featuring Rae Dawn Chong and practically no one else worth mentioning, Beat Street is a kind of amalgam of the other three movies, featuring the most interesting elements of each film and discarding the personality. Oddly enough, though it’s the most mainstream of these four movies, it has some of the best scenes of urban blight of any of them, including a main character living as a squatter with his family, something which was a reality for many more New Yorkers during the 1970s than were Adidas sneakers. Of the four movies, this is probably the most watchable, but it’s the least interesting from a contextual perspective. Watch it only after watching the others, but don’t watch them all in the same day. You’ll probably want to go out and break dance after such a marathon.

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