Tag Archives: 1980s

Some Movies That Fucked Me Up a Little

17 Feb

I have the honor of being a Younger Brother. Moreso, my sibling is an Older Brother, not an Older Sister, which has deep ramifications. My childhood was full of farting contests and instruction on masturbation and being made to feel like an insignificant worm, while an Older Sister might have simply made me feel like an insignificant worm and left it at that. One dubious benefit of having an Older Brother is that I got to hear music and watch movies that, at the time, I was probably too young to fully comprehend. My particular Older Brother was a big fan of the horror genre, which is why, when my age was still in single digits, I saw a lot of movies that kind of fucked me up.

When A Stranger Calls, 1979, color

Of all the movies I watched at grade-school age that I shouldn’t have–A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp–When A Stranger Calls is arguably the least scary from an objective viewpoint. However, it made a big impact on me because it was the first horror movie I ever saw. It may have been the very first time my parents went out for the evening and left my brother in charge, but it was certainly during one of these initial expressions of parental trust that I saw the movie, which ultimately led to me not sleeping for two weeks. The plot to When A Stranger Calls is the same as that campfire story about the prank caller who ends up have called from inside the house all along, a trite, old yarn that I had never heard before seeing the film. I can recall a scene depicting a bloody guy in a bathtub that I don’t believe is actually in the movie. Though I was terrified of When A Stranger Calls and had lingering nightmares because of it, I don’t think I ever explained as much to my parents. I guess I thought they’d be pissed off if they knew my brother let me watch it.

Phantasm, 1979, color

My brother was able to traumatize two family members with this film: my mother first, when she took him to see it in the theater and then never took him to see another horror movie again for as long as he lived. Then again, much later, when he and I watched it one evening that my parents were out. The plot, as I understood at age nine, is about a horrifying tall man that scares the shit out of everyone just through his sheer existence. There are also little Jawas that kidnap people and send them to another dimension through a portal hidden within a mausoleum, but what I mainly remember is the Tall Man, played by Angus Scrimm. How good is that name? Angus Scrimm. With a name like that, you’re either going to be a bagpipe player, or someone that scares the pants off of little kids without much effort. But there’s no way you could be both.

The Last House On the Left, 1972, color

I’m closing in on forty years old at the time of this writing, and I still don’t think I’m old enough to watch this movie. Arguably one of the most disturbing theatrical releases in history, Last House On the Left is about two thrill-seeking teenage girls who go to a rock concert only to get raped and murdered. Parents of one of the teens take their opportunity to enact (a sort of convoluted) revenge when the killers show up at their doorstep due to car trouble. I saw this movie when I was nine years old. The song that plays over the closing credits is one of my favorite songs of all time–a kind of freewheeling country tune that basically outlines the plot of the movie. If you’ve got a strong stomach, I recommend you watch this movie because it’s definitely an interesting juxtaposition of gore, psychological horror, and slapstick comedy–yes, you read that right, slapstick comedy. However, if you’re a nine year-old boy who pisses himself when highly anxious, then you should put this flick on the back burner and watch something more tame like House.

Here’s Why the World Owes Me a Living, Part One

13 Feb

Here’s why the world owes me a living: neither of my grandmothers could cook for shit.

Actually, it is possible that my maternal grandmother may have been a good cook, before I met her. I really wouldn’t know. In my lifetime, nearly all of her meals were frozen fare, either boil-in-the-bag pasta or some gelatinous TV dinner heated in the oven. Though she watched me every day after school until I was thirteen, when she passed away, she never made anything for me beyond a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, recipe was as follows:

Two slices Wonder® white bread
Three slices Oscar Mayer® ham
Two slices Oscar Mayer® American cheese

Create sandwich from ingredients. Heat in oven until cheese has nearly evaporated and ham no longer glistens. Fish out of the oven and serve on an unfolded napkin. Serves one. Do not cut the sandwich before serving, or the ham slices will slide against each other and damage the meal’s integrity.

Just because my grandma didn’t cook for me, doesn’t mean there wasn’t food in her house. Many of my lifelong eating habits were learned while watching Inspector Gadget in my grandmother’s smoke-filled living room. At all times, she had a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a two-liter bottle of Pepsi that she kept on hand specifically for my brother’s and my consumption. I would also receive a daily ration of one “fresh” Kit-Kat candy bar, kept in the refrigerator to maintain maximum freshness (which had the side benefit of making it hard enough to eat each chocolate-covered wafer like a miniature corn on the cob), and sometimes I’d get a special treat: a Hershey’s ice cream pie with chocolate sauce and a tablespoon of strawberry preserves in the middle. I’d eat about two thousand calories in my grandmother’s living room before my parents got home and made dinner. This was in the 1980s, when many people thought diabetes was a sissy disease for people that couldn’t handle their corn syrup. While my maternal grandmother, to my memory, never cooked anything worthwhile, she never really tried, and her house was well-stocked with plenty of kid-friendly food (read: sugar) so I could at least learn the American tradition of equating food with love. My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, really couldn’t cook worth a damn.

I have heard tale told of her poor culinary skills for years: meatballs she would make in a pressure cooker, rendering them into little grey hi-bounce balls. Pot roast cooked to the consistency and taste of leather. Being that I wasn’t raised by my grandmother, I didn’t have many opportunities to sample her victual creations. My brother and I would stay over her house every year on New Year’s Eve, and presumably she fed us, but I can’t recall one dish she prepared while I was in her presence. That doesn’t speak well for her cooking. I do remember that my grandparents’ house was always well-stocked with bruised, gently rotting fruit that perfumed the air with the scent of a zoo. And my grandmother had an old adding machine from the 1950s that I liked to play with a lot, but I couldn’t eat that.

My personal memory of my paternal grandmother’s cooking is limited mainly to two dishes: a Yiddish pastry called rugelach, and a baked casserole called kugel. Rugelach is a simple little dessert, consisting of cookie dough shaped into a crescent and baked with a dollop of jam inside. Every time I heard that my grandparents were coming by for a holiday or some other event, I dreaded the hard, flavorless rugelach cookies that my grandma would bring in a blue cookie tin lined with wax paper. That they were cookies–a pleasant dessert, even–was something their recipients would need to be told, because there was nothing sweet or palatable about my grandma’s rugelach. The bottoms were always burnt and the treat had the consistency and taste of a dog biscuit. I would eat one, for reasons I can’t now discern, by gingerly nibbling away at the ends of the cookie until I reached the center, where a smear of jam had been begrudgingly tucked into the pastry’s folds. Over time, this quantity of jam decreased and decreased until it could only be detected by an electron microscope. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had the opportunity to eat rugelach from a bakery that I discovered it was actually supposed to be sweet and edible. I thought “rugelach” was a Yiddish word for “flavorless tooth-breaking cookie of sadness.

The tale of my grandmother’s kugel is more about her unyielding bitterness than her lack of culinary talents, because in fact her sweet potato kugel was good. Very good. Good enough that I anticipated it when she brought it over for Passover dinner every year. I remember there were sweet potatoes and raisins in it. Unfortunately I can’t remember any of the other ingredients, which is a damn shame because the recipe seems to have been lost to the world, buried along with my grandmother. Her sweet potato kugel stood out like a sore thumb against the tapestry of other dishes my grandma prepared, poorly. As a teenager, I relayed as much to my grandmother, and asked why she only made sweet potato kugel once a year. “Well, then it’s special,” she replied flatly, as if to confirm my suspicion that the other food she made was, indeed, a punishment for some untold transgression. “Well, grandma,” I replied sweetly, “I love your sweet potato kugel. I look forward to it every year. Feel free to bring it by any time, whether it’s in the Spring or not!”

And she never made sweet potato kugel again for the rest of her life.

This is why the world owes me a living, or at least one of the reasons. I have heard of grandmas whipping up sticky cakes and delicious cookies by the gross before their grandchildren awoke. All manner of matronly, loving ladies with names like “bubbie” and “nana” and “gramma,” all perpetually wrapped in aprons and permanently wielding wooden spoons that continually stirred giant pots of secret, delectable meals whose crafting had been mastered a dozen presidential terms ago. People bolstered by these lovingly-prepared meals have gone on to become happy, productive members of society, secure in the knowledge that there is some good in the world, because they know their grandmothers made the best gosh darn snickerdoodles. Me, I had to eat warm ham sandwiches and homemade dog biscuits. Frankly, I think I should be commended for not becoming a serial killer.

Comics Worth Avoiding: Piranha Press

24 Jan

I have a confession to make: I never really liked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I got into the comic book around 1987 because I had a crush on some girl who was into it. Wanting to impress her, I made an investment of time and money (the former mine, the latter my parents’) to get the first four trade editions of the comics and become an expert overnight. There were aspects I enjoyed, such as the unsubtle satire of Marvel Comics’ writing and the fact that it was independently-produced, but by and large I felt it was boring. The only thing oddball about the series, in comic book terms, was the title. The characters went through the same one-dimensional foibles and well-timed action scenes as any other dumb superhero book on the market, and did it worse than a lot them besides. But for an excuse to hang around this girl, I got into the Turtles and acted like a devoted fan. We even assumed the characters’ monikers as our nicknames: I think she was Donatello, I was Raphael.

The massive popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the industry-wide shit storm that followed has been well-documented and opined upon. I don’t want to do that. I want to relate my memories of the time, and to my recollection, virtually all of that black-and-white comics shit was awful. In the wake of the Turtles’ direct market success were dozens if not hundreds of sub-par, cheapo action comics, seemingly written by retards and drawn by spastics. I remember a direct Turtles’ knock-off about radioactive hamsters or something, a third-rate parody of second-rate satire. I recall a comic with the tantalizing title of Reagan’s Raiders. I didn’t take any of this shit seriously, and neither did anyone I knew. Maybe I was a little too young to appreciate this crummy renaissance of underground comix, and it was all enjoying robust sales and positive critique among the older high school crowd. But the prepubescent set that I ran with thought the black-and-white comic books revolution was a load of bullshit.

Even worse than these black-and-white action comics were the black-and-white “artsy” comics, each attempting to emulate American Splendor in its own way, most of them falling well short of that relatively attainable goal. If we weren’t buying Hamster Vice, we sure as fuck weren’t going to check out some girl’s maudlin poem framed by a bunch of doodles she made while chatting on the telephone. It was just a lot of garbage that got play during a brief sliver of time when speculating on comic book collecting was profitable and trendy. And that’s where I remember Piranha Press stepped in, DC Comics’ answer to the unasked question that was the chaotic landscape of comic books in the late 1980s. Again, someone more knowledgeable and capable than I can detail the wherefores and particulars of how the imprint began. I was only familiar with the title because (as mentioned before) my father worked in comic books and brought home every Marvel and DC title, every week. That meant I was taking crap like Secret Wars II and Piranha Press titles along with the Batman.

Like I say, I don’t know the specifics behind how Piranha Press began, but I can guess that it was DC’s attempt to exploit the burgeoning black-and-white comics market. They probably appointed someone eccentric to head it up, and he hired a bunch of his friends, regardless of their talent and acumen. What resulted was a sporadic but runny stream of shit that spewed forth from DC like a million continuity reboots. DC was enjoying some great success in the adult comics market with graphic novels like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, yet the stuff coming from its “funny books for folks what don’t like funny books” line was the most puerile, forgettable claptrap. There was a series called Gregory by Marc Hempel that was a study in wasting the reader’s time. And there was this ridiculous series called Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children that featured these rejects from a introductory creative writing class printed alongside grotesque–and possibly well-rendered–pen and wash drawings, however you couldn’t tell how good they might be because the black-and-white pulp printing turned them into featureless grey smudges. And I was ostensibly getting copies direct from the printer, not handled and shuffled around by some distributor or store owner. I’m guessing the hapless fools who actually purchased copies of Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children thought it was a story interspersed with a series of Rorschach blots.

No comic exemplifies the backwards stupidity of Piranha Press and its low standards than Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn. I’ve hated this comic for years, but before writing this essay, I did a search online to see how many people agreed with my accurate and unassailable assessment of this junk. I was surprised to find mostly positive reviews of the work, describing it as quirky and innovative and a whole bunch of other shit that flat out does not apply. I like Kyle Baker, I think he’s a terrific draftsman, and Why I Hate Saturn is, for the most part, meticulously drawn and well-paced. The lettering is also kind of fun. But the story is so meandering and pointless that you end up wishing the words were excised altogether so you could flip through the nice pictures unmolested. It’s clear that the deadline was approaching fast while creating this book, since the last half of the story is jammed in the last eight or so pages. The comic, like Piranha Press as a whole, is a nice experiment that ultimately fails miserably. However, Piranha Press did sort of morph into the Vertigo imprint, so it did some good in the world.

Double Letters and Subway Slugs

7 Dec

My brother showed me a small metal disc–a “slug,” he called it–when I was in the fifth grade. He’d begun traveling to Manhattan to sporadically attend Stuyvesant High School, and brought back to our little aluminum-sided house in Flushing all manner of illicit, strange materials. “You use this to get on the subway,” my brother explained, and in a rare gesture of kindness, he allowed me to briefly handle the strange object. It was flat and round and looked like gunmetal. The edges were a little ragged, as if it had been hastily cut from a longer cylinder of this alloy, which may very well have been true. The implications were fascinating: this meant that there was an effort by an unknown number of people in an undisclosed location to fabricate counterfeit subway tokens. Where were they dispensed? What did they cost? Or were they given out for free, a subversive attempt by some anarchist group to undermine the Transit Authority? How was it determined that this slug would work? I imagined hundreds of people arrested for slipping aluminum can tabs and Canadian nickels into the subway turnstiles, to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that this miraculous material would do the trick. While these thoughts turned over in my fifth grade brain, my brother snatched back the slug and retreated into his darkened bedroom. Any discussion I might have wanted to have about this counterfeit token was preemptively concluded.

Things have changed in the New York City subway over the last quarter century. For one thing, subway tokens do not exist. They were slowly phased out in the late 90s for the slimmer and less intriguing MetroCard, a payment system where you fill a card with money and then swipe it at turnstiles’ electronic readers until it is bankrupt. It is, by and large, a better system than the subway token, particularly since it has allowed for unlimited weekly and monthly passes. Yet the disappearance of the token is a social loss, another case where the need to interact with each other is replaced by automation and self-involvement. My MetroCard isn’t handled by hundreds and thousands of people before being slipped into my pocket, it’s die-cut by a machine and shrink-wrapped specially for the mechanical dispensers which issue each card individually through an exactly-measured slot. I can’t give someone else a fare off of it without screwing my own entrance into the subway, there’s no evidence of this MetroCard’s past users for me to examine. It’s a perfectly useful, sterile, disposable item, worth no more scrutiny than a movie ticket or instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle. It’s a symbol for the modern New York City subway: almost all stainless steel cars with their respective lines displayed in brilliant, red LED lights visible from the last station. A computer-generated female voice announces the station location and possible subway transfers, followed by a booming male voice admonishing you to STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Subway mezzanines are adorned with sanctioned sculptures and mosaic tile pieces of New Year’s Eve revelers and students and commuters and every kind of person or dream-thing that might wander into a subway station except for MTA employees. They’re a necessary evil, the men behind the curtain that keep the Wizard of Oz afloat.

The first time I made a foray into Manhattan without the guidance of my parents, I was ten years old. My friend Brian convinced me that riding the subway into the city would be a kick. Heavily into trains and roller coasters, Brian would draw elaborate track systems, complete with switches and crossings, in number two pencil on scratch paper. I agreed to go along for lack of anything better to do, and because we’d already successfully navigated an adult-free trip to the Bronx Zoo on the Q44 bus. We walked to Main Street and got on the 7 train to Times Square, where, Brian explained, we would transfer to an uptown train and check out the Museum of Natural History. I’ve mentioned before that riding the subway was a scary prospect when I was young, and scarier than the flickering lights and calamitous noise and track fires and stick-up kids was the fact that there was barely any way to tell what the fuck was going on. The maps and windows were covered in graffiti, the public address system unintelligible, and when you finally stepped out onto a train platform and into the station, proceeding onward was like solving a befuddling and very wordy mystery. The mezzanine where the 7 train met the West Side trains was a confluence of signage of every shape and color, in every font and style, each one seeming to describe a different subway system entirely. Interborough Rapid Transit? Downtown IND? Why was there an RR train but no R train? What was an NQ train? I am grateful to this day that Brian knew what train to get on, because had it been left to me, we’d probably still be wandering around those concrete, piss-soaked hallways. Though today, the piss has been largely scrubbed clean.

The New York subway was once a mysterious city within a city, a world with its own economy and social graces, a mash up of different rolling stock and maddening line designations. Part of my youthful perspective was undoubtedly owed to my own naivete; as I struggled to comprehend an adult world, I floundered in grasping the subway, a world which many adults themselves struggled to understand. But the subway was a lot dirtier, a lot less accommodating, it was thronged with confidence men and marks, performers and audiences, the world-weary and those brimming with optimism. The New York City subway is better now, overall, I don’t think anyone can deny that. It gets you where you need to go in a reasonably predictable amount of time (except on weekends, when the subway is a fucking mess), it’s relatively clean, well-lit, and most of the stations are in good repair. It’s a system that a tourist can navigate after getting lost once or twice. But the extinction of the subway token, and it’s counterfeit counterpart, was an intangible loss to the subway, a loss which can be sensed all over the island of Manhattan, at least to those who have lived in New York for the last thirty or so years. It’s a lack of personality, a deficit in secrecy, a utilitarian drive to make New York City the most visited city in the world. I can understand why that happened and continues to happen. I just wonder what will be worth visiting when every nuance is ultimately stripped away.

Hey, folks: I ripped off two of the pictures used in between the paragraphs of this essay from the NYC Vintage blog, which you should visit here: http://nycvintage.blogspot.com/. It hasn’t been updated in a while, but it’s still a trove of great information and insight.

Aack. Pphppt.

21 Oct

I’ve gone on at length about many of the strange and relatively adult things I was exposed to as a child which influenced my world view. While I am somewhat of an outcast because I truly believe that giant apes want to engage in inter-species sex with blond women, I’m grateful to have seen and appreciated these works instead of being fed a steady diet of Smurfs and Chuck E. Cheese. There is one thing I loved as a kid, something that influenced me more than watching The Young Ones, more than reading reprints of Zap! Comix when I was in the third grade, more than viewing The Last House on the Left at age nine at the behest of my brother. That influential thing was a comic strip, one which I like and which my father hated, and that comic strip was Bloom County.

I got into Bloom County in 1984 or 1985 from regularly reading the funny pages. For my younger readers, the funny pages were a collection of printed webcomics that used to exist in these things we called newspapers. Up until Bloom County, the comics section of the New York Newsday was largely full of ancient strips long past their prime, some of which are still being made today: Hagar the Horrible, Johnny Hart’s B.C., and Garfield. Garfield was considered cutting edge at the time. Do they still make those oblong Garfield collections with the shitty titles like Garfield Gets a Triple Bypass and Garfield Farts? There were a million of them, even when I was grade school. By now the numbering of new volumes probably has to be expressed in scientific notation. The Newsday’s only source of ironic wit was Doonesbury, which I never found very funny. I’ll expand on that some other time if I feel like it and remember to do so.

Newsday picked up Bloom County and, at first, I didn’t get it. I was pretty informed for a nine year-old, but I had no idea who Jeane Kirkpatrick and Tip O’Neill were. If you weren’t Gary Hart and getting front page headlines, I was largely unaware of your existence. But I liked the art of Bloom County, and that most of the animals talked (or slobbered in a very human-like fashion), and most of all I liked that the strip’s protagonist, Milo Bloom, was a dumpy-looking nerd kid in glasses. For you see, I was a dumpy-looking nerd in glasses. I identified with him, despite the fact that I had a curly, brown Caucasian afro, and that he was much wittier and well-spoken than I. I thought I was that witty and well-spoken, which is all that counts. So I kept reading the strip, and then I began reading more and more of the newspaper just so I could understand the topical jokes. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was more politically informed than any of my peers (a small feat, mind you, since we were all around eleven years old). I had Bloom County to thank for it.

Many of my grade school drawings were direct copies from Bloom County, and even today when I doodle characters with spectacles they look suspiciously like Milo. Old cassette recordings of me doing comedy skits with friends were lifted from various Bloom County strips I adored. I had a stuffed Opus the Penguin doll (really, who didn’t?) but he wasn’t my personal favorite character. I rode for Milo, and sung the praises of this comic even as the artwork got notably more sloppy–particularly the lettering, which began to look like scrawled shopping lists. I hung in there until the bitter end, 1989, when Berkeley Breathed pulled the plug after securing the rights to his own strip from some clever (and dickish) contract negotiations. I owned all of the collections, but having read the strip devotedly for five years I knew there were some key omissions. Well Idea & Design Works has seen fit to publish the complete run of Bloom County in a five-volume series called Bloom County: The Complete Collection. If you were as moved by this comic strip as I was in my youth (word to Keith Knight), then you’ll want to have this. The jokes are now largely irrelevant, however, so if you’ve never seen or cared about the strip before, then you can pass. For my part, I will use this space to formally throw my support behind Bill the Cat for President in 2012. Phbbpt.

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.


I Am Not a Graffiti Artist. I’m a Graffiti Bomber.

10 Aug

The way Blade tells it, the early days of New York subway graffiti were a cake walk. You’d post up in the train yard or at a layup Friday and Saturday nights, drink beer, smoke weed, play the radio and paint the trains all evening with no fear of serious reprisals. Big productions were the norm in those days, growing quickly from crude tags to whole car masterpieces by 1975. Competition was thin, style was in the process of being invented, and while the meeting of two or more city teens is never without its prevailing tension, the New York graffiti scene was a collaborative effort, pursued by pubescent runaways and prep school students alike, mastered by young kids of every ethnicity and from nearly every corner of New York City. Lee spent entire weekends at layups, sleeping in darkened subway cars under a fine mist of spray paint. Skeme stole from his mom’s apartment in the dead of night to paint trains, then returned to tell her all about it. Graffiti was kid’s stuff, a rite of passage so insulated from working society that it seemed unassailable. A victimless crime, except for the rush hour victims who had to stand asses-to-elbows in marked train cars the next day.

Then graffiti blew up. There’s probably no other event or artifact that can be directly linked to graffiti’s mainstream exposure more than the seminal documentary Style Wars by Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant. Around the same time, there were other efforts to show people what was happening to New York City’s subways: the book Subway Art by Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant practically dropped the graf scene in everyone’s laps, while SoHo art galleries clamored to show spray painted canvases in their cramped, hot spaces. Rap music gained exponential popularity in the early 80s and partially brought graffiti into the limelight as a matter of course. We can look back now and say this all culminated in 1983, with the big screen debut of Style Wars and its subsequent airings on public television. In an instant, everyone knew how these graffiti writers were getting over on the transit authority, and they wanted in on the fun. Suddenly, available space became severely limited.

The graffiti that followed, the last generation of subway writers whose work ran regularly on the lines, was the ethical foundation for my early understanding of graf. You pick yourself a name and then put it up as much as possible, as big and ubiquitously as you can, using as many different styles and media as you are able to comprehend. It was a given that you’d catch beef, that ultimately you would get fame the fastest by going over someone else, and that by doing this you could become more revered than if you’d painted one massive, colorful production that might run for five working days. Cap taught us that. Graffiti and violence were almost synonymous to me, and the writers in my generation (the early 90s) were more respected for their daring and visibility than their can control. While I was too young to ever effectively write on the subway, graf having been defeated by a new MTA policy and seeding of stainless steel subway cars that could be easily washed, I knew well about this tough aspect of graffiti’s history. It wasn’t enough to be a talented artist when I was in high school. You also had to know how to intimidate others and get physical if necessary.

Paul “CAVS” Cavalieri’s book From the Platform: Subway Graffiti, 1983-1989 is the best account of this final generation of New York subway graf that I’ve ever seen. Packed with dozens and dozens of photos of pieces, tags, and throw ups that ran during the era, it easily tells the story of a scene that grew in numbers by a factor of ten and resulted in everyone going over one another, jockeying for position as Kings of the Line. It shows how “retired” writers came back to reclaim their titles, and how even they had to eschew masterpiece productions that might take all night in favor of two-color bombs more suited to the fast pace of late 80s graffiti. Unconsciously and without apology, the book shows page after page of styles cribbed directly from Dez and Dondi and past masters of the rolling stock. It is the last gasp of a movement, and anyone interested in pursuing the history of graffiti cannot do without this book. For every writer today who thinks there should be unity, every person who thinks that Banksy stencils should be protected and Saber AWK should be allowed to redo his Guinness record-holding piece on the L.A. river banks, this book has the answer: you’re wrong. Any retard can pick up a marker and scrawl something on the wall, or a truck, or the outside of a subway train. You imposed a stylistic standard on the medium that most practitioners of the art don’t recognize, and that’s your bad.

Day of the Duckbill

30 Jun

People that know me will chuckle at this next statement: I am not a very ardent collector. It’s true. Though I own an embarrassing number of books, movies, music recordings, and assorted art and trinkets, I don’t really “collect” them. A collector, to my mind, is someone who lovingly stores and categorizes their chosen wares, someone who understands and maintains the monetary value of a given item. I never cared about any of that shit, it was all I could do to keep the crap off of my bedroom floor, never mind sealing stuff in plastic bags and filing it away in some darkened box. I want to see, to feel, to possess the things that I like. Some collectors seem like they’re only borrowing things from future collectors, appreciating something’s rarity over the actual item. The cache of owning something special is worthless to me if you aren’t intimately aware of its every aspect.

We’ve all got stories of how great our lives would be today if we had kept our childhood accoutrements in pristine condition. I certainly could have afforded several yachts and a steak dinner had I left all of the Transformers toys I received in their original boxes and out of direct sunlight, instead of poking them with heated pins when I was in the sixth grade to simulate bullet holes and battle scars. But then, if I didn’t play with the toys, I wouldn’t have understood the nostalgia today that makes them valuable. A piece of unseen artwork has no value, it’s only after everyone appreciates it that the cost of it, well, appreciates. This is why obsessive collectors strike me as rather sad, often proud of their mint condition whatever-the-fucks that they haven’t touched or seen in a really long time, if ever. Open a museum or something, dude. Preserving the actual Amazing Spider-Man #1 isn’t as important as knowing what happens in the issue. (SPOILER ALERT: Spider-Man uses his super powers to fight villains.)

The only thing I can remember collecting with any devotion was a set of trading cards put out by Topps called Dinosaurs Attack! This was in 1987 or 1988, and right around that time I read about a set of trading cards from the 1960s called Mars Attacks! which piqued my interest. It’s likely that the timing was not coincidental, and I was actually reading some kind of publicity copy for the Dinosaurs Attacks! trading card series that referenced the earlier set. In any case, the promise of seeing dinosaurs disembowel people with maximum gory effect was too much to pass up–this was before Jurassic Park, when depictions of humans with dinosaurs were normally shown side-by-side for size comparison. I wanted to see someone get gnashed between the teeth of a stegosaurus.

It’s rare in life that our expectations are met or exceeded. Even when we set the bar low, reality is almost always disappointing. Once in a great while we are pleasantly surprised by something that delivers exactly as promised, and such was the case with my first pack of Dinosaurs Attacks! cards, immediately exploding in a gush of colorful guts and panic, each as educational about dinosaurs as Rambo is about proper gun maintenance. My dad is really knowledgeable about dinosaurs, but I’m not. I think dinosaurs are cool–who doesn’t, really? But I don’t need to know each of them by name or what their likes and dislikes are. I’m perfectly happy in assuming that they’re all vicious predators that would want nothing more than to smear our innards all over their snouts if the opportunity presented itself.

I ended up spending a lot of my allowance money on these cards until I eventually acquired a whole set. The cards actually told a pretty poorly-written story, culminating in the most horrifying and depressing trading card ever produced in human history. Better than having a complete set of cards were the many doubles that littered every corner of my bedroom while I was in junior high. I’d use them for the covers to mixtapes, draw extra bloody limbs on the artwork, give them away to my friend Justin who likewise appreciated these miniature works of art. In fact, whenever I think of these trading cards, I think of Justin chanting “Day of the Duckbill” in a monotone voice over and over, as he did on one of our recorded cassette tapes of comedy skits largely ripped off from Saturday Night Live. I’m pretty sure that we used that card for the cover of the tape.

If you want to see the entire set without worrying about getting your gummy fingers all over mine, check out Bob Heffner’s Dinosaurs Attack! Home Page here: http://www.bobheffner.com/dinosaursattack/. I didn’t ask his permission to link, but then dinosaurs never ask for permission–only forgiveness.

A Whole Lotta Video, Not a Lot of Game

24 Mar

Last year, a lot was made of Roger Ebert’s statement that video games can never be art. This raised the ire of many gamers who rushed to defend their medium with offerings of their favorite video game titles. I wonder how many of those gamers are artists, or art historians, or otherwise give a shit about the world of accepted, mainstream art. I took Ebert’s comments to have been made by a person who, watching their familiar world become relegated to a musty corner in favor of newer digital media, railed against something that he barely understood. But the angry gamers who attempted to change Ebert’s mind wound up looking more ridiculous. When an older person tells you to “turn down that racket,” you tell them to mind their business and turn it up another notch. You don’t sit them down and detail the inherently good qualities of whatever misogynistic, violent noise you happen to be pumping.

My introduction to video games happened when I was about six years old. My brother was lectured by my parents for about an hour as punishment for hanging out and playing Pac-Man for too long. I guess my brother probably issued a defiant, and therefore meaningless concession, then trudged up the creaky, wooden stairs to our shared bedroom in the attic. I had been listening in on his conversation with my parents, and when he walked in the room I asked my brother what Pac-Man was. He scoffed and said I was a fucking idiot if I didn’t know what Pac-Man was.

And a fucking idiot I was, because it seemed like every day after that, Pac-Man became more and more a part of my life. And not just Pac-Man, but Centipede, Donkey Kong, Arkanoid, and Defender. At the time, I thought I was only noticing these games and their merchandise because I had become aware of their existence, like how you can learn a new word and then it seems like you hear it on every news broadcast and while casually chatting with friends. Looking back, I see that my learning about video games happened on the cusp of an arcade game explosion that would dominate the U.S. through much of the 1980s. One day, there was nothing to do at the pizza place but eat pizza. The next, you could crowd into the tiny parlor with a dozen like-minded youths and pump quarters into Dig Dug. Which, incidentally, left precious little money for pizza.

I was never crazy about video games, but I certainly played the shit out of some. Arcade games began falling out of favor as I reached pubescence (though they would see a short resurgence thanks to Street Fighter II) but that coincided neatly with the introduction of the Nintendo Entertainment System, the first video game system that was undeniably awesome. I saved one-hundred and twenty dollars of my own money to purchase a NES from the Consumers electronics store in the Rockbottom shopping mall on Northern Boulevard. One of my brother’s friends worked there, and I made a deal with him to purchase stolen games for significantly less than retail value. I bought other video game systems along the way, but frankly none were as emotionally rewarding as the first.

I try to keep abreast of current video games because, whether they’re art or not, video games are certainly a major force in media. Since media is within my sphere of interest, so are these games. It’s not a chore because I am routinely astounded by the depth and scope of the technology pushing this industry. Where we once had to use our imaginations to picture Link from The Legend of Zelda wearing a green tunic, today you can practically feel a breeze caress Link’s ass as his finely-woven tunic flaps in high-definition wind. Games used to take a couple of hours to beat, now you can log in eighty and a hundred hours just wandering around some meticulously-rendered battlefield, popping your gun blithely at whatever enters your field of vision or specifically targeting enemy players’ internal organs. It is truly mind-boggling, and I suspect that certain esteemed elders’ words on video games are a reflection of how boggled their minds are when considering them. Many films are beloved because we can project ourselves into a character as portrayed by an actor. Video games take that to the next step where we become the actor.

Which is, I think, where we can cease considering many of these video games to be “games” at all. Pac-Man is a game where you run around mazes of increasing difficulty, chomping pellets and racking up as many points as possible. The next person to play, if they’ve put their quarter up at the edge of the screen, will implicitly try to beat the highest score. The game is one of repetition, requiring the player make many mistakes (at the cost of about ten cents an error) until they figure out the best patterns. A lot of games today are just stories with set conclusions where the player makes a series of decisions in order to eventually arrive at one of them. You can never actually lose these games, you keep on playing and playing until you get past the difficult parts and advance the story to a new act. Right now, I am playing a game called Fallout 3, which is a massive, open-ended game where you can interact with practically every person and every thing you come across. Most of my game play thus far has consisted of me having long, text-based conversations with computer characters, and choosing between three or five dialogue options in hopes that I don’t come off like an asshole. I have enough trouble with real world personal interactions, I don’t want to start getting anxious about whether a fictional super mutant likes my hat or not.

I am not prepared to say whether video games are art, or if they ever will be art, or if they ever were art. That kind of a question seems so loaded that there can be no right or wrong answer. But it does occur to me that a lot of the actual playing part of video games has been excised from some of the most heady and popular titles. These games guide the player along a series of pre-set routes, reaching one or more inevitable conclusions which are effected depending on a sequence of pressed buttons. Playing these specific games is an almost passive experience, the only aim being to wait out the game until you reach the story’s conclusion. However, movies still have the edge on video games because when watching a movie, your hands are free for snacking or masturbation.

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.

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