ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why I Started El balazo Press and Am Not Quitting My Job to Run It

 photo by glen noble via unsplash

photo by glen noble via unsplash

As the owner of this small press, former employee of a traditional publishing house, and current employee at one of the world’s top content creators, I think constantly about the economics of writing and publishing. I also often get asked the following questions in the following order:

1) Would you leave your current situation for a traditional publishing job?

2) Would you quit your day job to run your small press, El Balazo?

3) If you’re not trying to leverage El Balazo for a real publishing job or trying to build it into a full-time job for yourself, then why are you doing it, anyway?

Why I Don’t Work for a Traditional Publisher

I used to work for a traditional publisher (non-big five), and quit during the recession because I didn’t make enough money to pay off my student loans. I also tried to work for one of the big five, but couldn’t get an interview there when I was young-enough to consider an assistant job. Had I gotten hired when I was younger, I might be there still, working away. Now that I’m older and have had a bit of life experience, I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

It’s well known that traditional publishers almost exclusively sign new books written by celebrities or writers who have both built up a following and whose work will appeal to a mass market.

Editor friends of mine at traditional big five publishing houses have told me that the first question they ask when considering a manuscript is: what is the author’s platform? Do they have 10,000+ followers on Twitter? Does Google auto-suggest their name in the search field? In other words: can this author basically sell the book himself with the audience he has already built?

Editors at the big five aren’t snobs and don’t hate unknown authors. But, book publishing is a tough business. Even the biggest publishers are strapped for cash, and need to make solid bets on the books they believe sell lots and lots of copies. In the past, big five publishers would subsidize the publication of cool, indie stuff with money made from the hits. Not so much anymore. In this economy, it’s not the time to take risks on new authors or on content that falls outside of what is known to be marketable. The margins from hit book sales are a lot smaller, but the bills are just as high. Fewer and fewer cool, indie books get published by the big five.

For me, the point of reading is to discover risky, energetic content written in unconventional language or structure that is so particular to a unique person — a unique artist or thinker — that it’s uncomfortable and odd and moving and exciting. Working full time to acquire solid bets, such as a Rom Com actor’s ghost-written memoir, is not my cup of tea.

Why I Won’t Leave My Day Job

I run El Balazo in addition to holding down a demanding full-time job. Yes, this means we can publish much fewer books than we could if I dedicated myself full-time to El Balazo. Yes, it means I sometimes struggle to update the blog as often as I should. Yes, it means the snowball of growth is going to take quite a bit longer to grow big and fat as it rolls more slowly down the hill.

But because El Balazo doesn’t rely on income from benefactors, isn’t beholden to shareholders, and isn’t required for living expenses, it’s free. Free as a naked bum under a tennis skirt. El Balazo can publish and say whatever it wants. If no one’s floating you or relying on you, no one can require anything of you.

Why Am I Doing El Balazo, Anyway?

Here are the facts: I pay out of my own income to publish and market other people’s writing in my free time without expecting to make my money back. What the hell is wrong with me, right? Why do I do this weird thing?

I do this because I’m a writer and I fuggin love books. I think the world needs more good, weird books that have people fighting for them and producing them professionally. I believe there is still a community of people who care about great, weird books. And I want to find them as desperately as do many other writers. 

I’m also frustrated that so much unique talent is passed over by major publishers. Because it’s lost in the slush pile. Because it’s quirky and therefore probably not marketable to a mass audience. Because, even though it might be marketable to a large-enough audience to make a nice profit, most writers don’t have the skills to create the platform publishers are looking for. Because they’re writers, not marketers. And they shouldn’t have to be.

I believe that thinking about how to market a book while writing that book dilutes a writer’s freedom to say what she needs to say. And, as you may have noticed, freedom to think and say what you want is El Balazo’s number one value.

I want El Balazo to be a place for writers who’ve not only had the cajones (or ovaries) to spend those lonely, long hours honing their writing skills, but the badassery to use those skills to say something unique — to create something new.

Why You Shouldn’t Publish With El Balazo

If you publish with El Balazo, I can’t guarantee you money. And, it’s okay with us if the marketable audience for your work is 100 people. It’s fantastic to entertain, inspire, and amuse an audience of 100 people. But, you can bet your butts that we ain’t giving over the rights to anyone in case your audience turns out to be wildly larger than that.

Although we are a new, small press open to creative content, we also won’t publish most of what gets sent to us. We at El Balazo are our own particular cat. Our taste is specific, it’s ours, and, we know it when we see it.

Why You Should Publish With El Balazo

Granted, we are only publishing our second book, and we have a lot to learn. But, we are committed to howling at the moon for new and creative writing that fits our tastes.

Because we aren’t tied to a building, to a paycheck, to a genre, or to a need to be marketable, we can and will take risks. We can and will take badass content out of its obscure corner, design it boss AF, and sell it to anyone who’s interested.

We also won’t tie you down. Go ahead. Use El Balazo to acquire some street cred, to help build that platform a larger publisher is looking for. Go ahead: be free. We wouldn’t want you to be anything less.

Interested in publishing with us? Send us your stuff!

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

why saying, "six word novels ARE bullshit" is bullshit

I met my friend Josh in a punk club one night after I had just graduated college and moved to Boise. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and after Josh revealed that he wrote for the Boise Weekly, I made the rookie mistake of telling him that I am also a writer. Newly-graduated writers: don’t do this. Nobody wants to hear about your writing.

Josh, out of politeness, asked what I liked to write. “Flash fiction,” I said, expecting a normal response like, “Oh, cool. I’ll take a look sometime,” and then an abrupt shift in conversation, because who really wants to read the work of a freshly-graduated zygote with no real writing experience?

But, what happened next was magical. Horrible and magical. Josh proceeded to yell at me over the sounds of the band playing about how much he detests the genre. Josh and I have two different versions of the same story, but the point is, what was supposed to be a casual exchange about two people doing the same thing turned into a long, arduous, draining argument that made me think, “This guy is going to make a great friend.”

Flash fiction, contrary to Josh’s description, is actually comprised of 1,000 words or less. You can check out One of These Days by novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez for one of the best examples of flash fiction ever written. I write flash fiction ranging from 100 to 1,000 words, a project I began in freshman year of college. I was attracted to the structure, not because of brevity, but because of the challenge it presented. Build a world, a character, and a plot in 100 words? I knew this request was possible with 300 pages, but so few words? Now, that’s a real writing task.

Josh’s argument hinges on the fact that flash fiction is too emotionally ambiguous and lacking in plot to be complete without relying on the reader to fill in the blanks. It relies too much on subjective inference to trick readers into thinking they understand the story’s plot. Josh essentially thinks that without enough content, the story isn’t actually a story.

This argument is absurdly wrong for several reasons. Six word stories highlight that a strong message—whether it’s tragic, comedic, or simply intriguing—can be conveyed with only a few brief words. Stories are just that: messages from an author to a reader.

However, so many writers think these messages need to be complete. They don’t.

Writing lives in a liminal space. Fiction is comprised of strands of truth and shards of lies, and looking beyond just the six word, 100 word, or 1,000 word stories, we can see that the art of storytelling doesn’t rely on completion, in terms of completing a plot, but on the storyteller’s ability to convey a message to her reader. Fiction lands within the in-betweens and contradictions of the human condition (and of a story itself).

Since when does writing not live in this liminal space?

The ephemeral. The intangible. The odd, tucked away places in-between dreams. Flash fiction brings us these spots of time in ways most fiction can’t. It lives in the blurry spaces of the mind, where we struggle to piece together a memory or a dream that slowly drains out of us. Flash fiction is liberating; it encapsulates these spaces and drives readers to infer and interpret.

The nonsensical belief that any story must be complete is an arbitrary rule, just like placing a random word limit on a piece or asking yourself to exclude the word the from your vocabulary. Flash fiction begins and ends with limitations, which can force writers to produce some of their best work, like Marquez’s piece linked above. Many writers find the limitlessness of a page comforting, but a large group of us stare at a blank page and think, “Now what?” Beginning with a set value of rules propels us forward and makes our work better.

The story begins with the box. You write around the box, inside the box, and in the margins of the box. You cut the bullshit. You trim the unnecessary. You cling to the concrete. You argue with yourself about what is most important instead of rambling for pages and pages about the soft architecture of her back. In the end, you’re better for it. You can convey a meaningful message in a handful of words. Flash fiction is a new type of concise writing that encourages authors to argue with themselves, eliminate the bravado, and cinch down words tightly into a compact package that slams readers with a world, characters, and (usually) a surprise ending.

Some of the best works of art came from limitation. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the worst reviewed books of all time because she dared herself to write a complete story in only 300 pages (approximately, depending on which edition you purchase). The traditional novel had not yet been popularized, and critics admonished her for her brevity and lack of substance. Can you imagine that? One of the most celebrated novels of all time criticized because it broke the conventions of what good writing should be.

I wish I could go back and tell Shelley, “Do what you need to do to make your best art as long as you’re not hurting anyone. You go, Mary.” The degree of blithering she received from her contemporaries (who were still churning out 1,000 page tomes every few years) about the laziness of her writing was astounding. But, suddenly, people took notice of Shelley’s concise and moving story. The form of the novel took hold, and now it’s the most popular style of storytelling available.

In my opinion, Frankenstein is absolutely complete story, but for its time, it lacked the thorough details Shelley’s contemporaries deemed appropriate to tell a proper story. Shelley argued that writers are supposed to live in the liminal. I say there’s nothing wrong with readers inferring and thinking and interpreting what they want to see from my words. Go for it. I want to hear about what you think you read.

Because it’s not about completing a story, as in wrapping up a plot. It’s about impacting readers. Flash fiction forces great writers like Josh Gross to ask question after question about baby shoes and write an entire article about why he detests the genre so vehemently. It brings readers closer to the bones of a story. It forces them to confront snapshots of time. Authors can’t know for certain—whether they write 100 word stories or 100,000 word novels—if they’ve answered every question a reader might have, and that’s okay. A good story relies on impact, not length.

Flash fiction makes you think. It sparks loud arguments in bars and forms intense new friendships. It asks readers to think for themselves. That’s what good writing—interesting writing—is supposed to do.

You can read or buy Josh’s quality (and often verbose) work on his website, or check out more of my writing at erinnelson.com.

 

 

WEIRD, ARTICLE

The Animals of Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain

When we cuddled up with the cat and a cup of tea to watch Alejandro Jodorowsky's surreal, disturbing, strangely funny, imagination overload The Holy Mountain, I knew I'd be taken for a ride. I had no idea how agitated, intrigued, delighted, and disgusted I'd be. It's like nothing I've ever seen. (Others have written about this. I particularly like this person's explication of how Eyes Wide Shut Ain't Got Nothing on The Holy Mountain.)

I also didn't expect the animals! There were so many animals. Sadly (and rather disgustedly), I'm not positive that some of these animals weren't harmed in the making of the film. It looks as if some iguanas and toads may have been hurt during the conquest of Mexico scene when Spanish cane toads walked over the Mexican iguanas whose civilization was blown to bits and bright fake blood splattered the whole kit n caboodle.

Also, I'm not sure if that python liked being stuffed into a knit sock. Though, come on ... Is that not one of the cutest things you've ever seen? Look at that snake all wrapped up in the sock! Okay, fine. It's probably just me. 

The chimp seemed to do fine in all his scenes. He didn't seem to mind wearing his red sweater, or the white shorts and yellow shirt they dressed him in. Though, I guess he seemed sort of uncomfortable always having to hold hands with one of the actors, what with only being able to use three of his four limbs to get around. I did have the thought while watching him: no wonder apes wanted to walk on two legs. That looks hard. 

chimp and girls.jpg

There was also this adorbzzz baby hippo (squee) taking a bath and drinking from the fountain in the scene when the alchemist washes the Christ figure. I was happy for their sake that he (or she) was not an adult hippo taking a bath because that would have been fucking scary, considering hippos are often super dangerous and mean. 

Okay, so there was also a Pelican walking around during the egg scene when the beggar/Christ figure's excrement gets turned to gold. A couple times he (or she) calmly flapped those pretty wings with the big black stripes of feathers. 

The Holy Mountain also featured some fun uses of taxidermied animals. Like these wizened goats who form the back of the alchemist's chair. And these cheetahs that spit some sort of milk into the face of an enlightenment seeker from the breasts of a skinny old naked man. 

I couldn't find a photo of the awesome camel standing in the corner of the alchemist's studio thing, contently unaware that these humans frolicking near him were engaged in creating something vexing and original. So, you should watch the film to see what I'm talking about. But, if you do, quick warning from a The Holy Mountain-watching veteran: wait to eat your popcorn until about ten minutes into the movie. Just trust me on this one. 


ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Why Six-Word Novels are Bullshit

I met my friend Erin over an argument. She didn't like something or other that I wrote in Boise Weekly, and decided to shout at me about it in a punk club. That turned into a wild disagreement on literature that has made us friends ever since.

Erin, a book store clerk and published book reviewer, also likes to write flash fiction (stories generally less than 100 words), something I largely detest. Not because of its its brevity, but because I dislike trying to make things be things they aren't instead of letting them be the best whatever they already are that they can be, and that once you begin with the premise of writing flash fiction, you're already creating a box—extremely short form—that the story you are writing may not fit into. Stories should be as long or as short as they need to be, no more, no less.

Obviously, Erin disagreed, and brought up the so-called six-word novel, something that was big on Twitter for a while with the hashtag #SixWordNovels, but that was around before Twitter as well. Erin cited a story by Hemingway as an example of how six words was all it took to tell a rich and engaging story: “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.”

I'll admit, Hemingway has never really been my thing. But the belief that those six words somehow constitute a complete story is patently absurd. We went 12 rounds over it, convincing everyone in the bar we were about to come to blows, when in fact we were having a great time.

Erin's argument was that from those six words, a reader is given a sense of plot, background, and an emotional weight that conveys the story's gravitas. I completely disagree because from my perspective the plot is wildly ambiguous, and the background and weight that would be delivered hinge on those plot points.

How so?

Why weren't the baby shoes ever worn? I'm serious. Why? If you know about Hemingway's life, or have read his work, then you fill in the blanks with the events in A Farewell to Arms (his wife and child die). But, one: that's a helluva lot more than six words, and two: not everyone has read it, and three: that's a subjective inference.

Everything that supposedly makes this story great comes from the idea that it is a tasteful take on tragedy, a concise slice of life that showcases the fine line where tragedy bumps into the day-to-day life we still have to live while enduring it. His baby is dead, and now he has to deal with the physical objects around him that stir him up through emotional association. It's heavy.

But what if the shoes weren't worn because they didn't fit the baby they were bought for, who is alive and plump without a care in the world? What if someone bought the shoes as a gag present for a person with extremely large feet? What if they were given as a gift at a baby shower and the expectant mother got two of the same pair from two different attendees? What if a junkie told her parents she was pregnant so they would give her money to spend on heroin and they instead bought her baby stuff which she was then trying to sell? What if a wholly different tragedy struck and the baby was born with deformed feet that don't fit in shoes? Etc.

The point is that those are all very different stories, and if you reach the end of the six words and you can't say for certain what happened, then no, it isn't a complete story. I accept some ambiguity of character as acceptable at the end of a story, but not ambiguity of plot. And moreover, if the events of the story are totally different than those the reader believes to have transpired, then the intended emotional connection is false as well. I don't think you can even say for certain that the story is a tragedy, and not a comedy. I'm not saying that a complete story can't be told in six words, just that I find it highly unlikely it will be truly complete or satisfying for the reader.

Some would say that art is subjective, and that you take from the story what you will. But with storytelling, the area that is open to interpretation is more about how to feel about the story, not about what it is that the story is actually about.

For example: let's assume that it's a story about Hemingway's baby dying and not any of the other potential scenarios. If so, at the end, one could feel sad, they could feel that he dodged a bullet because having kids is a burden, they could feel that capitalism is a beautiful system that allows for the best possible distribution of required goods even in the face of tragedy, or many other things. That's the subjective interpretation of art that works for this medium. But those emotional responses are still based on the perceived fact and/or events of the story, and if in fact those fact or events are different, then it's all screwy. It's like a server in a restaurant writing down on a ticket that you want a club sandwich and the cook deciding that means you really wanted a batter-fried human thumb. That level of subjectivity doesn't apply to written communication because there is an intended message. If the medium is too short to convey that message, then it doesn't work. And if it is short enough to convey that message, then that brings up a whole other issue.

Social media has driven the idea that brevity is somehow a paramount value. But there is a strong tendency for people to mistake shallow thinking for concise writing. If a story only takes six words, fine, but it probably isn't a very interesting story. Incredibly complex issues don't always fit into 140 characters, and trying to force them into that box does a disservice to your subject and to your readers. And with both flash fiction and social media, it's the box that comes first, not what fits into it.

Of course, Erin disagreed to the bitter end (last call), a truly wonderful character trait, and continued to work on her yet-to-be-published collection of flash fiction, a book I sincerely look forward to reading one day.

You can read more of Erin's “wrong” opinions on her blog, or in her work for The Blue Review.

 

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Terrified By way of The Sapphire VXIII (Part Two)

As we discovered in Terrified By Way of the Sapphire (Part One), yours truly was introduced to (and spooked by) popular music via sounds emanating from the 3” speaker of the trusty Sapphire XVIII am radio in my mom’s 1975 VW Super Beetle. An active imagination and exposure to Scooby Doo Where Are You? had made me an easy scare. Part one covered the eerie references to a sinister, indulgent world in The Eagles 1975 “Hotel California,” which had me quaking in the midday sun as the pastoral landscapes of Minneapolis’ western reaches spooled before my eyes. A year later, a singer with a smooth, calming tenor voice raised the ante. 

One does not think of Cliff Richard as someone who sends chills down your spine (at least not in the classic sense). Being a veteran entertainer for a good twenty years at that point, he might’ve once been been thought by some as a punk threat to the British aristocracy with his involvement in early British Rock N Roll. But, that’s about it. Back then, he and his backing band, The Shadows, had a fantastic (if not relatively tame) rockabilly sound that pre-dated as well as greatly influenced the Mersey Sound/British Invasion some five years later.

But, as for so many other bands, success for Richard was fleeting. Richard was unable to drum up a real presence on the American charts until his mid-70’s comeback. That comeback was birthed from a simple three-and-a-half-minute ghost story set to a catchy little disco beat.

Though Terry Bitten would become one of the more successful songwriters of the 70’s and 80’s by penning a few monster hits for Tina Turner, he scored his first hit by co-writing Richard a song called “Devil Woman.” The song was placed smack in the middle of Richard’s I’m Nearly Famous LP (gotta love that self-deprecating title!) and chosen as the second single to be pulled from that record in April of 1976. The bigwigs at his label, EMI, obviously wanted to switch gears when the first single from that record, the yawn-inducing “Miss You Nights,” meandered into UK’s top twenty. “Devil Woman” crept into the top ten here in the U.S. and became his third highest-selling singleNot sure what it says about this country when a song about an evil, manipulative female becomes a guy’s first hit after nearly twenty years of making records. Was it the disco groove? Maybe Americans like a little danger with their party?

The charts were a mess of styles that month: obligatory disco (Johnnie Taylor’s “Disco Lady,” Sylvers’s “Boogie Fever”); rock-solid rock (Aerosmith’s first single, “Dream On”), schmaltzy love songs (Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” Carpenter’s cover of “Kind Of A Hush”); and even danceable historical revisionism (the Four Seasons’s “December 1963 (Oh What A Night)”). To hear Richard’s perfect tenor sail over those other styles was a shot to the ear, regardless of lyrical content. And, because America has been knee-deep in a Zombie fetish for the last ten years (TV shows, movies, kids shows, games, t-shirts, coffee mugs, stuffed animals, names of cocktails), it’s hard to appreciate that the spooky content of “Devil Woman” was quite the anomaly for a top-40 pop hit.

The song’s protagonist believes he’s been hexed since a mysterious black cat appeared at his door. He finds himself at the table of a fortune teller only to realize she might be that same cat “with evil in her eyes.” The song’s co-writer, Christine Holmes, recorded and released her own version that same year (under the name Kristine Sparkle), changing the perspective to a cautionary tale. The arrangement of Holmes’ version, however, is too busy and lacks the fantastically patient creepy-crawling feeling of Richard’s.

All the ridiculous nods to man/woman relationships were of course lost on my five year old mind, but the ominous notes, minimal instrumentation, and the tense, opening 4/4 drum pulse was a nail biter while my mom and I put-put-putted around. As a child, this spooky little jam blindsided me and put me on edge. The lyrical imagery was as powerful as it was clichéd. The word “evil” was thrown around a few times and, though I didn’t know the depth of its meaning, I was aware of its connotations and knew it stood for bad things. As the song slithered out of that three-inch speaker, my mind raced with images of black cats with evil eyes, crystal balls, mean-looking strangers, dark neighborhoods on moonlit nights. It was full-on Halloween time within these three and a half minutes. Plus, Richard upped the ante during a quiet moment following the second chorus by ad-libbing  a whispered “stay away” followed by “look out” (which perhaps further stressed me out). But – abracadabra! — such was the power of Top 40 Radio!  

Was I the only one affected by this song? Probably not. In fact, there’s a good chance “Devil Woman” was a seed planted in many would-be musician’s minds back then that bloomed into glorious dark flowers in the years to come. Of course, the song could’ve had another effect, as well. Beyond the haunted house imagery, some may have walked away from this one forever strapped with a lifelong distrust of women.

But, wait a minute. What if this wasn’t just a hackneyed relationship song with a demonic allegory wrapped in a minimal disco beat? What if Terry Bitten really did know a devil woman? Ever wonder about that? What if we’ve all been far too dismissive about this whole damn thing? Maybe this is a cry for help! Jeepers, has anyone even heard from Bitten lately?

Think about it.

ART

Kehinde Wiley

It was almost impossible to choose which of Kehinde Wiley's fukin rad paintings to display. I chose these because I liked the themes of 1) hot women mugging in front of psychedelic wallpaper, and 2) men lying down. (This theme is in no way Wiley's, these paintings are from different exhibitions and projects.)

The men lying down are, in fact, part of Wiley's Down series. Paintings in this series reinvent the poses and compositions of master works with  young, black dudes as subjects. The paintings are badass and flawless. They're also enormous (see artist in last image for scale), which further emphasizes their sensation du triomphe (#iwokeuplikethis).

Stop what you're doing and g visit kehindewiley.com to see more and even more of his pieces. Go now. Do it. 

 Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew, 2013

Portrait of Mary Hill, Lady Killigrew, 2013

 The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 2008

The Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, 2008

 China Samantha Nash, 2013

China Samantha Nash, 2013

 The Virgin Martyr St Cecilia, 2006

The Virgin Martyr St Cecilia, 2006

 Femme piquee par un serpent, 2008

Femme piquee par un serpent, 2008

ART

Femilly Killer (aka Emily Miller)

"I desperately tried to flatten myself into a hot dumbass on the Internet," begins Femily Killer's (aka Emily Miller's) artist statement on her website. That is the best statement ever, and I don't know what it means!

Femily (Emily) is an artist from Florida living and working in Brooklyn, NY.

Among other endeavors, F(emily) creates oil paintings with these alla prima, chunky, side-by-side brush stroke techniques. Her website says they "a sort of 'internal self portrait,'" but I posted a few sort of actual self portraits. 

I particularly like Selfie After Thiebaud. I'm guessing it was a good time. 

To see more self(ie) portaits, etcetera, visit emilyemilymiller.com or follow the hot Internet dumbass (!) on Twitter @femilykiller.

 Self Portait (June 19) 

Self Portait (June 19) 

 Avatar (Michelle) 

Avatar (Michelle) 

 Selfie After Thiebaud

Selfie After Thiebaud

MUSIC, ARTICLE

Fare Thee Well To The Grand Ridiculous

Over their storied career, the Grateful Dead have been many things to many people. Perhaps above all else, they were some of the greatest Absurdists in the history of Rock & Roll. To achieve such a prestigious title, the band had to step and stumble into amazing, strange situations and embark on odd, creative endeavors. Few other groups witnessed as much lunacy, especially at such an early stage of their career. 

As one of the best results from Ken Kesey’s early 60’s free-form no-holds-barred acid tests, the band’s creative foundation was built on absurdity. Only very few ideas were turned away for being too far-out. As time marched on, this worked for and against them. The list of good ideas gone weird, gone wrong, gone well, is long and makes for one of the most fascinating careers in popular music.

Luckily, there were more positive effects than negative from these far-out ideas and creative leaps of faith:

  1. Adding a second drummer to the line-up and, therefore, forcing their already complex time structures into previously unknown dimensions? Check!

  2. Deciding to make friend and Bay Area LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley their sound guy? Check!

  3. Countering their growing popularity by creating an in-house mail-order ticketing service? Check!

  4. Deciding to take their act to Egypt and playing in front of the pyramids amidst a total lunar eclipse only to have their first of three performances almost hijacked due to a sky full of bats? Checkity-check-check!

  5. Landing a top ten single twenty years into their career? Okay, that one wasn’t necessarily up to them, but it was absurd nonetheless.  

Perhaps the highpoint of their Absurdist existence, however, came in 1974, just shy of their tenth anniversary. They had already lost founding keyboard/harmonica player Ron “Pigpen” McKernan to liver disease the previous year and had absorbed the husband and wife team of Keith and Donna Godchaux (piano and vocals, respectively). Also by this point the band found themselves running out of gas after years of constant road work, money/management problems and, of course, rampant drug use. These troubles ran deep-enough to inspire the band to retire from the road indefinitely at the end of the year -- a retirement that lasted maybe twelve months. In typical Absurdist fashion, however, they were also making incredibly complex and fresh music (while stumbling through some amazingly lackluster shows) and blazing trails by creating their own over-the-top sound system, the much ballyhooed “Wall Of Sound,” which looked something like this:

What you’re looking at is roughly 60 speakers, 50 amps, and about 27,000 watts of power. Remember earlier when I mentioned they made friend and local LSD chemist their sound guy? Yeah, well, the Wall Of Sound was his idea. Turns out, he knew a thing or two about electronics, as well.

When the band unveiled the Wall Of Sound for its first appearance in a live performance, every tweeter (the part of the speaker which produces higher-end frequencies) blew during the first song. It took another year of tinkering before they were able to take it on the road with them. (Actually, they had three Wall(s) of Sound(s): one  being used for the current show, one being torn down from the previous show, and one being set up for the next show: a practice now standardized in the giant world of music tours.)

The Wall Of Sound was a first on many levels (mostly technical), and while it provided the band with perfect stage sound and provided the audience with amazingly clear live sound, it also required an extra twenty crew members and four semi-truck trailers. It also inevitably sent the band’s finances into a wall of its own. Anyway, it was during this time touring around the country with all this stuff that the band decided to add another dash of the ridiculous into the mix. (Deciding to add another dash of ridiculousness into the mix? Check!)

Ned Lagin was studying molecular biology and humanities at MIT in the late 60’s as well as playing piano for the school’s jazz bands. After seeing the Grateful Dead in Boston in 1969, he helped organize a few shows on the east coast for the band. In return, Garcia invited him out to San Francisco where they were recording what would be their American Beauty LP. (Invite someone who you’ve never met into the studio with you? Check!) Once there, he contributed to the album and began strong friendships with Garcia and bassist/resident envelope-pusher, Phil Lesh. His involvement naturally extended to live performances and -- presto! -- Lagin became a quazi-member of the group. He played Hammond B3 organ, electric piano, and clavichord with the band on stage and in the studio for the next handful of years.

By 1974, they had set aside the middle of each show for Lagin to play electronic music with Lesh in the middle of each show with the former plodding around on an analog synthesizer and the latter indulging in coordinated feedback. The first few attempts at this collaboration resulted in awkward but fascinating chunks of experimental music punctuated by screeches of high-end feedback and bowel loosening tremors, all delivered to the audience, mind you, by the afore mentioned 27,000 watts of power. By the end of the band’s final shows that year in October at San Francisco’s Winterland Arena, much of the band would join them for what had evolved into amazing voyages of haunted, improvised electronic soundscape with Lagin using the Wall Of Sound as his larger instrument.

These Lagin/Lesh mini-sets were given the title “Seastones” and, while this may’ve been a rousing boost of creativity for a band feeling stifled and burning out in their current situation, one must consider the reactions of the audience who weren’t necessarily expecting this particular veering into deeper space. Okay, sure, it’d be a good bet 95% of the people attending these shows were well aware of the band’s talent for improvised music, but very few of those could tolerate such extended voyages (some up to thirty minutes) without an actual melody -- especially while under the influence of high-powered hallucinogens. General reactions varied from amusement and acceptance to impatience and rejection. During a short tour of Europe that autumn (deciding to taking along a 75 ton sound system overseas? Ch-ch-ch-check!), they had by then extended “Seastones” into a group composition. A rowdy London audience primed to hear the songs from a band who rarely played their shores were made to sit through a half hour of no-boundary experimentation. How wonderfully absurd!  

Is this a case of the group taking out their frustrations on the audience? Maybe. And, even if so, they wouldn’t be the first nor last to pull such a stunt. Were they just doing as they pleased no matter the consequences? Definitely. Which is precisely what makes their career so much more unique. A resistance to adapt or conform is not even close to being on the to-do list for group of people whose collective and creative mind was formed during the Acid Tests nine years previous.

Whether you like their music or not, one has to tip their hat to this band for their delightfully stubborn ways. Essentially, if it wasn’t weird enough, then it wasn’t fun enough … and if it wasn’t fun, then it simply wasn’t worth it. 

ART

Two Riders

"Two Riders" is an excerpt from Sasha Vasilyuk's forthcoming memoir, Falling Up. To read more about Sasha and see more of her work, visit her website.


I met Amit in the dusty courtyard of a hostel on the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the driest desert on earth, Chile’s Atacama. Stocky, bald with a wide grin and cunning eyes, he was hunched above a computer that glowed against the starkness of the hostel’s mud brick barracks and thatched terrace roof. He brimmed with confidence and energy, pointing eagerly to the screen and explaining to his three Chilean friends something about “usability.” His English was fast, reflecting his Indian childhood and Canadian passport.

We introduced ourselves and he explained that he and his friends came here for the weekend from Santiago, Chile’s capital way down south, where they were working on launching a web startup. My own post-divorce solo sojourn was a bit harder to summarize, so I left it at “I’m traveling through South America.”

Night descended quickly onto the desert town, bringing with it the lonesome yelping of the neighborhood dogs under the Southern Hemisphere constellations that I hadn’t yet learned to recognize. One of the oldest settlements in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama has become a small backpacker haven with a few unpaved blocks of lively restaurants serving hippy South American fare; shops sporting garlands of colorful ponchos; and tour agencies offering trips to climb nearby volcanos, swim in salt lakes, and photograph pink flamingos that call this barren region home. I joined Amit’s group as we took the wide dirt road from our outlying hostel along crooked fences and one-story huts toward the noise, the lights and the smell of grilled meat that wafted from the town’s center.

We settled in at a cozy restaurant on the corner, ordered our hippy-cum-Chilean dinner of llama stew with spinach and quinoa, and before the two bottles of the spicy Chilean Merlot had a chance to turn into a headache, Amit had somehow managed to convince me to join him the next morning on a motorcycle ride through the desert.

I had never been on a motorcycle before, but his resume sounded bulletproof –- he had been riding since the tender age of twelve, had taken his bike through a dozen countries in Europe and Central Asia, and despite last year’s crash in Mexico that almost left him with only leg, was ready to explore South America on two wheels. He told me all this with an ebullient enthusiasm that disguised underneath it a minor key, barely audible but unmistakable. It may have been the wine, of course, but I thought I could sense that Amit was a fellow journeyman on the road from breakup.

I said yes without hesitation. I think it was the one leg story that convinced me. After all, now he’d be extra careful…

In the late morning of what turned out to be Easter Sunday, Amit and I went to meet our motorcycle guide, Juan, a handsome 31-year-old Chilean with blond surfer locks and a black motorcycle jacket. Juan took us to his headquarters just outside of town. There, emerging sleepily from the headquarters, which was also their house, we met Juan’s cousin and cofounder Rodrigo. Tan, with jet black curls and a squeaky clean white smile, Rodrigo was one more good reason for me not to crash and die today.

Twirling me like a tiny Russian doll in their rough hands, the two men dressed me in a padded jacket and a tight-fitting helmet that popped like a cork onto my head. Imitating tough Hollywood heroines, I hopped on the back of a black BMW 650GS, also known as the Dakar bike, and clasped my hands around Amit.

"Holding on tight?" I heard his muffled voice through the helmet. I flicked up my thumb and he started the motor, its roar jiggering my hip bones.

It wasn’t until we turned out onto the highway following Juan’s bike that it dawned on me that motorcycles don’t have seatbelts. I know it’s pretty obvious, but somehow I didn’t quite get the full meaning of it until I saw that the clasp of my hands around my riding partner was the only thing between me and sure death. Then, it dawned on me that I was not carrying any documents and that my new friend didn’t even know my last name. Smart…

Yet I suddenly stopped worrying because there was something incredibly romantic about anonymously dying in a motorcycle crash in the driest desert on earth. It looked so cinematic. I couldn’t stress much anyway because at 100km per hour, the wind is so loud you can’t hear yourself think. Your nostrils become dry wind tunnels and your neck hurts from trying to hold your helmet-head from getting ripped off. And that’s in the back.

After leaving San Pedro de Atacama in the rear view mirror, we entered no man’s land where copper-rich cliffs hugged the smooth two-lane highway, a landscape surreal enough to be part of a videogame. Soon, we emerged onto a plateau, dark red and barren with not a building or a tree or even a bush in sight. I half expected a sign that said “Welcome to Mars”.

I could see the earth curving toward a row of volcanoes on the horizon. The sky was close and intensely blue. The only thing moving in this landscape was Juan, eating up the snaking highway ahead of us. As we drove, my ears began to feel congested –- we were climbing, and climbing fast.

Then, Juan signaled to us and we turned onto a dirt road with a sign that read Rio Grande. With the asphalted highway behind us, we were now truly in no man’s land: just us, the dirt road, the Martian landscape, and the wind. I was starting to see the appeal of the two-wheel lifestyle.

Juan signaled again and pulled over on a flat stretch next to big boulders. When I jumped off the bike, with my left hip and my right wrist sore from leaning left since we left headquarters, Juan said he was sorry the highway part of the trip had been so boring. Boring?! Clearly, someone has been living here far too long.

“Just wait until our next stop in Rio Grande village,” he said, beaming. “You will see!”

We continued riding through the reddish crater as the dirt road narrowed and the turns became sharper until, like a startling patch of blue in a cloudy sky, we emerged onto an enormous valley sliced in half by the road, paved and gleaming, as it zoomed straight toward the giant cone of the snow-capped volcano towering ahead.

We passed an enormous billboard showing road workers with a sign that read “Better roads for better Chile.” We soon passed the road workers themselves, painting the lane divide and waving to us cheerily, the only visitors they must have seen all day. It occurred to me that Chile was clearly doing well if a dozen men were sent to pave a road through nowhere to a 100-person village. But when we saw the first glimpse of Rio Grande, I knew why.

After an otherworldly landscape of rocks and jagged peaks, we landed back on Earth to witness it in all its glory: from the top of a canyon we looked more than a hundred feet below onto a wide stream gurgling through a leafy oasis, the green so unexpectedly welcome after an hour of red. There, a round woman in a magenta skirt and a wide-brimmed hat herded a dozen wooly alpacas. Further upstream was her village –- mud brick houses, dirt roads, a whitewashed church with a thatched bell tower and a cross.

This was a place where a loud motorcycle visitor was an event of the week. When we parked our bikes, weathered indigenous men sitting in front of their low houses, waved hello. They all knew Juan, who used to teach English in the village.

The streets were quiet -– no car engines, no hammers, only the sound of drying laundry pattering in the wind –- and as we walked around the tiny village, the only tourists that day or maybe that month, Juan told us his story. He grew up on a farm not far from Santiago, but his father was a motorcycle enthusiast, so instead of riding a horse, he learned to ride a bike. After college, he spent eight years working in the tourism industry in Chile and Bolivia, and then decided to venture out on his own. He hoped the Dakar motorcycle race, an event of global proportions set to pass through Atacama Desert in a few months, would put this region -– along with his tour agency –- on the bike aficionado map.

We paused at an intersection of two dirt roads, surrounded by burnt orange houses that weren’t much taller than us, decorated only with a two dark narrow windows. Here, the conversation turned to Juan’s girlfriend, a college student living in Santiago. For the past year, they saw each other once a month, but just yesterday decided to try a “less committed, more open relationship”.

“We want to keep our feelings, but just be more flexible,” explained Juan, blushing a little.

Amit shook his head with skepticism.

“I’m going through a divorce right now and in my experience, that’s the first step toward the end,” he said.

I had been right about the minor key in Amit’s voice, after all.

“I agree,” I told Juan.

Let’s try separating had been my way of avoiding uttering the ruinous, irrevocable divorce. And now here I was, very separated indeed, standing with two more souls at a crossroad in a remote Chilean village.

It was time to head back. The sun was inching closer toward the horizon and riding through the cold night was beyond my romantic idea of desert martyrdom. Back on the bikes –- more stiff than ever -– we climbed out of the oasis, along the river canyon, onto the open plane, past the billboard (the actual workers now gone), through the dirt road, and out onto the highway where my ears popped several times as we made our way back down toward civilization.

As we drove, I watched the shadow of two people on a bike dance along the road as the orange volcanoes glistened in the setting sun. It was hard to believe one of the shadows was me. It could have been old lovers making their way around the country. Or, like in our case, two new friends riding through nowhere, hoping to make it out okay on the other side. 

ART

Cleon Peterson

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Cleon Peterson's primary color paintings of athletic, sadistic violence in 2D are pretty awesome even though (or because?) they make me a bit queasy. The subjects fight in a bleak, context-less place like slaves did in scenes from the walls of a Pharoah's tomb. 

The three shown below are 1) a horrific war of bodies stabbing and choking each other, 2) a scene reminiscent of police beatings filmed as of late, 3) what looks like a match between two luchadors. (Not really, but kinda.)

Whew. Rough stuff. And the others (or the feeling of viewing dozens of them at once) are even more chilling/terrifying/sickening/moving. I'd suggest you go see them by visiting cleonpeterson.com. 

 

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ART, WEIRD

14 real and made-up words

  1. baishchildegraphe: the embarrassment of reading a journal or diary from childhood
  2. calculanguish: searing frustration and anger at a malfunctioning computer
  3. chrysalis: the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm
  4. consternaleugh: a situation in which you forget which lie you told someone
  5. drogepericulum: a fearful confusion of forgetting you’re high
  6. jouska: a hypothetical conversation that you compulsive play out in your head
  7. kenopsia: the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet
  8. lachesism: the desire to be struck by disaster -- to survive a plane crash, or to lose everything in a fire
  9. mauerbauertraurigkeit: the inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like
  10. mannekille: the feeling of watching a bug you decided not to kill go free
  11. mirenphobia: fear of making eye contact with yourself in the mirror
  12. osseoakhos: the ache of a bone mending itself 
  13. vellichor: the strange wistfulness of used bookshops
  14. videreavinde: a daydream while playing a game about winning the game’s world championship 

ART

Todd James, aka REAS

Todd James (REAS) started as a graffiti artist in the 80's tagging NYC subway cars. He also painted these neon, energetic cartoons of sunburnt lumps. I'm not sure why two of the ladies have duck bills, but I like it.

The purple-haired broad in the red onepiece is going to be me later today at the pool <Sunglass Emoji>. (As if I could be that fly.) 

To see more of Todd James's fierce neon, visit his site: toddjames.com.  

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ART

Caryn Cast - County Fair Winners

I love these paintings based on winners of a county fair by Queens artist Caryn Cast. Maybe it's her Florida-to-Tennessee upbringing (maybe not), but these pastels/acrypic/paper/wood pieces are awesomely reminiscent of Mid-America genre paintings of community, rural, middle-class folk doing their thing.

I particularly love Gayle's smile. I'd be smiling, too, if I had that many jars of pickles. Pickles. Yum. 

In addition to these artistic accomplishments, Caryn has won lots of prestigious awards, and produced a particularly interesting and arresting mural of Kim Jong II milking a cow.  The Supreme Leader is half smiling half grimacing as he squeezes the cow's udders. It reminds me of the photos I saw once of  Kim Jong Un's tour of North Korean factories and farms in which he gets very excited about looking at salmon and other items. 

Anyhow, visit her website to see the Supreme Leader and other delightful pieces. 

 

     

 

 

ART

Anthony Samaniego

Ah, Los Angeles. Covered in concrete, butting up to hot mountains spread over with tinder brush. Chaotic with millions of people under pastel smog sunsets. Ridiculous traffic, art deco building-lined streets, 100 ft high advertisements for BCBG, cement next to white sand beach. 

Anthony Samaniego's "dreamscapes" evoke the feeling of existing in this hot, frantic, fantastic place.  Like his photos, Los Angeles feels restless, colorful, changeable, sprawling, hot with steam. 

Apparently, Samaniego wanders the byways of LA -- particularly at night, at dusk -- looking for the perfect shot. He takes photos with his old, film Mamiya camera. To get the layered effect of his images, he takes multiple exposures on the same negative. To get the nice white splotches, he exposes the negatives to light multiple times. Afterward, he works with the colors until they're neon-perfect.

Don't you love 'em? Doesn't it make you want to wander into the hot hills looking for graffiti-ed rocks and lizards and the line of brown smog hazing over the streets and sprawl?

To see more of his groovy visions of Los Angeles, visit his website, or his Instagram

ART

Jihee So

I found Seoul/Toronto artist Jihee So's art on Instagram. Her flat pastel illustrations of people with long necks make me feel calm. The face and neck shapes are like Kitagawa Utamaro's beautiful women, but are of both women and men living in 2015 who have put a bird on it. Anywow, I like it. 

To see more of Jihee's illustrations, visit her Instagram feed

ARTICLE

what are you talking about - part II

In our first discussion of one book among the slew of books written to help us plebes decipher James Joyce, we looked at James Joyce’s Ulysses and Anthony Burgess’s Rejoyce (1965). (Anthony Burgess who is best known for his 1962 novel, A Clockwork Orange.)

Part Two will find us taking on Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake, and John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark.

If you weren't aware already, Finnegan's Wake is one of the most incredibly written and misunderstood books ever printed. It’s hard to even find an entry point in beginning to talk about it, not least of all because the book has no concrete entry point of its own but starts in the middle of a sentence. Joyce drops his readers into his ocean of words and we’re swept away by the fast moving and often baffling current. Here’s what I mean:

 “But the duvlin sulph was in Glugger, that lost-to-lurning. Punct. He was sbuffing and sputing, tussing like anisine, whipping his eyesoult and gnatsching his teats over the brividies from existers and the outher liubbocks of life. He halth kelchy chosen a clayblade and makes prayses to his three of clubs. To part from these, my corsets, is into overlusting fear. Acts of feet, hoof and jarrety: athletes longfoot. Djowl, uphere!”

But then, what does one expect? Driven mad by the trials and tribulations of Ulysses (the struggle to complete it and then the obscenity trial(s) shortly after its original publication) as well as his ongoing battle with eye problems (iritis, glaucoma and cataracts leading to twenty operations and unimaginable pain and suffering), it’s a wonder he even bothered with another novel -- let alone one of such far-reaching magnitude.  The popular notion is that Ulysses is a book about and which takes place in a single day and Finnegans Wake being about “night,” specifically dreams and the netherworld of anything-goes. But that theory, even if it’s what the author had in mind as a concept, is just too easy of a description.

Hardly anyone understood what Joyce had written. Even those who stood behind him years before while he toiled arduously on Ulysses thought he’d gone off the rails.I am made in such a way that I do not care much for the output from your Wholesale Safety Pun Factory,” wrote Harriet Weaver to Joyce in a twisted fan letter, “nor for the darknesses and unintelligibilities of your deliberately entangled language system. It seems to me you are wasting your genius.

D.H. Lawrence didn’t seem to enjoy the ride, either: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness – what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!” Ever the competitor, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t want Lawrence to get all the fun and so did his own act of bitchiness by whining the book was, “nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room [...] and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity…”  Yowza!

Two editors at Houyhnhnm Press, Danise Rose and John O’Hanlon, set out to publish a “more comprehensible” version of the book and, after thirty goddamn years of work, it was finally published in 2010. To get an idea of the work involved, take a look at Rose’s personal copy of Wake with she made her own notations of possible amendments: 

Naturally, a boundary smashing book as such attracts those overachieving souls who wish to decipher it all for the good of humanity. Sticking with the absurdity of it all, I set before you one such example: John Bishop’s 1986 tome, Joyce’s Book of the Dark. It is a 400+ mind-melting page the likes of which not seen since … well, since Finnegans Wake was published some forty-seven years previous. It’s hard to not hype the magnitude of Bishop’s work. A reviewer for the esteemed Library Journal went for the undersell approach by writing that it: “will help serious readers of the Wake get their bearings.” Yes, well maybe that’s true, but whatever bearings Bishop may help us find in Joyce’s work gets thrown off considerably by his own research. He atom-splits Wake into a trillion possibilities and connects the dots between the novel’s various influences: the political/philosophical teachings of Giocan Vico, the Egyptian Book Of The Dead, and that old stand-by reference point and all around great guy, Sigmund Freud. But that’s merely the beginning. In fact, that’s hardly the beginning.  Let’s just take a gander at a random sentence, shall we:

 “According to one line of speculation inevitably issuing from the Wake’s study of ‘meoptics,’ we might therefore conceive of an agent internal to the body agitating the ‘rods and cones of this even’s vision’ into wakefulness during visual dreams – and doing so not haphazardly, but with such weird precision as to etch there, graphically, people, scenes and even alphabetic characters of a sufficiently credulity-gripping lifelikeness as to conceive the dreamer of their reality.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I was thinking! It’s not just words, either. Oh, no. He’s has gone to the trouble of making us some visual aids. Check this one out: 

I’m not going to bother explaining that one for you (because I can’t). Here, try this one that is supposed to be a bit simpler: 

Bishop is the sadist and we’re just masochists.

This book, like its subject matter, has the ability to induce panic attacks. The walls of the reader’s imagination are eliminated and the enormity of not just Finnegans Wake, but of the possibilities of the world and life itself, become almost too big for the mind to handle.

Expect to take this one slow. Bishop’s lofty ideas and theories require patience (Lord knows I haven’t read it all), but it’s worth the time and effort. In that way, Joyce’s Book of the Dark is perhaps the perfect companion to Finnegans Wake as both books challenge and reflect the wonders of language and thought.

However, an argument can be made that Bishop’s work is almost too much. Jeepers, maybe I don’t need a full breakdown of Egyptology in order to understand, say, three certain pages of this thing. (“That Joyce has in mind as a “premier terror” of the dark “errorland” of sleep, the loss of consciousness is suggested by the name that he repeatedly uses throughout the Wake to refer to the Egyptian afterworld.”) This is akin to getting your car stuck on a dirty, wet backroad only then watching the tow truck getting stuck in the same pit as it tries to pull it out.

Bishop himself is a professor of English at the University of California Berkeley, which means he’s about a mile from where I’m writing this thing so I could wander over to his office and ask him myself … but … I’m sure he’s busy.

Joyce’s Book of the Dark is a world unto itself: a fascinating verbal/visual gate-crashing study of the whole goddamn creative universe. It might someday get its own critical companion study -- one which helps us figure out what was going on in Bishop’s head, never mind Joyce’s. It creates new problems, new questions, new furrowed brows. If you want to get your hands really dirty and muck about in the essential fibers which make up the staggering brilliance of James Joyce, Book of the Dark is where you want to be.

But for those of us who need Joyce’s vision watered down just a wee bit more, there is another fantastic manual out there, one which even the hyper-kinetic American philosopher and psychonaut * Terrence McKenna endorsed some years ago. Stay tuned for part three.

*Yep, that’s an actual term, look it up.

ARTICLE, NONFICTION

Cuz a New Town Party Don't Stop

 Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

Pierre Huyghe. "Streamside Day," film still, 2003. Film and video transfers; 26 minutes, color, sound. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris/New York. © Pierre Huyghe.

In winter 2014-2015, the Lacma sponsored a retrospective of artist, Pierre Huyghe (b. 1962, Paris). I walked into the exhibition and a man in a suit announced my full name into the dark studio. I found a hermit crab in an aquarium wearing a football-sized Sleeping Muse shell. Outside, a bee hive was the head of a lounging, nude sculpture.

Despite these distractions, I spent most of my time in an alcove watching Streamside Day: a video of a celebration Pierre Huyghe invented for Streamside, a recently-birthed planned town in rural New York.

Onscreen, a parade of teenagers in rabbit and bear and horse costumes wander down a dirt street lined with naked wood homes. The smooth, bare earth is carved in the middle of a forest. The fresh-cut barrenness reminds me of a copper mine.

In a dirt quad, families sit on lawn chairs, look at their new neighbors, eat a curated pile of rainbow donuts. The mayor of the town gives a speech into a cheap microphone from a plywood platform.

The scene evokes the feeling of the first day of ninth grade. I look at the faces of the moms and dads who just spent a chunk of change on a down payment for this very new and out-of-the-way place. I get a sneaking suspicion that Huyghe is poking fun of the families. Parading their children around in pagan animal heads. Dotting the scene with silver Mylar balloons, bare plywood, rainbow-colored food. Failing to provide chairs so families bring their own mis-matching fold-ables.

Despite this, in an interview with Art 21, Huyghe said the town, “was under construction when [he] found it, and … created—or invented—a tradition for it … a celebration, once a year.” He continues: “This is a town that has no organicity. It's an image—an instant, pure image. Months ago, there was no town. Now, it's a brand new town with roads.” A new town, which, to Huyghe, warranted a celebration.

Watching the Streamside Day video, I was reminded of the time I once drove 4+ hours from Orange County through the Mojave Desert to the hot scrawled ruins of California City. Brainchild of Nat Mendelsohn, California City is and was an 80,000 acre planned community that was birthed during the New Town Movement of the 1950s. Mendelsohn imagined California City might one day rival Los Angeles.  

Though California City did end up becoming home to a few hundred residents – most of whom work for the nearby Airforce base – it is mostly a grid of ghost cul de sacs and crumbling asphalt. Street signs stare over the hard desert ground. California City is the state of California’s third largest city, by geographical area. It can be seen from space. I visited it because I have a thing about New Towns: towns with “no organicity.”

Born and raised in Orange County, CA, most of which is a New Town-type stucco suburban sprawl on the coast of Southern California, I know some of what it feels like to grow up in a New Town. Irvine, CA, is a particularly good example: a grid of glass office buildings and apartment towns built on what feels like an arbitrary spot in a grassy expanse.

I now work in another New Town: Broomfield, CO, which sits halfway between Denver and Boulder. Youtube hosts a video from the 50’s detailing its inception and birth.

The narrator begins by detailing the achievement of a man named Morris Greeley, who paved the path for Broomfield by birthing nearby New Town Greeley, Colorado. “Morris Greeley was a man of vision,” says the narrator. “In the wide horizons of his mind, he saw the stirring future of the American West. After viewing the rich, rolling land that sweeps majestically up to the great wall of the Rocky Mountains, he advised, “go west, young man, and grow up with the country.”

The narrator’s booming voice resonates with the enthusiasm of post-war America -- an America full of middle classers seeking to flee from the dirty urban sprawl toward the healthful environs of the grassy suburbs. The narrator asks: “Why not meet the challenge of a growing area by building a whole new city from scratch … a modern dream city for 30K people where everything is carefully planned from the beginning … ?”

Why not?

“Soon, the detailed planning for Broomfield heights was underway in earnest,” says the narrator. “A firm of experienced city planners was obtained to make a dream city as perfect as man can conceive. Streets were laid out in arcs and curves to conform to the natural landscape … street arteries were planned to carry traffic easily and quickly to and from a smart, modern shopping center.”

I know lots of people who live in Broomfield (no Heights). It’s affordable, is home to dozens of tech conglomerate high-rise office buildings, and, indeed, has some nice views of the mountains. I’m guessing the smart, modern shopping center is the strip mall with the Starbucks and Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s easy to criticize New Towns such as Broomfield, CO, or Irvine, CA. They’re populated by mostly white, middle class folks. Chain businesses dominate. Homes and apartments matchy-match like they came from a box set. Driving culture dominates. They’re usually dozens of miles from what could be considered a true city, a natural people center.

In fact, the out-of-the-way nature of New Towns is part of their DNA. Distance from the messiness of the people center is what makes New Towns feel safe. I’m not sure if Streamside is or will become a typical New Town, but it has most of the earmarks of one. And, my instinct is to criticize it, to start humming lines from the Father John Misty song:

"they gave me a useless education

... a subprime loan

on a craftsman home" 

But, maybe that isn't the right response.  At least it didn't seem to be Huyghe's. “When I first saw this town, I just went to see all the people,” said Huyghe. “And then I said, ‘I'm going to invent a celebration because it's a brand new place … I organized the whole celebration—from the parade to the concert, to the food, to the mayor giving a speech, to the kids playing—everything.'”

I hum: "Oh ... just a little ... bored in the USA..."  The narrator continues: “on an historic day, the 21st of August, 1955, a town was born … 100 new families had pioneered and found the realization for their dreams.”

Terrified By Way Of The Sapphire VXIII (Part One)

The audio system in the 1975 VW Super Beetle, the Sapphire XVIII, was an AM radio. A single 3” speaker located below and to the left of the steering wheel delivered the output. It was inches away from the driver’s left knee.  I was introduced to popular music through this particular audio setup while being driven hither and yon by my mother.

The most important songs from this time period are those that scared me to bits. Of course, one would think there’s nothing to fear when being driven around the western regions of Minneapolis within the security of your mom’s car. But, getting spooked and fascinated by music seemed the cornerstone of my love of music.

It’s really easy to not like The Eagles. Despite the overabundance of talent with the band’s history, much of their music is too bland. When their music isn’t putting me to sleep, it’s reminding me how much I loathe drunken (or even sober) frat boys singing “Take It Easy.” From its inception, the band poached the ideas of other musicians, then watered them down so a wider audience could digest them. Happens all the time (and not just in the entertainment industry). I get that; it’s called good business. But good business doesn’t always make good music.

Two bands in particular, Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers (both of which would see former members show up in the Eagles line-up), created far better work from which The Eagles eventually made millions. But, that’s showbiz. Over time, the Eagles were taken over by snide, insecure rhythm guitarist Glenn Frey and the unemotional, insecure drummer Don Henley. Over the course of their career, the two worked their way into superiority by slowly edging out the larger talents Bernie Leadon, Randy Meisner, and Don Felder. Those who weren’t iced out, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt, have been pushed back to third class citizenry by ways of intimidation and economical buyouts. Sounds like a grand time making music.

However, it’s difficult for a group to release six records and not have a few good songs scattered throughout. One of those is “Hotel California,” their second single from the album of the same name. Released in March of 1977, it received massive airplay on pop radio (because it was Poco watered down for the masses) so it was impossible for a kid not to hear it while being driven about in his mom’s car. The imagery and music squeezed out of the Sapphire XVIII’s three-inch speaker filled me with apprehension.  It would be years, maybe decades, before I found out this song had been somewhat controversial for its perceived demonic lyrical and cover art imagery.

The music was written almost exclusively by guitarist Don Felder at his Malibu home that previous summer. Felder expertly layered together the demo on his TEAC four-track recorder, which sat in a spare bedroom. The song’s structure as we know it today was already in place by the time he brought it to the rest of the band a few weeks later: the layered acoustic and electric guitars, the purposeful pacing (its beat was supplied by Felder’s Roland Rhythm Ace drum machine and, while he wrote it in a reggae style, the closest he could get was the contraption’s “cha-cha” setting), the start/stop pinnacle – even the dueling guitar solos that bring the song to its creepy fade-out.

Glen Frey and Don Henley (justifiably referred to sarcastically as “the gods” by everyone else in the band), took notice of the demo immediately. Henley, a Texas native, mistook the reggae/cha-cha feel for something more Latino and instantly started to brainstorm further ideas. Frey, for his part, had been listening to a lot of Steely Dan that summer. The band’s darkly satirical worldview nudged him into envisioning a theme for the song (and not necessarily a complimentary one about Los Angeles and all its trappings). In his mind, there was someone driving toward the city on a desert highway and seeing the lights of the city off in the distance. Henley took the bait and disappeared to write the lyrics soon thereafter. No one else in the band would hear the results until it came time to record the vocals.

The final version is remarkable, especially when set against much of their previous material, which is more laid-back and country-fied. The band takes their time wandering through the song, an amazing feat considering the amount of cocaine they were using**.

Perhaps the secret ingredient musically is Randy Meisner’s melodic bass work which, until the guitar solo finale, is the busiest element of the song. It bubbles under and nudges the band along. Don Henley’s drumming is distracting and vague (there are some who suggest his drumming style perfectly matches his personality), yet still keeps a beat, (however flimsy).  

Luckily for him, Henley saves his own ass by writing a fantastically compelling, minimal story; the words he chose perfectly match the eerie instrumental track. The song’s narrator travels down a nighttime desert highway, sees a hotel in the distance, and pulls off to stay there for the night.  It’s a nice place and he quickly gets comfortable only to soon realize something is a bit off. He keeps hearing distant voices and is soon gripped with what William S. Burroughs famously labeled as “The Fear”: an unquestionable sense of private doom. He’s trapped.

Henley’s lyrical delivery is patient, almost disembodied; everything seems viewed outside the actual experience:

“Then she lit up a candle and showed me the way

There were voices down the corridor; I thought I heard them say...”

The song’s haunted sense is furthered by omni-definitional words:

“So I called up my captain

‘Please bring me my wine’

He said ‘we haven’t had that spirit here since ninety-sixty nine…’

This wonderfully morose scene was strong enough to enchant even a six year-old boy riding around in his mother’s VW Super Beetle. For a kid who was already beginning to understand a bit about life’s darkness because of watching the first two (incredibly dark) seasons of Scooby Doo Where Are You?, “Hotel California” was a further step toward that understanding.

Of course, the main lyrical cash-out for anyone who hears this little number is the climax of the story:

“And in the master’s chambers

They gathered for the feast

They stab it with their steely knives

But they just can’t kill the beast”

Soon the narrator makes for the hotel’s front door, looks for that way out which doesn’t exist. From there, Felder’s brilliant idea of ending the song with dueling solos pays off as he and Joe Walsh trade leads, taking the song into its apex and the finale. The ending guitar dual is synonymous with both the excess of 70’s rock and, as one of my friends pointed out some years ago, one of the most famous solos in rock history. Almost anyone can whistle at least five or ten bars of it.

No matter how elementary any underlying message, the words and music coalescing into a frightening but simple tale of getting trapped in a hotel was extremely powerful to my kid mind. Whether the song is about drug addiction, pop culture’s fondness for materialism (“some dance to remember, some dance to forget”…yap-yap-yap),  I didn’t (and still don’t) need to understand the subtext. I was uncomfortable enough with the haunted imagery. Imagery that haunted me even though I was in broad daylight, in a car next to my mom. Riding in the passenger seat, “Hotel California” transfixed me into introspection for the duration of the song just as it is right now, some thirty-eight years later …

** The band’s drug usage didn’t affect the tempo in which they played, but how much time they spent fine-tuning Each. Note. Of. Each. Song. The recording of the record took nine months in 1976. Nine months of work generating nine songs totaling a little over forty-three minutes of music. If you want to think of it as one song completed per month, then you have a pretty good idea how slow they were progressing.  This fact alone justifies the necessity of the insurgence of Punk Rock. Although punk was bound to happen anyway, Eagles or no Eagles, an album such as this makes the reactionary Punk culture that much more sensible.