“I’m here to capture the rapture and the resurrection at the same time,” says Tim Dundon, pushing a wheelbarrow brimming with fresh mulch, leading me up the inclined path into his shady tropical reserve. “Isn’t life triumphing over death the resurrection? The body turns back to basics and then the basics are picked up by the next generation and the next generation makes use of it and is happy to live inside this new entity because it didn’t go to the landfill. It went to the hill with the will.”
— from “The Sodfather” by Daniel Chamberlin, originally published in Arthur (Dec. 2007)
In the spirit of Tim Dundon, we’re doing some compost work here on the site, making sure nothing goes to the landfill, and all that we did back then is available to the next generation. We’re restoring lost blog images and credits, and posting text, photos and art from old print issues of Arthur Magazine online for the first time.
There’s a lot in the archives for us to choose from, and we’re not doing it in any systematic order. If there’s something you’d like to see online sooner than later, let us know in the “Comments” section below. Requested items will then be brought online, archived and highlighted in the blog.
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August, 2006)
How Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain singer-guitarist Ethan Miller got his cosmic Californian yawp
Text: Trinie Dalton
Photos: Eden Batki
Design: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington
My adoration for Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance, Howlin’ Rain and The Colossal Yes — all bands that either include or are tangentially related to cover boy Ethan Miller — stems from my love of music that reminds me of the Pot Growing Capital of America, Humboldt County. As a native Californian, any music that conjures up the Redwood forest—its clean, pine-scented air, abundance of ferns and fungi, and a high tree canopy providing year-round shelter from the elements—causes me to pause as I grind through traffic in Los Angeles and wonder: Why do I live in such a hellhole? (This doesn’t mean I’m moving up north to chain myself to a tree or that I bust out bootlegs from cheesy Phish wannabes, however.)
Ethan Miller’s music in his bands Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain does yeoman’s work by evoking his native Humboldt region. His guitar playing and vocals attest to a magical and ancient ability to conjure up place, recalling that golden hour in American rock history: San Francisco in the late ‘60s, the heyday of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. On the other hand, Miller is audibly influenced by Japanese freak-out messiahs like High Rise, Ghost, White Heaven, Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino. Those inspirations supply the proverbial fireworks inside Miller’s balmy, casual Northern California sound. Consider it a Pacific Rim/Ring of Fire kind of thing.
Comets on Fire have built their sound upon the excitement and uncertainty of impending disaster. Their fourth studio album, Avatar (Sub Pop), sounds, at first, less chaotically punky than their previous records (2001’s Comets on Fire; 2002’s Field Recordings of the Sun; 2004’s Blue Cathedral), but close listening reveals its deeper strangeness. The new album has a more professional studio sound, yet Avatar also features powerful ballads whose lyrics has the power to hypnotize much like magic spells. In “Swallow’s Eye,” Miller sings: “Eye of the moon will turn the tides/Leaves of the orchard beckon the blight/Spite of our circle, ever on/Only a river can carry a song.”
While Comets’ awkward-but-beautiful tendency towards demolishing harmonic riffs and jams with screeching, scary guitar solos still reigns, Avatar has clearer piano, more bass, and, most notably, Miller singing sans effects. His earthy rasp is reminiscent of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and Ozzy. But when Comets played ArthurFest in 2005, Ethan was singing at maximum capacity, and it was impossible to understand one word he was saying through the distortion of the Echoplex. Now, the ability to understand Ethan Miller’s lyrics is a breakthrough, adding poetic and political significance to an already heavy experience.
Miller’s lyrics come through even clearer on Howlin’ Rain’s self-titled debut on Birdman Records. Howlin’ Rain is an Ethan-fronted revolving posse including old buddies Ian Gradek, Mike Jackson, Tim Daley and Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney. They have a real California-country feel, part Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, part original Charlatans, with the feel-good vibe of the Doobie Brothers. I sampled the Howlin’ Rain LP while crossing over mountainous Route 299, through Weaverville, deep in the Shasta-Trinity wilderness famous for its thriving Bigfoot population. With the trees rolling past, a river to stop at and dip into, and some beer and trail mix for nourishment, the tunes sounded pretty idyllic. Howlin’ Rain’s lyrics are another matter: doomsday vibes, as in “Calling Lightning With A Scythe,” set far off from pastoral troubadour musings: “We are only slaves/To our ghostly arms and legs/Got us dancing in our graves/And then lay around in the wreckage/Of this pitiful little world.” Bluesy murder ballads and songs about the apocalypse are further disturbed by Miller’s guitar solos that wreck the Neil Young-ian peace and harmony that the songs present on the surface.
Ethan grew up in Eureka, the Humboldt County seat, but now lives in Oakland. I had a fantasy of driving up to some remote redwood cabin to drink gin with him for the interview, but since he’s busy enjoying Bay Area city life with his wife and working a day job, we enjoyed a long, fun phone conversation. Ethan Miller’s lucidity, in his interview as well as in his music, reassures me that there are good things happening, in an age that can sometimes feel overwhelmed by corporate dread.
On Sunday, July 13, 2003, an intimate audience congregated at the Community Music Center in Portland, Oregon, to hear a vocal recital of North Indian ragas on a full-moon night. On the riser were a pair of tablas, two tambouras, and a sarangi, situated around a cushion reserved for the vocalist. When the audience was seated, Terry Riley, father of repetitive electronic music, entered in full Indian dress, followed by his accompanists. After making their bows to the audience, the musicians were seated. Riley announced that it was the evening of Guru Purnima, a sacred holiday celebrated in India and throughout the world. Every year on the full moon of July, students and disciples pay homage to their respective gurus and celebrate the spirit of the ancient guru Vyasa, the Indian saint who edited the Vedas and authored the Puranas and Upanishads. It is a day of gratitude for the teacher’s guidance along the spiritual path. Although a disciple gives thanks to his or her guru throughout the year, Guru Purnima is a special observance of all gurus past, present and future.
This performance concluded several days in Portland, where Riley gave a series of vocal classes. Tonight, Riley would sing in honor of Pandit Pran Nath, who brought North Indian vocal music to the West. A month earlier, two of Riley’s longtime friends and fellow disciples of Pran Nath, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, gave a similar vocal recital in their New York City loft: an annual memorial concert held every June in honor of Pran Nath, who passed away seven years earlier on June 13, 1996.
Riley resurrected his guru with a performance of evening ragas, his sonorant voice resonating throughout the hall. The meticulous manner in which Riley manifests each raga stems from his training with Pran Nath; at the same time, it is pure Terry Riley. Riley’s raga is a natural extension of his definitive minimalist composition In C, his extended keyboard improvisations such as A Rainbow in Curved Air, or his string quartets such as Salome Dances for Peace. On a fundamental level, each of these works reflects the same spirit of creating magic through sound, transporting the listener out of linear time and into a realm of transcendent beauty. In tonight’s case, Riley was working with the oldest and most intimate instrument in music: the human voice.
It is no coincidence that Riley and La Monte Young committed 26 years to the study of North Indian vocal music with Pran Nath. The music that became known in the West as minimalism often shared the aims of Indian classical music: a cyclical approach to rhythm and melody; a sense that both performer and audience are involved in a transformative ritual that induces trance; an emphasis on purity of tone and precision of tuning; and an investigation into the nature of sound itself. For Young and Riley, the arrival of Pran Nath was a confirmation of principles already evident in their work, but Pran Nath also guided them to the next step.
ABOVE: Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends, Rick Veitch’s self-published ’90s comic book focused on his dream comics, which featured occasional celebrity guests. One repeater was Veitch’s collaborator Alan Moore, shown here finding the best stash ever.
Cartographer of the American Dreamtime: An appreciation of Rick Veitch
by Alan Moore
The Julia Set, unique and intricately beautiful, is an exquisite fractal outgrowth from the mother Mandelbrot arrangement, a specific form dictated by the mathematical peculiarities of its precise location in the overall continuum, the jeweled continent of numbers charted and explored by Benoit Mandelbrot during the 1980s. The Julia Sets are, if you will, distinct and individual entities which nonetheless arise from the unique conditions at their point of origin. As such, they offer us a splendid metaphor; a new way to consider the relationship between ourselves as human beings and the landscapes that we grew from. We are Julia Sets, and our specific natures and distinct psychologies are an elaborate extension of the maze of streets where we were born; the valleys, hills and rivers that defined our world and the topographies that we grew up amongst.
If some supporting evidence is needed in defense of this hypothesis, then we need look no further than Rick Veitch. Born out of Vermont, he spent childhood and youth unaware of the powerful significance of his surroundings, as most of us do. In attempting to find the right path for himself, an endeavor that might lead him past the constraints of his life, he pursued both a passion for comic-book artistry and an increasing involvement with his own tumultuous dream-life. While these two preoccupations have greatly enabled and enriched each other in Rick’s subsequent career, I suggest it is the dreampath that is of the primary importance in that it is somehow closer to the center of his being, closer to the source of his artistic inspiration than the marvelously illustrated pages that grow out of it. By following the shadowy and lunar trail of his oneiric explorations, mapping his own route as he made his way further out into uncharted territories, it would seem that he’s been led back to the very point at which he started out, but with a greater understanding and appreciation of its meaning and its majesty: Vermont. The river and the bridge. The petroglyphs.
This was the landscape that another vocal and prolific dreamer, H.P. Lovecraft, had described after a visit to Vermont, the flooded river and its cargo of gas-bloated cattle lending local color to his tale of ghastly and unfathomable alien abduction. Brains in copper cylinders, extraordinary rendition, bound for Yuggoth. Funnily enough, the isolated cabin where Lovecraft’s protagonist is subject to the conversation of its human-mimicking inhabitant was based upon the residence that stands a little way from the Veitch homestead, owned once and perhaps still by a neighbor with experience of alien abduction who had published books upon the subject. Or at least, something that looked like him had published books upon the subject.
As Rick started to investigate the place that he was raised in, he began to get a sense of its geography as it related to his personal history, to the history of the area and to his own ongoing archaeology of dreams. He learned about the Abenaki, whose own cultural perspectives had informed the landscape once, before the vision of the settlers had been ruthlessly imposed. They’d been the ones who’d scratched those strange horned stick-figures into the rocks down by the river, the same ones that Lovecraft mentioned, with the ancient markings partly smothered by the concrete of the bridge foundations. That would be the bridge across the river to New Hampshire that in Rick’s dreams seemed to symbolize a bridge across the centuries, jet fighters sparring with pteranodons above the central span. The Abenakis’ hilltop burial ground, with bodies customarily interred sat upright, had been razed by bulldozers… decapitations and bisections of Native American deceased… in order to erect the paper-mill where Rick’s own father would slave out his days. America, ignoring the advice of its own horror movies, is entirely built upon the site of an old Indian graveyard and must take its ghosts and hauntings as they come.
While he deepened his inquiries into the rich history of his birthplace, Veitch’s waking life and dream life seemed to synchronize with his material world, seemed to connect with narratives that were those of the streets and soil themselves. He dreamed about a native shaman with a magic bow, his features masked at first by a carved pumpkin head but then revealed as those of an unusually tall man with a goofy and distinctive overbite, a face that was entirely unforgettable. A few days later, in the waking world, he took a walk down by the riverside in search of either inspiration or some new clue to the innate puzzle of the area. Floating in the water was an orange globe that seemed from several feet away to be a pumpkin like the shaman’s headpiece in his dream. Venturing nearer he discovered that it was in fact a punctured child’s ball, thrown away somewhere upstream, upon some previous occasion. Fished out of the water, on the other side was a crude, childish drawing of the same distinctive face with the same goofy overbite. The last I heard, Rick had it perched above the doorway of his studio.
The synchronicities came thick and fast, as they will tend to do when one embarks upon investigations of this nature. At one point, researching his own genealogy he came across a tantalizing reference to a long dead ancestor, a female member of the Veitch clan who had intermarried with the local Abenaki, taking as her bridegroom an unusually tall man if the story was to be believed. Was this the reason for his serial dreams about the petroglyphs, about the Abenaki, some unlikely but convincing blood connection?
Whether the descent be biological or otherwise, it seems that Rick Veitch has been pressed into continuing the role of his shamanic Abenaki forebears, of the ones that walked the land before him, who grew out of it as he did. Through his studies, his experiences and the splendid comic pages that resulted from the same, Rick has fearlessly explored and mapped the dreamtime of his native landscape just as thoroughly as did his psilocybin-entranced predecessors. And let there be no mistake, it is that dreamtime that all our reality is founded on, the mythic bedrock upon which we build our paper-mills, the modem structures of our modem lives.
Also, in Veitch’s case, in should be noted that we are exposed to an authentic vision of the true American dreamtime rather than another dissertation on the American Dream. The latter would seem to have been of questionable use in the development of the United States, too often held up like a brightly painted backdrop to conceal a less agreeable American reality; the promise of a photogenic destiny, of realizing lifestyles that in truth only exist on celluloid, a retrofitted continuity. The former, the American Dreamtime, is the sustaining, nourishing, neglected panorama that is still there, underneath the muddle of contemporary detritus that has piled up in the cellar-rooms of our unconscious, and Rick Veitch is its cartographer.
And in the sempiternal and unchanging Mandelbrot of spacetime, that is who and what he is forever: a unique and fascinating outgrowth of his place, his time and circumstances, an inimitable Julia Set grown from that cemetery dirt, that riverside, those petroglyphs. Or, if that’s not the case, then somewhere in another world there is a butterfly that’s having the most unbelievably strange dream.
A conversation with dreamer/cartoonist Rick Veitch
by Jay Babcock
Born in 1951 in Bellow Falls, Vermont, Rick Veitch experienced the psychedelic late 1960s as a teenager. After overcoming some profound self-inflicted difficulties as a young adult in the early ‘70s—detailed in the following Q & A—he got serious about becoming a professional cartoonist. He succeeded. In the last three decades, Veitch has navigated the comics industry’s ups and downs while creating a singular, deeply weird and challenging body of work: sometimes raw, rough and outrageous in an old-school underground comix way, but more often clever and fantastically imaginative, with moments of startling cosmic beauty. My personal Rick Veitch highest highlights are his visionary run as Alan Moore’s handpicked writer-artist successor on Swamp Thing in the ‘80s; The One, his deeply anti-superhero comics series, somehow published by a Marvel Comics subdivision, that in a better world would have been the final word on the superhero concept; and Can’t Get No, a daring, dialogue-less graphic novel drawn in landscape format that builds from the story of corporate drone’s post-9/11 roadtrip into something truly poignant and profound. (Not for nothing did Fug/poet/historian Ed Sanders himself salute that work with a rare blurb—as did Neil Gaiman.)
Rick Veitch’s most unlikely and enduring triumph, though, has got to be Roarin’ Rick’s Rare Bit Fiends, a black-and-white comic book series he self-published under his King Hell imprint for 22 issues starting in 1994. Rare Bit featured no continuing characters or stories—its entire subject matter, issue after issue, was Veitch presenting his dreams in comics narrative form. It was a remarkable run that continued to resonate long after it finished, due to its enduring, mysterious subject matter.
A few winters ago, suffering from two decades of persistent, distressing nightmares, I visited Roarin’ Rick in his rural Vermont home. Here is our after-lunch conversation.
Arthur: So Rick, when did you start dreaming?
Rick Veitch: [laughter] From the time I was a little kid I was a big dreamer. There were normal everyday dreams but then were these big dreams that seemed like movies. I think that my fascination with dreaming was kicked off by a series of recurring nightmares. I would wake up in sheer terror from this recurring dream of a little girl trying to pick a flower below a skyscraper that was being built, and something happens, and the whole skyscraper starts collapsing. The girders start landing around the little girl, and the sound is COSMIC. I dreaded that dream. I had it again and again and again. I credit it with making me pay attention to my dreams.
Arthur: Did your parents know what was going on with your recurring nightmares, terror?
Not really. I grew up in an odd situation. We were a big Catholic family, I was the fourth kid. My parents had sort of ran out of gas running herd on my older siblings. So I pretty much did what I wanted, with not a lot of input from my folks.
I paid attention to dreams in general, just because this terrifying experience kept coming back. I think that’s how nightmares work. They want you to pay attention. That’s what they’re saying: Pay attention to what this phenomenon of dreaming is.
My older brother, Tom Veitch, who also writes comics and is well known as a poet, had an early interest in dreams and spirituality too. He was ten years older than me. We grew up very differently. He grew up with a normal family, while our folks were still paying attention. I grew up when no one was paying attention anymore. By the time I started becoming aware, he was out of the house already, living in New York, so it isn’t like I saw him a lot, but when I did, I would learn interesting things about the culture, about art, and about dreaming. I was telling him some of my big dreams. He was interested in them. And from listening to him I began to understand that there was a system to analyze the symbolism of dreams, that dreams WERE symbols.
Was there a turning point when you started to pay serious attention to your dreams?
When I was about 20 years old, I went through a personal crisis. I had just sort of ran my life into the ground as 20-year-olds tend to do. I went into a deep depression. I couldn’t even get out of bed in the morning, that’s how bad it was. And in those days you didn’t go to a psychologist. You just sort of suffered these things. And somebody gave me a copy of The Portable Jung, a big fat paperback that collects a lot of Jung’s writings. I read the whole damn thing, kind of obsessively. I didn’t really understand it, but I went through the whole 700-page thing and began to see correlations in the dreams I was having, which were apocalyptic. That’s what was going on with me at the time. I couldn’t get out of bed. But at night my dreams were just unbelievably strong, really vivid. I began to sense that they were trying to direct me to heal myself. I can’t say I sensed all this consciously, but unconsciously, through the assimilation of all of Jung’s writings and the focus on the dreams themselves, I began to see a way out of my depression. And it worked.
I started this really detailed dream diary, writing down every damned thing I could, which I’ve still got, and bit by bit I began to understand the shadow side of my own personality, what was causing me to fail at growing up. I began to see that I had to ally myself with the deeper parts of myself, I had to trust that. I began to understand the nature of the structure of the psyche, which is one of the great things that Jung brought us. And I began to pull myself out of the hole. That was the beginning of my dreamwork.
What had happened? What hole were you stuck in?
It was a whole bunch of stuff. It was just being a teenaged lunatic. I was never a big druggie but I hung out with druggies. Relationship problems with my girlfriend, unable to hold a job, all kinds of stuff.
Focusing on my dreams, looking at them, trying to understand what they meant, I slowly began to heal myself. Got a job, started to make money, pulled my whole life together. Took responsibility for the things I’d screwed up with the people I had alienated. More importantly, I began to realize the reason I was broken, was that I needed to be an artist. I’d known from the time I was a little kid that I was an artist. But except for my brother Tom, the environment around me, my parents, friends, the education system had all basically said ‘No, you can’t do this.’ That was a constant growing up. So there was a real deep and dangerous conflict in me.
I began to understand that if I really wanted to spend my life making art and being an artist, that I could. But it was up to me to make it happen. That’s when my real life began.
This process of dream journaling and study turned me around. I found a school that taught comics, the Joe Kubert School. Even though I was poor, I canvassed the state of Vermont and got a grant to go to school. Within a few years I’d put together a career drawing comic books for the major comic book companies. It really was a case of me making the right moves based on how dreaming was helping me organize my life.
Keeping the dream diary, how did that start?
First it was a series of indelible dreams, just cataclysmic.
The girl with the falling girders?
Yeah, they were on that level. But I was older now.
So they were uglier…?
I think ‘archetypal’ is the best word. They were pointing out both the nature and structure of the psyche. Many were all based upon a borderline, demonstrating how there’s this psychological border you cross, On this side, it’s your personal stuff you’re dealing with. and on the other side things are more archaic and symbolic. The dreams began to map a landscape in my mind of my psychological state. What was extraordinary about this was that the landscape was based on a REAL landscape in my hometown. Naturally you would think of course your psychological landscape is going to be based on where you grew up; what’s familiar. But it just so happened that part of this landscape in my hometown, I discovered much later, had been a place where Indian shamans from the Abenaki tribe used to gather and take magic mushrooms. Shamans and shamanism began to come up in the dreams spontaneously.
In my forties I began drawing these very early dreams as comics and began researching the shamanic connection. There are these petroglyphs in my home town that were left by Abenaki shaman and they’re right on the map in my dreaming! I began to come to understand that information itself had a certain life-like quality. The information that shamans worked with was ALIVE, and this could all be accessed via our dreaming unconscious. That became a focus of my dreamwork and my art while I was doing my series, Rare Bit Fiends.
Where did you get the idea to keep a dream diary?
I probably got the idea to do it from my brother Tom, because I know he was doing it. And he’s the guy who gave me the copy of Jung as well, at that key point. I think he could see what was going on. He handed me the tools I needed, rather than try to teach me himself. He knew that it’s something you’ve got to assimilate on your own.
How does keeping a dream diary work?
You have a little notebook by the side of your bed and you teach yourself to remember what you’ve dreamt. In the beginning I’d write every detail I could, nine or ten pages, whatever. Now I don’t do it so much. When I wake up in the morning now, even before I open my eyes, I try move the dream imagery from the dreaming part of the brain into the part where there are memory cells. That’s the key trick. You don’t want to open your eyes because once light comes into your eyes, you’ll lose a lot of those dream memories. Once they’re in the memory side, you got it. So then I’ll get up and have breakfast and stuff and then I’ll sit down and make little notes. That night, I’ll re-read the notes, and usually upon re-reading the notes, more from the dream comes up.
The dreams you present in your comics are not prosaic. They have cosmic stuff happening. You must have a very vivid and super-charged dreamlife.
I think that everybody does. It’s just a case of paying attention and learning a few tricks. There are different levels of dreaming. One level is the totally cosmic, that seems to happen in the middle of the night. On the other end is the totally mundane which happens nearer to morning. One trick I learned early on was to drink a couple of glasses of water before I went to bed, so I’d have to get up and piss, maybe about 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. That’s when you’re in the deep sleep and the really cosmic stuff happens. Usually we don’t remember that because we sleep right through it.
The dreams that we tend to remember are the ones we are having as we wake….
Yeah. They’re the ones about having to deal with the postman or the boss and stuff like that. And I had plenty of those. And when doing the dream comics, I tried to mix them in too. But what really attracts me to dreamwork is that it seems to be a way to get a handle on what’s really going on. Dreams are like a dialogue between the Ego and the deepest part of the psyche which Jung calls the Self. What the Self is, is no one really knows. You can only see pieces of it. But, using Jung’s model of the Psyche, the Self is the center, and the Ego just sort of floats on it. The ego, our conscious awareness, is maybe like ten percent of the totality of what we are. So I’ve come to see dreaming as a dialogue between those two parts: the floating conscious Ego and the deep, unconscious mystical Self. Once you realize that that dialogue exists, it actually becomes more real, and the characters can actually take on a life of their own. So sometimes you recognize that you’re talking to the deepest part of yourself because there’s just that certain awareness of the character you’re dreaming of.
The “Self” contains the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious…and beyond. I think it’s a way to understand nature too. Like say, you wanted to get a handle on the quantum, you might be able to do it through dreaming because on the deepest level, we are made up of quantum bits, so why wouldn’t we be able to dream about how we interact in the quantum realm. Or at a deeper, even more mystical level, there is Afterlife. Couldn’t we contact that? Wouldn’t it be through dreams?
So, I approach my dreams with an open mind, in that sense. I’m always like, Hmm that dream I had of that guy who’s dead—was I VISITING that guy, or was he visiting me in my dreams, trying to give me a message? You hold that in your mind, after you have the dream, you just try to suss it out. Is that’s what really happening, or am I fooling myself, or…?
Your journaling technique is necessarily different since you are also a visual artist. You can replicate the visual component of the dream, physically. Your description is a bit richer cuz you can use text to describe it – and art.
Yeah. What happens is, when you create art from your dream, you re-inhabit it in a way that you don’t do when you write it in a journal. When you write it in a journal, you’re using the reasoning, linear side of your mind. When you start drawing, the part of the brain that channels symbolism comes into focus. Your artistic intuition comes into play. Writing the dream, you’ve got the facts of the action, like: ‘Here I was on this day, this thing happens, that thing happens.’ But when you begin drawing them, your intuition starts playing with what they might mean, and it starts juggling the potential: it could be this, it could be that, it could be related to this other thing. As you’re drawing the dream, you’re waiting for that moment when you go, ‘Aha!’ and your intuition tells you it’s right. And so by the time you’ve drawn something as complicated as a comic book page of a dream, you’ve got a real handle on what it is your unconscious is talking about.
INDOOR THUNDER: Landscaping the future with Brian Eno
by Alan Moore
Remove ambiguities and covert to specifics.
The first half of the twentieth century saw all energies and the agenda that had driven Western culture from its outset reach their logical albeit startling conclusions in the various fires of Auschwitz, Dresden, Nagasaki, after which we all sat stunned amongst the smoking fragments of our worldviews, all our certainties of the utopias to come revealed as flimsy, wishful, painted sets, reduced to vivid splinters, sharp and painful. There was scorched earth, there was shellshock, there was no Plan B. Hiroshima rang through the traumatized and anxious mindset of the 1950s, through Jeff Nuttall’s Bomb Culture, its shuddering reverberation somewhere between funeral knell and warning seismic tremor. Our response to the bad news carved a division through society, between flat denial on the one hand, paralyzed hysteria upon the other; between those who doggedly refused the notion that tomorrow might be different from today, and those fixated by the mushroom clouds who scorned the notion that there might be a tomorrow. Both these attitudes, you’ll notice, have conveniently avoided any need to think creatively about the future, have dodged any obligation to consider the Long Now. Tomorrow is today with smaller radios or it’s strontium and ashes, and in either case there’s no need to prepare.
Throughout the 1950s there was very little ground between these two terminal visions, one complacent in its sense of stasis and the other in its sense of doom, but such ground as existed was staked out and cultivated by the era’s artists, by its avant-garde musicians, its Beat poets. By the middle ’60s they had turned the thin conceptual corridor between Eisenhower/Macmillan monotony and Oppenheimer Armageddon into thriving, fertile territory where the future tense could once more be employed with meaning, where future itself could once more be imagined, could take root. In England, grown up from the ferment and foment of the moment, an exuberantly progressive Art School scene together with a network of experimental and impromptu Arts Laboratories were the psychedelic backdrop that the next wave of creative talent would emerge from in the early 1970s, once all the counter-culture crackle of the previous ten years had run its course. The fairground ozone glitterfog of Glam Rock with its twilight sexuality and its somehow nostalgic futurism boiled up from the dayglo debris in bohemian basements, happened happenings, a rich mulch of dreams crashed and trampled and ploughed under. David Bowie and Steve Harley sprang from Arts Lab roots in Beckenham. Brian Eno spent the 1960s soaking up the influence of tutors such as the composer Cornelius Cardew or Tom Phillips, author of the treated masterpiece A Humument. At its deepest and most interesting subterranean extremes the hippy underground became the velvet goldmine.
The peculiar electricity that sparked back then amongst the leopard skins and sequins came from tensions that went further than the obvious sexual ambiguity of heterosexual bricklayers in lippy. There were also stress lines spanning past and future, the subculture caught between them like a lurex Janus, one face with its yearning Garbo gaze trained on a celluloid romance of yesterday, the other staring through its greasepaint thunderbolt into the alien dazzle up ahead, dynamic conflict that was evident in Bowie’s mismatched eyes, in the fraught brilliance of the period’s most emblematic pop group, Roxy Music. Here the sound was tug-of-war taut, stretched between the MGM lounge-lizardry of Bryan Ferry’s retro-fitted vision and the squelchy sci-fi shimmer that Brian Eno dressed it in, Noel Coward on the set of Logan’s Run. When the rope inevitably snapped, the synthesizer artist/non-musician, suddenly cut free from the opposing pull of any gravity, seemed to rise instantly to a conceptual stratosphere remote and previously unglimpsed, dragging the decade with him by its iridescent quiff.
It’s difficult to overestimate the manner in which Eno’s subsequent solo career has impacted with culture, in terms of both its complexity and the sheer breadth of its blast radius. Back in the first flush of the ‘70s his manifesto, yet to be unpacked, was nonetheless there to be read in “Baby’s On Fire”’s two-note minimalist flourish, in the cascading metal vistas of his work with Robert Fripp. It could be seen in the inventive pilfering from Chinese picture-story propaganda that engendered Taking Tiger Mountain…, in the thinking behind the ingenious, endlessly useful deck of creative prompts labeled Oblique Strategies that he and Peter Schmidt released in January 1975. It was even apparent in the mantelpiece clutter of Here Comes the Warm Jets’ picture sleeve, the pornographic playing card that referenced the album’s title, the sly and understated sense of humor. Rapidly transcending his considerable status as Glam icon Eno became instead the most coherent and most capable example of a cutting edge that pop culture had witnessed, became something new and without precedent, something refusing definition save in its own self-invented terms.
If there is anything that’s more authentically remarkable than Eno’s almost total single-handed transformation of the way we think about our entertainment culture, more striking than his casual invention of the sample or of ambient music, then it is the quietness and above all discretion with which he’s accomplished everything. It is the unobtrusiveness with which he carries out his dynamitings and his demolitions, the delicacy of his bulldozers that clear way the parlor walls while everybody’s having tea, and no one notices. We pass the sugar and try not to mention the roof’s gone. Many of his pop contemporaries, perhaps mindful of the fact that ultimately they have little that’s original to say and no expectation of effecting any noticeable change within society will compensate by flaunting ersatz dangerousness in their lyrics, their appearance or their lifestyle, whereas Nature tells us that the genuinely dangerous beasts lie low in the grass and do not choose to advertise their presence until it’s all far too late. Working at culture’s liminal extremes, deep in the social utlra-violet, he is taking Tiger Mountain by stealth. Implacably intelligent and utterly unsentimental, he got the job because he was so mean, while somehow appearing so kind.
His function, frequently, is catalytic, sparking a profound reaction in which only he himself will not be noticeably changed. Eno’s collaborations with his former Glam associate David Bowie later in the 1970’s, most notably on Low, were massively important to the shaping of the Punk and New Wave movements without ever being seen as part of those phenomena. His sampled TV news report of Dutch industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer’s death on R. A. F. provided House music with all its aural furniture by way on an anonymous charity shop donation. Even throwaway remarks such as his comment that while only a few hundred people ever listened to the Velvet Underground they all formed bands are endlessly recycled without any real awareness of their source, and yet his sphere of influence continues its expansion unabated. His ubiquity would seem to imply that while only a few hundred people ever paid attention to Brian Eno’s work, they all formed countries.
Propaganda for a state wholly of mind, his oeuvre acts upon the world around it like a beneficial virus, ideas that infect the host, transform it to a vector by which the infection may be further propagated. As with all successful viruses, there is a strategy by which the host’s immune defenses and resistance to the ideas can be circumvented, and in Eno’s case that strategy is one of simple beauty and necessity. His notions, packaged irresistibly within a haunting and transporting drift of notes and tones are simply too profoundly lovely, are too vital and too obviously true to foster any opposition, any barricades. Whether it’s the elegiac end-of-season seafronts of “Some Faraway Beach” or the mesmerizing glass-and-raindrop crawl of “Thursday Afternoon,” the final “It’s the stars…” refrain that ends his wonderfully cross-purposive collaboration with John Cale, Wrong Way Up, or The Shutov Assembly’s tingling, thrilling “Ikebukuro,” there is a sublime, uplifting presence that informs each piece and brooks no opposition, an enlightening eunoia, beauteous thought that changes people and their landscape from the inside out.
Avoiding all classification and restriction by defining himself doggedly in terms of what he’s not, the non-musician has been able to ignore all boundaries, can access areas where musicians are not usually encouraged: futurology and film and fashion. Perfume. Politics. He is tomorrow’s perfect occupant, the model for what humans can achieve when unencumbered by the luggage or the language of the self-set limitations of our prison past, and better yet he makes it all look like such fun. Upon the one occasion when I had the privilege of meeting him, at the recording of an interview for Radio Four’s Chain Reaction series, he turned up wearing the clothes he’d worn the previous day after his daily consultation of the Oblique Strategies pack had admonished him severely to “Change nothing.” Having buffed my shoes up to a fine sheen in an effort to impress him even if the toying with my hair and simpering failed, I was surprised when he insisted upon polishing his own shoes just before we went on air. I pointed out that this was wireless and that nobody would notice, to which he replied by asking if I didn’t think that an impression of one’s dusty shoes could somehow be transmitted over radio? I was transfixed, and honestly had no response to this spontaneous Zen koan. What’s the sound of one shoe gathering dust?
Brian Eno is one of our modern culture’s brightest lights, never more radiant than in that culture’s most obscure and interesting corners, someone we should all be grateful we’re alive at the same time as. He’s the ambient motor hum, the alpha wave harmonic barely audible behind civilization. We should all sit quietly and listen.
Alan Moore recently retired from mainstream comics writing, and will soon be marrying his longtime girlfriend and collaborator, artist Melinda Gebbie. He will be presenting a piece about William Burroughs at this year’s Patti Smith-curated Meltdown festival in London.
It was me that killed Arthur. I kill all the little joys that make life worth living. Brooklyn. Those three Motorcycles. The Master Cleanse. Burroughs quotes an account of the black plague: “Never yet has the plague come but one has first seen a ragged, stinking boy who drank like a dog from the village well and then passed on.” I am that ragged boy, passing villages, expensive coffee brewing in my tracks. And I am still thirsty.
If you’re reading this, you are one too. Takes one to know one. Twitter dat. Now there’s three. Then it’s like rabbits. Within the day they’ll be a hundred thirty of us at the coffee shop competing to write this very article about how our presence erases “ethnic enclaves” with precision worthy of Robert Moses. Detailing the fact that within the passing of three summers of sighting Us in Echo Park the Santeria temple turned to cafe, attracting the record shop, the stench of which summoned the Thrift Stores, The Shops of Obscure Purpose and The Second Coffee Place. Cue Upscale Grocery. Wham! Yoga mats. Suddenly, Doug Aitken is Art and Chloe took your parking space in front of a restaurant so cool it doesn’t have a sign. Rents blow up faster than a Gaza Strip Club. And we can’t go home. Again.
Which is fine. Big rents means it’s time to take the show on the road. But, this time, ragged boy is thinking, “what if we visits a well in a town that sucks, instead of killing the thing that we love?” And in the course of thinking things he hates, thought of Texas. Specifically, a little “Atlas Slouched” sort of a town where artist types claim the light is great, forgetting to mention that all there is to see in the great light are a bunch of Texans drinking beer and taking ten-pound shits.
Ragged boy figured he could take a little sip from the well and the place would be strip malls full of people making coffee and tattooes in no time. But first the ragged boy had to work into the fabric of the place, which essentially meant that he had to, you know, buy some weed.
First problem is people don’t have any. Turns out that the laws are so strict in Texas that people turn to other sources for their buzz like huffing gas, shotgunning beers and abusing analogue drugs with names like Giggles or Mr Greenvibes.
The analogue drugs are packaged for specious purposes like bath salts or plant food, designed to fool the FDA of the manufacturers’ intention to jump the blood-brain barrier. In the course of juking the FDA, they also sidestep any sort of lab research, leaving the testing to be done by teenagers in garages all over this land.
I watched a guy, my age, two kids, purchase some fake drug called K2 from a case in a headshop in which also were kept those horrible things that stretch earlobes out. The man behind the counter said that this particular potion had the Border patrol guys waiting at the door in the morning shifting from foot to foot like they had to pee real bad. My friend figures if it was good enough to null the pain of government work, it was good enough for him.
I knew by the click click of the razor on the mirror and the insistent scrape that this was no cheerleader drug like salvia or that thing where you hold your breath until you pass out. No, this “plant food” was dangerous stuff, resulting in the total loss of sanity. As a bartender, I’ve seen what real drugs can do: blind-eyed alcoholics, weedheads dizzy and coke fiends whose jaws keep clacking long after you cut their heads off. But this plant food stuff was bananacakes.
My “friend” was stupid, paranoid and sensitive to light. The bath salts made all of these afflictions even worse. Whatever evil force was in this powder drove him to rant about how when Texas secedes something called the “Posse from El Pusso” would attack California. He did this while trying to nail “shadow people” to the doorframe. It was horrible. We can only hope that no real plants were given this “food.”
My friend’s actions and subsequent loss of job and embarrassing himself in front of his family forced me to deduce that the ingredients removed from these drugs to make them legal are the same things that God put in the drugs to keep us sane. Stopping people from smoking Mexi-press weed with analogue drugs is like giving someone rabies so they won’t take Advil.
Furthermore, if we damn our border patrol jocks to abuse fake drugs in order to pass a piss test, is it any wonder that there are immigrants everywhere?
Shudder to think how many Christmas gifts have been tainted by the unwitting addition of psychedelic bath salts. How many half-eaten pets must be buried late at night by confused bloody grandmothers before someone lets these poor Texans have the weed that God (okay, it was most likely Jesus) put on earth for us to use? While I’m on the Jesus — Why would Texas bust a state mascot like Willie Nelson for smoking weed? It’s not like he’s driving the tour bus. Marijuana, like Mexicans, was native to Texas before this bunch of asshats showed up and started putting everybody in jail. This fact exonerates All, as neither The God nor The Willie Nelson I believe in are capable of mistakes, mister.
I’ll say it here in Arthur magazine, fresh from the dead, that until Texas allows the Border Patrol to use the real drugs, this ragged boy is going to hang his hat somewhere that is not Texas. Also, fuck Arizona. Good luck trying to gentrify your ethnic neighborhoods without me.
Dave Reeves has an article in this month’s Man of the World Magazine and an article about him in the Russian Travel magazine Mir. He spends his days working on movie drivel, gets fired or quits, it’s hard to say, and then works on other movies. The cycle repeats itself until the magazine industry comes back from the dead. Also, Dave is working on the perfect lamb vindaloo, jogging and listening to WFMU.
Arik Roper is an illustrator and designer who lives in New York. He creates record covers, screenprinted posters, animation, comics, and other vehicles of visual flight. arikroper.com
“The Day the Music Died”—not just the name of Don McLean’s too long song that refused to climax. It’s also a co-descriptive term referring to the aviation accident that took three of rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest names—Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson—and magnified them until they became analogous with—and even eclipsed—the music they made. Littlefield, Texas’ Waylon Arnold Jennings, then playing bass in Holly’s band, was supposed to have been on that flight. He gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, and settled for second-rate travel in a makeshift tourbus with Holly’s guitarist, Tommy Allsup, who’d lost his seat on the doomed plane to Ritchie Valens in a coin toss.
In its most savage—and strangely sacred—way, the accident mimes an offering to some cosmic god who rejected it, and sent it careening back to earth engulfed in flame. Take a look at the Civil Aeronautics Board’s crash site photo. Wreckage resembles one of Robert Rauschenberg’s early combines: an abracadabra of Americana—ambiguous machinery compacted and deconstructed into a monolith of hyper-meaning, conveying less and more than the sum of its parts, even with nary a corpse in the frame. A wheel. A wing. A barely identifiable frame of fuselage. All there amongst Iowan Albert Juhl’s snow-covered cornfield, a barbed-wire fence keeping it clear of the plain—separate, contained: an art installation to the everlasting gone awry.
Incapable of being quarantined, however, was the guilt Jennings walled himself up in the tragedy’s aftermath. Before the plane left the ground, Holly reportedly told Jennings he hoped his “ol’ bus would freeze up.” “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” Jennings responded. Illogically, but understandably, Jennings took sole responsibility for the crash. It’s so much salt thrown over the shoulder, but it makes great superstitious sense, especially since, in Jennings’ mind, those seven words worked up a hex heavy enough to take the lives of four men and Holly’s unborn child, as the tragic news caused his wife to miscarry. But the music, it never died. Jennings and Allsup even completed the midwestern tour, two men spreading song amongst a bottomlessly black sky bereft of its three stars.
And still the music kept on. Throughout the amphetamines and the cocaine and the drinking. Throughout the invention and reinvention. From rockabilly to “Outlaw Country” and all its trappings: big black hat and somber clothes, beard long as days spent in saddle, a voice drink and smoke ravaged carrying on about campfire yarns concerning women loved, men reckoned with, and the Almighty above watching it all transpire from eternal dusk to dawn. Sixteen years after Holly’s charter crashed, Jennings made what was arguably his finest record—and perhaps the finest of the “Outlaw Country” subgenre—Dreaming My Dreams. This compendium of the conscious unconscious harkened back to country music’s so-called “Big Bang,” the Bristol Sessions in 1927, and roared on far ahead to a future that saw this generation’s Sam Phillips—Rick Rubin—-coax Johnny Cash into songs sparer than those that tossed and turned throughout DreamingMy Dreams, and woke as grizzled fable, larger than the legends that wrote, played, and recorded them.
In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports.
Uber glossy, chicer-than-thou, magazine Wallpaper subtitles itself “the stuff that surrounds you.” The lifestyle porn peddler advocates a world filled with things: Palms, Karim Rashid baubles and Prada shoes. Anything. Any high-end object from the precious to the perverse to fill the vacuum of consumer culture.
But what is all that stuff that surrounds you? Embraces you? Suffocates you? Artist Shirley Tse looks around and sees plastic. She sees that injected-molded form used to shape your iBook or Oral B, the packaging that surrounds the products: it’s the miracle of plastic that fills the vacuum surrounding us these days. In the translucent, bubble-pack Styrofoam between the box and the object lies the impetus for her artistic vision.
“It is symbolic of our culture,” says Tse of packaging. “When you see a computer, you don’t even think about the box. You don’t think about what it takes to move that product from its origin to your house. Looking at the box makes you think about the process.”
Rather than aspiring to package lifestyle, Tse’s most recent sculpture, Shelf Life, 2002, is life-sized packaging. Strangely beautiful, it is a 20-foot wide synthetic iceberg lodged in the second floor galleries of the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in San Francisco, seemingly filling the room to eye level with white polystyrene. There’s so much Styrofoam that prior to the show’s opening, Tse–the Capp Street Project Visiting Artist at the CCAC Wattis Institute–is jokingly apprehensive about how people will react to the piece.
“It is a lot of Styrofoam,” she laughs. “Being here in San Francisco, with the tradition of radicalism, I have this nightmare that people are going to picket outside the gallery. They’ll boycott my show because of the amount of Styrofoam used.”
Like a three-chord pop song, Tse’s work seems simple enough for anyone to put together (given enough packaging material from stereo components), but its artistry comes in the handling of the few elements. Her earlier work is on a slightly smaller scale: sculptures made of polystyrene sheets, hand-routed into elaborate topographies. The scale of the artwork invites the viewer to make comparisons to things out in the world of culture, pop and plain.
“I’ve been told it looks like a model for something bigger; it looks like a spaceship; it looks like a city,” explains Tse. “Which is fine, but I don’t want this piece to stop as a representation of something else. At some point I want my viewer to stop and look at the piece and go, “Oh, it’s just foam, it’s not a city.””
Complexity-in-simplicity is a truism in modern and contemporary art discourse: it’s why paint dribbled by Jackson Pollock is an artwork and paint dribbled by a two-year-old is a mess. In Pop Art, it’s why a Campbell’s soup can gets elevated to artistic status. For Tse, this duality is inherent in plastic: the simplicity spells out all sorts of arty questions.
“I love how plastic embraces the paradox of a lot of things,” she explains “It’s soft, but hard; it’s surface and structure. It is something so ubiquitous and at the same time so alien. We live with it, but say things like ‘that’s phony.’ Plastic asks all these questions about originality.”
In Tse’s hands, plastic aspires to more than pop. Despite its alien material, the work Shelf Life is desirously physical. The claustrophobic entry, where Styrofoam surrounds you on three sides, is relieved by a small set of steps. The short flight finishes on a foam plateau. From this vantage point, with your head nearly touching the gallery air conditioning vents and track lighting, what had seemed so stifling now stretches out into a landscape. The block is carved into organic shapes and marked with surface totems.
“Is landscape really that natural anymore? It’s not,” Tse asks and then emphatically answers. “Even the landscape that we do see these days, like national parks, are totally manipulated. I can’t tell you when the packaging begins and when the landscape ends. The two things are going on at the same time.”
Walking across the polymer landscape, Calvin Klein-minimalism gives way to something weirder. Seamier. The material properties come to life. White Styrofoam gets dirty. It gives under the weight of heels and toes, leaving small divots behind. The edges crumble and Shelf Life makes noises, high feedback squeaks and lower-toned groans as it adjusts to pressure.
Nestled in the foam terrain are three fiberglass tubs – fleshy peach with lip-gloss sheen. A fourth tub is set in the end of Styrofoam jetty that juts out into the empty area of the gallery space. They are decidedly unnatural and they seem to mimic beauty products. It’s appropriate that the vacuum-formed tubs were fabricated at Warner Brothers Studio Facilities, the heart of the Hollywood culture industry
Two of the tubs are lined in “memory foam.” The material akin to the sponges used to apply make-up is used in the piece because it holds an impression–place a foot on it and the print remains in the foam for a several seconds. Other tubs bring to mind the hedonistic high times of Jacuzzi baths. Sensuous curves fit the body. Climbing all the way into the tub, there is something sinister in the way that the plastic supports your spine and provides cubbyholes for arms and feet. This is vacuum-packed, human-sized packaging. Hot tub luxury is transformed into a disposable womb or tomb.
As frightening as it is to find yourself ensconced in plastic like a GI Joe or Barbie, Tse sees the work as liberating rather than confining.
“At the end of the day, when I ask myself why my interest in plastic is sustained, it has a lot to do with plastic itself and its history and all that, but it is also an entry to the world for me. It has allowed me to slice through the layers and see what is going on the world. It’s a navigational tool: a way to open up.”
Without evoking fist-raising slogans, Tse’s work asks the uneasy question: Are we packaging our own existence? The confines of the shiny fiberglass sarcophagus make clear what really is the stuff that surrounds us: “brand new trash” as Tse likes to call it. The artist wrestles with her own position as a consumer and producer in the world of plastic.
“The whole issue of recycling and the environmental aspects of the work is a complicated one for me. On the one hand, I do recycle material, but on the other hand I buy new material,” she says. “It’s a moral issue. When I ask myself these hard questions, I ask “Is it necessary?” And yes, I think it is necessary precisely because I want to use this material that makes up so much of our culture. Part of the environmental issue is that the plastic is used once and then thrown away, but as artwork, hopefully it won’t get thrown away, so it isn’t consumed in the way we usually use Styrofoam.”
Tse grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Los Angeles. The artwork she makes fills the gap between these two polar existences: supply and demand.
“Sometimes you see artwork from someone from outside the United States, and you can tell that that’s a Latin or Korean artist because the work references something in their cultural heritage. I don’t think that there is anything that jumps out from my work and says that I’m Chinese or from Hong Kong, necessarily,” she reflects. “It is all about it, just not directly. There is the whole issue of commodity, artificially, synthetic exchange and movement–all coming from the place I grew up in.”
For Tse, the stuff that surrounds her and her cultural heritage are one and the same. It is plastic: malleable and rigid, beautiful and artificial.
In stillness O’Malley and Anderson play on… play on… play on…
– text by Julian Cope for “My Wall” by SUNN0)))
When we started working on this issue, the war was still on. (Oh we know it wasn’t a war, it was an invasion. And yes I know the war isn’t over yet, that it’s only just shifted into a traumatic transition-to-imperial rule period.) We’d just finished the last issue as the USUKFOXMSNBCAOL forces had begun to roll across the desert, embarking on an epic fool’s errand that we‘ll all be paying for the rest of our lives. We decided to do what we could as soon as possible: to publish an issue of Arthur as powerful as we could muster to confront, or at least examine, the United States’ newest, and most dangerous yet, lurches towards imperial power abroad and a weird kind of proto/crypto-fascist rule at home.
“Imperialist,” “empire,” “fascist”: these are strong words, and I assure you, they are not used lightly here. But what other words describe where we are now? America is simply continuing to expand its military presence across the globe—now we are not just in Germany (100,000 troops, 58 years after the end of World War II), or South Korea (40,000 troops, more than four decades after the Korean War’s conclusion), or Japan, or the Philippines, or Puerto Rico, or Afghanistan, now we are in the heart of the Middle East. We are acting as empires do: expanding outward, identifying pockets of resistance, stamping them out and replacing them with puppetish local governments who operate under the watchful eye of centurions who report back to the seat of Empire.
And at home? I walk out my front door and find that an American flag has been placed on my (rented) front walk by a local realtor, advertising his services. I drive to Vons for some groceries and almost every vehicle has an American flag stickered on it. “United we stand, divided we fall” warbles some mawkish Up With People choir on the Vons PA; when I complain to the store’s manager, she looks at me like I’m a madman, or worse, a Muslim. I come home and there’s a letter from a Dreamworks promosexual about the success of country dipshit singer Darryl Worley’s call to arms, “Have You Forgotten,” an execrable song that advocates the slaughter of innocent Iraqis in revenge for the September 11 attacks they had nothing to do with. (Note: This song was #1 on the country charts for six straight weeks.) In the weeks since, with the exception of wise old Senator Robert Byrd and some brave mainstream media commentators (take a bow, Paul Krugman, James Wolcott and Robert Sheer!), there’s been such a wave of unrelenting propaganda and willful disinformation and just plain misdirection by both the government and the media that many of us who know something has gone terribly wrong are finding ourselves disheartened, isolated and depressed. We return to our various recreational and business and creative pursuits in a (totally understandable!) ostrich-like effort to forget what has happened and what is happening and what is gonna happen next.
We are in a trance-state. A trance State.
So, naturally, people started asking, Are you still planning to do that anti-Bush issue of Arthur? We said, Hell fucking yes. You’re in the worst danger when you don’t think you’re even in danger. Better to leave the light on, so you can at least see what is happening. When crazy talk has become accepted common sense, when a powerful elite’s delusion has become the consensus reality, that’s when dissidents have to speak up, or at least speak with each other. An historical example of this, and the primary inspiration for this specific issue of Arthur, is the ferociously satirical work that German collagist/artist John Heartfield did for the AIZ paper in the late ‘20s and ‘30s, warning against Hitler’s ascent from early on. Heartfield was not just right–he didn’t just see something awful coming that way–he did something about it. This is crucial. Heartfield didn’t curse the darkness–he cursed Hitler.
We want to try and do the same. This issue is a collective curse against the folly of empire, against those who advocate it and those who profit from it. It’s a curse against the Bush Administration and its media mandarins and apologists. It’s a curse against the willful ignorance and docility of so many Americans. And it’s (hopefully) a call, an inspiration, to all righteous free-thinking individuals to simply do what you can to shut this shit down. Do what you’re best at! But do it in such a way that at a minimum, it causes no harm.
Think about the consequences of all of your actions.
Re-align your life the best you can.
And remember that you are NOT alone.
Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned doing Arthur, it’s how un-alone we are. Know that this whole enterprise is ad-hoc, put together by both friends and strangers on the basis of trust. It’s entirely financed by our loyal, beneficent advertisers, by some unbelievably generous donors and, well, by Laris’ and my personal credit cards. It’s created by a talented, as-yet-salary-less staff and a loose coalition of brilliant, as-yet-unpaid contributors. It’s distributed—by hand!—by a guerrilla network of wonderfully dedicated, as-yet-uncompensated volunteers, spread across North America. Arthur’s success is, in short, a model of a different way of doing things: of people engage in mutual aid and good faith and goodwill, all in the service of freethinking, at-length-if-necessary, full-on free expression. Isn’t that what being human amongst other humans should be about? It doesn’t have to be about endless exploitation and bottomless greed and an unending quest for power/control and the rule of the jungle. This may sound banal, but seriously: if more of us just tried harder, more of the time, this can be a better world.
And if the world doesn’t get better? Well, at least we did our damnedest.
We’d like to give a warm public welcome and a hearty hurrah to author Daniel Pinchbeck, cartoonist Ben Katchor and publisher/cartoonist Tom Devlin, who are all joining the Arthur team starting with this issue.
Like every single person associated with Arthur, from those listed from top to bottom on the masthead to the right, to those with bylines and credits in the magazine, to the 120-plus folks who distribute 40,000 copies of Arthur across North America every two months, these gentlemen are working for Arthur for close to nothing. They could be doing something else. They’re not. They’re putting their time and energy where their heart is.
This is not something unusual: there have always been people like this. Just look at this issue of Arthur, with its true stories about pirate radio operators, kinetic sculpture racers and revolutionary rock n rollers: like most issues of Arthur, its pages are devoted to people who have placed love over gold, in their art and in their craft and in their work and in their lives.
None of them—none of us—are perfect (except maybe T-Model). And sometimes, we at Arthur sing in a key we simply can’t quite reach, as we try to build something that is a little less compromised, a little less oriented toward greed, a little more loving and open. Basically, we’re trying to do a magazine that reflects and embodies a set of ideals that run absolutely counter to the mainstream culture, which is more diseased, corrupt, demonstrably insane and world-destructive by the day. The funny part, though, the part they (and you know who “they” is) never tell you, is this: once you opt out of that terminal culture, you opt in to something much more fun. It’s not too hard to leave all that bullshit behind—if Laris and I can do it, believe me, anyone can.
That said: Arthur needs all the help we can get. Integrity shouldn’t mean involuntary poverty: everyone needs to eat, even the starving artist. So, thank you to all of you who have already helped Arthur to its early success. And for those of you who want to play a bigger role, who want to put a little more of your money where your heart is, please buy a subscription, or a T-shirt, or support our honorable advertisers. We can make this work—for everyone.