by Byron Coley & Thurston Moore
first published in Arthur No. 3
Surely, Raymond Pettibon is best known as a painter and illustrator (the lines between which can be especially blurry in his case). But one can only suspect that it is a case of public tunnel vision that has consigned him to such a narrow role. Pettibon has made significant public contributions to other fields as well: writing, music, performance, publishing and film. It would, indeed, be well within anyone’s grasp to make a solid case for Pettibon as Southern California’s renaissance man of the fin de siecle period (and beyond). But that is not our assignment today. Right now, right here, we are interested in celebrating Pettibon the filmmaker.
Pettibon’s graspable extant film canon consists of four videos that are all available through Joe Carducci’s Provisional Films. Recently, Raymond has been working on another one, Red Tide Rising, reported to be a saga of the Doors starring Mike Watt as Jim Morrison. There is also a lost film, shot in the early ‘90s, entitled The Holes You Fill, purportedly telling the Beatles’ story the way you’ve always wanted to see it. Carducci reports that these two titles may see the light of day at some point, beyond that there’s little info. But that still leaves a rich tetralogy of films, all of which deal with the transmutation of ‘60s “revolutionary” culture into something commodified and directed by the hands of the media.
Pettibon’s graphic sensibilities are not lush. Just as his art has often been wrought in the most stark visual terms imaginable, so his films are raw, and almost hermetic in terms of their visual vocabulary. The milieus are often defined as much by the actions that take place within them as they are by specific visuals. At times one almost has the sense of watching one of John Cassavetes’ opuses being redone by the Kuchar Brothers, so simultaneously surreal and gritty is their look. And as with much of Pettibon’s art, the visuals are highlighted, annotated and driven by a rich layering of text. As visually compelling as it might be to see the late Joe Cole wearing an insanely huge walrus moustache to round out his role, we are rarely left to quietly ponder the implicit meaning in the images. Pettibon’s writing and visual direction in these films are indivisible. They virtually drip with dialogue. It’s true that you can follow and “get” the basic plots if you watch these vids with the sound off, but the scripts–even when read off wall cards in the most perfunctory manner possible (as they are at times)–add layers of irony, honesty, humor and cutting insight that are entirely separate from the scenes-as-viewed.
The Whole World Is Watching: Weatherman ’69 (122 mins., 1989) is a kind of homage to Emile de Antonio’s Underground, which was a documentary about members of the Weather Underground who were living on the lam in the U.S. Pettibon takes this idea and turns it on its side. For his version, the documentary is being funded by CBS, and the Weathermen exist almost exclusively as a media organization, measuring themselves constantly against other revolutionary groups, and attempting to make their own actions the cultural equivalent of rock concerts. Bernadine Dohrn is portrayed (by Kim Gordon) as a woman whose primary motivation is to use revolutionary zeal as a means to overtake the movie career of Jane Fonda. The rest of the left wing cabal is played by Mike Watt, Joe Cole, Bull Tongue’s own Thurston Moore and various other tangential members of the SST gang, circa 1989. The story here is less linear than it is horizontally episodic. Although Dohrn’s trajectory is forward, the bulk of the movie sprawls in all directions.
There are visits by counter-culture luminaries (Allen Ginsberg, John Lennon, Tome Hayden & Jane Fonda), there are fantastic self-critique sessions (the one in which they judge the revolutionary qualities of their record collection is a stone classic), and there’s tons of great Pettibon dialogue. The text sends up some of the ideas of the era in hilarious fashion (the equation of Communism and sexual satisfaction is particularly great). Pettibon’s turn as the CBC cameraman gives him a certain ability to knock down the fourth wall, but he doesn’t overplay it. In all, it’s a very bodacious place for Raymond to have begun his retelling of underground history.
Judgement Day Theater: the Book of Manson (118mins. 1989) deals with one of the most frequently-present iconic figures in Pettibon’s early artwork, Charles Manson. Like Weatherman ’69, it is also an ensemble piece, but the textual movement in this film is largely carried by Robert Hecker (from the band, Redd Kross), whose portrayal of Manson is riveting. Hecker either actually memorized his lines (something about which Pettibon the director seems ambivalent) or the way he wore his costume allowed him to read the scripts in a way that was very non-obvious. Whatever the truth, Hecker delivers his Manson raps with Castro-like length and strength. It seems at many times as though he’s just rapping off the top of his head, jumping between images with the shaky logical of a master conman, building in Biblical and Beatles references where called for. It’s really a bravura performance, and the heat that Hecker generates coaxes some excellent performances out of others as well.
Joe Cole returns, this time as a memorable Tex Watson–football star turned confused thrill killer–and Shannon Smith is quite amazing as Sexy Sadie. Sadie is the orgone center of the film, and she plays the role with gusto. There are some good cameos as well; Pat Smear (of the Germs) as Hendrix and Pettibon as Roman Polanski are particularly interesting (if fanciful). The violence of the group has a cartoonish quality that some may find a bit repugnant, but it is somewhat mitigated by the way Pettibon constantly drives home the point that violence was both an extension of sex to the group, and also a way for them to generate media attention. Throughout Judgement Day they speak of themselves as creations and prisoners of the media, yearning for rock star status, but unable to understand the actual process by which it could be achieved. The underlying message is that Manson’s group would have never committed any of the acts it did without the existence of a media stage. Whether or not that’s true is certainly open to debate, but it’s an interesting question to ask. And has the weird ring of truth.
Citizen Tanya (87 mins., 1989) deals with the saga of another of Pettibon’s most frequently referenced cultural images: Patty Hearst, and Tanya persona she assumed after her kidnapping at the hands of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Again, Pettibon paints the core group as media junkies. Field Marshall Cinque (Pat Smear), Tenko (Dave Markey) and Tanya (Shannon Smith) are the main characters, but everyone is cooped up for the bulk of the vid, and it is a constant grovel through sex-as-politics, media-as-sex-as-power, class-war-as-power-as-sex and all the implied variations on those themes. Fuelled by plum wine (which tastes as sweet coming up as going down), Cinque creates a completely cock-eyed, scam-centered revolutionary philosophy that seems to suck the others in solely by playing on their racial guilt. Smear is great, as are Smith and Markey. Due to its shorter length, the scenes seem a but more focused than they did on previous go-rounds, with some of the vignettes—Patty’s soliloquy about the communal toothbrush, for instance–being as funny as anything I’ve seen in a while. My personal favorite touch is the enormous (I mean ENORMOUS) moustache that Joe Cole wears as Patty’s former boyfriend, Steven Weed, but that’s a personal bias. I’m sure you’ll formulate your own.
The final part of the extant series is Sir Drone (57 mins., 1989), Pettibon’s take on the early L.A. punk scene and, for me, his magnum opus. Because of his closeness to the actual history (Raymond was, after all, the one who gave Black Flag’s Greg Ginn his first guitar), the details here are absolutely right and they cut to the fucking bone. The story follows two guys from San Pedro, Duane (Mike Watt) and Jinx (artist/musician Mike Kelley), as they try to get a punk band started in Hollywood, in the days of the Masque. It’s amazing. Watt and Kelley are both perfect as wahoos with a dream, constantly bemoaning hippies, poseurs, and anyone else who doesn’t measure up to the rigid aesthetic criteria they are developing on the fly as they evolve. Unbelievably great, there are scenes of ritual razor cuts, hanging in front of the Masque, practice pogoing, and other stuff that will make you keel the hell over if you have any sense of the scene’s history at all. Jinx’s girlfriend, Goo, and the band’s singer, Scooter (nee Gun), will also prove interesting characters to those schooled in Sonic Youth hagiography. But whatever, Sir Drone is a must-see. And I can only hope that Raymond’s other stuff sees the light. Having watched all of these back-to-back twice, I can attest that they are very much worth yr while.
We will try to deal with the rest of the Provisional catalogue next time, as it has the most consistently interesting catalogue in the country. In the meantime, I can also suggest checking out Arthur Doyle Electro-Acoustic Ensemble Live at the Analog Shock Club video (QBICO: http://members.planet.it/frewww/qbic). Shot in Buffalo NY, this documents that crazy Doyle band (with Leslie Q, Dave Cross and Ed Wilcox) that toured the Northeast last year. Anyone who had his or her interest piqued by Kim Gordon’s description of this band in a recent issue of The Wire will get a well-deserved eyeful. Rock? Jazz? Free? Noise? Well, it is all those things and more. There really is no accurate shorthand description for what it is this band was doing on this tour, but it is frighteningly wonderful to watch and hear.
Chris Touchon’s NFJM label released the coolest Deerhoof 7” last year (The Shaggs cover “My Pal Foot Foot”) and has now gone one step beyond with NJFM 019 an amazing 10 band split 7” with very short stabbing trax by Erase Errata, The Sissies, Missing Tooth, Bebe + Serge, Zeek Sheck, M.C. Trachiotomy with XBXRX, Tracy + The Plastics, Panty Raid, Chromatics and Peaches. Each tune is a quick and delightfully deadly tongue dance. The label is promising a new XBXRX video (the first one they issued a couple years back is phenomenal garage noise insania), a final XBXRX 7” and a Quix*o*tic/Orthrelm split 7”. We’re talking good times here folks. (NJFM, 4001 Leandro #8, Oakland, CA 94601-4053 http://www.njfm.org)
Out of Norway comes the most exciting noise LP I’ve heard to date. It’s the pink vinyl Sykubb fra HÊlvete by Fe-mail (TV5#2). The duo consists of Maja Solveig Kjelstrup & Hild Sofie Tajford. These two women romp thru stimulating noise compositions fresh and clean w/ a distinct Scandinavian frost. But there’s always an undercurrent of warm embrace. Sweet and masterful. Maja may be familiar to some of the more in-depth Norwegian experimental music aficionados. She has won numerous kudos in her homeland, such as being the first Norwegian composer to win the Arne Nordheim Prize in 2001, and receiving the Second Prize at the Luigi Russolo competition for her piece “Sinus Seduction (moods two)” for saxophone and electronics, also in 2001. She is a singer/voice user, whistler, keyboard, violin and theremin player as well as a computer assistant and studio engineer; all this, mainly in connection with the contemporary improvisation ensemble Spunk (Hild Sofie Tafjord is also from Spunk). Maja also plays with (x,y,z), an electronic improvisation trio with Risto Holopainen and Asbj¯rn Fl¯. And she is in a duo with accordion player Frode Haltli as well as a solo voice/electronics project with backing from the group Jazzkammer. She has also played with Oslo Industrial Ensemble, Norwegian Noise Orchestra, No Spaghetti Edition with Evan Parker and Rhodrie Davies, Paal Nilssen-Love, Masami Akita (Merzbow), Zbigniew Karkowski, Sachiko M, Gino Robair, Jaap Blonk, Oslo Sinfonietta and Lasse Marhaug. She has performed a chamber opera by Dagfinn Rosnes, especially written for her voice, among many other things such as Icelandic film music by Hjalmar Ragnarsson. She performed her own music for Ibsen’s play “Ghosts” at Northlands festival in 1999. In 2000 she had two performances in Tokyo. So Maja is busy and I suggest you get busy digging her sounds. This LP is a surefire way to dig in head first. (www.notam02.no/~majar/main.ph)
The improbable and insane state of Texas has challenged music convention consistently through the ages. Not only in its roster artists, but by the craziness of the record labels themselves–from the world of International Artists in the 60s (13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, et al) to the wild academia of Innova (composer Jerry Hunt, David Dunn) to the ongoing experimentalism of the N D label (John Watermann, Voice of Eye). Idea Records out of San Antonio is one of the more recent entrepreneurs of quality soundworks. Nothing they’ve released is specifically Texas-bred, but it is music that has come to Texas from far regions of the globe, all of it outside any margins of easy assimilance. Some of the artists may be familiar to those interested in post-post-Throbbing Gristle form extensions (!), but heard from within the context of a deep-in-Texas label, the work begins to take on an indefatigable and uniquely blended spice. One such release is a new split 7” by Andrew Chalk and Christoph Heeman who work in typically blithe compliment to each other. Here they involve themselves in the sincere, simple exercise of remixing music from the Idea CD Casia Fistula by Brendan Walls–itself a remarkable, out-of-nowhere (well, Sydney Australia actually) homemade machine sound collage mindblower. Both sides of the 7” exist as om-motion morsels of drone beauty. What gives them especially spectral distinction is their gasping brevity in a field where slo-eyed expansion is the norm. I suggest perusing Idea’s catalog. (Idea; http://www.idearecords.com/); Innova: http://innova.mu/); (N D: http://www.desk.nl/~northam/).
Ian Nagoski has been an interesting presence on the eastern seaboard the last few years. Primarily a sound artist involved with maxim-drone evocations, he is one of those cats who spent almost every waking hour of his youth pummeling minimalist stooge chord rock art in various rec-rooms. Along with pal Chris Rice, who edits the pretty jake new music mag Halana (fifth issue due this year), Ian let the heavy chording take him into the contemporary activity of unlimited beyond-genre improvising. It brought him to an exclusively solo performance situation, which has produced astounding experiences. From Philadelphia he’s relocated to Baltimore where he’s been active with the radical vibe-hang the Red Room and has been music writing for Halana and Wire. There’ve been a few CDs released (some in very limited editions as lathe-cut CDs), a video on Halana and just recently a one-sided Czech-pressed pic-disc LP called Violets for Your Furs (edition…xxi). The LP is remarkable as it enters the time-space with a wonderfully slow emission of minute and hyper-layered sound. Gaze at Daniel Conrad’s “rotating illusion” imprinted on the disc’s face and you got yrself a pretty cool time. (Ian Nagoski: http://www.redroom.org/individuals/nagoski); (Redroom: http://www.redroom.org); (edition…xxi: http://editionellipsis.hypermart.net); (Halana: http://www.halana.com)
The early/mid 1970s punk rock scene in NYC was a surreal miasma of slut trash glitter and starving art school inspiration. An elemental dose of its annunciation came from the underground poetry scene situated around the St. Mark’s Poetry Project from whence Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine and Patti Smith had been sniffing. The specific swagger of such writers as Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Larry Fagin, Bernadette Mayer, Lewis Warsh, Ron Padgett and even (still) Allen Ginsberg duly informed the style of proto-punk. It is an actuality never lost by Hell, Verlaine and Smith to this day. And it has always been a distinctive thread through the intervening years at the Poetry Project even after the giant passings of Berrigan and Ginsberg. So it was an utter mindblowing amazement to see and hear the young poet Anselm Berrigan (Ted’s son) incinerate St. Marks Church recently with a wholly contempo continuance of the language and street rock vocabulary that punk rock walked out from, fists rubbing eyes. The take on generational experience both shared and personal and the laughs from the backroom were remarkably acute and loaded. And delightfully inspired in form. The cool thing is Anselm ain’t alone here. I suggest Googling young Berrigan and fall into the lake of tongues you’ll find. “I sit down calmly in someone else’s recliner/Wearing someone else’s shirt, pants, shoes and socks/Though I’ve torn my own holes into all of them.”- Anselm Berrigan. A good troika of Berrigan’s writing (They Beat Me Over the Head with a Sack, Integrity & Dramatic Life, Zero Star Hotel) can be had from the Aerial/Edge. (www.aerialedge.com/edgebooks.htm)
Good mag action this time from a couple of rock ‘zines that appear less often than perhaps they ought, but manage to pack in pounds of good reading. The first is issue #6 of Bob Bert’s bb gun (www.bbgun.org), which has gone from being something like an excuse for Bob to print pics of his favorite garage rock gals, to something quite substantial. This one has juicy interviews with Michael Gira, Vinnie Gallo, Mick Collins, Rowalnd S. Howard, Jim O’Rourke, Mick Farren, James Chance and plenty more. The writing staff is fucking choice as well, so do yourself a favor. If you actually still like rock-qua-rock, pick the thing up. The Broken Face (http://brokenface.fupp.net) is pretty much a rock mag as well. Edited by the other Mats Gustafson, they just got out issue 15, and it’s a hot compendium of psych & experimental underground whatsis, that operates almost as a codicile to Ptolemaic Terrascope. Included are pieces on Nagisa Ni Te, Parson Sound, Fursaxa, Arco Flute Foundation, and a truly useful review section, among other things. Either of these mags will make time spent on the toilet infinitely more rewarding, so give them a try. Then flush.
Another nice word batch is an anthology called the long march of cleveland (Green Panda Press, 14314 Superior Ave., Cleveland Heights, OH 44118). Edited by an Ohioan named Bree, this volume was assembled in honor of the visionary Cleveland poet, d.a. levy, who would have turned 60 last year, had he not blown his brains out in 1968. Levy was a fascinating guy, a wonderful poet and artist, and a prolific publisher and editor. There have been a few good books about him, and if you have any interest in underground culture of the post-WWII period, you’d be doing yrself a favor to do some reading up on him. That said, this anthology is pretty nice. Not sure that everything is exactly as related to levy as all that, and there’s a distinct lack of CONCRETE, but there is plenty of good visual and written work, much of it indebted to Cleveland, the city that levy was connected to at both ends.
Let me end this subjective review scene with a letter re: last issue’s Bull Tongue:
David Newgarden from Ocean Grove, NJ writes:
“Hey–if Jean Francois Pauvros is “40-ish” than I’m 12-ish still listening to Chicago IX and Frampton Comes Alive. Also–Gilbert Artman was in Catalogue. It was Artman, not Pauvros, who was in Lard Free and in Urban Sax (a dozen parachuting saxophonists).
“Back somewhere in the ‘80s, while touring with Haitian voudou combo Boukman
Eksperyans, I met blind Tex-Mex accordion recluse Steve “El Parche” Jordan on the streets of Rennes, dragged him to ‘see’ a Catalogue/Silverfish double-bill (Jac Berrocal and Lezley, I swear, had the exact same stage moves) and picked up non-english-speaking mini-skirted coeds in a biker bar and puked french fries/mayonaise and red wine on the clean cobblestone streets of Brittany. At some point in the night, I think Esteban & I almost got into a fight with ‘El Vez’ but my memory is a little hazy.
“Following week, saw Rhys Chatham and 100 guitars in weird deserted Paris suburbs, got stranded by late nite bus schedule, and Pauvros hooked me up with a ride back to Pigalle–coincidentally I was staying in apt. building where Catalogue’s manager lived. (somewhere, out of alphabetical order, in my rusting, overstuffed rolodex is a Jac B. business card, more treasured even than the one Charles Gayle handed me in Milford’s back yard).”