Mobilizing Vehicles for Change: “Applied Magic(k)” column by the Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2007)

Mobilizing Vehicles for Change

Applied Magic(k) column by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 2007)

Much of magic(k) is an attempt to augment our natural abilities; to provide us with a supernatural physicality to overcome the obstacles of the material world. Nowhere is this more evident than in our efforts to move our bodies and our belongings from one place to another. Even some of the most famous illusions in stage magic have focused audience attention on bewildering levitations and miraculous transpositions. From the ingenuity of our ancestors who recognized the unique properties of rolling discs and floating hulls, to more mystical means of mobility such as broomsticks and flying carpets, we often underestimate the magic(k) of re-location. The banality of modern transportation not only distances us from our point of departure but also from the journey itself. Too easily we forget that vehicles are equally the means of conveyance and the agents of transmission. 

Let’s face it. Rarely do automobiles function like ordinary tools used to simply accomplish the task at hand. Quite the contrary. Low-riders, hot rods, and pimped out SUV’s merely begin to scratch the enamel that glosses over our collective obsession with the means of transportation. Beyond the mods and custom accessories, motor vehicles themselves become points of departure, rather than the mere carriers of goods and bodies.  With names like Cougar and Jaguar, Bronco and Mustang, Thunderbird and Skylark, cars and trucks are transformed from mere technologies into totemic objects imbued with a sense of power and identity. The Cherokee and Navajo are equally stripped of any real identity as a people and forced to participate in a fetishistic masquerade. Mercury and Saturn are likewise invoked. Even Mazda shares a name with Zoroaster’s divine King of Light, the likely religious precedent for benevolent monotheism (Persia, 7th Century BC). If we look beyond the gods and planets, we see the Astro, Aerostar, and Nova (which translates in Spanish to “doesn’t go”). And let us not forget American Motor Company’s subcompact Gremlin which scratched its way into 1970s obscurity along with its ’80s offspring the Spirit. Indeed, the magic(k) of transportation lies buried deep in a veritable scrap yard of consumer manipulation, hollow fantasy and a lost sense of adventure. But we can salvage something of worth from amidst the rot.

Just as the introduction of the great iron horse changed the way travelers perceived time and distance, so too are our senses manipulated by contemporary forms of locomotion. No one can deny that we experience the world differently when we ride in a glammed-out gas-guzzling behemoth, a compact beater, or on a two-wheeled dream machine powered by our own two legs. And fewer are denying the material effects of our choices as well. Even the vestigial cynics of global warming—folks like G.W. Bush and some CEOs in Detroit—are finally acknowledging the links between climate change and fuel consumption. Perhaps this has something to do with an unpopular war that consumes nearly 400,000 barrels of oil per day just for military usage alone (approx. 144 MILLION barrels a year). Or maybe, when automakers like Ford post record losses (nearly $12.7 BILLION) they’re finally forced to reckon with the dissatisfaction and/or guilt of the consuming citizenry. Either way, we seem to be moving in the right direction, although we’ve still got a long way to go.

Technological innovations can carry us into a future either golden or grim depending on how they shape our realities. We trust enough in the laws of physics and the intelligence of engineers to ensure our confidence in the ability of a great hulking chunk of metal to float speedily though the clouds and deliver us to our chosen destinations. And rarely do we account for the great paradox of travel: our simultaneous conveyance across thousands of miles of sky while cramped practically motionless in the same small airplane seat wedged between two snoring salesmen. With the exception of the occasional trip to the toilet, we go absolutely nowhere. Yet, when we disembark several hours later we find ourselves in another land far from home. Logically, of course we understand how this happens. However, for all intents and purposes it wouldn’t really matter if the airplane were actually a sci-fi teleporter that took five hours to program once you were inside of it. In fact, it’s almost too easy to imagine a futuristic teleportation station where travelers get crammed into small seats in stuffy cabins with meager entertainment options and crappy snacks as they wait for hours for the operators to adjust all the right settings to get everyone to the proper destination.

Fortunately, we’ll probably never have to endure that bleak future. According to a de-commissioned research document funded by the US Air Force in 2004, the possibilities for teleportation are limited and fairly undeveloped. (see “Teleportation Physics Study” by Eric Davis, Federation of American Scientists) Limited, mind you; not “impossible,” “improbable” or even “non-existent.” Although the report does rule out Star Trek-style teleporters as an option, it suggests the need for additional research in psychic teleportation, worm-hole manipulation, quantum entanglement and extra-dimensional travel. It also cites Chinese studies claiming that children have been used in double-blind and triple-blind laboratory tests to successfully teleport a variety of small objects including radio transmitters, chemically-sensitive paper and live insects. Sound too weird to be true? Maybe. But the fact that the USAF actually funded the research is not the least bit in doubt since their spokesmen have publicly commented on the study in major news media. But before you get too excited, experts largely agree that we’re a long ways away from any practical applications of such theoretical physics. Still feeling a bit eager? If so, ask yourself if a teleporter truly existed, would the auto industry or Big Oil welcome it with open arms? Would it be turned into public transportation, or would it be restricted to those who could afford it at a premium? Would it be a public domain technology or would it be limited to the military for covert use long before the public was even informed?

Don’t misunderstand. Our aim here is not to promote a conspiracy theory about the secret existence of bizarre military technology. After all, why wander down a murky alley of speculation when we can cruise a stretch of established fact. Take for instance the Pentagon’s newly released “Active Denial System (ADS).” If the strangeness of the aforementioned teleportation study caused you a minor meltdown, this one’ll really fry your brain. Literally. The ADS is a giant heat-ray mounted on a military Hummer that is intended for use as mobile crowd control by beaming out a silent, invisible wave that heats up people’s skin up to half a kilometer away. This futuristic sci-fi vehicle is already developed and ready for deployment in situations where people might ordinarily be subjected to water cannons, tear gas, pepper spray and/or rubber bullets. If you thought Hummers were repulsive before, just wait until they start showing up at your local peace rally. Like most military technologies that eventually steer their way into the consumer marketplace, Raytheon is also manufacturing a commercial model they call the “Silent Guardian.” Care to invoke a “Silent Guardian” for your next birthday party, BBQ or bar mitzvah? We called Raytheon to inquire about the purchase price (in dollars, not souls) but their “business relations development associate” has yet to give us a fixed number.

The illusion of technological neutrality is left stranded by the wayside when we consider how the vehicle so often predetermines the nature of the voyage. Just as a train is limited to travel only where the tracks lead, so too can we predetermine some of the future destinations of society based on its machinations. While technology and magic(k) enhance our abilities to navigate a variety of terrain, they are not always free to embark on the path of our choosing. As such, it’s important to develop the right vehicle for the right journey, both literally and metaphorically. 

A vehicle for change does not need to be complicated. All that is required is a bit of consideration regarding where you want to go and how you might go about getting there. Obviously if you’re trying to get to a city 300 miles away, riding a tricycle isn’t the easiest way to go. Hitchhiking, jumping a train, driving, riding, or flying generally tends to be more expedient. But if the destination is less concrete, then the mode of transportation may not be so obvious. Look for existing forces that are already flowing in the direction you want to go, and harness them for the ride. The right vehicle for the right journey might just be a remote-controlled car, a smokescreen, a bicycle-repair clinic, or the rolling thunder. But it probably isn’t a giant heat-ray mounted on a Hummer.

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C & D reason together about some new records [Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007]

Originally published in Arthur No. 26/September 2007

C & D: Two guys “reason” together about some new records.

D: Christ on a crutch, it’s hot in here.
C: [winces] Uh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention the “air conditioner, lack of” situation we’ve got going over here.
D: It is going to be difficult for me to do my work in these conditions.
C: [guffaws] You call listening to records “working”? Ha! That ain’t workin’! You get your money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.
D: Where have I heard this before. What money? And I don’t see any chicks around here.
C: I regret that my hosting skills are not what they once were.
D: Yes your place is not only a sweat lodge—it’s sexist. I cannot work in these circumstances.
C: You can do it if you put a beer into it.
D: Okay. Beer me.
C: Of course! [Heads to the kitchen, ceremonially] Come! Let us drink beer and reason together.

ALAN VEGA
Station
(Blast First/Mute)
C [returns from kitchen with a sixer of St. Pauli’s, starts CD at medium blast]: So for some reason I thought it was a good idea to kick things off with the darkest, most negative thing possible. Alan Vega from New York City electro-rock-minimalist legends Suicide, talking about the condition of this nation. Analysis: dark. Prognosis: bleak to terminal.
D: [listening to “Freedom’s Smashed”] Turn it up! This is the ’80s back with a vengeance! [listening to lyrics: “Smashing down freedom / Smashing our freedoms / Wah! / Smashing our freedom / Freedom’s running scared/ Freedom’s running out of time/Freedom’s gone!”] Shit! I’m flipping out here. I could live inside this sound.
C: The rhythm is really amazing, it’s like John Henry hitting a punching bag—and Alan Vega is the ringside coach talking to himself about how they’re gonna lose, the fix is in.
D: Yeah baby! Freedom’s going down. It’s terminal idiocy, nobody’s paying attention. But Suicide always knew what was going down in the negative times.
C: The vocals really are astonishing in their range, very actorly. Repeated phrases in different intonations, suggesting different moods, different meanings—shock, resignation, despair, hope; and then there are all those Goblin-esque shrieks and gurgles in the background.
D: This is America at its most violent, self-flagellating. [Repeating lines from “Station Station”] “There was a TIME/ When you could dream /Now—NOW / It has become a crime/ to dream! / It has become a CRIME/ to dream.” Talking about the dream losers. Doing a deeper analysis of American society. Sometimes there’s something at work in the culture that normal journalism can’t decipher. And right now is not normalcy, my friend. One thing’s for sure: this won’t be giving comfort to the neighbors.
C: Hey, Springsteen has been doing [Suicide song] “Dream Baby Dream” live lately.
D: [pause] Little Steven was pretty good, but I always thought Alan Vega and Martin Rev should have had characters on The Sopranos.
C: Especially with those world’s biggest sunglasses that Alan Vega always wears.
D: It’s his signature. They belong in Cleveland in that Rock N Roll museum.
C: Yes, right next to all the other sunglasses of rock ‘n’ roll: Stevie Wonder, Bootsy Collins, Ray Charles, Velvet Underground, Elton John, Sly Stone, Yoko Ono, Roy Orbison. Only, Alan Vega’s would be behind cracked glass with bars in front and you’d hear someone yelling at the television in back.
D: [in Alan Vega voice] “Freedom’s smashed!”

MAGIK MARKERS
Boss
(Ecstatic Peace/Universal)
D: More ominosity.
C [handing D another beer]: This is the new Magik Markers album, and it’s much more straightahead than you’d expect from their reputation as improv poet noise-stars. These are recognizable drums-guitar-vocal duo songs with relatively melodic chant-singing by Elisa Ambrogio and surprisingly in-the-pocket drumming by brother Pete Nolan. There’s even a pretty good stab [“Empty Bottles”] at a piano ballad.
D: “Body Rot” and “Taste” remind me of the lest-we-forget great dark mystical ’80s Californian band Opal—
C: Respect to Kendra Smith.
D: —and that band the Kills who made one really good album and then….
C: Yeah there’s a similarity—in a driving, on-the-edge-of-something-intense, and she has a similar voice to the Kills singer V.V., but this seems more committed to um, murder, or something. “Last of the Lemach Line” has that good ol’ grimy looming-catastrophe-in-a-dying-factory-city sound… like Godspeed!, or Kim’s Sonic Youth jams. Patti Smith in her freer, less barroom moments. This is not beer music. [looks at band photograph on CD] But you could drink bottles of whiskey to it on a hot Saturday afternoon, which is apparently what they did when they were made it!
D: [in own world] Hmm… What did happen to the Kills?
C: Being confused with The Killers would probably be enough to cause any band to do themselves in. But my best guess is they were killed by a drum machine WITH NO SOUL.
D: That never would’ve happened if they’d used Suicide’s drum machine. Early ’70s SoHo soul, baby! [looks at empty beer bottle, bellows in Jim Morrison voice:] Beer me madly/Beer me one more time today!
C: Life: enjoy it while it lasts!

BLUES CONTROL
Blues Control
(Holy Mountain/Revolver)
D: [looking at CD spine] “Blues Control”?
C: I know, sounds like a pimple commercial. “Son, we know you’ve been having a hard time lately. Maybe you should think about using…BLUES CONTROL (TM)? It wipes away those hard-to-kill blues in a matter of minutes. “Control your blues today with Blues Control.”
D: I think my current blues control is a beer with a German girl on it. [pauses, thinks] They are hard at work on something, but I’m not sure who’s at the controls.
C: It’s a di-sexual instro duo on guitars and keys, with a drum machine. Lea Cho and Russ Waterhouse. Seems like they have two major modes: brute force monstrosity trudge in the cloudsmashing style of the mighty Blue Cheer…
D: And impressionist, introspective space and electronic plant music on that subtle plane visited by Eric Satie and Popul Vuh, with the subaquatic melodica of Sir Augustus Pablo…
C: [chuckles] That’s a team-up to be reckoned with.
D: These other songs are some pretty heavy duty stuff! It’s music you hear when you dig a hole deep enough to listen to what’s going on inside the earth. Troglobite rock, baby. And I am a troglophile!
C: [carrying on] If they put this out on vinyl, and I think that they did, it should be on coated 540 gram for the needle’s sake.
D: It should be on shellac. [finishing another beer] Analog all over your face! Ya heard?
C: Maybe I should put something else on before things get any more out of control…

CELEBRATION
The Modern Tribe
(4AD/Beggars Group)
C: …
D: Well, here’s our first obvious album-of-the-year contender.
C [listening to “Pressure” and “Pony”] The singer’s totally going for it. It’s like Johnette Napolitano … fronting a shit-hot psychedelic-funk-dance band on an electro-church run to the dub castles of Jamaica. And yes, I just made that up.
D: The singer is not holding back. Fuck me…two times!
C: [ignoring C’s outburst] Like a more passionate, more organic and more, dare I say ‘soulful’ LCD Soundsystem, fronted by a belter of a singer, who is a woman. [rhetorically:] How badly do we need this?
D: Women are DEFINITELY where it’s at right now.
C: [quizzical] And maybe always…? But yeah, so awesome. Produced by Dave Sitek from TV on the Radio, and those guys sing on it too but you can tell that. Reminds me of Moonshake, or Laika, only more muscular, funkier.
D: There is a certain Eurythmics-soul quality apparent here. [pauses] But she may actually be undermixed. Underrepresented. I want to hear the words.
C [listening to “Hands Off My Gold”]: You were right at the top, this is the album to beat, there’s hit after hit here.
D: [self-righteously] But of course, music is not a competition!
C: [smug] Oh yeah, of course not.
D: …
C: …
D: So, interested in a friendly wager?

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SUN CITY GIRLS: GOD, HOW THEY SUCKED by Byron Coley (Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007)

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (September 2007)

Sun City Girls: God, How They Sucked, 1981-2007
by Byron Coley

The Sun City Girls were one of the great bands of my lifetime. Now they’re gone and the world is both meaner for their passing and richer for their having been here. Their official end occurred on February 19, 2007. That was the day Charlie Gocher, the band’s drummer, succumbed to forces greater than his own—a concept almost unfathomable, but true nonetheless.

For 25 years, the Sun City Girls were a trio of exquisitely hermetic design. Charlie Gocher, Alan Bishop and Rick Bishop created a wildly bizarre universe in which almost anything seemed possible. It was always difficult with these guys to understand where truth ended and fiction began, but it didn’t seem to really matter. Like the LSD street-talkers of my youth, conversations with the band (in whole or in part) tended to obliterate many of the culturally-drawn distinctions that usually seem important. They were able to bend time and space to their own evil intent, which, luckily for all of us, was really not evil at all.

The Girls dropped many delightful and smelly bucketfuls of recordings over the years. Singles, videos, CDs, cassettes and LPs. These ranged from the virtually unlistenable—arch sets of covers played with enough irony to give you a soft-on for a year—to albums like Torch of the Mystics, which floated into the spaces between your atoms, instantly bonding with every available surface.

Never the touringest of bands, the Girls nonetheless remain most burned into my memory for their live shows. The earliest ones were mysto-shroud post-core jamborees of the most frenzied nature imaginable. Later ones blended shtick and strangeness and playing so brilliantly precise it was devastating. There was Charlie, assaulting his drums like a myth-gorilla trapped inside a VW bug. There was Alan, moving between jazzbo-centric bass pops and the corrosive performance art characters with which he amused himself. There was Rick, just kind of taking it all in and regurgitating splanges of guitar noise as delicate or vicious as you could imagine. Together they seemed unstoppable.

One of the last times I saw them was a two-night stand they did at the 2004 Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival. My friend Benoit had never seen them before, but he knew he was in for a treat. I explained we should be prepared to heckle the Girls with all the means at our disposal, since they thrived on intense audience interaction, no matter how negative. He was leery, but game. The first night we screamed our heads off, drawing incredible barbs from Alan’s Uncle Jim doppelganger and getting more than a few rises out of Rick when we began insulting him for being a rare book dealer. So successful was this approach, Benoit was invited onto the stage the next night to give Alan a tutorial in Quebecker cussing. It was an exquisite evening, although Charlie was clearly not feeling well before the show. He explained it as being some variation of a flu, combined with his “advanced age,” but I guess it was a little more complicated than that. Still, he played with a ferocious lop-sided intensity that belied any physical diminishment.

Live shows went back to being a rarity. They played but a single festival set in each of the last three years. There started to be sniping in some quarters regarding the band’s purported heisting of ethnic music traditions, but when I saw them the last time (at ATP in December, 2006), we had a good laugh about the idea of them as cultural imperialists. Their travels around the world had always been journeys of wide-eyed discovery. The souvenirs they bore home from these trips (whether internal or external) were things they were driven to share. Like maniacs. Which they were. To say they didn’t enrich our knowledge of different cultural traditions (particularly those of Southeast Asia), misses more than a few available boats. They were nothing if not the American underground’s cultural ambassadors to the world.

It hasn’t been long since Charlie died. Alan and Rick must still have a lot to figure out. Their varietal solo works will undoubtedly continue in all their glory, and one assumes there are oceans of unreleased material to be pumped into the cosmos. But I will miss knowing the Sun City Girls co-exist with me on this planet. They were a funny and generous group of individuals, committed to a lot of truly worthwhile things, not the least of which was a cruel and cutting humor, beautifully suited to the times in which we live.

But Charlie is no more. And the Sun City Girls are no more. And that’s just something we’ll have to live with.

So long, motherfuckers. You suck.

ADULT WITCHCRAFT: Applied Magic(k) column by Center for Tactical Magic (Arthur, 2006)

Ancient diplomacy: Moses’ brother performs magic(k) before the pharoah and his court of magicians in this depiction of Exodus 7:12. What was the pharoah doing with all of those magicians anyway?


Applied Magic(k): Adult Witchcraft
by The Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (Feb 2006)

Like “art,” the word “magic” can be very confusing for people. It simultaneously conjures notions of trickery, witchcraft, illusion, mysticism, fantasy, and a vast array of products, services, and popular culture references. Many of these notions evoke a dismissive response from people when they encounter the term, partly because they tend to immediately latch onto a single notion of magic that they reproach—cheesy Las Vegas sideshow; dreadlocked Wiccan hippy; Dungeons & Dragons wannabe; Satanic drug fiend; pet psychic; reality escapist; and so forth. Of course, by conjuring such characters as Gandalf, Harry Potter, Sabrina and John Edwards, popular media does its best to fantasize, infantalize, and capitalize on our collective desires for more than another sequel to “Life as We’re Told It Is.” The Center for Tactical Magic does not exclusively align itself with any one interpretation of “magic,” in part, because the vastness of the interpretations of “magic” is what gives magic its power in the world of meaning. Therefore this column is likely to exploit many of your preconceptions of magic(k) in an effort to dislodge your comfortable sensibilities.

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Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: filmmaker MIKE MILLS on Henry Jacobs’ handmade absurdism (Arthur, 2007)

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept 2007), as a companion piece to Joel Rose’s profile of Henry Jacobs

Red Goo, Paper Cut-Outs and Conscious Digressions: Mike Mills on HENRY JACOBS’ handmade absurdism

The Fine Art of Goofing Off
Three 30-minute episodes, 1971
Dir. Henry Jacobs
Available on The Weird World of Henry Jacobs DVD/CD (Important, 2004)

“Well, ‘goofing off’ is not really being what you’re really supposed to be doing.”
—boy’s voice in Episode 1

Each show begins with the same image: a gallon of paint thrown onto a black and white target. Red gooey paint, probably the worst tool for the job a target suggests—hitting the center and the center only, and all the competition, judgment, and evaluation therein. There’s no specificity, linearity, no ability to pierce—just thick gooey amorphous wrap-around-everything-non-solidness.

And so the game begins, The Fine Art of Goofing Off, or as I mistakenly remembered it “Taking Goofing Off Seriously.” Glad I’m not in charge of remembering, but there’s something to my mistake. Under all the home-made/hand-made qualities of the show, the claymation, construction paper cut-outs, the felt pen animation, and the rambling structure, under the constant humor and seeking of fun is a deceptively serious mission—to derail oneself from “what you’re supposed to be doing” (or as the genius of the kid mistakenly put it, “not being what you’re supposed to be doing”). Goofing off is the giving up of all things Western Civilization worked so hard to make soul crushing: progress, work, betterment of self, basing everything on the future and linear time and the always wanting that time to be faster and more convenient. Not to mention the primacy of the plot and drama at all costs in storytelling, the anything-less-than-success as shameful construct, and the sadness as failure feeling, and the exploitation of any and all substances you can gather to ease all the worries us European-descenters are so prone to.

Yes, this is what this kid show addresses. And this little confrontation was happening on public television, broadcast across the airwaves in 1971. It’s handmade absurdism was mixed in the airwaves with Nixon, the Vietnam war, with the Weather Underground bombing the U.S. Capitol in protest of the invasion of Laos, with Apollo 14 landing on the moon, with Willie Wonka’s theatrical release, with Evan Goolagong winning Wimbledon. The Fine Art of Goofing Off was pushing its gooey red paint into antennas, and the imaginations of children/adults.

We won’t dwell on how impossible this show would be now, but actually we will for just three small points: 1. The great contemporary tendency to protect children from everything would not allow something so “dangerous” and “adult” to be on the air. 2. Our cleaned-up “professionalized” visual culture would never allow so much felt-tip-pen animation out in the world. 3. The positivity-openheartedness-vulnerability expressed in this show would be mocked by most mainstream and counter-culture makers of today. Softness is so easily beaten-up. But this is a digression, and really, how scary is it to digress, to not know what you’re doing, or what’s going on, or what’s next, or worse, to not have anything next. But this is the space Goofing Off was trying to make, the rich and conscious digression from what we’re supposed to be doing.

The end of episode three has a thank you list which includes: Walt Disney, Sigmund Freud, Leonardo DaVinci, The Beatles, Ray Bradbury, Federico Fellini, Marcel Marceau, Rene Magritte, Dali, Picasso, Alfred E. Neuman, Krishnamurti, Marshall McLuhan, John and Yoko, D.T. Suzuki, Jacques Tati, Benito Mussolini, Oral Roberts, Buckminister Fuller, The Eames, Corita Kent, Charlie Chaplin, J.R.R. Tolkien. What a party that would be. And while this list is playfully implausible, part of the magic of the whole show, it’s funny to see how many of these people thought of a different world, or, our world differently. Freud, populizer of the unconscious as the real source of all our actions. Marceau, the mime that explained his art as “documentaries” of human behavior mirrored back to us so we can transform. Suzuki and Krishnamurti (still trying to finish those books). The utopian popular modernism of Fuller-Eames-Kent. Alfred E Neuman’s scope of satire, nothing was beyond Mad’s reach. Disney, the maker of “the happiest place on earth,” maybe the most powerful shaper of “childhood” for any of us born after the Fifties. Henry Jacobs, Bob Mcclay, and the community that made this were playing at influencing imaginations on this big scale while not falling for the seriousness that turns revelations into rules. They disguised their insurgency in felt-tip pen and construction paper cut-outs. The revolution will be funny, inventive, unprofessional, small-scale, for children/adults and televised.


Mike Mills is a filmmaker and graphic artist living in Los Angeles. His latest graphics can be seen at humans.jp

“Blank in the Fill”: Dave Reeves on fluoride and suicide in North Carolina (Arthur, 2007)

“Do the Math” column originally published in Arthur No. 26

BLANK IN THE FILL by David Crosby Reeves

“For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination.” —Chomsky

In the days of President Carter, a fluoride program went through the public schools called ‘Swish and Spit.’ First grade students were given permission slips and told to bring them back with a parent’s signature. I was a good kid then, eager to prove myself. I took my permission slip to my mother. She put it aside and didn’t sign it.

The day the ‘Swish and Spit’ program was implemented, Ms. Goldie brought out a bottle of red fluid and told everyone, ‘This is fluoride, and it tastes good.’ It looked like cherry Kool-Aid. I never got to taste it because I didn’t have my permission slip.

I was left alone while the other kids went to the sink and did the Kool-Aid. ‘Swish and Spit’ was just that. Everybody came back with red tongues like they had eaten a Slushy.

Ms. Goldie came to me, wanting to know where my slip was. I had a sense that this was one of the first tests of this new thing called School, and I was eager to be good. I wanted to drink the Kool-Aid to commune with the other kids, the kool kids, and become one with the institution.

So when I get home I told Ma, ‘I got to get this thing signed!’ ‘What is it for?’ she wanted to know. I explained that the ‘Swish and Spit’ was good for me, harmless, and probably cherry Kool-Aid.

‘What did I tell you about people coming to you with candy?’ my mom asked me. She went on about how the product was manufactured to look like candy so that I would want it, but we didn’t know what was in it.

My argument was, Sure we know what’s in it: fluoride. It makes strong teeth. But Ma wasn’t signing it because she said the government should not be giving you anything, nor should you trust them to give you anything. It sets a bad precedent. And why would a government that cares so little about your health that I can’t afford health care suddenly care so much about your teeth?

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Greg Saunier of DEERHOOF on the ALL-AGES gig ethic (Arthur, 2007)

WHERE MUSIC LIVES
Deerhoof dude Greg Saunier on how all-ages is the gig that gives and gives

(originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007)

Deerhoof are an adventurous art-rock ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area whose mix of playfulness, technical facility and unpretentious musical/conceptual ambition has gained them an ever-growing (and awesomely devoted) underground following. Not long after seeing Deerhoof play a giddy early-evening set to an all-ages audience of Giant Robotniks, punk rockers, noiseheads, pop geeks, art students and awed musos, I spoke by phone with drummer-keyboardist Greg Saunier about how the band’s insistence on playing all-ages shows has been crucial—perhaps even pivotal—to their continued artistic growth and commercial success. Following is part of our conversation.

Deerhoof ‘s latest album, Friend Opportunity, is available from Kill Rock Stars; a DVD of the Courtney Naliboff-adapted ballet version of Deerhoof’s 2004 concept album Milk Man, featuring students from the K-12 North Haven Community School in Maine, is available from http://www.milkmanballet.com —Jay Babcock

Arthur: What is Deerhoof’s policy regarding playing all-ages shows?

Greg Saunier: Basically we try to play all-ages shows wherever we can. It’s not always possible. I have some friends who have bands that are 100 percent insistent, but by demanding that every show be all-ages, they sometimes go for long periods without playing any shows. Or they aren’t able to play certain cities, period. But wherever we can, we try to do it.

Why is it important?

Greg Saunier: Our music, and I think music in general, is not just for people who are a certain age or who have necessarily already experienced certain things. We aren’t trying to make music that’s meant to be an in-joke, just for people who’ve already lived through certain things or already are familiar with certain bands of the past. We try to make music that could have something to say to any kind of person—or at least any age of person. We’ve had quite a few shows where a kid and her parent will come, and both claim to be fans, which is really mind-blowing to me, and really gratifying, because I want it to feel like it’s not exclusive to a certain clique.

What were some of the shows you saw as a teenager?

Greg Saunier: I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. One of the first concerts I saw was the Police, at a basketball arena. And it occurs to me that the same is still the case—when Christina Aguilera plays a show, she plays arenas so she play all-ages every time. Within the world of pop music, it’s not even an issue. It’s only in this world of—I don’t even know what this world is, but it’s some other world where music is only associated with bars and with drinking and with people over a certain age and with a certain world-weariness already built in, a certain jaded quality. Of course that’s not everybody, and you can retain that kid-like innocence about new things in music your whole life. But I don’t even drink, so the last place I thought I’d be forging a career would be in bars! I actually don’t mind playing in bars, but if we do it’s always about trying to transcend the surroundings and the normal association with bars and what it’s there for and what it’s meant to do.

Were there shows that you wanted to see as a kid that you couldn’t because you were not of age?

This is going to make it sound like as a teenager I was completely obsessed, but actually I remember Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, did a solo show one time at the 9:30 Club in D.C., and it was an over-21 show. I remember just being crushed for several weeks that there was no way I was going to be able to go to this thing. I got really involved in starting to listen to classical music a lot, and classical music shows are always all-ages. That’s what I was getting fed by my parents and I gobbled it up and got a lot out of it.

That’s a good point, that classical music is not a “beer experience.”

In a way, it is another alternative music culture. I was totally dependent on either friends or my parents to get around as a teenager, and there was no place to see a concert in the town where I grew up. Any concert-going required going to D.C. or Baltimore. I felt like a rebel, honestly, in my teen and high school years because of the fact that I listened to classical music. It didn’t really make any sense to any of my friends, and I definitely felt like a real oddball. At the same time in high school, as I just barely started to get a slight awareness that there was underground rock music and punk music, I started to make friends with a few people who were into that and I identified with them in a very strange way. The hardcore scene of the early ’80s and classical music scenes obviously couldn’t seem to be more opposite, but for me and my punk rock friends, it served a very similar purpose. It was something that wasn’t already figured out for you. It wasn’t thrust upon you with the sheen of the mainstream, and the mainstream was the only other choice available to kids.

I remember hearing about this straight-edge music and I was absolutely fascinated. I was very much a late bloomer as far as understanding that there was anything called punk rock. I mean, when Minor Threat was going I was listening to Top 40, I had no idea. I later discovered another band from the area called Void, and they are actually from my hometown. They were just a hair older than I was, and looking back, I bet I knew some people who did go see them. But I was just totally entranced when my friends would describe these Minor Threat shows where kids were going there with the express intent of not drinking, and they would never say bad words and everybody was really nice to each other. I just couldn’t believe it, you know? I never experienced it firsthand, so my mental image of it is untarnished: I have a fantasy of this utopian situation where somebody put the kids in charge and they’re doing so much better than when the adults were in charge. Everybody’s getting along and it’s creative and everybody’s happy and everyone’s accepted. I think that I’ve been kind of seeking the re-creation of that fantasy ever since, you know, when I go to show or especially when we play shows. We want to create that kind of feeling.

Was that part of the original impetus when Deerhoof began?

In the beginning we were desperate to play and totally innocent of how to set up shows or tour. And we were very shy people; it was just two of us at first and then [vocalist-bassist] Satomi joined to make three, and she didn’t make the band any less shy than we already were. Basically, if another band asked us to play a show with them, we’d be like ‘Yeah!’ and be unable to sleep for the next week or something! So in the first couple years of Deerhoof we didn’t have the gumption to dictate anything or make any suggestions. We basically just followed whatever was handed to us and felt lucky if we got to play at all. But what ended up happening was we didn’t play all-ages shows, and the first several years of the band, we had no kid fans seeing us, it was all people our age or older. Satomi and I realized that there was something not satisfying about this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just playing in bars and having the success of the night be judged merely on how many drinks we got everybody to buy, you know? Probably in 1998 or ’99 I started to feel like this was a dead end. It wasn’t a stimulating situation, always playing with the same bands, playing the same songs to the same people just passing time in a smoky little room. My first impulse was to go back to school so I could get back into classical music. So I went to graduate school for music, and felt very frustrated there too. In both cases, it’s a mutual admiration society. It’s an ‘in’ crowd. The people who go to see Deerhoof, or the people who are studying music at music conservatory, both can have the sealed feeling where everybody’s patting each other on the back. That’s their only audience, you know? So that was a turning point for the band, too, where we felt like ‘We need to start branching out.’ And frankly, that feeling has never gone away. We have managed for the most part to be able to play all-ages shows everywhere we go, but even then it can feel … we still feel confined in some ways.

Like, why do shows always have to be so late at night? And why do they have to cost $18?

Yeah. Even when you call a show quote-unquote ‘all-ages,’ obviously if it’s late at night on a school night and it’s really expensive then no kid’s going to be able to go. So we’re always looking for something other than just the prescribed venue, or the prescribed way that we’ve been told our music is supposed to be presented. That’s the crazy thing about kids, and the many adults who have an open mind: they don’t conform to any marketing person’s concept of their target demographic characteristics. They look for something that’s cool, they look for something that strikes them a certain way, and maybe as they grow with it they figure it out in a more sophisticated way. Kids surprise adults all the time, because adults would never have guessed what kind of styles that kids would come up with. You think of clothes as the obvious example, where adults are constantly rolling their eyes: ‘What are the kids wearing nowadays?!’ But it’s the same thing with music, and it’s very exciting. And that’s another great advantage of playing all-ages shows: sometimes we can play with under-21 bands.

A couple of years ago, we played in Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is actually very difficult for all-ages shows, but there’s one venue called the Triple Rock where we have often played that will do all-ages shows early; basically, before the “real” show that they’re still going to have that night. Anyway, John has an old friend, Milo Fine, who does only free improvisation. The guy’s possibly in his 50s … real hardcore. He doesn’t do free improvisation for fun, but has for decades been cultivating this and only this and refuses to play a single note of written music period, you know? Extremely obscure, but in his tiny circle, he is sort of a legend. Basically, ultra avant-garde and not the type of music that you would normally associate with kids liking. We asked him to open for us. He was playing percussion with another guy in an improvisational duo, and we were talking before the show, and he was sure that he was just going to bomb. The place was filled with kids, and de was like, ‘This is not my normal audience, I normally play in bars.’ So he came out and played and you could hear a pin drop. The kids were just so focused, they were just totally taking it in. They didn’t judge things the same way that a mob of adults might. There were just no preconceptions. After the show he was just kind of stunned, and really really happy. And I felt so proud, too, that we had managed to put this bill together.

Oh! Here’s a story that totally illustrates how important all-ages is. We played on a tour opening for Unwound, and Unwound was one of those bands that insisted on all-ages shows. That was kind of our introduction to the whole concept. We played at the J.C. Hall, just a tiny shack of a room in Biloxi, Mississippi. There’s no stage, we just played on this linoleum floor. A lot of kids were there. There was this one 16-year-old kid who came up to our merch table after we played and he’s like, ‘I want everything, give me everything.’ It was the first time in however many years we’d had the band going where somebody had ever come up to the merch table and wanted to buy everything. Two days later, our show is in Pensacola, Florida, and not only does he show up but he’s so excited he brings his kid brother, who’s 14 and sick with the fever at the time! But they still felt that it was enough of a priority that they needed to come see this band again. We ended up keeping in touch. And that was Chris and Steve Touchton who very soon after that, decided to form their own band, XBXRX. Later, they moved out to the Bay Area and they live here now and are quite successful.

The music XBXRX make doesn’t really sound like Deerhoof—it’s their music, that somewhere deep inside he wanted to make but couldn’t find the permission anywhere in his universe to do what he really wanted to do. When you see something that’s not the mainstream shows, which are the only ones you’re allowed to go to, that’s what can inspire you to say, ‘I’m going to do my own thing, too.’ A person can do something that’s really different and creative. All these rules that I thought were there aren’t really there. [Those rules] are just from tired musicians and tired, bored marketing experts who are just going on some kind of endless rote, trying to recapture the success of last year’s successful band and think that there are all these rules of how your music’s supposed to sound and what’s going to make it sell.

You really want to make sure technically that the show can include people under 21, but once you’re there it’s like… You’d have to actually step back and say, well how would this be different if the ‘kids’ weren’t here? I really can’t tell who is above 21 and who’s are under 21 in a lot of cases. But it’s great at shows when I’m chatting to somebody who came to the show, and I can tell by looking at them that they’re quite young, and they’re telling me that they came because they’re a fan of our music and that they’ve been listening to it, and I think back to when I was at that age and what music I was listening to. And I say to myself, ‘Whatever music I was listening to, that music totally just re-wired my nervous system.’ I just know how important the music that I listened to in those years was to me. And when I think, ‘Wait, here’s a real human being standing right in front of me, for whom that music is our music!’ well you can’t imagine the overwhelming joy that I feel. You want to inspire people, you know?

originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007


SCREAM AT THE SKY: Thurston Moore & Byron Coley talk with YOKO ONO (Arthur, 2007)

SCREAM AT THE SKY
Thurston Moore & Byron Coley talk with YOKO ONO

Photography by Eden Batki

Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 02007)

Yoko Ono is a beauty. When we walk into the room for our interview she is stunning, vivacious, delightful and welcoming. We discover her handlers have deemed us worthy of only half an hour of access. Because our interests lie in focusing on specific, somewhat more arcane aspects of Yoko’s career, particularly those related to her access points into the avant garde of the 1950s and 60s, we are bummed about these time constraints. Yoko is an extremely significant figure in the flow of much that is radical and/or experimental in visual art and musical culture of the last half-century. Our century, the century where media, performance and multi-disciplinary expression was galvanized into wholly new alloy.

The avant garde and its attendant testing, prodding, trapping, releasing, liberating and wildly intriguing vocabulary is something that looms large in Yoko’s history. It was a driving force for her transformation as an artist, and is an exploratory philosophical stance she has embraced for well over 40 years. Her physical trajectory took her from Japan in the 1940s to America in the ’50s and ’60s. There was a momentary return to her homeland in the early ’60s, then back to America (specifically New York City). After that there’s her mid-’60s visit to London, where she meets John Lennon, and all that transpires henceforth—famous and infamous. Hers is a spectacular timeline through the counterculture of the late 20th century.

The celebrated flash notes of her life with Lennon have been obsessively documented and analyzed. Yoko’s own, autonomous history as an academic, musician, artist, filmmaker and a radical innovator in all of those fields has been perenially overshadowed in mainstream journals. It has only been within the last decade that serious consideration of Yoko’s work by above-ground culturistas has even been considered. But it remains a subject that most media-types approach with mincing trepidation and uncomfortable jokes.

When the fantastic Yes Yoko Ono exhibition (and its amazing catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams) was realized at Japan Society in New York in 2000, art critic Michael Kimmelman reviewed it succinctly in the New York Times (October 27, 2000), detailing Yoko’s rich art lineage. He noted how Yoko established, alongside La Monte Young, the first real artist’s loft, where music and performance were united with the shock of art-as-action. This was where Yoko created works such as “Smoke Piece,” where the audience were asked to burn the art and the self-explanatory “Painting To Be Stepped On.”

Yoko’s loft is where the iconoclast George Maciunas—an amazing outsider force in his own right, who ran the AG Gallery uptown—first became entranced by Buddhist positivity with its smiling, gentle nature. This was an element he immediately grabbed and threw into the berserk counterculture soupcon he christened “Fluxus.” If there’s anything that prefigures punk rock, it’s Maciunas, Yoko and the Fluxus movement. And even more than punk, they’re the direct antecedents of No Wave, that hermetic period in New York City between 1977 and 1980, where actual rock music, regardless of sub-genre, was temporarily obliterated. Yoko spoke of how the Fluxus movement consisted mainly of a single small group of individuals, most of whom were somehow connected to the scene’s own creative process. This is basically the same script the No Wave scene followed in its day, in terms of being part of a small, consistent and almost-fully-participatory community. The biggest parallel is that both scenes, as marginalized as they were at their times, continue to be living underpinnings (or secret histories) of contemporary avant-garde activity.

Interestingly, Kimmelman blows his cover as one art critic who might fully grasp Yoko’s genius, by denouncing her musical activities. He proclaims her visual art, in retrospect, to be underappreciated. He posits her marriage to Lennon as a leap into celebrity, but one to which she absolutely brought an awareness of celebrity-as-performance. He even opines that her films are her greatest achievements (alongside her brilliant, pre-feminist performance masterwork, “Cut Piece”). But he negates these opinions by tossing out a dismisssive kneejerk comment about her music, one whose idiocy is not mitigated by its wide currency. “The music is unbearable,” he writes. “And let’s leave it at that.”

An art critic without the ability to assess musical art with the same aesthetic consciousness he applies to visual art is, to some degree, crippled. But Kimmelman’s myopia is not confined to the compartmentalized world of conventional art critics. There has been a general idea batted about that Yoko Ono’s art, particularly in its musical form, is not worth much or is some kind of cruel joke being played on the public. This idea is so foreign to our ears that it’s almost ungraspable.

Yoko’s music and her visuals have always been stunning, and not easily separable. Yoko Ono as musician, as composer, is inhabiting personae explicitly integral to her life and career as an artist. The ideas and sounds that run throughout her compositions are as filled with wonder and humor and ingenuity as her most engaging work in film, object art, et al. Indeed, her vocal concepts, inside the context of Beatles recordings—the highest profile pop music recordings in history—are astounding, not only for their organic thought-tongue individuality, but also for their ability to deliver genuinely avant-garde statements to a mainstream world.

The fact that this person is female, Japanese, an artist, and was married to John Lennon is something people are still trying to figure out. For many, it’s just a weird bit of proof that there’s a world out there (somewhere) far more fascinating than Main Street. But Yoko’s music is still regarded by the straight press and the bulk of its adherents as an anomaly, some sort of eccentric affectation. The truth is that Yoko studied and practiced traditional composition in the 1950s, while simultaneously exploring ideas of alternative notational theory. This places her right in the same class as such acknowledged transitional thinkers as John Cage, Henry Cowell and David Tudor. Yoko’s compositional work, perhaps especially the “instruction pieces,” and her sharp-edged performances, were profound by any measure. When you factor in her ethnicity and gender, it’s easy to believe her efforts were more functionally radical than those of any contemporaries. In the context of her partnership with John Lennon, we got to experience a premier avant garde artist’s attempt to unify her own process with a rock n’ roll dynamic. Which, alongside the art/music relationship of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground and the influence these mutually beneficial connectives have had on the modern state of art/rock, is pretty goddamn great.

Anyway, the time constraints meant we were only able able to get a small taste of Yoko’s incredible history. But with Yoko a taste is way more than a mouthful.

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