BROTHER FROM THIS PLANET: An interview with homegrown psychedelic genius John Terlesky aka Brother JT, by Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004). Art direction by W.T. Nelson

BROTHER FROM THIS PLANET

Hallucinogens, Ukrainian Catholicism, Nascar town alienation and the Beatles helped make BROTHER JT the homegrown musical genius he is. Jay Babcock interviews America’s least-known national treasure.

Don’t miss the sidebar: David Katznelson explores the Brother JT discography


“A good myth or poem…addresses our appetitive anarchies, and offers safe conduct to some life-enhancing energy by giving it a name; and a bad one does the opposite, ‘binding with briars my joys and desires.’ But in the absence of an authoritative myth or poem, the lights simply go out and the soul is closed down: no name, no game. In other words, we have to play; and if we refuse, our robotic bodies are simply wired up by this week’s television commercials.” — Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War, Dudley Young

Not to get too evangelical—although given his name and interests, perhaps some fervor is only appropriate—but both the prodigious output and the career-shape of the man they call Brother JT offers just the type of myths and poems, in song and words and drawings and deed, that Mr. Young is yapping about here. 

Listen to the beautiful smeared mess—homemade and lush and voluptuous—that is Maybe Should We Take Some More?, one of the two albums JT released in 2001: noise-covered melodic pop; flute-and-tambourine folk; pastoral instrumental epics; dubspace recorders self-replicating into Jajouka horns; Hendrix jamming in Bombay with street musicians, remixed by Cabaret Voltaire; and so on. And that’s just one album—there are many more where that came from (see David Katznelson’s excellent sidebar). This is boundary-dissolving, spirit-ennobling music: aural stuff that can help you as you hang out in back in the garden of your mind.

Brother JT was born John Terlesky in 1962 in Easton, Pennsylvania. Starting in the mid-‘80s Terleskey lead The Original Sins, whose mission, he notes on his website, was to “ merge pop and garage/punk, taking inspiration from the Lyres, Buzzcocks, Stooges, and that whole ‘Paisley Underground’ thing from the early ’80’s.” The Sins continued to record albums through the ‘90s, but beginning in the early part of that decade, Terlesky began to releasing solo records under the “Brother JT” moniker. ( “Brother JT” is a nickname given to him by underground journo/advocate (and now-Arthur columnist) Byron Coley after hearing JT’s Descent, which, JT says, was “kind of my version of Coltrane’s Ascension, only it was supposed to be Jesus descending into hell while he was dead and freeing the saints or something. And side 2, ‘Kabbalah,’ was pretty much an acid Gregorian chant with just voices. I think he felt the music sounded like the work of some twisted monk or something…just kind of stuck.”)

On the phone from Easton (where he’s living again after a 12-year-interim in nearby Bethlehem), JT is soft-spoken, funny, precise and open, with a disarmingly humble matter-of-factness; when I ask him how he’s managed to put food on the table through all these years of limited commercial success as a musician, he mentions one of his favorite jobs: “I drove a newspaper delivery truck in the afternoons, throwing bundles out for kids …. A lot of songs came out of that route.” Of course: Brother JT delivers.

I opened our conversation with some remarks about That’s Life, a set of harrowing spoken-word (the Brother had to rap!) pieces JT recorded sometime in the early ‘90s that could be described as Bitter Surrealist. They’re stamped with the same inventive, humorous spirit that marks all of JT’s work, but these rants’ bad-trip, freaked-out disgust seem miles away from the more, shall we say, positive outlook of his recent albums…


Arthur: You sound so angry on that spoken word CD.

Brother JT: I was probably a lot more angry then than I am now. When you’re younger you have this block that makes you think that there’s just no hope at all–basically you keep going but you always just think you’re practically at the verge of something or other. A lot of the early stuff that I did was a purging of sorts. What I didn’t know then was that things might work out okay. [chuckles] Not that they have per se, but they have worked out better than I thought they would. 

I wrote them in a fever of… automatic writing, trying to get some sort of a subconscious thing going and connect with what I thought might be my subconsicous. But you really don’t know–there‘s a lot of things going around there all the time. Usually you edit your thoughts. In this case I just tried to let it spill out, and that was the result. Those were done on a mic in my room in Bethlehem, trying to do em without any breaks. If I tried to do a spoken word thing now, it would be a lot more soooooothing, make it a little more positive, and not just drop this on people. 

Why?

Somewhere, probably around the mid-’90s,  I started thinking that whatever creative process I do, I’d better try to think in a little more positive way, because a lot of the songs that I had written with a negative tone had sort of come true! [chuckles] I felt like it sort of comes back on you, or it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, or something. And also, just getting older, you feel like you’ve got all this off your chest. You’ve been doing it for ten years–ten years is enough for expurgating all these demons–you should be out of demons by now. I’m not, but I do feel more of a responsibility to try to make some things of beauty too, and not just all this catharsis. 

There’s all these religious references in your work: your band was called the Original Sins, you have these kitschy photos on your covers of religious iconography and roadside graphics and son. Yet it’s obviously not completely a wink, or scornful—there’s a huge spiritual element in your work. And you lived in a town called Bethlehem for 12 years.  What exactly is your religious background?

I was raised Ukranian Catholic which is very close to being Eastern Catholic but not quite. It’s still under the Pope. It’s the next best thing to being a Byzantine or whatever. I went to catechism, and had holy communion. I went to church up to my early teens, and then it just fell away. But, as I’m sure a lot of younger people experience, it stays with you–maybe moreso than if you were Protestant or something, where it’s not such a big deal and there’s not so much ceremony involved and not so much attention paid to this kind of mystery thing going on. Which always appealed to me. 

Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between thinking that there might be something to this and thinking Well, no, I doubt it. Somewhere along the way I consciously decided, There’s gotta be something more. There’s gotta be a little more to this than just happenstance. I think I forced myself to start thinking along the lines of spirituality, if only to enrich my life. My upbringing definitely played a role in all that. The masses are ingrained in me from when I was a kid: there was a lot of incense, a lot of droning kind of hymns in Ukrainian. It was spooky. Very spooky. And when that gets in you when you’re a kid, you don’t ever really dispose of it. The Christ story is there in you, almost like a universal archetype. So it gets to be where you don’t know whether it’s really something real or if it’s just inculcated in you to that extent, that it has become a reality of belief, or faith.

Your records and writings are rants are pretty open about your interest in hallucinogenic drugs. Did they play a role in this spiritual opening up you’re talking about?

Yeah, but I think just sort of getting through life teaches a lot of things about the possibilities. Just things that happen where you would have to say, There’s gotta be a point to this because why else did these things happen. There seems to be some kind of scheme, one that anyone could see, something where most people would say, There’s a lesson to be learned here. 

But yeah, hallucinogenics were kind of an opening back open of a door that I’d shut during my teenage years. I was a very straight teenager, and really only got into hallucinogens in my early 20s. It had a profound effect: something similar to flipping a switch in your brain that had been switched to ‘off’ onto ‘on.’ You know, thinking, ‘Geez, no wonder all this stuff is the way it is.’ A lot of people these days probably don’t even need it. But for me, given the upbringing I had… [chuckles] I came up in the ‘70s, you know? Which, to me, like having layers of brown and orange gauze taped over my head. I remember being completely clueless as a kid and a teenager and THIS was a big revelation. Whereas I think maybe kids these days are just sorta like Eh, so what. Or that they already know, and they don’t need any help in knowing that there is sort of a oneness in things. It’s not so much of a revelation. Maybe just bred into them now. I hope so! I I really do sense that there’s evolution taking place–I don’t know in exactly which direction: outward, or inward, or what. But people do seem a little different than when I started out in my observations.

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Holly’s Mashed Roots — a recipe from Holly Golightly (Arthur, 2004)

Art direction by W.T. Nelson.

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004).


Holly’s Mashed Roots

Submitted by Holly Golightly of London, England.

In the winter I like to make this dish whenever I roast poultry or game. I have fed some minor celebrities on it and thrown it at boyfriends. It’s very versatile that way. And very tasty.

Four large carrots and four large parsnips

Large knob of butter

Ground black and red pepper

Peeled, crushed garlic to taste

Peel and cut vegetables in evenly sized discs along the length, place in pan and cover with cold water. Add a pinch of salt. Bring to boil and simmer until soft (about 8-10 minutes) on low heat. Strain off water and chop roughly with a sharp knife. Add butter, pepper and crushed garlic and mash until smooth.

Serve piping hot with roasted poultry or game (stuffed with chestnuts and apricots) and slow roasted potatoes, bread sauce, green beans and port gravy.

A Listener’s Guide to Dolly Parton by Paige La Grone Babcock (Arthur, 2004)

A Listener’s Guide to Dolly Parton

by Paige La Grone Babcock

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004), accompanying Karin Bolender’s cover feature on Dollywood, “Silly Beasts in Sacred Places.”


Earlier this year, Dolly Parton released her 72nd album. Halos & Horns rounded off her trilogy of back-to-the-roots music with a bluegrass pastiche of story-songs, love-gone- wrong songs, and timely anthems exploring faith and spirit. Too, there are the much nattered about ‘grassed up covers of Bread’s “If,” and most notably, Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” At her prime, the once and future queen of  country music, Parton has embarked on her first big tour in over a decade. 

A highly accomplished song-writer, singer, actress and performer, Parton has so embedded herself into the American psyche. And that is a very good thing—a veritable five-foot by buxom celebration of womankind, Parton predates (and easily dominates) Madonna in terms of reinvention . And long before the Dixie Chicks were a glimmer in anyone’s eye, Parton was glittering it all up with hicked-up subversive glamour of the blonde, paint-for-filth variety, and playing her own banjo, too. Her enduring legacy is her song-writing: “Jolene,” one of Parton’s earliest hits, has stood the test of time and worn incredibly well, most recently evidenced by hipster-destructo-blues band the White Stripes—their cover, a live-set staple (also available as a rarities track), with Jack White singing the song straight. Some kind of wonderful peculiar beauty, that.

Born in 1946, the 4th of 12 children to sharecropping parents, Dolly Rebecca Parton’s earliest years in the Smoky Mountain foothills of East Tennessee’s Sevier County were marked by extreme poverty, abiding faith (in both God & herself) and determination to make the most of her gifts. Parton’s uncle, Bill Owens, himself an aspiring country song-writer, was the girl’s first musical mentor. He taught her to play guitar and took her to the city of Knoxville to meet grocery store magnate and radio show sponsor Cas Walker. By the age of 10, Parton was singing on Walker’s radio show, and later, on his television show. 

Parton’s first recording session, with Louisiana’s Goldband Records, was arranged by Owens and resulted in the sweetly sing-song single “Puppy Love.” Owens’ persistence on his niece’s behalf was rewarded with Parton’s first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry and a 1962 single for Mercury, though the latter went nowhere and Mercury’s interest in the young talent waned. Determined as ever, Parton graduated high-school in 1964, announcing at the ceremony that she was “going to Nashville to become a star.” Parton’s words elicited laughter from the assembled graduates and their families. She left for Nashville the day following graduation. 

Once in Nashville, Parton babysat to make ends meet. She appeared on the occasional radio show and wrote with fervor–at the date of this writing, Parton has published well over 3000 songs. During the early days  in Music City, Parton pitched songs in Nashville to no avail and sang on some demos. While Capitol passed on her, Monument— who’d broken Roy Orbison earlier in the decade, and gave a pre-Austinized Willie Nelson a shot— took Parton on. As Monument founder Fred Foster recounts in the liner notes to the double disc set, The Monument Story, he took a meeting with Parton on recommendation of Billy Graves, one of Capitol’s A&R men, himself a retired artist. Auditioning live with a handful of original numbers, Parton’s raw talent wooed and won Foster. 

The first Monument recordings were marketed to pop audiences, though a listen to this early material from sides and the recording Hello, I’m Dolly–later piece-meal chronicled on both the Monument Records Story and The World of Dolly Parton, Volumes 1 & 2–show the young Parton to be thoroughly adept at harder edged twang and tune. Two Monument singles, “Dumb Blonde” and “Something Fishy,” both penned by Parton, were hits. They show Parton as a young woman to be reckoned with: simple though strong melody, a thin mountain inflected soprano gracefully quivering and pure; ability to put across clever and thoughtful lyrics with emotion and a charismatic innocence underpinned with subversive strength and actualized sensuality–qualities which continue to ripen and mark the artist’s work throughout her decades-long career.  

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STEVE AYLETT on the whole Matrix bollocks (Arthur, 2004)

The Mattress Has You

Steve Aylett pulls you from the pod 

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (May 2004)


Reviewed: The whole Matrix bollocks.

There was a time when bone-white-fellas-in-long-black-coats-and-shades like myself could enter a lobby without everyone screaming and hitting the deck. But then, over a decade after the heyday of cyberpunk, The Matrix launched the lite version.

By the time a subculture surfaces all clean in the mainstream it’s been simplified to a couple of notes–look at Goth in the timid world of Buffy–but by keeping it simple, the first Matrix also kept it precise and consistent (except for the tapped phone before the meeting at the bridge and all the battery nonsense). There was just enough story to stand up–newbies spoke of “wheels within wheels” but in truth it was only a two-wheeler, the simplest “reality inside a reality” plot. Compared to the works of Greg Egan, The Matrix was Where’s Spot? and left the cyberpunks in the audience waiting for a twist that never came. Harlan Ellison had no mouth and had to scream years before Neo.

Why did the first Matrix work, when the story was so old? Virtual reality is old hat–William Gibson moved on from it when the first Matrix was a mere gleam on the shiny vinyl arse of Carrie-Anne Moss. The Matrix marked the first time VR had been done well on screen–the technology had finally got to the point where real images and CGI were genuinely indistinguishable. Compare this to Wild fucking Palms

The Matrix’slook is a mix of Dark City, Hardboiled, Blade, Accion Mutante, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and my own “Beerlight” stuff, but it established a cool of its own, working from the theory that the more blank faces there are on the screen, the fewer there will be in the audience. An actress like Fairuza Balk, whose face can really move, would have upset the whole deal. The blankness worked great, though, for Agent Smith, who would be hilarious just reciting from the phone book. In keeping with the “more quantity, less quality” scheme of the sequels, Smith uncoupled himself from the Matrix in Reloaded and duplicated himself hundreds of times. His “now it’s personal” thing went too far–Hugo Weaving’s restraint was what made him funny, and many characters and concepts fall apart when uncoupled from the rules–when Pinhead became a free agent in the third Hellraiser movie, he was no longer Pinhead, just a declaratory tosser. (In fact, Hellraiser III: Declaratory Tosser was one of the titles mooted for that sequel.) In Matrix Reloaded the balanced repartee of Weaving was taken up more successfully by Lambert Wilson in the character of the Merovingian, for whose scenes I woke up briefly. Even his girlfriend (Monica Bellucci) was a nice departure, in that she appeared to weigh more than a kilo. Meanwhile the good guys, two-note characters in the first film, were reduced here to a single robotic note–to the extent that the blank Keanu and stonier-than-thou Fishburne were often replaced with CGI stunt borgs. 

The Matrix movies have opened up “meaning-spotting” to the casual viewer, with a few very deliberate meanings and the most impressively inadvertent ones since Willem Dafoe’s 9/11 prophecy in Faraway, So Close and the characters Mac and Windows in Carpenter’s The Thing (which one contains the nasty bug? which one will last longest and operate most creatively?). The “there is no spoon” notion of changing the Matrix by thinking differently about it is meant to push the Buddhist/postmodern folly that believing something makes it so, thus removing the expectation of having to physically do anything about it. “There is no fact” is beloved of government because it helps people to accept anything that’s done to them. And it’s more glamorous to talk about evil machines (or aliens, demons, vampires, Satan …) than it is to deal straight with the utterly bland human bastards who actually fuck us over. Real evil is too crass and low-res to work as an industry pitch. This is the problem with science fiction–the more compelling the world created on screen, the less likely that anyone will translate it back into an active meaning in the real world. So this remains a story about energy-battery humans plugged into VR, and not about the constant re-examination of thought premises leading to practical action.

I liked the first Matrix okay but I wish it was braver and more specific. The IRS is mentioned in passing but not the PNAC–such surgical opportunities are regularly missed. Fans look for rabbit references–Night of the Lupus is on TV in the Oracle’s apartment–it’s a safe little parlor game. Maybe the Matrix trilogy will make mental activity glamorous by making it synonymous with kicking the hell out of people, but in doing so it may remove people’s understanding of how and when to physically do so.

I briefly hoped that Revolutions might throw some folds into the cyberpunk lite routine, with Smith ending up as a deadpan stand-up comic in the style of Richard Belzer. The “humans and machines should work together” bit–obvious enough to be unavoidable even for the arch-evaders directing this mess–could in fact have been dodged at the last minute in favor of a splodgy, wading pie fight like something out of The Great Race. Get in there, Monica! But no–the requisite lusty enthusiasm and flushed, giggly humanness would have been a universe out of place. 

I was hoping that at the very least the wasteland and Zion could turn out to be another digital reality inside another inside another etc all set up for the amusement of the cat which Neo saw twice in the first film–the cat is called Ramone and is having the time of his life. “And that’s what I did for the weekend,” the sock-puppet cat says in the final frames of Revolutions, and smiles open-mouthed like Kermit the Frog. Fade to black. Instead we have Smith the Terrorist, designated villain, ultimate cop-out distraction from the real manipulators. 

Like Nebuchadnezzar, the namesake of Morpheus’s hoversub, viewers will always evade what the dream really means, for fear of having to actually do something about it. Don’t really get out from under, just pretend you’re Neo and that you could any time you wanted. It’s a portable adventure you can carry anywhere and superimpose over any situation as a prophylactic against real action. There will be no Revolution. You’re still asleep, smartass. The mattress has you.


Steve Aylett is the author of Slaughtermatic, Atom and Shamanspace

Visit http://www.steveaylett.com

T-Model Knows Better: an advice column by life coach/musician T-Model Ford (Arthur, January 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan 2004):

T-Model Ford says a lot. He says he’s 79 years old. He says he’s “the Boss of the Blues! The Taildragger! From Greenvillllllllle….Mississippi!“ He says he doesn’t need his cane anymore. And he says he can help us. So, every two months, an Arthur staffer calls T-Model and asks him about certain topics of the day. T-Model gives his answers over the phone, then we transcribe the conversation with some help from Bruce Watson at Fat Possum, the Oxford, Mississippi record label that releases T-Model’s one-of-a-kind blues albums (more info on ‘em at fatpossum.com). If you have any non-geography questions for T-Model, and we suspect that you do, email them to editorial@arthurmag.com

Arthur: T-Model one of our readers wrote in and said, “I’m worried about one of my longtime friends. He’s been hanging out with this woman who I know smokes crack. I’m afraid he’s going to start smoking crack too. What should I do?”

T-Model Ford: Well, be worried. If you like him, and he in it, best for you to stay away from him much as you can. Cuz you’ll get in trouble. You’ll be doin’ what he be doin’, or what the othern’ doin’. That crack helped cause a-many young people to mess up. I don’t know what it do, but some I hear say it mess the brains up. It must do somethin’ ‘cos they all want to fool with it. They wild, they don’t do right. They stay in trouble, meddlin’, breakin’ in, fightin’, do anything. I never seen none of it when [I was a young man], and I ain’t never smoked none of it. Now I done quit smokin’…quit about 20 years… I wouldn’t smoke another cigarette. Ain’t got no feeling for it. And I do good and I feeeel good. As old a man as I is, I’m still gettin’ up and goin’. 

How can you tell when someone is on crack?

I seen some of ‘em since they done got way in it. Everywhere that smokin’ that crack got a good thing going, it breaks it up. Greenville looks like a ghost town now. You don’t see nothin’ hanging around. That crack? I hate to even see anybody smoking that mess. They don’t look right, they don’t act right. They look wild and stupid. If anybody smoke it, you can tell it. In the way they acts. Get on away from ‘em. 

Is there anyway to get ‘em someone off of crack who‘s already in it?

Not hardly. Not ‘til they get in enough of a mess, then they have to get out of trouble. 

Okay. Next question. One of our older readers writes in to say, “Dear T-Model, I thought I was a good father, my wife and I have been very loving, we have a beautiful daughter, she’s 15 years old, but we’re worried that she’s started to have sex.”

Uh-ohhhhh. 

“She hasn’t admitted it to us, but we think it’s happening. We don’t know what to do. Should we leave her alone?”

Yes. Leave her alone. Cause next thing she’ll start sassin’ you, blessin’ YOU out, tellin’ you what you can’t do! What SHE can do! “I’m grown, I can do what I wanna do.” Blowin’ back. First thing you wanna hearin’. Seem you can’t raise your children now. You have to let ‘em go til they get their selves in trouble or mess up. Then they go to see anybody, but it be too late. They all do. 

Is there a way for these parents to tell if  their daughter is having sex? Can you tell? 

Yeah, you can tell. Watch the breasts. They get sassy and nasty and … Once it get started, then let ‘em get their own place to stay. That’ll whoop ‘em quicker than anything! That’s right. They’ll find out they can’t. That a home’s where they at. It’s somethin’ else. You wanna go and get out like that, remember one thing gets turned over to the Good Lord. Ever where she head, let her go. She get into somethin’, don’t get her out, let her get out the hard way. Once she get out, she’ll make something out of herself.

A reader in his late teens writes, “Dear T-Model, I gotta buy a new car. I’m just drivin’ around town. I don’t need a truck. What should I look for? You got any suggestions on what kind of car I should get?”

If you gon’ do that, just to ride around in, find you an old model. The Lincoln, if it’s in good shape when you get it, take care of it, keep the oil changed and filter changed, and it’ll last a loooong time. Or a good Chevrolet or a good Ford or a good Buick. 

You like those American cars.

Yes indeed. They all been good to me. They go longer. They last longer. And I had good safeties out of ‘em. I love ‘em. I got a ‘79 Lincoln here. It’s an antique, I want to buy an antique tag for it. It look good right now. Everybody’s trying to buy it. They want me to sell it. I told ‘em, It ain’t for sale. But still they want it. They like it. 

Now, you know how to fix cars, right?

Well I can but I’m not able now, I done got broke up that limb. Tree fell on me and I can’t get around. Before that tree fell on me, I’d work on and build motors and everything.

How did you learn how to do all that?

Go ‘round where people workin‘, and WATCH em . Watch em. I can’t read and write, can’t spell nothin’… but I never did carry my car to the shop. 

Reviews by C and D (Arthur No. 8/Jan. 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004)

REVIEWS BY C and D

Unicorns
Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?
(Alien8)
C: Who?
D: Who what?
C: Who, Sir D, will cut the Unicorns’ hair when they’re gone?
D: Ah, yes.
C: You don’t really care, do you?
D: Can’t say that I do, no, not really. These guys are wacky.
C: Sub-Ween wacky pop.
D: Helium-sucking stoners.
C: Queasy synthesizers.
D: A Rephlex artist gone Dr. Demento.
C: [puzzled]
D: This is like hearing someone you’re not interested in taking drugs. Boring drugs.
C: Maybe too much Flaming Lips for them…? There’s some talent here… “Child Star” sounds like a Radiohead parody…. You know, it’s not easy providing comic relief.
D: This whatever-it-is is not one of my cups of tea.
C: And you have a lot of china.
D: Indeed I do.

Eugene McDaniels
Outlaw
(Water/Runt)
D: [reading] “Eugene McDaniels – the soul anarchist.” Then it says here, “Under conditions of national emergency , like now, there are only two kinds of people — those who work for freedom and those who do not… the good guys vs. the bad guys. — mc d.”
C: [singing along to opening track “Outlaw”:]“She’s an outlaw, she don’t wear a bra.” Um, yeah…I don’t know if it’s me, but this doesn’t seem to have aged well.
D: This came out in the early ‘70s.
C: The guy has cred, supposedly he gets sampled a lot. And you can hear why… there’s a nice feel to these songs. Ron Carter on bass, from Miles’ group…
D: But the lyrics are terrible! And his singing is totally affected. “La la la smoke a joint” blah blah.
C: Yeah I don’t get what the big deal is either. None of these songs stand out…in a good way, at least. [laughter]
D: The cover looks amazing, though.
C: Talk about badass, there it is in front of ya.

The Starvations
Get Well Soon
(GSL)
C: We haven’t got off to a real positive start here…
D: Who chose these CDs, anyway???
C: The editor.
D: Hmm… Hey, I like this one. Very Gun Club! Do you remember “cowpunk”?
C: Yeah. [shudders] Actually I think this is better than, say, the Bo Deans or something.
D: The Bo Deans! Now there is a name from the distant past.
C: These guys are from L.A… Kinda makes sense. Countryish rock, some punk aggression… slide guitars…walking bass…throaty singer…
D: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
C: Yeah, that’s true. There’s some Birthday Party in there too. [looking at the lyric sheet] I can’t really understand what he’s saying…
D: He should practice his enunciation.
C: He sings in a tough key a lot of the time but he hits it. [reading from the lyric sheet] Yep…lyrics about graveyards, ghosts, voodoo, burgundy wine, rebel angels…and a guy called Rat Boy. Folks, we have ourselves a bona fide Romantic.
D: A bohemian.
C: But anyways, you can totally hear the L.A. heritage: not just the Gun Club but also the Blasters and the Geraldine Fibbers…
D: Nice to hear an accordion too. This is good!

22-20s
05-03
(Astralwerks)
D: Whoa! Who is this?!?
C: They’re like 20 years old, from England. It’s like the Starvations, yeah?
D: But more banging. Blues-rock with punk balls!
C: Yeah the hooks are bigger, the playing is better. Hard to believe they’re not Americans. They’ve got the Gun Club in there too…
D: That solo is like that stuff the white guy who plays with R. L.Burnside does!
C: Kenny Brown. Yeah you’re right, I hadn’t noticed that. He totally does slide solos like Kenny.
D: You can dance to this stuff.
C: Yeah that’s the R.L. influence maybe, I dunno. This track [“Messed Up”] is a march but it’s also real soulful… That’s hard to pull off. The dude’s voice reminds me of a non-fucked up Shaun Ryder, a little.
D: “King Bee,” that’s an old one.
C: Big Chicago blues stomper. This is something. Pretty good for a debut EP–there’s not a weak track. I see why there’s such a fuss about these guys. Too bad we missed em when they opened for Jet and Kings of Leon last month. Oh well.

Sun Kil Moon
Ghosts of the Great Highway
(Jetset)
D: What’s going on here? Are we reviewing for Some Depression now?
C: No Depression, you mean.
D: Whatever… all of this so far is roots-ish.
C: [looking through CD pile] Yeah, and there’s more on the way. Must be the season or something.
D: So, who is this?
C: Mark Kozalek’s new band. He used to do a band called Red House Painters. Pretty popular with the NPR crowd.
D: Never heard of ‘em.
C: Yeah, well… What a voice, eh?
D: It is a pretty voice… This kind of music reminds me of seaside towns. Long sad afternoons in the winter.
C: Yeah, it’s sad but it’s beautiful, it’s not depressing. Long, droney folk songs… ooo, lookit that, here come the drums 3:45 in to the first song. Always a nice touch.
D: I would say there’s a bit of Neil Young to him.
C: Yeah, fer shure. This song “Salvador Sanchez”…fantastic electric guitar. Listen to that simple riff and then the endless solo… People should turn in their copy of Greenville and get this instead.
D: Greendale.
C: Whatever. When he puts the strings behind his falsetto, whoa. This is almost too intense to listen to in sequence. You know what? This is what Jay Farrar from Son Volt wishes he could do…
D: It is bittersweet music.
C: Stunning, really. On first listen, I gotta say I’m stunned. That doesn’t happen too often.

Jolie Holland
Catalpa
(Anti/Epitaph)
C: She sounds a little like Karen Dalton.
D: Is this new?
C: Yeah. She was in this group the Be Good Tanyas for a little while, I guess. It’s good, huh. Acoustic guitar, ukulele, and what a voice.
D: Sleighbells!
C: Yeah. Country-blues-folk… Very pretty, kinda spooky. She’s got that white-girl Billie Holiday thing going for her, just like Karen Dalton did. [listening] Did you hear that? She sang “3 a.m.” like “three-eye-am.”
D: She must be American…
C: She is.
D: There’s a song on here credited to “Holland/Parton/Syd Barrett”…?
C: Ha! How appropriate for this ish of Arthur… [reading the sleeve] “The Littlest Birds.” I hafta admit, I don’t know exactly what she’s doing here…I guess this is a medley?
D: It must be. [repeating a lyric:] “The littlest birds sing the prettiest songs…” That’s true, you know.

Mark Lanegan Band
Here Comes That Weird Chill (Methamphetamine Blues, Extras and Oddities) EP
(Beggars Banquet)
C: Here’s another distinctive voice. Brought to you by Marlboro…
D: Mark Lanegan! He’s in Queens of the Stone Age. That guy who comes out in the middle of the show and hangs on to the microphone for dear life!
C: Right, right. Used to be in Screaming Trees, did a bunch of solo records on Sub Pop, blah blah. Amazing artist that not enough people check on, for some reason.
D: This is pretty rough stuff.
C: Yeah it’s kinda grimy. Machine rock, at least this first track.
D: Nightmarish drone…
C: I gotta say I prefer to hear his voice unfiltered… [checking credits] Oh right, okay so this is the session they did with Chris Goss, Dean Ween and Josh and Nick from the Queens and so on. With that lineup you could probably call it Desert Session 8.5 or something. Only in happened in the Valley, not the desert.
D: [listening to “On the Steps of the Cathedral’]: What is this…?
C: Pretty, eh? Like a rondolet… And the next song is a Beefheart cover, “Clear Spot.” It sounds like they’re using a drum machine, really tinny and flat. This stuff has a Tricky feel to it. Very disorienting.
D: Reminds me of that song at the beginning of The Sopranos… [singing] “Born under a bad sign…”
C: Yeah, I can hear that. Listen to that solo…it’s all high up, like one of those solos Jack White does on Elephant. Only this was recorded before that came out… This track “Message to Mine” sounds like a demo for a really good Screaming Queens song… can you hear that organ? Nice. And a little bit of the bubblegum pop on the chorus, which is appropriate since Lanegan’s album coming out next year is called Bubblegum…
D: I like it…
C: Spoken-word here… tacked piano… “Skeletal History,” wow listen to that… he’s crooning with a swagger.
D: The bass is covered in fuzz!
C: Yeah. Good stuff. Sounds like Laney gone beatnik… [repeating words] “Girls stare in dead-eyed wonder”… Yikes.
D: And this last one is a dub?
C: Yeah. It’s like a country dub, right? 6am comedown music… This is a strong EP.
D: 8 songs, 26 minutes.
C: Thanks for the stats, D.

Califone
Heron King Blues
(Thrill Jockey)
C: Uncategorizable …dark country…banjo…electronics… a lot of the ol’ kling-klang.
D: I like his voice but I can’t hear what he’s saying.
C: Yeah it’s always like that with these guys, you just catch weird phrases here and there… I like this, this might be my favorite Califone yet…
D: There’s a bit of a Tom Waits Bone Machine feel here. The Lanegan record had that, too!
C: Mmm, you‘re right. Kind of rustic, kind of futuristic. Vintage futurist. It reminds me some of that Medicine album that came out this year too… Apparently this is something of a concept record.
D: What is that on the cover?
C: That would be the heron king, I guess. Kinda got that witchy Lord of the Rings-Mercury Rev-Guy Maddin-Svankmajer vibe, doesn’t it? And then, check this out… I was gonna say Califone is like Radiohead and Wilco stripped of the pretension and pop sense, but then there’s this track… [skips ahead to “2 Sisters Drunk On Each Other”] It’s actually funky. They’re bringing in that Sly Stone stuff.
D: There’s a Riot Goin’ On…
C: Exactly. This is a proper jam band. Sounds like some of this stuff was improvised, but it really works. I’ve seen ‘em do it live. Totally underrated.
D: They played at All Tomorrow’s Parties at UCLA! We saw them–
C: That’s right…
D: Incredible.

Book of Lies: The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult
edited by Richard Metzger
(Disinfo)
D: So we’re reviewing books now, too?
C: Yeah, and DVDs, if we have time.
D: Which ones?
C: We’ve go the Guitar Wolf DVD here from Narnack, if we have time.
D: Nice.
C: So, this certainly keeps us on the witchy path, don’t it?
D: Yes. [looking at the list of contributors on the cover] But for a book about witches and magick…why are there no women here?
C: [taking the book away] Give me that. Lemme look. Hey, you’re right…. [reading further] Oh geez. From the editor’s introduction: “For some reason, I have always considered myself to be a warlock. Even when I was very young, I don’t know why, really but it is true … [W]hen I was a little kid I really loved Bewitched.” I mean, is this guy serious? “It works on a lot of levels, metaphorically speaking, for me to consider myself a magical businessman, if you see what I am saying.”
D: Oh god.
C: Yeah. Richard Metzger, he’s that guy who’s on all the Disinfo book covers, smirking. [still reading] Then he ends it with some talk about an emerging mutant race and asks “Which side are you on?” I mean, come on, these are Grant Morrison ideas here…
D: …who is in the book.
C: Yeah, well… Gotta admit there is a lot of good stuff here, although I have no idea how useful it is… Lots of excerpts from books by Robert Anton Wilson, Daniel Pinchbeck, Gary Lachman, Terence McKenna, Julius Evola and so on… Tons of stuff about Gysin and Burroughs and Crowley and Genesis P-Orridge and so on. The usual subjects, in other words.
D: This could be a good introduction, then.
C: Yeah, I suppose, if you want to be introduced to this stuff via a book that‘s title ‘Book of Lies‘ and published by someone called ‘Disinformation.’ I mean, those aren‘t exactly names that inspire confidence on the reader’s part in the authors’ accuracy, you know? Hey, wait! I just found a woman author: Tracy Twyman is in here writing about “Hitler and the Occult.”
D: Oh.
C: Yep. Remember she’s the one who’s in with Boyd Rice on all that Cocteau-conspiracy crap. Losers. Anyways there are some women as subjects in here—Cameron, Ida Craddock and Rosaleen Norton—so it’s not completely Magic Boys’ Club. But it’s close.
D: How many women musicians have we reviewed so far today?
C: Ulp.

Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies
The Homeland
(Thrill Jockey)
C: Speaking of conspiracies…
D: Speaking of terrible is more like it. What is this shit?
C: “Franchised Jesus Christ/Organized paradise/Clear Channel, bargain priced/We’re not very nice/We’re taking over the world”… Yeah… Dude means well, but…
D: Turn it off now.
C: Oh, come on, we have to listen to more than four songs.
D: I am exercising my veto power!
C: [turning the CD off] Okay, well what do you think of the cover.
D: Nice pyramid and the eye, okay, I get it, I get it. Masons blah blah. Off! [Throws CD out window.]
C: Hey bro, you need to get another beer and settle down.
D: I will get another beer but I will not settle down! [exits]
C: [to tape recorder] Man, he’s totally losing it! He’s been useless today, useless… D’s falling off…

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"The Golden Notebooks" by Paul Cullum (Arthur No. 8/Jan 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004)

The Golden Notebooks
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.

DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
The Work of Director Spike Jonze (Palm)
The Work of Director Chris Cunningham (Palm)
The Work of Director Michel Gondry (Palm)
Schizopolis, directed by Steven Soderbergh (Criterion)
K Street, directed by Steven Soderbergh (HBO, not available on DVD/video)

* * *

“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.” —Franz Kafka

“One day I found a big book buried deep in the ground. I opened it, but all the pages were blank. Then to my surprise, it started writing itself….” —Bjork, “Bachelorette”

K Street is getting really good.

The half-hour HBO series, which just completed its initial 10-episode run, features a real James Carville and Mary Matalin at a fake D.C. lobbying firm on the real K Street inside the Beltway, with fake characters, real cameos and real events driving the plot. Working from sketched outlines by screenwriter Henry Bean, whose The Believer is the most politically provocative film in recent memory, each episode is directed, shot and edited by Steven Soderbergh five days before airtime in furious run-and-gun fashion, literally buzzing on instinct and the exquisite threat of failure.

When Soderbergh directed Schizopolis, his $250,000, quasi-incomprehensible, bilingual absurdist farce, virtually everyone was mystified. He rigorously defended the film at the time, citing the need for raw experimentation to reenergize his filmmaking. And with the effervescent Out of Sight, the almost Cubist The Limey and Oscars for Traffic and Erin Brockovich following it up, it’s hard to argue with him. More recently, the dismally received Full Frontal was, in retrospect, merely a working template for the callous immediacy, oblique editing and telegraphed detail of K Street, now much improved from the watertight op-ed pieces of its earliest installments.

The freedom to experiment and fail has been bred out of American movies—or, rather, reversed: filmmakers are free to experiment only after they fail, on their own time and their own dime. Studio fare has become largely critic-proof precisely by courting diminishing expectations, just so it can rise incrementally above them.

Which is one of the incidental pleasures of viewing the collected short works of music-video mainstays Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry, being released simultaneously on DVD through the Directors Label, an imprint at Chris Blackwell’s Palm Pictures. (Blackwell, whose Island Records brought reggae to an unwitting world, remains the consummate billionaire-fan—financing short-film magazine RES and the touring RESfest, or releasing the 10-hour Cremaster cycle.) Working from a shared lexicon, with often the same bands (Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Bjork), Gondry in France and Jonze as part of the crew at Satellite, the vanguard subsidiary of Propaganda, are credited with reviving the moribund music video form in the early ’90s. And the British Cunningham, with a pedigree that includes heading up the FX crew for David Fincher’s Alien 3 at 19 and doing animatronic design for Kubrick’s abortive A.I., is arguably the most famous filmmaker under 30 who hasn’t yet directed his own feature.

Viewed together, these compilations of music videos, short films, commercials and documentaries—each with a 52-page booklet of interviews, photos and drawings—all demonstrate a surprisingly coherent style, whose permutations may well play out over dozens of features. It’s easy to spot the world view of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich or Adaptation in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk,” in which a guileless innocent with a giant dog’s head and full leg cast hobbles his way around a Taxi Driver Manhattan, or the seeds of Michel Gondry’s Human Nature in the fairy-tale forest imagery of “Human Behavior” and his five other Bjork videos. (All three features are written by Charlie Kaufman, as is Gondry’s upcoming The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.) And it’s fun to speculate how Jonze’s formal goofs might have informed Harold and the Purple Crayon or his upcoming Where the Wild Things Are, or how Gondry’s ambulatory cartoons might have presaged his Green Hornet, from a script by Robocop’s Ed Neumeier. Cunningham’s long-gestating Neuromancer, in particular, written with author William Gibson, which the Matrix trilogy is only the latest to desecrate the memory of, might have been an extrapolation of any number of his dread-filled universes on display—from the Manhattan where a crack addict’s limbs shatter like porcelain in Leftfield’s “Afrika Shox,” to the creepy Osaka Home for Mentally Disturbed Children in Squarepusher’s “Come on My Selector,” to the 2001-inflected assembly line in Bjork’s icy, autoerotic “All Is Full of Love.” Cumulatively, each seems like an accidental narrative, strangely driven by autobiography.

The Spike Jonze DVD, like its creator, is affable, garrulous, slightly ADD perhaps, but enthusiastic and generous to a fault. The former Adam Spiegel took his professional name from Spike Jones, the 1940s satirical big-band leader whose most famous hit was “Der Fuehrer’s Face,” to accommodate an already pronounced trickster ethic that would one day dream up Jackass. In addition to documentaries on Houston bullriders and Fatlip, formerly of the Pharcyde (who deserves a standing part in any future Spike Jonze film), there are 16 videos included (of the 40-plus he has directed). These are invariably conceptual one-offs (the Pharcyde rap backwards in “Drop”; Christopher Walken dances and flies in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice”; kids play Biggie and Puffy in “Sky’s the Limit”) or outright jokes (M.C. 900-Foot Jesus mails himself home in a box in “If I Only Had a Brain”; the Beastie Boys mix cop-show cliches in “Sabotage”).

This is the side of him apparent in Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” where “B-boy choreographer” Richard Koufay (actually Jonze himself) and the fictional Torrance Community Dance Troupe descend on the Mann Bruin Theater in Westwood for a live performance of stupefying execution—a conceit taken all the way to a performance at the MTV Music Awards (dutifully chronicled in a third half-hour documentary, where emcee Chris Rock can be heard saying, “Fatboy Slim? Looks more like White Boy Retarded.”) Along the way, we discover that’s Axl Rose getting off the bus as the guy runs by on fire in Wax’s “California”; that the dancing mailbox in Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” (the inspiration for Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark) is the voice of Ernie on Sesame Street; and that Anson Williams (Potsie on Happy Days) refused to appear in Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video (which places the band inside a composited episode) until David Geffen wrote him a personal letter.

Cunningham’s DVD is darker, colder and vastly more cerebral—the mimetic equivalent of Goya’s famous title “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” (depicting a collapsed poet beset by bat-winged cormorants). Like J.G. Ballard, Cunningham returns repeatedly to images of council flats, industrial landscapes, eroticized technology and human anatomy, particularly its numerous pathologies. Originally trained as a painter and sculptor, he worked for several years as an illustrator for Britain’s 2000 A.D. comics before specializing in prosthetics and then robotics–in his words, “the evolution from flesh to machine.”

But it’s his two videos for Aphex Twin, aka Richard D. James, that are his masterworks. “Come to Daddy,” against an onslaught of harsh industrial drones and urban collapse, uses ghostly video images and gangs of angry children, all of them with James’ bearded face superimposed, to sustain a deep irrational fear—tapping into the same disturbing imagery as Don’t Look Now or Cronenberg’s The Brood, or the same sudden terror that David Lynch used to access so effortlessly. Following up with “Windowlicker,” his stated effort “to make a more commercial video for Aphex,” he opens on a strident parody of hip-hop stereotypes, rolling in a low-slung convertible on the freeways of downtown L.A., where two players are well into the launch trajectory of an incessant monologue that employs, by my count, 47 “niggas,” 21 “motherfuckers,” 11 “bitches” and 21 free-floating “fucks”—it starts out, “I hope we find some motherfuckin’ bitches, nigga, man, I’m horny as a motherfucker, nigga—you know what I’m sayin’, nigga?” and progresses accordingly. Four minutes and 22 seconds into the video, everything screeches to a halt as a ridiculously long stretch limo displaces them in frame and disgorges Aphex Twin, who performs a crotch-grabbing, pirouetting dance with parasol—ZZ Top meets Michael Jackson—leaving the gentlemen and their two prospective consorts to stare in wide-eyed wonder. (Also intriguing is a teaser for Rubber Johnny, a powerless figure with a giant head in a wheelchair, described by Variety as “a live-action underground comic about a guy who lives with a mean dog.”)

By contrast, everything in Gondry’s endlessly inventive body of work can be summed up in the title of the 80-minute documentary he prepared especially for the DVD: I Have Always Been 12. Combining the technical and conceptual, he fashions a row of dancers into a live-action video effect in the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” somehow forces the industrial imagery from the window of a commuter train into the rhythms of their “Star Guitar,” creates a split-screen symmetrical Moebius strip of continuous action in Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water,” replicates the White Stripes in Legos in “I’m in Love with a Girl” and then makes them into stop-action human time-trails in “The Hardest Button to Button.” A born inventor (his grandfather, Constant Martin, invented one of the earliest synthesizers, the Clavioline, which can be heard on the Beatles’ “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”), he is constantly shown attaching wires to Bjork’s fingers to create a keyboard-triggered Spirograph or scratching into the groove of a record and yelling, then playing back his own voice. (Bjork is clearly the unsung hero here, having discovered Gondry, championed the others early on and introduced them all to each other. At their L.A. premiere at the Egyptian Theater, Bjork was the guest deejay.)

Gondry’s images seem mostly rooted in a pre-adolescent scatology and the fear of sex: The disc includes animations about farting and a short film where David Cross plays a life-size, papier-mache turd. (Even the name of his former band, Oui Oui, is a homophone for urination.) And according to his mother, four times a week between the ages of five and nine, Michel had the same nightmare, where the letter I enters the letter U. As George Carlin once said about the train going into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest, “You don’t have to be Fellini to figure that one out.” In fact, much of Gondry’s raw material appears undigested from his dreams. Actively ridiculing Freud (even as his work resembles an open case study), he attributes a survival function to dreaming: Natural selection has carried it through half a billion years to release deep forgotten emotion at night, which re-bonds monogamous mates every morning, thus preserving the structure of the family across the millennia.

Dave Grohl, whose Foo Fighters video for “Everlong” features a couple’s dueling dreams, recounts how Gondry justified the giant prosthetic hands he was forced to wear by admitting he was once plagued by similar nightmares.

“It was insane and ridiculous and inane,” says Grohl in the documentary, “and it didn’t seem like it made any sense. But then after he explained it to me, I thought… Maybe every one of his videos is some crazy nightmare or phobia or something inside of him that he’s afraid to tell anybody else, and he just makes videos or puts it into film. It’s a head trip.”

In raptures it will writhe before you.

A second trilogy of discs from Mark Romanek (One-Hour Photo), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) and Sanji (Propaganda) is reportedly in the works.

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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.

THE FIERY FURNACES, profiled by junior high schoolmate Margaret Wappler (Arthur, 2004)

Fire’s Club
Rootsy or folk? Post-punk or blues futura? The answer is: Yes. THE FIERY FURNACES might be all over the map, but Margaret Wappler finds out one thing’s dead certain—no one else is gettin’ in the band.

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (January, 2004)

Listening to the Fiery Furnaces for the first time is like finding a pirate radio station while driving through the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. The map swears you’re 100 miles outside Murfreesboro but in the pitch-blackness, can you trust something as arbitrary as coordinates on a piece of paper to define place? What really locates you is that station at the end of the dial, with its strange accent and colloquialisms.

The Fiery Furnaces—Matt and Eleanor Friedberger, a brother-and-sister duo residing in Brooklyn—are behind the latest pirate station in rock: they’ve flipped on a switch and defined a special place between the forest and the mountains. Sixteen songs appear on their debut Gallowsbird’s Bark (Rough Trade); it’s a trunk show of delicious oddities, lovingly stitched and fringed with twirls of piano, itchy funked guitar solos, lyrics like “In the Cracker Barrel dumpster I found a bag; Red-white striped, I opened it—gag” tickled along by prickly cool rhythms. It’s blues, post-punk and a traveling vaudeville show pieced together with equal parts confidence, naivete (is it going too far to suggest that songs all about foreign lands is a tad Peter Pan?) and a kind of manic curiosity that sees the Friedbergers grabbing hold of a sound from one decade, giving it a good shake and then setting it down and running off to the next decade—or several ones previous—leaving the listener in an enjoyably vertiginous tailspin. Matt might be a little too fond of those bluesy solos that made more than a few Led Zeppelin songs deflate and I cringe each time Eleanor sings that line “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy”—though I’m not sure if it’s because I really love it or can’t stand it—but who cares? The Fiery Furnaces’ gawky moments pose problems for the listener and themselves that are actually interesting.

The first 15 minutes of my Saturday afternoon conversation with the Furnaces were spent catching up (by the way, I went to junior high and high school in Oak Park, Ill, with Eleanor) but soon enough, it turned to other things—blues, identity and the comfort of being a brother/sister band. Throughout our talk Matt, four years her senior, and Eleanor played a funny game of cat and mouse—teasing, then supporting—sometimes sounding like the squabbling siblings from Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums. Here are some outtakes:

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ARTHUR'S ASTROLOGY by Ian Svenonius (Arthur 8/Jan 2004)

ARTHUR’S ASTROLOGY
by Ian Svenonius

first published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan. 2004)

Predestination; a concept older than free will and borne out by recent scientific elucidations on historical dialectics, genetics and chemical psychology. Each of us is caught in a tangled labyrinth of circumstance and cosmic programming, acting out our grotesque fate in an awful, ignorant manner.

The restless contractions of the astral bodies affect us in a profound way; each offhand movement of a planet can have enormous repercussions for humanity and our various client species, via magnetic fields, space dust and thoughtless lunar alignment. The moon can likewise be an irresponsible entity, tumbling through the sky carelessly, without regard to the tidal waves it may or may not cause. A correlation could be drawn to our own unthinking rearrangement of ant life or microscopic organism culture. This column is a transmission then, not only to the Arthur readers (who have star signs), but to the stars as well, an attempt to get them to understand that even their nonchalant actions have repercussions…

Capricorn
Your good taste and “attention to detail” is your cachet. Recently however, everyone seems to have good taste. It’s a veritable “Age of Capricorn” with the whole of society engaged in conspicuous collecting of obscurant minutiae. These poseurs are like a race of mushrooms who’ve blossomed overnight, and they’ve seemingly rendered you redundant. Or maybe not. Legend has it that there’s still a backwater region, somewhere in New Guinea, where no one knows about the particular labels and sub-trends which are your passion. Go there now and take your rightful place as their inscrutable aesthete.

Aquarius
You’re tired of the simplistic astrological characterization which has dogged you ever since the hippiexploitation musical Hair. You dug all the attention at the time, but now you’d like to dissociate yourself from those fabulous furry freaks of yesteryear. You’ve found yourself pigeonholed; you find it hard getting jobs as a butcher or a Pentagon military contractor, for example. It’s time for everyone to know that Aquarians aren’t just well-meaning free-thinkers living in schoolbuses and teepees. That nazis like Ronald Reagan and slaveowners like George Washington were Aquarians too. That Aquarians are tough mothers like Rollins and rabble rousers like John “Rotten.” And that if this millennium is indeed the “Age of Aquarius,” it’s a bloody epoch featuring war and nuclear proliferation; not just food co-ops. Your work in expanding social consciousness about Aquarius’ versatility is absolutely crucial for the people of your sign.

Pisces
You are the sign of the fish. Fish travel in large groups, called “schools,” but you hate school, which makes you an unusual fish; a romantic, loner, James Dean-style fish. Part of a new “me generation” in the fish world, wary of social conventions—such as egg laying and gill use—and intent on individual freedom. It’s a very American outlook and one which many in the fish world resent. They see your insistent individuality as selfish and bad for the survival of the species, especially if you represent a turning point in evolution. You on the other hand, see them as conformist drones, bound by stifling tradition. Make a civic gesture toward them to allay their fear; tell them you haven’t given up on school altogether, you’re just taking a year off to find yourself.

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THE JUDAS OF THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS: James Marriott on Maximon (Arthur, 2004)

Encounter With Maximon
While investigating Guatemala’s folk-magic patron saint of thieves and whores, James Marriott made a serious mistake. Illustration by John Coulthart.

Originally published in Arthur No. 8 (Jan 2004)

The first children I asked to show me the way to the house of Maximon, Guatemala’s ‘evil saint’, turned tail and fled. The next boy I approached was unable to escape, hobbled by a pair of oversized rubber boots, and pointed me in the right direction. The building wasn’t much to look out—unpainted concrete blocks with a corrugated iron roof—but once I was in I knew I’d come to the right place.

Maximon sat at one end of a dark room, the life-sized dummy of a moustachioed white man wearing a suit, sunglasses, a felt hat and a silk scarf, with a garish handkerchief over his mouth. Candles were arrayed before him, and towards the entrance, at the opposite end of the room, tarot and palm readings were taking place. Another doorway led through to a courtyard, beyond which was a shop selling cigars, magical potions, herbs, candles and anything else the devotee might need.

There was a fire in the courtyard, around which a Mayan woman with gold teeth, a ladino woman and two boys of around six hyperventilated on huge cigars, working themselves into a sweat. The Mayan woman offered to read my palm. When I foolishly declined, she shrieked with laughter and returned to the serious business of her cigar. The ladino woman didn’t even look at me—Maximon is the patron saint of thieves and prostitutes, but I couldn’t very well ask her if either of these applied—and when the nicotine-crazed boys started to run around my legs, I went back into the main room to take a seat at the back and make myself as inconspicuous as possible.

New arrivals would walk straight past the tarot readers and into the courtyard, where they consulted with the Mayan woman before puffing on cigars and preparing themselves for a consultation with the saint. They would then approach the impassive figure and speak to him, stroking his arms and laying money and other offerings in a bowl in his lap. A smartly dressed man standing by the saint appeared to be his keeper, putting offerings of cigars in his mouth and tipping aguardiente, a fiery local spirit, down his wooden throat, or gently lashing the devotees with a bundle of herbs during a limpia, or soul cleansing.

The children came in, one looking demonic as he threatened the other with a bottle, then tied his feet together with a length of twine. The keening victim tried to hide behind me, crawling into a safe position sheltered by the gringo as the increasingly demented bully giggled and made throat-slitting gestures, the pain and anguish in his victim’s face only spurring him on to greater fury. For a terrible moment I thought that I was mistaken—they weren’t children at all, but rather stunted adults, their growth arrested by heavy nicotine use—but the pitch of the victim’s whine reassured me. As the bullying grew nastier in tone, I wondered if I should intervene, but it seemed patronizing to do anything— the only attention the other adults paid was to motion to the weaker child to be quiet. Eventually the bully left the room, and his charge fled. It seemed a fitting introduction to the world of the Judas of the Western Highlands.

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