THIS MAGAZINE COULD BE YOUR LIFE (Editorial, Arthur No. 9, March 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)

This Magazine Could Be Your Life

We’d like to give a warm public welcome and a hearty hurrah to author Daniel Pinchbeck, cartoonist Ben Katchor and publisher/cartoonist Tom Devlin, who are all joining the Arthur team starting with this issue. 

Like every single person associated with Arthur, from those listed from top to bottom on the masthead to the right, to those with bylines and credits in the magazine, to the 120-plus folks who distribute 40,000 copies of Arthur across North America every two months, these gentlemen are working for Arthur for close to nothing. They could be doing something else. They’re not. They’re putting their time and energy where their heart is. 

This is not something unusual: there have always been people like this. Just look at this issue of Arthur, with its true stories about pirate radio operators, kinetic sculpture racers and revolutionary rock n rollers: like most issues of Arthur, its pages are devoted to people who have placed love over gold, in their art and in their craft and in their work and in their lives. 

None of them—none of us—are perfect (except maybe T-Model). And sometimes, we at Arthur sing in a key we simply can’t quite reach, as we try to build something that is a little less compromised, a little less oriented toward greed, a little more loving and open. Basically, we’re trying to do a magazine that reflects and embodies a set of ideals that run absolutely counter to the mainstream culture, which is more diseased, corrupt, demonstrably insane and world-destructive by the day. The funny part, though, the part they (and you know who “they” is) never tell you, is this: once you opt out of that terminal culture, you opt in to something much more fun. It’s not too hard to leave all that bullshit behind—if Laris and I can do it, believe me, anyone can. 

That said: Arthur needs all the help we can get. Integrity shouldn’t mean involuntary poverty: everyone needs to eat, even the starving artist. So, thank you to all of you who have already helped Arthur to its early success. And for those of you who want to play a bigger role, who want to put a little more of your money where your heart is, please buy a subscription, or a T-shirt, or support our honorable advertisers. We can make this work—for everyone.

All best,

Jay Babcock


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

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March, 2004)

T-Model Ford says a lot. He says he’s 79 years old. He says he’s “the Boss of the Blues! TheTaildragger! From Greenvillllllllle….Mississippi.“ He says he doesn’t need his cane anymore. And he says he can help us. So, every two months, Arthur calls up T-Model and asks him for some advice. T-Model gives his sage answers, then we transcribe the conversation with some interpreting help from Bruce Watson at Fat Possum, the Oxford, Mississippi record label that releases T-Model’s shit-hot, original bad-ass records (more info on ‘em at We love T-Model round here: his last album, the Jim Dickinson-produced Bad Man, is still on the office Arthur turntable, 16 months after its release. But whatever. If you’ve got some non-math questions for T-Model, and we know that you do, email ‘em to and we’ll pass ‘em along. If they’re any good.

Arthur: What if you find out that an old friend of yours has been saying bad stuff about you around town. Telling people that you do business with, that you’re no good.  What should you do?

T-Model: Just let him talk, don’t have nothing to do with him. They’ll find out! That’s the way I do. They talk about me, I just let ‘em talk. But when they need something, they gotta come to ME. 

But what if you were a younger man? You know how younger men get upset: they wanna settle it with a fight. Is that a bad way to go?

Well, you got to study that yourself. Just don’t associate with ‘em, that’s the way I do. They talk about me, I don’t associate with ‘em. Then when they come running, want to talk, I say: “Well when you had a chance, you didn’t take it, so forget about it.” That’s the way I do. 

Have you always been that way? Or did you handle stuff differently when you were younger? 

No, I’ve been that way all my life. I go friendly with people if they friendly with me. If they ain’t friendly with me, I go my way and they go theirs. You take me, when I go to go somewhere around here, I get in my car by myself. I don’t be ridin’ with nobody. Can’t be nobody speaks… If they TELL somethin’, it won’t be me, it’ll be them, making up somethin’, to try to get up somethin’. That’s the way it do here. 

You ever seen a fight in a bar?

Yeah, I have seen a fight in a bar. And I have fought in a bar. 

You have? But you sound like a peaceful man.

Well, the man was pickin’ at ME! He about six foot tall, went snatching my cigarette — at that time I was smokin’ — snatched that cigarette out of my mouth, and come back to start it to me, and I met him. And I said, “Man, what you trying to do? Are you trying to start somethin’ with me?” He made a pistol break. That’s all he remember. 

You didn’t walk away.


You stood up for yourself.

I thought he gonna get up but he couldn’t. It take a good-hearted person to stand up what I be standing up under, a good one. Yes indeed.

When two men don’t get along, do you think they should go to court to settle their differences then? Or should they just let it go. 

I just let it go. Go on about my business, and tell ‘em, don’t follow me. 

HOW LOUD WERE THE MC5 REALLY? Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Ted Nugent and Leigh Stephens (Blue Cheer) weigh in (Arthur, 2004)


The MC5 were unbelievably intense live. They were also very, very loud (but not as loud as Blue Cheer). Wayne Kramer, John Sinclair, Ted Nugent and Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer offer testimony to Jay Babcock.

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)

“Loudness was a big part of the concept,” says MC5 manager/chief theorist John Sinclair. “Our concept, as I remember, was that if you gave yourself up to the music, then the loudness wouldn’t just go through your EARS, it would go through your entire body. And if you were to immerse yourself in the sound, it wouldn’t hurt you: it would just THRILL you…

“But you could never get loud enough with those damn sound systems! It was always tough for us. You didn’t use the amplification on the amps in those days: you just amplified the singer. You didn’t mic the drums, you didn’t mic the guitar cabinets. Club owners, show promoters, teen center directors? They HATED it. The authorities hated it. They couldn’t understand why it had to be so loud. They would pull the power, threaten not to pay.”

Eventually the MC5 gained a following that allowed them to play larger local venues where they could do their thing better. Louder.

“The MC5 was the first band in Detroit to get their hands on the new line of Vox amps from England, these Super-Beetle amplifiers,” remembers Wayne Kramer, one of the MC5’s two guitarists. “They were real 100-watts amplifiers: true power. They had these gigantic speaker cabinets with four twelve-inch speakers and two metal high-frequency horns in them. No one had ever heard anything this loud before. We ratcheted the level up, we raised the bar considerably. This was when the MC5 was leaving the scale of a club band, a teen dance band, a local community center gig band, and going up to the next level, where we were playing the Grande Ballroom. That was the first place we could play them loud enough to get enough to get a good tone and didn’t clear the room. So the next step was the Marshall amplifiers, and they were, I don’t know how you quantify it, but they were twice as loud. You had twice as much speaker all of a sudden, and an even more powerful amplifier, so you’re pushing twice as much air.”

“The technology for amplifiers was progressing faster than for the sound systems,” says Sinclair. “So you go from Super Beetles to Sunns to Marshalls. The guitars would get louder and louder, heh heh heh. The singer would always be struggling to be heard in that mess.”

“There was no such thing as monitors, so we never heard ourselves sing—ever,” says Kramer. “Venues didn’t provide PA’s in those days. And the PA system would lag so far behind the guitar amplification system that it was ridiculous. So, you had to carry your own PA.  We built three or four PA systems! We had some money coming in, and we’d meet a friend of a friend who was an electronics genius. And what he’d say is, ‘What you guys need is 12 of these XL-77 amplifiers’ and we’d give the guy a pile of money and he’d come back with this big monstrosity that would catch on fire. Oh well, that wouldn’t work. And then the next guy would come along and say, ‘No what you need is these new Crown amplifiers.’ Okay, let’s try those. 

What was the point of all this? Why the need to be so loud?

“I think it was just a thing of, I need MORE: the teenage fascination with power,” says Kramer. “This was a chance to make sure that everybody in the area had to listen to ME. It’s all about ME and MY guitar playing. I even had a guy who came down and hooked up some high-frequency industrial metal horns to go on top of my amp to make it even more brutally loud.”

“Ah, feedback,” says Sinclair. “I loved feedback. Ohhhh man, that was part of the MC5’s stock in trade. Feeeeedback. Yes! Loud! Penetrating! Well, you know, the social milieu then, everything was so numb. So you wanted to feel something. And the loudness was part of it. That would make you FEEL. I think I can characterize part of our outlook that way. Ha ha ha. We were trying to shake people up. The goal was to make them feel something, to make ‘em enter a new world. Ha! And drop some acid if possible. Heheh.” 

It was a point of pride for the MC5 that they were louder than every band local band they played with… Bob Seger, the Stooges, and, of course, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes.

“We kicked their asses, hundreds of times,” says Sinclair, gleefully. “We did! We loved it. They would come up pale.”

“As far as street fuck you-ness goes, they definitely had us,” admits Nugent. “There was an energy to the 5 that was nothing short of mesmerizing. It was their uninhibitedness and the fact that they focused on the sheer unadulterated middle finger quality of all their music. Where the Amboy Dukes, we wanted to make rhythm and blues songs. Really emulated the Young Rascals and Stax and Volt and Motown and James Brown and Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett. So we were playing those kind of things. Even though the MC5 came from the same genre, really, cuz they would play It’s A Man’s World by James Brown and they’d play Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag and those kind of songs, but they’d already figured out how to just do it unlike the original black artists. They just did it like white idiots. So they were whiter than we were.”

“We’d got even louder because we started using two amplifiers on each instrument, and that was the point where it was too much,” says Kramer. “But that was the point where I knew… Well, let me tell you how I knew. Blue Cheer had come to Detroit to play at the Grande Ballroom. And they used two hundred-watt Marshalls on their guitar, two hundred-watt Marshalls on their bass. It was TOO loud. I was out in the audience, and the place was kinda empty. It was kinda exacerbated by the fact that they weren’t very good. They really just droned on. There was no dynamic to it, it just droned, but it droned at a level that was like a 747 in your face.”

“The MC5 didn’t reach the levels of volume we did,” recalls Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer. “I really don’t know in decibels how loud we were, [but] we were louder than anyone we ever played with, not that that is necessarily a good thing. We were going for… Just the overwhelming pushing of air. If the speakers blew your hair around, it was loud enough. Hey we were kids, we thought that was cool.”

“Blue Cheer were incredibly loud,” says Sinclair, “louder than we were, but not as…gratifying. They weren’t as interesting musically, I didn’t think. But, loudness was a huge part of their aesthetic. It was pretty much what they had to offer. Ha! Nice people, though.”

“Just because something is loud doesn’t mean that it’s powerful,” says Kramer. “Intensity doesn’t come from volume. Intensity comes from focus, from the application of dynamic. So I knew when I heard Blue Cheer have two 100-hundred watt Marshalls that it was too loud. And we had two guitar players in our band, so we [had to have been] twice as loud as they were. I remember when we played in Boston once, this was at the point where we were into our two 100-watt Marshalls-each and I had people that I knew coming around who really wanted to listen to the band but they had to go stand outdoors! That’s too loud. We went through a phase when we were too loud. Too fuckin’ loud. Cleared the room. Caused people pain.”

Sinclair: “If you stood there and tried to listened to it with your ears, it would hurt. It would be ‘too loud.’ I lost some top end standing there in front of the MC5 there for a couple of years every night. But I still hear pretty good, for an old person. 

“I don’t want to hear nothing that loud now, though! Ha ha ha. Not anymore.”


Liars’ Angus Andrews talks about misguided angst and paranoia through the ages with Jay Babcock (Arthur, 2004)


Liars make it witchy (again). Jay Babcock finds out why.

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)

Liars boiled up in the midst of New York City’s earliest 21st century underground rock resurgence, when the same style-era of music — angular guitar-driven art-funk circa 1979 a la Gang of Four/Public Image Ltd./Pop Group, etc.– was simultaneously revived by several bands within miles of each other. The whys are tricky but they can also be a distraction from considering what really matters: How was the actual music? How were the performances? Did you witness something that moved you…moved you in the head, moved you in the heart, moved you in the shoulders and in the hips? In other words was this electroclash or was it something significant?

Whatever it was, Liars seem to have been the most defensive about observations that the music they and these other bands was slavishly derivative.

“That was brought up a lot, and we had not heard the Pop Group,” acknowledges Angus Andrews, on the phone one recent morning from his home in the New Jersey woods. “We went to England and someone gave us a CD of it and we listened to it and we got really depressed about it.

He laughs. Why was it depressing?

“It was all these ideas that we had that now we couldn’t do! I dunno. I listened to them once, then. Didn’t really get that much into it. Maybe it was just because…you start rejecting all these influences that people tell you that you have.”

And so, apparently resentful at being categorized, resentful at being lumped in with a herd of copycatters, resentful perhaps even towards the authority represented by the categorizing itself, Liars made a strategic redirection.

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HIDE THE BEER: Some advice from Sue Carpenter on running a pirate radio station out of your own apartment (Arthur, 2004)


Some advice from SUE CARPENTER about running a pirate radio station out of your own apartment.

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)

It terrified my parents, amused my friends and inspired the DJs who got involved, but for me, squatting on a piece of prime FM real estate was simply a challenge—to change a system I did not like and break the mold of my overly ordinary, and earnest, existence. Here’s what I learned in the three years I was on air in Los Angeles:  

1. Don’t let a puny record collection and a laughable knowledge of music think you can’t program a radio station better than the guys who are paid to do it. 

I only owned a couple dozen records when I built a radio station from scratch and began broadcasting from my bedroom. I didn’t know much about music. I just knew what I liked—and that was exactly the problem. The only music I knew was what I heard on the radio, and most of that was over-produced shlock that was over hyped and then over played. In the ‘60s, commercial FM DJs relied on their own ears to pick music. Now it’s one-size-fits-all formats programmed by suits and spun by monkeys. There’s a lot of great music out there. If you don’t know what it is, there are plenty of people who do who’d be more than happy to clue you in.

2. Just because you’re serious about what you’re doing doesn’t mean you should lose your sense of humor. 

When I went on the air in 1995, all of the other micro radio operators in the Bay Area were broadcasting politics, not music. As a lefty liberal, I was sympathetic to their causes. Pro-environment, anti-establishment and generally angry around the edges, I’m sure I would have learned a lot had I listened to their programs. But I didn’t. After tuning in once, I tuned back out, turned off by their overly earnest discussions. Heavy subjects don’t need a heavy hand. Lightening up with humor doesn’t mean taking the subject lightly. 

3. Don’t marry your own plans. 

I had a very specific idea of how I wanted the station to sound when I started it. I wanted it to sound like college radio only better. My station wouldn’t just play indie rock—it would play only the indie rock I liked. Of course that plan was contingent on getting a bunch of DJs who shared my musical taste, which was possible. I just had to decide if that was the real purpose of unlicensed radio: to impose my musical preferences or to allow the DJs to make those decisions themselves. I decided on the latter and, in the end, wound up with programming that was far more interesting and enlightening than anything I could have dreamed up on my own.

4. If you open your private home to a public activity, prepare to be unwelcome in your own living room. 

Volunteering at a pirate radio station, DJs are prepared to encounter certain things: shoddy equipment, a limited music library, unwelcome visits by the police or FCC. But no one was ready to see the station manager wandering the premises in a baby blue bathrobe and filthy pink slippers. The sight of a freshly showered woman combing out her hair and doling out advice was a little much for some people. 

5. If you’re a woman, most people will have a hard time believing you run the show, especially when mechanics are involved. 

Whether they work as managers, programmers or DJs, lots of women hold powerful positions in radio. It’s easy to understand what they do because the stations that employ them most likely existed before they got there. But when I tell people that my radio station started with me, a motherboard and a soldering iron and grew into a round-the-clock operation staffed with more than a hundred DJs, it’s hard for them to believe.  Radio stations aren’t inherently masculine, but starting one apparently is. 

6. Never keep your refrigerator stocked, especially with beer. 

DJs get thirsty.

Sue Carpenter’s 40 Watts From Nowhere: A Journey Into Pirate Radio is published this month by Scribner’s. It is her first book.

“HIGH FIVE: Detroit’s visionary MC5 receive a film tribute that aims to rewrite rock history” by Steffie Nelson (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur Magazine No. 9 (March 2004). This film has been held up for commercial release since 2004. There is a Kickstarter campaign to get it cleared for release here:

Detroit’s visionary MC5 receive a film tribute that aims to rewrite rock history
By Steffie Nelson

On New Year’s Eve, 1972, the MC5 took the stage at Detroit’s Grande Ballroom, a vast psychedelic venue where they’d held court as the “house band” between 1966 and 1969. Their live shows had been so incendiary, the five band members so arrogant, that even a huge star like Janis Joplin, no slouch in the live department, once refused to go on after them. This gig, their swan song as it were, was sloppy and dispassionate; the ghosts of past glories even more unforgiving than the sparse, cynical crowd. Guitarist Wayne Kramer took off mid-performance to go cop dope, and the MC5 never played again. Kramer and guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith were 22; singer Rob Tyner and drummer Dennis Thompson were 24; bassist Michael Davis was 26. In the end they’d effectively been “pulled apart by the killer forces of capitalism and competition,” which their manager John Sinclair had railed against, perhaps presciently, in the liner notes to their now-legendary debut album Kick Out The Jams.

The MC5 hold a curious place in rock history. Their ascendance represented a moment in America when art and commerce converged, when all that was vital and visceral was also the pinnacle of hip. As the flamboyant and badass musical mouthpiece of the White Panther Party, the MC5 did embody the soul of the late ‘60s counterculture: one foot in the optimistic past and the other in the disillusioned, deadly future; one hand holding a guitar, the other a shotgun. It’s an irresistible image, one which was unappetizingly co-opted by Levis last spring for a series of T-shirts. A promotional performance in London by the three surviving Five (Rob Tyner suffered a fatal heart attack in 1991; Fred Smith died of heart failure in 1994) was seen by detractors as a final, sad sellout.

The question of whether or not the MC5 failed at the end of the day is much debated in the riveting feature-length documentary MC5: A True Testimonial, directed by David Thomas and produced by Laurel Legler. All parties agree, however, that for a fleeting, incandescent moment the MC5 were “at the center of the yin-yang,” as Michael Davis philosophizes in the film, “and it was our job to keep it going in a positive direction.”

But the proverbial yin-yang was already spinning into darkness, and it took the MC5 with it. Like fireworks on the fourth of July, they rose with a bright, beautiful bang and, as far as mainstream America was concerned, disappeared with a puff of smoke into the night. They were, ultimately, sacrificial – the artistic entity that was the MC5 didn’t survive more than seven years—but their legacy has continually inspired legions of punks, rockers, artists and freaks, who got turned on to their music through word-of-mouth, or more than likely though the persistent echo of a call to arms that rings with timeless resonance: “kick out the jams, motherfucker.”

As David Thomas says, “The people who know, know. The other people don’t get it.” The Chicago-based Thomas and his wife Laurel Legler began working on MC5: A True Testimonial in 1995, spurred on through financial troubles and licensing hassles by sheer love and respect and the determination to do justice to these American legends. As Legler points out, few bands have received this sort of filmic treatment, and if they have their way MC5: A True Testimonial will revise rock history. On the eve of a limited theatrical release and the worldwide release of a nearly four-hour DVD edition of the film (including deleted scenes, complete live performances, interview outtakes and fan testimonials), David Thomas and Laurel Legler are ready to testify.

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Reviews by C and D (Arthur No. 9/March 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)


Guitar Wolf
Red Idol DVD
D: Hey, I can’t make this DVD work.

The Von Bondies
Pawn Shoppe Heart
D: This is the Detroit garage guy who had his face bashed up by Jack White.
C: Right. Jason Von Bondie is apparently the town asshole, or so I’ve been told. But, do you know that song, “Pablo Picasso”?
D: Of course! Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers! They were the best! [singing:] “He could walk down your street/And girls could not resist his stare/Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” But this doesn’t sound like Jonathan Richman…?
C: [sighs] Okay D, I’ll spell it out for you: Pablo Picasso was an asshole. But he also made some great paintings.

Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand
D: This is what the Strokes and the Rapture should have done on their last records. But they were incapable.
C: Every song is a sure-hit on the dancefloor. Plus the guy can sing. And check out what they do on this track (#3), 55 seconds in…
D: Whoa….
C: The tempo slows down… And listen to that guitar playing! Then here comes that descending disco bassline again.
D: This is ridiculous. Can I use your phone? I’ve got to call my financial advisor. I’ve got to buy stock in this band! They are the new kings!!!
C: I know, eh. It’s like all the those other bands, including those Interpol guys, were all just warm-ups for the Ferds. Amazing stuff. Album of the year so far, easy.

The Walkmen
Bows and Arrows
(Record Collection)
D: Ah, I see what you’re doing…
C: Yes, I am Clever Man.
D: These guys, they’re good, they’re kind of like the Ferdinand and the Strokes and…
C: Dude’s got a bit of the crooner in him. And he’s a more interesting lyricist than Julian Casablancas. Then again, just about everyone is.
D: Watch it.
C: Oh right, sorry, I forgot about your inner 14-year-old girl self.
D: …
C: Um… Okay, sorry, that was uncalled for.
D: You can be so ARROGANT sometimes… [listening] The sounds they get are so cool.
C: Organs, guitars, tacked pianos. But check out this next track, you’re gonna lose it.
D: [listening to “The Rat”] It’s the Strokes with their pants on fire! That guy’s mad!!!!
C: Madder than Jack White. He’s fucking going for it, damn, and you know, when a crooner spits blood, you better look out. Anger always means more when it’s coming from a guy who usually .
D: This shit is banging. “You’ve got a nerve to be asking a favor/You’ve got a nerve to be calling my number/I’m sure, we’ve been through this before/Can’t you hear me, I’m beating on the wall.”
C: I’d pay $15 for this song alone. And you know what? There’s ten more songs on the album!!!
D: And they’re good too. Shit. This is gonna be some year.

Secret Wars
C: You wouldn’t know this–
D: Again with the arrogance!
C: Well, you wouldn’t–
D: Wouldn’t what?
C: Wouldn’t know what the title is based on.
D: Well…
C: ‘80 Marvel Comics. Which I read. And I bet you didn’t.
D: …
C: So fuck off! [laughter] Big battles between superheroes and the main guy who summoned them to the “secret wars” : The Beyonder.
D: [wistful] Ah, the ‘80s…
C: Or it’s based on something else! Anyways. I dig this.
D: [Listening to “$50 Tea”] It’s frantic. Hypnotic. Like strobe lights for your ears.
C: But it stretches out too, and there’s melodies. It’s a lot like that last Primal Scream record, Evil Heat. Difference is that Oneida won’t let the machines do any work.
D: The Beyonders is the name of my new band.

Weird War
If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Bite ‘Em
(Drag City)
C: From Secret Wars to Weird War, get it?
D: You are so clever. Almost too clever to bear. I cower before your cleverness.
C: [laughs] As you ought. Now check this shit out…
D: [listening to “Grand Fraud”]: Is it supposed to sound like that? Listen to all that hiss.
C: Yes, it’s nice and raw and funky and kinda fucked up. They used some old mixing board that Sly Stone and later the P-Funk guys used. Um. I guess it’s possible…
D: [2:45 into “Grand Fraud”]:WHOA!!!!!
C: That’s the shit right there. That’s IT.
D: Who is the singer?
C: Ian Svenonius, Arthur astrologer, on vocals. He’s been around forever. Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club, Make Up, Scene Creamers… The Make Up split up just when they were getting good! Now I think he’s got it going on again, especially with this new guitar player, that guy has some tasty chops, as they used to say back in the day. Do you remember, back in the ‘90s, when it was a point of pride to be less than competent?
D: Stupid indie rockers, I never liked that stuff. Weird War is a weird name.
C: You’re right. Like, what do you call the people in the band?… Weird War-ers?.
D: Weird Warriors! [Ears pop up as female voice rapping begins on title track breakdown] Is that Peaches????
C: It’s Jennifer from Royal Trux.
D: Whoa. I think she can quit her dayjob! And Peaches should call her lawyers.
C: Always with the lawyers, this guy.

TV On the Radio
Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes
(Touch and Go)
C: Another band with a difficult name.
D: “TV on the Radio”? What does that mean? What are they thinking? This is crazy talk.
C: Just listen to the music. You can’t judge a band by its name! The Beatles is the stupidest name ever, right?
D: Yes, okay. [listening] What do you call this kind of music?
C: I have no idea, but I like listening to it.
D: It’s dance music, but it’s got all this…
C: All these weird elements, used in weird ways. Horns. Backing vocals. Dance grooves.
D: He’s got a voice like Peter Gabriel. There’s something kind of scary about this stuff.
C: It seems like they’re holding it together in the face of something. [Quoting song lyrics:] “You were my favorite moment/of a dead century.”
D: This is really good. It’s genuinely new—I can’t say that I’ve heard something like this before. And I want to hear it again.

The Paper Chase
What Big Teeth You Have EP
C: Speaking of scary.
D: Super-tension crisis music!
C: Drills. Angst. Space. Rolling bass. Piano stabs. Guitars at angles.
D: It’s like a soundtrack to a murder.
C: Reminds me of Jesus Lizard. Drive Like Jehu… But there’s an almost… symphonic, I guess…component to it. They’re from Texas, they thing big.
D: Violins too. Genuine horror movie stuff! But not in a cheesy way. No organ grinder.
C: You should see the video that‘s on here: it’s like low-budge Lynch meets Cunningham. Okay, onto the next track, which is a Brel cover…
D: Of course. “My Death.” Scott Walker did this!
C: The drums are so big on this record. I think it’s a Texas thing. Those guys love the big Bonham drum thing down there. Lift to Experience, Secret Machines, these guys… Maybe it’s from all those years of Flaming Lips coming down to Austin from Oklahoma, that dude is an epic drummer. So is this guy.
D: The guitar is now being strangulated. It’s almost too much. Psychodramatic, just at the edge of being too much.
C: Yes. This last song is a Roger Waters cover from The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. It’s massive.
D: Whoo-ee. We need to keep an ear on these guys!
C: Their next album is gonna be on Kill Rock Stars… A label with a violent name for a band with a violent streak as wide as a Texas mile.
D: They are the new Texas chainsaw murderers, only they use guitars. Murdered by music.

Casual Dots
Casual Dots
(Kill Rock Stars)
C: Speaking of Kill Rock Stars, here’s a record on the label by a new band.
D: More angularity.
C: Angularity is the new strumming.
D: A female voice, finally! Why do we always listen to men records?
C: That is a very good question to which I don’t have a very good answer. Anyway, in case you were wondering, this sounds to me like Stereolab meeting Deerhoof with, oh, Poison Ivy from the Cramps on guitar. It’s indie rock vets from bands like Autoclave and Bikini Kill, but they can play their instruments.
D: Progress has been made. Miracles, they never cease.
C: This song, “I’ll Dry My Tears” is a cover, right?
D: It must be. Very nice, so different from the rest. We can ask the Internet about it.
C: Poison Ivy is so underrated… This whole record sounds like a tribute to her guitar playing.
D: Cool stuff on record, now I wanna see ‘em live. Women rock!
C: …

The Devil Isn’t Red
(5 Rue Christine)
C: Instrumental mathcore by men.
D: Excuse me while I yawn.
C: I’m sure it’s all very difficult and very intense, but why should people listen to this when they could listen to, oh, King Crimson or Magma?
D: This is so difficult. Oh so very difficult. The nerds of rock, shredding away. Maybe it is fun for them.
C: The drumming on this bugs the shit out of me, it’s busy beyond belief. For what? I don’t get it.
D: Off it goes. Bye bye!

(Kill Rock Stars)
C: Speaking of Deerhoof, here’s their new one on…Kill Rock Stars.
D: Which rock stars do they want to kill exactly, that’s what I always wondered.
C: Of all the people to advocate killing, why rock stars? Why not…um…first-world capitalist greedheads? If you’re going to go down that route, I mean… Not that I’m advocating anything.
D: We are peace people.
C: But rock stars? John Lennon was killed. Are these John Hinkley sympathizers, then? That’s pretty fucking stupid.
D: Disgusting!
C: Hey anyway, guess what? This sounds like the other Deerhoof records! Cute dreamy vocals in the same key by Japan-born singer Satomi Matsuzaki, I don’t know what she’s saying but it good, and lotsa riffs glued on, stomping and stopping and starting.
D: They’re supposed to be amazing live.
C: Yeah, I can see that. But they still don’t quite do it for me on record.
D: Well, that’s your problem. I am digging it. Next!

Kila Kila Kila
(Thrill Jockey)
C: Continuing on from our “kill” theme, and also on the Japanese theme, here’s the new record by the band that Yoshimi from the Boredoms leads…
D: This is boring twiddling thumbs music. Where are the drums? I need some drums.
C: You may get your drums. Just sit still and listen for a second, will ya? Patience is a virtue.
D: Hey what about that Guitar Wolf DVD? He’s Japanese.
C: Oh yeah. Lemme see if I can make it work. [tries to make it work] Nope.
D: This is getting better, but it’s taking too long. I am a busy man.
C: Okay, okay. I just want the Arthur readers to know that this is an interesting, minimalist art-trance-experimental record that rewards multiple listens by the genuinely curious. I mean, shit D, this song is 10 minutes and 40 seconds, you gotta let it develop. It’s like the opposite of Deerhoof. Deerhoof is for people who need it NOW and OOIOO is for people who can wait.
D: I am definitely a cannot-waiter. I apologize to Yoshimi, but that is how I am!

Hypnotic Underworld
(Drag City)
C: I have prepared a statement regarding this album, that I wrote while in what we shall call ‘alternative consciousness,’ which I will now read. [clears throat] “Pure, total towering all-encompassing humble acoustic-electric-Mellotronic psychedelic-pastoral-rock-art-prog-outre accomplishment, the summation of a career, a flowing highlight reel that takes every angle that Batoh’s Ghost band (who come from Japan) have ever explored during the last decade and a half and multiplied the richest parts by a factor of 48. (It’s like The Love Below, in a way, right?) The band is sympathetic, tremendous, stunning: the electric guitarist Michio Kurihara deserves particular recognition for his restraint, his launches, his trails. Lower the lights, turn on the fog machine, put a candle in the wine bottle, turn the stereo up loud and gaze lovingly at the gatefold. I want to tell you something: my friends, whoever you are and whatever language you speak, This album is why Music exists.”
D: Yeah, it’s pretty good.

The Coral
Magic and Medicine
C: New album from the Coral.
D: Liverpool young guys that sound old!
C: Yeah. This is a solid record, pleasant. More lightly psychedelic folk-country-rock-I dunno.Melodic. But…
D: There’s nothing urgent about it.
C: Exactly. It’s kind of timeless, but not in a cosmic-eternity Ghost way, it’s more just timeless in an England way. You get the feeling these songs might’ve been written at any time in the last few hundred years, but whenever they were written, they never meant much to anyone.
D: They don’t draw blood—they suck it!
C: [laughs] Well…there’s just this distance to them. They have such a warm, welcoming sound, but…well the singer’s kinda flat, it‘s like he never breaks this character he’s playing. Safe but harmless. He’s no Shane Macgowan.
D: The Pogues!
C: Shane had bite, even when he was gumming it. You wanna be a poet, you can’t just sit by your fireplace all the time. You gotta get out there and take some blows for the home team, soak something up, whether it’s your own experiences or what you witness. I always get the feeling these guys sit around playing records and watching flicks. That don’t do it.
D: You could be wrong, though.
C: Well… As T-Model says, that’s true now!

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“A Slow, Strange and Grueling Thing”: Daniel Chamberlin on the Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March, 2004)

A Slow, Strange and Grueling Thing
Writer-photographer Daniel Chamberlin ventures behind California’s Redwood Curtain to experience the three-day triathlon of the arts that is the Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race

In the late 1930s frustrated residents of Northern California declared their intention to wage “patriotic rebellion” against California and Oregon. Tired of dealing with state governments that seemed more concerned with distant population centers—and not with repairing the decrepit bridges and mud-choked roads leading to their sparsely populated mining, fishing and timber communities—the people of Northern California and Southern Oregon took steps to secede from their respective states. The new state would be called Jefferson—a name arrived at by way of a newspaper contest—in honor of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the U.S. and patron saint of Libertarians and states’ rights crusaders. On December 4, 1941, Jefferson State’s residents set up barricades on the highway and elected Judge John L. Childs governor. At his inauguration he was photographed with a bear on a chain that appears to have a severed human hand in its jaws. Three days after Childs’ inauguration Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and the Jefferson State movement was swept aside as the United States entered World War II. Though small in number, benign Jefferson State secessionists still hold meetings, run a Web site and paint slogans on their barn roofs. Recently, they tried to use the California’s gubernatorial recall fiasco to drum up support for their cause.

The Jefferson State movement points to a spirit of individualism that thrives in Northern California, especially in Humboldt County. People who live up in northernmost California like being away from it all: there’s time to develop interesting ideas, and enough of a community for those ideas to take root. Hobart Brown, a tiny, impish, 69-year-old man who lives in Humboldt, at the southern end of what could’ve been Jefferson State, is one of those people. He’s an aircraft mechanic, astrologer and wild pig hunter. He’s also the self-styled “Glorious Founder” of an event called The Great Arcata-to-Ferndale Kinetic Sculpture Race (KSR), an event has run every year since 1969.

The KSR is a vigorous all-terrain art parade held over the course of Memorial Day Weekend. Participants take three days to travel 38 miles in vehicles known as kinetic sculptures—usually recumbent bicycles frames mounted with some sort of sculptural art that’s often conspicuously wacky: poop-filled toilet, braying donkey, KISS Army Camaro, etc. For the 2003 race, the least noteworthy of the entries appearing on the starting line in Arcata is a gray-haired, bearded guy wearing a suit and riding a bicycle. The most imposing sculpture-vehicle is the 2,000-pound “Surf & Turf,” a dramatically psychedelic Day-Glo lobster. A bull’s head that bears a close resemblance to the distressed animal in Picasso’s “Guernica” is grafted on to the back of its abdomen. Six pilots sit inside dressed as chefs, complete with poofy white hats.

In order to complete the full race course in accordance with all of the rules—to “Ace” the course, in KSR terminology—the machines must maneuver over city streets and sand dunes, navigate across a mile of open water in Humboldt Bay and slog through the murky depths of a backwoods bog. They do all of this at an average speed somewhere around 2-3 mph, meaning the race never gets much faster than the wheelchair-bound vets in the Memorial Day Parade that precedes them at the finish line in Ferndale. The KSR combines the tedious pace and muddy wallowing of a tractor pull with the budget-minded engineering of a demolition derby and the physical punishment of an Iron Man triathlon. Dozens of participants return every year. Some have two decades of consecutive races behind them. The race means many things to many people, but as far as Hobart is concerned its primary purpose is to serve as a weapon against suicide.

* * *

You have to be seeking Humboldt County in order to get there. Garberville, the largest town in southern Humboldt, is 200 miles from San Francisco. The two largest towns in Humboldt—Eureka and Arcata—are over 70 miles further north. Though Jefferson State is now mostly history, it is a given with locals that Northern California, particularly Humboldt, is separate from the rest of California. This is attributed to a phenomena known as “the Redwood Curtain.” Thousands of people do make the trip to Humboldt though; tourism is one of the area’s trademark industries along with timber, fishing, folk art and marijuana cultivation. For his part, Hobart Brown subscribes to the theory that, along with Hawaii, Humboldt is one of the last outposts of Mu, a mythical lost civilization akin to Atlantis.

The best road to Humboldt from the rest of California is U.S. 101, though what is an eight-lane river of traffic down in Los Angeles is a two-lane trickle 500 miles up the coast in Hopland. The same freeway serves as a 25 mph main street further north in Willits and Laytonville. The towns stay charming, but as you move north there are fewer high-priced bistros and more stores selling generators, solar panels and livestock supplies. Outside towns, the road is flanked on either side by acres of farmland and deep forests. Country lanes open up throughout Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, lined by roadside invitations to join the landed gentry in their wine tasting rooms from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Once you’re in Humboldt, the grape arbors are mostly gone, replaced by what local drug folklore suggests is the scent of local marijuana crops wafting over the highway. The Eel River rides alongside the 101, and in the summer it’s not uncommon to see people pulled off to the side of the road and going for a dip. “Bigfoot Country” coin purses and redwood burl carvings are readily available, and there are several opportunities to drive your car through hollowed-out redwood trees. Local highway cleanup projects are sponsored by the Harley Riders Association, the Humboldt Area Pagan Network and a store called The Blessed Thistle. Logging trucks hauling gargantuan pieces of timber, farmers driving tractors between their fields and rusted VW buses filled with vintage hippies discourage speedy drivers. The archetypal Humboldt vehicle is a mud-spattered 4WD pickup truck with a Grateful Dead sticker and a National Rifle Association decal sharing the same bumper.

In Denis Johnson’s metaphysical California noir, Already Dead, the suicidal philosopher Carl Van Ness wanders this stretch of highway and describes these remote towns as “like little naps you might never wake up from—you might throw a tire and hike to a gas station and stumble unexpectedly onto the rest of your life, the people who would finally mean something to you, a woman, an immortal friend, a saving fellowship in the religion of some obscure church.” I didn’t begin to understand the Kinetic Sculpture Race until I was drunk, stoned and stumbling with a party of veteran racers spewing history and KSR gospel in equal measure as they camped on an isolated, driftwood-strewn beach. You don’t call yourself a local up here until you’ve been dug in for at least a generation, but there’s no better description of the appeal of Humboldt life to an outsider—or a more dead-on assessment of the cult that has risen up around the race that Hobart Brown started in 1969—than that of Johnson’s troubled pilgrim.

* * *

Hobart Brown claims the title of Glorious Founder of the Kinetic Sculpture Race, but race director Bill Croft runs the thing. Croft is a sewing machine repairman who moved to Humboldt County with his wife when he retired from the Coast Guard ten years ago. Although the racers are following an arcane set of rules that Hobart and others have developed over the last three decades, it’s up to Croft to make sure the race follows the rules in terms of city permits, traffic safety, insurance and crowd control. In a phone interview a week before the race he tells me that he knows a lot about Porta-Potties, that Hobart is “the worst businessman ever,” and that without his organizational assistance it was only a matter of time before the race was going be shut down.

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“One-Dimensional Christmas” by Daniel Pinchbeck (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 9 (March 2004)

“Here and Now” column by Daniel Pinchbeck

“One-Dimensional Christmas”

This Christmas day, in my annual attempt to avoid the holiday spirit, I sat in an underheated cafe in Manhattan’s East Village and reread the last chapters of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. Probably the most profound critique of modern industrial society ever written, One-Dimensional Man attacks the fundamental “irrational rationality” of our present system. Mechanized progress could—and logically should—have led to a reduction in labor time and the creation of a post-work and post-scarcity global society–what Marcuse calls a “pacified” existence. Since World War Two, the response to this deep threat to the ruling elite was the creation of “false needs” in the consumer; the perpetuation of the fear of nuclear war and terrorism; and the use of the mass media to enforce consensus consciousness.

Marcuse wrote: “Perhaps an accident may alter the situation, but unless the recognition of what is being done and what is being prevented subverts the consciousness and the behavior of man, not even a catastrophe will bring about the change.” This was clear after 9-11: Awareness opened for a moment, but the media and the government worked overtime to close it and reinforce the usual trance.

The last chapters of One Dimensional Man are tragic—I wept as I reread them. Marcuse realized that with the increasing power of technology, the human imagination—rather than any abstract “necessity”–had become the determining force in creating social reality. Marcuse writes: “In the light of the capabilities of advanced industrial civilization, is not all play of the imagination playing with technical possibilities, which can be tested as to their chances of realization? The romantic idea of a “science of the imagination” seems to assume an ever-more-empirical aspect.” If the imagination running a technological society is one of dominance and death and control, then you get what we now have in the world.

The global misery we are currently enduring is not a problem of reality: It represents, in fact, a failure of the human imagination and of human consciousness. The mass culture, advertising, and propaganda industries work to limit consciousness to a low vibration—a frequency of mindless fear and insatiable material greed—to construct the subjects, the workers and consumers and soldiers, who are the “biomass” or fodder needed to feed the technosphere’s doom spiral. Yet, as Marcuse puts it, “the chance of the alternative” hovers over every manifestation, every moment, of this dreary dystopia.

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