THE SOUND OF THE BONE DRILL: BMX hero Mat Hoffman on the pain and the glory (Arthur, 2002)

Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (October 2002). Cover photograph by Spike Jonze. Art direction by W.T. Nelson.


BMX superstardom didn’t come cheap, says Mat Hoffman

Excerpted from The Ride of My Life, BMX madman Mat Hoffman’s new autobiography written with Mark Lewman. Hoffman came out of retirement at the 2002 X Games and made history, pulling a no-handed 900 air. 

I’ve broken one wrist five times. The other wrist, three times. Between my ankles, I’ve had five breaks. I’ve snapped four fingers, my thumbs four times, my hand twice, busted my feet three times, and broken three toes. (You don’t think a broken toe would hurt that much, but your entire body weight is on it.) I’ve busted my collar bones five times, snapped my pelvis, my fibula, my elbow, cracked three ribs and separated a couple from my sternum. (Breaking ribs off the sternum sucks—just about every movement you can think of is centered in your chest.) Then there’s my head: one skull fracture, two broken jaws, two broken noses, a mouthful of teeth, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Every choice you make can be traced back to the instinctual need to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. These two forces are interconnected, different sides to the same coin. Since I started bike riding, I wanted more than anything to experience the highest highs. To get there, I was willing to accept the consequences. My medical records contain more than four hundred pages documenting my injuries. I’ve put myself in a coma, had over fifty knockouts and concussions, been sewn up with over two hundred stitches, dislocated my shoulder more than twenty times, broken about fifty bones, and had over a dozen different surgeries. I’ve torn ligaments, bruised tissue, severed arteries, spilled blood, and left hunks of my skin stuck to plywood, concrete, dirt, and bicycle components. I’ve had to endure not just physical pain, but the mental anguish of re-learning how to walk, ride my bike, or even remember who I was. I’ve dealt with mountains of health insurance red tape, and condescending doctors who took it upon themselves to lecture me before they treated my injuries, as if they needed to save me from myself. 

Not everyone understands that I’ve asked for it, accepted it, and willingly volunteered. Not to sound sadistic, but I consider each of my injuries a tax I had to pay for learning what I could do on my bike. I wanted it all, and wouldn’t take any of it back if I could. Yes, I will be sore and broken when I’m older. I can feel it already, the aches and pains of a body that has been beyond and back. I’ve given up as much of myself as I could, because I love bike riding that much. 

My insurance companies have always hated me, having paid hospital bills totaling more than a million dollars over the years. I’ve had to rely on surgery to keep me going. You know it’s getting serious when you start letting people take knives to your body to make you healthy. 

Here are my patient notes. 

Number 1: Collarbone Crush 

November, 1986. It was immediately following a Mountain Dew Trick Team show. I’d just learned 360 drop-ins, and was uncorking them all day. We finished our demo, but I still wanted to ride. I took my chest protector off, figuring I’d just do easy stuff. I lined up parallel to the coping to do a simple hop drop-in, like Eddie Fiola used to do. I stalled in position for a second and went for it. For some reason my brain told my body to react as if I was doing a 360 drop-in. I fell straight to the cement and took the hit on my head and shoulder. My friend Paige said it made a sound like a helmet being thrown off the ramp with nothing in it—a loud, hollow snap. That was my grand finale. I didn’t just break my collarbone, I shattered it. I knocked myself unconscious too. The show was right next door to a hospital, of all places, with two of the best surgeons in Oklahoma City on duty that day. In surgical terms, Dr. Grana and Dr. Yates performed a fourth degree AC joint separation procedure, provided reconstruction of the coracoclavicular ligament, and did a partial removal of my left collarbone. 

Number 2: Right Leg, Wrong Move

February, 1988. The 540 is a trick that makes you earn it to learn it. The price is a lot of slams. I finally thought I had them just about dialed in, and did one and looped out. My leg got caught behind me and I sat on it. There was a snapping sound and a blast wave of heat, pain, and nausea. Broken bones have a dull, throbby kind of ache to them. I got into Steve’s car to go to the hospital. Every time he hit a bump my leg would sway between my knee and ankle. My body was in shock, and the pain began to subside. We started chuckling every time it swayed, and then started laughing harder about what the hell we were laughing at. Dark humor helps. The doctor I encountered in the ER had very little humor. My first question to him was, “how long before I can ride again?” He told me I would be lucky to walk without a limp and would never ride a bike again. “Okay, thanks…bye,” was the next thing out of my mouth. I left that doctor as fast as I could, and my dad got me in to see Dr. Yates. Yates put in a titanium plate (the body rejects steel) and ten screws in my fibula to repair the complete syndesmotic disruption and fibular fracture of my right leg. I missed the first King of Vert in Paris because of this injury.  

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Ten years ago — 2002 — right about now: 70,000 free copies of the 56-page Arthur Magazine No. 1 somehow hit the streets across North America.

Thank you to everyone who helped get this train rolling.

Thank you, publisher Laris Kreslins and art director W.T. Nelson. Thank you, adfellow Jamie Fraser.

Thank you, senior advisors Mark Lewman, Paul Cullum and Shawn Mortensen (RIP).

Thank you, contributors Paul Moody, Byron Coley and Thurston Moore, Geoff Mcfetridge, Spike Jonze, Neil Hamburger, David Berman, Ian Svenonius, Dame Darcy, Eddie Dean, Joe Carducci, Camille Rose Garcia, Jason Amos, Joseph Durwin, Daniel Pinchbeck, Alan Moore, Pat Graham, Dave Brooks, Steve Giberson, Mike Castillo and John Henry Childs.

Thank you, all the agents in our improvised guerrilla distribution network across the continent.

Thank you, all the entities that spent money to advertise in our untested pages.

Thank you to everyone thanked on Page 3 of the mag: Brendan Newman, Kreslins Family, Oma, Kristaps, Gary Hustwit, Chris Ronis, Kate Sawai, Janis Sils, Bernadette Napoleon, Vineta Plume, Fred Cisterna, Richard Grijalva, Ned Milligan, Lizzy Klein, Robin Adams, Jack Mendelsohn, John Shimkonis, Prolific, Chris Young, Ed Halter, Mike Galinsky, Jim Higgins, Plexifilm Family, Alie Robotos, Domainistudios, Fistfulayen, Natalie and Zach, Janitor Sunny Side Up, Yasmin Khan, Rachel Stratton, Lady Montford, John Coulthart, Henry Childs and Joshua Sindell.

Thank you, Sue Carpenter.

Thank you, Darcey Leonard.

Thank you, John Payne and Andrew Male.

Thank you, Robin Turner.

Thank you to the bands that played Arthur’s launch party at Spaceland in Silver Lake (thank you, Jennifer Tefft): Fatso Jetson, Chuck Dukowski Sextet… I’m not sure who else.

Thank you, Matt Luem.

Thank you, Steve Appleford, for being a real journalist.

Thank you to everyone who played a role who I’ve forgotten or neglected to post here. (Please be in touch!)

And thank you to everyone who found the magazine, picked it and read it.

We’re coming back.


Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (January 2005)

Photography and art direction by W.T. Nelson

God Bless Jello Biafra

The inspirational former Dead Kennedy and veteran punk gadfly talks with Sorina Diaconescu about what to do when the going gets grim.

Is there anybody better suited to comment on the absurdities and contradictions of America today than Jello Biafra—musician, activist, performer, poet, indie entrepreneur, First Amendment champion, scathing satirist and all-around radical artist that has inspired generations of young ‘uns the world over?

Here’s a man who at the tender age of 20 formed his first band, the visionary hardcore punk outfit Dead Kennedys, and was born anew as a frontman with a peculiar, quivering bark and a stage name contrived to invoke “plastic America and its overseas results.”

A legit icon of West Coast punk rock rebellion, the dude has withered blows that would have broken the hearts and the bones of the baddest motherfuckers out there. All the more, he did it with a big, lopsided grin smudged on his face, and an extended middle finger proudly pointing skyward.

Jello is now 46—which means he occasionally says things like, “you know, I’m not Iggy Pop and I’m not Henry Rollins, and I’m working my ass off trying to get in better shape and compensate for my age.” But his goal, as stated over the years, remains the same: “to kick over the apple cart of corruption.” While his avenues of expression have shifted back and forth between music and spoken word one thing is for sure: he can still provoke and enlighten, as his latest collaboration, with legendary iconoclasts Melvins, Never Breathe What You Can’t See, amply demonstrates.

Interviewing Jello is predictably fraught with intensity and drama but also deeply inspiring and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Time has not mellowed him. He’s still the same character we punk rock kids grew up loving: an articulate guy with a boundless imagination filled with ideas sick, funny and violent enough to score him enemies like Tipper Gore (who pretty much pegged her “Parental Warning” stickering campaign on his work) and the D.A.s’ offices in L.A. and San Francisco: In one of L.A.’s most notorious First Amendment lawsuits of the ‘80s, Jello and a cast of co-conspirators were charged with peddling obscene material to minors via sleeve art for the DKs record Frankenchrist. (The jury hung, the charges were dismissed, and even the D.A. who pursued the case in court eventually admitted to the press that his son “adores Jello and he plays his music all the time.”)

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THEY WERE AFRIRAMPO, by Oliver Hall (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published with photography and design by W.T. Nelson in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005)

They Are Afrirampo
Oliver Hall encounters Osaka’s number one freedom paradise rock duo.

When Oni and Pikachu arrived at the Smell in downtown Los Angeles there was nothing about them that suggested the powers they would soon deploy on stage. Certain performers have a way of carrying themselves in venues that tells you not to approach them unless you have something important to say about the sound system or how many drink tickets they get, and Afrirampo, despite looking road-weary, and dressed down in floral prints with naked faces, held themselves with that kind of authority. Not that it stopped (male) fans from approaching the two, or the band from receiving them graciously. But they did not look like the creatures you’d expect to see after reading any of their press: sex demons, noise futurists, musical athletes, punk sibyls who, when asked for their favorite three albums of all time responded, “1. AFRIRAMPO 2.AFRIRAMPO 3. AFRIRAMPO”. . .

Here is the description of Afrirampo on the band’s website:

young Japanese girls rock duo from Osaka JAPAN!
Naked rock!!!!! Naked soul!!! Red red strong red dress!! Freeeeeeeeedam
paradice rock! Jump! With improvisation.
Sooo fantastic & wild performance!

Afrirampo’s recording career began with A (not to be confused with A’, presumably to be read “A-prime,” a collection of early recordings), a shrieking garage-thrash record with guitar, drums and two girl voices; if the music on this record has any antecedents, it’s the startling moments of weirdness and the playful, conspiratorial spirit of the ealry ‘80s Swiss female punk band Kleenex/LiLiPUT, who, like Afrirampo, enjoyed letting music wreak havoc with familiar vowels. Afrirampo’s latest release, Kore Ga Mayaku Da on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records, is similarly playful but more elaborate and scary, like classical theater. I interviewed them around the corner from the Smell, before they were in costume and makeup; a little over an hour later, their set came to a close with the crowd bearing Pikachu from the stage to the front door as Oni took over the drums and sang Sayonara! Sayonara!

My intention was to interview Afrirampo at the bar behind the Smell on Main, but as we turned from Harlem Alley onto Third Street, Oni exclaimed, “Japanese food!” They had identified something that would relieve their homesickness: a plain burger restaurant with a marquee-style menu behind the counter, sparsely decorated with objects whose strangeness I wouldn’t have noticed if Oni had not been so taken with them.

“I like frogs,” she said, pointing to the giant ceramic vase in the shape of two frogs on the counter. There were plastic pieces of fruit spread out like a rebus on the shelves in one wall and a painting of two ballerinas in a dance studio hung opposite.

“Looks like Japanese,” said Pikachu.

“European,” said Oni. They seem to contradict each other often in conversation in this breezy way, just as one of them will suddenly, frighteningly take over a song in the middle of a performance. When I asked them how music in Japan, especially in their hometown Osaka, is different from music in America, Pikachu frowned, “It’s the same!” “Very different,” said Oni. “Especially in Osaka, like underground scene? Noise? Strong, and also more deep, especially in Osaka, for now. Interesting, more than America.”

Oni seems to love the words “strong” and “deep,” referring, for example, to Keiji Haino, Acid Mothers Temple and the older generation of out Japanese musicians they’ve played with as “deep, deep, crazy old guys.” Despite these connections, Afrirampo does not see itself as a noise band. When I tried to argue that American noise aesthetics have more in common with Japanese noise’s love of pure sound than the conceptual abstractions of European, industrial noise, they seemed to think I am calling them a noise band.

“Not only noise music,” said Oni.

“Actually, not noise music,” said Pikachu.

“Strange music,” said Ono.

“I want to know more about strange music of America,” said Pikachu.

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One from the Desert Files: NOAH PURIFOY

Originally published in Arthur No. 11 (2004), with photography and art direction by W.T. Nelson…

When artist Noah Purifoy died this past March, he left behind a remarkable desert masterwork.

by Kristine McKenna

Noah Purifoy was born in Snow Hill Alabama in 1917. By the time he died this past March in a fire at his home in Joshua Tree, California, he’d traveled many roads and re-invented himself several times.

For a Southern black man of Purifoy’s generation, being an artist wasn’t a readily available option, but Purifoy was a man of remarkable vision and patience. It wasn’t until he was 48 years old that he really got rolling as an artist, but by the time he died 38 years later he’d created a body of work of formidable power. Purifoy was a populist artist, a Surrealist, and a sculptor, and his masterpiece is a parcel of land in Joshua Tree which he landscaped with dozens of massive assemblages. Fashioned largely from scavenged materials, this dazzling environment was created without the help of assistants or interns; Purifoy was a lone wolf, and it was his joy to wake before sunrise and work in the early morning hours under an open sky, before the heat of the day settled in.

The tenth in a family of 13 children, Purifoy was the child of farmers who lived in Birmingham from 1920 until 1929, when they resettled in Cleveland. At the age of 22 Purifoy earned a teaching credential, but his teaching career was interrupted by World War II, which prompted him to enlist in the army in 1942. He was stationed in the South Pacific for three years, and after returning from the war, he earned a master’s degree in social work. He then landed a job at the Cuyahoga County Department of Social Services in Cleveland, where he worked from 1950 to 1952.

Purifoy passed through Los Angeles during the war and he’d always had a hankering to return, so in 1952 he relocated to Southern California. He spent the next two years doing social work at an L.A. county hospital, but the work didn’t suit him. In 1954 he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where he earned a degree in 1956, and he spent the next eight years working in various capacities as an interior designer.

In 1964 Purifoy’s interest in civil rights led him to collaborate with musician Judson Powell and educator Sue Welch in the creation of the Watts Towers Art Center, a community outreach program in South-Central L.A. The next year he found himself in the eye of the hurricane of America’s racial conflict when the Watts riots erupted outside his door. It was at this point that Purifoy finally found his voice and sense of purpose as an artist; Purifoy scavenged three tons of material from the ashes of the Watts uprising and used them to create “66 Signs of Neon,” a massive group show of works created from the Watts’ debris that traveled to nine university galleries from 1966 through 1969.

The show was deemed an enormously successful marriage of art and social protest, but Purifoy found the politics of the art world distasteful, and in 1970 he turned his back on art altogether. Seventeen years later Purifoy’s longtime friend, artist Debbie Brewer, offered him permanent lodging on the land she owned in Joshua Tree, and it was then that Purifoy again felt the itch to make things.

I visited Purifoy at his place in Joshua Tree in August of 1995, and I remember my morning with him fondly. I arrived at sunup and we spent a few hours roaming the land, while Purifoy mused on the marvelous sculptures that seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see. By 10:30 it was time to get out of the sun and we retreated to the seriously air-conditioned mobile home where Purifoy lived. He prepared lunch, which is to say, he removed nearly everything from his refrigerator, set it all on a small card table, and offered it to his guest. He was a generous and gracious host. I assembled a sandwich, he poured himself a glass of wine, and we talked for a while. These are a few things he told me.

As a child I wasn’t conscious of racism, but I was aware something was going on. Once, when I was five, my mother was taking me to the store and there was a parade in the street. People had hoods on, and when I asked my mother what was happening she said, “That’s the Ku Klux Klan.”

I had good parents who tried to protect me from the trauma they knew I’d encounter soon enough, and they encouraged me to go to school. So in 1939 I earned a teaching credential—not because I wanted to be a teacher, but because that was the only thing accessible to me then. I majored in history and social studies but never taught either—I ended up teaching shop at a school in Montgomery, Alabama.

In the early ‘50s all my friends were social workers and they were horrible people. They thought they owned the earth because they doled out a few dollars to poor people, so one day I just up and quit. Later that same day I was driving and I happened to pass Chouinard Art Institute, and I dropped in and told them I wanted to enroll. This wasn’t something I’d been thinking about – I went in totally on a whim, but they admitted me because I was colored.

I was the worst student in the whole school. I refused to draw, because I felt that I had something and that if I learned to draw I’d be dead because I’d end up making oil paintings, which wasn’t what I was after. I’ve never been satisfied with little things that hang on the wall and I wanted to find my own way in art. I wasn’t making art then but I was posing as an artist. I wore a beret and spent lots of time drinking wine, eating cheese, listening to music and talking to people, and didn’t take any of it too seriously. I was seriously concerned about civil rights though, and I had a dialogue going with some people who shared my feelings about change that had to come.

I was in the middle of it but I wasn’t afraid. I thought it was great because it was overdue and it turned out to be a goldmine for me. I collected three tons of debris from the riot and began making art out of it. I was searching for my own idea and had been studying the Dada movement and how it had reversed the whole concept of art, and the debris from the riot is what finally launched me on my own course. From 1965 to ’69 I made lots of work, and I sold it as fast as I could make it. I was also reading philosophy then and was knocked out by [Martin] Heidegger and [Edmund] Husserl. I was looking for methods of problem solving because I had lots of problems, and I was able to alter my behavior because of those two philosophers. They were great thinkers who went into areas most people dare not go.

I dropped out of the art world because I was disappointed in art. I perceived art as a tool for change, and when I started the program in Watts I saw art as a potential savior. But the dropout population there increased rather than decreased, and the art I was making started to become formulaic and too easy. I was never interested in earning a lot of money. I wanted art to be a means of answering questions like ‘what is growth?’ ‘What is change?’ Life isn’t worth living unless the individual is pushing to understand more, and art stopped being useful to me in that pursuit.

A lot of the stuff I use to make artwork I buy from a recycling place near here and it’s a horrendous cost—I spend a lot of money on materials. In 1994 a local paper ran a story on me, so I also get lots of calls from people who say ‘I’m cleaning out my garage. Why don’t you bring a truck over and take what you want?’

There’s no ecological message behind my use of recycled materials—I use them because that’s what’s available to me. People occasionally comment on how hard it must it must be living out in the desert by myself, but this is a breeze compared to many things I’ve been through. The most difficult period of my life was when I was a young adult. I was raised in the church and as a teenager I found myself in conflict about sex and religion. I gave up religion—and leaving the church didn’t hurt me at all.

Sometimes I wish I had a savior because I don’t know what happens after death, but I do know I don’t believe in heaven. I recently made a series of works called ‘Desert Tombstones,’ and while I was working on them I thought a lot about death. It’s been said that if you don’t accept death as an equal part of existence you’re in for trouble somewhere down the line. I’d never given much thought to any of this because I thought I’d live forever, but I’ve come to realize that’s not the case. That may have something to do with why I push myself so hard now to finally get the work out that’s always been in me.

Noah Purifoy:

INSIDE THE INVISIBLE EMPIRE: My Travels With Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend Tav Falco And His Unapproachable Panther Burns by Richard A. Pleuger (Arthur, 2006)

Originally published in Arthur No. 21 (May 2006).

Inside the Invisible Empire: My Travels With Rock ‘N’ Roll Legend Tav Falco And His Unapproachable Panther Burns
Text and photography by Richard A. Pleuger

Ingenious original layout by W. T Nelson
Special thanks to the indefatigable Peter Relic

* * *


“Around the turn of the last century—1900 or so—they started clearing more land for the cultivation of cotton and other crops around the Mississippi River. These big piles of trees and bush were left there to be burned later. And the animals that were living in these areas—foxes, bears, rabbits—had no place to go.

“There was this wild cat, a panther, who was very cunning and howled all night. Faced with the destruction of his own habitat, the panther started to raid the farmers’ chicken coops. The animal became a general nuisance. They tried to hunt the panther down, but he eluded their traps.

“One night the farmers ran the animal into a canebrake, a stand of wild cane bamboo growing there, and they set the canebrake on fire. The shrieks of the panther were so intense that it was unforgettable. The location became known from then on as The Panther Burn. In essence, it was a symbol for the downfall of the last vestige of frontier America and the onset of European civilization in the South. And this is were we derived the lore of the Panther Burn.”

—Gustavo “Tav” Falco, in conversation with the author, 2002

* * *

The story begins in Germany in 1981, a full five years before I met Tav Falco. At the time, I was studying art and film in Düsseldorf, but often traveled to Berlin. There, I discovered the mythical power of rockabilly music along with a tight group of friends who had formed The Legendary Golden Vampires, the most hated band in Berlin. While their peers Einstürzende Neubauten exorcised their German demons by eating rusty metal, the Golden Vampires had been authorized to use the honorarium “Legendary” by an obscure relic of American music, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy of Lubbock, Texas. The key influence on the Golden Vampires was The Cramps, whose musical psychosis was highly seductive at a time when New Wave felt mighty pretentious.

I was blasting my own head open with music by The Sonics, The Droogs, Link Wray, Benny Joy, The Gun Club and the darker side of country music. Not only did these artists provide me with the outsider anthems I required, they seemed to suggest a code of ethics that was cemented further by Robert Mitchum’s performance in the film Night of the Hunter, which we watched obsessively.

In essence, my friends and I lived in our own world of American underground pop culture. We identified with the dark anarchy underlying the birthplace of Rock’n’Roll, and I was particularly haunted by the work of American bandleader Tav Falco, whose first EP “She’s The One to Blame,” released on his own Frenzi label in 1980. Tav tunes like “Bourgeois Blues” and “Hairdresser Underground” contained a transformative energy found in only the most truly unpredictable Rock’n’Roll.

But besides the music, Tav himself seemed to have a deeper connection to the historic evil heart of Rock’n’Roll: he came from Memphis, Tennessee, the heart of the American South. His voice evoked the spectral quality of “Strange Fruit” hanging from poplar trees, and the haunted sound of crickets chirping in hundred percent humidity on a night when a race-related killing has taken place.

Tav Falco oozed American authenticity. His brand of music seemed simultaneously experienced and unpredictable. When I saw Tav staring down conspiratorially from the cover of his first album, 1981’s Behind the Magnolia Curtain, I felt a deep inner connection with this slightly melancholic, Chaplin-‘stached Southern Gothic Dandy. In those dark and sluggish days in ’80s Germany, Tav Falco and his Unapproachable Panther Burns inspired me, and in fact ended up drawing me to the other edge of the Western world and into the dark undercurrents of American pop culture.

* * *

In the mid-‘80s I had sung in my own ’60s-style garage band C.H.U.D., named after an obscure American horror movie. (We had our moment when our song “Rumble at the Love-In” was included on Lee Joseph’s Sounds of Now! compilation in 1986 on Dionysus Records.)

My interest in Americana eventually took its toll, as the fierce focus of my obsession contributed to my girlfriend leaving me. After that, there was nothing keeping me in the Heartbreak Hotel called Germany. I applied for a grant to study in the States, got it, and was on my way.

I landed in San Francisco in 1986 to study filmmaking at the Art Institute with George Kuchar. On a cool late summer night, I went to see Tav Falco unleash his unique blend of rockabilly and country blues in a club down on Broadway. Sporting a big black curly pompadour, Tav proved to be an even more powerful performer than I could have imagined. He drove his group the Panther Burns, in his own words, like “the last steam engine train on the tracks that does nothing but run and blow.” The power of the music propelled the crowd into other realms of fierce, ritualistic reality. During the a hypnotic rendition of “Jump Suit,” Tav proclaimed: “Panthermen and Pantherwomen, this is the Invisible Empire!” The audience then stormed the stage to sing along.

After the show, I introduced myself to Tav, and was pleasantly surprised to find this feverish performer to be highly approachable. Warm and welcoming, Tav invited me to come along to a small informal aftershow party being thrown by a friend of his in an apartment by the beach not far from Golden Gate Park.

There, we sat and talked. Lorette Velvette, a warm and lanky Southern Belle and Tav’s muse at the time, sat curled in a chair strumming country blues songs on her acoustic guitar. Tav, dressed in a smart blue-and-white striped dress shirt with a white collar, long-sleeved vest, black cigarette pants and pointed black boots, stated his specific fondness for German Film Expressionism. He enthused about the trance-like states achieved by the medium Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt) in Robert Wiene’s 1920 silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. We bonded over a mutual affinity for the under-appreciated storytelling titan Erich von Stroheim and his romantic stylization of Vienna in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. I played a mix-tape of obscure ’50s and ’60s music, including the melancholy, almost Viennese, Hawaiian song “White Birds” that Lorette later adapted on her debut album.

Tav told me in his characteristically refined Southern drawl that he had at one time been an assistant to famed Memphis photographer William Eggleston. I knew of Eggleston and his status as the man who’d introduced color photography into the world of fine arts. I mentioned my fascination with a particular Eggleston photograph of an older, forlorn-looking white man standing beside his car close to a river, while behind him, with reverent distance, stood his white-uniformed black driver. Tav explained that Eggleston had taken the photograph at a funeral ceremony not visible in the frame, thus accounting for the somber atmosphere of the scene. We spoke about Astor Piazzola and Tav’s fascination with tango. Tav also wrote down a list of books I should read, including Against the Grain by Anthony Dunbar, Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren. Outside, the Pacific Ocean lashed the beach in dark waves.

We continued to hang out over the next few days, and by the end, Tav had commissioned me to film a movie/video clip for “Shadetree Mechanic,” the lewd double-entendre blues by Z.Z. Hill on Panther Burns’ new “Shake Rag” EP. We made a plan: I would fly to New Orleans, get picked up by Tav, go on tour with Panther Burns to Baton Rouge and Atlanta, then return to Memphis to shoot the movie. Almost all of the photographs that accompany this article were shot during this two-week adventure.

* * *

Tav had a rich background in filmmaking. Back in 1974 he’d recorded a black and white open-reel video of Delta bluesman R.L. Burnside (whose first name Tav pronounced “Rural”) performing in Burnside’s own honky-tonk, the Brotherhood Sportsmen’s Lodge near Como, Mississippi.

“R.L. used to play acoustic guitar in the ’40s and ’50s,” Tav told me, “but the first time I saw him, he was playing electric.” While I was staying at Panther Burns headquarters in Memphis, Tav screened his Burnside footage for me (some of it was later used in the Fat Possum documentary You See Me Laughin’). It blew my mind: I saw poor people dancing barefoot on a sawdust floor to the hypnotic beat of the local master, escaping life’s misery into the sanctuary of moonshine and cheap beer, entranced by a volatile, mass hypnosis-inducing, one-chord Blues in a wooden shack somewhere deep in Northern Mississippi.

It was Burnside, Tav told me, who had inspired him to pick up the electric guitar. The instrument became one of Tav’s primary tools during events that normally might be termed gigs, but because of Tav’s particular methods and aims he referred to as “art actions.”

It was during one such event in 1979 at the Orpheum Theatre on Beale Street that the Panther Burns were born. There, Tav delivered a frenzied solo performance of Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” Recalling the event, Tav says: “I did an art action with Jim Dickinson’s band, Mudboy and the Neutrons. I performed alone in full evening clothes, wore white gloves with the fingers cut out. I wanted to express publicly the frustration, alienation and discontent I felt, being some kind of trash from Arkansas, an artist and living on the margins.

“I got tired of the bourgeois thing happening in the States at that time. I was trying to work as a photographer and filmmaker and felt thwarted. I was a product of the ’60s, a time when I met a lot of people on the road. There were these mass movements of people across the country then, and a great deal of that time was dedicated to the rediscovery and the celebration of the Blues. I took up a guitar out of frustration. Bought this five dollar Sears Silvertone guitar and thought, I’m gonna give notice to the people, I’m gonna destroy my guitar and tell them, it’s a sad bourgeois town, and they can kiss my ass!“

“I was alone with the guitar, a police whistle, a SKIL saw and a chain saw, all put in use against each other. And little Bill Eggleston was there on my own Televista camera, videoing the entire event. He was videotaping onstage and it was being played back in real-time on a massive television monitor that I brought to the stage and aimed at the audience. So the powers-that-be could not control what I was feeding back to the audience, since I had my own video. Then immediately all three television stations descended upon my performance with their broadcast TV cameras. Many people noticed my gesture, like they were thinking the same thing, of doing some kind of spontaneous action. I hadn’t been thinking too much about it, because I was already living in that kind of art-action way. Alex Chilton was in the audience that night and we formed Panther Burns with Ross Johnson.”

* * *

Tav always collaborated musically with his idols. Beside playing with Chilton, Charlie Feathers and James Luther Dickinson, he had blues singer Jesse Mae Hemphill (a.k.a. Shewolf) and the marching drummers of Napoleon Strickland’s Cane Fife Band heavily destabilizing the already raucous rendition of “Bourgeois Blues” on his band’s debut album, 1981’s Behind the Magnolia Curtain. But despite the band’s impressive collective pedigree, Panther Burns was not about musical virtuosity, it’s about an aesthetic.

“To this day I regard myself more as a performer than a musician,” Tav told me in 2002. “It takes a special individual to play in the Panther Burns. You can’t just plug a musician into this music. To play this music is hard work for musicians, but easy for an artist. I would rather work with someone who’s got more of a philosophical orientation than sheer musical virtuosity to display in the band. I’m looking for something ineffable.”

* * *

My two-week trip into the world of Tav Falco and the Panther Burns was an inspirational fever dream that was over too soon. Yet the Panthers Burns themselves have never stopped.

Astoundingly well preserved over the last 20 years, the result of a physically, intellectually and artistically stimulating lifestyle and vegan diet, Tav Falco could be the true Dorian Gray of Rock’n’Roll. Now rumored to be approaching sixty years of age, he appears about two decades younger, especially energy-wise. Surrounding himself over the years with a set of arresting if not controversial men and women, this consummate entertainer continues to present his plethora of personas: rockabilly psycho, Italian crooner, heartbroken tango shadowdancer, country-blues aficionado. Like any intelligent original artist, he has explored different musical paths over the last 25 years, and now has the understated authority of a man who’s survived a quarter of a century worth of artistic dread and cultural homogenization.

There still is a fire burning in the Panther’s eye, and I admire him for that. And now, through the passage of time, his fire burns with a finer grain. I feel a bit like Claude Rains, talking to Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca. I never met a finer Southern gentleman than Tav Falco, and those days almost twenty years ago were the beginning of a beautiful friendship that continues today. As Tav himself signs his correspondence: Panther Burns Forever Lasting!

* * *


1. Pages 32-3:
Tav Falco and Lorette Velvette leaning on Tav’s 800 Norton, with their armed neighbors in the back, as photographed by James Chappell.

2. Page 34:
Lorette Velvette, leader of the Hellcats, and Panther Burns’ Italian drummer Giovanna Pizzorno drive over the train tracks somewhere in Arkansas.
Tav Falco was born into Italian roots in Gurdon, Arkansas, a sleepy railroad town between Little Rock and Texarkana, east of the Interstate on Highway 67. While driving through rural Arkansas in his 1964 Ford Thunderbird, the sight of the train tracks just outside of Bluff City, Memphis brings him back to his childhood:
“I was living out in the backwoods between Gurdon and Whelan Springs, Arkansas, a whistle stop on the railroad where the cannonball freight ran through it, way in the backwoods and not much bigger than Panther Burns in Mississippi.
“When a steam train came through, it covered the whole town in black smoke, you couldn’t see anything. It was like a fantastic mist that transported you into the netherworld of the imagination and the unconscious.
“Even today, the whole essence of the Panther Burns is to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious mind. That’s why we’re here. You can have a party, you can have sex, you can find your husband or wife—all this happens at Panther Burns shows. You can get spaced out. You can get drunk. You can lie on the floor, get stomped on. You can intermingle with the races, you can dance your ass off. But the essence of it is: stir up the unconscious mind.”
Childhood experience inspired young Tav to become a brakeman on the Missouri-Mississippi railroad, not unlike Jimmie Rodgers, the great country singer of the 1920s. In fact, in the beginning Tav and his band were billed in Memphis as Tav Falco, the Beale Street Blues Bopper and The Unapproachable Panther Burns. Later he changed it into Tav Falco, the Steppin’ Breakman and the U.P.B.
Tav: “The brakeman separates and couples the cars together. He climbs up on the car and sets the big round handbrake. He gives hand signals when to do what. A very romantic job.”

3. Page 34:
At an after-concert party in San Francisco, Lorette Velvette curls up in a chair, playing country blues, on a guitar while Ross Johnson listens.

4. Page 35:
Tav at home in Memphis wrestling with his Panther.
Tav’s Panther Burns Memphis HQ was a modest house at 2425 Princeton Avenue close to Overton Park. After having dinner at the Arcade on Calhoun Street, one of the best preserved ’50s restaurants in Tennessee, Tav screened the director Rudolph Mate’s glorious 1953 Technicolor riverboat classic Mississippi Gambler (starring Tyrone Power as gallant gentleman and quintessential showboat gambler Marc Fallon) as inspiration for a video shoot with the author.

5. Page 36-7:
Tav, stretched out at Sam Phillips, 639 Madison Avenue, Memphis.
Richard Pleuger: “After another fine fudge ice cream at the Arcade, Lorette, Giovanna, Tav and I went across the street to Candleroom 14, a local gris-gris voodoo shop. Inside it was pitch dark with the exception of weak neon tubes barely illuminating some glass cabinets displaying magical herbs for every possible evil deed and thought. The complete silence in the shop was only interrupted by an insanely old German shepherd licking one of the cabinet windows.
“The owner, a sophisticated older black man, appeared from behind a dark curtain and gave quiet instructions on different mojo hands and magic candles. I purchased a special book on herbs and a black candle in the form of a naked woman.
“During a photo session on the first floor of Sam Phillips’ studio on Madison Avenue, lawless elements broke into Tav’s Thunderbird and stole money and my book on herbs. We cursed the robbers to get ‘stinging nettle-afros’ and ‘thistle-mullets.’ I still don’t know what god or entity had a problem with my acquisitions, but he, she or it clearly did not want me to have them.”

6. Page 36:
After frustrating experiences telling German barbers how to carve something that looked like early Elvis (and oftentimes winding up looking like a sprouting potato), the author retreated to sporting a full-on Brian Jones-meets-Dave Aguilar-mop during his time in C.H.U.D.
Richard Pleuger [right]: “Upon my arrival in San Francisco I went to an old hairdresser on Market Street, showed him photographs of rockabilly singers Tex Rubinoviz and Billy Lee Riley [further right] and got exactly what I wanted: a straight old duck’s ass, lubricated into aerodynamic, jaw-dropping shape with gel and Final Net. I now had a tornado-proof helmet of defiance against all unnecessary trendiness.”

7. Pages 36-7:
Panther Burns perform live in downtown Atlanta.
The club was full of A Flock of Seagulls-type New Wavers who had never seen anything like The Panther Burns. The band had Giovanna on the drums, Rene Coman on bass, George Reinecke on special claw-hand guitar and a red-caped Tav thundering through “Cuban Rebel Girl” (named after the Errol Flynn movie filmed during the Cuban revolution in 1959), “Dateless Night” from Cordell Jackson’s Memphis-based Moon label, “I’m on This Rocket” (a cover suggested to Tav by the Cramps’ Lux Interior) and a version of Z.Z. Hill’s “Shadetree Mechanic.”
L.A. rockers Kip Tyler and the Flips’ rockerbride-anthem “She’s My Witch” got Tav’s eerie dessert nightwind treatment which tested the hairsprayed new wave happyhelmets of some listeners in front. Tav finished the set with the upbeat dance numbers “Mona Lisa” and “Tina, The Go-Go Queen,” climaxing with the psychosexual tango “Drop Your Masque.”
After the show, the band and their young hosts — architecture students and big Alex Chilton fans — ate at a restaurant close to the venue in downtown Atlanta. My rockabilly pompadour raised many an eyebrow in this Southern establishment.

8. Page 37
(From right to left: ) Lorette Velvette, Tav, New Orleans blues radio DJ Melinda Pendleton (who was going with PB guitarist George Reinecke at the time), and the author.

9. Page 38
Tav and a Kingrider inspect the Thunderbird’s engine during the video shoot.

10. Page 39:
Tav’s neighbors: Sammi Lee Williams, wife Jeany and daughter Sharee Ann.
Richard Pleuger: “When Tav and Lorette introduced me to their neighbors, it dawned on me that these were the people on the porch behind them in the photograph on the back cover of the “Sugarditch Revisited” EP, an image that I had enlarged and hung on my wall in Germany.
“Sammi Lee Williams was an Indian from Mississippi. His massive frame was sat either on his porch or in a wheelchair. Years before he had wrecked his Honda 450 on a stormy day in Memphis. He was thrown through the air after hitting a car and came down in a liquor store parking lot. They put him into two plastic bags and thought he was dead. Sam survived somehow, but never healed. His leg always had an open, gangrenous wound in which strange things grew.
“Sam collected trash for a living and stored most of it in a rusty school bus in his backyard. Sam had a coyote called Blue Eye, a couple of dogs, and about eighteen overexcited puppies.
“His wife Jeany and daughter Sharee Ann were very nice, mentally handicapped people, who under Sam’s direction had built a huge fence around the property. Those ‘goddamn young hippie-redneck’ neighbors had apparently been drunk out of their mind two months back and had a ball shooting two of his beloved dogs in the early morning hours. Since then Sam’s paranoia had risen. He told all of his visitors—including us—not to make any sudden movements in the house, and to step lightly. The fuses of the live hand grenades he had stored in sawdust “somewhere in a backroom” could go off any second. (Tav told me that Sam had also molded his own bullets out of liquid lead, but I never saw them.)”
“A year later, Tav recorded the rockabilly song Warrior Sam by Don Willis and the Orbits and wrote in his liner notes that ‘Warrior Sam lives on the porch next door.’ When Tav returned from his first European tour, Warrior Sam was no more. Sami had the habit of slapping Jeany and Sharee Ann with his crutch when he was displeased with their work on the high fence. Apparently, he had done that once too often. Jeany knocked him over in the wheelchair, took all the money in the house and left for Mississippi with their daughter. Sammi Lee Williams had a heart attack and was left to die, which he did.”

11. Page 39:
Drummer Giovana Pizzorno, Tav Falco and Lorette Velvette at Sam Phillips Recording Service.

12. Pages 38-9:
Tav Falco and friends during “Shadetree Mechanic” shoot. Right: Tav and a Kingrider inspect the Thunderbird’s engine during the shoot.
“Say you ain’t had a tune-up in a long, long while/ I’ll give you good service with a smile.” —”Shadetree Mechanic” by Z.Z. Hill
Richard Pleuger: “The idea of the “Shadetree Mechanic” video was for me to show a day in the world of the Unapproachable Panther Burns: their women, house, cars, hogs, dogs, garage, music, bodyguards and rituals.
“The film begins with Lorette and Giovanna getting out of bed in the morning with their wire-haired dachshund Daniac. They cruise around Memphis in a Thunderbird, buy an ice cream and drive through the surrounding countryside in Tennessee and Arkansas. They pick up hitchhiking love-starved guitarist George Reinecke, who behaves badly and is thrown out quickly near a pigsty. On the way back to Memphis, their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in an enchanted garage with several engineering professionals. One in particular, Tav, gets the attention of Lorette.
“The shoot took place at night in a warehouse garage in an industrial area in Memphis adjoining the black neighborhoods that were complete ghettos. A very dangerous place. The garage was inhabited by Randy, the mechanic who went with Diane Green, one of the guitarists in the Memphis girl-band The Hellcats.
“Filming at night in the end of November in Memphis quickly put the mechanics of Tav’s own 16mm Bolex camera to the test. The spring-wind, with which you wind the camera up until it runs for about 30 seconds without electricity, did not work properly at times due to the freezing cold. The Stroheim-like precision with which I swore I would make this video clip into a dark Southern Rock’n’Roll masterpiece went unnervingly out the proverbial window in this windowless garage.
“We had assembled a strange mix of people, meeting then and there for the first and maybe the last time. Tav Falco, the Hellcats, Sammi Lee Williams with his blue-eyed coyote on his thigh, Sam’s daughter and his wife holding the stick with the all-seeing hand (an emblem of Panther Burns lore), and Ray Dayton, president of the all-black Harley Riders Motorcycle Club, along with his fellow Club members.
“Lying on a board fixed to the wall overseeing the whole scenario underneath me, the malfunctioning Bolex brought me to the verge of inner hysteria. Yet any possible volatility among this crowd I had envisioned beforehand was replaced by a camaraderie and kinship that only Tav Falco could have created. Meanwhile I did my best in directing and created the desired precision later on the Steenback in the editing room.
“Two days after the movie shoot two members of our film crew were beaten up and robbed. It seemed like yet another example of Sleepy John Estes’ statement that Memphis is the leader of all dark going-ons in this world.”

13. Page 41
The historic Showcase Lounge in Memphis, photographed in 1974 by Tav.
When talking about Memphis, where he honed his creative fire and which formed the mythical basis for his work, Tav becomes ominous.
“When B.B. King, Bobbie Blue Bland and Jacky Wilson headlined at the Memphis Auditorium in 1966, there were only three white people there: Randall Lyon, Robert Palmer from the New York Times and myself.
“In 1968, I went to the Showcase Lounge at Orange Mound to see Howlin’ Wolf. Only six white people in the joint that night, nobody else.
“Memphis is a place of murder and death. They kill artists there, it’s documented. They tried to kill the great piano player Phineas Newborn, broke his hand. They killed supreme guitarist Lee Baker, who used to play with Jim Dickinson and his Mudboy and the Neutrons. A kid who was renting a house from Lee shot him.
“They killed the great painter Dwight Jordan. Shot him, point blank range. Race plays a part. ‘Cause he was going with Connie Gidwani, one of our go-go dancers. He was a black artist and she was a white girl. Jordan was a quiet man, a gifted painter from the Oakland School of Arts and Crafts who studied with Diego Riviera and became a mural painter. This wealthy art patron from Memphis took him in and he painted murals in banks. Connie’s brother, a convicted felon just out of jail, shot Dwight in her living room.
“Memphis is full of crazed random violence. Memphis killed Elvis. He died of loneliness there. Memphis will never be safe. Maybe this is good for Rock ‘n’ Roll, I don’t know.”

14. Page 41
Tav Falco and his fully extended “Tapir Billy” hair, at William Eggleston’s villa.
Richard Pleuger: “We drove to William Eggleston’s villa on motorbikes. I was riding Tav’s 1968 Triumph Trophy 650 that he’d bought off a deputy sheriff in Bryant, Arkansas. Tav took his 600 Norton. I told Tav that in the ’30s and ’40s my uncle was known as ‘The Race Tiger’ on his NSU-cycles and cars, made by the company that is now Audi.
“It was the first time I rode a motorcycle, and we had to duck bats going through a city park. Tav came up with the name Bat Marauders M.C., and later integrated this imaginary gang into his movie script Girls On Fire.
“After arriving at Eggleston’s villa, we were treated to a listening session to the music of then-hot country band Asleep At The Wheel on Eggleston’s newly self-created speaker-system. The debonair photographer then showed us some of his newest 11×14 color prints, containing his usual trademark empty spaces and mysterious depictions of urban and rural boredom.
“I asked Eggleston how he worked, and he laid down the law: ‘Shoot every subject only once.’ (A few years later he titled his next book, The Democratic Forest.) He then played Bach on his 17th century piano in an adjoining room. Atop the piano was a literal army of ’40s and ’50s Leica cameras. One had a brown suede lining with a Swastika.
“We went outside to Eggleston’s garden overlooking the empty pool. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the atmosphere of Sunset Boulevard. Eggleston showed us his six new engraved York shotguns that he was going to use on his next hunting outing in Spain. Tav took a photo of me with Eggleston with my Asahi Pentax. Eggleston complimented me on the camera, saying he used the same one often. As we left, I remember Eggleston swearing on his way up the spiral staircase about his son’s blaring punk rock music.”

15. Page 41
Alex Chilton enters his parents’ house.
Richard Pleuger: “Tav introduced me to his friend Alex Chilton in a Memphis guitar shop. I remember Chilton as a very gentle and intelligent man, genuinely interested in issues not related to music (although he did tell me I should listen to Slim Harpo).
“On the way to Chilton’s parents’ house, where he stayed when he was in town, Chilton told me about the urban renewal that had changed certain areas in Memphis in the ’60s and ’70s. The black slums became white slums, and the path Martin Luther King walked from Clayborn Temple AME church to Beale Street was paved with concrete. Even the little shortcut to the house of Chilton’s parents was blocked by construction.
“I wasn’t feeling sneaky when I turned around and photographed this tragic hero of timeless music entering the house. It was just the right mood in the last light of this late autumn day. A few years later, Chilton’s mother, a former gallery owner and one of Eggleston’s earliest champions, burned to death in this house.”

1. Charlie Feathers and Tav, photographed by Gisela Getty.
Tav Falco: “We deal with truth in Panther Burns. Some people ask, how much of this is parody? Parody is a high art. But nonetheless, art is predicated upon truth, whether it’s parody, satire, written poetry, Rock’n’Roll, or a short story. Shredded truth—that’s what you have to deal with in the Panther Burns.
“We know it takes a good song and we know this song has to have truth in it. That’s what Charlie Feathers told us in the beginning in Memphis. Once Charlie Feathers tells you what’s required of a good performance, you don’t forget it.
“Charlie Feathers said, ‘If you are not doing something different, you are not doing anything at all.’ There is a lot of ritual and repetition in what we do, for effect. The point is: the totality of what you do has to be different and original. And there is no band like Panther Burns.”

2. The Lore of the Panther Burns.
This painting depicts the four elements of the Cult of Dionysius: Pinecone, Panther, Mask, and Snake. The painting was made in 1983, when Tav was a resident of New York City, living in a Chinatown apartment Jean-Michel Basquiat had just vacated, leaving behind his paintings on the walls.
Tav: “I was staying there with Kai Eric, an artist who played bass with the Panther Burns. We did this painting between the apartment and an artificial bubble we had built on the roof of this building. That’s where I also slept during that summer, with a girl from The Clitts, a Rock’n’Roll band from Memphis that Alex Chilton had put together.”

There’s a limited supply: Arthur No. 3 (pub’d Feb 2003) aka THE JOE STRUMMER WAKE ISSUE


We’ve got 50 copies left of Arthur No. 3 (cover date March 2003, pub’d February, 2003). This one’s from the original incarnation (read: best) of Arthur—the pages are gigantic (11×17) and the paper is reasonably high-quality newsprint. Some color, some b/w. We’re selling our remaining stock for $5 each over at the Arthur Store.

Notes on this issue…

Joe Strummer died on December 22, 2002. His death received some notice, of course, but since he’d left us in the period between Thanksgiving and the New Year—when glossy music and culture magazines are basically shut down—real coverage of his passing, and the life that he lived, didn’t happen in the pop culture magazines of record. Big-budget American publications like Rolling Stone, Spin and Blender had already finished their January 2003 issues, so major features couldn’t fit in there without major expense (pulled features, pulped magazines, etc.); and by the time their February 2003 issues rolled around, the news of Joe’s passing would be (to their market-minds) “stale,” and thus to be deserving of only an obligatory page or two. Which is absurd for someone of Joe’s stature, his body of work, and commitment to The Cause.

At Arthur, we decided to pull the cover feature that we had in progress. Working together, with no editorial budget, the budding Arthur gang was able to put together something of substance very quickly, and get it out to the people, for free, in mass quantities (50,000 copies), within weeks of Joe’s passing.

Our wake for Joe Strummer would not have happened without journalist/archivist Kristine McKenna. She had a recent, lengthy (3800 words), and yes, poignant conversation with Joe on tape—a really great conversation, of course (this IS Kristine McKenna, after all) that the LAWeekly had used just a bit from in a feature earlier in the year. Kristine had witnessed The Clash at the top of their game, so she could offer some real historical perspective. And, crucially, Kristine knew that her friend, the L.A. photographer Ann Summa, had a trove of gorgeous photographs of Joe, few of which had ever been published. And Kristine got us permission to reprint a Clash-related page from Slash, the crucial late-’70s underground L.A. magazine. Meanwhile, my old colleague Carter Van Pelt, a reggae enthusiast, offered a new interview about Joe that he conducted with Mikey Dread.

Soon we had reports from all over. People were picking up multiple copies of the magazine and redistributing it. The golden centerfold of Ann Summa photo of Joe (worked on with a great deal of care and attention by Arthur’s brilliant art director, W.T. Nelson) was being torn out of the magazine and posted on record store walls, in dorm rooms, in clubs. There are other strong pieces in this issue—the John Coltrane book excerpt, especially—but it’s Joe’s issue. As it should be.

Here’s how the contents page read:

JOE STRUMMER, 1952-2002

Arthur holds a wake in print for a man who mattered. In addition to stunning photographs by Ann Summa and excerpts of back-in-the-day Clash coverage from Slash magazine, we present reflections on Joe by Kristine McKenna; a lengthy, poignant interview with Joe from 2001 by McKenna; a consideration by Carter Van Pelt of the Clash’s embrace of reggae, featuring insights from Clash collaborator Mikey Dread; and a brief on Joe’s legacy: a forest in the Isle of Skye.

At the height of both his popularity and his artistic powers, JOHN COLTRANE went for something deeper. An exclusive, chapter-length excerpt from A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album by Ashley Kahn.

The intrepid Gabe Soria connects with every single member of THE POLYPHONIC SPREE, the cheeriest 24-person pop symphony on the planet, in addition to chatting at length with Spree leader Tim DeLaughter about the “c” word, the Spree’s next move, and the sadness that remains. Portrait by Paul Pope.

“ASK JOHN LURIE”: He may be in self-described “hermit mode” but this longtime Lounge Lizard is eager to lend a helping hand to his fellow man. And woman too.

In the work of artist SHIRLEY TSE, plastic aspires to more than Pop. Mimi Zeiger reports.

COMICS by Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson, Marc Bell and Ron Rege Jr.

Byron Coley & Thurston Moore review underground music, film and texts.

And more more more

Arthur No. 3 is available from the Arthur Store.

NSFW — CLICK TO ENGORGE: "Screwed" by Peter Kuper (2002)

The great Peter Kuper offered this to Arthur for publication in our anti-war/empire issue, No. 5, published in June 2003: 50,000 copies distributed free across North America.

We had it in layout format—I can’t remember if it was going to take up the centerfold spread as well as one more page—but my partner-in-Arthur at the time, publisher L**** K******, overruled me and Arthur art director W.T. Nelson. Dang! It was probably the most succinct piece—and certainly the most prophetic—that was contributed to the mag. The piece never ran. Here it is, several years too late. Read it and weep.

We’ve uploaded the pages at the largest size possible so that you can print ’em out in high-res. Just click on each page to engorge, I mean enlarge.

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A DEEPER SHADE OF DOOM: Sunn 0)))) and Earth, profiled by author Brian Evenson (Arthur, 2005)

A Deeper Shade of Doom
How do the drone-metal bands Earth and Sunno))) get something out of nothingness?

By Brian Evenson
Photography and layout by W. T. Nelson

Originally published in Arthur No. 20 (Dec 2005)

In 1993 the Olympia, Washington-based band Earth released their second album, Earth 2. No drums, no voices, two guitars, nothing else. It was ambient music done by a demon on downers—highly lugubrious, with slowed-down underwater metal riffs. Earth 2 traded in the glam, stagy evil of classic heavy metal for a brooding darkness, simultaneously a descent into hell and a sort Buddhist chant pushing you toward either Nirvana or nothingness (you choose). It was the kind of wandering super-vibrating music that makes your leg tingle where you’d broken it ten years before. Not only was it something you couldn’t dance to, it was something you couldn’t move to. It slowly shut you down. And with each of its three tracks over fifteen minutes long, by the time you’d finished the album you felt like you’d never start back up again.

Earth 2 is the ur-album of drone metal (it’s probably not a coincidence that their name is the same one originally used by Black Sabbath). It’s nothing at all like the grunge stuff—Nirvana and Mudhoney for instance—that their then-label Sub Pop was putting out then. But after Earth 2, the band—really just guitarist Dylan Carlson and whoever he wanted to partner with at the time—moved in different directions. Phase 3: Thrones and Dominions, a hard-to-find album from 1995 that you can pick up on disk for around $90 (or at itunes for $9), added one more guitarist and, for one track, a drummer. 1996’s Pentastar (In the Style of Demons) was still drone-y but just a hair away from being a rock album: cleaner sound, drums on all the tracks, deliberate shapes to the songs (most of which ran around five minutes), and even some vocals.

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How to effectively subvert corporate branding and manufacturing: an interview with Rasmus Nielsen of SUPERFLEX (Arthur, 2005)

Originally published in Arthur No. 14 (January 2005)


How art collective/company SUPERFLEX is changing the world, one soda pop at a time.

Text by Jay Babcock, photography by W.T. Nelson.

Openings at art galleries always offer beverages, but this is taking the concept to the extreme: here, at downtown Los Angeles’ Roy and Edna Disney/Cal Arts Theatre (REDCAT) gallery one night this past spring, the drink—which is being bottled and sold in the gallery itself—is the art.

The drink on offer is a berry-flavored energy soda called Guarana Power, jointly developed in the last year by two cooperatives: a three-man Copenhagen-based art collective called Superflex and COIMA, a guarana berry farming collective based in Maues, Brazil. For the next month, REDCAT will be transformed into an in-house Guarana Power bottler and an instructional workshop in a strategy as delicious and inspiring as the drink itself: the exploitation of powerful transnational corporations by an alliance of self-organizing third-world farmers.

Intrigued by the underlying concept, the accompanying literature and the simply unbelievable documentary films being screened in the gallery, I contacted Superflex’s Rasmus Nielsen, in town with fellow Superflexer Jakob Fenger as visiting faculty at CalArts for a semester, for an interview.

ARTHUR: How did the Guarana Power drink come about?

Rasmus Nielsen: We were invited by the Amazon Government to a residency in Brazil. We were contacted by this cooperative of guarana farmers, who wanted to present themselves and wanted to talk about their organization, because we had said we were interested in how various people locally have organized themselves They came to us and explained to us why they had formed this organization.

Guarana is a berry, it looks like an eye, it grows on these bushes, it’s a very old Indian tradition that you dry it and then you pound it and then you mix it with water or juice and then you drink it. It has caffeine and other kinds of energetic elements—it’s like an energy drink, and it’s used in sodas. The biggest soda in South America, bigger than Coca Cola, is a guarana-based soda called Antarctica Guarana.

What had happened was these small breweries had merged and founded their own big company which was called the American Beverage Company, AMBEV. Pepsico was a part of that also, that major fusion. It was kind of a classical trend that comes with globalization, you have these big fusions, which then begin to monopolize the purchase of the raw commodities.

Because they are basically one big group, they can dictate the price they purchase the berries at…

And there’s nothing illegal in that, they’re not committing any kind of crime or anything. But what happened was prices fell 80% in just a couple of years! That affected this area a lot, because selling their guarana is their area’s main income. So these guys had formed this cooperative to try and deal with that situation. They didn’t want to have to sell their guarana to AMBEV at these low prices—but then they didn’t who else to sell it to.

So we agreed on making a workshop. The whole cooperative came and we showed them some ideas we had seen in other places and situations, the main idea being, What if you twist the situation? The way these big multinationals work is they use the raw material coming from farmers. What if the farmers used the raw materials that the company is producing, which is their identity, their brand, their logo, all this kind of stuff?

That was one part of it. We also agreed that unless you have to have some part in the next phase of the commodification of the guarana. If you don’t, you are fucked, basically. This is case for most of the Third World farmers; this is the logic of the present global economic structure. If you are a sugar or coffee producer or whatever, if you’re only a producer of raw materials, then you are screwed. The raw material producers be part of the commodification, or own elements of the chain, that’s the key.

And it’s not gonna be sold as a high-end soda, or a “fair price” soda. A lot of the alternatives to big global market structures try to talk to your moral sense, like “Be ethical. Buy this coffee that costs ten dollars more per kilo.” We don’t wanna go that way. We wanna totally appropriate the rules of the basic soda. This is not gonna be pushed as a fair-price thing, but as a soda, where you like it. Of course you like the idea, but you don’t buy it necessarily because of your moral point of view. Cuz I think those attempts have failed, somehow. Not totally, but it will always only be a small portion of the people. Like, how often do you buy “fair price” coffee? It’s really hard to find! So we try to not make something special, but just do the same thing as the normal sodas, same price as normal sodas. Same level, somehow. But it’s owned by the producers, rather than multinationals.

How did you come up with this idea?

For a long time we’ve worked in Thailand, where copying as an economic strategy. You copy a Rolex watch or a shirt or something and sell it. It’s an economic strategy. But then there’s another element to it, which is the interesting part: you copy something, and you TWIST it a little bit, and then you send it back. Maybe you change the name a little bit. Maybe you add your local flavor.

So we showed the guarana collective a couple examples of this, one of them being an example from France, where some French Tunisian second-generation guys have launched a product called Mecca Cola. They use the Coca Cola imagery with red and white and cursive but then substitute the word “Mecca,” which is the city in Saudi Arabia of great importance. Mecca Cola has succeeded in making politics in the framework of the market, basically: the surplus of the Mecca Cola goes to so-called humanitarian issues in Palestine. I don’t know exactly what that means [laughs] but anyway it makes a policy using Coca Cola as a medium, somehow. That strategy we found interesting.

We also know, because we have communicated with these Mecca Cola people, that the guy who started it was a radio journalist.

They had no experience in making sodas, but they were able to do it.

Right. So people started thinking and then coming up with ideas and what came out of the workshop was, We should make a soda. That’s the most obvious thing. Then we discussed how this would look and things like that. We made a prototype of this soda which we showed in the Venice Biennial in Italy last year. Now we’re showing it here in L.A. The next step is there are some people who want to put money into it. The final goal of course is to get in to a market situation and then make a foundation that owns the recipe and takes care of it. This cannot develop into a copy of the structure that these multinational corporations represent, but something that has a different character, that is owned by the people who are producing the guarana and the idea.

You had to figure out the recipe. Reverse-engineering.

We took one of these big sodas that we were somehow copying, that we wanted to modify, and took it to a chemist. He deciphered it, and came up with a recipe, which is probably pretty close to the original one. Exactly. But then we added a lot more of guarana to it. We modified it. But taste-wise, it follows close to the original one.

Of course this is slightly dangerous. Copyright-wise, you can get into trouble. But that’s consciously built into our strategy. We thought, Well if these people come after us, that also highlights the problem that they are causing.

Have you got in trouble yet?

Not yet. We have with other projects. We made a modified Danish lamp that we had copied in Bangkok, and we made it so it would work with biogas instead of electricity. But that lamp is illegal. I can’t show you a picture of it. It would be illegal! Copyright law is stretching out to more and more areas of society, and of course that’s usually serving the guys on top.

You’re taking the “open source” idea from software development—Linux, etc.—and taking it to things much more fundamental: what we drink, how we light our homes…

Yeah. We did a project in Italy where we had art students copying things from 7-11, like Mars Bars and toothpaste. Copying them, changing them maybe a little bit, and then selling them at a market. When I was a kid, we used to have this soda fountain machine, where you could make your own soda at home. It felt as a kid so empowering. You could make your own soda! Of course it was a soda company selling it to you anyway but that idea of reverse-engineering–I think it’s very interesting. Imagine if you started making your own Mars Bars! It’s a very small political act but if a lot of people would do that it would change fundamental economic structures.

Copying is a strategy of economics, but it’s also a strategy of some kind of counter-identity strategy. The potential empowerment in doing that, taking apart, reverse engineering these brands, this specific capitalist cultural power that comes from these brands, taking it a part bit by bit somehow… It’s about being on top of things you put in your mouth, things you buy, things you wear.

For Guarana Power, it looks like you stamped your new logo literally on top of the “Antarctica Guarana” logo.

Yeah. Actually in the beginning we modified the original logo just a little bit. We were showing it in the National Gallery in Finland, and their lawyer was afraid that they would sued by Pepsico or Ambev or something. Which is interesting that even before you do something in a museum , there’s a lawyer’s copyright checking you! It shows you how far the copyright law stretches out into contemporary culture. We were sitting and talking with her and we said, “Well okay what about if we self-censor it? Just put a black box in front of it.” But she was like, “Yeah but you can still see it in the back.” Then we were like, “Okay we will make it a little bit bigger.” She’s a lawyer, knowing about these things, and then at the end she says, “Okay now it’s big enough, now you can do it.” We ended up kind of liking it, that it was sort of censored but you could still… In South America, you will recognize it. It’s like if you used the red color with a Coke with a black color, then it’s Coca Cola. And Coca Cola tried to copyright those two things together, the color red and Coke, which they failed in. That’s like copyrighting a car, or shoes, or something.

You come from Denmark. How did you become interested in people in the plight of third world farmers?

Basically just being there. We were in a residency in the Amazon, and we were just listening to what they were telling us. Of course they are living in a totally different situation then us—I come from a Northern European, very rich country—but somehow we are part of the same economic structure, and we are both faced with economic and cultural pressure coming from this contemporary capitalist culture. They are the producers of the stuff we drink. Even Coca-Cola takes caffeine out of guarana and puts it in Coke! It’s all very linked. In that way, it’s natural to be interested in where things come from.

I’m trying to think really hard about how did I get interested. I wouldn’t say it’s just ethics: ‘I’m trying to be a good moral person and therefore I should do something good.’ That’s not the issue. Their situation is so typical. You don’t need to be an economist to figure this out. Things get produced in the Third World, gets commodified and branded by the First World, and sold and the profit gets made. That’s why things are so cheap here. That’s kind of how it works. I feel if I could change that just a little bit, that makes my day somehow.

Not all of the projects we do are Third World-based. They all deal somehow with elements of empowerment and self-organizing. It’s somehow a trend in contemporary capitalist logic to disable community structures: it could be family structures in America, it could be guarana farmers in Brazil – so we try to make these tools that empower people with creating their own TV stations, or energy systems, or soda, or whatever.

You come at this from an art angle, not an activist angle. You’re an art collectiove. How can you afford to do this?

We were trained in sculpture at the Denmark Royal Academy of Fine Arts. But the framework of the art world seemed too narrow, somehow. On the other hand, it was a space available that was not totally defined by the same parameters that you would find in business, where you basically have to make a surplus, or in academia where you somehow have to produce a specific kind of result, which is very often also based on some kind of economic thinking. So we found this area that was a white space where you could experiment with things and do things that failed. You could ask questions without necessarily having answers. You could make models, propose projects that may not be sound or economically viable. All these opportunities put together made us not totally leave the art world, while also having an activity that’s going on totally outside.

In a museum situation, like here at Redcat, it’s showing a model, it’s showing a prototype, it’s discussing a problem in a public forum. I guess you could do that somewhere else, also, but in this particular case, the context of art facilitates a project like that. We’re basically just pirating on that structure, and they don’t seem to mind!

Of course there’s potentially also a danger. You have to be aware when you use this strategy, it could also turn out, “Well this is kind of JUST art, therefore it’s not really serious, maybe doesn’t really mean anything.” There’s a certain element of repressive tolerance built in to that structure also. You just have to be aware of that when you work there, that this can happen, that it can be commodified as an art object. Everything can be turned into objects within this context. You just have to work with that, somehow.

And Superflex is a company as well as an artists’ collective.

Yes. If you want to achieve something today, what form can you choose that is most flexible in contemporary society? The role of the artist is definitely pretty limited. You do a project like the soda project or biogas and you go out to an investor, they wouldn’t take you seriously because you’re an artist. But as a corporation? Suddenly they listen. You just use the language that this world understands. It’s somehow about appropriating identities to make things happen.

The projects have different spaces that they operate in. One can be an artspace and one can be a farm in Africa. Sometimes they merge. Sometimes funding from one place goes to the other. Like this biogas project: it’s basically a system that makes energy out of shit. It makes gas in your kitchen, so you can make food on waste, basically. We made a small system that facilitates that. It’s an energy system that enables people to become self-sufficient in energy: you don’t have to buy energy, or firewood or charcoal, you don’t have to walk really far to the forest to get firewood, you can make your own energy from basically the shit that your household generates. It is not a new invention, we took some technology and scaled it down, so it’s basically on a family level for families in Cambodia or Thailand. For that project, there were investors who came and put money in the project as a kind of investment thing, totally outside the art context, and part of that money we have also used within the art context. And vice versa.

You just have to remember in the morning what hat to put on. It’s a little bit confusing sometimes. It’s like applied schizophrenia. You try somehow to avoid specialization, which is a global tendency also. Because, for example, if this project ONLY was an art project, I think it would have limits. It would probably be commodified and then some kind of art collector would buy it and it would end up in a corner in a … That kind of limit.

We think of our work as tools that can work on different levels at the same time, without that sort of opposing each other. Right now we teach at Cal Arts. We’ve also taught at an agriculture school in Cambodia. In that situation, our background as artists doesn’t have any importance at all. It’s not a secret… but in that situation we are agricultural consultants. Again, just remember what hat to wear.

When did Superflex start, and how big are you now?

We started working together in ’93 in art school. There was three when we started and there’s still three and it’s the same three. It’s similar to marriage! [laughs] We live in Denmark, and then depending on the project we go and stay a month here and a month there. Bjorn [Christiansen, the third Superflex] is in Germany now, doing this open-source Mars bar thing with some German students. Basically he’s making a market where you copy things from 7-11 and sell them, close to another 7-11.

For different projects, there’s usually specialists involved. For example with Guarana Power, we work with a chemist. Of course, these technicians we work with, we can’t pay them what they’re worth, but they think it’s interesting to maneuver in different spaces as well. For example this guy we are working with now, he’s making a whiskey for Saudi Arabia, without alcohol. He’s using some kind of chili pepper to fake the alcohol feeling. And he says people get drunk! So, he likes trying out things like that. He gets to play!

POSTSCRIPT: An update from Superflex, October 16, 2004:
“Guarana Power is now on the market in Denmark, mainly in cafes and small shops. It’s small-scale distribution, but it’s going well. We have also opened a Guarana Power Bar in our office that runs every weekend. More info at