Monday, May 2, 2011

A Head Start on the Summertime Blues

Hello, All.
Good to be here again.
The other day my son was watching Tom & Jerry, and in the episode there was a line of kittens awaiting entry into Heaven. They stopped by the entrance desk one by one, St. Peter checked them off, then in they went. As the line progressed one kitten hopped forward, mewling from inside a burlap sack, and was duly checked off for entry. My son was puzzled: what's with the sack? I explained that some people used to take unwanted animals, such as kittens, tie them up and throw them into the nearest body of water, thereby solving the problem of what to do with them. It's an old cultural phenomenon from days past, much like another staple of cartoons of the era, the hobo with his worldly goods tied to a bindle and thrown over his shoulder.

Such things fade over time and become curiosities for future generations. Consider the easy visual shorthand that's used to convey CLASSROOM: a chalkboard overlooking a desk that's graced with an apple that's been brought by some well-meaning child who in these cynical days we'd call a suck-up (hence the derisive term "apple-polisher"). As far as that apple goes, back in the heady days of my boyhood all cereal commercials featured the tagline "...part of this complete breakfast." Over time, as we moved away from the delusion that kids gave a tinker's damn (great old expression) about anything other than powering through half a box of the product in question, the visual simply came to include one lone apple, or orange.
How about the ad where we're told to "dial" a number, or being told in an office somewhere to "dial" 9 to get out...vestigial. No real surprise, though, as we had dial telephones for about the first 50 years of the device's existence.
Ditto that for another old appliance, the turntable. Whenever someone wants to signify an abrupt halt, or simply get the listener's attention, the sound of a needle being yanked of a record, with accompanying scratch, is heard. Even if we're not consciously paying attention, we still hear that sound and know what it least those of a certain age, which is my point.
How will our children, and theirs, know what it means to "tune in," that there were ever rigidly defined "seasons" for television, that there was once actually bubble gum in "bubble gum cards"? One recent example really points this up. The Adult Swim for a revamped Aqua Teen Hunger Force claims that the three are now back, as Private Dicks, *snicker snicker*. Who but the geeks among us knows that's old slang for "private detective"?

GTMO daze...
So: last week, the Supreme Court voted to begin to recognize the grievances of Guantanamo Bay detainees, a group that's extremely varied in its makeup and includes slavering, murderous zealots (thanks, WikiLeaks, for much of that confirmation) but also a fair number of bumblers, foot soldiers and hangers-on. Very well. Might we now move forward in addressing this situation in some fashion or other?

Anthony Kennedy wrote the detailed majority opinion, rightly seen as a rebuff to the 2006 Military Commissions Act decision that formally withdrew combatants' habeus corpus rights. He did so to simply try to bring an end to these prisoners' seemingly endless limbo. Antonin Scalia, to no one's surprise, fumed that the decision "...will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed." Well, yes, if our intention as a nation is to stay abroad, mired in a pointless series of wars forever.
The 2006 acts included the now-(in)famous "tribunals," as well as the component that actually provided for the suspension of habeus corpus, the Detainee Treatment Act. (Strangely, the Bush White House never invoked the Constitution's "suspension" clause, that provides for extreme cases). May we now send some of these people home? What difference does it make if they hate us here or hate us there? Will they ever become de-radicalized? Of course not, and there's no stopping anyone from plotting anything anywhere. Essentially, there are two options: release them or execute them. The case could be made for the latter; after all, American servicemen can be found guilty of treason and executed during times of war - why not a really wound-up foreign national with a grudge?

The only other option is absurd, and that's jailing them somewhere (as the aftermath of some actual legal proceedings or other), something we all know is insoluble. We should clear the books, repatriate them all back to the swarming hives from whence they came and be done with the whole business. That's not what will happen, though, not with a political football such as this. We'll see it grind forward for years, then - one snail's-pace appeal after the other...

Red Pencils, Liquid Lunches
In 2003, Al Silverman was poking around in his attic, about to move to back to New York City after 38 years out in the country. As he selected what to keep and what to cull, he kept coming across reminders of his time in publishing, first with the Book-of-The-Month Club, then, beginning in 1988, as editor and publisher for Viking/Penguin. An idea occurred to him then. Many of the large-than-life figures in the book world were gone, and the remaining crowd were getting no younger. He'd been felt out before about publishing a memoir, so why not?
He began to seek out old friends and associates, and some time later emerged from the keyboard with The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Publishers, Their Editors and Authors (Truman Talley/St. Martin's Press, 2008). Here was a chance to comb through his recollections, and ponder a different time when books were a major part of life, writers were scrutinized for their strange and wonderful offerings, and a high-profile editor could throw enough weight around for even the surliest of publishers to shut up and listen. The result is a delight, and offers as well a primer on the Postwar American literary world, its houses and their chief figures.

Silverman begins in that year of bright promise - 1946 - wherein the ascot-sporting Roger Straus (possessor of a "biblical arsenal of obscenities") snatches John Farrar from Stanley Rinehart and Robert Giroux from Harcourt and forms Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Giroux had been tantalizingly close to landing J.D. Salinger for Harcourt, but his powers were reined in a bit. He did bring Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Bernard Malamud and Jack Kerouac with him to the new imprint, though.
The house went on to land Nobel Prizes with works from Isaac Bashevis Singer, Aleksandr Solzhenitzen, Pablo Neruda, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney (and currently publishes pack-leading young turk Jonathan Franzen). Definitely a backlist of substance.

Atheneum was formed amid further poaching, this time by Alfred A. "Pat" Knopf, Jr., who rounded up Mike Bessie for Harper and Hiram Haydn from Random House. The trio started with a stable that included Hersey, Cheever, Styron and Puzo, and before a cessation of activities in 1994 had published those writers and more, and seen firsthand the ways of the merger and its effects. Shortly after Herman Gollob began whipping the words of James Clavell into shape, and Tom Stewart began working with the young Garrison Keillor and Jonathan Kellerman, Atheneum underwent a merger with the old-line survivor Charles Scribner's Sons; this concern was later acquired by Macmillan, with that consortium absorbed by Simon & Schuster!
We meet St. Martin's Press, born of the Anglo-American Macmillan, and learn of its first splash - Anatomy of a Murder, as a prelude to a number of successes including a manuscript (rescued from the slush pile) by a Yorkshire vet named James Harriot, and the landing of one Thomas Harris and his fiendishly delightful Hannibal Lecter.

Silverman then delves into a powerhouse trio that includes Viking, Doubleday and Harper. Viking is the story of Ben Huebsch, who introduced James Joyce in America, as well as D.H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson and Thorsten Veblen. Later it fell to Pascal Corici to bring Steinbeck, Miller and Bellow on board, followed by Corlies "Cork" Smith, with Thomas Pynchon. Pynchon had delivered V and The Crying of Lot 49 for Lippincott, and he now graced Viking with Gravity's Rainbow. These salad says were populated with Roth and Kundera, and capped by the phenomenon of the word machine Stephen King's gripping early work.

Judith Jones was working her way up through the boys' world of the biz when she, in 1952, plucked another gem from the slush pile. It was a young girl's memoir, in Dutch no less, but Jones' perseverance is the reason we have The Diary of Anne Frank today. The Doubleday section featuring Jones goes back to the company's founding, when a young F.N. Doubleday II suggested that Rudyard Kipling submit a story collection to his father's press. The result was 1902's Just So Stories, a volume that helped make Kipling's name. The imprint was home to Somerset Maugham and Edna Ferber, then produced Alex Haley's Roots, a milestone in the development of the "blockbuster" release. That book was surpassed by Peter Benchley's Jaws, a blockbuster without doubt (that produced arguably the first blockbuster movie, in the sense that we now measure the impact of movies).
Cass Canfield was the force of nature over at Harper (later Harper & Row, then HarperCollins), and his zest brought him into the orbit of everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to John F. Kennedy. While Harper's passed on J.P. Donleavy and Vladimir Nabokov, they did just wangle Sylvia Plath for the imprint. Sometimes the game was about luck, however. The company published William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, the biggest-selling book (in hardcover and paperback) of the 1970s.

Literary pretensions aside, a yarn is a yarn. Silverman discusses Dick Simon and Max Schuster, Columbia products both but nevertheless men who could identify and pursue popular tastes. Simon & Schuster had great early success with collections of crossword puzzle books, an American translation of Bambi, and so forth.
When accountant-turned-partner Leon Shimkin attended a seminar to combat shyness, the speaker - Dale Carnegie - so impressed him that Shimkin arranged the publication of the speaker's methods, and How To Win Friends and Influence People became not only the #1 nonfiction bestseller of 1937 but a popular-culture touchstone as well. The prime S&S years include Sloan Wilson's A Candle By Midnight, which was a hit in its film version, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, and John Lennon's first bizarre collection, In His Own Write. The coup for the team, was, however, Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

Bennett Cerf also had no problems with the cultivation of middlebrow projects. After graduating from Columbia's J School in 1920 he approached Horace Liveright (from whose emply Dick Simon had just left), and - during dazzling meals consumed amid the denizens of the Algonquin Round Table - got a foot in the door of the publishing world. He immediately took over Boni & Liveright and proceeded to turn its ailing property The Modern library back into a winner. Enter another Columbia alum, Donald Klopfer, who joined the hunt with great zest. The duo's penchant for selecting topics for lavish illustrated volumes at random gave the new house its name, and it wasn't long after their August, 1925 launch that they became a force in the field.
They provoked a court battle in 1934 to bring Ulysses to America, and the road ahead became a brilliant clearinghouse of American letters, as Cerf (by now a multimedia star, raconteur and wit) published Faulkner, Dinesen, Capote, and Cormac McCarthy, and boasted a bench of John Toland, Peter Maas, and Daniel Boorstin.
Score another round for women in the industry as well, as Nan Talese and Toni Morrison both became powerful figures during these years. Additionally, as mentioned in a previous post, it was Random agents Jason and Barbara Epstein, with Robert Silvers, who created the New York Review of Books in 1963. These recurrent instances of Columbia alumni in the industry speak to friendships, yes, but also to a common cause, a common passion, and as such are a remarkable part of the book.

In addition to Simon, Schuster, Cerf and Klopfer, there were Alfred A. Knopf, Clifton Fadiman and no less than Will Durant, who provided Simon & Schuster with The Story of Philosphy and its successor, The Story of Civilization, written with his wife, Ariel. Several of the Beats attended Columbia, and the imagination wanders at the thought of all this firepower roaming the campus.
Getting back to censorship, Barney Rosset's Grove Press (1953) began a few court battles of its own, first by issuing a challenge involving Lady Chatterley's Lover (to bring Henry Miller into print unexpurgated), then in a 1968 case centering around the Swedish sensation I Am Curious (Yellow), a fight that led them a bit too far afield of their first mission, publishing. Grove also published a boundaries-pushing magazine at this time, Evergreen Review, and though Rosset ultimately failed, he could still list triumphs like the first U.S. appearance of Waiting for Godot among his feats.
Finishing up the big-name houses, Silverman examines the venerable Little, Brown; a company with a Boston pedigree rather than New York. The firm began in 1837, with an aim toward producing a list of "...grave, solid and substantial character." In 1905, a Polish journalist named Henryk Sienkiewicz published Quo Vadis, a book that sold 600,000 copies within 18 months and gained its writer a Nobel. More fine books followed, including All Quiet on the Western Front, then in the '30s the company joined forces with The Atlantic Monthly (once owned by another Boston company, Houghton Mifflin), for a joint publishing concern that produced boks such as Mutiny on The Bounty and Good-Bye, Mr. Chips.

The times do intrude: when the house refuses Spartacus on the grounds that Howard Fast had once joined the American Communist Party, they've got to watch it later succeed, and as a hit film with Kirk Douglas as well. And again, as Harcourt Brace had turned down The Catcher in the Rye, it was given to Little, Brown by Salinger's agent, Dorothy Olding (and continues to sell, incidentally, in new-release numbers).

We're given a bit of the good stuff in this segment, as Dashiell Hammett and William Faulkner drink a hearty lunch before arriving at a Bennett Cerf dinner party, where they proceed to messily pass out. Silverman offers up Peter DeVries here, a poet and writer who literally toiled in obscurity. DeVries wrote over 20 novels for the firm but never caught a spark, and his experience speaks to this better, vanished time: you could publish several books, you got a period of time to capitalize on modest gains, perhaps even declining fortunes. This is in direct contrast to the industry we now face, where you've almost got to guarantee big numbers to get into anyone's door, let alone remain there.
We get a taste of the Wild West of paperback publishing, with its daring ventures and high-profile breakthroughs. It's a story of the true mass reach of print, and one with yet another cadre of operators, here and abroad.
Ian Ballentine opened up a U.S operation for Allen Lane's Penguin in 1939, then after a spell at Grossett and Dunlap founded Ballentine in 1952. He was joined by Avon (1941) who made their first pile by taking whatever they could get, reprinting and using better distribution for broader market penetration. (Later they didn't need to hustle, as movers like I'm OK, You're OK and Jonathan Livingston Seagull sold millions).
Pocket Books (1939) came out with guns blazing, with The Good Earth, Lost Horizon, Topper, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and that was before the onset of Erle Stanley Gardner's popular Perry Mason tales! As with the Dale Carnegie example (How To sold many more millions in paperback also), Benjamin Spock's The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care was, simply put, a leviathan seller.

More anecdotal nuggets await, as when editor Truman "Mac" Talley was reading an author who was going nowhere in hardback with Viking, but when released in a vivid series of New American Library paperbacks took was born the phenomenon of Ian Fleming's James Bond. And over at Fawcett, where Peyton Place and A Walk on the Wild Side had been hits, William L. Shirer's The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich made a bit of history. The book was the beneficiary of a new printing press that accomodated the higher page count, with a binding process that allowed for a book of 2" thickness. So was born the ability to issue a larger book, and the price (over $1.00, for the first time) was also a step forward for the industry.

One could be forgiven for expecting an account with more smoky, tweedy cocktail parties, or perhaps more bedding amongst this surprisingly small subset of American cultural industry. That's not really Silverman's game, though, although he does allude to a number of books which no doubt chronicle such hijinks, including Bennett Cerf's At Random, F. N. Doubleday's The Memoirs of a Publisher, Ed Fitzgerald's A Nickel an Inch and Cass Canfield's Up & Down & Around. It's probably for the best, though...better to keep the aspiring writer concerned with the mechanics of the industry's storied past that daydreaming of the aforementioned gatherings. Silverman's friend Sam Vaughn said it best, in this thought from the book's end: "That box called Book may sit silently for centuries until you lift the lid. Then you have to work at it. You have to care, and if you give yourself to it, it will give itself to you. No wonder for many of us, it is love."

Morality Play (Extra Steamy)

Craig Brewer can speak to the power of the lucky break.

He sat, a young man in his late 20s, in the P&H Bar in Memphis and wrote The Poor & Hungry, a movie he filmed with the aid of a small inheritance. Then came a larger break - 2005's Hustle & Flow, financed and produced by John Singleton, and Brewer found himself with some serious leverage ( and a surprise Oscar, courtesy of soundtrack contributors Three 6 Mafia!).
He parlayed that into a bombshell of a film that was visually compelling, pushed boundaries, and split critique between robust praise and shocked disdain. He brought rebels Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci together with a fine supporting cast and delivered Black Snake Moan, a provocative and complex story set in a small corner of today's South.

The movie was filmed in and around Stanton, Tennessee (near Memphis) in September and October of 2005, and released in March, 2007. Jackson plays Lazarus, a man who's rebuilding his life after his wife leaves him for his brother. Ricci is Rae, young and wild and faced with her boyfriend's (Justin Timberlake, superb as Ronnie) imminent deployment with his National Guard unit.
Rae simply can't contain herself, and begins to act with increasing disregard for herself and her safety. This brings about Jackson's discovery of her one morning, unconscious, feverish and crumpled in a ditch. When she regains consciousness she's wrapped by the psychic linchpin of the film: a 40-lb. chain around her waist. Lazarus, with a mind toward some sort of reform, won't let her go, either. Therefore off he goes amid the rows and furrows of his crops, tending to his chores, Rae tethered to his labors and giving not a damn as she trods the earth in a slight tee and panties.
A local pharmacist, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson) assists Lazarus with medicine, believing it to be for her niece. This situation, loaded as it is for the characters and the viewer, might have resolved itself but for Ronnie's unexpected return. Nothing from that point is safe, yet Lazarus proves to have nerve and wisdom that the boy doesn't anticipate.

The exploitation-feel poster for the film depicted Ricci at Jackson's feet, with the words EVERYTHING IS HOTTER DOWN SOUTH emblazoned over the two. Ricci later complained that the poster was degrading - a mixed signal perhaps given that she spends the lion's share of the movie literally bound in chains. And therewith come the brickbats. In Moan's reviews it was called everything from exploitation crap to pointless voyeurism, but there really aren't that many moments where such arguments could be brought. Brewer does toy with the audience a bit, as in a scene near the end where Jackson is shown spiffying himself up with a fresh shirt and pomade, and walking into the living room to announce "Okay...let's stop fighting this thing," at which point the two in fact leave for the club: Jackson is tired of denying himself the stage and its purgative powers. Brewer's not really interested in prurience, though, preferring to explore the dilemma of one (obviously black) man when placed in direct proximity to one (defiantly sexual, white) woman.

Here is where the movie's story gets its strength, and the facts of Ronnie's arrival back on the scene, of Rae's mother's distance, of Angela's nascent interest in Lazarus only serve to layer this one man's emotional involvement. Brewer gets it all right, too, with regard to the rural scapes of the Tennessee land. From Lazarus's farm to the meager center of the small town, the film captures the modest lives of these Southerners.
Jackson spent six months learning to play guitar for his role (four of his performances appear on the soundtrack), and the effort pays off. All in all, it's a challenging tale with a cast who - like their director - believe there's a little more out there for the adventurous moviegoer, and want to provide a bit of it.

Soothing Savage Breasts with The Volebeats
I've got to say that I wasn't up to speed on this fine band, and it took my buddy Shawn's enthusiasm to get me properly on board. It's been a rewarding discovery, as I can now enjoy one of the worthier acts on the road today, a collection of dedicated musicians with an ear finely tuned to the noble melodies and instrumentation of the past.
From a starting point of busking on Detroit-area street corners, a loose collective of musicians came together, with singer/guitarists Jeff Oakes and Matthew Smith at the core. Joining the two were bassist Russell Ledford, guitar/mandolinist James McConnell, pedal steel Ryan Gimpart, and quite a few others who've over time woven in and out of the band makeup: indeed, a number of Detroit bands such as Medusa Cyclone, Hysteric Narcotics and Smith's other band Outrageous Cherry have lent members. The group really is a clearinghouse for Motor City talent to get together and play.

Their recorded history begins with 1989's Ain't No Joke, which was released on Relapse (and reissued in 2005 by Gadfly). It's got a big, wide-open sound, and is a declaration that the band intend to parlay guitar, steel and upright bass into something exciting. They succeed, especially with such tracks as "Till the House Burns Down" and "Every Time I Smoke a Smoke." They followed the debut with intermittent shows, and then finally 1994's Up North (on Safehouse) and then Bittersweet (on Third Gear).

There's a certain depth, then, by the time of 1997's The Sky and The Ocean. There are strains of California's sunny melancholy in "It's Alright," a song that evokes late Byrds, Laurel Canyon's singer-songwriter bunch, and Texas Hill Country ache under the meaty guitars. The title track is a high-lonesome piece, with Oakes offering "Goodbye - pull the plug on the sky and the ocean...would it bring you down? Would it make you cry?..." Guitar combines with piano and handclaps to drive the effortless rocker "Warm Weather," yet that track is followed by the physical and psychic desolation of "Asking Why," a song laid over with icy chill.
Harmonies elevate everything here, from "Drifting' to the lean "Diamonds," and this is truly what is meant by the somewhat cumbersome label "alt country." These are ballads suitable for any jukebox, yet without Nashville's layers of treacle and affectation. By "Everything," the listening experience turns sublime, as the recording hearkens back to that brief late-'80s moment when Indie dipped its toes into the waters of Twang. This is a fine record; the band making it is Uncle Tupelo without the press.

The guys stayed with Safehouse for Solitude (1999) then it was over again to Third Gear for the poppy mashup of Mosquito Spiral (2000). The band enjoyed covers, and the weirder bedfellows the better. We therefore get 2003's Country Favorites (Turquoise Mountain), featuring Slayer's "Die By the Sword," Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" (also a single on Bloodshot), and a steel-flavored "Knowing Me, Knowing You."
They graced other compilations as well, appearing on Tremor Records' 1988 sampler Folk Songs From the Twilight Zone, and the 1997 Shaolin Temple release Fact: 5 Out of 5 Kids Who Kill Love Slayer. The Abba track had originally appeared as a red-vinyl 45 on the Icon label.
Most significantly, on Cincinnati's Shake it Records' comp Straight Outta Boone Country, the guys covered the York Brothers' "Hamtramck Mama," as a tribute to the section of Detroit where so many migrant folk went to find work in the '30s and '40s. The cover of Country Favorites is very appealing, by the way. The band's cover art has leaned toward either toward bold photographic design, or strong, vivid graphics, as is the case here. The band's name and album title hover over the representation of an industrial skyline, itself under a huge sun. Like their music, they seem to have no interest in frills or elaborate graphic presentations.

We then encounter Like Her, from 2005. There's a sharpness here, from the whipcrack snare to the directness of the vocals, and the whole is pretty bracing as a result. Dark beauty energizes "Everytime," and a late-night intimacy to "Outside" that are appealing. So many of the songs, such as "Can It Really Be?," "In the Garden" and "September Spell" (with its own Big Star vibe) seem to hearken from some alternate '70s, where the energy of hippie days didn't dissipate. There are oblique droplets of British Invasion DNA in "Here It Comes Again," and the song shares that same simple joy as the others.
After the deft "Touch Me One Time" comes the amazing "World's Looking Lonely," a confused rhythmic happiness that's impossible to pigeonhole.

All this brings us to 2010's eagerly awaited The Volebeats, on Jim McGarry's Rainbow Quartz label. It's 19 tracks of a pure distillation of the band's spirit, and as an extra nod to collectors was also released as a double LP.

It's a big record without doubt, as the guys surrender fully to their pop instincts. They've resolutely hewed to their own vision, and the proof is there for the listening. Opener "With You" evokes Yo La Tengo appended with a huge, muscular hollow-body, while "We Don't Like to Forget" is a rich slice of Neo-Bakersfield. Those shards of Big Star are back on "Me and You" and "What You've Been Saying." After swaying gently to "Like You Mean It" and "Dream Come True," there's "Empty Streets," a roundabout look at the last, late years of the American Dream. I could see "Things People Say" released on a 45 with the succinct, snare-powered "1000 Miles of Confusion": the songs are just that catchy.
On "Walk There," that's just the idea..."...your love's so close, I can see myself on your stairs." The band do allow themselves a little strutting room, such as on "I Can Tell" and the description of an almost-connection called "The City That's Always Asleep." They're clearly having fun. There are a couple of covers on hand, including takes on Kiss's "See You Tonight" and the Kinks' "This Is Where I Belong," but the spirits of those rootsier folks who've gone before linger close. The loping harmonica workout "You're Wrong" could've been recorded ca. 1968 at Owen Bradley's place, and "I'm Not Gonna Change My Mind" strongly evokes Gram Parsons-era Burritos.
We finish things up with the wistful "They Don't Write Back," all intertwined guitars and thoughtful musings, and an impressive album come to a close.

There are a few points that have been made about the band that aren't necessarily accurate, such as the claim that no one was really doing stripped-down, Americana flavored music back in the late '80s, when in fact there were acts such as Rank and File, the True Believers and Jason and the Scorchers about. (Minneapolis alone boasted a number of such bands, such as the Gear Daddies and the Drag Hounds).

It's said that the band's writing suffers from a sameness in feel - in fact, one writer called The Volebeats "the same song, 19 times," clearly a grossly inaccurate oversimplification. Indeed, Like Her and The Volebeats do indicate a maturity, an individual voice, an internalization of pasts and influences and the creation of a compelling new synthesis.
Furthermore, if the band's music were available at the flick of a car radio's switch, wouldn't our commutes, nights out, road trips be a hell of a lot more enticing?

Art's New Visions
Robert William's life took a turn for the weird in the early 1960s, when the figurative painter joined out-there rod customizer Ed "Big Daddy" Roth as art director. After absorbing the car culture and its very distinctive visual world, he headed to San Francisco and hooked up with the group that included R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Victor Moscoso, and artists at the periphery of Freakdom like handbill illustrator Stanley Mouse.
After this period spent in the comix scene he continued to refine his particular artistic approach, wherein his fine-art sensibilities collided with his Rat-Fink, cherry bomb garage years. He co-founded the magazine Juxtapoz in 1994, along with Fausto Vitello, Craig Stcyk and Greg Escalanate, for the express purpose of further exploring his unique, hybrid visions.

The era, when the spectrum of bands included everything from Pearl Jam to White Zombie to Pavement, also found him in great demand as a designer of band gig posters. It wasn't long before the visual elements of the moment found expression in lurching, z-grade ghouls, apocalyptic aliens and legions of both leering, fork-tailed devil chicks and corn-fed pinups alike. With Juxtapoz, Williams and Co. could address this elevation of the crass, with the twist that in the hands of one such as Williams, even zombies or UFOs were rendered deftly, decisively and with the underlying gifts necessary to pull off such work. As time went on the magazine began to open itself to other aspects of modern expression such as grafitti and stencil art, and so began a running dialogue among formerly disparate communities.

A recent issue combined quite a few unique approaches. The issue opened with Showstoppers, a review of gallery doings; Pop Life, a networking page of sorts, and Profiles, which presents a writeup on an artist with a representational piece. Then it was on to the features, where I encountered a number of young practitioners.
Eric Yahnker manipulates images to startling effect, such as his modification of Dorothea Lange's iconic dustbowl migrant woman, newly presented with facial modification and a "nip slip." A dog - caught in a frozen head-shake and thus sporting a grotesque, multiple muzzle - is typical of Yahnker's philosophy, that his images can be as dark and unsettling or as frothy and fun as the viewer wishes.

Hilary Pecis has exchanged the traditional X-Acto knife of the collagist for the computer, with results that overlay scenic vistas with fanciful, kinetic or simply bizarre elements, a technique especially powerful in such a piece as 2010's Boom, a succession of interwoven explosions that's delightfully over the top. The magazine's interviewer comes up empty-handed against the cryptic group (or is it?) known only as The Old Boys' Club. The group is about the study of the cultures of the world, the vastness of human experience, and this manifold meditation is evidenced within the recent La Destitution de la Jeune Fille (The Deposition of the Young Girl), a teeming installation that covers an entire San Francisco gallery wall and depicts hundreds of densely interwoven figures.
Aled Lewis began with 8 and 16 bit-derived imagery, but now does striking figures of a lone person beset by faceless, oddly sinister throngs. Olaf Breuning casts a wide net, and his work includes photographs of a group of industrial cranes that hold a series of puffy blue clouds aloft, as well as thoughtful moment such as a group of smiling African boys, caught agains the backdrop of a landfill, holding $20 bills proudly aloft for the camera.

Where the Old Boys' Club created animations for the display screens of obsolete electronic devices, Sarah Frost's QWERTY series takes cast-off computer parts, especially keys taken from keyboards, and repurposes them as a subtly modulated field - a plastic, utilitarian image area - to use as a springboard for large installations that are beautifully imprecise yet compelling. The keys and other components and bits have been aged, smudged, smoke-tinged by the cumulative effects of age and time, and lend these works a deep link to the hands that once held them.
Frost thus comments on both the ubiquity of modern technology and its tools, and the abiding truth of its eventual obsolescence.

Along the lines of the Old Boys' Club is the Imaginary Foundation, a group that purports to have sprung from a Swiss guru of sorts, an interview with whom turns up quite a provocative worldview involving the animating spark of humanity, the creative process and the movement toward our impending collective "singularity." If the group is humbug, then it's humbug of the sort we need. Better our pondering human potential than such futility as war.
Finally, Alexander Tarrant and Justin Metros discuss the site they put up called, a place to whatever the hell they and their growing network of kindred spirits feel like posting.
And it's nice to find a selection of book reviews, including Francesca Gavin's Creative Space: Urban Homes of Artists and Innovators. Brian Walker's compilation of two earlier volumes into one vast The Comics: The Complete Collection presents a welcome overview of American cartooning, while Zach Carlson and Bryan Connolly offer Destroy All Movies: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film.

With its emphasis on collaboration, concern for substance and disdain for pretension, the magazine seeks connectedness, indeed, interconnectedness, and as such acquits itself well in the arena of modern artistic momentum.

Bed-Stuy Days

Some shows these days never get their legs before they're cancelled: the fans simply show up and then realize there's to be no more.
If they're lucky, such as in the case of Arrested Development, they get a heads-up (which does nothing to assuage disappointment). Some shows have a modest run then get the axe, only to really shine in syndication, such as with the genuinely funny Malcolm in the Middle.
Another example of aging well is Everybody Hates Chris, a sly, well-crafted chronicle of the pains and occasional victories of growing up.

Chris Rock had fought his way up through the ranks of standup and SNL to become a seasoned comic veteran when he teamed with producer Ali LeRoi to create a show based on the hard (yet somehow simpler) years of Rock's youth in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Rock gathered a fine ensemble cast to portray himself, his extended family and the quirky inhabitants of his neighborhood.

The show began its first season (2005) on UPN, then next year switched to the CW, which had been created from the merger of UPN and the WB. From the brownstones to the period music it was 1982 again, and the young Chris (the gifted Tyler James Williams) had to get up every day to be bused across town to the all-white Corleone Jr. High. His only friend is Greg (Vincent Martella), who - as a brainy outcast - can share Chris's daily trepidation, especially in the face of bullies, indifferent female classmates and a teacher who acts as if Chris has come to class each day straight from a war-torn, squalid ghetto peopled with the direst stereotypes.
Ex NFL athlete Terry Crews plays Julius, Chris's father, a man who can rattle off the precise cost of anything from electricity to canned vegetables, and he's often the foil for his high-strung wife Rochelle (Tichina Arnold), a woman who can glower anyone into submission but who truly loves her family.
Younger siblings Drew (Tequan Richmond) and bratty Tonya (Imani Hakim) provide more complication that confrontation to Chris's life, yet again, the underlying vibe is of togetherness. Out in the streets Chris can't catch a break, and is often beset by someone like Jerome (Kevontay Jackson) who announces himself most of the time by looking around furtively before asking "Lemme hold a dollar."

There is violence on these streets, but it's to Rock's credit that the humanity of its people is the impression the viewer is left with, through hustles and theft and other things only alluded to. It's when speculating on these elements of everyday life that Rock's voice-over comments punctuate things most pointedly and hilariously. Chris works after school in Doc Harris's grocery store, and his experience there is typical of any kid trying to bring in a buck. Additionally, Harris is played by Antonio Fargas - who portrayed Huggy Bear on Starsky & Hutch - and he and his nephew Monk (Todd Bridges) bring up another point, one that's a tribute to Rock's decency.
Rock cast these two men in an effort to share the work on this show, and did the same for Ernest Lee Thomas - Roger on What's Happening - casting him as the hilarious Mr. Omar, a funeral director who lives upstairs from the family (known for woefully relating the tale of a new, i.e. available widow with the tagline "Tragic. Tragic!"). Jackee Harry, late of 227 plays beauty shop operator Vanessa, and the beloved Jimmie Walker portrayed Rochelle's father Gene, who died in his very first appearance on the show but appeared in a couple of subsequent flashbacks.
Sharp-eyed viewers will spot other vets such as Tommy Davidson, Steve Landesberg, Robert Wuhl, Robin Givens and Phylicia Rashad.
From Julius's side we only meet Uncle Louis (Wayne Brady), a man who irritates Julius with the carefree simplicity of his life, but on Rochelle's side there is a true group of crosses to bear, led by her mother Maxine (Loretta Devine), who sniffily questions everything within her daughter's purview.

The show's depiction of struggle and shortages are a tonic to the effortless affluence among African-American TV families that was spawned by the later seasons of the Cosby show, a world free of conflict and tension that existed solely to crack wise in. Lest that seem a cruel generalization, consider the palatial digs of the Family Matters gang, the patriarch of which was a cop, or the swell setup of Charles S. Dutton's Roc ( a garbageman, for God's sake), and the topper - Damon Wayans' tony crib on the dreadful My Wife and Kids.
Nobody's saying a black family has to live in penury, but it sure does make for better storylines if they're having troubles making ends meet (cf. the brilliant Good Times).

The show has won dozens of awards, including the Golden Globes, Emmy, Television Critics' Association, Peoples' Choice and Image Awards, and is seen in syndication worldwide. Rock may be proud of this feather in his cap: he's done his own youthful years proud, and left us with an entertaining series that meets any criterion for quality comedy.

With this page apparently getting readership from Bulgaria to Iran to Nigeria to Australia, I've got to say I humbly welcome everyone, and am really happy with the world coming together here. We're of the printed page here, the filmed image, the musical such, we are all countrymen and -women, all brothers and sisters, and that's pretty great.

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