Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: Music

Ay Arriba, Arriba

Musicians, Boyle Heights. Image via East Of West LA, via Flickr.

So I might as well tell you guys.

It looks like I’m probably going to be living in East L.A. Yes, that East L.A.

It’s a little bit freaky moving to a new city, telling people where you’re going to live, and hearing them immediately make gang jokes. Especially since I really don’t know Los Angeles. Maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s really dangerous.

When I moved to New York, I lived in Washington Heights. The Heights is nice now, but back in 2000 it was way off the radar in terms of places nice white girls should live in New York City.

The neighborhood was fine. I was fine. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the same relationship with New York City if I had moved directly to Williamsburg, Park Slope, or Murray Hill.

So I’ve been doing my homework on East L.A. And so far, I like what I see.

There’s a feminist bike collective called the Ovarian Psychos! I won’t have a bike when I first get to town, but I’ll be sure to pick one up right away so I can ride with the Psychos.

There’s a place called Mariachi Plaza which is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s literally where all the mariachi bands hang out and jam.

It’s possible that my new neighborhood is the epicenter of Mexican food in the US.

Also, there’s these guys:

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Thoughts on Vinyl

This is my actual record player spinning my very first record post toddler-hood. Photo by Sara Clarke.

I took the plunge and bought a record player. I’ve been wanting one since sometime last year.

I have four records so far:

I guess this image is courtesy Columbia Records? The album itself says "Cover Photo By Machine". Not sure if that's a groovy sixties nickname or if they mean, like, a photo booth of some kind? Aren't all photos "by machine"?

#1 “Songs of Leonard Cohen” – I bought this at The Colony, the record store on the ground floor of the Brill Building, where I work. They have a pretty small selection, and it’s overpriced. But I needed a record to play on my new turntable, so I forked over the $35 for a re-issue that’s easy to find in any other shop for $20. It’s not even my favorite Leonard Cohen album. Then again, one of the things I like best about vinyl is the fact that your collection depends on what’s actually available to you at any given time.

Photo by Tom Wilkes.

#2 “Pearl” by Janis Joplin – This one was in one of those obligatory crates I mentioned above, at a stoop sale in my neighborhood. The sleeve is in horrible condition, but the record itself is pristine. For some reason the guy only wanted $2 for it. It turns out this is one of my mom’s favorite albums from when she was a teenager.

Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

#3 “Easter” by Patti Smith – come on, you knew I was going to get a Patti Smith record right away. It could have been worse, I could have picked Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding”, which Smith reminisces about Robert Mapplethorpe giving her in Just Kids. That would be way dorkier, no?

Photo by Michael Carney.

#4 “El Camino” by The Black Keys – I figured I needed something that wasn’t pompous folk/classic rock*, and this one came with a free download of the album. Which is cool, because I hadn’t gotten around to buying “El Camino” yet. I like the idea of supporting bands by getting new albums on vinyl, and the download codes make it a no-brainer.

Because this entry has nothing to do with the place-based side of my nonexistent Mission Statement, I hereby give you this kickass video that my roommate worked on (she’s the hippo at the end!), which is maybe about Brooklyn stoop sales.

 

*By the way, DID YOU KNOW that Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, and Patti Smith all hung out at the Chelsea Hotel kind of around the same time? Just Kids mentions that Smith knew Joplin, and Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is basically a brag that he slept with Joplin there.

Hurry, boy, it’s waiting there for you

In the audience at the Festival Au Desert in northern Mali. Photo by Alfred Weidinger, via Flickr.

Rock stars of the eighties cared a lot about Africa. There was “Heal The World”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, and “I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City”.  There were also more aesthetic influences, for example Paul Simon’s album Graceland.

And then there was Toto. Created neither to raise awareness for the plight of the oppressed nor to celebrate a rich cultural heritage, Toto’s song Africa managed to jump on the eighties sub-Saharan bandwagon with a vague global outlook and paternalistically nonsensical lyrics. I could break out all the reasons this song is abhorrent, but I’ll let Steve Almond do it instead, in this hilarious reading from Tin House Magazine‘s tenth anniversary celebration a few years ago:

 

Even if your pop music tribute to Africa was a little more well-meaning — or at least well-crafted — than Toto’s ode to Mount Kilimanjaro rising over the Serengeti (by the way, it doesn’t), there was a strong chance that it was performed by white people, or at the very least by people who had never actually been to or lived in Africa.

It’s perverse that for Americans to get behind African social causes and artistic contributions, it had to be done under the guise of whitebread normalcy. As opposed to, I don’t know, making Fela Kuti the international megastar he deserved to be.

 

It’s good that Paul Simon shared some of the credit with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and I think this weird intermediate period in American and British pop ultimately led to the more diverse musical landscape of today. But how many singles did “Do They Know It’s Christmas” sell compared to anything ever released by Miriam Makeba or Ali Farka Toure?

Sidenote: before I die, I’m going to the Festival Au Desert in Essakane, Mali. It’s a three-day music festival celebrating peace through music. Bono made a surprise visit this year, which I suppose means it’s officially jumped the shark. But I don’t care, I still want to go. Maybe 2013 is my year…

The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

Painting Myself Into A Corner

Untitled, 1982. Sumi ink on paper. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Keith Haring was an oddly ubiquitous part of my childhood. Oddly because, well, I grew up in a socially and culturally conservative small town where there is little appreciation for art of any kind, let alone the dingy grafitti-inspired oeuvre of a gay painter from the New York underground club scene.

And yet his work was everywhere in my childhood. Maybe it was his later status at the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, a supposedly gentler alternative to controversial artists like David Wojnarovicz and Robert Mapplethorpe. Or it could have had something to do with MTV’s commissions of their trademark astronaut as a Haring cartoon stick figure.

My memory of his work is so cuddly and bland that at first I wasn’t that interested in seeing the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Keith Haring: 1878-1982. But I was surprised by the work. It’s more raw than the dogs and babies that made Haring famous, oddly violent and often centered on images of penises and men fucking. This is not the ubiquitous Keith Haring of my childhood.

There are two pieces in the show that not only changed my understanding of Haring’s work but, frankly, blew my mind.

Untitled, 1979. Acrylic and ink on paper. Image courtesy haring.com.

The first is a study in abstraction done in 1979 when Haring was at SVA. The swirling figures interlock like puzzle pieces, suggesting a pile of humanity. It’s a bridge between Bruegel and Pollock, a mass of dynamic energy that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30). 1950. Enamel on canvas. Image via metmuseum.org.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder, The Wedding Dance. Oil on panel. Image via Wikipedia.

The other piece stood out to me in a much less didactic way. It’s just… perfect. It’s the kind of painting you can’t describe in words. This is a masterpiece in a completely sincere way. It scratches the part of your brain that can find euphoria in a line or a shape. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of it online. However, I did find a still of a video piece Haring made around the same time that features himself creating a painting that looks very much like the one I’m thinking of. So I’ll give you that, and then you have to go to the Brooklyn Museum to see the piece I’m talking about. Trust me, you’ll recognize it.

Still from Painting Myself Into A Corner video, 1979. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Also brilliant, and a reason to check out the Haring show at the Brooklyn Museum even if you’re not a huge fan of his work: it’s one of the best curated shows I’ve ever seen. I especially love the choice to feature the music of 70’s and 80’s New York in some of the rooms. It’s rare that museums connect fine art with other artistic forms from the same period, and for Keith Haring, who exhibited work in nightclubs and made drawings on the subway, I thought it was a perfect choice.

UPDATE: Check out this tumblr with scans of Keith Haring’s journals. They start when he was thirteen years old!

The place the music was born

Phil and Ronnie Spector. I tried really hard to find out who took this photo.

As a blogger with a day job in the film industry, I try to adhere to one simple ground rule: never write about work.

This is usually pretty easy to remember because of the piles of nondisclosure forms I have to sign every time I start a new gig.

But this time is a little different. I’m not going to tell you the name of the project I’m working on right now, or even what kind of thing it is. But I have to tell you this.

Our office is in the Brill Building!

The Brill Building is an Art Deco cupcake in architectural form. Honestly, it’s cool just to be working in a funky old building with a gilded lobby, arched windows, and, oh, Jesus, the bathroom. The subway tile is etched with craquelure so you know it’s been there since before subway tile was cool. The sinks might be my favorite part: wide porcelain pedestals with two taps, one for hot water and one for cold. Our floor of the building is a warren of tiny offices – no bullpens or expansive loft-like Work Spaces here. I can imagine a young Don Draper, fresh from the Korean War, sitting in these offices looking at paste-ups for next Christmas’ fur coat ads circa 1953.

But I don’t have to imagine what sorts of people might have worked in my office once upon a time. I know the answer to that already. The Brill Building is probably the only office building in the world with a genre of music named after it. In the middle of the last century, it was the epicenter of the American commercial pop music industry. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was written in this building, as were probably half the songs performed by girl groups in the 60’s. Neil Diamond, Carole King, and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” all happened here. Paul Simon maybe still has offices in the building? A lot of the spaces on our floor are suggestive of recording studios, with internal windows between rooms, soundproofing, and holes cut into the walls to facilitate running cable.

Anyway, that’s where I work. I can’t tell you what I do here, or what we’re working towards. But there’s a strong chance the ghost of Ellie Greenwich is reading this over my shoulder.

UPDATE: So, yesterday when I was researching this post (yes, sometimes I actually research stuff, shut up), I happened upon a music podcast called Sounds Ace, which recently did a special episode about the Brill Building sound. I didn’t get to listen to it until after I wrote my post, but omigod, it’s BRILLIANT. It’s exactly the playlist I’d have put together if I’d provided a musical component, minus maybe one cheesy Neil Diamond song. So if you just read this and got inspired to listen to some Shirelles, Shangri-Las, and Ronettes, you should go give Esther’s stuff a listen over at Sounds Ace.

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Also I just discovered that Sounds Ace is made by Esther C. Werdiger, who also makes some of my most favorite comics, via The Hairpin. OMG can you feel the girl crush in the air? CAN YOU?????

A distant mountain looms ever closer

The Buyuk Valide Sultan Han, Istanbul. This caravanserai was built in the 17th century by the mother of Sultan Murat IV. It's still in use today, though probably not selling silk or jewels. Photo by Sara Clarke.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Silk Road. Sometimes at night, if I can’t sleep, I imagine I’m not under an Ikea duvet in my Brooklyn apartment but instead bedding down in a caravanserai somewhere between Trebizond and Palmyra, circa 1350. For some reason, this always helps me drift off. It’s better than counting sheep.

One amazing thing about visiting Istanbul (probably the dorkiest amazing thing) was the fact that caravanserais still exist there. In Turkish they’re called hans, and a lot of them are still in use from the times when merchants crossed deserts on camels loaded down with silks and incense. Did I mention that Constantinople was the Western terminus of the Silk Road?

Nowadays the caravanserais are mostly used as home bases for far less exotic enterprises: in Turkey “han” is still the word for a sort of proto strip mall, a courtyard lined with shops selling headscarves or kitchen knives or knockoff Adidas sneakers. There’s usually an upper level for storage and whatever else you use the “back room” of a shop for anywhere else in the world. Once upon a time, back in the Silk Road days, merchants lived in these upper level rooms, and they watered their camels at a fountain at the center of the courtyard.

I did a little prowling around in some of the old hans of Constantinople, but it wasn’t enough. I think what I really want is to be a time traveler. Honestly, this is what all travelers to places like Istanbul probably want: to see an exotic old world that doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever really did.

And, thus, I am considering buying a PS3 in order to get this video game and make my nighttime daydreams a reality:

Screenshot from Journey, developed by Thatgamecompany. Image blatantly stolen from BoingBoing.

It’s called Journey, and it’ll be available March 14. My birthday is the 29th. Coincidence? Hey, it would be cheaper than getting me a spot on one of those fancy Silk Road tours that carefully shelters rich Westerners through the backwaters (backdeserts? backsteppes?) of Uzbekistan to visit the ruins of places like Samarkand and Tashkent. Though I would also accept that as a birthday present, no worries there.

For true Silk Road dorks and ethnomusicology geeks, I highly recommend any of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project collaborations (buy on iTunes if you want your fellow ethnomusicology dorks to eat dinner tonight). This is music for mental time travelers.

H/T Boing Boing for the thing about the video game.

Steam On The Window Screen

M.I.A. makes me want to run wild. There’s an immediacy to her music, a whisper of an undertone murmuring, NEVER GROW UP. NEVER GET BORING. QUIT YOUR JOB. DRIVE FAST. LAUGH TILL YOU PEE YOURSELF. RUN!

If you take that whisper and combine it with her global outlook, it’s not surprising that setting images to her music makes me Want To Go To There. Even when “there” is a the roof of a train speeding across the Indian countryside or an Arabian desert seemingly empty except for a few beat-up cars.

Also, the fact that M.I.A. dances like a seven year old standing in front of a mirror singing into her hairbrush makes me endlessly happy. Terrible dancers unite!

Here’s some footage of the Saudi car stunt trend — called Hagwalah — featured in “Bad Girls”. While there are some cool moments in the first minute or so (check out the 360-degree spin through traffic past a schoolbus full of kids!), if you fast-forward to the two minute mark you get a good stretch with some rad middle eastern background music. Around 5:40 you get the in-vehicle perspective, complete with bitchin’ Arab pop soundtrack.

Three Things I Like Right Now

Design*Sponge visits The African Queen. I’m kind of dying to install a mosquito net over my bed. As a teenager I thought it would be incredibly romantic, and when I traveled to India it was everything I thought it would be and more. Not that dengue fever is romantic, of course.

Speaking about India, did you know there are psychic robots there now? What I want to know is, when are these coming to Queens?

Speaking of the borough I happen to be sitting in right now, this Das Racist video gives me hope for humanity:

Das Racist | EK Shaneesh from Stephen Boyle on Vimeo.

 

If Loving Bad Pop Music Is Wrong

The most stereotypical "Bollywood" image I could find. This is a still from the wonderfully melodromatic Devdas, starring Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, and Aishwarya Rai. Madhuri and Aishwarya are pictured.

My love of Hindi-language film manifests in several ways. Some are tasteful, even cool, like the vintage posters I brought back from Mumbai. Others are understandable, like my affection for Jackson Heights’ Eagle Cinema, an art-deco movie house retooled in filmi style down to the samosas at the concession stand. And who doesn’t enjoy a cheesy love story featuring the likes of Kajol or Amitabh Bachchan?

But then there are the more embarrassing manifestations of my Bollywood fandom. Like the dance numbers. The cool thing to do these days in Indian films is to feature at least one Western-styled clubby dance number, preferably with a catchy English-language chorus. These songs are like the worst thing on any Ke$ha or Soulja Boy album, minus a million cool points. And since English is a second language for most Indians, the lyrics are terrible. Just throw in a lot of “Dance With me Baby” and “Party” and “Rock Star”, and that’ll make 90% of South Asians* pretty happy.

And yet, I can’t get enough. Throw one of these bad boys on my workout playlist and I’ll run a mile without thinking about how shitty this stuff is or how much I actually hate exercise.

Maybe I should look into K-Pop next.

*On the other hand, take any traditional Hindi-language Bollywood soundtrack and throw in words like “Zindagi”, “Dil”, and “Hai Allah!” (“Life”, “Love”, and “Oh God!” in Hindi), and this English speaking Bollywood fan is happy. So I guess it’s all the same fetish for the Other.

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