Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Category: RockNRoll

What it meant to be young

Photo by Jim Jocoy.

As a Mad Men fan, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the moment that a new kind of zeitgeist begins. In its first three seasons, the aesthetic of the show (true to the period, of course) felt really fifties. Season four, which takes place in 1964 and ’65, suddenly starts to feel like the sixties. Right now — 1966 in series time — suddenly, the sixties are happening!

In the late 70’s, Jim Jocoy had a day job in a copy shop. By night, he wandered the San Francisco punk scene, shooting portraits of his fellow club kids. It was the beginning of a new aesthetic.The eighties were being born, just like the sixties are finally being born on Mad Men right now.

It’s interesting to see what people are wearing in these portraits. Suddenly, the jeans are skinnier. The shoulders are boxier. There’s no more avocado green and burnt orange: it’s all black and white and red and neon

In 2002, Jocoy’s photos were collected in a book called We’re Desperate, which includes essays by Thurston Moore and Exene Cervenka. I highly recommend that you search it out. If you can’t track down the book, you can find more photos from the West Coast punk scene at Wine & Bowties.

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 Mash Note To Ms. Smith

The cover of Horses. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

When I was nineteen years old I quit college and came to New York City. Despite despite being the most citified girl in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, I was country through and through.

I had spent most of my teenage years reading, watching, and listening to everything about bohemian life in New York: SoHo, the Village, the Lower East Side; Alphabet City, CBGB, the Beats. Upon arrival in New York I would spend hours wandering in the East Village, awed just to be walking on the same streets where Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed had walked. And so I discovered St. Mark’s Bookshop.

I couldn’t afford to buy anything there, and my slightly skewed moral compass wouldn’t let me steal because obviously these were good people fighting the good fight against the Barnes & Noble across Astor Place. What I got from St. Mark’s was cheap, but more powerful than anything I could shoplift up the block at the Starbucks-scented megamart.

On a column in the middle of the store, between Critical Theory and Theatre, there was a poster. A poster of the cover of Horses.

Despite my worship of all things Downtown, this was the first I was hearing about Patti Smith. They didn’t sell her albums at Walmart, and my dad’s record collection leaned more towards the British iteration of punk.

I went into St. Mark’s Bookshop on a brutal winter day, and saw this poster of the cover of this album I’d never heard, an image of this person I’d never seen. I didn’t know what to make of her, but I was sure that she knew secrets.

Then I came to the worst possible conclusion. I rationalized that, based on this mysterious image, I was not worthy of her music. This wasn’t for country girls in bellbottom jeans they’d lovingly hand-embroidered with dandelions, violets, and the names of bands nobody in the North ever heard of. I wasn’t cool enough for Patti Smith.

So I turned away from the poster, flipped halfheartedly through a Diane Arbus book on the front table, and left. I would never belong in New York.

I have never been so wrong.

When I finally heard her music, what I found was not what I expected. It’s true, Horses is challenging. “Birdland” still scares me a little. I don’t want the boy in “Land” to get shoved in that locker (or maybe raped? Seriously, “Land” is one of the most chilling songs this side of “Strange Fruit”). Every time I hear “Redondo Beach” I dread the narrator’s realization that her lover has commited suicide. But though Horses is difficult, even confrontational, it’s not cliquish in the way I expected it to be at nineteen. Or maybe no great music can be cliquish in the way I thought music could be then. Either way, Patti, I’m glad you let me in.

I like the challenging story-poems of Horses, and the petulant Rock Star posturing of songs like “25th Floor – High on Rebellion” and “Rock n Roll Babelogue”. I dislike “Rock n Roll N****r” for reasons that are mostly political and don’t realate to the time and place you wrote it. It was also difficult to hate when I saw it performed live, so I’ll give her that one. It’s kind of great she’s not pretending that didn’t happen.

What I like most, though, are the times Smith speaks to the lonely outsider who still lives in me. Case study: Wave. I had to stop the title track and sit with it a minute. It was as if she’d gone inside my brain, found the most awkward part of my soul, and wrote in her voice.

It’s a cliche, as a fan, to say that someone writes your soul. But this is not that glorious Ani di Franco way where it turns out that she knew exactly what it was like to be in love. This is a sad and socially inept deer-in-headlights kind of thing, where you knew exactly what it was like to make eye contact with greatness and find yourself lacking. It’s good to know I’m not alone in feeling that (someday I’ll tell you the story of how I once accidentally eye-fucked Steve Buscemi), but it was also a little like she might be mocking me.

I felt like I was back staring at that poster in St. Marks books. How dare I presume to feel that kind of connection with the cool kids’ table? How dare I presume that Queen Cool Kid would recogize anything if she deigned to look into my soul?

My suspicions were confirmed with “Frederick”. It’s an homage to that awkward moment where you like someone and all you can really say to them is “hey.” When you don’t know a lot about them, but you know their name sounds like heaven. Patti Smith sings “Frederick” like she’s reading the future in the name’s taste. Like she’s mentally signing “Mrs. Frederick Sonic Smith” with a bunch of hearts after it. Somehow, with the right person, “hey” is enough. Ani knows what it feels like to be in love, but Patti knows what it feels like to be really deep in bashful ridiculous Like. It sounds less noble but is much more complicated. She’s not afraid to be vulnerable, even silly. It turns out she can step off the cool kids’ table for a moment and live in the same speechless awkwardness I’ve called home most of my life.

Patti Smith did a reading at St. Marks books a couple weeks ago. She stood right in front of that column and read poems about her idols and inspirations and her baby sister. I’m still not sure if she’s Queen Cool Kid or striving and awkward and silent like me. But I was there, standing among my brown-haired New York literary clones — clones partially spawned by her — and in that moment I felt like I finally belonged. It was sort of terrible. A part of me wished for my old jeans with the embroidered New Orleans band names, just to stand out. But, still, for a moment I belonged.

So thank you, Patti, for inviting me here.

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