Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bald Milestones (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan. 28 - This originally posted on vermiform.com, 1/28/01

I've conveniently scheduled all the weird anniversaries for January just to get them out of the way. Fifteen years ago the space shuttle blew up. Ten years ago the Gulf War was raging. Ten years ago also marks the birth of Vermiform, Inc, at least in the sense that Pinocchio was finally "born" as a real boy. It wasn't an easy delivery. The third ad I'd put together (for the Born Against EP, VMFM 1) featured a photo of a screaming toddler waving an American Flag, taken from USA Today. At the bottom of the ad I'd absentmindedly scrawled "patriotism = " with a small hand-drawn swastika. I ran the thing a few times in MaximumRocknRoll and forgot about it. A few months later MRR's editor, Tim Yohannon, called me. "I just got a nasty phone message from an attorney representing the mother of the kid in your ad. He says they're going to sue us, and you, and Don Fury [we'd recorded at Don's studio and he'd had the misfortune of plugging us as one of his clients in the same MRR] and The Associated Press!" I was 21 and - for the first of several times in the history of this label - facing a threat far beyond my capacity. I asked in a terrified whisper what should be done. "Nothing," Tim said, chuckling. "Just don't sign for any registered letters and maybe the problem will go away." I talked to Don Fury the next day and he didn't sound quite as amused. But none of us signed for any registered letters and, sure enough, the problem eventually went away.

Meanwhile, I incorporated. American tax law grants incorporated businesses the same legal status as an individual, shielding the owner of the company from direct liability in the case of, say, statistically implausible lawsuits stemming from fanzine ads. The whole thing was arranged in a sterile office on the top floor of a Secaucus, NJ law firm. The presiding lawyer met me in the lobby, took me to his office and confided that he wanted to "jump" his secretary. I stared out his window at a horizon of stale marshes. A social security number was created for this new entity. 100 corporate shares were issued and stored in an unseen vault. They resembled diplomas from an especially prestigious high school. Feelings of paternal pride briefly swelled. Weeks later, during the weird interval of war, my official deed arrived. Like the adoption papers for a Cabbage Patch kid, the whole thing felt at once heartwarming and disturbingly tacky.

I think of the kid from that ad every now and then, roughly the same age as my record label. Did his having an overly litigious mom help or hinder his development? Years later, some snotty whelp outed Vermiform's status as a corporation in the letters section of MRR (I'd already done the job myself in a 1992 Profane Existence interview), righteously quoting certain Born Against lyrics in the wrong context. Tim wrote a polite response, clearing up some of the mysteries of corporate tax law and why it was sometimes beneficial for record labels to take this approach. Were these two kids one and the same? Considering the plodding, 4th grade level of irony that seems to lubricate all of existence, the answer seems kinda obvious.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike 1932 - 2009

I was in the Las Vegas airport when Tara called to tell me that John Updike had died. It seems flamboyantly dramatic to write this now, but I actually had to find a place to sit down to collect myself. I can't think of any other celebrity whose death could affect me like this. I suppose if something happens to our new Beloved Leader I'd be a bit distressed, although that loss would be political, and wrapped almost entirely in a potential which (barring an asteroid or alien attack) can only diminish with time. I once read an interview with science author Ann Druyan in which she discussed her passion for Beethoven as a debt; when she compiled the music for the golden record included with both Voyager spacecraft, she chose part of his Fifth Symphony as a way of repaying this debt. Except for the working-at-NASA part, this is pretty much how I feel about Updike. There is no way I can repay the debt I owe him.

I'm guessing that most writers who read Updike's books cannot help but be spooked by his depth of field, and/or absurdly prolific output. His fiction and non-fiction (I'm avoiding the nine volumes of poetry) hold, for me, the same unnerving quality as Bruce Lee action sequences, or certain Queen songs, or footage from the Mars rovers; all share a precision that seems beyond the reach of humans. At his best, his fiction felt like reportage from an existing reality. I sometimes had the impression he was toying with his readers, dumbing down, and would occasionally open up his internal throttle only for his own amusement. In 1997's Toward The End Of Time, his only sci-fi novel, the protagonist finds, then loses, a dead body;

I was being watched, though my quick visual search of the woods revealed only receding depths of fresh leaves, lobed maple and triform hickory and serrated beech, leaves invading and nibbling at the carbon dioxide, forming ragged caves and tunnels of air worming their way down to the tracks and the creek. I was apparently alone on my vegetable planet.

At his worst, Updike's fiction grubbed around in the most sordid nooks of reality, seemingly just to vouch for his own lack of inhibitions (there's a particularly depressing oral sex scene in Rabbit Redux). Over the years, he got some ill will for the painfully plausible depictions of misogyny in the "Rabbit" quadrilogy. I was always irritated reading criticism in which the author was confused with his creations, although there was something a little off about his constant churning and rechurning of marital infidelity. "Life is too short," he'd once famously said, "for a writer to be in any way polite." I no longer agree with this sentiment, but I could at least appreciate that he'd condensed the thought so neatly.

The late Tim Yohannon, founder of Maximumrocknroll and a staunch teetotaler, once told me that he'd gotten "stinking drunk" the night Minutemen guitarist D. Boon died. Standing uselessly in the Las Vegas airport, I tried to think through my own options for indulgent grief (Sbarro and $10 at a slot machine were the best I could muster). I've only read 11 of his 52 books - not counting poetry or the unpublished work that will hopefully emerge, Tupac-style, for years to come - so I have many more opportunities to get acquainted with the man. But I am going to miss scanning the contents page of every incoming New Yorker for his name, and I am really going to miss that tiny but real pulse of relief whenever I found that name attached to another review or short story, proof that he was still going, still active, still writing.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Day Off In Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 23 - Day off in Philadelphia. On Sunday I dragged everyone through bitterly cold streets to visit the Liberty Bell. We got there, and guess what? It's just a bell. Tara looked at me and said what did you expect?


The Word Out Awareness Foundation has been taking out billboards;

photo by Tara Cassidy

In 1991, I was shopping for groceries in Jersey City when I found one of those little gumball vending machines selling Gulf War stickers. I put in two quarters and got this nifty "Kill" sticker;


Somehow my pal Neil got custody of the sticker and it has made appearances on the walls of every apartment, house, or workspace he's occupied ever since.

photo by Rich Unhoch

Neil found this photo of his old band Lifesblood last week. Some unpleasantness occurred almost immediately after this picture was shot.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Great Moments 2002

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan. 18 - Originally printed in Punk Planet, June 2002.

When one attends Disneyland on the 10th anniversary of the L.A. riots, one must be careful to pay their respects to Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. Housed in the Main Street Opera House, nestled under the private quarters of the Disney family, Great Moments is the nagging conscience of the park. I list the ride's particulars here only for PP's European readers, unaccustomed to our ways; A muscular android in a funny beard lectures vacationing Americans on the responsibilities of Freedom. The concept is so intentionally hokey that it's hard to remember the spectacle this must've presented to our ancestors of the last century. A lot of time and love went into building the big guy. Each artificial face muscle cost $600 in 1966 money. Every knuckle and finger joint fires a tiny piston. The exhibit is also a space-hogging flop that occupies some of the most desired real estate on the planet. According to rumor, Disney The Company would've long since pulled a John Wilkes Booth, if not for Disney The Man's deathbed decree: no one touches the Lincoln robot. So Abe stays powered up, orating from beyond the grave, frequently to a half dozen people or less. Much has been written about the content of mechaniAbe's jumbled speech, neglecting the much creepier truth that almost no one watches the thing. Does a presidential speech make a sound if no one hears it?

So unpopular is Great Moments that it didn't merit even a passing mention, when I visited last year, on the schedule of closed rides outside the park. I had to pay up and enter before finding the small sign explaining that our 16th president was "closed for repairs". The whole thing smacked of conspiracy, of sarcastic sacrifice to the gods of a now-forgotten California power crisis. But the emptiness of the exhibit antechamber spooked me. Something sinister loomed from the murk beyond the velvet ropes. The only thing more unsettling than the thought of Honest Abe jiggling and pontificating to an empty room, I realized, is the thought of a deactivated Abe, slumped in his seat and brooding in darkness. I nervously walked next door, to the Great Moments gift shop (GMWML, like all the best Disney rides, dumps its audiences into a store). Behind a rack of Styrofoam goofy hats I could see the thin curtain that separated the real world from the exhibit exit. No one was watching. I could easily have slipped behind that barrier, into the unknown. I stood immobilized. Did my hesitation stem from fear of Disneyland police? Or was I just plain yellow to face the Great Emancipator one on one, in the unlit chamber that had been his prison for the last 35 years?

This year I again didn't see Great Moments on the closed list and took this for a bad omen. But Abe was open for business. A man in a frock coat bid me to join a family of four. We gathered in the center of the foyer. Last time I'd whiffed that familiar, old-timey Americana scent was spring 2001, and I was entering the White House. It is the smell of a room that is repainted every week and recarpeted every month. So similar are these smells that I racially profiled my fellow White House tourists with ease: the Americans were the ones sniffing helplessly and looking towards a massive bronze head of Lincoln like it was going to bust into song.

Frock Coat Man started his spiel. He looked a little too much like the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. I had somehow forgotten that half the exhibit is dedicated to the life of Walt Disney and is, in fact, now called The Walt Disney Story Featuring Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln. We examined a replica of Disney's old Burbank office. Walt: I love the man for his works and I love the man for his morbidly obese ego, alive still. The family of four started to wander off. Philip Seymour Hoffman kept right on talking, discussing the pedigree of various Disney bric-a-bracs scattered about the glass-enclosed room. Some of the same philosophical weirdness was afoot: If I were to walk off as well, would this man keep talking? Did this man give his lecture when no one was present, opening the great exhibit doors to usher vast throngs of nobody into the empty, air conditioned theater?

We were given special headphones. I came to understand that the show had been revamped. Lincoln really had been closed for repairs last year. We sat in the theater chairs and the house lights dimmed. All dialogue was beamed directly into the headsets using wireless binaural stereo, a brutally realistic recording process involving head-shaped microphones. The new intro followed a young Civil War soldier through every life event that could be rendered in gimmicky aural 3-D... haircut, mosquito, war, leg amputation, several visits by Abe. Loud battle scenes ensued. A military hospital was invoked. Frederick Douglass popped by. By the time the curtains parted to reveal the Great Robot himself, I had gone through the concentrated emotional manipulation of 6 E.R. episodes. I wasn't sure if I should be crying, but I did know that I would fight to the death to protect Space Mountain.

The thing spoke. Lincoln's old speech was gone, lost to the sands of time. It had been replaced with a soggier Gettysburg Address. What's worse, he started his speech already standing. This detail is key - the most stirring moment in the old Lincoln shtick occurred when he rose up on his own two feet. Rarely is so much conveyed with one gesture - the glory of FDR and Christopher Reeve freed from their earthly bonds, the bittersweet salute from America's pioneering past, the unsettling threat from America's automated future. I've experienced this moment only once before, during a Patrick Henry reenactment in St. John's church in Richmond, VA. (although it was General Washington who drew the watery-eyed silence from the packed pews, rising wearily to stand for a mere cameo). It was great theater.

Now Lincoln sits down. All that's missing is the mechanical Simba the Lion King or some shit to slip him a whoopie cushion. The lights went up. I and the family of four were ushered through the TWDSFGMWML gift shop and deposited, blinking, into the sunlight of Main Street. The reality of war was replaced by the more real reality of the real world. There is a whole market in this type of Disney deconstructionism, so I won't belabor the obvious questions. Except one: what fragments of modern day turmoil will eventually get eased into mass merriment? Will the LA Riots, already a decade smoothed, become entertainment for the future? Is that any more absurd than a Civil War theme park show? Private Jim Cunningham - the young man who lost a leg - was a real person. Come to think of it, so was Abraham Lincoln. What would Abe do if confronted with his own android simulacrum? Well, he'd probably start by shrieking like a schoolgirl.

MISCELLANY

1. Bold Thought: the Al Qaeda boys should be flown directly from Guantanamo Bay to Disneyland and made to sit through Lincoln's speech. Having joined the elite club whose only other members consist of Lee Harvey Oswald and the yippies - those who have forced an emergency shutdown of the entire Disneyland facility - these guys should now pay the price. Americans of all political stripes could get behind the field trip. Liberals would applaud the attempt to teach terrorists about representative democracy. Conservatives would delight in the obvious discomfort, confusion and outright terror of the captives. Everyone wins.

2. Speaking of elite clubs, I would like to announce that another year has passed without my joining one. I turned 23 the day of the L.A. riots, which made me the proper age, on the riot's 10th anniversary, to attempt entry into Disneyland's 33 Club. This is the secret establishment located just above the Pirates ride. It's the only place in the park one can drink alcohol and admission starts in the high five figures. This day, by my logic, would be my only chance to see the place on grounds of birthday sympathy. I knocked on their secret door at around noon. A guy in sports casuals answered, said he was just a guest but that I really shouldn't bother and security, I must understand, was extra cautious these days and he was sorry but in his opinion my quest was a futile one and as I peeked over his shoulder at the rather modest digs a tiny voice in my head said move along, whitey.

3. Abe's original speech was adapted from a 1838 address. His subject, racial violence, was stripped of context and re-edited to deliver a cold war message. Lefty historian Eric Foner caught wind of this during a visit to the Florida park, complained, and got himself hired by Disney to spruce up the history. You gotta admire any company that can ruffle feathers and court allies across such a wide political spectrum. Environmentalists don't like their park policies, Baptists don't like Gay Day, historians don't like their robot speeches. Earlier this year, the local Mexica Movement called for a "complete Disney boycott". The reason? A planned Disney film about Emiliano Zapata was to star Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard... "an insult to all indigenous people", and the same as "having Brad Pitt play Malcolm X or having Tom Hanks play Martin Luther King". Later, according to the LA Weekly, Disney canceled the entire project, prompting at least one anti-Banderas demonstration to briefly morph into an expression of outrage that Disney hadn't notified the protesters that they'd won their only demand.

4. I would go to movies more often if Tom Hanks portrayed MLK.

Friday, January 16, 2009

No Mercy (2008)

ANNALS OF JOE, Jan 16 - From last year's "Unleash The Walrus" show in Echo Park;

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bork 'Em 2001

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan. 15 - This originally appeared on vermiform.com, 1/15/01.

This Saturday's inauguration ends the 74 day post-election waiting period for my Nader button. The somber Helvetica "Ralph" will officially switch over from proper noun to more appropriate, finger-down-the-throat exclamation. This is the lonesome trail taken by the word "Bork" fourteen years ago, another rare name-to-verb political conversion (Charles Boycott made the same trip a hundred years earlier). Robert Bork the man - denied his cushy Supreme Court post after hostile Senate confirmation hearings - became Bork the action. "Borking" now means something; the partisan attack of conservatives by liberals. Use of the word generally implies a deep contempt for the rudeness of any political process that dares question rabidly right wing political appointees. Papa Bush's man John Tower got his ass Borked two years later (although his undoing was less overtly political than for being a crumpled, womanizing sot who resembled a perfect cross between WC Fields and Benny Hill). The ghost of Bork hung over the Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. The word has fallen on hard times during the Clinton years... Borking, by definition, seems to be a misfortune that can only befall conservatives. So it with great relief that I can announce the opening of the first Borking season of the new century with tomorrow's congressional hearings of Attorney General candidate John Ashcroft. Ashcroft's from the old school of leathery, hardbitten sons of bitches and is himself expected to tack Borkward - that is, to not back down from any statements or stances and generally dish up the red meat for his right wing buddies. Chances are he'll make it where Bork got Borked; as of Saturday, Republicans will again hold the tiebreaking vote in the Senate.

But Borking has deeper, cultural overtones, and on this front much ground has been lost by conservatives. The country is a far ruder place than the one the Bushes last controlled. In 1990, 2 Live Crew was the most controversial band on a major label. Barbara Bush's complaints about the incivility of "The Simpsons" only ten years ago stands out as the baroque prattle of a former century. Last week the highbrow New York Times forum on "Borking Ashcroft" received postings about "Borking" Brittney Spears. The publisher of the New York Times recently attended a Halloween party in a "penis nose" disguise. America has become a giant Spencer's Gifts. Who could have imagined, at the start of the 90's, that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole would end the decade as a boner pill salesman? That stores cautiously carrying Ren & Stimpy puppets with euphemistically named "underleg noise" would be doing brisk business in plush turd dolls by '99? That characters could say "shit" on prime time TV? Or general citizens would wear "Fuck You" t-shirts (I saw this one last fall) in airports ? Or that cum shots would get worked into R-rated movies?

A lot of these milestones can be blamed on the vague fog of "culture wars", but the last cannot. Monica Lewinsky's stained dress was documented before the films "Happiness" or "There's Something About Mary" were released, and it was the Starr Report that alerted third graders to the existence of adult fluids. Republicans have been churning out the anti-Clinton, Reno-as-lesbian, Hillary-as-castrating-bitch kitsch for the last eight years, and as of Saturday the horrific genie of cultural depravity that they themselves helped loose will have a new cast of targets.

Bork the man emerged a twisted old troll from Bork the experience. His 1997 book Slouching Towards Gomorrah rails against a "degenerate" America with too much freedom on its hands. In various chapters he calls for "law based on morality", blasts popular culture, "radical individualism" and "radical egalitarianism" and even questions the legitimacy of the same Supreme Court who admissions test he flunked a decade earlier. How beautiful is it, then, that this man's surname will live long after him as the sexually suggestive code word for the defeat of all he holds dear? The time has come to beat up all these old bastards up with their own last names! Bork ahoy!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New: The Troublemaker

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM DEPT., Jan 13 - My 8,000 word profile on the man formerly known as Doc Dart went online today. I'm happy with the piece, and happy that I found a good home for it. But I was unable to find a credit for the one amazing photo I have of the man;

Surprisingly, shockingly, I ran this picture in my fanzine in 1992 without listing a photo credit, behavior I strongly frown upon. So I guess it's karmic retribution that the photographer's name eluded me this time around. Oops.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Whip @ Smell 2003

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan 11 - This was originally posted on vermiform.com, 3/3/03.

The Whip – a new band from Olympia, WA featuring Joe Preston from Thrones and Jared Warren and Scott Maniac from Karp – played at The Smell this last Friday and boy did those mothers rip. Good God. Great music was played and snappy banter was had, Joe looked genuinely happy and the new umpteen-bajillion watt sound system asserted itself in the face of L.A. Weekly badmouthing.

Also, no one died. That ripped as well. If there is any silver lining to last month’s horrific nightclub tragedies in Chicago and Rhode Island, it is that concert goers now have something more concrete to worry about than Level Orange soft-target terrorist attacks. In L.A., one can also stop fretting about earthquakes. And club owners have something new to raise their blood pressure. In cities around America this last week, nightclubs have been feeling the stresses of a post-Great White world, one where it is even less funny to yell 'fire' between a band’s songs. In New York, ABC No Rio’s shuttering (although amusing to the club’s many enemies) signaled some new course by city officials already taking a hard line towards public dissent, culture and merrymaking. But clubs everywhere are undertaking squashings of a new and sinister tone.

Neil Burke and I visited The Station in Warwick three years ago. He needed to buy some Blue Oyster Cult tickets. It was that weird time of the day when nightclubs are open for business but still hours away from any live music, and the only other people present were barbacks and soundmen. Not being a fan of B.O.C., I spent a few minutes inspecting the photos of failed hair bands in their front hallway. It was in this hallway that 25 of the 97 people who burned to death were found last week, stacked and unidentifiable. I tried to eyeball the rooms of The Smell on Friday, comparing each to my memory of that hallway, and all I could calculate is that a lot of those hallways could fit in the Smell.

After the Whip played, people applauded a lot and dispersed and a suspicious little man arrived. A few minutes later, the staff abruptly and quietly made the rounds from group to group, informing everyone that the building had to be immediately vacated. A full team of fire inspectors materialized, maybe a half dozen guys of the No Bullshit variety (although one was seen laughing at the unflattering wall of GW Bush photos). Wiring was scrutinized and dimensions were taken. The new stage – painstakingly measured at exactly 44” from the wall, in complete compliance with fire codes - was arbitrarily deemed incorrect. A series of additional arbitrary violations followed and now the Smell is closed indefinitely. My sources tell me indefinitely means “at least the next couple of weeks”, and “hopefully no longer than a month”. But it still sucks.

Friday, January 9, 2009

There's No Place Like Space 1975

FROM THE ARCHIVES, Jan 9 - This one turned up in a stack of papers a few years ago. Best I can tell, this is from the Watervliet, NY-era McPheeters family household. The typing is cleaner than I can muster even now, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say my mom transcribed this for me. Thanks, mom.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hiatus / Baloney Notice

BALONEY TIME, Jan. 1 - First off, happy new year. I don't want to beat around the bush on that subject. We've still got three and a half weeks to go before the Chinese Year Of The Ox hits, but I do have a good feeling about this one. After suffering the consecutive years of chimp, cock, dog, pig and rat, I think we are all due for an animal whose name doesn't double as a barroom insult. Good for all 6.765 billion of us.

Also, I'm going on vacation from this blog for the next four months. Got some projects lined up. I'll probably post more frequently, but - with few exceptions- it'll just be photos and tidbits and some old writings until May. When I see this kind of business on other people's blogs I usually sniff baloney. But when I myself do things I find objectionable, somehow everything seems to work out fine. Enjoy the Ox: see you in May.