Friday, July 31, 2009

Over The Line pt. 2 (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 31 - You can read part one of this piece here.

We walked to a VIP liquor tent. Andy had gotten gravely tanked at the 48th OTL and was showing restraint this year. I ordered a free soda with my wristband and made a sour face on tasting Rum and Coke, flat and on tap. We sat in the shade. At some point people started gaping skyward. Here’s where my notes get a little fuzzy. A group of Navy SEALs descended by parachute (a normally $30,000 demonstration given free, in exchange for a recruiting tent by the bracketboard). As I peered towards the blazing sun, trying to catch the silhouetted squiggles, the half a cup of spirits in my gut worked its magic. This was maybe a quarter of all the alcohol I’ve ever consumed, and I learned an important lesson; don’t drink in the hot sun. In my momentary stupor, I missed the SEALs landing their parachutes, a quick citizen’s arrest of the Saddamn Hussein impersonator, the presentation of Saddamn Hussein to the US Navy, the awarding of a giant cardboard check for $25 million to Andy’s dad, the SEALs being given free drink wristbands and eventually forming their own team, which quickly lost. But what was the Navy SEAL team called? And did anyone join their cause at the recruiting booth?

At the port-o-johns, more revelations. There were toilets for Men, Women, OMBAC members, OMBAC members with lapdancer, People Of Color, Muslims, and Jews. I took a nice photo of the Jews bathroom. We walked along the southern track. Every 40 feet or so we were stopped by men on the far side of middle age, Andy’s “uncles”, and I was repeatedly made to show off my classic 1980 OTL “Announcer Stand Stupidos” shirt, a gift from Don. “Jesus Christ, Andy,” the men would say, jabbing stout fingers into my back, trying to figure out which cartoon figure represented their younger self. “I haven’t seen this shirt in years.”

Theoretically this was a sports event, and I made several attempts to watch the game itself. I understood that each team had only three players, that the bats were aluminum, that the foul lines in the OTL geometric softball field extend to infinity. I understood, from hearing their name repeatedly announced, that Time Out My Balls Hurt must’ve had some competent players. And yet it was hard to concentrate. Have I mentioned the penises? I’m hard pressed to recall the last time I've seen so much cock. Representational, of course – there were 6 foot inflatable dicks, cloth dongs hanging out of shorts, rubber dick noses disguises, limp foam schlongs on hats that obviously saw action precisely one time a year. Several times we were passed by the “weenie wagon”, a golf cart rigged with a squirting erection, driven, as busy work, by some forgotten old man of OMBAC.

The sun intensified. Every fifty feet, women in bikinis were implored by drunk men to doff their tops. It’s not fair or accurate to imply that all women on the island were harassed. But as soon as any lady made it clear she would be revealing her secrets, men descended in packs, like seagulls fighting over bread rolls. We completed our 3 hour circuit of the playing fields, sun stroked and dehydrated, moving slower and slower through a congealing sea of drunks, of burnt lobster flesh. A sense of menace crept into the proceedings. Back at the bracketboard, Andy’s dad wearily told us that they’d sold 12,000 shirts by midday, an all time record.

We trudged back to the parking spot. I will have melanomas ten years from now to remember the day by. Although it was easy to view OTL as a precursor to all of civilization hurling itself down the toilet, it was even easier to picture the exact opposite. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry may very well have felt at home on the sands of Fiesta Island, tanked, shrieking, waving their aluminum bats at Saddam, Fidel and Osama, locked in man’s eternal struggle against fellow man, rising to meet Time Out My Balls Hurt on a field yet to come.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Over The Line pt. 1 (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 30 - This originally appeared in Punk Planet 58. It's written a little clunkily, and there are lots of bad words and disgusting groupings of bad words, none my own. I'm just the messenger in this piece. But be forewarned anyway.

OVER THE LINE

My pal Andy I arrived late for the opening day of the 50th annual Over The Line tournament on San Diego’s Fiesta Island this last July. Cars, pickups, SUVs and RVs had been piling into the outer lots of the 2 square mile island since dawn, and by noon the lanes were clogged. Heat addled rent-a-cops and belligerent, drunkening volunteers with names like “Choo Choo” stood guard over the various entry points into the fenced off parking zones. Here is where we scored the first of several Gentleman Points for the day. Instead of drawing attention to the discrete number 5 on the parking tag that dangled from Andy’s rear view mirror, we waved politely at each refusal and continued on. Almost a thousand parking passes had been issued for the event in sequential order, and a single digit number could only mean close personal connections to the event’s founding fathers. On a distant bank of the island we found a spot on the sandy scrub of the outer road.

Over The Line is held by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC) on two consecutive weekends every summer. Although the name refers to an OMBAC-invented sports mutation, Over The Line the event has blossomed, in the last half century, into an unruly “softball bacchanalia” somewhere on a family tree that includes Mardi Gras and the Philadelphia Mummers parade and St. Patrick’s Day as celebrated by certain ruffian New Yorkers. Later, I would alarm several San Diego friends when telling them where I’d just been. “Oh,” they would say quietly. “Really?…..” To the faithful, OTL is “one of the last pure Southern California traditions left untouched by commercialism”. To many average San Diegans the event is an annual Caucasian nightmare alcohol meltdown.

I’ve never been on an island with thousands of drunk people before, and I hadn’t expected it to be so peaceful. Andy knew the most direct overland shortcut from the road to the games. We crested a small hill and descended into a barren depression of thistle and weeds several football fields long. Fiesta Island is bordered by Seaworld to the south, Mission Bay Park to the east, upscale La Jolla to the north, and the Pacific tranquility of Mission Beach to the west. If I hadn’t known that the entire island had been sculpted from garbage and silt in the 1950’s, I could’ve imagined that we’d gone back in time by a few centuries. It says something about the political muscle of OMBAC that such prime real estate has been left undeveloped. Although there is an alleged sewage-sludge drying facility elsewhere on the island, the place remains a largely wild enclave inside a major US city, a rare “recreational zone” that involves no concrete. We scrambled up another dune and found ourselves staring down at a distant mass of human unruliness. 50,000 people were expected this year.

Andy has been coming to Over The Line since childhood. At the grandstand – “the bracketboard” in this universe - we met up with Andy’s dad Don, a San Diego attorney who looks like a younger, more handsome Stan Lee. Don has been the announcer and chieftain of Over The Line for three decades. Overhead, the flags of the United States, California, Budweiser Racing, Bacardi Rum and POW-MIA fluttered side by side. A steel drum band played on the sand below and, on second glance, I understood that two bears were fucking on the California flag. A trio of wise men dressed as Saddam, Osama and Fidel loitered nearby. We walked around the bracketboard. Don emerged from the back entrance in his white nautical OMBAC blazer with gold epaulettes, looked off into the distance and said “I’m not sure most people get it”. He would be announcing roughly a thousand matches over the course of the twelve hour day.

We headed south as Don’s voice boomed across the throng from battered, 1960’s loudspeakers. Competition is at its loosest on the first day of OTL, and the team names reflect this. These fell into several categories. There were the adolescent (Boner Donors, Hand Starting The One Eyed Yogurt Thrower, I Need A Price Check On Some Extra Large Condoms), the profoundly adolescent (Let Us Jizz On Your Giant Juggs, Snapper Crapper Or Yapper We Stick Em All, We Might Have Small Dicks But Our Wives Have Big Tits), the wrong (J-Lo Is My Dyke Bitch, Is That Your Vagina Or A Roast Beef Sandwich) and the profoundly wrong (Thank God For SARS I’m Sick Of Chinese Food, Help Prevent Rape…Consent). I heard a few teams announced that would have worked as interesting band names (Wolf Noodle Soup, Aged Beef, Jewish Defense League). Is it a coincidence that there was a team called Circle Jerks? If OTL humor shares much of the gleeful offense of hardcore band names, there are strange social force-fields involved. I caught plenty of French bashing, and even a few lingering Monica Lewinsky jokes. But I heard no Reagan Alzheimer’s puns, no space shuttle Columbia humor. I asked Andy if any team names had ever been vetoed on grounds of decorum. He thought about this a moment. “After John Wayne died, I remember no one was allowed to have any teams making fun of him.”

More eccentricities; OTL's ageless "Three B’s Rule" (No bottles, babies or bowsers [dogs]) had been amended to include “No B’whining”. The Two Commandments - “we never have any fun” and “no dumbshit questions” - appeared on hundreds of signs, shirts and hats. If that sounds like a huge in-joke, that’s because it mostly is. Normally when something is this impenetrable to outsiders, I suspect an agenda…. like four hours in I’ll be taken to see a Scientology video. In this case, below the surface was… more surface. I have to admit that the lack of commercialization was startling. This was Halloween for the silent majority.

(PT. 2 posted tomorrow)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Irony Vote (2004)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 23 - I wrote this piece for a local weekly in 2004, but it was killed before publication. Rocco has since survived a recall attempt, served his term in the OUSB, and was arrested last year for stealing a bottle of ketchup from a local university cafeteria.

This month's baffling election of Steve Rocco to the Orange Unified School Board of Trustees, won despite his intentional anonymity, defies easy explanation. If Rocco had been running for mayor or supervisor or even sheriff, his backdoor victory might ring true. But school board races are scrutinized contests, as important to the soccer moms of Orange and Villa Park as the race for the White House. What kind of loopy malfunction has vigilant parents, people normally versed in every sigh, cough and intestinal gurgle of their local school board members, voting to hand over supervision of over 31,000 students and $230,000,000 in operating budget to a sinister stranger known mostly for his conspiracy theories?

The answer may lie with the ironic vote. In a country where a rich ex-drunk can win the presidency by losing the election (and win reelection by tanking the economy and losing a war), mocking civic participation is a logical defense mechanism. And in the era of fake news and Billionaires For Bush, it is hard to dismiss the idea that more and more Americans are treating their democracy as an elaborate gag.

Ironic candidates are certainly nothing new. In 1938, the Democratic mayor of Wilton, WA., successfully ran a mule named Boston Curtis for Republican precinct committeeman to prove a point about voter apathy. Crackpots and bogus contenders surface in every presidential election and a good deal of the lower races, occasionally gaining entry into the more respectable sphere of "protest candidate". Jello Biafra's 1979 bid for San Francisco mayor may have been orchestrated for maximum yukks, but it laid the groundwork for more successful mayoral runs by Crucifucks vocalist Doc Dart (Lansing, MI, 1989) and Tit Wrench frontman Bob Beyerle (Chula Vista, 1990).


Rocco's candidacy wasn't satire. It is his victory that may mark an actual shift, the possible emergence of the citizen, not the candidate, as comedian. Although the eddies and tributaries that fed into this political development were, by nature, invisible - the disgusted voters that have scrawled bad words on ballots through the centuries did so in legal anonymity - the precedent is homegrown; last year's governor's race. Faced with a stupefying array of jokers and goofballs to run the seventh largest economy in the world, the voters went for the funnybone. When the leader of the free world doesn't care about tens of millions of people marching against his war, is it such a stretch to imagine that larger and larger constituencies are finally taking a long, hard look at participatory democracy and crying 'uncle'?

Just this February in Alpine, TX, a local professor's printed comments that his home town boasted "some of the dumbest clods on the planet" spawned a stunning display of mass sarcasm; Alpine townfolk banded together for a "pride parade", their umbrellas and toilet plungers held high as a "Proud To Be Dumb Clods" float ambled through the town's main thoroughfare.

Future voters of Iraq and Afghanistan, are you taking notes?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Notice Of Employment (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 21 - This appeared as a postscript to a column that ran in Punk Planet 58.

NOTICE OF EMPLOYMENT

If I can share my defeats with you all, I guess I am kind of obliged to pass along the triumphs… I have been hired by Borders. I am employee 406 at store 497. This is in Chino, a city known for its men’s prison, Snoop Dogg’s Little League team, and an overpowering agricultural stench. These days Chino is also known for the mall that houses my employers, one of those places that looks like it was built 8-10 minutes ago. I have driven around this complex at night, and it seems to have no end.

As minimum wage, retail jobs go, it could be worse. By my second week I didn’t want to punch anyone in the face anymore. I have no complaints with my coworkers. But it’s not a place for people who like books. My first shift spilled into the midnight release of the fifth Harry Potter hardback, and by 2AM I found myself face to face with misty eyed 40-year olds in Dr. Who scarves. This was a priceless, unrepeatable experience, so obviously the climax of my employment that I should have quit at the end of the night.

Although being a cashier has its hidden rewards. For every petty humiliation, there is a vignette of hope: the kid who told me “you guys have a bitchin’ D&D section”; the angry Russian in sunglasses who actually said “we are buyink [sic] somewhere else”; the balding black guy who came up to me with an English-Korean dictionary, chuckling, saying “we have a language e-mergency.” And I can’t say I haven’t learned anything at this job. I never would have known that Rodney King will be cutting a rap album if a customer hadn’t told me.

Here’s the thing; Punk Planet is carried in this store. Although I’ve never actually sold a copy (I did ring up one Maximumrocknroll - to Bill T., of Pillsbury Hardcore - and was stymied by its lack of a barcode), this magazine always winds up floating to the front of the music periodicals, able to hold its own against Source and Vibe, no help from me. So what is my journalistic duty in this situation???

Monday, July 20, 2009

FF in NYC (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 20 - This originally posted on vermiform.com, 5/27/02

ForceField of Providence, RI – featuring our own Mr. Brinkman – wrapped up its 3 month run in the 2002 Whitney biennial yesterday. Sam and Tara Vermiform met up with Neil and Noelle Monoroid in front of the Whitney on 54th street. The last such outing for this gang was in 2001, when the four fit in a trip to Movieland wax museum in Buena Park.

Forcefield’s piece was located on the 3rd floor. A room 17 feet high had been converted into a walk-in diorama of life sized creature-mannequins, like the historical armor exhibition across town at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, perhaps a thousand years from now. A few small monsters stood around the periphery. Several beasts the size of European automobiles lurked in the background. Neil Burke had hand screened the thousands upon thousands of sheets that covered the back walls and ceiling, and he seemed to droop a bit taking it all in. Serious old ladies could be seen writing force field in their little notebooks. Matt Brinkman himself arrived after twenty minutes, looking dazed by civilian life. It turned out that Matt had been standing in the exhibit, in full costume, much the same way Vincent Price had once posed in his own diorama at the Movieland wax museum, scaring passers by and retreating, like Brinkman, through a tiny secret door.

The gang wandered for a while. Sam did his best to follow the rules of open mouthed bubble gum chewing (OK in rooms of framed photographs fine, not OK fine in rooms of 18th century paintings), the result of several incidents of things flying out of his mouth. Despite bad press and a few distinct stinkers, there were some great pieces here; Ken Feingold’s bald Caucasian heads with moving mouths and eyes, talking to each other in computerized monotones from a cardboard box filled with packing peanuts (“Do you think we’ll die?”), the “Holy Artwork” video installation collaboration between performance artist Christian Jankowski and San Antonio’s Harvest Fellowship Church, John Leanos’ fictional archeological artifacts, Robert Lazzorini’s incredible elongated payphone complete with stickers and stains.

The best piece of the show belonged to mad genius Miranda July, who had recorded a 20 minute loop that ran in the massive elevators. Sam rode the lift until he found himself alone with the recording, watching strangers listen to her dramas in pieces as the elevator moved from floor to floor, sometimes talking amongst each other in small groups; “I think I saw one of the move!” “Ooh, which one was it?”

Friday, July 17, 2009

Hot Topic (2003)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, JULY 17 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 57, late 2003.

HOT TOPIC

In this economic landscape of cratered dreams and blasted asses, it is easy to overlook that there are still a lot of people making a lot of money. Not far from my house, a blimp-shaped advertising balloon hovers ominously over a stretch of interstate, reading STORE CLOSING and looking like a giant rubber bomb in mid-descent. But the strip malls grazed by its death shadow remain flush with business. People tighten belts and adjust expectations. Some prosper in the midst of drought. Even during the Great Depression, select businesses made good money.

This recession, the big winner is Hot Topic. Yes, that Hot Topic. The same company that sells Tank Girl shirts and Total Chaos posters and Atari wristbands is known as HOTT on Nasdaq and currently holds the # 12 spot on Forbes’ Top 200 small businesses list. In May, the chain posted explosive gains, their sales up 26% from just the end of last year. When I quizzed several friends on exactly how much money they thought could be baked into a twenty-six-percent-pie chart wedge, most supposed in the low seven figures. And most seemed to go into physical shock when I told them that the company just cracked the hundred million dollar sales mark this spring. That’s per quarter, folks, not annual. I’m not sure if I myself believe it. $100,000,000 is the kind of cash nations give each other to rebuild infrastructure. How did it get this far? It was strange enough, in 1999, watching footage of the Seattle protests with the realization that crusty punks had pulled the last great switcheroo of the millennium, transforming themselves from stereotypes of the past into agents of the future. Now comes the twin revelation that poseurs have gone from a special interest group to a major economic force in just one decade. Poof! But how?

“Unless you've got a teenager or stockbroker in the house,” wrote a San Francisco Chronicle analyst two years ago, “you probably haven't heard about Hot Topic.” Yet there is a third group well versed in the chain; bewildered Gen X’ers. Who among us doesn’t remember the solemn oath of our 15 year old selves, to never treat those younger with the same disdain shown us? And - be honest here - who among us aging whales hasn’t encountered that moment of unexpected disgust seeing some surly kid in combat boots walk past with a Hot Topic bag tucked under one arm? The slick ubiquity of these stores stomps and poops over all prior notions of tolerance. There are Hot Topics in Anchorage, Grand Forks and Kahului. A Puerto Rican Hot Topic will be among the 70 stores the company will be opening in 2003. My hometown Albany, NY mall arrested a man earlier this year for wearing a peace t-shirt, but that’s not nearly as strange to me as the existence of a Hot Topic outlet elsewhere in that very same mall.

I should clarify here that I like Hot Topic. The chain is a first rate reminder that I am living in the future. Cars have finally begun to sprout the humps and TV screens of the Jetsons Age. Bank tellers have purple hair and curse like sailors. Everyone is on the phone with everyone else, even in public bathrooms. Clumsy voice recognition systems may cause momentary hilarity, but we are burdened with the knowledge that the machines will always triumph. HT’s ascendancy seems to complete the circuit started with that defining moment, already seven years ago, when I stepped into a skate shop in North Carolina. The punky kids behind the counter rolled their eyes at my adult intrusion, telepathically instant messaging each other snide comments. In the great sweep of history, I had become the poseur. My spellbinding but unsolicited tales of yesteryear’s bands might as well have been bird migration statistics.

Hot Topic’s website makes veiled references to the war on shrink (inventory shrinkage). Presumably shrink is a major foe from all sides when one deals in teens. But there is nothing of the war on irony. Everything is face value with this crowd. No attempts are made to shield the patrons from the raw business plan…. three mouse clicks will bring the online shopper from “What’s Your Scene?” to Investor Relations. And no attempts are made to dress up or dumb down what the store is. There’s no for-the-kids posturing. The 1970’s style reflected in certain T-shirts is more of the linear and cold “I’m With Stupid” fashion than the gentle, witty self-deprecation of Mad Magazine. Although I know of people who shop (and even work) at Hot Topic as an ironic statement, the employees who front the public face of the company seem to have been carefully screened for sarcasm. The company’s spin off chain, Torrid, sells “plus sized women’s apparel” for teenagers, part of the store’s rather stern but hazily avowed mission to cater to outsiders. The Hot Topic models - fleshy girls with dark, multicolored hair and heavily penciled eyebrows – pose with a certain wariness, advertising not just that they detect and deflect society’s bullshit with one mighty, weary glare but also, more disturbingly, that they easily detect my bullshit, peering into a core of my character, poking their slim fingers into my flabby gut. “Hey,” I yell at the computer screen, “I’m on your side! I’m one of you! Just in disguise!”

Within eyeshot of the STORE CLOSING balloon, local Montclair Plaza holds the very first Hot Topic store. I’d last visited the place in October 2001, in that weird week when emails were being forwarded of an impending Al Quada attack on shopping malls (the chain itself proved itself impervious to even Sept 11th… their 4th quarter 2001 sales showed only the slightest of dips, a result of nervous parents willing to pay heavily for any sort of normality for their kids). On some unremembered errand, I grew scared of all suspicious shoppers and sought refuge in the silliest store I could find. I paid a visit to this place last week, finding it quieter than I’d remembered. A strange heavy cherry smell permeated the place. A man with a stroller took up most of the center aisle. There was no shrink to be seen, no withering stares. I didn’t recognize many of the band names. I sneezed, loud, but no one rolled their eyes. A man in an actual tie dyed peace shirt walked in and did not get arrested. No story here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The End of Mordam

END OF AN ERA DEPT., July 9 - News comes today that the last vestiges of Mordam Records have gone belly up. I wrote about the company in 2001 and in 2002, and view this as sad but unsurprising news.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Looting & Realm Mingling (2001)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, July 3 - This originally posted on vermiform.com, 3/5/01

LOOTING AND REALM MINGLING

This was supposed to be the final weekend to binge at the Napster smorgasbord, one last free-music looting spree in the face of imminent legal doom... the end of an era, as 21 month spans are now called. And it is the end of an era, although not remotely in the way that the big 5 record labels want it to be. Napster's looming ruin (or at least radical retooling) will mark the first and probable last time the music industry will have someone to sue over the issue of free downloadable music. Like the menacing broom shards in "Fantasia", Napster's collapse opens the door for its 60 million customers to start trading mano a mano. Direct filesharing is already possible under OpenNap (which, as free software, offers no one to sue except the people doing the sharing - otherwise known as the music industry's own market). Upcoming software and connections are already rendering the "content ownership" portion of the music industry's reign economically irrelevant, forcing new business plans.

Napster's own launch also marked the end of a different kind of era. There was once an age when one could be in a band and safely write, record and release whole albums of material entirely unknown to their own family. This was the era of Comfortable Compartmentalization, and the luxury of that time is gone forever. I date its passing to Christmas 1994, when many of my friends returned home for the holidays to the horror of their entire extended clan gathered around the computer screen, wee cousins and ripe grandparents alike. Painstakingly concealed details of one's band life, many of us learned, could now be unearthed in seconds with the click of an AOL icon. This new era, the age of Total Family Disclosure has been a difficult time for some. Who wants to have their realms mixed without prior consent?

Recorded music is, after all, just a subset of intellectual property. And intellectual property is like furniture that can't be stolen. If a record you appear on goes missing from your own collection, you can always find a copy at a friend's house. If your band's been lucky, you might be able to find another copy at a record store. Peer-to-peer song filesharing finalized this concept. From 1999 on, one could count on the inscribing of their recorded music, by sheer virtue of being recorded music, in the global Book Of Life. A system designed by the Defense Department to insure survivability of government documents after a nuclear war now also insures survival of one's songs after a nuclear war, somewhere, on someone's hard drive.

But intellectual property can also be like flawed furniture, the couch with the bad leg that hobbles after you forlornly. Artists with regrettable songs that were regrettably posted online are wishing a recall could be as easy as cramming all the toothpaste back in the tube. For every Beach Boys' "Smile" that was successfully self-quarantined, there are 10,000 outtakes, flubbed live tracks or demo versions of songs that were never meant to see the light of day. Musicians with unripe earlier work (or, uh, who said dumb things between songs at live shows) now have to face the music. Usually their own, following them in ghostly files from terminal to terminal.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New: Disneyland After Dark

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM DEPT., July 1- Vice Magazine just posted my piece on being stuck in Disneyland overnight.

An article with a different format might have explored Disney's jail in further length. Probably the time will come in my life when I will need to get busted by Disney security just to see the Disney prison. Too bad it doesn't work that way with Club 33.