Saturday, July 25, 2015

Beggar's Buffet

France has made a habit of taking us Americans to task for not appreciating our hometown artists, so it’s somewhat ironic that France has finally lifted its taboo on Bernard Buffet in nearly forty years with a huge retrospective of his work. Bernard Buffet has experienced some of the most extreme highs and lows of anyone in the art world.

Buffet painted in the Expressionist style, emphasizing harsh deep lines alternating with thin, scratchy ones and using thick applications of color. His content and style was simple enough to appeal to the man on the street as well as art critics. His art hit a nerve so immediately he made millions and won awards by the time he reached his mid-twenties.

Blessed with movie star good lucks, fame and fortune, he incurred the enmity of none other than Pablo Picasso. Picasso was incensed that his children allegedly found Buffet’s art more fun to look at than Daddy’s. Picasso led a rather loud campaign against Buffet out of sheer jealousy.

He also incurred the hatred of writer Andre Malraux, Pres. Charles de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. Malraux branded Buffet’s genius paintings as “bourgeois” = I’ll translate it for you: “He’s too fucking rich, famous and good-looking so let’s just attack him because we’re a bunch of ass-wipe snobs”.

In retaliation Buffet did something that made him an even bigger fucking king in my opinion= HE STARTED DOING CLOWN PAINTINGS! Crazy, wild, deformed looking clowns! Lots of them! Enough to piss off every art snob from Paris to Marseille. And prints of these clown paintings sold by the millions. Every French household had a Buffet clown print in the house. Bernard officially joined The Ranks of The Terminally Uncool. He was sort of the Gallic Keane.

The straw that broke the camel’s back, unfortunately, was when he broke up with his boyfriend, Pierre Berge, over a spat about Yves St. Laurent. Berge ran into the arms of St. Laurent, and Buffet in turn fell in love and married beautiful singer and actress Annabel Schwob. The art community felt he’d gone traitor by marrying a woman. Is there no French word for bisexual?

In spite of it all the French government employed Buffet to design a postage stamp and Japan opened a Bernard Buffet Museum in Osaka. He continued to paint up until he contracted Parkinson’s Disease in his seventies and lost the ability to paint. With the loss of his only passion, Mr. Buffet committed suicide by self-inflicted asphyxia in 1999.

After all the awards and millions earned does it really matter if a jealous cognoscenti badmouths the work of an unimpeachable master? Buffet struck a chord with the average Frenchman, Picasso’s kids and me. And that’s what all great art should do.

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If you haven’t seen the works of Belgian animator Raoul Servais you’re in for a treat. Every animated work is a masterpiece of sight and sound and can be dug up anytime on You Tube. This one is one of my favorites by him: it’s an animated version of Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux’s paintings. It’s called “Papillons De Nuit” (Night Butterflies) and is absolutely dazzling to watch.

I also recommend “Siren” and Chromophobia”, but all his works are breathtaking visually and well worth your time. You won’t be sorry!

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Race With The Devil"

Metal will always be with us, even for those of us who don't listen to it as often as the true believers do. Case in point, 20 years ago when I listened to 3WK Classic Rock Radio and they played a great 60's pop song called "Sunshine" by the legendary English band Gun. I liked it so much I bought a used copy of it on eBay. What I didn't reckon was checking out the phenomenal flip side, an insanely wild metal romp called Race With The Devil.

Gun were probably smitten by Cream judging by the choir-like harmonies which provide the fanfare in this song. It then blasts into a furious galloping boogie tempo with that blazing guitar line made immortal by Adrian Gurvitz and worshiped by all metal fans worldwide. The lyrics read like some incendiary western pulp novel: "You better run, you better run from the devil's gun. Strange things happen if you stay, the devil will get you any way...." and then Gurvitz rips out a maniacal laugh reminiscent of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The addition of horns in the production never comes off as too obtrusive; it actually punctuates the rhythm quite well. Great stuff!

The Gun

Gun didn't really strike it big in America, but the Gurvitz Bros. continued making records in the power trio format, even forming a band with ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker called the Baker Gurvitz Army. After all was said and done, nothing could top Race With The Devil. Not long ago an old broadcast video of Gun performing the song (it was probably Beat Club) was available on You Tube, but has since been taken down. Drat!

Black Oak Arkansas

Black Oak Arkansas play a comparatively loose version of the song. The three guitars harmonize prettily, taking a little bit of the edge off the song. Jim Dandy Mangrum sings in an almost Las Vegas croon, recalling David Lee Roth. No big surprise as Mangrum was a heavy influence on Roth in the early Van Halen days, both visually and musically. While I wouldn't call this the definite cover version (unless you're a serious Ethel Merman fan), there's something almost irreverent in the way they refuse to take the song too seriously. Everything's a party with these guys!

Girlschool

Girlschool make up for their lacking vocal talent with their powerful guitar interplay and in this regard acquit themselves rather well. I like the tempo on this version, too, although other live videos on You Tube show them dragging the beat. Just like Black Oak the fanfare is carried by the guitars rather than with vocals, a good call by them. This is probably the best live version by them I've seen so far, and here they are in top form.

Judas Priest

Ah, Judas Priest. Nobody can rock a cover tune like the Priest, whether it be a brooding Fleetwood Mac song (The Green Manalishi) or a moody Joan Baez ballad (Diamonds And Rust). Rob Halford puts his balls to the wall and flawlessly tackles the Nordic God fanfare all by himself with enough operatic relish to strangle Wagner himself. Glen Tipton and K.K. Downing bring the hoary Sixties classic straight into the Eighties with an awesome, modern guitar sound, never losing the intensity of the tune.

Metal will always be with us, whether we like it or not. There's something unshakable about it. Even if you don't like it you'll discover a song or two so pure and honest in its vision that you'll find yourself listening, anyway. It doesn't care about your age or politics or even what the fuck you're wearing. And that's the key to its universality.

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Here in L.A. we have lots of billboards promoting a new TV comedy on FX called Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, complete with faux Never Mind The Bollocks lettering. While I haven't seen the show and know nothing about it the billboard bothers me a great deal. I have nothing against comedies, I love 'em to death. What bothers me is the way Hollywood has perpetually depicted rock bands through the years as a bunch of clods who haven't got a brain cell to split between them.

I wish I was in on the joke about rock bands being bozos, because the truth is more rock musicians commit suicide than any other kind of artist. Try to find the humor in that!

I suspect that the real reason why filmmakers are always spoofing rock bands is because they're secretly jealous of the power bands have over shitty movies and TV shows. Behind every shitty screenwriter and director is a guy who wishes he could play badass guitar or front a band. Get over yourselves, Hollywood. A two-hour high octane action film will never hold anyone's attention the way a powerful, rockin' two minute song can.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

GQ:George Quaintance: Gentlemen's Queertopia

I’m pretty new to the George Quaintance camp compared to a lot of erotic art fans. In 2012 I saw the Quaintance retrospective book which Taschen released. What I saw in this lavishly packaged book looked a lot like romantic pulp fiction covers, i.e. sexy senoritas, seductive belly dancers, etc. The only difference is that George Quaintance’s paintings had not one woman in them, but perfectly sculpted men with hairless bodies and beautifully colored skin.

If "Brokeback Mountain" was a picture book, this would be it. George Quaintance creates a veritable gay cowboy paradise where every man has the perfect looks and body, rodeos are for tyin' and wranglin' boys, the sun always shines, and every mesa is the Garden of (sw)Eden. The book is pretty pricey so I settled for the 2012 calendar, which was better because the images were large and in charge.

The Taschen Gallery just opened an exhibition of Quaintance’s amazing paintings in a show called “The Flamboyant Life and Forbidden Art of George Quaintance”. This was a herculean task in itself because he only produced less than sixty paintings in his lifetime, and many were simply traded or sold to private collectors. More than a few paintings had a NOT FOR SALE caption written beneath them.

Many of the paintings shown depicted men of in cowboy settings bathing, swimming or horseback riding. They’re mostly depicted in various stages of undress. These western settings suggest a virtual queer Utopia where men are perpetually young and fit and don’t require female company.

The best bathing paintings were Rainbow Falls, Sunset, Havasu Creek, and Morning In The Desert. In these paintings the boys either seem to be taking a shower or frolicking in a waterfall stream.

There are also many paintings of men bonding with their horses, as seen in the paintings Stallion, Manolo, and Dashing. It’s fascinating that Quaintance created these works during the late Forties-early Fifties when western films were at their peak and the image of the cowboy was the All-American image of masculinity at the time.

According to the gallery’s biography on George Quaintance, he was at one point or another a “vaudeville dancer, coiffeur designer, window dresser, magazine cover artist, photographer and portraitist”.

The biography also points out that Quaintance only lived to be 55 years old and ironically produced only 55 paintings in all. The exhibition also featured a well-researched timeline on Quaintance’s life and work, which took up and entire wall at the gallery. It was pretty awe-inspiring.

Compared to Tom of Finland, I'd say Quaintance's subjects are feminine in comparison, almost feline in their sleekness. The macho aggressiveness in Tom's images are replaced by an angelic idyll. There's also a more romantic and less carnal theme running through these images. The most overtly sexual image in these pieces are two men lying down together, a far cry from Tom's elephantine erections. This is the romance of homosexuality up on canvas.

If I were asked why I responded immediately to George Quaintance and his art I would say that his use of color and light is some of the most impressive I’ve seen. I also think his depiction of homoeroticism has a surrealistic flavor more mysterious than most erotic art ever made. You want to meet these people and understand how they live. This is part and parcel of what makes for great art, and George Quaintance is deserving of your attention.

The Flamboyant Life and Forbidden Art of George Quaintance is on exhibit at the Taschen Gallery, 8070 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, through August 31, 2015.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Damn The Darkness

Last month I was in Las Vegas and visited the much heralded Kiss miniature golf course. Prior to going there I fantasized of being in a cool, fun miniature golf course filled with crazy rock & roll props and stuff. It was a little bit like that, but then again…

The KISS miniature golf course can be found at the end of a completely empty strip mall, and unlike many mini golf courses, is indoors. Inside the walls are all painted black with paintings of the band and other images (‘70s hookers) in either blacklight or fluorescent paint. The images are painted with a heavy hand by a man who was probably blind in both eyes.

There are some interesting statues, like a big Gene Simmons head (no pun intended) with an enormous protruding tongue you need to tee your golf ball into. There are lots of fake amplifiers and giant phallic guitars to putt your way through.

The music piped through the PA is largely composed of material spanning the band’s entire career, solo albums and non-makeup period, as well. When a Paul McCartney & Wings track played over the PA it was met like an unwelcome intruder, so yes, there’s some scattered vintage rock tunes programmed in addition to the KISS songbook. By the way, it’s very hard to play below par to “Beth”.

The golf course also had a rock & roll party lounge roped off from us slobs, a fully stocked bar, as well as a KISS souvenir shop. The people who worked there were pretty nice so I don’t want them to feel like I’m fucking with them, but nevertheless, it had a low budget ghetto vibe about it.

I suppose it could’ve been worse: imagine an Oasis or a Smiths golf course. Yeah, a KISS golf course suddenly sounds pretty good.

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While I was standing in line at Amoeba Records yesterday the store played a video of Donny Darko, the Magna Carta to all Emo kids the world over, on the monitors. The film raised a multiple series of questions about mortality and other major life issues, but the grim attitude it shipped is what struck me the most.

Every cool person in the movie is pale skinned and glum and all the smiling, happy people came off looking like idiots. Well, fuck us happy people! I was also amused at the myopic view given towards Graham Greene’s story “The Destructors”. Donny interpreted the story of a bunch of street kids mindlessly destroying an old man’s carefully constructed house as “creativity through destruction”. There’s no reference made whatsoever to the story being written shortly after World War II, and that it’s more likely about the brutal bombing of London.

I remembered how ten years ago I threw all my black clothes away and began wearing more bright colored clothes. As ridiculous as it may sound, doing that was more subversive than wearing flat, empty black.

I also discarded that fey hipster negativity, my new mantra being “Damn The Darkness”. It’s too easy to embrace the dark and the grim. It’s not fatalistic; it’s passive acceptance of a grotesque, ugly, horrible world without creating an alternative. You don’t have to wear a stupid pink sweatshirt screaming “CHOOSE LIFE”, but you’re going to have to do more than just frown and say “Everything sucks”. Putting shit down all the time doesn’t make you cool.

Illustration by Yuki Ramaro

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Several plateaus are reached when you work on a novel. The first one is obviously getting all that insanity down on paper and the third plateau is putting the final touches to your work. Right now I’m reaching the middle plateau, doing rewrites of all the things banged out for the first draft. Wow!

If you’re a serious writer you’ll know how great rewrites are. You get to read the whole novel back to yourself and keep all the good parts and fix all the shitty, jacked-up sentences and paragraphs, etc. etc. You also get to beef up all the parts that you kicked out so quickly you neglected to fill in with enough details.

The joy of rewrites is being able to step back and fix an already exciting project you’re working on. It’s not unlike Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film “The Mystery of Picasso” where the great master steps back, looks at a brilliant section of his painting, you’re thinking “That’s so brilliant”, and then he literally paints something else right over that section! Picasso’s approach can be applied to all artists. That’s rewriting for you: your novel might read really cool, but you can always make it even better.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

RIP Ornette Coleman

Innovation is no stranger to jazz, but fewer people made a radical difference in sound as Ornette Coleman did. Coleman created new approaches to music and the way we heard it in much the same way Picasso did. The road to innovation is a rocky one, guaranteed to upset the most-minded purists, and in Coleman’s case it turned violent on more than several occasions.

On the first Coleman album I heard he dispensed with the dominant piano in a quartet setting, letting the horns lead the band. And what horns they were! Ornette played a Grafton plastic alto saxophone, and his playing style was a mixture of hardcore fifties rhythm & blues and free jazz. If the stretched out jazz alienated you he would return to some bluesy swing on his horn, bringing it all back home.

But that album cover was punk rock personified via free jazz. An intense Ornette in a beat, threadbare sweater with unkempt hair blasting atonal skronk on a white plastic saxophone, as iconic an image in music as any I've ever seen, prompting me to pick up my Conn Mark IV tenor and howl along to the album. Yeah, that's something else! I wanted to be just like that awesome wild man on the album cover. It was all magick and musick, and as a teenager Ornette set me on fire.

I first heard about Ornette Coleman from interviews with Captain Beefheart, who wished all his fans “drank from the drinking pond as Ornette”. Robert Palmer, jazz critic for Rolling Stone Magazine also stated that Coleman was one of the leading innovators in jazz, no small credit given that in the early Seventies jazz was at its peak in creativity.

With that information in mind I sought out Science Fiction, Coleman’s first release for Columbia Records. The music was super-charged and intense, fueled by a driving rhythm section largely manned by Charlie Haden and Charles Blackwell. The trumpets, either played by Don Cherry or Bobby Bradford were strong and angry, and Dewey Redman’s tenor sax playing was from a whole different dimension. It was the jazz version of punk rock: fast and furious.

Of course, no one album by Ornette tells the whole story, there’s The Empty Foxhole with his then 6-year old son Denardo playing drums and Ornette occasionally playing violin and trumpet, too. There were more albums letting us know we were in for something new and unexpected: titles like Change of The Century, Tomorrow Is The Question, The Shape of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, and many more.

Speaking of The Empty Foxhole, I just wanted to call attention to Denardo's great drumming on that track. With Ornette playing a dirgey trumpet, Denardo hits his snare conjuring up nightmarish images of a burnt-out soldier marching through a bombed out battlefield. I think the album was a great father & son experience. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case with my father and I. The album irritated him like crazy and every time I put it on he'd start yelling at me. He also hated The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny by The Mothers of Invention but even that creeped me out. The Empty Foxhole was an apt soundtrack for many father & son arguments one summer.

The most startling change in a career of startling changes was the 1977 release Dancing In Your Head, an album which introduced his theory of harmolodics, which very simply put, is a system where every musician can play freely at the same time in a band while supporting the other musicians. The result was an album that sounded like the soul sister to Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album.

Dancing In Your Head had such a profound influence on my friends and I that we added Theme From A Symphony to our band Arthur J. And The Goldcups' set. The pinnacle, however, was finding the promotional 45 RPM single of Theme From A Symphony on A&M/Horizon Records for only 10 cents. Both sides naturally had abridged versions of that bombastic masterpiece. I still treasure my copy of that behemoth single to this day.

I remember seeing Ornette playing with his harmolodic electric band at The Westwood Playhouse in 1982 and it was a pretty wild show. There were twin electric guitarists, bassists and drummers going at it non-stop with Ornette heading the charge. It was one of those jazz concerts you remember for a long time after.

Ornette passed away on June 11 at age 85, a life filled with sounds still seldomely heard, but still inspiring and influential to this day. I still look up to him as one of the biggest influences on my saxophone playing. I also consider his humble attitude and philosophy to be a big part of my musical education.