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Friday, September 16, 2011

Smokin' Like A Villain

I’m not going to justify my enjoyment of smoking and drinking because it will inevitably result in a debate with some blue nose, usually female, who takes great pride in leading a supposedly sanitized lifestyle. The argument usually culminates on how the sanitized female will live forever, which of course raises my favorite question: Who the fuck wants to live forever? What are you looking forward to? Economic recovery? World peace? Another awful contest show on television?

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I want to talk about smoking. I first started smoking when I worked as a clerk in bustling downtown Los Angeles in the 1970’s. Girls in skimpy outfits stood on street corners around 5 o’clock handing out free packs of Winston cigarettes, and they just wanted to get rid of them sitting on those trays hanging around their necks. I liked Winston a lot, and soon tried out different brands to taste the difference in the tobacco.

I tried Kool menthols which made my sinuses freak out worse than pot, I tried lights which felt like smoking toilet paper, and I even tried old school unfiltered brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Chesterfields, which Captain Beefheart once said should come with your own iron lung. I stayed with Winstons.

Owning cigarettes was only part of the ritual: Zippo lighters were the next step. I got a great one with an image by Robt Williams that Amphetamine Reptile used to sell back in the day. They sold lighters with images by Pizz, Dennis Worden, Gary Panter and Kaz, to name a few. Then you had to have a rockin’ cigarette case because those crush-proof boxes were garbage. I got a nice metal one with a Chinese dragon on it to match my Chinese dragon bracelet. A vice is incomplete until one acquires the proper paraphernalia for it.

One of my favorite stops in Palm Springs used to be The Tinder Box which had at least three cigar stores on every block. There’s a good one in West Hollywood, too, and I always like checking out all the smoking paraphernalia, like smoking stands for your sofa for that old lounge vibe. Cigarette holders are pretty weird, too, the longer the better. Some of the best smoking paraphernalia can be found at truck stops, so on that next trip to Vegas keep your eyes peeled for that Winchester rifle lighter.

I do confess to calling a moratorium on smoking several years ago when I started chain-smoking and having choking fits, which I no longer do and no longer have. When I did chain smoke, I didn't do it as weirdly as I've seen some people do it, which is lighting the next cigarette with the butt of the previous one that's burning out. Even as a smoker I found that practice creepy, quite frankly. These days things are different. I have one coffin nail a day and even skip a few days here and there. It’s not that terribly important like it was 20 years ago, so when I skip a few days I don’t start nervously twitching or overeating.

But if there's anything weirder than chain smokers it's the actual haters themselves. While some people object to cigarette smoke in patios they think nothing of toting their dogs. If there's an odor more offensive than Marlboro Lights it's the smell of a wet dog when I eat. Then there are those hipster parents that shoot daggers at me when I light up in front of their children like I'm the devil. These are the same clowns that think nothing of dragging their kids to the supermarket at 10 pm. Perhaps these Orwellian moms and dads are bugged because the kids look a little excited to see my cigarette case, lighter, and other tobacco toys in action. Roll over, Joe Camel!

The most extreme case of smoking hatred might be the time someone posted a movie review on the Independent Movie Data Base (iMDB.com) ripping into an old Cary Grant movie because he counted people lighting up 35 times in the film. His review didn't critique the nice set design, cool Edith Head wardrobe or dazzling performance by Cary Grant, no - cigarettes were lit up and smoked 35 times in this movie, so he hated it. What a freak!

Why do people smoke anyway? Why do people consider this recreation relaxing? I’ve always felt that smoking is the only time one can breathe deeply in a social situation and not look like a total freak. The calm inhaling of tobacco makes the body relax and stimulate the mind. So the next time you see me and my friends standing twenty feet in front of a building out on the sidewalk puffing away it’s because we’re chillin’ while the healthy blue noses are insanely screaming at each other driving on the road.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rip, Rig and Panic

Back in the Pleistocene era of punk rock (1977-1979) the top fanzines of the West Coast were Slash (Los Angeles) and Search & Destroy (San Francisco), which were both written and designed by people that worked in the field of graphic arts, cinema and publishing. This meant that both fanzines not only covered the new music that was emerging at the time, but also covered cutting edge artists, filmmakers and performance artists. Performance artists got an extraordinary amount of coverage in Slash/Search & Destroy, and a lot of these artists were every bit as exciting as any punk band.

In an era of Siouxise Sioux, The Slits, and Cindy Sherman, no other artist embodied femininity gone awry better than Johanna Went. Playing every feminine role with the manic ferocity of a mental patient, Went portrayed nuns bathed in blood carrying crucifixes, violent housekeepers throwing flour around the stage with baby dolls tied around her neck, speaking in tongues, babbling and shrieking into a microphone. A terrific jazz-noise combo would punctuate her whirling dervishes, creating an aural wallpaper as disturbing as her I Am Woman nightmarisms. She even released a great EP of jazz-noise bludgeon called “Hyena” (available on eMusic with bonus tracks, yes!).


If there was a British Music Hall act from Hell it would be The Kipper Kids. Two stocky men who favored a cross between British lorry drivers and The Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine”, a performance from them would include: a boxing match between them clad only in jock straps – who would you root for, Harry Kipper or Harry Kipper?, a version of The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” on ukulele, or an argument between them in a language only they knew. And of course, a lot of blood, animal entrails, food product and fluids all over each other, which is the sort of “Johnny B. Goode” or “New York, New York” of the performance art world. No performance artist could complete their show without making a mess all over themselves.

But performance art was more than just a spectator sport. When I lived at The Masque (1978) I once woke up to the sounds of metal being banged around, kind of like a garbage can fighting its way out of an alley. When I got up to see what the racket was all about I saw Z’ev auditioning on stage, which meant him hurling a gauntlet of metal cans, pots and scrap metal all tied together and creating a cacophonous metallic soundscape. I thought he was great, but I wanted to jam, so I busted out my saxophone and walked into the hall blowing some wicked atonal tenor saxophone. Z’ev looked shocked and probably a little pissed that I was playing along, but Brendan Mullen and company were entertained by my contributions.


Word got around The Canterbury (where I lived after the Masque) that Hermann Nitsch was doing his“Orgien Mysterien Theater” (trans: Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries) at The Otis Institute of Art and if you had a horn you were invited to play. My neighbors Don Bolles of The Germs and Pat Delaney of The Deadbeats were going but I couldn’t make it, and I was bummed. The day after the performance Pat had dried blood all over him, and he said I missed a great show. Naked men and women were tied to crucifixes behind hacked animal carcasses as Nitsch poured blood and cow entrails all over them while the horn players blew a wall of noise. I kicked myself all week for missing that one!

Another phenomenon that was fairly big at the time was tons and tons of loft parties in the warehouse district in Downtown LA where all you had to do was show up with your horn and blow. Sometimes with a band, sometimes just by yourself along to prepared tapes, it was important for the maximum effect of the loft party. Nobody played crummy rap records, it was all about the originality of the environment and even if youdidn’t know the host of the party you were welcome to play. Shit done changed after all these years. People need to loosen up!

At the risk of writing yet another whiny piece about how cool the scene used to be I just want to testify that there was a time when punk rock was more than just a lot of bands and party merchandise. It was a living, breathing wall of sound and vision, and I’ll always fondly remember those days of watching, listening, and even participating in the sonic outrage of the Seventies.

Friday, September 2, 2011

"A Salty Dog" - Procol Harum (1969)

It all happened one beautiful Sunday afternoon in Beverly Hills. I walked into the Burberry boutique to view their fiendishly fashionable Prorsum line, and the first thing that hit me was “The Wreck of The Hesperus” by Procol Harum booming over the Burberry speaker system. So sweepingly cinematic, it brilliantly complimented the dramatically beautiful and quintessentially British Burberry fashions in the boutique. Matthew Fisher’s airy vocal melodiously drifted through the room, making us all feel as if we were out to sea, singing the maritime lyrics of Keith Reid:
“We’ll hoist a hand, becalmed upon a troubled sea
“Make haste to your funeral”, cries the valkyrie
We’ll hoist a hand or drown amidst this stormy sea
“Here lies a coffin”, cries the cemetery, “You will surely see”…

Majestic English horns blew fanfares while Robin Trower’s guitar conjured an endless seascape as 1,000 strings laid a melodious pattern of sheer ardor. I almost forgot I was supposed to be looking at the new Burberry Prorsum line.

It’s been an eternity since music had the power to transcend its environment, but then again I haven’t owned “A Salty Dog” in years. Although I enjoyed “Shine On Brightly” I forgot how unique “A Salty Dog” was, one of the great albums that never really received the attention it deserved.

Procol Harum released their third album in 1969, an album so eccentric, a much too British maritime-themed album that it turned American listeners away. 1969 was a year for outrageous album covers, i.e. Blind Faith, Trout Mask Replica, and the great Blodwyn Pig cover that still disturbs people, etc. “A Salty Dog” featured a take-off on the Player’s Navy Cut cigarette box; rather than show a respectable English sailor a shaggy gob of indeterminate origin wearing a cap with the name “Herod” stitched on top. That got my five dollars in a flash. I thought it was cooler looking than some ugly naked girl holding a toy plane, really.

Most of the tracks on the album are dirges, the most notable one being the title track, the lyrics articulating feelings of hopelessness on a restless and poorly charted sea. While the keyboards and strings play staccato minor notes, Gary Brooker sings mournfully,
“Across the straits, around the horn: how far can sailors fly?
A twisted path, our tortured course, and no one left alive…”
“We sailed for parts unknown to man, where ships come home to die,
No lofty peak, nor fortress bold, could match our captain’s eye…”

Ironically, while many of the songs allude to distress and despair aboard the ocean blue, the lyrics also define the despair of drug addiction. “The Devil Came From Kansas” reflects these feelings:
“There’s a monkey riding on my back, he’s been there for some time,
He says he knows me very well but he’s no friend of mine…”
“For the turning and the signpost and the road which takes you down,
To that pool inside the forest in whose waters I shall drown…”

While Gary Brooker leads a monkish sounding choir chanting the chorus, Robin Trower’s blistering metal guitar screams over a tattoo of tribal drums, setting this anti-Wizard of Oz fable in a tail-spin with descriptions of “a dark cloud just above us” and “for the sins of those departed and the ones about to go”.

The lost-at-sea analogy as drug damaged casualty is also expressed in the blues dirge of “Crucifiction Lane” (dig the pun):
“Tell the helmsman veer to starboard, bring this ship around to port,
And if the sea was not so salty I could sink instead of walk,
In case of passing strangers who are standing where I fell,
Tell the truth: you never knew me, and in truth it’s just as well”.

In spite of the fact that the tempo to every song is slow like the languid waves of a calm sea (with the exception of “Kansas” and “Hesperus”) there is enough sonic seafaring to keep the record from sounding like one monotonous moan. I don’t know why I set this one to the side, but I’m glad it’s back on my deck. And to think, a trip to Burberry Beverly Hills made it all possible. I wonder what they’re playing tonight?

All lyrics (c) 1969, Keith Reid (Onward Music)