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Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Is And What Should Never Be

"If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
-Stephen King

While I understand that a gym isn't a gathering place for all persons and things intellectual there are times when I hear things that are a little too ridiculous to be believed. While I was flapping my pins on the thigh abductor I overheard some young guy talking to an older gent about his college courses.

"Yeah, I'm taking English at UCLA but I really want to write for movies and TV", the 22-year old crowed. "I like all kinds of movies and I know how to write for them". I guess everyone's entitled to their daydreams but nowhere in the conversation did this kid say what kind of books he read and what sort of novels he enjoyed. The entire realm of literature didn't come up once in the conversation. And he talked about becoming a writer.

Let's talk about the guys that wrote for the movies, the greats: Stirling Silliphant, Dalton Trumbo, Robert Towne, Rod Serling, Charles Brackett, to name a few. Did any of them say when they were young, "I want to write for the movies?" No, I'm pretty sure they dreamed of writing brilliant novels but somehow got roped into the screenwriting game. And I'll wager anything they all had extremely prodigious libraries full of books and spent all their leisure time reading them.

The scary part is when you ask a clueless guy like Gym Kid who his favorite writer is and he'll probably say "Hitchcock!" People like this are completely oblivious to the fact that if it weren't for the writing of Cornell Woolrich, Robert Bloch, Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier, to name a few, there wouldn't even be anything for Mr. Hitchcock to film at all. He knew it, too: one of the first credits beginning each episode of his TV show names the writer of the story. Hitch even had a mystery magazine back in the day.

I once knew a hammerhead whose favorite mantra was, "I don't read books, I don't need books, I depend on my looks". What an asshole. Needless to say he now works in the motion picture industry.

Here's another story for you: Rebecca met a fast-talking blowhard who kept up about how he was going to write a novel and then write for the movies and went on and on about it and of course didn't divulge about what the hell he was writing.

"I couldn't stand him! You've already written two novels and this guy kept talking like he was King Shit just because he was starting some dumb novel he wouldn't talk about. I just wished he'd shut up!"
"I know how to shut him up", I said.
"How do you do that?"
"Ask him who's his favorite author", I smiled. "That always shuts them up".

One of my favorite mottoes is "In this place called Hell novels are written by people who don't read books". I'm not joking, either: we have friends who say, "I WROTE A BOOK ABOUT MY EXPERIENCES AS A STRIPPER IN SAN FRANCISCO". Okay, even if it's a memoir there needs to be plot development, character development (i.e. someone who started out as a rival becomes your best friend towards the second half of the book), fact checking, so on and so forth. And then what style is the book written in: Will it be funny sleaze like Bukowski, dark decadence like Hubert Selby Jr., erotically charged like Genet, what's your POV?

To say you want to be a writer without reading books is like saying you want to be Governor of California without knowing The Declaration of Independence (um, wait a minute, I just described Arnold Schwarzenegger, scratch that). It's like saying you want to play guitar without knowing who Les Paul, Hubert Sumlin, Chet Atkins or The Ventures are. Without an understanding of the history of your craft you're flying without a pilot's license, which means you'll crash and burn.

It also means your memoir of being a stripper in San Francisco will never be published. Read a fucking book. It'll probably change your life.

Illustrations by Rebecca Seven

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Tubes (1975)

In the early Seventies there were several collectives that combined glam music with theater. In London there was the highly successful Rocky Horror Show, Los Angeles had The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (some of whom evolved into the band Oingo Boingo), and San Francisco had The Tubes.

Although Rocky was a musical production, Oingo Boingo was a theater troupe and the latter was a rock band, they all had one thing in common: a talent for blending cabaret, high camp, retro post-modernism with a healthy dose of glam rock in the mix.

What made The Tubes wilder and creepier than the others was the way it took glam rock, North Beach strip club sleaze, video technology, S&M and good old American excess (from both average Americans and decadent rock stars – no one was innocent) and presented it in a flawless stage production with brilliant musicianship.

Released in 1975 and produced by Al Kooper, The Tubes is one of the strangest debut albums ever recorded, a stunning mélange of glam rock, progressive rock interludes, cheesy Broadway showbiz vocals and breathtaking high-tech electronics.

The band’s stage show had them flanked by television monitors, at least twenty in all, hence the band name. Some of the monitors showed the band performing in real time and others showed interactive routines going on as the band played.

The first track on the album is Up From The Deep, sung by Bill Spooner, one of the two guitarists, letting us know that the music can be changed and morphed whenever the spirit moves them. His voice is recorded as if he’s underwater. The melody has an Indian-type wail to it until it goes into a bizarre prog rock interlude that takes several flashy twists and turns, finally breaking into an explosive boogie woogie piano rave-up.

Guitarists Roger Steen and Bill Spooner played great Alice Cooper-style guitar while Michael Cotton on synthesizer and Vince Welnick on keyboards created brilliant aural soundscapes that set the atmosphere for each track.

When I first saw The Tubes at The Roxy in 1975 (previously home to The Rocky Horror Show) they performed Haloes in matching suits a la The Temptations while a pre-recorded track played behind them. No great shakes these days, but in 1975 it was unheard of, but funny.

Space Baby sounds like a retro-Fifties ballad about an intergalactic babe that space traveler Fee Waybill pines for down on Planet Earth. Waybill sings in a wailing David Bowie style. The song also features the aforementioned Broadway choir-type backing vocals with the synth playing as an electronic horn section, all very Bowie meets Flash Gordon.

Mondo Bondage was probably the very first exposure many rock fans had to the world of S&M since most bands never even went there. Fee and show girl Re Styles both donned bondage outfits and masks during this number and it was a pretty intense show stopper. The song was pretty weird, too, with a wild jazz-metal interlude while the two performers went into a creepy session, giving us all a taste of North Beach live sex acts to a rock beat.

What Do You Want From Life? is a Frank Zappa-type parody on super consumerism that’s still powerful today, and even posits that proposition that even if everybody got what they wanted would it still be enough? Really???? The more excessive the needs the faster, quicker and more manic Fee Waybill’s voice gets.

At some point during the show Fee sang Bali Hai from South Pacific – there goes that Broadway shtick again, and then after rips into a manic rendition of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual” with a quintet of naked girl dancers backing him up.

The finale to the stage show, as well as the album is Boy Crazy and White Punks On Dope. The reason why both songs are lumped together is because they both share the same thing in common. The Tubes turn the spotlight away from themselves and point it at the audience, something most punk bands took credit for a year later. In an era when most bands sang about the pain of being rock stars this approach was highly subversive.

Boy Crazy is about teenage sexual promiscuity – I seem to recall hardcore porn playing on the video monitors while the song was played. Fee, once again, sings it in a decadent David Bowie-style wail. It’s a great track, more direct than the others in spite of the big Broadway treatment. It would be interesting to hear from the band whether the big production was their idea or Al Kooper’s?

White Punks On Dope was The Tubes’ big anthem and told the tale of wasted, wasted youth in the high class suburbs. Once again, it was released one year before punk rock so it’s uncanny how much ground The Tubes broke and received scant credit for their innovations. The blend of ray-gun synthesizer with heavy metal boogie guitar is infectious while Waybill delivers another uncanny David Bowie imitation in his sky-high platform heels and huge platinum blonde fright wig. His Quay Lewd routine was the other show stopper after Mondo Bondage.

Nina Hagen’s highly operatic version of White Punks also has to be heard to be believed. I saw her do it at The Greek Theater – the show with the spaceship and nearly fell on my ass. Good times!

Clocking in at only thirty-seven minutes and some change, The Tubes’ debut album is like the Daffy Duck magic trick where he blows himself up and laments that it’s his “best trick, but he can only do it once”. The Tubes couldn’t really produce anything as powerful as their first album, but in spite of it they managed to rack up several hit singles during the New Wave Eighties – Talk To Ya Later, Monkey Time, and She’s A Beauty. But the debauchery of the stage show never went much further or wilder than that first tour. Perhaps it was just a sign of the times.

The Tubes’ first album is still a crucial work because there’s a timelessness to it, it’s musically challenging, endlessly inventive and the sonic soundscapes are downright creepy at times. Like The Residents, there’s a post-modernism that anticipates the beginning of punk rock and even the dreaded behemoth of New Wave. Like the foreign radio voices that herald and close the album you will be transported to a strange land unlike any other.