Black Flag’s April 1986 show at SUNY Albany, held about 30 minutes from my suburb of Niskayuna, New York, changed my life. The very instant singer Henry Rollins ignited – a human heat-seeking missile in shiny black track shorts – the crowd detonated, and any separation between fan & band, spectator & participant vaporized instantly.
I came curious, a bit compelled — 4 sweat-soaked hours later I left a life-long convert. In the years that followed, I’ve reflected on that show quite a bit. I’ve come to realize that what I saw then — before my eyes & in my very soul — was nothing less than the permanent melting of any barrier separating art from one’s own actual life.
This year, after the brutal interregnum of the plague years, live music came roaring back with the exhilarating bellow of a fire finally breaking up through a cold chimney; time & time again I felt the hot rushing updraft of the spirit that is live music’s promise & gift.
Shows by TSOL, the Exploited, Circle Jerks, Agent Orange, 7 Seconds all opened wormholes in space/time where I legit felt I could send a fleeting signal back to my teen self — a message that all that magic was all still happening, and was as rad & right today, right now, as it was way back when…
Comfort To Me, last year’s record by Amyl and the Sniffers, was my favorite punk album in decades; live I’ll just point out that at 1/20th the mass, Amy Taylor’s energy equals, and may actually surpass, that of Henry Rollins’; must be the shiny track shorts…
I welcomed the opportunity to celebrate Stereolab’s 30 years of Cusinart cut-ups of krautrock, lounge, ye-ye, surf, garage, 60s pop & Marxist fiber; and to salute La Femme for their Euro-millennial, joyfully sybaritic take on the same shiz… As I’m equally inclined towards labor theory & urbane decadence I’m equally delighted to shimmy to either.
Seeing Wet Leg live completely dispelled my initial allergic reaction to them as a novelty act. Fierce, quirky, utterly singular and endearing, playing to a jam-packed house, it was like watching a rocket launching. Metric left their launchpad a long time ago, ever-hurtling towards the stars & stadiums, riding a decent new record and an absolutely stellar light show. Meanwhile, I had completely lost the trajectory of the Joy Formidable, who’s early records I really dug. I went to go see them on whim with a pal and they knocked my noggin’. Led by a Welsh pixie with the vibe of an endearing, precocious Jane Austen heroine crossed with Kim Gordon, sporting an arsenal of sizzling guitar leads & squalls – in a year of sky-scraping shows, theirs may have been the most shredding.
Three other reflections on live music’s power: over the past year or so I started attending shows with my daughters, mostly as an enthusiastic chaperone. Sleigh Bells was slightly different in that I was always a bit intrigued by their electro-clash metal-dance mashup. Let them stand in, then, for all the moments I watched variations of the same energy I felt at that Black Flag show wash over my own girls. Variations of the same energy I still feel, just as powerfully decades later, like when my beloved Morrissey emerged on stage and, again — legit literally — swelled my very soul; or… when the Ukrainian quartet Dakha Brakha gathered the collective energy of the entire audience, many wrecked & keening for our homeland, and transubstantiated it into a force that could fortify – fortify individuals & peoples, here, there, everywhere, forever… and ninety nine red balloons go by….
The model and muse Pat Cleveland, challenged to explain why fashion (so frivolous! so repressive!) mattered, answered:
People hang on to fashion as it were the breath of life because it takes you into a world that protects you from the evils of boredom and loneliness and ugliness…. it lets you recognize beauty. And as long as you recognize beauty, you can have it in your life.
The musings of a model… it’s so easy to be cavalier and look past its implications. But a moment’s reflection will remind you that boredom, loneliness, and ugliness stretch eternally from the bedroom of the alienated kid to the killing fields. Thus reminded, you realize what Cleveland is saying is that simply being able to recognize beauty can make and save your life.
Cleveland’s quote is never far from my mind, especially nowadays, and I thought of it instantly when I heard that Dave Hickey – my favorite art & cultural critic – had died.
Because if Hickey showed us anything, across all his work and writing, it was that that art (or really beauty) is as plentiful and free as air. And like air (or really oxygen) it is both a nourishment and a fuel. And what it can fuel, quite literally if we care to tap it, is each and every one of us, alone and together; Hickey believed that art could fuel nothing less than a clean-burning, convivial, sustainable, self-replenishing democracy.
This wasn’t wooly aesthetic utopianism – to Hickey it was plain empirical fact. The boon and bane of being self-aware animals is that our beings require two types of sustenance, one for our bodies, the other for our minds. We live on bread and roses.
However, the quality of nourishment matters enormously – dirty fuel can make us run hot but will inevitably, over time, wear us down and out. The crudest fuels, like their terrestrial counterparts, spring from deep in our animal past – fear, tribal solidarity, worship. But, as we evolve another energy emerges — culture. Culture, as Brian Eno memorably defined it, as everything we do that sheer survival doesn’t require. This was, and remains, the lasting human miracle — our ability to self-generate interlocking, intersecting, interdependent federations of affinity.
It’s why Hickey riffed so much on small scale mercantilism – when he talked about “art” he really meant anything that could be appreciated and exchanged. And when he talked abut “beauty” he meant anything that moved and grooved you; You knew it when you saw it, it stimulated you and it formed a loose, joyous bond — for a moment or a lifetime — between you and any other single human who shared that groove.
Hickey therefore believed our happiest communal configuration was the marketplace, the gallery, the festival, the concert, the suk, or bazaar. In these sites of easy-going exchange and transmission curiosity can encourage among us what obligation or morality might sternly demand. What results is a stable, aerated, sloshy and unruly freedom for and amongst folk – a democracy.
But culture, as a vivifying fuel, is both potent and fragile. And, more crucially and fatefully, it is a direct and lethal threat to all the other modes of human motivation. Because free flowing culture and exchange dissolves and neutralizes our other major propellents: fear, tribal solidarity, worship.
It’s why, from the vantage point of the boot or the lectern, culture must be always be mediated, subjugated, tamed. The academy shrouds it in mystification; revolutionaries harness it to the movement; clerics denounce it as a false idol; reactionaries press it into propaganda… Mediated culture is always either a con or an expression of oppressive power – often both. These enduring, awful energies share a common ethos — to free us from freeing ourselves.
This, then, is where the Las Vegas princelings Siegfried & Roy burst be-sequined into the picture (or Waylon Jennings, or custom car culture, or, or…) and why Dave Hickey insisted they mattered. It shows how much we’ve adopted the framing of mediated culture that in death Hickey has been mostly presented as a caustic intellectual provocateur with some wacky low-brow tastes. Those above the common fray could cluck along knowingly as he shoved these preening Teutonic popinjays and their slinky white tigers back at the obscurantist priesthood of high culture.
Fuck that. Seriously – fuck that. Sigfried & Roy matter because they make certain people as deliriously happy as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jesus. And celebrating that, depending on your vantage point, is either an existential threat or the saving grace of our species…
Because to admit Siegfried & Roy into the palace of beauty and truth is to admit that grace and happiness are where we find them. That everybody’s got a thing and that is the beginning of our commonalities, not the end. That we will come into our own not by purification but by miscegenation. That we will find our best selves not by sniffing out the slightest bit of heresy but by honoring the merest flicker of common affinity.
Throughout his wild life Hickey undertook this fight with lusty joy and unflagging verve. However, towards the end we know Hickey grew despondent and depressed. The furnace of our current conflicts grows ever hungrier and demands a vast and ongoing subjugation of culture to feed it.1 Conscripted into tribes we recede more and more from direct, unruly contact with one another. Our ability to freely eat, dance, and fuck across our ingrown and proscribed borders becomes harder and harder. As walled gardens, moated citadels, and hermetic bubbles rise, thicken and harden all we hear in our heads is the beating of the drums. It’s all a giant fucking bummer, and Dave Hickey died feeling pretty fucking bummed out.
I sympathize. And it’s hard, really hard, not to buckle, subsumed and surrounded by this wasteful moronic inferno — but I will remain forever hopeful because I once had a vision of another possible future in, of course, Dave Hickey’s beloved city of Las Vegas.
Fremont Street is a covered open air promenade that houses the casinos and parlors of “Old Vegas.” Along its length a constant churning river of people flows in and out, around street performers, vendors, hucksters, entertainers. It is the very living model of a bazaar, of endlessly intertwining desires, appetites, talents & gifts.
I was parked underneath the gyrating caryatids atop the Coyote Ugly bar and began to take in the crowd. Spreading out in every direction was the single most organically diverse crowd I had ever encountered. To attempt a descriptive cataloging would be to instantly diminish the nearly psychedelic impact of human variety on display.
At the very end of the street was a stage on which a band was playing. The band was a Voltron robot of American mass-cult tastes – a hunky cowboy, a sexy belter, a toasting rapper, a goateed hipster, a scraggly hesher, etc… Everyone could sing and everyone could play and as they made their way through America’s pop culture songbook the band would reconfigure accordingly. And as each song cast its particular spell receptive segments of the crowd would begin to woop and shimmy while the rest amiably continued their rambles and their revelry… the vibe as groovy and genial as you could ever hope for.
Then, the sexy belter announced that they had one more song left – a really special song. “Do you like Journey?” she belted. The crowd returned a rolling roar of affirmation, enthusiastic but hardly electric. Sensing the need to take it all up a few notches she belted again — “Do you guys believe? Do you? Do you? Don’t! Don’t stop! Don’t. Stop. Belivin!!!”
And on cue the grand opening bars of the song unfurled, the band swung into it, and the whole crowd, seemingly each and every soul, together, boarded the the midnight train, together, going it didn’t matter to where, goin’ anywhere. And this mass, this disparate mass bloomed into a common moment, singing, dancing, bellowing in unison – strangers all, up and down the boulevard, among the streetlights, people, living… just to find emotion, somewhere… somewhere in the night…
I wept then, and I’m on the verge of weeping again just recalling this moment of pure total human communion. Because left to our selves we can be magic, just for a moment, just for 4 minutes or so. Which is just enough to save us. We could agree on one big, essential yet insignificant thing and feel rapture on earth, born aloft on nothing more than the fusion of loose human affinity. When the song passed so did the moment and people sifted back into their swirling groups with a glow verging on the post-coital.
Look — there will always be shit to do. There will be death and want, and riding along gleefully, there will be assholes trying to feed us their dirty fuel. But fortified by good cheer and good company mountains will move. It’s a beautiful feeling, happiness. Don’t stop believing.
Goodbye and thank you Dave Hickey.
1 This is why it’s so important to totally refuse conscription in the culture wars. To say, like Hickey, NO – Not even a little. Nope. Because it’s more than a bad strategy – it’s the anti-life equation itself.
It’s naive to ignore that in traditional war & conflict, once enjoined, culture plays a central role. It’s drafted, along with every other available resource, into the cause. What’s ultimately catastrophic is purposefully transforming violent conflict into cultural conflict. We toyed dangerously with this during the Cold War and are now fully sinking into it domestically and across the globe – the “weaponization” of culture itself as a direct proxy for combat and jockeying for power.
Because again, culture withers under conscription and captivity. In traditional wars this was collateral damage. When culture war is the war the psychic damage is primary… we’re literally driving ourselves mad.
This doesn’t mean the abandonment of politics and engagement. In fact, being able to draw on the genuine sustenance of culture and beauty can fortify us for the necessary fights for a just world. But if we burn up culture to fuel our politics, what exactly are we fighting for? What will be left? We need bread AND roses to flourish (This question is explored stirringly in Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant and necessary new book Orwell’s Roses.)
My nearest and long-suffering dearest know the pinnacle of esteem to which I hold the boundless talents of Ivan Doroschuk and his band of hatless men – so I was delighted when the boundlessly talented Angel Olson elected to take the Safety Dance out on a foggy meandering night drive earlier this year… Foggy meanderings reliably drive me to distraction so I was an easy mark for the purring, prolix Ruski ramblings of Tema Kresta, who I hope never stop talking. I could ramble on about bliss-riding Martial Canterel’s liquid arpeggios but instead I’ll point out the cat is from Baltimore. Baltimore, Maryland. A fact which, when you catch his arch, plummy, Euro-Transylvanian vocal inflections, should delight you as much as it does me, every time.
Felicitous appreciations to Baron Arch Plum himself, Bryan Ferry CBE, for taking time off from riding to hounds and presenting a splendid evening of rocksy music back in ’19, commemorated on this year’s excellent live LP. This year’s Arch Plum Award for meritorious service to the Perpetual Order of Glam Rock goes to Art d’Ecco, loyal queen’s servant of Victoria, British Columbia. And the Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers Award for the year’s best obscure, reissued discovery is presented to The Revelons — early CBGB’s scenesters who originally named themselves The Ramblondes, only to realize that they had unwittingly combined the Ramones and Blondie. Heh — which is exactly what they sound like, if you spike this already potent cocktail with a squeeze of Television. Imbibe!
Yearly, it seems, witchy women materialize from the ether and cast their witchy electric spells upon me, and I spend the year mesmerically groovin’ to their electric witch spells… You may well remember the late 60’s Dutch psych act Shocking Blue from their oft covered smash hit Venus, or their more obscure Love Buzz, covered by the rather less obscure Nirvana. For me it was all about rediscovering the stomping eldritch energies of Long and Lonesome Road – when I listen I imagine riveting singer Mariska Veres leading a motley army of electric witchy women like some cross between Stevie Nicks and Marianne in the Delacroix painting leading her people. In the first rank of this advancing coven we would surely find Jess of the the Finnish occult rock behemoth Jess & the Ancient Ones, whose organ drenched spooks held me helpless in their thrall. Hovering above, swathed in a shimmery elven mist, we find Mary Timony, transmuting swirling celestial energies into adamantine rock.
And, to complete this fantastic tableau — like dystopian warriors from a late 80’s low-budget VHS, the wiry, weathered, blasted Live Skull and Thalia Zedek stumbled from the rubble of club-land to play the year’s best show. Zedek in particular was astonishing — unfussy adamantine rock played with remarkable virtuosity and passion, absolutely fucking riveting, a total left field surprise, and fucking necessary. Bravo.
Du Blonde released the years best record, Homecoming. More than that, it stands as a perfect model of the form in every aspect. Each song interesting in its own way, each distinct in its vibe, and each a pleasure note for note. Exquisitely sequenced, each side judiciously composed. Masterful, controlled and yet wild-eyed and raw. Art direction – aces. A supreme feat of DIY, Beth Jeans Houghton produced, designed, played, released it all herself. Packed it in a box in her mother’s flat and sent it to each buyer with a note. And stickers. Total time 32 minutes long — perfection. Third astonishing record in a row — time to name a star or asteroid or some other celestial feature after this one…
…just not a meteor or a comet. Because that honor goes to Amy Taylor, the flaming ball of cracking energy behind Amyl and the Sniffers, who’s Comfort To Me is my favorite hardcore punk record since 2010’s OFF! EPs. Cause here’s the thing with hardcore, for me, because of how deep seated it is in me, down in my soul — at its best it’s not only the most profoundly exhilarating music I know but also the most soul-nourishing… OFF! moved me because it proved that hardcore’s elemental energy can still be accessed even, or especially, when we get old-ish… something I never took for granted. Amyl gladdens my heart because it proves that hardcore’s elemental energies will persist into tomorrow. Comfort To Me is the most profoundly zoomer record I’ve ever connected to — and the wisest. It’s a body slam and a body hug stretched across decades among misfits bending the world to their requirements and saving their own souls. The kids. Alright, alright, alright.
by Tess Gallagher
I was walking through a vast darkness
in a dress studded with diamonds, the cloth
under them like chain mail—metallic,
form fitting like the sea to its horizon. I could
hear waves breaking on the shore and far off
concertina music drifting over the dunes. What
was I doing in high heels in sand in a diamond-studded
dress that had to be stolen? Fear washed
through me, as if one of those waves had
risen up and, against all the rules of waves,
splashed me from the shoulders
down. I was wet with diamonds and fear.
A small boat held offshore with its cold
yellow light pointing a long watery finger at me
while the stolen feeling of the dress sparkled
my location out into the universe. Thief! Thief!
came an interplanetary cry, causing me to
gaze up into the star-brilliant firmament,
for it wasn’t just a sky anymore. It had
taken on biblical stature. How had I
gotten into this dress, these unruly
waves, this queasy feeling I would be
found out? Time to run! my heart said,
pumping away under its brocade
of diamonds. Strange vacancies had
accumulated after all my sleep-plundered
nights. Thief! came the cry again, as if
I should recognize myself. And I did.
I flung those high heels into the depths,
took up my newfound identity, and without
the least remorse, began to run those diamonds
right out of this world.
One of life’s distinct pleasures is watching segments of a Mousetrap-like contraption give way to one another; after each clever, unlikely & off kilter span there is always the gentlest, most elegant of handoffs…. it’s like reading this poem, and the silver bearing that drops in at the beginning rolls out a swirled marble, a world…. Poetry Magazine, March 2019
All the two headed dogs, bloody hammers, blieb alien uncreators, the wind and more were lurid carousels for our delight; they also drew off the heat and fevers from his sazzled soul. And his exquisite love songs are the tributes he paid to rock & roll for making his demons dance.
I think thinking about the physics of sadness can tell us something about the person we’re sad about, especially when we don’t know them personally. Like when Bowie died it felt like a celestial object had imploded and vanished. That feels about right. I was in the record store earlier this evening when I found out Roky died. As I took it in, I swear it felt for all the world like he physically left my body. For me Roky lived inside, wound deep and flowering in and around the bright, hot-house things and love, utter, primal, starry eyed love, the kind of love that when you see it, it’ll free you, like magic.
(bottom photo: Roky @ Underground Arts, Philadelphia on September 12th, 2017 / sitting in utter serenity like a psychedelic Totoro amidst a cyclone of sizzlin’ fuzz)
To be great, to be a man of genius, to be famous, to be much loved and much hated; to be much praised and much dispraised; to have a passion for creation and passion for women; to be descended from one of the oldest French families; to be abnormal and inhuman; to have sardonic humor and intense presence of mind; to adore nights more than days—to adore and to detest immensely; to squander much of one’s substance in riotous living, to have a terribly direct eye and as direct a force of hand; to be capable of painting certain things which have never yet existed for us on the canvas; to be angry with his material, as his brutal instincts seize hold on him; these, chosen at random, are certain of the distinguishing qualities of Lautrec.
From top: Milford, Pa; Philadelphia; Madison, CT, and the last two from Georgian Lanes, Parry Sound, Canada
On a recent unexpected layover in Toronto I happened to see, hoisted high, high above a gloomy black glass office building in Dundas Square, this wonderful sign. Double barreled neon flashing records proclaiming, twice, that YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! Wonderful! Wonderful! A little research revealed the legacy of a one proud Canadian record store chain – a blaring hybrid of Crazy Eddie and Tower Records. Sigh.
Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby! Behold! The hand of him who is like unto a god! Behold! The clutch of harnessed power — about to be released! Somewhere in the endless cosmos, the hand is opened! Somewhere in the swirling mists of space the power is unleashed! In the awesome vastness of infinity, in the panoply of a billion billion universes, where giant galaxies are ever born and ever dying, who will note the passing of a small and nameless planet? Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby!
(Selected panels from The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience, a 1978 prestige format one-off by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Absentmindedly pulled this off the shelf the other day and promptly lost my socks. Track this masterwork down, arguably Marvel’s first “graphic novel” and prepare to lose your socks, bub! — knocked clean off by the cosmic hand of Jack Kirby! Behold!)
Just virtually hanging this classic swatch of snotty amazingness on the virtual wall of my virtual blog. Virtually. Poster by Barney Bubbles the endlessly delightful design imp behind classic Hawkwind and Stiff Records. Check his monograph Reasons to Be Cheerful if you can score it.
While reading Charles Spencer’s lavishly illustrated biography of Leon Bakst and his design work for the Ballets Russes I came across his arresting manifesto for the vivid power of color. Looking at these intoxicating renderings and drawings the mind boggles at the lushness of the spectacle this must have been. Lush and lost. More on Bakst in an earlier post, here.
I have often noticed that in each colour of the prism there exists a gradation which sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and even bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. This can be felt and given over to the public by the effect one makes of the various shadings.
That is what I tried to do in Schéhérazade. Against a lugubrious green I put a blue full of despair, paradoxical as it may seem. There are reds which are triumphal and there are reds which assassinate.There is a blue which can be the colour of a St. Madeleine, and there is a blue of a Messalina.
The painter who knows how to make use of this, the director of the orchestra who can with one movement of his baton put all this in motion, without crossing them, who can let flow the thousand tones from the end of his stick, without making a mistake, can draw from the spectator the exact emotion which he wants them to feel.
Omens. It’s hard not to look for omens these days. Last year began black, pulled through the vacuum of Bowie’s passing and slouched, heavy & low, towards November, when Leonard Cohen’s cloak crumpled to the Death Star floor.
But, as Leonard Nimoy reminds us, the cosmic ballet goes on, and this year began bright and blazing. Cherry Glazzer shot across the January sky like a crackling, wildly erratic comet. There are craftier salvos on the delightful Apocalipstick, sure, but “Trash People” is where it’s at — 19 year old Clementine Creevy’s neon ode to wearing old undies, fueled by Ramen, aiming for the stars. My room smelled like an ashtray once too.
Another portent of radness was Roky Erickson’s gobsmacking live performance this September — sitting in utter serenity like a psychedelic Totoro amidst a cyclone of sizzlin’ fuzz. He opened with the one song I dearly hoped to hear — “Sputnik” — a gift echoed in shows by Al Stewart, who kicked off his Year of the Cat retrospective with “Sirens of Titan” and King Crimson, who opened their stunning reprise of seldom heard 70’s material with a full dress parade of “Lark’s Tongue in Aspic” Old heads were generous this year, and fierce.
The glammy, psychotronic and exquisitely addled Death Valley Girls opened for Roky and were a total gas.
The continued activity by stalwart members of LA’s 80’s punk heyday continues to be a source of profound pleasure and surprise. TSOL and Dream Syndicate released tremendous records this year, both bracingly modern but rooted in beloved earlier classics like Beneath the Shadows and Days of Wine and Roses. Even by those lights, though, the new record by legendary LA paisley punks the Last is something else entirely — tearing, snarling, breathtakingly melodic, gorgeously arranged, Danger is a full-on, definitive SoCal punk rock classic. (It says something about the obscurity of this achievement that its existence eluded even this super-fan for almost four years; it says something about the stature of this achievement that the record cover is graced with art by Raymond Pettibon.)
I don’t know about you, but my goth fever shows no signs of breaking. This year I was in full swoon for the Sisters of Mercy — proudly 30 years late to this midnight movie. But clearly these dark currents still run deep — one of the most accomplished and moving records I heard this year was the Demonstration by LA’s enigmatic Drab Majesty. Sonically built from readymade darkwave parts, it is a triumph of bracing melodrama and strikingly original songs.
Ladytron’s Helen Marnie’s ongoing project to morph indie electronica into stadium scale dance pop continues to yield irresistible, shimmering, sexy concoctions.
Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographer’s second exploration of the creative potential of the arrpegiated synthesizer was marred only by the absence of Dan Bejar’s leavening weirdness. With Destroyer’s “In The Morning” here following the stomping “Colosseum,” they are fittingly re-united.
One of the enduring joys of crate digging is stumbling across seminal bands that somehow eluded your attention. Take the masterful Chameleons, for example, who happened to be standing right next to the Psychedelic Furs, Modern English and Bauhaus this whole time.
But then the obscurities can be pretty fucking exhilarating too — like encountering “Worlds in Collision” by Talking Head bassist and ex-Modern Lover Jerry Harrison. A needle in a haystack find, this throbbing, hypnotic rumble was a beautiful oddity I returned to over and over this year.
Un autocollant sur la couverture du premier album éponyme des Limiñanas en 2010 disait: “Nouvelle musique pop française pour le prochain millénaire”. La pop classique parisienne, la psychologie californienne, le garage / surf rock, Serge Gainsbourg et Ennio Morricone étaient alors les points de référence, et ils le restent sur Malamore. C’est une pièce d’ambiance – haut sur la répétition, fuzz et sitar – et leur plus sombre, plus dense pourtant, qui sonnent bien plus Velvet Underground & Nico que Françoise Hardy.
Total time: 51 minutes. Download the comp here.
[ ALSO, below: I finally re-created and re-posted the first in this series from 2008. It was a corker of a year for music and the mix remains one of my favorites. Check it out here! ]