29 February 2016

Atmospheric Conditions

(Or: 'Bass Bits' Shootout Blahblah, Part Whatever -- the Post-punk/Proto-Goth Years)

Here's one I don't believe has turned up in any of Simon's bass polling: Barry Adamson.

Plenty of Magazine tracks where Adamson's bass all but takes the lead. If I recall, he once claimed he didn't learn how to play until the evening before the auditioning for Devoto's band. A bought a used bass guitar, but didn't have an amp, so he practiced by resting the neck of the guitar against the headboard of his bed, working out notes notes and riffs from the vibrations buzzing through the wood.

Perhaps Jah Wobble is an obvious -- if not a too-obvious -- nominee. Sure, Keith Levene's guitar tended to dominate much f the time, but Wobble kept things tethered. And according to a recent interview, he concurs with Adamson's method of self-instruction:

"'Where does bass dwell? It’s not in the bass. It’s in the interaction of things.' Learning to make drones by direct contact with a physical solid object 'actually taught me more,' he reflects, 'than having it powered into an amp. It's natural vibration.'"

23 February 2016

An American Folktale (Rough Draft)

Originally posted at And What Will Be Left of Them?,  
November 2011, as a teaser/preface to this second part.

Originally he hailed from the "Cradle of Liberty," that echo of the cradle rocked out of, Boston. Historic and colonial, an Atlantic capitol of Old World once-wasness. A lovely "walking city," everyone said.

But a fucking nightmare to drive in.

Home to the reputed Worst Drivers in the Nation. Unsurprising, seeing how successful navigation requires the quickest and most aggressive reflexes -- the sort that never fail to confound and frighten non-natives. It's what's required if you' aim to get anywhere. Of bettering the illogic of the city's narrow streets, those streets that weren't designed with the idea of this sort of traffic in mind, ages removed from any modern idea of enabling vehicular progress.

And you know how progress means a lot of things. For over a century it'd meant heading west, to the land's nether shore. West over terrain once crossed by horse and by wagon, then by telegraph and railway. Much of it, thank god, now much more easily and more often flown over. All part of expansion, of a fated and manifest destiny. So westward he went. To where everything, as they said, was presently at. The whereall to which everything led, the telos of all pioneering and frontiering. To the ascendant domain of the Now, the cultural seat of powers-having-shifted, of late modernity itself. Last stop, final destination. Built for cars, for maximum traffic, to fully accommodate its flow and—the theory had it -- avoid the snarls and tangles and perpetual arterial clusterfuckage. Its skies and sun having waited all those ages to be finally tinged pink by a brume of ozone.

He found plenty of things to do in L.A., though. Like playing in traffic. Lying down on a bustling blacktop amid flares (but only to get arrested once the cops arrived). Or staging lurid roadside distractions for random passersby. Getting shot, or tortured, or dangled from on high. Or having himself nailed to one of the road-clogging four-wheeled beasts, with the beast screaming beneath him as he lay belly up in the morning sun. All of this a means, perhaps, of becoming one with the city, of becoming part of its circulatory system.

And then one night arriving at an elevated and narrow stretch of coastal highway, and there placing a monument. Twin cruxes, soaked in the very stuff that made all these things possible. Planting them in the paths of the road's to and fro. Igniting them and then vacating into the night, leaving behind a pair of blazing glyphs -- flaming totems, emblems for the name and number of the century in which all of this came to be. A pair of sentinels, their limbs splayed to alert, or forewarn, or to deliver some form of reckoning. Left there for the latenight traveler who, finding his route obstructed, could only stand in the torchlit road and wonder what on earth it could possibly mean.

21 February 2016

The Past is a Deleted Postal Code (Slight Return)

Emily Nussbaum writing about the throwback “rockist” angle of the new Scorsese-Jagger-et al TV venture, “Vinyl” in the latest New Yorker:
“'Vinyl,' in other words, is the Hard Rock Café: chaos for tourists. Still, if you squint, you can see what the creative team was going for — a deep dive into the muck of a long-lost Manhattan, all bets off, no safe places, no trigger warnings. For those who long for a pricklier age, the seventies have become something like an escapist fantasyland, and, honestly, I can see the appeal. When I watched 'Argo,' I got obsessed with how fun it looked to be a nineteen-seventies white guy. Tight avocado pants! Before AIDS, after the sexual revolution. Women in charge of the hors d'oeuvres, smoking in the office, and a strong mustache game. It makes sense that TV-makers have begun to explore this material, with ...and new projects due from Baz Luhrmann (South Bronx, disco, black and Latino) and David Simon (Times Square, porn, James Franco playing twins). Fingers crossed that a Lydia Lunch bio-pic starring Kristen Stewart is on the way. It'll be a relief to see shows use different lenses, in less corny genres, to capture those fading memories."
Y’know when I first heard about this show, I figured it’d be better if it had been set in Los Angeles, seeing how the music industry was so heavily centered there at the time. With the West Coast cocaine-saturated premise being equally inspired by the writings of Nick Kent, supplemented by stuff from Barney Hoskyn’s Hotel California. But maybe not, because it might come across as too much of a retread of what Paul Thomas Anderson has already covered. And you’d have a hard time fitting punk into the story. And NYC had far more mobsters. And we know how much Scorsese likes mobsters.

In the 1980s, everyone thought that it was impossible that anybody would ever feel nostalgic for the 1970s. But then again, in 1995 not much of anyone could imagine the ‘80s being an era worth being nostalgic about.

But a number of historians have argued that -- in U.S. socio-political terms, at least -- the 1970s didn’t begin until as late as 1973. The above has me wondering when the decade can be said to have gotten underway, musically?*  With Altamont? Or a year later, after the deaths of Hendrix and Joplin? Or with the delayed stateside arrival of the first three Black Sabb albums? Or when David Geffen started the Asylum label for the sake of giving Jackson Browne his first recording contract? Or when Dylan released the fuck-off to fans that was Self Portrait, and Greil Marcus supposedly responded by writing, “What is this shit?” Or maybe it’s at a much hazier point -- like whenever it was that major labels took the lesson from Woodstock that there was a huge amount of money to be made from the rawk biz, and devoted their resources to making it a Big Corporate Thing?

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

*  Yes, I'm aware that all of the examples that follow are from the caucasoid end of the musical spectrum. On the r&b side, maybe it could be argued that the 1970s began when Norman Whitfield began steering the Motown sound into heavier, darker territory. Or when Curtis Mayfield left the Impressions. With jazz? Maybe when Creed Taylor set up the Kudu label and thereafter established the fuzak foundations for the type of drek that's now marketed as "Smooooth Jazz."

20 February 2016

Bass is the Place, II

If I had to pin it down to a single jazz piece, I’d have to go with John Coltrane’s “Africa.” Large ensemble, including two bassists, one of whom -- whether Reggie Workman or Art Davis -- lays down the pulse on top of which everyone else builds.

19 February 2016

Bass is the Place, I

(or: Bass & Infrastructure, Part Whatever)

Simon told me he expected me to weigh in with a some candidates from the jazz canon, like I did during the drummage shootout. Far be it from me to disoblidge.

But as I said at the outset, I more often than not tend to hear the bass in relation to interplay with the rhythm section as a whole. This is especially the case with jazz. There's plenty of great jazz bassists I could cite -- the obvious list that'd include Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Reggie Workman, Jimmy Garrison, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Cecil McBee, etc. & etc. And I’d taxed to identify exceptional work (as evidenced by this-versus-that short solo) by any of the above that’d work for yootubage purposes.

So I think I’ll try this another way. That being: the role of bass in different ensembles hailing from  different phases of a particular artist's career/evolution. The artist in question being Herbie Hancock.

Yeahyeah, maybe a bit of a cumbersome conceit, I know. Be that as it may, here goes...

After doing a brief live stint playing in Mongo Santamaria’s band, Hancock decided to do a "Latin" joint for his third LP as a frontman, a quartet outing that also included bassist Paul Chambers and percussionists Willie Bobo and Osvaldo "Chihuahua" Martinez. With the exception of one composition, Hancock completely ditches his usual heavily melodic style of playing; instead playing in an almost wholly percussive manner as he improvises and navigates his way in and around whatever the other three are cooking up (e.g., after the 4:20 mark in the clip above). As polyrhythmic patterns proliferate, shifting this way and that, the duty goes to Chambers to provide the pulse that threads everything together. In effect: Centering the isht.

One of Hancock’s contributions to the Blow-Up soundtrack. Supposedly the bassman this time around was Ron Carter, but this one sounds like it may’ve instead been handled by the sessions' guitarist Jim Hall. Whichever the case, chances are you’ll recognize it right away, seeing it was borrowed some years later Booty Collins when he provided the bass line for a certain very Huge International Dance Hit.

Early on Hancock had proven himself exceptionaly sharp in a couple of departments. Foremost was his ability to pen slick melodic hooks, the sort that put tunes like “Watermelon Man”, "Cantaloupe Island" and “Maiden Voyage” over with audiences and peers in a big way, scoring him a handful of very popular crossover hits. Second was the fact that he -- at the advice of his mentor, trumpter Donald Byrd -- got his publishing right in order from the outset; thus allowing him to collect all due royalties on the aforementioned hits. That money would serve him well by the early 1970s, when Hancock went into full plugged-in/dashiki-and-afro/Zen Buddhist mode with what became known as his so-called Mwandishi Sextet.

Comparisons to Miles’s electric material of these years are common, but there are major differences. Whereas Miles’s electro-fusion material was often cluttered, dense, and heavily scripted; Hancock & crew took a more open, organic, and spacious approach that made for a lot more breathing room between the musicians’ interplay and improvising. It was also a lot more “cosmic” (in a pysch-era/Sun Ra-ish sense) than much of Miles’s work. Aside from Hancock, the personnel for this period included Benny Maupin on reeds, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Julian Priester, drummer Billy Hart, and Buster Williams on bass (with the later addition of one Dr. Pat Gleeson on synths). By the time they got around to recording their third and final album, Sextant, Hancock had all but fully ditched his acoustic piano, and Buster Williams’s bass pushed forward in the mix, weighting in with a buzzing, almost stoner-rock type heaviness. If that weren't enough, the bass parts are often multi-layered, usually with Hancock doubling it on the keyboard, and sometimes additionally fleshed with Maupin going low on the bass clarinet or Priester’s bass trombone.

As a musical experiment, the Mwandishi venture didn’t prove commercially viable. Audiences were reportedly enthusiastic, but limited; and the three albums the group recorded netted only modest sales. At which point all of Hancock’s royalties came in handy, him covering the losses and keeping the outfit going by paying band members and traveling expenses out of his own pocket before finally calling an end to the project.

With 1973’s Head Hunters, Hancock backed the whole electro-fusion enterprise up and tried it again -- this time with a more pop-minded approach in mind. And hey, did it ever prove lucrative. The funky New Orleans-style strut of the tune "Chameleon" became a massive hit, as well as a common staple in the repertoires of school marching bands across the country.

By this point he was working with bassist Paul Jackson, percussionists Bill Summers and Harvey Mason, and (once again) outre reedman Bennie Maupin. "Chameleon" is most often known in its abridged 7-inch version -- a version that shaves off a full 13 minutes of the original, largely paring the thing back to the tunes opening theme and vamps, in which Hancock carries the punchy tuba-like bass portions on an ARP Odyssey. It’s only in the song’s full version that you get the expansive middle section (roughly 7:32 - 13:00+ in the clip above), at which point Jackson takes over and helps open the groove up into more broad-vista terrain.

Hancock would record several more albums with the group in the years that followed. Jackson, Maupin and crew would record their own jazz-funk LP without Hancock, adding guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight for 1975’s Survival of the Fittest; which would provide hiphop producers with a treasure trove of sample-worthy grooves in later decades.

18 February 2016

17 February 2016

Red Dirt Bass

Memphis versus New Orleans edition, rock-steady style....

And hey, check the oh-so helpful annotation from an online (non-bass) guitar tabs for the Meters track:

As far as the regional preferences go in the classic soul department, I've always been shamelessly biased/provincial But to be geographically charitable, I'll throw this one out as easily being among the top five (if not top three) Most Icon Bass Lines of All Time:

Go back and compare the original Undisputed Truth version that had been done just months earlier. Whitfield & company definitely improved it the second time around, starting with scripting something catchier for the bass player.

King for a Day

(or, Depressing Films of the Early 1970s: The King of Marvin Gardens)

Originally posted at ...And What       
Will Be Left of Them?, January 2013 

A couple of immediate impressions, in reverse order...

Mainly: Atlantic City in the wintertime of 1972 looks for all the world like the elephant’s graveyard, the place where the American Dream of unending postwar prosperity went to meet its final resting place. The aging tourists line up for the photographer along the boardwalk. The tourists are old enough to remember the boardwalk and the City’s glory days. They line for the photograph in the shadow of the hotels along the boardwalk, the hotels which also once knew – if not hosted – those long-gone glory days, their flanking facades a persistant motif throughout the film, themselves lined as a backdrop before the camera of cinematographer László Kovács. Autumn years all around, for nearly everything and everyone. For the pensioners, for the hotel owners throwing in the towel and putting the whole kit & kaboodle up for sale, perhaps even for the enterprising young hustler who wanders onto the scene and thinks that maybe there's an opportunity of a lifetime to be wrung from it all.

But initially, before any of that: You’re confronted by the fact that It’s a bold move to begin a film with a full six-minute monologue. With a tight close-up of a face floating in darkness, pensively spinning a morbid tale. Especially when that monologue – in lieu of any other contextual prompts – at first appears to be some sort of confession, the sort of confession that usually only turns up in the course of a group therapy session. It’s only well past the five-and-half minutes that the viewer is given any sort of clue as to what’s going on.

^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^ ^

The story:

David Staebler (Jack Nicholson) is a writer living in Philadelphia, residing in mid adulthood at home with his elderly father. It’s difficult to tell what sort of writer he is exactly, aside from being a somewhat dark and dejected Jean Shepherd type – sending his stories out over the airwaves of a local radio station between 2-3 AM, relating them to whoever’ll bother to tune and listen during such lonely hours. But it’s clear that his life is cloistered and hermetic; a life devoted or resigned – we gather – to a peripheral existence.

Or so it's been up until the night he receives a call at the station during a broadcast. It ends up that the call is from his older brother Jason, to whom he hasn’t spoken with in a number of years. As it turns out, his brother is summoning him. Jason (Bruce Dern) has a new enterprise in the offing, he's in the process of taking over an Atlantic City hotel that was recently put on the auction block by its owners. "The Essex Carlton – the Oldest and Finest Accommodations on the Boardwalk." And Jason wants David to aid in the venture – to help him bring the deal to a close, with handling the outgoing management as things change hands, with the wheeling and dealing of roping in investors. And Jason also wants his younger brother to share in the eventual reward of the enterprise.

Thing is, it soon becomes apparent that Jason didn’t swing the deal on his own, but has instead fallen in league with some questionable business associates – organized crime, by all appearances – to help him leverage the purchase. What's more, David arrives to find his brother holed up in one of the hotel’s suites with a pair of female companions – the older Sally (Ellen Burstyn) and the much younger Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson), the latter apparently being the former’s stepdaughter by a previous marriage. Jason's not sure what's going on between the three, about the exact nature of the sexual relations involved, and he’s fairly sure he's better off not knowing.

Throughout, David remains skeptical about many of his older brother’s boasts and claims, if not about the business venture as a whole. Still, he wants to be a part of it – maybe for the sake of joining the larger world that Jason inhabits, maybe with the hope of reviving the fraternal ties and ambitions of years-gone-by, maybe both. Despite these misgivings and the feeling of being a peripheral latecomer to the whole affair, David plays along at times and finds that he actually enjoys the opportunity of walking in someone else’s shoes – enjoys, for instance, playing the role of co-owner and pitching the hard sell to a pair of potential Japanese investors over dinner. But at other times his doubts aren’t so easily shaken; at which point Jason harangues him for his chronically sadsack demeanor, his defeatist pessimism, his pragmatic caution and his chronic lack of faith. Even though, as soon becomes apparent, Jason is blithely sailing into treacherous waters.

Bass Oddities

Thanks to Tina Weymouth, there were a number of early Talking Heads songs that were anchored in strong, prominent bass lines -- “Psycho Killer” and “Take Me to the River” being the first that come to mind. It looks like Simon concurs, since he's singled her out for attention. Yes, Fear of Music sports its fair share of tunes where Weymouth delivers. But “I Zimbra” in particular has never failed to amuse me over the years, mainly because of how the bass pattern alternately accents and punctuates the rhythm engine of the ensemble with an eccentric logic all its own.

And then there's this obscure items from the Chicago soul-jazz scene of the late 1960s...

Melvin Jackson had spent the previous several years playing with Eddie Harris (in fact, a few tunes on Funky Skull are reversionings of tracks he’d cut with Harris a year or two beforehand). Jackson had electrified his upright bass by hooking it up to a series of amps and effects boxes, much the same way that Harris had done with his own tenor saxophone. And to achieve a trippier effect, a number of songs on the album feature Jackson’s bass soaked down with liberal amounts of reverb and delay. The LP also features a lot of session players drawn from the ranks of Chicago's jazz scene of the late '60a (particularly those affiliated with the AACM) -- with the likes Lester and Byron Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, Jodie Christian, Phil Upchurch, Pete Cosey, and drummer Billy Hart helping put the whole thing over.

16 February 2016

Riddim Killers, II

(Bass & Infrastructure, Installment the Second - Mirrorball Edition)

I suppose it goes without saying that a strong bass line was central in the funk & disco eras, and there's a lot of tunes that make the cut. Far too many to include from the funk canon, so here's a few favorites of my own from the disco...

As 1978-9 rolled around, a lot of disco was becoming more and more generic, more pro-forma, part of which may've contributed to the inevitable backlash. Still, in those years there were still a few songs that featured hooky, poppin' bass lines. Here's a couple of other favorites, featuring (as above) another tune notable for being sampled by TCQ, and another jawn from the P&P label...

And then of course this big hit, in which the bass pretty much takes center stage:

In his first post on this topic, Simon mentions the Larry Graham-derived style of "slap" bass, which become so pervasive and overused by various post-punk and dance acts in the early 1980s. A Certain Ratio used it to good effect before things tipped past the point of maximum saturation:

Always deeply liked the way the bass glides over the surface of that latter tune. And of roughly the same vintage:

Another favorite bass line was from “Regiment”, from Byrne and Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Not complex, but it had a smoldering darkness to it. The duties are attributed to one session musician going by the name of (ugh) Michael “Busta Cherry” Jones, who -- if dodgey search-engine results are to be believed -- had around the time had brief stints playing with Parliament and Gang of Four. I suppose I wasn't the only one, judging from the number of times (like the above) it was sampled a decade or so later.

Riddim Killers, I

(or, Bass & Infrastructure, Installment the First)

And speaking of the Decades blogs, it looks like the time has come again; the time when one of the old inter-bloggal musical rifferama/shootout things gets underway. We’ve done riffs, intros, geetar solos, and drummige. And now it looks like Simon Reynolds has chosen this season’s topic -- bass!

Quite frankly, I had been waiting on this one some time ago. My own listening affinities have always tilted toward the low end. But still I think I might this one a bit challenging, given the fact that I a difficult time separating the bass out from its interlocking role in a given rhythm section as a whole.

To get the ball rolling, one of the first things that leaps to mind was prompted by my having recently seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew, which I deeply enjoyed. The thing was an endless parade of pop tunes I knew from my childhood in the early 1970s, lots of songs that were -- well before the advent of "Oldies” or "Classic Rock" radio formats -- still fairly ubiquitous at the time. What’s more, I was struck by the number of times I learned that specific parts of these tunes -- the instrumental hooks or portions that had first grabbed my ear, that had been my favorite part due to the way it made the tune exceptional or snappy, the parts that stood out and stuck with me -- were those parts executed by one or another of a network of (seldomly credited) studio musicians who played on countless West Coast sessions throughout the 1960s. Sometimes it was a guitar riff or what had been laid down by the drummer, but more frequently these tended to the bass parts. Once instance would be when Joe Osborn’s bass gallops ahead of the rest of the backing on the Fifth Dimension's version of "Let the Sunshine In." But most often it was the work of bassist Carol Kaye...

Soon as the film was over, I found myself picking through my record shelves, checking to see if any of the musicians in question turned up on certain favorite records. Sure enough, the first two I reached for featured Carol Kaye and "Wrecking Crew" drummer Earl Palmer, serving as the elegantly-played rhythmic backbone for the arrangements on David Axelrod's Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience LPs...

Serge Gainsbourg and arranger Jean-Claude Vannier cooked up a similar type atmosphere a few years later on Gainsbourg’s album Historie de Melody Nelson, complete with a similarly laid-back, funky grooves from the sessions’ bassist and drummer...

More to come, naturally.

13 February 2016

Frenzies of Renown

From the archives. Originally posted at                       
...And What Will Be Left of Them?,  January, 2011.  

"Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert F. Kennedy. And Ethel M. Kennedy shot Judith Birnbaum. And Judith Birnbaum shot Elizabeth Bochnak. And Elizabeth Bochnak shot Andrew Witwer. And Andrew Witwer shot John Burlingham. And John Burlingham shot Edward R. Darlington. And Edward R. Darlington shot Valerie Gerry. And Valerie Gerry shot Olga Giddy. And Olga Giddy shot..."      - J.G. Ballard, “The Generations of America"  

"The Andy Warhol prophecy of 15 minutes of fame for any and everyone blew up on our doorstep."    - Lance Loud

Altamont, post-Tet Vietnam, the Manson trail, Attica, skyjackings on an almost daily basis, economic decline.

What the hell happened? It wasn't supposed to be like this, living in America in the late twentieth century. The economic affluency and social certainty of the post-War boom, the ascendant "American Way of Life" of a decade prior was pointing to another horizon, to an entirely different future. The outlook of that era couldn't have been more optimistic, more assuring.

The era-defining visual artist of that earlier, not-too-distant past had been Andy Warhol. He had his eye on the essence of the times. Everyone now knows the artist's Greatest Hits -- the ersatz arrays of soup cans, Brillo boxes, gunslinging Elvises, etcetera. All the flat, emblematic, serialized signifiers and mass-produced objects of a new, modern consumerist society blankly mirrored back to itself. But behind all the sharp and glimmering surfaces of those objects lay a shadow; that shadow being death -- death imported into the fabric of modern life in new and improved ways. There was the enshrinement of the suicided sex symbol screen star, then the First Lady in numbed and unimaginable shock after a certain fateful day in Dallas. Death, death and still more death as it played out in newspapers, movies, television. State-mandated death by electric chair, and self-actualized death from leaping off of a skyscraper. Death in car crashes, in plane crashes, and lurking in tainted tins of tuna fish.

Warhol's series of Marilyn Monroes and Jackie O's and the like are among the Greatest Hits; but most of the later iconography that appeared in his work in the years that followed is the stuff that now merits a mere footnote, perhaps because it it struck too dissonant and dour of a chord at the time. Ignore it not, a definite morbid undercurrent seemed to be amassing, becoming a recurrent theme. Maybe even pointing to a sort of symbolic ossuary that was gradually piling up under the surface of the glimmering and sleekly designed banality of modern life.

But perhaps one can invoke only so much death and morbidity before fate itself reciprocates by finding a place for you in its Rolodex. For Warhol, death would arrive one June afternoon in 1968 in the form of three slugs from a .32 calibre pistol, the pistol wielded by disgruntled and deranged ex-associate Valerie Solanas. Although he was briefly and officially declared dead by doctors after the shooting, Warhol managed to survive the attack.

Andy's chest

In his 1975 autobiography, Warhol would write, "In the '60s everybody got interested in everybody. In the '70s everybody started dropping everybody. The '60s were clutter. The '70s are very empty." In the end, he was most likely talking about himself. After the shooting, Warhol began living a more guarded and less accessible existence. And it's been argued that with the '70s-being-very-empty remark, Warhol may as well have ben speaking solely of or for himself, if only because it perfectly sums up the artists's career from that point onward.

No more art with a grim or ironically critical subtext. The 'seventies for Warhol were the decade in which making art meant making money, and the artist found that he could do this by simply resting on his laurels, settling into a formulaic signature style, and cranking out portraits of celebrities, socialites, and wealthy collectors.1  He'd also spend the decade toadying to glamorous and powerful patrons (among whom could be counted Empress Farah Dibah Pahlavi and her husband, the Shah of Iran), and hanging out with the likes of Bianca Jagger and Liza Minnelli at Max's KC or Studio 54. And then there was launch of his own show-biz/society magazine Interview, a publication devoted to aimless chit-chat with people who were famous, or angling to become famous.

█ █ █

One good way to become famous in America during the 1970s was to shoot somebody who was famous. Preferably an elected official. You didn't need a political motive. The target didn't have to be someone who was especially beloved by the public. You didn't even need to be a decent enough marksman to properly finish them off. None of that mattered, because it still made for good theater. Ask Arthur H. Bremer. A socially maladjusted and marginally employable young man hailing from Milwaukee, Bremer originally set out to shoot president Richard Nixon (who was running for re-election in 1972), but wound up shooting would-be Democratic contender George Wallace, instead.

Wallace, for those who need a reminder, was the two-term governor of the state of Alabama. In the prior decade, he’d attained notoriety for having opportunistically opposed desegregation. He'd physically blocked enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama in 1963, and had defiantly proclaimed, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In 1972, he was making his third bid for the presidency, this time running on the Democratic ticket. Regarded as the "Spoiler from the South" by the press, Wallace had proven a formidable contender. He was, by one journalist's description, "a Southern populist of the meanest streak," and in 1972 he posed a considerable threat to both the Democratic ticket and to president Richard Nixon. On the campaign trail, he stumped on a staunch law-and-order plank, and vociferously decried the increased liberalism, civil disorder, and "moral decay" of the 1960s. All of which met with a warm welcome with Nixon’s "silent majority."

Wallace, squaring off with the feds at the University of Alabama in 1963

Wallace's run for the White House was, of course, troubling for some Americans. Even though by 1972 he'd denounced his prior pro-segregationist platform, Wallace proved that he wasn't above exploiting the racial tensions surrounding the federally-mandated school busing program for his own political gain. His campaign speeches were the epitome of unbridled demagoguery -- podium-thumping screeds of anti-federal rhetoric aimed at the intrusive, do-gooder meddling of the "briefcase totting," "pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington," interlaced with mockery of a diffuse and unnamed elite of "hypocrites" and "intellectual snobs" who reputedly shaped the nation’s social and economic policies.

To the alarm of many in the press and public at large, Wallace’s message found a broad and receptive audience, particularly among disenfranchised or alienated blue-collar and middle-class voters. On the campaign trail he met with enthusiastic and overflowing crowds when he appeared at rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan. Covering the Democratic primaries for Rolling Stone magazine, journalist Hunter S. Thompson declared, "George Wallace is one of the worst charlatans in politics," further observing: "But there is no denying his talent for converting frustration into energy. ...The frustration was there, and it was easy enough to convert it -- but what then?" The danger, Thompson recognized, was that Wallace was ultimately "stirring up more anger than he knew how to channel."2

Not that any of that mattered to Artie Bremer, he was just looking to make a name for himself. He'd first set out with Richard Nixon in mind as his target. For weeks he shadowed Nixon's campaign stops, chronicling his journeys in a diary as he went. Hapless and unfocused in his stalking, there was one aspect of his task that he was deeply attentive to -- his appearance. Bremer wanted to make sure he did the job in style. He didn't want to be taken for some disheveled loser or -- even worse -- some sort of hippie. He put a great deal of thought and effort into his wardrobe and his grooming in order to meet each opportunity to shoot the president looking like a normal, clean-shaven, patriotic citizen.

Bremer, photographed by security at a pair of rallies in the late spring of 1972

At one point, spying Nixon’s car outside the American embassy in Ottawa, Bremer realized that he had been caught by surprise and wasn't properly dressed for the occasion. He dashed back to his hotel room to change and smart himself up, returning to the embassy to find that Nixon had already departed. Furious with himself, he wrote in his diary:

I wanted to shock the shit out of the [Secret Service] men with my calmness. .... All these things seemed important to me, were important to me, in my room. I will give very little if ANY thought to these things on my future attempts. After all does the world remember if Sirhan’s tie was on straight?

Yet, attending a Nixon rally a day later, he witnessed the same Secret Service personnel targeting rank-and-file protesters, and noted incredulously, "WOW! If I killed him while wearing a sweatty tee-shirt, some of the fun & Glamore would defionently be worn off [sic x 4]."

But eventually Bremer did draw the attention of Nixon's security detail, which prompted him to quickly change plans. After briefly considering Democratic frontrunner George McGovern, he instead set his sights on Wallace. In his diary, Bremer bemoaned the diminished media coverage his lower-profile target would attract, yet that didn’t dissuade him from contemplating what sort of clever one-liner he'd deliver before pulling the trigger.3  Within a week of trailing Wallace, he shouldered through the crowd in a shopping center parking lot in suburban Laurel, Maryland, approaching the candidate as he shook hands with supporters after a campaign speech. At close range, he emptied his revolver, shooting Wallace four times and critically injuring three bystanders.

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In much the same way that acts of terrorism are efforts to intervene in the machinations of history or global politics by way of the "communicability of images" that surround such events, so too can an attempted assassination -- no matter how botched or incoherently motivated -- be regarded as an effort to disrupt the hierarchy of society’s symbolic order. If political assassinations in the U.S. of the 1960s were unanimously spoken of in terms of martyrdom and "national tragedy," then in the decade that followed they often took on an element of absurdity. Perhaps it comes down to the power of contemporary cultural myths, and the deflation of same that transpired in the 1970s. One such myth being that in a supposedly classless society any citizen could "grow up and become President." If anything, the 1960s and 1970s provided frequent reminders that, instead, it was much easier to be the person who grew up to take a shot at the President.

As with Warhol, George Wallace survived the shooting; although the attack would derail his bid for the presidency and leave him a paraplegic for the remainder of his life. Arthur Bremer would receive his desired 15 minutes of fame, which ended up translating into a 65-year prison term. Upon sentencing, Bremer reportedly told the court, "Looking back on my life I would have liked it if society had protected me from myself."

Shortly thereafter, somewhere on the West Coast, aspiring screenwriter Paul Schrader wasn’t doing so well. Estranged from his wife and living out of his car, Schrader found himself contemplating the emotional effects of loneliness on the male psyche. He had also been reading Bremer's newly published diaries, and from there he got it in mind to write a script about an existentially adrift NYC cab driver. The resulting film, as we all know, would become a huge and controversial success a few years later -- controversial due to its brutally violent content as its use of a former Disney child actress playing the role of a twelve-year-old hooker. The actress was Jodie Foster, who would inspire an amorous fan from Colorado by the name of John Hinckley to begin plotting ways of gaining her attention.

"And Olga Giddy shot Rita Goldstein. And Rita Goldstein shot Bob Monterola. And Bob Monterola shot Barbara H. Nicolosi. And..."4

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1.  This was, as art critic Matthew Collings has called it, Warhol's "'doing uncritical portraits of anyone who could pay' period."

2.  It's been argued that Wallace was an early pioneer of the contemporary "politics of rage" -- the backlash rhetoric that has been the primary parlance of the culture war waged by American conservative movement over the past 3 decades. It was for this reason that historian Dan T. Carter declared Wallace "the most influential loser in twentieth-century American politics."

3.  In keeping with the culture of paranoia of the era, the legitimacy of Bremer's diary (as quickly rushed into print in book form) met with skepticism. There were at the time a number of conspiracy theories surrounding the attempt of Wallace’s life -- theories hailing from both the Left and the Right ends of the political spectrum. Numerous sources have it that in the hours following the shooting, Nixon and his aides were scrambling to find a way to plant evidence that would tie Bremer to the campaign of Nixon's leading Democratic opponent, Senator George McGovern. For this reason, the American author Gore Vidal would soon assert in the pages of the New York Review of Books that Bremer’s diaries were a fraud, alleging that that had been authored by one of Nixon's henchmen and planted among Bremer's belongings by the C.I.A.. But even in the last years of his life, Wallace would ask the White House to look into a high-level conspiracy leading to the failed assassination on his life. Who he expected to be behind any such conspiracy is anyone's guess, seeing how he'd already colluded with Nixon's Committee to Re-Elected the President to run as a Democrat (and thus a potential "spoiler" in the DNCrace) rather than as an Independent.

4.  All of which would become a history-repeated-as-farce trope in the early years of America in the 1970s. The '60s had seen a series of political assassinations and iconically martyred figures (JFK, Malcolm X,  Martin Luther King, RFK, et al.) as carried carried out by what can only be described as -- tragically and ironically -- successful marksmen. Whereas such high-profile attempts at assassinating U.S. figures in the 1970s often amounted to little more than incomprehensibly low-level figures (Wallace, Gerald Ford) being by targeted by the likes of Bremer and "Squeaky" Fromme. At the time it made n sense while making perfect sense -- the nonsense of it speaking fully about how many people felt about the state of Americans society at the time. 

12 February 2016

Bête comme un peinture

Earlier I wrote about the Painting 2.0 exhibition at the Museum Brandhorst in Hamburg. It occurred to me after the fact that this is third of several exhibitions this past year that were threaded on a similar thematic thread. Add to the previous the American exhibitions The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World, mounted by the Museum of Modern Art last winter; and the roughly concurrent Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting, hosted by the LACMA. The latter received almost no attention, while the former prompted a great many reviews, almost all of them harshly negative. The Brooklyn Rail recently featured a lengthy comparison of the two shows, aiming to to account the disparate strengths and weaknesses of each show, as well as what sort of thesis they might present about the plight of contemporary painting:

"Is the supposed crisis in painting a product of the medium’s own neurosis? Perhaps it isn't that painting is dead but that, like many of us, it suffers from anxiety about death? Maybe painting is depressed, a sentiment I dare say many critics would validate; or narcissistic (undeniably), or irrationally obsessed with the threat of other mediums. Obsession of some sort seems the most likely diagnosis, with the result being compulsive inward-looking as well as an unhealthy fixation on what painting or sculpture or video might be doing."

Not bad for a start. But unfortunately after that point the article begins chasing its own tail, the author defaulting to half-century-long about formalism vs anti-formalism polemics, via the dusty grad-school required-reading of Clement Greenberg's "Towards a Newer Laocoön" and Rosalind Krauss's "Sculpture in the Expanded Field." Which only raises the questions: If painting is reputedly dead or in crisis, why is it still a matter of discussion a half-century after being declared so? Why haven't the parameters of the discourse shifted, or the critical vocabulary significantly revised, in the interim decades since?

Of the many reviews of MoMA's The Forever Now exhibition, perhaps the most interesting I’ve come across is the one penned by (surprisingly enough) the artist David Salle, which appeared in the pages of ARTnews. As one would expect, Salle has skin in the game, and critiques the show in largely pictoral terms. Salle waves off all the agonistic concerns about the fate of painting in the digital ago, concluding:

"...The [exhibition’s] good news, is that painting didn't die. The argument that tried to make painting obsolete was always a category mistake; that historically determinist line has itself expired, and painting is doing just fine. Painting may no longer be dominant, but that has had, if anything, a salutary effect: not everyone can paint, or needs to. While art audiences have gone their distracted way, painting, like a truffle growing under cover of leaves, has developed flavors both rich and deep, though perhaps not for everyone. Not having to spend so much energy defending one's decision to paint has given painters the freedom to think about what painting can be. For those who make paintings, or who find in them a compass point, this is a time of enormous vitality."

This, after having established in early in the review:

"[Curator Laura Hoptman] wants to make a point about painting in the Internet age, but the conceit is a red herring — the Web's frenetic sprawl is opposite to the type of focus required to make a painting, or, for that matter, to look at one."

Also of interest was Salle's takedown of the work of recent art-market sensation Oscar Murillo. In which Salle focuses on Murillo's work in strictly pictorial and presentational terms, tactfully sidestepping the sorts of spleen-venting scattershot screeds Murillo has received (however deservedly) from other critics.

Which brings us to another, closely related, topic. All of the above having transpired in the context of a parallel discussion about the ascent of "Zombie Formalism" -- the glut of painting-qua-painting as produced by a number of contemporary and emerging artists, artists who've been hot on the art market in recent years (and a number of whom are included in the aforementioned exhibitions).*  While I don't wholly disagree that there's been a lot of slight, anemic, vaguely homogenized style of painting in recent years. But personally, I'm not sure my the category of painting has borne the brunt of the criticism. As the art market bubble has expanded in recent years, I'm inclined to argue that all that money pouring into the market in search of "mobile assets" to chase has had a diminishing effect across the disciplinary spectrum; resulting in a deluge monotonously generic work in all of the more dominant categories, as well -- from video, to installation and multimedia works, you name it.

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For the unfamiliar, examples here and here. As well as the ur-text that got the whole ball rolling.

11 February 2016


As some longtime readers know, some five years ago or so I was invited to contribute to a group-blogging project -- the "decades blogs" (listed over there in the linkbar at right), three blogs devoted to analysis of the cultures of the 1970s, '80s and 9'0s. For a good long while, it featured a great roster of contributors and drew a lot of traffic and commentary. But as of roughly two years ago, the platforms in question mostly went dormant as contributors drifted off to other things, other venues and projects. I myself had a few pieces in the works at the time, unfinished essays that kept snowballing to sprawling lengths until I lost the whole lot in a hard drive crash.

With one exception, I made it a point to not reproduce or crosspost my contributions here. Since it's been so long and I imagine at some point the project’s instigator Carl may inevitable pull the plug on the three blogs, over the coming weeks I’ll be transferring and re-posting some of my "decades" contributions here for my own archiving purposes. For those who may've caught them the first time around, apologies for the reruns. For those that didn't, hopefully you’ll find them worthwhile.

09 February 2016

Precedential Material

For no other reason than it's Granite out there...

05 February 2016


Because I grew up in the 1970s. And because I later spent the better part of 20 years living in Chicago, almost all of it spent on the south side. In that part of town there was, among the homegrown population,  a sort of perennial groove that was inarguably classic -- definitive. Once winter broke and people came outdoors, you could expect to hear certain spring soundtracking. Roy Ayers Ubiquity and early Kool & the Gang being big favorites. Early-to-mid '70s era Stevie Wonder and maybe the occasional Steely Dan joint. But guaranteed plenty of EW&F.

Earth Wind & Fire having started out as an entity very specific to the Chicago music that it evolved out of. In the group's early years, when its lineup was constantly shifting. In those days its membership encompassed musicians who'd played with local funksters The Pharaohs, as well as others who'd been under the mentorship of AACM multi-instrumentalist and former Sun Ra Arkestrateer Phil Cohran. (As evidence of that latter connection, check the larval EW&F's contributions to the Sweet Sweetbacks's Baadasssss Song OST.) And then once the band's lineup began to finally solidify, in stepped producer & arranger Charles Stepney to help steer them toward the limelight. Charles Stepney himself being a whole 'nother Chicago music story.

01 February 2016

The Errant Eye

fig. 1

It's not all that difficult to tell a fake Jackson Pollock painting from a real one. Despite what some may think, and despite all the scoffing my-kid-could-paint-that cliches, it's not all that terribly difficult to discern that something is amiss.

The first indicator is the scale. Smaller works from Pollock’s "drip"/"allover" phase are in the minority, with the rest of them being quite large.

The main thing is composition, of being very familiar -- after long, extended periods of looking at the Pollock's work -- with the artist’s visual vocabulary. This might take a while, but after a time that vocabulary becomes intuitive. One general aspect is the work's compositional rhythm, its push-and-pull -- the way the composition breathes or coalesces through an amalgam of webs, skeins, clusters, puddlings and crusts. Also considering how the artist would crop the canvas after-the-fact, which was often dictated by by where the density of the composition begins to thin or become too diffuse, with only a moderate ratio of bleeding over the edges, the allover "apocalyptic wallpaper" effect being economically hemmed in by the boundaries. And then there's Pollock’s sense of distributing the paint about the canvas, in terms of chromatic harmonies and contrasts. Bold, bright elements are most often not allowed to dominate, with the artist "knocking them back" via breaking up one layer with the next. (This was perhaps done with the intent of nullifying elements that might be construed as "figurative," which the critic Clement Greenberg told him was regressive, conservative).

fig. 2, 3

Third would be the condition of the thing. This would involve a close-up inspection while bearing a number of considerations in mind, many of them having to do with the painter's methods and materials. Such as: In order to execute his famous "drip"-era painting, Pollock set up studio in a barn, with the canvases spread out on the floor. It was far from a pristine environment, and a fair amount of detritus -- dirt, cigarette butts, bootprints, etc. -- sometimes got caught up in the action. There's also the matter of looking at how the thing has aged -- basic entropic considerations. Such as the discoloration of the canvas/support. Or, given that Pollock often made these works by using commercial-grade lacquer paint, which have a tendency to quickly degrade over time -- cracking, crazing, or wrinkle at various points [fig. 2 - 3]. Such is the stuff that has kept a number of museum conservators busy in recent decades.

At the very least, the art directors of Ex Machina [fig. 1] might've contacted the prop department of the makers of the 2000 biopic Pollock. Actor and director Ed Harris had reputedly spent months studying Pollock's methods and laboring to recreate them for the sake of his performance in the film [fig. 4 - 5]. Perhaps there were one or two of the mock Pollocks still in someone’s possession?**

fig. 4, 5

Or maybe they have consulted with the British conceptualists Art & Language, getting some technical pointers from them about they went about making their Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock series back in 1979-80 [fig. 6 - 7].

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