Sunday, January 22, 2012

Year-End Inventory III: Books I Dug

Alice Bag greets you from the cover of Slash,  May 1978.
Greetings, my Irregulars, from Your Irregular-In-Chief. It's a chilly, sunny Sunday afternoon in Denver. I'm in my friend's apartment, X live bootlegs on the hi-fi, a glass of cool, fresh water at my hand. My leg is healing nice-like, the advent of an ACE bandage doing wonders in my recovery and mobility. The leg's still tender and I have to be careful with it. But the pain's more like a dull ache now, rather than the skull-piercing shredding of my nerve endings it has been, which has made me a prisoner of a bed or couch for a few weeks now. That feels like a massive improvement. So, back to work for real, tomorrow.

I come to you today realizing I'd promised a reading wrap-up for last year. I do have to say that, due to funds, etc., that 2011 was not a year I either purchased or read much that was new. For the most part, I caught up on oldies I'd yet to read from either other pals' collections (such as Charlie Solus' vast James Ellroy archives) or things I found in thrift stores or used book stores for cheap. In the case of Ellroy, I had to marvel at his crisp, clean language, the brutal honesty, the ability to use real life events as a literary springboard, and his amazing ability to capture marginal life in mid-century Los Angeles (as well as pulling back the rocks and exposing the worms and snakes crawling beneath the city's showbiz surface). What strikes me as Ellroy's peak, American Tabloid, goes well-beyond the L.A. city limits to encompass the whole of America in the '60s, which is a rather daunting task. Still, he accomplishes that with ease, and the rest of his oeuvre definitely places him as the latest in a long line of great poets of Los Angeles' underside: Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski, even John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Bless him for that.

Then there are my other newfound discoveries: Alex Cox's X Films: True Confessions Of A Radical Filmmaker (Soft Skull Press, Berkeley, CA, 2008), which not only offers frequently hilarious behind-the-scenes accounts of the making of Repo Man, Sid And Nancy, and various other Cox films that aren't as well-known, but also serves as a primer in how to be an independent artist in an increasingly corporate world, with all the joy, rewards, and ugliness therein; Mark Evanier's Kirby: King Of Comics (Abrams, New York, NY, 2008), a huge, lavish, hardbound celebration of the man who was arguably the greatest comic book artist ever, Jack Kirby; Billy F. Gibbons' Rock & Roll Gearhead (with Tom Vickers, 2008; softcover edition from Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2011), loads of hilarious philosophy and autobiography around the edges of beautiful photographs of the vast twin guitar and custom car archives of the ZZ Top guitarist – eye candy deluxe(!); and John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy Of Dunces (Grove Press, New York, NY, 1980), possibly the funniest novel I've ever read, and certainly the best I've read set in New Orleans or in the early '60s. How this has never been made into an equally epic and hilarious film is beyond me; Jack Black would certainly make a great Ignatius J. Reilly....

Of the few new titles that jumped into my shopping bag last year, my favorite was Alice Bag's Violence Girl (381 pages, $17.95 softcover, Feral House, Port Townshend, WA 2011, Subtitled East L.A. Rage To Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story, this should clue you in to what's great about it: It's not just another punk book. True, Alice Bag is as iconic figure as Darby Crash or anyone from that Masque scene. She was of that original generation of fierce punk rock women (Patti Smith, Penelope Houston, Joan Jett, Exene, The Slits, Poly Styrene) who made questions of gender irrelevant and inspired with their brilliance, their ferocity, and their righteousness. But there's a lot more to this book.

Like I said, this isn't merely an L.A. punk history. This is Alice Bag's story. So we get taken back to that environment which spawned Alice: From her parents' origins in Mexico to the Los Angeles barrios where she was raised. We see that Alice was given an odd mixture of love and abuse, mostly due to her father. He would tell young Alicia she was exceptional, that she could do anything, and nurtured her artistry...then lash out in drunken rage at her mother in the next breath. She was equally shaped by weight issues and her own ethnicity, until a mix of the Chicano and glam rock movements in the early '70s helped her burst whatever shell was there and gave her pride and determination. Then came punk and the formation of The Bags. And Alice Bag emerged a sexy, rampaging, intelligent force.

L.A. critic Ken Tucker tries to turn the town onto The Bags...and then undersells their 45?!

Fortunately for her, despite some inclinations in that direction, Alice only dipped into the debauchery and self-destruction inherent in punk rock Los Angeles. Moving back into her parents' home midway through might have helped, giving her some literal and philosophical distance from the damage that was developing among her peers. And even after The Bags' imminent death, Alice kept creating, either musically or in other areas, and eventually graduated college and became a school teacher. As a teacher, she remained an activist, centering on educating and encouraging the underprivileged, even spending time teaching in Nicaragua in the mid-'80s. She continued following and acting on her principles and beliefs, and has benefited for that.

Amazing, what can be done with some photo booth strips and a Bic pen....

Like the Alex Cox book I mentioned earlier, Violence Girl should serve as an inspiration to the young artist and rebel: For once, the heroine doesn't self-destruct. Alice Bag stayed on the course, rose above, and keeps doing what she set out to do. Punk rock doesn't have to kill. Nor does environment. Yes, there are happy endings in punk rock – and life – sometimes....

Monday, January 16, 2012

Putting the "limp" in Olympics

Greetings, my Irregulars. I know it seems I've pulled another of my frequent disappearances. For good reason, this time around.

I've been forced by circumstances to lay a little low. Over two weeks ago, as I was walking to work at the temp service I'd been toiling at since I was suspended at my fund-raising job in late October, I slipped on some black ice and injured my right leg somehow. Not sure how, as I'm one of the mass of Americans with no health insurance. So no, I haven't seen a doctor.

Hence, since I had to move out of where I'd been living two days later, I've spent the last two weeks at first at one friend's house, then another, where I've finally settled 'til I've found a new place. I've no internet service there, and my cellphone is off for non-payment. I've essentially been isolated, in a lot of pain, my injured leg elevated and on ice, playing lots of guitar and writing a new song or two, and watching loads of cool and weird films provided by my buddy Tom. We're talking Russ Meyer homages, '60s Italian westerns, James Bond parodies, even the occasional rock documentary. (Thanks all that great eye candy, Tom. Your gift is a true sanity saver. BTW, Dear Reader: You should really check out his Denver Eye blog, at this link.)

Am I any better? Not sure. I'm just trying to get back into the world, on my way back to work at my old fund-raising job, as funds are low. I've been checking in daily, the last few days, at a coffee house along the bus route, to take advantage of the free wi-fi. But yes, I've found myself limping home and spending hours on ice to bring the swelling back down. I think I'm getting better. But this sure isn't healing as quickly as I'd like.

I know I promised to write about books and other eye candy I dug this past year. That'll have to wait for the next installment – an update was necessary this time around. Meantime, enjoy your non-crippled legs. I certainly look forward to the day I'm not channeling my late, arthritic grandpappy. (I mean, shitfire! How am I supposed to execute those flying scissorkicks when I'm hobbling around like this?! Although the introduction of the ACE bandage to my life has been quite revolutionary, I must say.) Be there. Aloha.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Year-End Inventory II: The Music

"Personally, I like the Bern Elliot and The Fenmen reissue!"

This is always the time of year your fave-rave cultural journalists love to compile Top Ten Lists of the stuff they got sent for free that they feel was important. I never enjoyed doing those lists - how egotistical can you get, making such grand pronouncements? Fact is, taste is individual, the brain is an imperfect memory bank, and something's gonna get left out that'll offend someone or other. Then again, most of my actions offend someone or other, it seems. So, what the eff...?

So, despite having retired from the rock critic fray in 1998 and only occasionally writing about music for pay in the years since, I know there's scores of people out there who still look at me as being a (*gulp*) "rock journalist." Not that they likely care what my opinions are on anything....

Still, for some odd reason, I can't resist doing a recap for the past year in culture. Guess I crave punishment, for some weird crime I'm unaware of....

Record Of The Year 2011: This had to have been the oddest musical year in my memory. I don't know about your memory. But I think we have official evidence of the destruction of the music business by the Oughts' technological revolution now being complete. I no longer have any accurate compass on new music, new bands, etc., etc. Now that music has been fully democratized and placed in the hands of The People by technology, it's harder to find the cream on the surface for the flood of people starting bands and releasing every note they play on MP3, etc. And my tastes are no longer in synch with Da Yoof, so I don't really know or get what people with a lot of facial hair like.

Yeah, I guess I'm officially old.

I do know that what filtered through to me last year were a number of strong releases from veteran bands, some of which I wrote about in this blog (Gang Of Four, Michael Monroe), some of which I didn't (Motorhead, UK Subs). But two records (yes, I still call 'em that, whether the source is digital or not) stand out in my mind from this past year: The New York Dolls' Dancing In High Heels Backwards (which I wrote about here) and one I didn't write about and should have, The First Four EPs by OFF!

That Dolls record, like everything the reformed New York Dolls have done, has been rather controversial. Some people are just never going to get over the absence of Johnny Thunders, Jerry Nolan, and Arthur Kane. And many expressed to me that Dancing.... sounded less like the Dolls to them than the previous pair of studio albums by the reunion lineup. That actually might be one of the strengths of Dancing....: It broke from the sound of the last two albums, and even broke from Dolls tradition with its strange, almost avant garde production. Less reliant on raunchy guitars and more on atmosphere and songs, this also may have hewed closer to the Dolls' classic spirit than anything they'd done since their heyday. Why? Because it's almost surely the Dolls' tribute to their girl group roots, right down to the faithful cover of Patti LaBelle and The Bluebells' "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman." It's a solid album through-and-through, and one of the two new discs I reached for the most this past year.

OFF!'s Steven McDonald (l) and Keith Morris (r) sandwiching yours' truly, Denver, CO., Oct., 2011 (pic: Adams Pinkston)

The other release, by OFF!, is both a throwback and a shockingly vital, brand new blast. Fronted by punk rock force-of-nature Keith Morris (do I have to tell you he was in Circle Jerks and Black Flag?!) and featuring members of Redd Kross (Steven McDonald), Burning Brides (Dimitri Coats), and Rocket From The Crypt (Mario Rubalcaba), this is hardcore punk as it was originally intended: A solid blast of intensity. This isn't about speed or politics (except in the most personal, real-life terms possible). This is about raw power, anger, and sheer release. Keith's performance, on this record and live, is especially potent. He's unleashing something, and you can't help but pay attention to this unfiltered torrent of emotion and spleen. This band could be a one-band revolution all in themselves. Bless 'em.

Coming soon: My picks in books, movies, etc. Enjoy!