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Don’t Stop the Press!

Los Angeles journalism legend Patt Morrison argues vigorously and eloquently for the importance of the fourth estate in her book Don’t Stop the Press! Check out my Los Angeles Review of Books review: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/extra-extra/#!.

 

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King Princess’s Contagious Freedom


“Freedom is contagious,” St. Vincent said at the ASCAP Expo Panel I moderated May 7. It was her lovely, evocative way of answering my question about what it was like to make an album with David Byrne, which she did in 2012, on Love This Giant. In three words, this gifted musician summarized the spirit of artistic collaboration, of two souls open to innovation and communication bouncing ideas off each other, emailing each other bits of sounds and bobs of lyrics, not being afraid to fail in front of each other or to embarrass themselves. I want this saying on a T-shirt: FREEDOM IS CONTAGIOUS. Let’s catch it.

It was an honor to share the stage with St. Vincent, and a pleasant surprise to be there with King Princess, a new artist who is already blowing up on YouTube. My first question was to point out that not only do they both have stage/pen names that denote a high sense of self-esteem, but they are also identities that are at least partially masculine: What kind of freedom does such a put-on persona give them? Both pointed out that their given names — Annie Clark and Mikaela Straus — don’t exactly shout “rock star!” Clark said her given name sounds like a “stoner babysitter from 1985.” “King Princess is like an attitude,” Mikaela explained. “I take comfort in it as kind of a shield to exist in, where I can make cohesive art.

HOLLYWOOD, CA – MAY 07:St. Vincent, Evelyn McDonnell and King Princess attend The 2018 ASCAP “I Create Music” EXPO at Loews Hollywood Hotel on May 7, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP)

Her Holiness and Her Majesty were both articulate, engaging, empowering. I loved the way they spoke to each other, sharing their experiences of being college dropouts (St. Vincent, from Berklee School of Music, King Princess from USC) and urging audience members, especially women, to take advantage of the cheap and easy affordances of such gear as Apogee. But their personal styles were so different. Clark sat straight in her chair, looking elegant and poised in a long dress she had gotten that morning, while Straus lounged in hers, all comfy in a long shirt, pants, and track shoes.

At just 19, King Princess is already a fledgling online celebrity. She has earned her followers not just because she has a strong, vulnerable, warbling voice (think Regina Spektor, kd lang, Amy Winehouse, Lorde) but also because she writes melody-driven songs about longing and loss, aimed unabashedly at female love interests. In interviews and at the Expo panel, she is candid and open about her sexuality. Her song “1950” is an ode to queer history, specifically the book The Price of Salt. She just released her latest song and video. Like “1950,” “Talia” is a song about a lost lover, represented by an inflatable love doll in the video. Watch it here:

 

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Gray Days

Photo by Tim Maxeiner

The news of Space X building its big effing rocket in San Pedro has gone national, global even. It, along with some hot property deals, also led to the predictable headlines about an “upturn for San Pedro.” Maybe, maybe not. As “Marina del Pedro,” an info-rich exhibit currently at the Angels Gate Cultural Center, shows, the efforts to develop this community are as old as the port itself. Curator and artist Tim Maxeiner (discloser: he’s a friend) turned to both historical archives and the contemporary local community to tell the tale of the Port of Los Angeles’s push and pull relationship to nature, industry, people, and business. The German-born egalitarian pulls work from both teens he taught at the Boys and Girls Club and such local artists as Phoebe Barnum and Beth Elliott. I even wrote an essay for it, about waterfront adventures in this whale of a town. The exhibit closes Saturday, with festivities from 3 to 6 p.m. Below is my essay, which will also be in the catalog, available this weekend.

Gray Days

By Evelyn McDonnell

I live on the edge of a forest. It’s five acres large, a potential home to 700 species, and it thrives in winter, when its trunks and leaves stretch high to the sky, swaying back and forth in the ocean currents. Animals feed and hide here in the Giant Kelp: mammals as big as you, who will swim up to your kayak and look you straight in the eye or roll in the water underneath, showing off, or maybe even nursing their young. Schools of fish — sardines or Spanish mackerels — flash silver in the sun, and bright orange garibaldi dart nervously around rock outcroppings, having been pushed out of their nests by crustacean bullies: armored lobsters and their sideway cousins, the crabs.

I live next to one of the busiest ports in the world. Ships laden with containers slip in and out of Angels Gate, like multi-colored skyscrapers moving sideways across the sea. Towering cranes await them, a forest of metal redwoods silhouetted against the mountains, ready to pluck the rectangular boxes off the cargo decks like so many toothpicks hundreds of feet in the air, then stack them neatly on the dock, where they’ll continue their voyage via trains, or trucks — the atoms of the neoliberal capitalist organism continuing their global orbit. Refineries belch smoke in the background, processing the crude black oil pumped up from the bottom of the ocean by the rigs that loom like watchtowers on the southern most edge of my view — the rigs are the south poles, the refineries the north. Between them lie the kelp and the commerce, the dolphins and the dock workers, the whales and the freighters — the urban wild landscape of San Pedro, my adopted home.

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Don’t Follow Him, He’s Lost Too

Words to live by from Amy Rigby: “I write my own story, thank you.”

Diary Of Amy Rigby

Nine pm on a Saturday night in an English seaside town, Eric and I eat in Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips restaurant across from the seafront. We’re just like the other couples sipping large glasses of wine (the English equivalent of a “small glass” is a half pint) and tucking into their cod and chips and mushy peas, only Eric doesn’t drink, and told the waitress “no mushy peas”. (I tried the mushy peas and agree they belong only in a color photo or black and white film.) We’re just like the other couples making occasional conversation while the overhead speakers dotted in among the modest chandeliers play the type of music good old Harry would have liked back in the day.

“And he gave it all up for a girl – from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania” a male and female ensemble croon in a chorus repeated often enough to sound like…

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Sewing a Revolution

Faith Ringgold self portrain

Faith Ringgold was already an accomplished artist in her forties when she wrote a memoir of her life. Still, no one would publish it. Instead, the painter turned to a new medium, creating quilts that — via images and words — told the narratives not only of her life, but of other black women. “I decided I would write my story on my art,” she told the crowd packed into the atrium of the California African American Museum yesterday at the closing ceremony for the exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.

One of the earliest figures whom Ringgold depicted was Aunt Jemima. When her daughter questioned her inclusion of the controversial syrup idol, the artist said, “She’s a black feminist hero.”

“She’s not my black feminist hero” replied the daughter, Michele Wallace – an acclaimed scholar and author.

Mother and daughter shared the dais at CAAM Sunday, a formidable pairing at an event packed with powerful personages. Before their panel, three women of the Saar family (the Saarority?) stood together: the legendary Bettye Saar with her daughters Alison and Lezley. If, goddess forbid, the CAAM ceiling had collapsed yesterday, a few generations of important, inventive artists and their acolytes and analysts would have been buried beneath the rubble. Then again, these are women who have already busted through several glass ceilings on their own; maybe they would have just weathered the crash then begun making sculptures out of the debris.

We Wanted a Revolution gathers  drawings, paintings, photos, videos, pamphlets, letters and more from a period when Black and female artists were forcibly fighting against their exclusion from museums and the mainstream. There’s Adrian Piper, Lisa Jones, Emma Amos, Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, and  more. Many of the artists, including Linda Goode Bryant, Maren Hassinger, Dindga McCannon, and Senga Nengudi, were part of the closing symposium.

“Have friends and don’t stop working.” That was Hassinger’s advice to young artists trying to persevere, progress and prosper. “Music can be your friend; art can be your friend,” added another speaker.

The work in We Wanted a Revolution is phenomenal, though the show, which was originated by the Brooklyn Museum, is traveling on. You still have a month to see Salon des Refuses, the intense, imaginative exhibit of works by Lezley Saar also on display at CAAM. Saar’s paintings and assemblages are psychedelic and psychological in their exploration of the unconscious and of alternative states of being. Deconstructing – literally – and then reconstructing books, she breaks down definitions of race and gender. She paints Renaissance portraits of dandies and rebel girls as Edgar Allan Poe might have imagined them, with mushrooms coming out of their heads, or bats for ears.

Lezley Saar’s Salon des Refuses

It was moving to think about how Lezley Saar is carrying on the legacy of her mother, Bettye, and how Wallace has dedicated much of her career to chronicling the life of Ringgold. The ghost of the previous generation was in the room as well, as Faith talked about the influence of her mother, Willie Posey Jones, a fashion designer. Mama Jones, as the family called her, helped her daughter make her quilts. Wallace recalled that in her foremothers’ time, all women knew how to sew. But her mother corrected her. “I refused to sew,” Ringgold said. She repeated the statement a few times, emphasizing refused. So, perhaps the most famous quilter of all time was a storyteller, not a seamstress. Yesterday, she made sure her story got told – and we listened.

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The Incline of Western Civilization

Phag!

Los Angeles punk has always had its own distinct aesthetic, inspired by New York and London but shaped by its environment: the West, Hollywood, the ‘burbs.  Somehow, LA punks seem to be aging more relevantly than their peers. This weekend I saw three artists from the earliest, old school days of Los Angeles calling: Alice Bag (the Bags), Phranc (Nervous Gender), and John Doe (X). Punk’s disruption of traditional beauty standards and of heteronormativity always seemed particularly radical in the shadow of Tinseltown, but these AARP-age idols show that choosing original style over the surgeon’s knife is the best revenge. Their music has also matured not declined. Chops may not be punk’s raison d’etre, but these three have them: Doe has always been the genre’s most golden-voiced crooner, but Bag and Phranc are also skilled singers. They flubbed some lines but their harmonies were pitch perfect as they played their second gig as the act with the best “shipped” name ever …. wait for it … PHAG!

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Phranc (I love the guitar sticker!)

If you don’t know what a shipped name is, then clearly you don’t have a teenager:  Short for relationship, it means the single name that results from the union of two, such as Brangelina, Kimye, and now, Phag. Phranc and Alice have known each other since at least the early ’80s, when they both were in Castration Squad. As that act’s name indicates, they were (and are) gender warriors. They found refuge in punk’s embrace of outsiders, as they discussed on a panel at the Grrrls on Film festival at Loyola Marymount University in 2016. But Phranc in particular also found racism and homophobia, and eventually she rejected the scene and rebranded herself as the “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” revealing the warm, womanly tones underneath punk’s noise and her flat-top ‘do. She’s still a little bit folky, while Bag’s a little bit rock’n’roll, as they sang Friday night at the Razorcake 100th issue party at Avenue 50 Studio. They were parodying Donny and Marie, but the original goal of their union, they said, was to be the Smothers Brothers. And sure enough, their act is satiric, slapstick, and also pointedly sincere. They sang songs dissing Mike Pence and praising Malala. They passed around their prototype for a new $20 bill, featuring Harriet Tubman instead of Indian killer Andrew Jackson. They were funny and sweet and sloppy and pissed. I told my compatriots Allison Wolfe and Sharon Mooney that we had to start their fan club now, and I have the perfect name for it: The Phag Hags! Continue reading

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Because of the Hurricane

I wrote the poem below almost 28 years ago, after I visited Puerto Rico for the first time. A few months earlier Hurricane Hugo had devastated much of the island. My companion, the Nuyorican critic and poet Ed Morales, and I were struck by the continuing damage, physical and psychological. In the decades since, I have survived a few hurricanes myself, most notably during the terrible season of 2015, when I lived in a home below sea level on Normandy Isle in Miami Beach and a series of vicious storms pummeled us.

Hurricanes are obliteration machines. They set the clock back to zero. You can have all the community support you want: After Wilma delivered the knockout blow in October 2015, our neighborhood truly pulled together. With no electricity, hence no stoves or refrigerators, we took turns hosting barbecues, using up our perishables. With no screens to distract them, the kids played imaginative games together, most memorably one called “hurricane,” which involved shining flashlights on tree branches pulled to wave wildly to the accompaniment of lots of screaming. When, thanks to the seeming caprices of what is optimistically called “the grid,” our side of the street got power back a week before the other side, we strung extension cords across Biarritz Drive, yellow tentacles striping the blacktop. It was a simple, sweet time in a way. But with basic modern services disrupted, Wilma made us all primitives — dependent, ultimately, on the kindness and, hopefully, efficiency of strangers.

My heart goes out to the people of Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and Cuba, and all the Leeward Islands, and Houston, and Corpus Christi, and my dear Keys and Miami, and to Mexico too. Nature can be a bitch. But it’s certain humans who can be truly evil.

 

Hugo

Because of the hurricane
The man sells bowls
with Taino cave drawings
out of his home
in a San Juan suburb
We get lost on streets
named Florence, Venice, Madrid
looking for Barcelona
Geegaws gather dust
on shelves in the dining room
They are little more than fanciful souvenirs
yet his wife shows them off proudly
hoping we mainlanders
will purchase something big
the table carved out of a tree stump, perhaps,
instead of the keychains and ashtrays
our artists’ budgets humbly choose
Because of the hurricane
we back down a dirt road in our rented car,
chasing roosters,
my lover’s aunt explaining
in a rapid clucking Spanish
that I don’t understand:
The Loiza workshop
where men of African descent
make brilliant masks
of coconut shells and papier-mache
is closed
Instead we pull up to a brightly painted casita
where a Loisa woman
sells straw dolls and coconut oil —
she tells my lover
it will keep his hair from falling out
He doesn’t take offense
Because of the hurricane
You can see the ocean
from the house
where my lover’s parents
will retire next year
leaving the Bronx
the mainland
the part of the U.S.
where Puerto Ricans
can vote for American presidents
yet are still treated like second-class citizens
Luquillo Beach twinkles in the horizon
from El Yunque.
Up close,
for every palm spreading its fronds
in a heavenward mane
there is the stump of a tree felled by the hurricane
Because of the hurricane
My lover and I
can’t touch each other
without rousing pain
Can’t make love without drowning in sorrow
hugging in the night
to the sharp cries of the coqui
and muffled tears
Because of the hurricane
in San Juan’s hotel district
the woman at the tourist office
hurries to lock the door
shutting us in
as a man outside
with institutionally cropped hair
slices his throat
on the jagged edge
of a broken beer bottle.
(I know what he is doing
I know the feeling of broken glass
drawn against flesh)
He is lying on the pavement
his white T-shirt
and blue jeans
maroon with blood
We have only been
in Puerto Rico two hours
we have never seen
anything like this
As the police car speeds past
two men hover over the body
in the back seat
We wonder if it is too late

 

 

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