I’d almost forgotten how much I loved Lou Reed’s music. Then I read Lou Reed: A Life by Anthony DeCurtis, a meticulous, thoughtful, and humanistic biography of a difficult, brilliant subject, and suddenly, I was pulling those records off the shelves again. DeCurtis’s was one of six books — including tomes on Gucci Mane, Stevie Nicks, Al Green, and TLC — that I reviewed for The New York Times recently. Story publishes in print Sunday, but you can read it online now.
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!
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
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.
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,
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
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 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.
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
There will be a historical gathering of indigenous people at Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro October 12-15. Cornelius Projects is holding a fundraiser and teach-in for the 13th Many Winters Gathering of the Elders this Sunday, October 1, from 2-5 p.m. This is an opportunity to learn more about the history and return of this event, and to show your support — and buy some art. I attended a fundraiser at Angels Gate for the gathering about a month ago, and it was moving and cool. Several artists collaborated to create a mural on the cement battalion walls of this former military base. Their work also created an interesting backdrop for the workshop of Galileo by the Industry a couple weeks ago. In case you haven’t figured it out, Angels Gate is the coolest place in all of Los Angeles these days. And the views!
I first met Adele Bertei when I accompanied Wayne Kramer’s organization Jail Guitar Doors on a visit to the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Jail Guitar Doors brings guitars and musical instruction to the incarcerated. There was a group of musicians that day, putting on a show, and one pixie-ish woman was introduced as Adele. “What’s your last name?” I asked, and when she answered “Bertei,” I got all fangirlish. Bertei was a pioneer of the New York postpunk scene, playing for the Contortions and the Bloods, the infamous all-girl band. As a solo artist and songwriter, she has kicked around the underground and pop scenes on both coasts and in Europe since. She also acted in the incredibly ahead-of-its-time film Born in Flames. Continue reading
Almost two and a half years ago, Björk spilled her guts to the world. On the album Vulnicura, the often reclusive musician wrote intimately and emotionally about her breakup with the artist Matthew Barney. It was a public purging of a high-profile heartbreak, a direct and exquisitely rendered “fuck you” to a shmuck – long before Beyonce squeezed her lemons into Lemonade. “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions,” Björk sang on the thin ice of “Black Lake,” voicing the sentiments of a million millennial women waiting for their men to join them in the 21st century.
Ms. Gudmundsdottir is finally ending the Vulnicura phase of her astonishing three-decade artistic career. As she told me in an interview for the LA Weekly a few weeks ago, she has begun work on a new album and feels “the Vulnicura cycle is complete.” She delivered her last performance of the album at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday night. And what a – shall we say, in deference/reference to her infamous 2010 Oscars outfit — swan-song farewell it was.
My 2010 LA Weekly cover story on the Runaways drummer Sandy West is one of the articles included in Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z, a Library of America collection edited by Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar. I’ll be reading from it alongside Jonathan and Kevin on May 31 at Rhino Records in Claremont. Flyer and press release below.
Authors Jonathan Lethem & Kevin Dettmar will be reading & signing copies of their new book “Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop From Elvis to Jay Z” At Rhino Records in Claremont Wednesday May 31st at 7pm. The book, edited by the two of them, is a six decade survey of superb writing on popular music assembled into one mighty volume. KSPC Radio Free Aftermath DJ’s Sam & Jojo will be spinning music from 1957-2017, and Evelyn McDonnell, one of the featured writers in the book, will be reading from her section in the book as well as signing copies of her book on The Runaways “Queens Of Noise”.
THE ESSENTIAL PLAYLIST OF GREAT WRITING ABOUT THE MUSIC THAT ROCKED AMERICA
Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar’s Shake It Up invites the reader into the tumult and excitement of the rock revolution through fifty landmark pieces by a supergroup of writers on rock in all its variety, from heavy metal to disco, punk to hip-hop. Stanley Booth describes a recording session with Otis Redding; Ellen Willis traces the meteoric career of Janis Joplin; Ellen Sander recalls the chaotic world of Led Zeppelin on tour; Nick Tosches etches a portrait of the young Jerry Lee Lewis; Eve Babitz remembers Jim Morrison. Alongside are Lenny Kaye on acapella and Greg Tate on hip-hop, Vince Aletti on disco and Gerald Early on Motown; Robert Christgau on Prince, Nelson George on Marvin Gaye, Luc Sante on Bob Dylan, Hilton Als on Michael Jackson, Anthony DeCurtis on the Rolling Stones, Kelefa Sanneh on Jay Z. The story this anthology tells is a ongoing one: -it’s too early, – editors Jonathan Lethem and Kevin Dettmar note, -for canon formation in a field so marvelously volatile–a volatility that mirrors, still, that of pop music itself, which remains smokestack lightning. The writing here attempts to catch some in a bottle.
NAT HENTOFF on BOB DYLAN
AMIRI BARAKA on R&B
LESTER BANGS on ELVIS PRESLEY
ROBERT CHRISTGAU on PRINCE
DEBRA RAE COHEN on DAVID BOWIE
EVE BABITZ on JIM MORRISON
ROBERT PALMER on SAM COOKE
CHUCK KLOSTERMAN on HEAVY METAL
JESSICA HOPPER on EMO
JOHN JEREMIAH SULLIVAN on AXL ROSE
ELIJAH WALD on THE BEATLES
GREIL MARCUS on CHRISTIAN MARCLAY.
About the Authors
JONATHAN LETHEM is the author of The Fortress of Solitude, The Gambler’s Anatomy and nine other novels; KEVIN DETTMAR is the author of Is Rock Dead? and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan.
This event is all ages & free to the public.
Link to The New York Times review of the book:
Feel free to drop a line with any inquiries to me at the address below.
Rhino Records/Mad Platter/Video Paradiso
909-626-7774 X 104
235 Yale Ave
Claremont, CA 91711