January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
If “The Odyssey” is generally considered one of the greatest works of Western literature in the history of mankind, it suffers from the reality that as each year passes, fewer and fewer people actually read it as anything other than begrudging high school students.
Author Homer — whoever he actually was — would surely be pleased by the immortal reputation of his work, although probably less so by the general familiarity with its actual passages.
A good bit of what people actually know about “The Odyssey” comes from television and Ray Harryhausen productions, which usually score high on the spectacle, but somewhat lesser on the poetry.
Enter Gareth Hinds, the capable illustrator who seems to have made it his goal in life to take the older classics and interpret them — meaning the actual language of them — into a modern form that still honors the original. He’s done wonderful work on Shakespeare, for instance, maintaining the Bard’s lyrical integrity while still placing it all in a presentation that makes the power and relevance of the work even now still obvious to the reader.
With “The Odyssey,” he out does himself, bringing the fantastical very much down to earth, and paring the pieces to be less a special effects bonanza and focusing on the real monsters — greedy humans who descend upon the perceived weak in order to take advantage. In this case, the weak are the little family of Odysseus, left behind in wartime.
Though respected and even feared, all the men see his wife Penelope as fair game while the chips are down — she’s presented here as a cunning and strong-willed woman attempting all means necessary to beat the suitors at their own game. Meanwhile, son Telemachus is powerless to do anything about the parasites who live up to the most base form of humanity.
As Odysseus tries and tries and tries to get home, his gods become less villains than mere obstacles that make him want the path he moves on more than he would if it were an easy journey. Even someone as purportedly noble as Odysseus must be deprived of his backyard in order to truly want to relax in it — the call of masculinity, adventure and war and triumph, prove only something that makes a fellow weary.
Hinds cuts to the heart of the story in this way, even transforming terrors like the Cyclops and Scylla into annoyances — though dangerous ones — that Odysseus must deal with in order to achieve his goal.
Frustration heightened and desire elevated, he has to return to Ithaca and deal with the actual meat of the plot — ridding his home of the suitors. He does this through a secretive collaboration with his son, as well as the goddess Athena, and in many ways these are the most powerful sections of the adaptation.
The real monsters are jealousy, rage, longing and — worst of any — the passage of time and the moments lost in that. Hinds understands that dangers do lurk in this world, but its the darkness of the heart that really destroy a person.
It’s a great way for a kid to encounter this material. There are plenty of sources for over-the-top interpretations of classic mythology, from the “Clash of the Titans” remake to the Percy Jackson books and film, but Hinds pushes back all the clutter to uncover the real magic of the story — the parts that lie in its humanity.
January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Part of artist Sol LeWitt’s renown involves his generosity, particularly in the exchange of artworks with others. A new show at Mass MoCA uses this as a framework for almost 1,000 artists to pay tribute to LeWitt.
“An Exchange with Sol LeWitt” opens on Sunday, Jan. 23, at Mass MoCA, with a satellite exhibit at the offices of Cabinet Magazine at 300 Nevins St., Brooklyn, N.Y.
The grain of the show began for curator Regine Basha when she visited the private collection of Sol LeWitt while working on another project. Most of LeWitt’s collection was acquired through trades with other artist friends, but there was a noticeable amount that was from people LeWitt had no acquaintance with. While the ones from his friends tended to reflect his taste and interests, and even his own artistic styles, the ones from strangers took on subject matter that stood out as completely different.
“It was very vernacular, almost folkloric,” said Basha, “like a Sunday painting kind of piece, like a still life of a a flower in a flower vase, or a painting of a trout or different kinds of domestic scenes and landscapes that didn’t look at all like the other work.”
When Basha quizzed the collection’s curator about these paintings, it was explained that people used to send LeWitt work out of the blue, usually out of admiration, and he resolved to always send them art back and transform
the gift into a relationship.
“I was just really interested in how he took this really seriously,” she said. “He did this as almost part of his artwork, I would say. It became a responsibility that he took on. He decided that if an artist was to give him something, no matter what it was or if he agreed with it or not, he honored the fact that somebody made this and he would make something in return, like a form of communication. That’s how I understood it.”
Basha was immediately moved to craft a show that sprang from LeWitt’s activity of trading and she approached it on two different levels. One was to take on the behavior for a massive creative endeavor that used it as a model to shape a gallery show.
“That inspired the project to take that code of conduct as an artist who respects that kind of act of communication and exchange and just extend it and continue it beyond his lifespan,” Basha said. “It asks artists who feel an affinity with Sol Lewitt — not feel an affinity with the work per say, but actually just respect who he was as an artist — to consider exchanging with his legacy. The work is already out there. It’s at Mass MoCa, it’s out there in the world, he gave it to us, so it’s an exchange in that sense, in the symbolic sense.”
The other was to use the behavioral modeling in such a way that the process became another version of LeWitt’s instructionals, which famously gave other artists the information they needed to create the kind of wall murals that are now all over the place in Mass MoCA.
“Inspired isn’t even the word,” said Basha. “It’s more like taking it as an instruction from him and his biography and how he’s approached art, as if I’ve been given some sort of instruction as well. Without being too strange about it, but I like that idea of instructionals, because you learn from art and art history and this is a learning process.”
Basha immediately set about compiling the pieces for the show in a way that was anything but normal when thinking about curated art shows. She partnered with Cabinet Magazine, a renowned art publication, to put out an open call, beyond the few people she had specifically asked if they were interested in taking part.
Submissions poured in from around the world, and Basha decided to include everything that was received by the deadline as her way of emulating the openness of LeWitt’s exchanges.
Much in the spirit of LeWitt’s instructionals, Basha sent out criteria for the artwork, such as the allowable physical dimensions of the work. Some entries were more in the realm of what one would consider an artwork, while others were wildly unorthodox.
“These are things that people sent in that are not necessarily artful, but they are objects,” she said. “They are things or recipes or pieces of music and we did actually mention in the call that we wanted it to be open. They didn’t necessarily have to send an artwork, it could be something else.”
Lucy Lippard, an art historian, submitted an anagram of LeWitt’s name. Felt artist Hope Ginsburg created a pencil sharpener, inspired by her memory of watching a mural project with hundreds of assistants waiting in line to sharpen their pencils.
Artist Luis Camnitzer, a friend of LeWitt’s, treated the artist’s list, “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” as a constitution to which he added amendments.
“It has this feeling of very folkloric, very handmade stuff,” Basha said. “Somebody sent a wisdom tooth. It was really strange. I call it from high concept to voodoo.”
One of the side concerns of doing the show is that the role of the curator is being put into question. Whereas traditionally a curator chooses pieces for a show and creates a cohesive identity of the whole out of these parts, Basha isn’t choosing the pieces at all.
Instead, she’s in the position of working somewhat blindly in an example of curation improvisation.
“We had a whole discussion about what to call my role,” said Basha. “Is it organized? Is it curated? We called it a curatorial project which takes it out of ‘curated by’ and into the approach of this idea that it has a curation of some kind, but it’s not necessarily my selecting and omitting. It’s much more about the installation process and how that’s going to come together.”
For Basha, it’s been a moment to flex her creativity in a way that sometimes happen, but not often. It’s also an opportunity to freshen up the usual process and, by proxy, the spaces in museums and galleries that function as the receptacles for the end product of curatorial efforts.
“I’ve done projects in which the role of the curator is also challenged — I like that,” she said. “For me it’s a way to exercise that muscle. I find it sometimes almost too easy to pick and choose and mix and match, to create a show that is almost too predictable. I like this element of chance and unpredictability for myself as well as for institutions.”
If you consider LeWitt’s trading as a communal practice meant to build connections, then you probably also acknowledge that something at the center is needed for these connections to attach to — in the case of the exchanges, LeWitt himself. Basha’s role as curator becomes a proxy for that method — she is the center that sets in motion the production of connections, a placement that she has imbued with LeWitt’s method of instructionals to create one museum show that reflects both the larger stroke of the man’s career along with some of the actual methods of his creativity.
“The instructionals were about him letting go and allowing others to design the work,” Basha said. “Even though there are instructions for how to do it, they really weren’t in his hands at the end of the day. I guess I found that interesting for myself to emulate and see what happens. I didn’t make the selection of the artists. It’s them making the show themselves. I just provided the guidelines.”
January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
I have noticed some media commentators arguing that as the publishing industry must move toward digital, it will create a situation where books could now be shared and downloaded with more ease, and will cut into a writer’s pay.
Why, the person asked, would anyone write if they are not getting paid?
Perhaps they should ask the average writer. There are plenty who write without much pay. Writers are among the most nickel-and-dimed creative professionals, particularly in this day and age, and yet they continue to write.
People blog and blog and blog for free, they submit to literary magazines for free, they create scores of web comics and review sites for free.
Newspaper reporters, unless they work for the New York Times or USA Today or some other major newspaper, don’t make loads of money and often have horrible hours, but they do it anyhow.
And there are writer’s groups everywhere of people sharing their work with each other, so far unpaid unless they manage to sell it.
It’s the same with art, music and other creative pursuits. Being an artist or entertainer used to be a pretty modest career choice. Prior to the 20th century, most of the people who wrote or painted or made music did so primarily because that is what they wanted to do, not because some huge windfall was promised to them.
Somewhere along the line, we started to fool ourselves into thinking
that a creative pursuit was exactly like any other job, that people do not do it unless they are paid lots — and actually it’s the entirely the opposite.
People don’t build buildings and roads or clean offices or fix appliances or administer medicine for free. They do tell stories and make pictures for no monetary reward, though, and sometimes happily.
And actually some of the more cunning people have figured out how to make a living without a corporation behind them.
Take singer Kristin Hersh of the Throwing Muses, who has built a business model of music subscription wherein her fans pay for studio time and fund her projects directly. That could easily be applied to other creative disciplines.
It’s a glass half-full approach. Though the news if full of revelations that millions of people want to steal music, it routinely ignores that fact that the majority of music listeners — that is, millions more — still want to purchase music and support the musicians. That might not be enough for an entertainment monolith, but it can definitely sustain a musician with devoted fans.
That’s the fatal flaw in the current state of the entertainment industry. Digital releases might be a way to siphon off profits from corporations, but it’s also a way of empowering the grassroots creator, providing affordable tools for creation and distribution.
That is what scares them more than anything, that being an artist might once again become a low-paying job.
While people like Hersh sell their work, the larger music industry is busy fighting services like Spotify, a profitable web service is huge in Europe.
Spotify allows people to share music digitally with each other, and it does this legally, through licensing fees and such. It is not allowed in North America, through — just as the government is paralyzed by terrorists, the entertainment industry is paralyzed by pirates, and any evolution is quickly stifled.
There’s a problem with letting that fear make your business decisions for you. Corporations could be utilizing something like Spotify to turn some profits, but they’re ignoring the reality that there has always been a segment of the market that is separate from theirs — the secondhand market. It might not fuel corporations, but it has sustained thousands of mom and pop businesses.
Let’s look at it in terms of publishing. You buy a used copy of a Stephen King book and King gets not one cent from that sale. Once books go totally digital, there will be nothing to sell second hand — and an accepted black market will be obliterated.
Does downloading an e-book for free hurt Stephen King any more than that used copy of “The Stand” that’s laying around my house? When I bought only used copies of LPs and CDs, did that hurt musicians more or less than downloading free copies now? As the digital age changes creativity, marketing, distribution, it also changes what qualifies as non-traditional markets.
The number of shared copies of a product does not automatically equal the same number of lost sales. That’s part a far more complicated equation — and rather than focusing on the money being lost, it might be better to hone in on the dollars to be made from those who do want to pay.
And that’s much easier for the creator, rather than the industry, to do.
The future of entertainment belongs to mom and pop creators, who build followings and nurture sustainable, smaller business models to fuel their work. The days of being a superstar as a standard career goal are rapidly disappearing. Finally, we can all just get back to the idea of enjoying creativity for what it is, rather than for what we pay for it to be.
January 21, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In their middle reader series “The Jaguar Stones,” John and Pamela Voelkel provide plenty of thrills for their fans, but unlike so many adventure books, they are proud to boast not only historical and cultural realism, but also a bit of autobiography.
The second book, “The End of the World Club,” was scheduled to be released on Dec. 28 from Egmont USA.
The story involves Max Murphy, the son of married archaeologists, who finds himself mixed up in his parents’ troubles — which involve lots of Mayan history and mythology, as well as danger.
In his adventures, Max befriends Mayan girl Lola, who functions not only as a partner against the Mayan God of Death, but also as a conduit to the Mayan background that flavors the story. Despite the fantastic elements, the stories actually hearken back to John Voelkel’s own childhood in South America. He lived in Peru, Colombia and Costa Rica. His father taught at a seminary but had a taste for adventure during his off hours.
“When we had any vacation, he would get the map out and look for the most inhospitable places and say, “You know, I heard about a guy here,” and point to this place on the map that had absolutely nothing, and say, “Let’s go!” Voelkel said during a recent interview. “So we’d fly in these tiny little planes to these airfields somewhere and get in these dugout canoes and then go with mules into the bush. We would just stay in horrible little huts filled with bugs. My dad thought that was fab.”
Work on the books began after a move from England to Vermont, with the plan of continuing their marketing careers as freelancers.
Unknown to his wife, John had a secret project.
“I was having a baby, so I was a bit out of what he was doing,” she said. “He was just working on the computer, and I assumed he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. Then he told me that what we should do is write books, which was news to me.”
Her husband was supposed to be writing a marketing book but found the endeavor extremely boring.
“It felt like Sisyphus having to push that rock up again,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking how I used to tell the kids bedtime stories every night. There was one favorite story of my son about this monkey girl, and I was sitting there thinking about it and thought: “That would make such a fabulous book.’”
Once they both became involved, they gave themselves a year to try and get the project together, with no idea how it would spread into their lives. Originally, John had used the Maya aspect as a backdrop to a full-on adventure, but as the research continued, the wealth of material and the richness of the culture began to suck the couple in further, overtaking their efforts and dictating some more hands-on research.
“A lot of the stuff that happens in the book was based on my childhood growing up there,” John said. “I had been in the jungle and had climbed pyramids and stuff, but when we started working on this together, Pamela said, ‘Well, I can’t really write about this unless I’ve experienced it.’ So she was saying, ‘We’ve got to go down there.’ That’s where I grew up. I didn’t want to go back. She said, ‘No, we have to go.’”
“I didn’t know what a jungle looked like,” his wife said.
The couple scheduled out a trip to Belize on a school vacation, tracking howler monkeys and visiting Mayan sites. For John, it was a complete revelation: As a kid, he had felt dragged along, but as an adult, he reveled in the adventure.
“I love it now, and it’s been a great reintroduction to part of my childhood that I thought was put away,” he said.
“Having said that, he’s dragging our three children, whether they like it or not,” his wife added.
The effort did become a family adventure, with trips to Mexico, Guatemala and even Spain — all locations that appear in the book. In January, they will head for Chiapas in Mexico — and then again to Mexico in February.
“A guide in Guatemala taught our daughter to call howler monkeys,” Pamela said. “I don’t know if she’s so good at it now, but she used to be able to just stand there and make the noise, and they would come and check her out. They would get quite angry, because I guess they thought she was an interloping howler monkey, but that was kind of cool that we had a 4-year-old that could summon howler monkeys.”
Their adventures have helped them build connections with the people they have met in the other countries, so that any given site of research has the potential to begin to feel like home to the family.
“It’s like being farmers: The whole family has to be involved or it won’t work,” Pamela said.
Part of the couple’s mission has become to set the record straight about Maya, particularly in regard to the current wave of hysteria which erroneously claims that Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012 by virtue of ending their calendar that year. The Voelkels go to great pains to explain that not only is the Mayan calendar not set up this way, there’s not even mention of an apocalypse or any reason to believe the Mayans would know it was coming — if indeed it was.
“The whole 2012 thing — sometimes kids don’t want to hear that’s not true,” Pamela said. “But teachers are very glad to hear the rational explanation for how that myth arose and why there is no basis for it.”
The Voelkels feel sure that the 2012 fad must direct some readers to their series, but at least the misconceptions are soon corrected upon reading the book. This has created a path they never imagined when sitting down to craft a children’s adventure book.
“There’s also so much misinformation about the Maya on the Internet that it’s very hard for teachers to get to the facts,” Pamela said. “You have to wade through lots of wrong stuff. It’s very hard for people to know what is right and wrong because, unless you have a friendly archaeologist that you can phone like we do, how would you know what’s true and what isn’t true, or what this word means and what that word means?
“People tend to impose all their own hopes and world view on the Maya. It became a bit of a mission, as well, to get the facts out there. We have lesson-plan CDs, and that was a side of things we never anticipated. Our website has become a portal for teachers, and we feel that responsibility.”
The two go to a lot of Mayan conferences and work to keep up on the latest knowledge. In addition, their books are fact-checked by an archaeologist at Harvard. The Voelkels provide lesson plans on CDs for teachers and school appearances as part of their effort. They figure they’ve done all this exhaustive work — why not share it beyond the confines of the books series? Besides, it helps when you don’t embarrass yourself in front of students.
“Kids ask you about everything, so you have to know your facts,” Pamela said. “If you know 10 things and there’s one you don’t know, that’s the question they will ask you.”
The series is projected as a trilogy, and they are working on the third book. While there is a possibility the story could move on into further volumes, the Voelkels can’t allow themselves to think about that, noting there’s a good year’s worth of work after finishing the book just to gather all the material for a teacher’s guide and to update the informational sections of their website.
The point for them is to make sure they get it right — both in the text of the book and in the learning materials — from which many kids will discover the real world story of the Mayans. That is all wrapped up in their understanding that this is not just about their hero Max, but also about real people with a real culture.
“We had this turning point in Guatemala,” Pamela said. “We were at this site which was recently excavated, so it’s not busy with tourists yet, and the day we were there, it was full of Maya people and we were the only gringos there. We attracted this following of Maya teenagers because our son is very tall — I guess then he was about 6 foot 3. All these kids were following him around like Gulliver, just watching everything he was doing.”
As the crowd started to talk to him and take his photo, the Voelkels’ guide intervened and began making a big speech to the people in Spanish, saying, “Remember these people, take pictures of these people, but don’t remember them because their son is tall. Remember them because they are writing a book about the Maya and, thanks to them, schoolchildren in North America are going to be reading about your culture.”
The Voelkels were stunned by his words, and that moment cemented their future, both in their intent and in the reality of the task ahead. They haven’t wavered.
“All these kids stood up and started clapping for us with the ancient pyramids behind them,” Pamela said. “You can imagine I was in tears. I didn’t even take a photograph, I was so amazed that had happened. I remember getting a real sinking feeling and thinking, ‘We’ve got to get it right now’ because he had said this to them. We’ve got to write a book that they would be proud of — that they would read and say, ‘Yes, we approve of this book,’ when a book that you might write as just an adventure story wouldn’t even be something they would recognize as their world. We wanted to do something that had a relevance to them.
“It turned into a bit of a mission in a way. I got a sinking feeling, rather than a good feeling, because it’s much harder work, isn’t it?”
January 11, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In the film “Marwencol,” a tragedy leads to a reawakening, and one question that lingers without actually ever being spoken is whether the price of the tragedy was worth the reawakening. So sophisticated is the film that it never falls for a black or white view of life.
In portraying the blended reality of Mark Hogancamp, director Jeff Malmberg realizes there is both good and bad in the transaction, but in that mix, the result favors neither end. What anyone is left with is the personal triumph of Mark Hogancamp, who made his own tragedy into a rebirth.
Hogancamp was brutally attacked by five men after leaving a bar. Although he was pummeled to the brink of death, doctors were able to save his face, but not his brain — not entirely, anyhow. Upon awakening from a coma, Hogancamp had to reconstruct living on the most basic terms. Once he was able to walk and eat and all the little things you do on a daily basis, he had the hardest task of all — he had to learn to live.
Hogancamp had no memory of anything that happened before the attack. It was literally a rebirth — as he puts it, a second chance.
Beset by both neurological and psychological problems resulting from the beating, he found therapy in an unusual way — by creating a miniature village populated by dolls.
As he began to build, he started to elaborate, give his scenes a narrative. As he told stories, he began to photograph this little world. Eventually, his creative work was discovered, and he found recognition in a segment of the art world, complete with gallery show.
If Hogancamp’s technical and creative prowess cemented his acceptance in that world — and they do, because his talent is surprisingly considerable — the nature of his venture spurred on his efforts to make anything at all.
What seemed to be a story that unfolded in his head is slowly revealed as an alternate reality he has created for himself, one that both idealizes his place in the world and confronts directly his misfortune. No longer able to claim a past, he literally creates a new one for himself — one that becomes a parallel present.
In Hogancamp’s mind, Marwencol is a little village in Belgium during the second World War. There is a Hogancamp doll at the center of the narrative and the town. This version of himself owns a bar that hosts orchestrated cat fights between the girl dolls as entertainment.
The village is further populated by stand-ins for many other friends, including his mother, his best friend and his first post-beating crush.
Hogancamp’s miniature alter ego is terrorized by Nazis in the form of SS thugs, who often attack the town and harm the women who live there. Sometimes Hogancamp is the rescuer, but mostly he seems to be the one who needs help as the actions of the Nazis began to mirror his own real experience.
The women of Marwencol often serve as this lonely man’s saviors from death and danger.
Quite different from a fantasy, the village becomes a stage for Hogancamp’s retribution, a place to work through his troubles, to recount what happened to him, to deal with both his rage at being attacked and his joy at saving himself. His doll alter ego begins to walk the same path as he, himself does, and the journey becomes less an artistic one and more a grasping for full-circle closure he and his alter ego can achieve alongside each other.
Hogancamp’s glorious photographs bring this inner journey to life, although as he speaks of the story that unfolds in his brain, it can be much like listening to a man trapped in between dimensions, not knowing which is the one he belongs in. While he knows intellectually that this is fantasy, the village holds such a power in his new experience that it overwhelms any real-world equivalent for him.
Remember, this is a guy whose slate has been wiped clean and who started learning about the world again in that state. The world he learned about was more often Marwencol rather than our own.
And so back to the question: Is the tragedy a blessing or a curse? Before the beating, Hogancamp was an alcoholic with little or no control over his drinking. He had careened far from any path he dreamed of and was headed toward his own doom. The thugs beat that life out of him, but somehow didn’t ultimately rob him of living. As any birth starts with pain and blood, so did that of the new Mark Hogancamp — birth and violence are just a part of existence.
If looked at solely in terms of being a survivor, Hogancamp is miraculous. As a man in no way equipped to make it through, he has become the ultimate survivor and an inspiration to all of us.
January 11, 2011 § Leave a Comment
The Felice Brothers got their start in a family setting, but they’ve widened their audience and their membership from the confines of their upstate New York roots.
The band — which currently features multi-instrumentalist brothers James and Ian Felice, with bass player Christmas, fiddler Greg Farley and drummer David Turbeville — will perform at Mass MoCA on Saturday, Jan. 15, at 8 p.m.
The Felices started in casual surroundings — their dad’s yard in Palenville, N.Y., where they would play at his barbecues. Brother Simone Felice was also part of the band then, serving as drummer until 2009.
The venue might have been low key, but the brothers weren’t at all, deciding to take a more professional path and pursuing gigs around the Hudson Valley.
“I suppose at our age, whatever we did it was casual because it was fun, but we took it seriously, too,” James Felice said during an interview this week. “We didn’t learn some folk songs and churn them out in front of people. We did take it seriously because we knew that we had a certain degree of talent, and we also knew that we had nothing else in our lives.”
After playing around locally, the band decided it was time to do something more bold — and definitely grassroots. It’s not a sure path to musical stardom, but busking in New York City became the focus of their performances for well over a year.
“We had a shortbus, and we drove that around and into the city, and we’d sleep in the bus a lot of times,” Felice said. “We just bought it for like a grand from a guy in Catskill. It was a pretty good buy. It ran for a long time, over two years, and it ran pretty well the whole time.”
Street performance is one of the most grueling jobs a musician can embrace, although the brothers reason that if they could make $100 playing a club in Rhinebeck, they could probably bring in a lot more money in a New York City subway or farmer’s market.
“We did do well, but it was pretty stressful,” Felice recalled. “It’s difficult work. Busking is not easy. I have a lot of respect for people who do it, because it’s a very toilsome activity. It’s a lot of fun often, but it’s also a lot of carrying gear around and getting kicked out by cops, and often people don’t listen or don’t care or could be frustrated by you. It can be disheartening sometimes. That’s New York City for the most part, anyway.”
Gigging on the streets often went on for more than eight hours a day, usually from morning to sundown. Part of that time was spent seeking out a good space, either planting themselves somewhere during rush hour or making their way to specific spots during the holidays.
“It’s constantly changing and evolving,” Felice said. “You’re running around from station to station and from place to place, carrying a snare drum and an accordion, basically looking like a bunch of idiots but having fun the whole time.”
The street performances had an effect on club performances. When the band started, it worked with the tools available, which included a very basic instrumental line-up and a folksier sound. The busking lead to a widening of the sound, as well as to an education in working with an audience.
“You’re trying to attract a crowd,” Felice said. “I think we learned a lot about getting a crowd going. We finally got an amp and an electric guitar and a full drum set. We were always trying to change — we don’t like to have to do the same thing over and over again. Things change a lot in the band, approach-wise. We’re still evolving. We’re still a young band. We’ve got a long way to go.”
The songs the Felice Brothers play are folk and “roots-injected,” reflecting the sounds of the nightlife where they converged to play, although not necessarily the daily culture of the musical taste there.
“We grew up in a place where that sort of music was more prevalent. People were playing it in bars and on the street and wherever — upstate New York is sort of like that,” Felice said. “But mostly I guess we discovered it on our own. Up here, people aren’t sitting next to the old transistor radio listening to Bill Monroe. They’re listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd or Britney Spears like anywhere else.”
The songs that specifically spurred them on to performance were found elsewhere, from various sources — radio, Internet, movies — that Felice and his brothers blundered into and were touched by.
“It’s not like some folk god comes down and says, ‘You shall listen to these records and you shall become musicians,’” he said. “You hear it walking through life. Something hits your ear and you find out what it is and discover it.
“It’s an extremely exciting time in your life, when you’re discovering music, because everybody knows. It’s something that everybody experiences. You want to emulate it and see why that works and how that works, and what’s so amazing and magical about that music.”
When the Felice Brothers first released an album, the band garnered many comparisons to Bob Dylan and, more specifically, The Band. This was a surprise to the members, since they hadn’t actually given The Band much of a listen — ever.
“We started listening to The Band more and found it’s true — you hear a lot of characteristics — but we don’t like to be compared to anything and we keep trying,” Felice said. “As someone who writes music, you never, ever, ever listen to what anyone else says — ever. That’s the kiss of death, I think. If someone says that you sound too much like The Band, you don’t listen to them.”
More crucial to the band was bridging the gap between studio and live performances and not expecting its recordings to be exact replacements for its shows.
“I think of our records as a different angle on the same band,” Felice said. “I think they’re two completely different mediums, and they can be approached differently and both be legitimate art from the same band.”
He said the band has found itself incapable of matching the mediums perfectly — the recordings reflect a structure, while the shows are infused with what he describes as a “rambunctious energy.”
For the most recent album, 2009’s “Yonder Is The Clock,” the band’s studio was built from the remains of an abandoned chicken coop that was an attempt to take the band outside of the typical technical setting, although Felice said that can only go so far.
“It definitely is less off the cuff, but that’s recording. You’re in a studio, it’s an artificial environment,” he said. “Even though our studios aren’t what you think of as an ordinary, everyday recording studio, you are artificially recreating something.
“So we have in the past tried to recreate that live feeling, and we never really liked the way it came out. We like to have a slightly more cohesive approach to the way the music comes out in the studio.”
Felice said the band will continue to do things its own way — the only way it really knows to do things anyhow — whether in performance or recording.
“At the end of the day, what you’re trying to do is write something that you understand and you can love and hope that it translates over to the listener.”
January 3, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In “The Horror, The Horror,” author Jim Trombetta investigates another lost, persuasive chunk of popular culture. This one, however, was escorted away from the public eye by the official acts of the U.S. Government, rather than a competing corporation filing a lawsuit.
Trombetta puts forth the idea that cheesy horror comics from the ‘50s were a subversive form of social criticism that was beaten down by mainstream society and the American government through fear mongering.
Through a series of exciting and intelligent essays that accompany bizarre, grotesque and hilarious examples from the actual comics, “The Horror, The Horror” shows he may just have a point. In the revisionist view of the ‘50s, rock and roll was co-opted by the big entertainment business and transformed into clean rebellion for a profit, but comic books sold ideas so dangerous they had to be destroyed.
The end of comic books didn’t quite happen, but the medium was emasculated by the hearings of the 1950s, creating a format that centered on the juvenile superhero fantasies. Prior to this, crime, war, horror, humor, science fiction and romance all dominated the form, and much of it was aimed at adults.
Before becoming the only art form officially censored by the American government, comics could claim millions of readers each month and a highly significant chunk of the American pop culture.
Trombetta’s book introduces readers not only to the concepts and their meaning, but also to the colorful players and their creations. There is plenty of thought given to the nature of zombies, murderers, shrunken heads, sinister grins and other affectations of the genre — and their relationship with the social order of post World War II America.
The book is filled with over-the-top delights that tapped into the nation’s psyche and helped to herald the ‘60s generation, which looked at authority with the same distrust as the comics the generation was raised on.
One of the most interesting revelations about the horror comics of these eras is that they have fueled the visuals of what horror films eventually became. Movies of the time, burdened by their technology, could never unfold with the same frenzy as comics — and therefore were a lot less effective at causing nightmares.
At least there was a buffer zone between a matinee of “The Thing” and bedtime — but you could take a flashlight under the covers and read “Beware! Terror Tales” or “Diary of Horror,” and the nightmares were realized in real time, lurking just beyond your sheet. These horror tales were immediate and alive and more visually realistic than anything yet encountered.
At the same time, the reaction against them used that very fact as evidence against them in the biggest government effort ever to censor creativity — something that should put horror comics as prominent in the liberal freedom-of-speech hall of fame as Hollywood blacklisting.
As a bonus, the book includes a DVD of a television episode advocating for the Senate to outlaw horror comic books. It’s both dry and chilling at the same time. The best part is the propaganda montage that treats footage of kids reading comics as if it were footage of them shooting up.
These stories were all the more chilling because of their relevance to real life. In his essays, Trombetta links zombie stories with the Korean War, shrunken heads as the chilling detritus of World War II shame, and werewolves as a crumbling to society’s insistence on shame and suppression. And he does so masterfully. A few stories are reprinted in total, but space is mostly given over to snippets and covers that turn this into the art book of the year, as strong in its essays as in the work it presents.
January 1, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Realized through a simplistic, cartoonish style that strips down Dante’s masterwork of poetry, Seymour Chwast’s version of Dante’s tour through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise cuts to the chase.
Boiled down to its bare essence, the epic poem is revealed as a rather mad laundry list of officious and gruesome punishment. The God of Dante is a very organized one, with a vicious little corner of the afterlife for every sort of minor digression you could imagine.
The least lucky among us sinners will find ourselves trapped in an eternity involving poop in some manner. God, by way of Dante, has a thing for smothering people in their own excrement.
That’s just the least of it. As Dante takes his tour of the afterlife with the Roman poet Virgil, he encounters sinners being eaten by serpents, sinners being bitten by wasps, sinners being tossed around by forceful winds, sinners pushing around giant rocks, sinners wrestling nude in mud, sinners lying on hot sand nude, and, of course, sinners being boiled in tar, again nude.
And it’s pretty easy to end up in one of these places, as there seem to be more sins than virtues, especially since a number of them get you tossed in Purgatory instead of Hell. Purgatory features lighter punishments, like having to carry around giant blocks of granite and being purified in fire. A lot of people in Purgatory are very worked up, many urging Dante to pass along some urgent message to the living about their behavior.
Unlike the rest of the afterlife, Heaven takes place out in the solar system, and a tour of God’s province is coupled with visits to other planets — and a chance to meet up with some favorite Biblical characters, such as Adam.
Chwast, an acclaimed artist and graphic designer, won fame in the ‘50s through the publication “The Push Pin Graphic,” a collaboration with Edward Sorel and Milton Glaser, and his past shows here. His Inferno is like one long New Yorker cartoon unfolding through the worst Christian fanatic’s nightmare. Atrocities and insanities are pared down to matter-of-fact presentations. It might not replace reading the original, but it probably should.