Monday, August 09, 2010

Gang Of 40 (MRR #327)

You can stubbornly avoid resetting the clock on your VCR after a power-cut, but the battery-powered clock on the kitchen wall ticks on resolutely. The idea of freezing time at a certain point in our lives has such allure; during those golden years of teenage freedom, or perhaps at that elated moment when our team scored the winning goal at the final whistle to bring home the European cup. In case you can’t guess, I’ve been indulging in bouts of nostalgia lately. Partially brought on by an impending birthday, partly from looking at old photos posted on the Internet, and partly from spending time reminiscing with my oldest friend. If I could once again recapture the feeling of that first band practice in a garden shed, or that first road-trip with friends to a BMX contest in England. How about that first time I saw Snuff and Leatherface, or my first trip to San Francisco and the pilgrimage I made to Maximum Rocknroll magazine, meeting the legendary Tim Yohannan for the first time?

I spent my youth without much thought for the future. When prospective employers or representatives of State oppression unearthed that hoary old chestnut about where I saw myself in five years, I could only lie and make up something that I thought they’d want to hear, something that would result in some kind of income-producing labor or at the very least a guarantee of continued dole money. I made choices by not choosing, by following whatever path seemed most interesting at the time. Not that I never took any risks or anything but I’ve managed to be pretty lucky so far. When I moved to San Francisco in 1995 I never imagined I’d still be here 15 years later, but I didn’t have an alternative in mind either. And so here I am. Could be a lot worse. I’m living many peoples’ dreams, I suppose. I could be drinking away my redundancy money from a long-gone factory job, or wearing the tinfoil cloak of smack addiction, or lying dead in a gutter, killed by hyper-aggressive Burberry neds. Perhaps that’s overly dramatic; it’s not like the only options open to me were A) move to America or B) fail at life. But the option to move to the US seemed the best thing at the time and it’s worked out okay so far.

Of course when I look back through the green-tinted bottom of the Buckfast bottle of nostalgia I don’t want to freeze time completely: there are a few changes I’d like to make… I may never have to jump in a customized DeLorean and go back to the late 60s to make sure that my parents actually get together, but I would certainly love to go back and make a few tactical haircut recommendations to my tonsorially experimental teenage self.

The aforementioned old friend, Sandy (who has enjoyed guest appearances in this column many times before) lives in Austin, Texas. So as well as our shared upbringing dodging gangsters and casuals in a small former mining village in the West of Scotland, we have the common experience of navigating life as Scots in America. We talked about this a lot during my recent trip to Austin. It’s funny, I don’t think either of us ever articulated a desire to live in the States when we were younger: it was unspoken but there was an unmistakable draw, fuelled by BMX and skate magazines, as well as American punk records and zines. I think I mentioned in an earlier column about how we imagined life in the US to be one endless sunset pool session, like an infinite JFA ad from Thrasher. I wish I was still that na├»ve and hopeful, but many years have gone by since those days and at times it definitely seems like the negative aspects of life can get the upper hand on the positive. I mentioned an upcoming birthday earlier in this column, and indeed, by the time this sees print I’ll have turned the ripe old age of 40. I once told myself I’d stop doing this column when I hit that age. I felt like there were enough old men dictating the ins and outs of punk rock on the pages of Maximum Rocknroll. However, I only just got back into doing the column after a self-imposed hiatus brought on by issues in my personal life. I don’t feel quite ready to throw in the towel just yet. Plus, given the demographic makeup of our esteemed and benevolent leadership cadre, it’s been a long time since the direction of the magazine rested solely in the hands of grey-haired white men. But I promise not to turn my column into yet another monthly orgy of nostalgic self-absorption. In these last throes of my thirties I have continued to experience new ‘firsts’ to add to those listed in the first paragraph: First, after years of BMX riding, I finally mountain-biked for the first time in my life on some technical single track one balmy sunset evening in an area of Austin green belt. I’d ignored mountain biking for years (even though I live only a few miles from Marin, where the sport arguably started) but it was a lot of fun, if hard work: my own fault for going out for the first time with a couple of hard-charging seasoned vets; Secondly, despite being a fan of their records, I never had the chance to see early 90s NY hardcore legends Rorschach live. I finally rectified this in Austin and they were even louder and heavier than their recorded output. Getting to see them was better than I could have imagined.

Okay, so seeing the reunited Rorschach had a certain nostalgia factor to it, but I saw many current bands that I’m excited about in Austin too, many of them for the first time. Some highlights for me included Give and Lion of Judah from DC, Brilliant Colors, Grass Widow, Wild Thing, the Young Offenders of course, Arctic Flowers, and The Marked Men. Notice how many of those bands are from the Bay Area too: there’s a particularly vibrant scene here right now with an amazing variety of bands. Hopefully MRR will have our ‘locals only’ Bay Area comp LP out fairly soon with a sampling of what’s been going on around here.

I suppose the purpose of this column is to say, OK, I’m going to be 40 soon, and despite maturing and growing up in a lot of ways, I’m determined to keep racking up ‘firsts’. Perhaps these days I do live my life with a thought to the future, and I’m always happy to reminisce about the happy times of the past, but I do have both feet firmly planted in the here and now. So let’s have it.

Ever Get The Feeling You've Been Cheated? (MRR #326)

Public Image Limited were playing here in San Francisco on their way back from the Coachella festival, which takes place in the desert in Southern California. I’d never seen them live and to be honest I find their catalog spotty: while their many ‘hits’ are top-notch, their ‘misses’ can be downright unlistenable. Not to mention, tickets were $60. No opening band or anything. I’ve never paid that much for a show in my life. I’ve come to regret that though. If I look back at the times in my life where I’ve passed on a show because the ticket price was too high, am I actually richer now because I didn’t see them? Or would I be richer for having seen The Pixies even though it was eight quid (which was more than double the price of a DIY punk gig at the time)? Or Johnny Cash, James Brown, or The Stooges? Who knows? Anyway, as luck would have it, just as I was discussing the pros and cons of splurging on a ticket with Mr. P. Rooney, I get a call from one Sean Dougan, or (SD) of this very rag, and he’s phoning to offer me two free tickets to the Public Image Ltd concert that he scored off some beer rep in the pub, but can’t use. Back of the net.

We get to the gig and the venue is only three-quarters full, if that. Price you pay if you set the price that high Johnny. Once the lights go down it looks a bit more full. I buy my first and last $7 Stella at the bar and note that the T-shirts are $35. What’s the percentage markup on that? A ticket, a t-shirt, and a couple of drinks and you’re well over a ton in! What is this, arena rock? The show commences and the band is in good form. Lydon seems to be in a cheerful mood: something about playing in PiL agrees with him. He’s not the catty, sneering lout we’ve come to expect from his public persona. Just as well, considering how much most of these folk have paid to be here. They play most of the songs I’d expect (or want) to hear, and a lot more besides. The set lasted about two hours, which is an hour and a half more than I want from pretty much any band. They lost me, the momentum wasn’t there, but the bulk of the crowd (predominantly late 30s and up) was chuffed and loving every minute, so fair play. Still, I’m glad I didn’t pay for my ticket. I wonder if coming to San Francisco is weird for John Lydon, considering the Pistols broke up here?

***

The past couple of weeks have seen a number of Banksy pieces pop up around San Francisco. Banksy is famous for his distinctive style of graffiti, or ‘street art’. He was apparently in town to coincide with the premiere of his film. When I first caught wind of “Exit Through The Gift Shop” I was pretty excited. Banksy is one of the few street artists that I feel is actually saying something important with his work. The art itself, the way he goes about it, and his anonymity have combined to generate unprecedented interest in the work of someone society at large still considers a vandal. Not to mention the unprecedented sums of money the sale of his work has generated. I wasn’t sure what form a Banksy film would take: he goes at great pains to protect his real identity from the media, although he no doubt has a circle of friends, family, and co-conspirators (many of whom appear in the film) who know who he really is. I’ve read that his own mother denied having a son when confronted by a reporter from the Daily Mail.

As it turns out, there is footage of Banksy in the film, but with his features masked or blurred, and his voice distorted. The scenes of him and other artists working nocturnally in the streets are the best parts of the film. The story is less about Banksy, however, than it is about Thierry Guetta, the filmmaker who captured all of this footage, and his unusually fast rise to the top of the graffiti art world. Guetta, a Frenchman living in LA, is a street art hanger-on who happens to constantly carry a video camera with him. Eventually he starts dabbling in art himself, and if the storyline of the film is to be believed, Banksy suggested that he should have a little art show in order to get him out of the way while the film could be finished. At this point the film started to remind me of a very different movie.

In “The Great Rock & Roll Swindle”, Malcolm McLaren attempts to deliver a how-to of sorts, a guide to ripping off the music industry for as much money as possible. McLaren was a genius at marketing, promotion, and hype. “Find yourself a group. Make sure they can’t play.” The Pistols obviously could play, but it certainly worked for Malcolm to market them as inept thugs. As “Exit Through The Gift Shop” plays on, it’s easy to imagine Banksy as a McLaren-type svengali. Thierry Guetta’s ‘art’ is shit: almost a pastiche of the work of the likes of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, etc. However, with the help of some promotional blurbs from the likes of the aforementioned artists, interest in Guetta’s (now Mr. Brainwash) art show reaches Beatlemania levels in LA. He’s on the front page of the paper, people are queuing up for days before the opening to get first look at this brilliant new artist on the scene. He ends up bringing in over a million dollars from his first ever art show.

It’s hard to believe, but it really happened, and the film definitely feels like a commentary on how easily something genuine can quickly become co-opted, hyped, and sold to an eager public. The question is, how much of this was engineered by Banksy, and how much of it is just an interesting coincidence that just happened to end up getting filmed?

Once I’d made the connection with Malcolm McLaren in my mind, it was hard to not see clues throughout the film. Banksy’s stencil work isn’t a million miles removed from the cut’n’paste detournement of Jamie Reid’s work for the Pistols, and Shepard Fairey has routinely used ’77 era punk iconography in his own work. Still, McLaren was a master manipulator whose own artistic output didn’t live up to his ego. Banksy is an accomplished artist in his own right already; if he did create Mr Brainwash, it’s hard to see how it would really benefit him.

YouTube: PiL Press Conference in San Francisco, 1980