Friday, December 09, 2005

What I want for Christmas this year -- something from the Damned! Here's the chain of thought that invoked this wish: 1) the neat article "The Mystery of the Green Menace" in the November issue of Wired, about a New Orleans chemist's use of a GC-MS to analyze a bottle of vintage Spanish Pernod Tarragonna absinthe and begin production of his own brand in France 2) that somehow started the Damned's song "Absinthe" from their last studio record, Grave Disorder, playing in my head, and 3) that was followed by a burst of mental fireworks of images of the winter season -- snowy landscapes, Christmas ghosts (like Jacob Marley), Victorian Yuletide, and fitting snugly into it all, those limey gravediggers, the Damned! Okay, maybe the Damned wouldn't be a part of your average Christmas, but what about, say an M.R. James Christmas? M.R. James wrote brilliant ghost stories that he read to his friends and colleagues each year on Christmas Eve at Cambridge. (BBC-TV is even televising an M.R. James special on Dec. 23rd; check it out at http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/cinema/features/m-r-james.shtml).

Let me share with you an image, then, of an ideal pre-Christmas evening. You're sitting down in a leather club chair in front of a roaring fire with a large glass of heavily modified eggnog and a book of M.R. James stories, the moon is bright on the snow outside, and the Damned's Black Album is playing softly on the stereo. Are you with me? Anyhow, to get to the point, the band's website (www.officialdamned.com) is touting a new single and says the fellas are back in the studio. Just knowing that the Damned are still alive and kicking is all the gift I need this blessed yuletide season.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

For two weekends every summer, the Desmond Fish library in Garrison, New York has a fundraising book sale. In the cave-like library basement, the treasures are arrayed on tables and on metal shelves, with rare and antique books donated for the sale placed on a special dais. On the Friday night before the first day, the sale is open to "friends of the library" only, and booksellers who have purchased membership line up for an hour outside the back of the library, gazing impatiently at the darkening sky over a wide meadow below the rim of the Hudson Valley. I've visited the sale for several years on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and my favorite part is the very back room, an antechamber where thousands of paperbacks are arrayed on metal shelves. With a keen eye, you can find old Ballantine fantasy paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s - Mervyn Peake and Clark Ashton Smith books with their unusual painted covers (Rousseau meets Bosch). Last year I was able to buy a copy of Seabury Quinn's Horror Chambers of Jules de Grandin (it's a crime that collections of Jules de Grandin stories are so difficult to come by...more folks need to understand why Newark Bay is the bedeviled, occult nexus of New Jersey). This year's finds were a psychedelic-covered 1971 Avon paperback of Aleister Crowley's Moonchild and a mint VHS copy of the 1962 Hammer film Kiss of the Vampire. The smell of books is a strange intoxicant during the sale, and folks wander about with their cardboard boxes and bags in a kind of slow waltz around the tables, speaking in hushed tones. If you're like me, the tomb-like quiet and the languid movements may focus your attention on the angular shoulder blades of a fortyish Garrison socialite in a black tank top, with thick, dark hair, gleaming earrings, and sparkling eyes, especially if you're clutching a stack of lurid paperbacks penned by jaded occultists. In any case, going to the library sale is like prospecting for precious gems in some abandoned mine, although I fear that mold and moths are beginning to consume the stocks of 30- and 40-year-old gems that I love so much, especially since they were only 75 cent and $1.25 items in their heyday. I will dream of library sales in some desert place, where dry dusty basements will continue for decades to spew forth yellowed but strangely sweet-smelling copies of Lovecraft, Bradbury, and Dunsany.....

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Together, you are the guardians of this treasure-filled tomb, installed at either side of the entrance like caryatids. Watery New York City light, the color of asphalt and concrete, spills in from the street above and illuminates the strands of your tousled black hair. One of you has a mound of satchels and backpacks at your feet. It seems that there are many more bags than there are customers in the store. Perhaps some intrepid souls that ventured into the claustrophobic depths of this comic book shop never made it back out. Or maybe they are offerings left by starry-eyed geek adherents who sleep fitfully with visions of graphic novel-reading goddesses in their misshapen little skulls.

When I approached the counter, hemmed in by stacks of books, I didn't even see the other for a moment, as if she had some type of natural camoflauge. Jet black hair, black mascara, black t-shirt and bone china skin was invisible against a backdrop of black and white art and story panels. Then she looked up and her eyes concentrated and reflected that weak light and it was almost startling, like an image swimming to the surface out of an optical illusion or a fairy glamour momentarily dispelled. Her eyes are bolder than any of the thousands of eyes sketched out with pen, brush or scratchboard on the shelves that encompass her. I hope you both preside forever over that vault of dusty and wondrous things below St. Mark's.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

I recently recovered a strange artifact of my childhood -- a limited edition reprint of a book called I Know What I Like by music journalist and photographer Armando Gallo. The book chronicles the history of the progressive rock band Genesis through the late 1970s, documenting the band's unusual theatrics, costumes, and on-stage storytelling, much of which was spearheaded by lead singer Peter Gabriel. A friend in high school had a copy of the book that we pored over in 1981 or so. None of us had ever seen anything like it. The band's mythological/mystical reference frame and carefully constructed art rock ambiance had no parallel. During early concerts, Gabriel changed costumes for each song, transforming himself from a fox to an alien to a flower to a dissipated old man, acting out the stories conveyed by the music and lyrics. Sadly, by the mid to late-1980s, the remaining members of Genesis had devolved into bubblegum pop sellouts and any trace of the grandeur of their initial efforts was totally gone. Prog rock had turned into a bloated carcass, puffed up on its own decomposition gases and ready to pop (with a protracted sighing, not a bang). But I think its dying juices were feeding the hardy weeds of punk rock.

Punk rock and its offshoots (especially goth) were the first to pick up the discarded aesthetic mantle of their experimental music predecessors, specifically the incorporation of an integral visual lexicon, fashion and mythos into their comparatively stripped down music. Where I watched prog rock devolve with disgust, I was delighted by the evolution of punk rock. Bands like The Damned, who started out as untrained musicians with nothing but attitude and a fire in the belly, gradually undertook more sophisticated efforts with each release, eventually recasting early psych rock tunes like "Alone Again Or" by Love and building into a baroque climax with richly textured LPs such as "Phantasmagoria." Sonic Youth and early Mercury Rev found their own aural nirvana in carefully crafted storms of noise and feedback. The "less is more" set exemplified by everybody from the Buzzcocks to Bad Religion kept it clean and simple, but honed their craft like a Stickley chair maker.

In a strange sort of mirror image, paging through I Know What I Like, I was struck by how much the pictures of Peter Gabriel's "ageless egyptian prince" costume and makeup would have been perfectly at home with Bauhaus or the Sisters of Mercy, and how his character Rael, from the double concept album "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" had such a distinct NYC punk look - a sort of latin-tinged Lou Reed.

But what's next? MTV's generic version of alternative music is eating its own entrails, endlessly recycling gothic and industrial fashion modes, trying to build concept records/rock operas (such as Green Day's "American Idiot") within a reference frame that is rapidly losing its relevance and impact, and struggling against a stultifying corporate death grip. The real experimental music is hidden in the weeds again, found only on college radio such as WNYU's New Afternoon Show and by word of mouth. What will be the shape of the next musical genre with a unique and original multi-media ambiance? Until we find out, it's fun to revisit the Old Masters through a book, even if you probably couldn't pay me to listen to an early Genesis record again. If you're interested, you can purchase a copy of I Know What I Like by e-mailing Armando at ARGallo@aol.com.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

It's a brand new year and my self-imposed media blackout has ended safely. After the election, it seemed that the only way to protect my sanity was to shun NPR, banish WBAI and the Pacifica radio network, and hide my head in a sonic cave built out of only the most crystalline 80s pop music (like Echo and the Bunnymen) and any 21st century equivalents (like the Postal Service and Paco). It was either that or have to confront the reality of Bush's re-election. Yes, I'll have to go back into hiding briefly during the inauguration, but it shouldn't last too long. And music continues to be my panacea. Even the day or so after the nightmare of Kerry's concession, I was brought out of my stupor by the rapper Blueprint, who has sampled a familiar snippet of electronica in a track called "Bleach." Rapidly searching my memory banks while listening to the song on WNYU, I finally identified the sample as a theme from the "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" soundtrack, and suddenly my brain was flooded with a recalled sense of wonder experienced while watching the end of that movie for the first time in the the theater. That's what keeps us going folks, our wonder, and as Howard Devoto wrote in "A Song from Under the Floorboards," our irritation.