Monday, December 31, 2007

St. Sylvester's Day

Let's keep our fingers crossed, y'all. And I promise I'll go back to actually talking about pictures very soon.

Sunday, December 30, 2007


The first time I met Jean-Michel Basquiat was in November or December 1978, at the Mudd Club. His hair was dyed orange and cut very short with a v-shaped widow's peak in the front. He wore a lab coat and carried a briefcase. "Going on a trip?" I asked him. "Always," he replied. He had a disquieting stare. He had probably taken fifty drugs that night, but it was clear there was a lot more to him than that.

He was sleeping on the floors of a rotating set of NYU dorm rooms then. He had no money at all. He had recently stopped tagging as SAMO and had renamed himself MAN-MADE, although that wasn't a tag but a signature for things he made, T-shirts and collages and these color-xerox postcards, which he sold for a buck or two. Eventually he sold one to Henry Geldzahler and one to Andy Warhol, and his name became currency.

Before that, though, he was still writing on walls, but as a poet rather than a tagger. I wish I could remember more of his works than just the one someone photographed him writing on Lafayette Street near Houston: "The whole livery line/ Bow like this/ With the big money all crushed into these feet."

He moved in with my friend F. and ate all the cans of blackeyed peas her mom sent from Detroit, then he moved in with my friend A. and painted the refrigerator door (which she eventually sold to Bruno Bischofberger), sections of wall, a window shade, a golden coat, many other things. He also wrote "pendejo" in microscopic print somewhere near the building's second-floor landing, and I always looked for it until the walls were repainted.

He was busy. His band Test Pattern, which after awhile became Gray, played often, usually at the most obscure and unattended clubs in town. There always seemed to be about fifteen people in the crowd. For some reason tapes don't seem to have survived--the only thing I've come across is a bit of feedback/noise on some compilation, which doesn't really sound like what they did, which was somewhere on the dub/jazz continuum. He made mixtapes on which the songs are all brutally cut into and out of--a painterly use of the medium. He also made so many painted T-shirts and sweatshirts none of his friends knew what to do with them. Many if not most got thrown away.

The last time I saw Jean I was going home from work, had just passed through the turnstile at the 57th Street BMT station. We spotted each other, he at the bottom of the stairs, me at the top. As he climbed I witnessed a little silent movie. He stopped briefly at the first landing, whipped out a marker and rapidly wrote something on the wall, then went up to the second landing, where two cops emerged from a recess and collared him. I kept going.

A month later he was famous and I never saw him again. We no longer traveled in the same circles. I was happy for him, but then it became obvious he was flaming out at an alarming pace. I heard stories of misery and excess, the compass needle flying around the dial, a crash looming. When he died I mourned, but it seemed inevitable, as well as a symptom of the times, the wretched '80s. He was a casualty in a war--a war that, by the way, continues. Years later I needed money badly and undertook to sell the Basquiat productions I own, but got no takers, since they were too early, failed to display the classic Basquiat look. I'm glad it turned out that way.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


It took me until today to understand what the word "hipster" has come to mean. When I heard people complaining about neighborhoods infested with hipsters, bars ruined by hipsters, I didn't really give it much thought beyond remembering Yogi Berra's lament: "The place is too crowded--nobody goes there anymore." The red herring was the word "hipster," which to my mind couldn't possibly be synonymous with "yuppie" or any of the other terms for people who have more money than you do but no souls, and who spend their free time subjecting all you hold dear to unfriendly takeover.

In my mind the hipster stood for fingerpops, harlequin-pattern banlon shirts, cuban heels, toothpick and cigarette both at the same time, mohair suits, shirt-jacs, chesterfield overcoats, comb in the breast pocket, use of brylcreem years after the British Invasion, Jimmy Smith records, Mongo Santamaria records, Arthur Prysock records, unfiltered Kools, the novels of Richard Stark, the pornographic novels of Alexander Trocchi, the glory days of Gent and Cavalier, never raising the voice above a throaty whisper, clipped hand gestures, wakefulness despite half-shut eyelids, communicating volumes entirely with the eyebrows, walking with a rolling shuffle, having a substantial number of friends whose race is different from yours.

You get the picture, I think. Yes, it was largely a male phenomenon--there were hipster women in black leotards, but they didn't look all that different from beatnik women in black leotards. It was a style that may have peaked between 1957 and 1963, but it remained, persistent and underground, for decades afterward, ignoring all movements and trends, implacable in its deep and nearly unreadable coolness. I myself didn't really get it until it was way beyond my grasp, a school of elegance I could no longer even aspire to. By that time you'd get at most fugitive glimpses--in jazz clubs, at the race track, in a few fringe neighborhoods, occasionally among old-school bikers. By now the true hipsters are mostly in their 70s, and less visible than ever. They'll take their secrets to the grave.

So it's especially disheartening that their name has been reassigned, and not to any foolish but vigorous crop of tyros, but to parasites. Eric Fredericksen defines the hipster as "a consumer of (sub)culture, a person who substitutes taste for creative drive." That sort has probably been around forever, but didn't really become an identifiable genus until maybe the 1980s, when the vastly increased size of the market made it possible to pursue consumerism as a full-time activity. Hunting esoteric cultural kicks turned into connoisseurship; possession of items distinguished chiefly by their obscurity at once inflated the desirability of those items to others and became tantamount to having produced those items oneself. Now hipsters have gone way beyond Scandinavian psychedelia and Japanese bondage photography. They collect neighborhoods. Soon those will run out, too. You are advised to protect your neck.

Special thanks to Edward Champion and Eric Fredericksen.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I have a great many pictures of the dead. But I don't have many pictures of my own dead. I mean the people I knew who died when they and I were young. Who died of drugs and Aids and suicide and misadventure. For the most part my friends and I didn't have cameras. We couldn't afford cameras, most of us. I don't have many pictures of myself from between when my parents stopped considering me cute and worth preserving--maybe age 14 or so--and around age 35. And I have very few pictures of my friends from those years.

If I could travel back into my life that is one thing I would do: obtain a simple black-and-white camera and line up everyone I knew one by one against a wall and take their picture. Then I could remember what those people looked like who I won't see again. Because even though they live on in my memory I frequently find myself unable to keep their faces from changing. Changing the way faces in dreams do. Slipping. It even happens with the living that I can't pin down what they looked like twenty or thirty years ago. I have to look at them really hard to extract the youth that is within them but overgrown with worry and time and roads not taken.

But strangely I can look at these faces from maybe 1910 and discover that I know them. I can imagine the course of their lives. I can see how Georges will look at 30, what Gérardine will be like as a mother, how Suzanne will walk in regal middle age, what Pierre will drink every night in his 60s, poor Jules on his deathbed. The face at any given moment carries the entire life including the roads not taken and the infinity of what-ifs. But all of that is easier to see in strangers and especially strangers who are already long dead. The taboo against looking into the future is lifted in their case. The camera can assume its function as a necromancer's tool.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


Just what is it that makes today's culture so different, so appealing? Anticipating Richard Hamilton by four years, Hank Williams first uttered the term pop art from the stage of the Grand Old Opry in 1952. Hank could see stretched out before him a future in which art would inextricably entwine with advertising. It was not an unappealing prospect, and Hank embraced it, envisioning museums filled with Brillo boxes and Ken-L-Ration labels and Goodyear Tires winged feet. He had always considered such works on a par with the output of the top European modernists, and all the more engaging because they had been devised by ordinary Americans without pretense, who got their hands dirty and enjoyed the song of the meadowlark at sunset.

He could imagine taking that song and fitting lyrics to it that would tell folks about Cities Service gasoline and Wheatena breakfast cereal, things he himself loved, and in return the gasoline people and the cereal people would put his name on a pump and his face on a box. It was all about people helping each other out, and it was also about the clean, uncluttered thrust of American imagery. He never quite understood why it was that when he visited a picture gallery, the paintings of streets never showed the Dr. Pepper signs and the Coppertone billboards and the barns were bereft of their Chew Mail Pouch in big letters. He thought it was a lot like pretending that people never had to go to the bathroom. It was like visiting somebody's house who had made a fortune running burlesque theaters and finding it full of plaster copies of Roman statues.

It was on the night of January 1, 1953 that he had his final vision. Racing from Knoxville to Canton, Ohio in the back of the big Cadillac, pumped full of morphine with a side of B12 to keep his eyes open, Hank kept sliding under the surface of this life, seeing things he didn't entirely understand. He seemed to be visiting the future. He saw people of all ages walking around with product names on their clothes. He saw a man with a beer label tattooed on his arm. He thought he understood that people were paying money to companies to help them spread their advertising. He saw movies that turned out to be commercials, and commercials that turned out to be movies. He saw what looked like advertisements but couldn't tell what products were being advertised. He thought he understood that advertising and art had traded places in this future world, that advertising walked by itself and didn't stand for anything in particular. He understood that everything in life was a product, and probably always had been, and thought that now advertising was no longer about trying to get folks to buy products. It was more like hymns in church, which you sang not in order to believe but to stay on God's good side. He was trying to focus this thought when he died.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Torn Down

In 1985, an unknown person briefly went around tearing down sections of compacted poster-gneiss from the walls of lower Manhattan, mounted them on light stock, and sold them as postcards. I'm very sorry I only bought one; I probably thought they'd be around longer than a month. The unknown person was perhaps aware that he or she was reviving décollage, also known as lacération, the art devised by Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé in Paris starting in the late 1940s. The idea was that a vast, constantly renewed collective artwork was available for the taking on the walls of the city. It was a sort of readymade in Duchamp's sense, since its primary essence was commercial imagery, but it also transcended the readymade by virtue of having been serially lacerated by the crowd, who shredded the posters because they were bored, because they were angry, because they needed a scrap of paper, because they were waiting for a bus. If there ever was a populist avant-garde work, that was it.

It was the purest art of the city: open to all, viscerally satisfying, and recording an actual dialogue between citizens and the stuff they were force-fed. It was bright and explosive and hurtling toward nothingness as you watched. In New York City at the moment of the postcard the display was less bright because there was less commercial fly-postering of the type seen today--therefore less color--and much more in the way of monochrome photocopied gig flyers wheatpasted by the band members. There were still many unpoliced blank walls then and many plywood-covered storefronts, which sometimes carried so many layers of postering that sections would peel off, from combined weight, like icebergs calving. The posters were advertising of the most zero-degree sort--bands that existed for one night, bands that existed only in one person's imagination, texts written in a code understood only by the writer. The laceration therefore was less a matter of citizens talking back to authority than a phase within a cacophonous ongoing babble. The postcard, with its fortuitous subliminal impression of the World Trade Center, is a fragment of something overheard.

Monday, December 17, 2007


I can very nearly zero in on the exact year in which this picture was taken. 1972, I'm guessing. The conjunction of those fuck-me shoes with those floor-dragging bells in that pool-table backroom of that bar. I can hear the music, smell the drugs. No earlier than 1971, anyway, and probably no later than about 1974. I wish I knew more, could see past the frame, but I'm not even sure where and when and how the picture fell into my hands. I've certainly had it a lot longer than the original owner did--I think it may have fallen out of a book when I was working at the Strand thirty years ago.

There are many things I like about the picture: the subject, the framing, the gray-scale palette, the teetering on the line between history and nostalgia (as much as I profess to despise nostalgia, I have to admit that I indulge in it). I also like its patina. Its edges are scarred, with bits of emulsion chipped off, and with a slight curl like the edges of a parchment manuscript. And the whole surface is striated with a pattern of crazing that looks like shattered glass, or like rivers and streams feeding into an estuary. This probably results from unsatisfactory printing. My guess is that the photo was taken and processed by a student.

I've found that I can nearly always upset photo collectors--on those rare occasions when I've encountered them--by saying that I like old photographs to show their age. I like the blunted corners, the slight fading, the partial fingerprints, the damaged mattes, the hints of solarization at the edges, the first signs of foxing, the bolted color processes, the occasional writing or scribbling on the surface. Those constitute proof of the passage of time, of the specific and irretrievable emotional connection that people I'll never meet once had with the picture, of the inescapable power of decay and entropy, of the materiality of photographs. No photograph can be considered as identical to its content; every photograph is an individually wrought object that has passed through hands, rooms, climate, and every photograph is a grinning skull.

Friday, December 14, 2007


Is the mugshot the only true portrait? Is every other approach to portraiture a fiction based loosely on the physical appearance of a given human being? What is a mugshot? Is a mugshot strictly a photograph taken by the police to identify a suspect? Or can the definition be extended? When we say that a photograph resembles a mugshot, what do we mean? Do we mean that the subject displays no discernable emotion? Do we mean that the space is shallow, that the subject is backed against a wall? Do we mean that the subject is upright and facing forward? What if the subject were in profile, as in a literal mugshot--would that pose also remind us of a mugshot?

Can a mugshot or a portrait that reminds us of a mugshot record an emotional engagement of whatever sort between the photographer and the subject? Does the lack of overt emotional affect seem somehow more truthful than a display of emotion? Is visible emotion on the face of a subject the moral equivalent of dark glasses or pancake makeup? Or is a lack of overt emotional affect seemingly more truthful because it is the underlying state, whereas any given emotion is weather, transitory and fickle? But would that mean by extension that a landscape cannot be truthful unless it is devoid of weather?

Doesn't a mugshot also imply a portrait executed against the will of the subject? Can a portrait in which the subject ostensibly collaborates continue to remind us of a mugshot in other than superficial ways? Is a mugshot more truthful than a portrait that is merely reminiscent of a mugshot precisely because it precludes active collaboration on the part of the subject? If so, is that the case because the subject is seen strictly through the eyes of another? If we could see ourselves as others see us, would we recognize what we saw?

(Photo by Eva Pierrakos)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

School of Paris

She did a little stripping at the Lido, a little chorus work at the Moulin Rouge, a little cocktail hostessing here and there. She got her face into the margins of society photos now and then, somewhere behind Cocteau's shoulder or beneath Zizi Jeanmaire's hairdo. She came from Bergerac and kept in touch only with her younger brother in veterinary school. She lived in a maid's room on Boulevard Voltaire but contrived to spend as little time there as possible. She was popular with the Corsicans.

He came from Ivry but pretended to be something more exotic, employing a highly variable accent and a series of misleading biographical details. He told people his name was Paco. He had prepared for a brilliant career as a painter, but he'd gotten the decade wrong. It was pretty much over by then unless you were a Tachiste or an American. But he couldn't help himself. He wanted to be some hybrid of Dufy, Matisse, Foujita, and Modigliani, and that's what he did. He sold a canvas now and then to tourists who thought Montmartre was still happening.

They met when they ducked into the same doorway during a police riot. He thought she was a vision. She thought he could afford her modeling fee. His studio was around the corner, so when it was safe they went up. It turned out he didn't have enough scratch for her to pose nude. She opened her shirtwaist as a favor, also because he served her a no-name wine that wasn't half bad. She smoked five cigarettes, kissed him and left.

He took the canvas to galleries, where they laughed. He thought it was too good to stick out on a blanket on Place Blanche for foreigners to gape at. He took it to publishers of portfolios of sensitive figure studies for the discriminating connoisseur, where they told him she had too many clothes on. He took it to publishers of calendars, where they told him they only used photographs now. Finally he found a publisher who wanted to put it on the cover of a novel. His heart raced with joy.

It was an 80-page train-station novelette, part of a series of underworld potboilers written by minor ex-Surrealists addicted to paregoric. Across the picture they had a staff letterer slap that month's title, Autant s'en foutre, which means "you might as well give two shits," more or less. She spotted the book and bought a copy to send to her younger brother in veterinary school. One of the Corsicans bought the original to hang in his office bathroom. Later that same month the painter was killed by off-duty cops who took him for an Algerian.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Street Life

Can of Ruppert Knickerbocker "opened with an axe," as it says on the back of the print. Ruppert was the last beer brewed in Manhattan and the most godawful pisswater ever, although it may have been better back when Colonel Ruppert owned the Yankees. It was also the cheapest beer sold in New York circa 1970, and so well within the budget of teenagers, who had no trouble buying it at supermarkets, grocery stores, bodegas, just as they had no trouble going to liquor stores and buying Yago Sangria or Boone's Farm Apple Wine, or the hi-test option, Richard's Peach Wine. The trouble lay in figuring out a place to go drink it, when the park was too cold or too far away. The default option was, for some reason, the sidewalk in front of the old West Side Airlines Terminal, which must have stood somewhere in the general vicinity of Times Square. How it differed in ambiance from other stretches of sidewalk is a detail lost to time. Other substances were more of a gamble, because they had to be purchased from chiselers and layabouts, and the teenagers lacked experience, so that they often came to the belated realization that they had just acquired some very expensive aspirin or oregano.

This commerce and consumption was not recorded at the time, which is a pity. Instead the camera sought out the ensuing hilarious hijinks, which have not weathered the years well. The camera is unkind to hilarity. Hijinks only look funny for about a week. But the photographer had talent, although he didn't pursue the matter for long, going on to other ambitions, notably poetry, to which he transferred his eye and his power of suggestion. Maybe you get an idea of the talent from this shot, which suggests a lot of teenage business in economically elliptical fashion. That phone cord could just as well be a guitar cord, and the floor a stage, and the heel could be airborne for any number of reasons. And the can of Ruppert is the vortex, apparently the casus belli of a storm of unseen activity. Outside the frame was probably a bedroom, and outside the bedroom Stuyvesant Town, 14th and C, in my memory of the time forever being circled by the deafening choppers of the Third Street Angels. The city was a lot bigger then, its people huge and its dramas overwhelming, and only in part because I was so small in relation. The photographer, being a native, was unimpressed. He was my Virgil.

In memory of Robert Long, 1954-2006.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Death Letter

At one time the news arrived this way. The fact was on the outside, the particular name was within. It got to the point immediately. As fixed and universal as the skull and crossbones on a bottle of poison, the black frame precluded any mush-mouthed circumlocution. Nobody had "passed away," or "departed," or been "called home." They were dead, Jack. The bell tolled, the coffin was carried from house to church to pit, often by human strength alone. A few sentences read aloud out of a book, and the cadaver was food for worms. Happened every day, more often in winter.

When people stuck relatively close to the village, the death letter wouldn't come as a surprise, since you'd been hearing that someone had been doing poorly, was on their last legs, that the doctor had shaken his head and the priest had been hovering around. It got harsher when you moved away for work and didn't always hear what was happening back home. When you were far from your people, finding that letter in your mailbox could knock you for six. (I refer you to Son House on the subject.) Eventually the telephone took over the job, and by then death was always a shock, like it wasn't supposed to happen. People no longer remembered waves of epidemics, no longer saw farm animals die.

But then the black moved from the fringe to the center, and death happened to other people, and you consumed it, for fun. Yes yes, I do know--murder stories have been around since our ancestors first figured out how to use tools, and murder stories were always prurient. The shift had mainly to do with black. It was the color of rectitude, of clerical sobriety, of mourning. Then, when widows stopped wearing weeds, it became the color of the hard case. Black stopped commemorating death and began spitting at it instead.

As far as I'm aware, Maurice Heine was the first to use the term roman noir, in the 1930s, to describe the common ground between the works of D.A.F. de Sade and the English Gothic novelists. In 1945 Gallimard initiated its noire series in distinction to its high-lit blanche. Nino Frank coined the term film noir in 1946. Black was still harsh then, still reminded people of crepe and worms and finality, and the shock value was enhanced by the recent memory of wholesale death. For decades there was a near-taboo on black in many areas of life. When punks began wearing black in the mid-'70s, in part as a reaction to complacent hippie optimism, they often had to resort to dye.

Nowadays black is shorthand for a generalized and indefinite willingness to kick ass. It is sported and consumed by some people who lack the capacity for sympathetic identification with others, but also by a great many who earnestly hope their bluff won't be called. Black stands for a kind of armor, but by now it's usually made of paper. Black has lost its connection with mourning; the color of death nowadays is probably beige, or powder blue. Maybe soon it will be generally recognized that the most sinister images are the smile, the hug, the smock printed with a pattern of cartoon animals. It will be interesting to see how thugs will adapt to this change.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Prints While-U-Wait

Let me start out by taking questions from the audience.

Yes, it's been hand-tinted, which is to say painted, with water colors in this case. Because while color photographs existed and were highly desirable, they were new then and rather expensive. I'm guessing late 1940s, maybe early '50s. Very odd, as if she were visiting a colorized alternate reality and had bought a hat there. No, that's a radio. Yes, radios looked like that in the 1930s and '40s--as late as the early '60s in some parts of the world. You're right, it does look a bit like a switchboard, but that's just the telephone wire dangling down over the radio; the wire isn't actually plugged into it. A telephone and her handbag. Yes, she's resting her hands on her bag. Looks like a cigarette to me, but I can't be certain. Two Indian blankets--maybe I should put air quotes around the word "Indian"--framing a painted backdrop. Yes, that's actually painted in--it's the "open window" effect you sometimes see in photographers' backdrops of the past. Search me; my guess is that maybe the backdrop was so old it was beginning to fray on the left edge and the blanket was put in to conceal the damage, then another at right for symmetry. I'm sure that originally you could see the entire window frame. No, that's an extra piece of cloth stuck in to camouflage the wall down there. Originally there would probably have been a piece of furniture or some vegetation below the bottom of the backdrop.

That's right, a photographer's studio. Like a photobooth, only bigger. Yes, there were studios for every budget. I don't know, probably bought his props secondhand. I'm guessing that this was just a very small space--in an apartment, maybe, or the back room of a candy store or a beauty parlor. Very cheap, I can only surmise--as much as a dollar? Maybe not even that. Fifty cents? Less? No, definitely not a passport shot or even a driver's license picture. Well, because most people didn't have cameras then--poor people, that is. Nobody in my own family owned a camera at the time. Oh, about a decade later, say. By the early '60s the most basic Kodak Brownies had become so inexpensive that everybody owned one, or was close to someone who did. Probably to send to her sweetheart. Maybe her family, but while I could be wrong, the hand-coloring says "romance" to me.

To do something with her hands. Most people who aren't models don't know what to do with their hands. Yes, those are the straps of her handbag around her wrist, and you're right, what I had initially taken for a cigarette probably isn't one. A scrap of paper, bearing name of sweetheart? Possibly, but... Lipstick tube? Doesn't seem like the right shape, but you never know. Waist-level, I guess. Beats the tar offa me--because the photographer had a morbid fear of cutting off his subjects' feet? Of course he could have, but maybe she was unusually tall and he didn't recalibrate. That's right, exactly what I was thinking. It's the effect of her being jammed up into the top of the composition that gives the picture its extra poignancy.

She's naturally glamorous, when she's walking down the street, say, but here she's a bit hesitant. Not nervous exactly, but as if she's not quite ready and maybe never will be ready. She's not used to being photographed, and doesn't know how to employ the space or adjust her face to the particulars of the lens. So it does seem intrusive, even though she's a fully consenting partner in the enterprise. That's right, it does possess a quality that's not unlike a mugshot. But are we really judging her? More like we're judging the photographer, I'd say. Well, what do you think: after you're dead, would you rather that images of you be trashed, cease to exist? Or that they survive to be looked at by strangers who will invent a life story for you, one that stands at a 180-degree angle from the real but irretrievable one?

Thursday, December 6, 2007


We are assembled here at the tomb of the unknown rockabilly band, somewhere on the shores of the Great American Sea. The rain is coming down slantwise, destroying our pompadours and making our string ties hang down like cooked spaghetti. We can barely hear the preacher over the torrent, but we know he is invoking the ghosts of all the failed bands from all the teenage campaigns of ages past--the doo-wop quintets who never settled on a name, the mod combos who couldn't afford matching suits, the psychedelic groups who slept through their one scheduled recording session, the punk outfits who lost key members to cough syrup or Jesus or manslaughter charges before they ever got a chance to play out. Their uneasy spirits stalk the land, infecting aspiring young players with fatal doubt, stalling the cars of talent scouts, shorting out amp connections, foreclosing on record stores.

And that is why we come here once a year to lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown rockabilly band: to persuade them to rest, and lay off the young. But just have a look at them--they were never meant to be! They should never have tried occupying the same stage, and they should have left music to find its own way home. The piano player, with his incipient Mickey Mouse ears, was clearly destined for a career working with puppets. The twins on guitar and bass were natural-born casino greeters. The other guitarist has the fine tapered hands of a pest-control agent specializing in silverfish. And the drummer--he was meant as an example. What happened to him should have been shown to driver-safety classes in every high school in the country.

So that is perhaps the true meaning and significance of the unknown rockabilly band. There is a reason why they and their fellows trip up young musicians and dash hopes nurtured since childhood! They act out of kindness, based on their own sad experiences. They want to save the young from mediocrity and failure--or far worse, mediocrity and success. They are like Flannery O'Connor, who when asked whether she thought university programs discouraged too many writers, replied that they didn't discourage enough of them. But pop music has no university programs. At least not yet.

We should gaze upon the image of the unknown rockabilly band, captured in all their semblance of glory by Maurice Seymour of Chicago, and savor the fragile pantomimed ambition, the jackleg bravado, the rented instruments, the press-on smiles. We should earnestly thank them that they favored us with stage fright and bad haircuts and imperfect pitch at the right time and saved us from a lifetime of bitter regret if not one of endless lawsuits. One day, when all music is made by combinations of small and unassuming oblong boxes, the unknown rockabilly band will at last be able to sleep.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sten Guns

You remember "Sten guns in Knightsbridge/ Knives in W11"--those are sten guns. Only Lovers Left Alive, by Dave Wallis (London: Anthony Blond and New York: E. P. Dutton, 1964) was one of many salvoes in the war. You remember the war, which began with Marlon Brando riding into town in The Wild One, or maybe Michel Mourre proclaiming the death of God from the pulpit of Notre-Dame, and ended--where and when? At Woodstock or Altamont? With the firebombing of the S.L.A. house in Inglewood, California in 1974? At Stammheim Prison in 1977? With the ascendancy of Reagan/Thatcher and the triumph of real estate? Your call.

The book is long out of print and deservedly so. In a nutshell: everyone over 30 conveniently commits suicide, and then the now colossal youth are faced with the problem of having to invent Society, which they accomplish by reverting to tribal archetypes. Would've made a great movie, though--both Nick Ray and the Rolling Stones optioned it, separately. But maybe the movie was made redundant by the dust jacket. The dust jacket is the whole show. That and the title.

The photograph looks like a concatenation of images from the following decade-and-a-half. It's the Baader-Meinhof Gang in the street in May '68, with perhaps the Subway Sect playing on a flatbed truck outside the frame. But there are also strong echoes of Budapest, 1956, for example, and remember that the book came out right in the middle of the mods-vs.-rockers fray; if I'm not mistaken it was actually published just before the epic seaside riots of the summer of '64. The picture, by Bruce Fleming, is somehow both amateurish and realistic--amateurish in its idle toss-up of elements (is that mattress there for the barricade or the party? is the guy on the left wounded or sleeping it off?) and realistic, likewise, in its idle toss-up of elements. It does make sense that Chrissie Shrimpton (let's just call her that) is vigilant, and Blurred Punk is agitated, and everybody else is merely farting around. What happens during a revolution? I've never been to one myself, but I imagine that, exactly like a film shoot, a revolution involves endless stretches of nothing much. That's the part generally left out of all accounts of human activity, historical and otherwise: the numbing boredom of waiting for something to happen.

In that sense the picture is a good match for the book: both primarily express a sense of anticipation. The book is not so much a youth-in-revolt novel as the announcement for one, destined to be made obsolete by the arrival of the real thing. (Never mind that, despite sundry attempts, the real thing never did materialize in any satisfying form; never mind, either, that Wallis's aim was satirical and rather anti-youth--with that title and that image, who would have noticed?) The image not only depicts dull standing-around-waiting, albeit with weapons and motorbikes, but it invites the youth of 1964 to enact the picture themselves, to go out and stage their own revolution.

The following decade and a half was studded with attempts to take up the invitation. For that matter, the period never entirely ended--check the Black Bloc aesthetic on view here, with crash helmets and bandannas. And we are primarily talking aesthetics here. Youth-in-revolt may have been concerned with war, justice, racial equality, redistribution of wealth--but nobody would any longer be fool enough to deny that sex, intoxicants, black leather, and acting out your favorite movies weren't equally important. Thus this image survives as a keystone, a billboard, a lifestyle advertisement. One of these days the mise-en-scene will be duplicated on behalf of Diesel Jeans, if that hasn't happened already. Nothing, least of all the deaths of some of those who tried to enact the image for real, has ever caused its allure to pall. It is dashing and sexy and noble and dramatic, and it is also doomed, and youth finds few things sexier than doom.