Everything from a legendary Austin music venue and the equally legendary Minneapolis punk scene, to the Summer of Love and the Newport Folk Festival. (Pictured above: the Suicide Commandos.)
BY JOHN B. MOORE, LEE ZIMMERMAN, TIM HINELY, AND FRED MILLS
Complicated Fun – The Birth Of Minneapolis Punk And Indie Rock, 1974 – 1984, by Cyn Collins
Minnesota Historical Society Press (April 4)
There are a number of seminal U.S. rock scenes that easily come to mind: New York in the mid-to-late ‘70s; Athens, GA in the early – to-mid- ‘80s and Seattle in the early ‘90s. Often overlooked by many but the die-hard music obsessives is Minneapolis throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Prince, the Suburbs, Husker Du, the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Suicide Commandos… It’s remarkable that such a small region could be responsible for creating such an influentially impressive list of artists that remain relevant 30 and 40 years later.
DJ and music journalist Cyn Collins does a remarkable job in this oral history of tracking down and recording the memories and anecdotes of some of the scene greats. The early ‘70s were lean times for the Minneapolis musicians with few places to play, but getting inspiration from eclectic scenes like Detroit, London and New York, local rockers started to gather wherever they could, be it frat parties, bowling alleys or, in many cases, their own homes. Spurred on by influential local record stores like Oar Folkjokeopus or Electric Fetus, a legit music scene started to bubble up. Out of Oar Folkjokepus, for example, came Twin/Tone Records which would go on to put out records by the Replacements, Soul Asylum, The Suburbs, Jayhawks, Babes In Toyland and a slew of other great bands.
Around the same time, rock and punk venues started up and traded owners – in particular The Longhorn and First Avenue, in the process becoming legendary venues and soon locals realized Minneapolis bands were just as important as the national touring groups stopping through.
Complicated Fun is crammed with inside stories from those who helped start the scene. Everyone has a Prince story, everyone has a drunk Replacements story and everyone remembers the scene for what it was: a tight community of raucous, but brilliantly talented musicians some of whom would fade out early, but many of whom would go on to international acclaim and inspire others in far off places to start their own music scenes. Complicated Fun is a beautiful love note to DIY music everywhere. [John B. Moore]
Boogie Chillun: Rock ‘n’ Blues Articles, Album & Book Reviews (The Reverend’s Archives, Vol. 4), by Reverend Keith A. Gordon
Excitable Press (April 8)
Volume friggin’ FOUR? Damn, Rev, you are making the rest of us scribes out here in indiesville look like slackers!
The “Rev” would be Keith Gordon, Nashville ex-pat currently terrorizing the populace of upstate New York, and regularly beaming his broadsides in via the digital pipeline to multiple media outlets (including, full disclosure, this very one from time to time). He’s a prolific sonofabitch, too, for you may recall that barely six months ago we reviewed his Let It Rock! compendium of rock-write, the third volume in his ongoing series of missives from the Gordon archives. As I noted at the time, “Let It Rock! zips, zings, and zooms across the rock/blues/Americana CD and DVD milieu, and as is always the case with record review anthologies, your attention and enthusiasm will ebb and flow depending on which artifact your thumb winds up paging to…. There’s something here for all of us, kids, ‘cos when the Rev. sets up his tent to preach the gospel, it’s a big goddam tent he pitches.”
Picking up where its predecessor left off, Boogie Chillun finds Gordon plucking roccrit nuggets from his back pages anew, dipping all the way back to the ‘70s at times, ultimately serving up more than 150 reviews (“and over 120,000 words,” he adds). Among those nuggets:
–Black Oak Arkansas: The Complete Raunch ‘n’ Roll Live (album review): Okay, okay, all you Coachella clowns out there, yes, Rev. Keith and yours truly are indeed rednecks. That’s why we loved Black Oak in the first place! But I can tell you this: Back in the day, when Jim Dandy came to the rescue in concert, you considered yourself done rescued. Something tells me that is not a claim that a Fleet Foxes or Feist fan can make.
–Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers: L.A.M.F. Live at the Village Gate 1977 (album review): Who needs another crummy-sounding, bootleg-in-everything-but-name-only Heartbreakers rec? You do, that’s who! Just because it’s released on Cleopatra doesn’t mean it’s not pure junk—which, coincidentally enough, is what killed Johnny Thunders. So don’t let it happen to you, kids. This is your brain on Rev. Keith—any questions?
–Steve Earle & The Dukes: Terraplane (album review): As Blues are Gordon’s specialty, he includes plenty of da blooze in his book. He’s particularly well-qualified to assess Steve Earle’s well-publicized foray into the field, and his observations are about as insightful as any commentary I’ve read on Earle, period, and not just about the Terraplane album.
–Zap Comix No. 16 (book review): I still own copies of all the original Zap underground comics—R. Crumb, if you are reading this, drop me a line sometime—but that doesn’t mean I’m dumb enough to actually take ‘em out of their bags ‘n’ boards and get my finger oil all over the covers. That’s why we have folks like Fantagraphics to reprint ‘em! “Zap Comix was the grandaddy of all undergrounds [that] proved that comix were a legitimate art form,” writes Gordon. Amen.
-“Piracy on the High Seas of Cyberspace” (1998 essay/op-ed): Here, Gordon talks to music industry folks such as Bill Glahn (then-editor of Live! Music Review, a bootleg-centric publication) and Richard Conlon of BMI, and the topic is issues surrounding the leaking of big-name albums before street date and the industry’s response. In 2017, the notion of “leaks” might seem vaguely quaint, given that numerous artists now put their music up on the web for streaming well ahead of an album’s physical release, and it actually serves to build buzz, not kill it. But in 1998 it was still a big deal, and the powers that be were shitting bricks and sweating dollars every time a major release loomed on the horizon. When you read this article, pay close attention to the comments from Glahn, as he presciently envisions what music access and distribution in the digital age-to-come will look like.
The Author points out in his introduction that Boogie Chillun is the final installment in his rock ‘n’ roll brain dump: “It still only scratches a small part of what I’ve written overall… I figure that four books of my literary narcissism are probably (at least) three too many… Perhaps it’s time for something new.”
Regarding the “three too many” angle: As someone who has enjoyed this rock ‘n’ roll animal’s writing for many years, I would propose that there can never be too many music reviews in the world. I still regularly consult my dog-eared The Rolling Stone Record Review volumes from the early ‘70s, both as primary-source reference material when researching an artist, and to remind me of some of the journalists who originally inspired me to try my hand at this whole rock critic game. So it would be entirely appropriate if some young wannabe scribe in 2017 is in the process of mentally charting his own career path and taking deep inspiration from the likes of Gordon—and will still be hanging on to the four volumes in Gordon’s archives series some four-plus decades hence. Can I get a “boy howdy” to that?
As far as the “time for something new” part: To paraphrase Johnny from The Wild On”—well, Rev, what’ve you got? [Fred Mills]
I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival, by Rick Massimo
Wesleyan University Press (June 6)
There was Woodstock and there was Monterey; there’s Telluride and Bonnaroo; but in terms of a legacy and significance, no festival can match the prestige of the Newport Folk Festival. It was there that Dylan committed the utmost in blasphemy by exchanging his acoustic guitar for the full throttle of rock ‘n’ roll. Where Pete Seeger made the bold decision to mix up the genres and African American artists like Odetta and Leadbelly were encouraged to share the same stages as their white contemporaries, long before integration in the arts became a common occurrence. And it was there, when Old Crow Medicine Show made its bow, that guitarist Chance McCoy could revel in the fact that he learned to play by listening to recordings made live at the Newport Folk Festival while he was growing up.
As the first to document a comprehensive history of the festival, author Rick Massimo had a formidable task on his hands, and yet, all that he accomplishes within the book’s 240 pages ranks it among the best music treatises of its kind ever written. Massimo doesn’t just give a broad historical survey; rather he pores into the personalities involved — the festival’s founder and long-time mainstay George Wein, those that helped execute the operation from behind the scenes, the performers that commanded its stage and the journalists that covered it year after year. The trajectory is told through anecdote and reflection, first-hand accounts of the sometimes difficult circumstances—financial and otherwise—hat occasionally threatened to imperil its progress. And yet through it all, the triumph of the music and people that made it provides its ultimate achievement, both then and now.
“The threading together of the traditional and the new has been a part of the festival’s ethos since the beginning, and it has fuelled its recent renaissance,” Massimo writes, and indeed, that’s the core of what this book is all about. It speaks to a grand legacy, one timeless in its intent and ever-changing in its execution. The song belongs to us all. Let’s hope it is never extinguished. [LEE ZIMMERMAN]
1967: A Complete Rock History of the Summer of Love, by Harvey Kubernik
Sterling Publishing Co. (April 18)
The name Harvey Kubernik undoubtedly rings a bell with anyone who is moderately interested in rock history; as a journalist, he’s covered music for national—and international—publications for decades, additionally working in A&R for the MCA label and producing numerous records over the years. More recently, he published handsome coffeetable books about Neil Young (Heart of Gold, reviewed here at BLURT) and Leonard Cohen (Everybody Knows, ditto here). With 1967, issued not-so-coincidentally just ahead of the much-ballyhooed 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, he extends his authorial winning streak, once again in a colorful, graphics-rich 9 ¾” x 11 ½” coffeetable format and once again well-stocked and –organized with text, commentary, archival, and interview materials that belie the general stereotype of “coffeetable” book-as-mere-eye-candy.
In a nutshell, Kubernik, a longtime California resident who was making the nature(al) hippie scene back in the day, traces that epochal year, first introducing numerous major players of the era such as LSD prophet Timothy Leary, concert impresario Bill Graham, Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman, and members of the Jefferson Airplane, then pushing the narrative forward month by month via media accounts and firsthand quotes. Key events are highlighted, from the release of the Doors’ self-titled debut in January to the release of D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back in May to the arrival of the first issue of Rolling Stone magazine in November. Along the way sundry key moments deserving of extended navel-gazing get their props—the Monterey Pop Festival, of course, which Kubernik previously documented in detail in a 2011 book, A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival; and, uh, a little album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—but Kubernik puts plenty of energy into, and sets aside plenty of space for, smaller items on his sunshine checklist that he feels wielded an impact upon the times and the culture worth documenting.
To wit: The hippies of San Francisco may have dominated the conversation that year, but there was a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on in nearby L.A., where the Seeds were laying the, ahem, seeds for the eventual Nuggets-ian rediscovery of garage rock; across the continent in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where a collection of studio rats who would one day be known as “the Swampers” were creating sonic magic behind some of the Sixties’ greatest funk/soul voices; and halfway across the world, where a conflict in the split country known as Vietnam was steadily growing, and along with it, American G.I.s were learning how to leaven their terror and stress with marijuana and underground records.
One of my favorite tangents in the 266-page book arrives on page 206, where Kubernik details the rise of the underground press, including the aforementioned Rolling Stone, the Berkeley Barb, Ramparts, and The Realist. The latter wielded a huge influence on yours truly, ensnaring me in its us-against-The-Man!, oftentimes surreal/silly aesthetic. Meanwhile, Kubernik rightly points out that the mainstream (relatively speaking) media likes of Playboy provided plenty of coverage to the emerging counterculture and the people behind it, with musicians in particular leading the pack. Among all the naked women and bachelor pad gear reviews was coverage of Jimi and Otis, Janis and Grace, Ravi Shankar, Chris Darrow of the Kaleidoscope, and others.
Did I mention the graphics and layout? Oh boy. Suffice to say that the hot-pink-yellow-green neon-day-glow outer cover of this hardback is clue enough that a visual feast awaits one inside—as do stunning photos and eye-catching fonts, along with respondents’ quotes blocked off into their own sections, effectively allowing the reader to graze and skim at will, should that be desired, over start-to-finish consuming. That’s the coffeetable-book factor working nicely in Kubernik’s favor alongside the hungry rock-geek effect.
Kubernik includes a four-page appendix, an alphabetized “Playlist” of tracks that no so-called self-respecting Scholar of Summer of Love would be caught dead without on their personal mixtape or Spotify roundup; for all you newbies out there, it gives you a chance to delve into far more than the usual suspects, given the presence of The Hombres (“Let It All Hang Out”), Friend & Lover (“Reach Out of the Darkness”), The Wild Cherries (“Krome Plated Yabbie”), and a slice of classic soul by the eternal James Carr that messes my mind up every time I hear it (“You Got My Mind Messed Up”). Throw in exhaustive quote sourcing for each chapter and an equally comprehensive bibliography that proves Kubernik is, first and foremost, a veteran reporter who personally interviewed most of the quoted individuals cropping up in his book’s pages, and you’ve got a scholarly tome that should be on the required reading list of any college course that purports to delve into the cultural history of the Sixties. [ —FRED MILLS]
The Prodigal Rogerson: The Tragic, Hilarious and Possibly Apocryphal Story of the Circle Jerks Bassist Roger Rogerson in the Golden Age of LA Punk, 1979-1996, by J. Hunter Bennett Microcosm Publishing (May 15)
Admittedly, the full title is a mouthful but this is one killer book put together by J. Hunter Bennett, bassist for terrific Washington, DC power pop band Dot Dash. I loved those early Circle Jerks records, but hardly knew anything about their bassist, Roger Rogerson. The book, done in an oral history style of the folks who were there (band members, Roger’s old girlfriend, his ex-wife, etc) spills the beans on what a complete over-the-top character that Rogerson really was. Blowing into LA from Kansas City in the late 70’s the dude was as enigmatic as he was colorful and boisterous. Eventually he OD’d, but lived, and managed to still play for a few years. However, band members say he was never the same again.
A master of odd phrases (“Horn in, chief out”, etc.) and a personality turned toward the con, Rogerson even played with teen idol Jimmy McNichol for a while. The guy seemed to make friends or at least acquaintances, wherever he went, at least until the day he stole the Circle Jerks van and vanished. For a while, anyway, until he reappeared in… aw, I don’t want to spoil the book for you. It’s a must read and yes, you must read it. The American hardcore scene of the early ‘80s had many characters—a few within the Circle Jerks—and especially the LA scene, but Rogerson was definitely near the top of that “characters” category.
As the title says, the tale is both tragic and hilarious, but above all, riveting reading. Miss this book and your life will never improve, Incidentally, this is the fourth in Microcosm’s Scene History series). [Tim Hinely]
Armadillo World Headquarters: A Memoir, by Eddie Wilson, with Jesse Sublett
University of Texas Press (April 4)
It may be a slight exaggeration to say Eddie Wilson is the reason why Austin isknown today as the “Live Music Capitol of the World.” But just a slight one.
Wilson, a liberal hippie in 1970s Texas – when such things still existed – founded the Armadillo World Headquarters, Texas’ version of CBGBs, Café Wha, The Fillmore and Whiskey A Go Go, all in one venue. In his brilliantly clever memoir, Wilson details the exact moment he found the old National Guard armory that he would soon convert into a club that would host everyone from Frank Zappa, Slade, AC/DC, Springsteen to Willie (naturally).
“If not for the coincidence of a swollen bladder and a flimsy lock on a derelict building, there might never have been a place called Armadillo World Headquarters,” writes Wilson in the opening paragraph.
The author, along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the legendary singer/songwriter and all around badass member of The Flatliners, walked across the street from the Cactus Club to piss on the side of an old building and stumbled on his Taj Mahal. Not too much later, with a small army of friends fueled by a lot of cheap pot and local Texas beer, they would open and run the legendary Austin venue from the early ‘70s through the early ‘80s.
The book is a fascinating story of how a handful of young adults managed, at least for a little while, to completely define a city that at that point was known for little more than Longhorns football and Lone Star politicians. The venue became a haven for all kinds of freethinkers and non-conformists, boasting several brilliant poster artists, and eventually an off-shoot ad firm (they helped to reinvigorate Lone Star beer sales with a genius longneck bottle campaign). The ‘dillo also had a world class kitchen and catering company and was the scene for several live albums, fundraisers for liberal politicians and causes and even competing music venues.
Despite its reputation with music fans and musicians across the globe, the venue rarely made a profit. However, it could be argued that everything from the long-running PBS live music show, Austin City Limits, to the SXSW music festival would not have existed if not for Wilson and his merry band of music-loving hippies.
His memoir is required reading for any music fan out there. [John B. Moore]
All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music, by Michael Corcoran
University of North Texas Press (May 17)
Quick, determine which artist in each musical trifecta here does not belong with the others: (1) country gyspy Floyd Tillman, gangsta hip-hoppers the Geto Boys, soul music avatars Archie Bell and the Drells; (2) outlaw country rocker Billy Joe Shaver, Dylan/Velvet Underground/Zappa producer Tom Wilson, fiddle legend Johnny Gimble; and (3) “loco” jazz-polka accordionist Steve Jordan, cosmic cowboy Doug Sahm, Tejana pop superstar Selena.
Think you know the answers? Sorry, it was a trick question, because if you listed a single name, you failed the quiz. As chronicled in veteran music journalist Austin-based Michael Corcoran’s latest book, each artist originally hails from Texas: in respective order, from Lone Star regions Houston, the Waco area, and San Antonio/Rio Grande Valley. By way of fun facts: I had always figured Bell and his Drells were from the South, probably South Carolina, due to their being strongly identified with beach music; I did not realize that producer Wilson was African-American, much less from Texas, considering how so many of his productions were done in New York studios; and always just assumed Selena came from Mexico, considering that her core audience was located south of the border.
The point I’m making, of course, and the one Corcoran clearly intends to convey with All Over the Map, is that Texas is way more than folk, country, Tex-Mex, and the blues; for every Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, there’s a Ronnie Dawson (rockabilly) and a Butthole Surfers (psychedelic punk). I mean, did you even realize that Sly Stone was born in Dallas and spent part of his childhood in nearby Dallas? Admittedly, Texas is a big freakin’ place, and as Corcoran notes, “It’s where the South ends and the West begins, and yet Texas remains independent of those regions. Removed from the pressures of the music industry centers, Texans were able to chase the muse without much interference, resulting in indigenous sounds that retained personality.” (No kidding. Among the diverse “personalities” Texas has spawned over the year are Janis Joplin, Roky Erickson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gibby Haynes, and DJ Screw. ‘nuf said.)
Clocking in at 308 pages, All Over the Map, as noted above, breaks its musical groupings down via region rather than the more obvious genre or chronological options. It’s not a history of Texas; rather, you get an invaluable series of history lessons via the context Corcoran places each of his 39 main profiles, and the stories they tell or have told about them. In this study, then, the artists who came out of Waco are as important as those from Austin, and neither East Texas nor West Texas is the more influential locale, partly because within each section, there’s a hugely range of styles being practiced.
In many instances, Corcoran conducted firsthand interviews, an authorial perk of someone who spent much of his professional career as a music critic for the Dallas Morning News, Texas Monthly, and of course the Austin-American Statesman. (Anyone who ever attended South By Southwest prior to 2012 inevitably came across the Corcoran byline in the daily paper while the annual music conference was raging.) He also includes a musical appendix, a 34-track playlist of artists not included among the profiles; for example, he didn’t write about ZZ Top, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, or Marty Robbins, preferring instead to utilize that space to sing the praises of some lesser-knowns. And there’s a nice section titled “Behind-the-Scenes Heroes” that serves up tributes to musical movers and shakers who weren’t necessarily musicians themselves, among them journalist Chet Flippo, SXSW legend Brent Grulke, and legendary club owner Clifford Antone.
Factor in an amazing selection of archival photos—several of them not heavily circulated before, like a teenaged Stevie Ray Vaughan, and a shot of Don Walser and his band onstage and sporting Stetsons nearly scraping the venue’s impossibly low ceiling—and you’ve got a Texas-themed book that is essential reading whether you’re a Lone Star fanatic or just a standard-issue music geek. It’s also more than just an updated edition of Corcoran’s original 2005 book of the same name. As he points out, he opted to rewrite it, adding both newly-unearthed information and entire new chapters. [ —FRED MILLS]
America 51: A Probe Into the Realities That Are Hiding Inside “The Greatest Country In the World,” by Corey Taylor
Da Capo Press (August 8)
In 2011 Corey Taylor, the lead singer for Slipknot and Stone Sour, hustled his way onto the New York Times Best Sellers list with Seven Deadly Sins: Settling the Argument Between Born Bad and Damaged Good (Da Capo Press), a part-memoir, part-self-help tome that used as its jumping-off point Taylor’s own extensive first-hand acquaintance with those titular sins and sundry related vices, and subsequently extrapolated them to explaining how fucked-up humans—and by implication, societies—truly are. The book was a mixed bag. As our reviewer observed at the time, “Taylor’s ramblings, though entertaining at first, start to grate by the time you hit gluttony. A decent enough effort, that doesn’t exactly fulfill its promise. Two hundred and seventy pages later, I’m wondering if Taylor is guiltier of vanity or greed for thinking his peachiness on society’s ills is worth shelling out $25 in hardcover.”
Since then, Taylor has also published 2014’s You’re Making Me Hate You: A Cantankerous Look at the Common Misconception That Humans Have Any Common Sense Left, which in places mined similar themes (including a love of ridiculously long and convoluted book titles), but was generally deemed to be more laugh-out-loud funny and less self-aggrandizing than its predecessor. With America 51, Taylor maintains his lazer-like focus on our cultural foibles (I suspect he would never use a word like “foibles,” but hey, BLURT is a family publication), this time drilling down into the new era of der Trumph. As a touring musician, he’s as eminently qualified as Steve Earle to do so—one cannot truly say they understand how America is viewed by people in other countries until they’ve actually visited those countries and talked to those people—and as someone who has clearly put a lot of time and effort into thinking about what it means to be an American in 2017, versus just clicking on clickbait and then ranting about it to his Facebook followers, he’s earned the right to do so in a very public forum such as a book from a major publishing house.
Here, Taylor tackles religion, racism, bigotry, and the alt-right; chronicles the drip-drip-boom-boom of propaganda (see: social media; #fakenews) through our nation’s history; ruminates upon the “Fall of the House of Kennedy” and its implied corollary, the fall of the house of Clinton; and he even finds time to ponder just why man buns are so fucking annoying to pretty much everybody except the doofs who sport ‘em. The book title, accompanied by the image of the alien on the cover, is pretty awesome, incidentally; I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been wondering of late if our country isn’t actually part of some protracted alien autopsy experiment.
Trigger warning: There are more “fuck”s and “shit”s per capita here than a box set of Richard Pryor DVDs (I think Taylor would like that comparison, by the way). And from time to time, all the self-referencing Taylor engages in can at times feel disruptive, flow-wise; his screeds can often ome across more like a standup routine than an expanding narrative.
But maybe that’s the point. Taylor’s also grown immensely since 2011 as an essayist, and his sense of humor is indeed wicked. In 2017, having and expressing a sense of humor is the only thing that’s kept me sane, so I’m all for more—from a healthy disrespect for bullshit comes #resistance. I can’t say that I would welcome the opportunity to hang with Taylor at a backyard barbecue, since his outsized ego would probably mean he’d dominate all the conversations and keep me from concentrating on my game of cornhole.
Ultimately, I can say that I am grudgingly becoming a fan of the dude’s point of view and how he expresses that point of view. As I write this review, Kid Rock has just announced a bid for the U.S. Senate, aiming to take on Democrat Debbie Stabenow in 2018. And while I have no idea what, if any, political aspirations Corey Taylor might harbor, if he got an itch to run for office from his native Iowa in an effort to counterbalance whatever bad juju Sen. Rock might be aiming to conjure in Washington, I would certainly applaud the move. [Fred Mills]
VISUAL ABUSE: Jim Blanchard’s Graphic Art 1982-2002, by Jim Blanchard
Fantagraphics (Sept. 16, 2016)
And if you are looking more for eye candy… you’ve come to the right place.
By way of full disclosure: From around 1992 – 1997 I was the books/magazines buyer for an indie record store in Tucson, Arizona, and if you have a sharp memory of that time, you’ll know that the aforementioned period was what I’ll tentatively peg as “alternative lifestyles in ascendancy” for the book biz. Not only did I sell boatloads of tattoo/piercing books, straight-up rock bios, and (cough) The Anarchist Cookbook (ask me sometime about the grilling I got one afternoon from a couple of Tucson detectives looking into the presumably illegal escapades of a local punk “subversive”), the underground art milieu was in full bloom, along with its printed chroniclers.
Fantagraphics was not only one of the distributors we ordered from, it was a cultural force of nature in its own right, playing host/den-mother to its own stable of urban guerillas. So thumbing through this recent hard-cover volume from the publishing house, which collects, per the subtitle, native Texan/subsequent Northwest underground artist Jim Blanchard, I’m immediately struck by how delightfully right the guy’s work seems—and by that I don’t mean “for that era,” but instead, for the enduring underground aesthetic.
By way of additional disclosure: Somewhere in my attic is a sizable collection of old underground comics, hippie-era artifacts containing ground zero epistles from the likes of Crumb, Rodriguez, Griffin, Wilson et al. If you were born at the right time, it was a no-brainer to graduate from Mad and Cracked to Zap and its printed peers; and then, sometime later, after punk hit, to the sometimes realistic/sometimes impressionistic/always outrageous work of folks like Blanchard.
Visual Abuse is a flashback, for sure, stuffed with psychedelic skeletons, colliding craniums, bouncing breasts, exploding eyeballs, morphing mutants, and even the stray construction worker (?). More to the point, this handsomely appointed 200-page volume serves up a buffet of twisted brilliance that neatly presents an artist evolving alongside the culture he was chronicling and/or commenting on. Early in the game, Blanchard is found publishing his fanzine Blatch, duly inspired by punk and hardcore and soon dispensing photocopied word of wisdom alongside vivid pen-and-ink depictions of the likes of Black Flag, T.S.O.L., etc. Within a couple of years he’s doing concert posters and handbills, and with a relocation to Seattle in 1987, Blanchard, along with similar talents such as Charles Burns, crafting delicate (ahem) visual come-ons for potential attendees of upcoming shows by Skin Yard, the Fluid, Killdozer, Mentors, Butthole Surfers, and some three-piece called Nirvana.
In addition to reproductions of gig posters, the book includes Blanchard’s album art: Coffin Break sleeves for Sub Pop and C/Z, New Bomb Turks, Italy’s Raw Power, Mooseheart Faith (apparently a fave of Blanchard’s—and mine, too, with 1991’s Magic Square of the Sun a psychedelic gem as masterful as any of the Fillmore-era artists), and others.
Blanchard would digress into pure fantasy, both drug-induced and sexual in thrust; on occasion his sketches of females may border on sexism, but most of the images portray them as coming from a position of strength or power, such as the faux-Blaxploitation poster starring a giant Afro hair-do, and one for a “Patty Hearst is Tania” film. Here and there the book also displays some relatively straightforward narrative comic strips, like the chilling nine-panel “An abbreviated picto-history of bad crime in these United States,” about a pair of “big time hoods” who turned out to be just another pair of fuck-ups.
It’s an anarchic ride for sure, and a must-read for any fan of underground art, particularly those who came of age alongside Blanchard. As fellow artist Daniel Clowes testifies, in Blanchard’s honor, “A treasure trove of fucked-up shit from the dare end-times of a lost civilization.” You got that right. Now, more than ever. [Fred Mills]
Out of the Basement: From Cheap Trick to DIY Punk in Rockford, Illinois, 1973-2005, by David Ensminger
Microcosm Publishing (Feb. 7)
I first became aware of current Houston resident David Ensminger’s writing when he did his classic punk zine Left of the Dial. I was sad when that one folded but since then Ensminger, who also teaches at a university, has published numerous books, most detailing all of the nooks and crevices of different punk rock scenes. This particular book, as the title states, goes into depth on Ensminger’s hometown of Rockford , IL. If you’re like me then the only thing you knew about Rockford was that it was the birthplace of Cheap Trick. I believe a few of the C.T. members still live there, but Ensminger goes back from the time of the immigrants who built the city in the early 1900s to the time it became a dilapidated rust belt city by the ‘70s and beyond.
After a small but strong music scene began to blossom when teenagers began buying guitars the author goes into the ‘60s garage band scene who called the place home to the classic Cheap Trick (‘70s) and then, by the early ‘80s, a hardcore punk scene began to spring up of which the author was a big part of (doing zines, helping put on shows, etc. The scene seemed like that of many others with too many good bands that never got the proper notice. Built by a dedicated crew of folks who kept it alive to the downsides of scenes (drunkenness, infighting, apathy, etc.) but Ensminger has a certain flair for words so he can turn even a humdrum Tuesday night punk gig at a bowling alley into the most exciting night of the year.
The book is part of the Microcosm’s “Scene History” series and it’s terrific. Pocket-sized, under 100 pages and a wealth of information. Even if you only have a passing interest in the punk scene you won’t want to miss this one as it not only give a history of the music scene but a history of the town of Rockford itself, built by the immigrants looking for a better life. [Tim Hinely]