Adorning college dorm room walls just about everywhere, Catalan artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was one of the most iconic artists of the 20th Century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement. He still exerts a powerful influence on the world of art today. His creative works spanned the gamut from painting to film to sculpture, but all had his bizarre, psychosexual, dreamlike themes running through them. With his distinctive mustache, pet ocelot and velvet frock coats, Dali always demanded attention wherever he went and was unashamed of his eccentricity.
Sometimes even more well known for his hilarious publicity stunts and outrageous persona than his art, I read once that he dumped a load a rotting fish onto the steps of a gallery where he was having an art exhibition, as well as driving a Rolls Royce from Spain to France stuffed with 500 kilos of cauliflowers. He wrote in his diary at the age of 16: “I’ll be a genius, and the world will admire me. Perhaps I’ll be despised and misunderstood, but I’ll be a genius, a great genius, I’m certain of it.” Dude set his goals and executed the game plan, that’s for sure.
Born into a middle-class family in Figures, Spain, Dali seemed to be an oddball right out the gate. Even his parents believed him to be the reincarnation of his recently deceased younger brother. His mother encouraged his artistic tendencies, and by his late teens entered into a prestigious classical art school in Madrid. He soon became friends with other artists with whom he would later collaborate with: filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and the poet Federico García Lorca. I remember watching in film class the wacko short that he and Buñuel’s made together, Un Chein Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)- what a trip!
Dali eventually moved to Paris, and along with contemporaries Juan Miro and Max Ernst, became one of the most influential members of the Surrealist movement. Deeply obsessed with Freudian-influenced themes of the unconscious, sexuality and religion, the Surrealists often used illogical juxtaposition of imagery to blur the lines between our dreams and reality. Sometimes shocking, at other times hilarious and wondrous, the Surrealists for sure had a completely unique twist on how they viewed the tragicomedy of life. I wonder if Dali’s famous Lobster Telephone sculpture was ever inspired by the Bohemian Gerard Nerval‘s wandering in the park with his pet lobster 100 years earlier. Dali did in fact take his pet anteater for walks around town. Either way, I think it perfectly expresses my own phobias about picking up the phone and having to talk to people… I prefer texting.
In terms of this sexuality, Dali was another head scratcher. As a child, his conservative father would supposedly force Dali to look at photographs of sexual organs grotesquely affected by STDs- leading to a lifetime of conflicted ideas and a fear of human contact. Indeed, its understood that he “hated being touched” and was simply unable to have sexual relationships with any human being. During his art school years, there seemed to be a passionate friendship between himself and the poet Federico García Lorca, but despite a few emotional letters that they sent each other, no evidence exists that they ever had a physical relationship.
He was also deeply in love, even obsessed, with his wife, Gala. Although he considered her his muse, they seemed not to have a traditional marriage at all. Instead, they would throw weekly lavish orgies at their mansion and Dali would simply watch Gala as she cavorted with other men. When she died in 1982, Dali was heartbroken and only descended into a downward spiral of depression and failing health until his own death in 1989.
Besides his masterful art and hysterical, attention-grabbing antics, the best thing about Salvador Dali, to me, was his embrace of being an outsider. He didn’t just embrace it, he flaunted it it in a very public way. Though I do think, like Andy Warhol after him, he used his outrageous proclamations and stunts to self promote his works. However I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with that, an artist has to make a living after all. And let’s face it, most art openings are just full of people standing around drinking wine and eating cheese. I’d be far more entertained if a large truck dumped a load of rotting fish onto everybody. The point being: be yourself. Although you may not win in the kookiness competition against Dali (probably there’s not many who would), there’s nothing to lose by hiding who you are. Dress, act, think, write, paint, sing, walk how the fuck you like. People might just think you’re genius…
How about you: Do you believe its good to let the world know you’re an eccentric? How far do you take it in terms of unorthodox living?
Perhaps the word “hate” is a a little strong: I actually really @$%&# detest shopping malls with every living fiber in my being. God, why the hell do people hang out in these places? So depressing, so shiny and gleaming, so, so bland… Someday, maybe 500 years into the future, when space aliens descend onto Earth and ask what these building represented for the societies that built them, will they assume that our Malls were the equivalent of the Medieval cathedrals that one finds leering over most European towns? Were our ancient Gods those of mass consumerism? If so, the Gods we prayed to were petty, vengeful ones at best; clearly created by our primitive monkey-brained ancestors since they were so blindly ignorant of science, learning and independent thought.
The saddest thing about shopping malls is that they are almost unique in their uniformity. The only other edifices I can compare them to are International Airports: you could be anywhere on Earth and still be completely unable to identity what country or city you’re in when you arrive at an airport. They’re all literally indistinguishable from one another. Airports’ only saving grace is that they almost universally guarantee a trip on an airplane to a new and exciting destination, like say, Pittsburg. Plus: Cheap, Trashy, Paperback Novels. Nothing beats reading John Grisham’s latest legal page turner while waiting around for your flight to deplane and restock up on generic honey roasted peanuts. Heck, every airport at least has bar in it where you can watch the little luggage carts run around on the tarmac while you sip your overpriced beer. In the end, everyone’s just passing through to somewhere else more important.
Not so the almighty Temple of the Shopping Mall. Just like airports, they’re completely homogeneous in appearance and facilities. Blindfold me, spin me around and then magically deposit me onto the ground floor of any mall in the world and, besides the native dress of the patrons, I’d be at a complete loss to geographically situate myself where I was in the world. Take a gander at the following photos below of four shopping malls: (1. St. Paul, MN, 2. Miami, FL, 3. Houston, TX, 4. San Diego, CA)
Would you be able to identify in which cities these malls are if I hadn’t told you?
Ha! In fact these malls aren’t even located in good ol’ Murica at all, Suckas! They’re actually photos taken in 1. Dubai, 2. Bangkok, 3. Sao Paulo, Brazil & 4. Bristol, UK. But in the end, what damn difference does it make? They all have the same insipid architecture, the same globalized chain stores, the same fluorescent lighting, the same cheesy music piped in from hidden speakers: an empty tableau of nothingness. You’re everywhere and nowhere at once. Malls represent the death of human culture. Westernization completes its innocuous spread across the earth like so much silent, colorless, odorless chlorine gas creeping into the enemy’s trenches at daybreak. They’ll be asphyxiated before they wake…
The patrons who stroll these halls apparently have nothing else to do with their lives besides…spend money on junk made cheaply in China and Bangladesh that they don’t really need. Some folks work their asses off all week only to spend their free time wandering around like automatons in the local mall. Their greatest (or only) discernible pleasure in life being to spend the same money they slaved all week making. To what end? How many pairs of shoes do we really need? Jeans: 2 pairs really should do you for a whole year. How much do you really need to be happy?
Don’t even get me started on the food court. Is this really where you want to be eating? Endless buffet steam trays of sugary, syrupy, deep fried pigeon meat spewed out by the same international fast food chains you can find in the same shopping malls all over the world. I guarantee you: there’s a really cheap and delicious family-run Eritrean restaurant somewhere in your town. Spicy, buttery, fragrant, and connected to a culinary tradition probably thousands of years old. Why not take a walk on the wild side and inject some cultural stimulation into your life? You might just avoid ending up an obese diabetic.
Whenever I’m feeling in a particularly bad mood (which is usually brought about by being forced to see a movie at the local shopping mall multiplex), I always find solace in this website DeadMalls. Here you can peruse through myriad photos galleries of once great, thriving retail paradises, now decaying and empty of people. No more clogged parking lots, no more escalators bringing people up one flight of stairs because they’re too lazy to walk up themselves, no more security guards rounding up rebellious teenagers. Just…blissful silence. Ah, to gaze at these montages makes me feel like I can breathe again- perhaps there’s hope for humanity after all. Or will the space aliens rebuild these great edifices in an attempt to seduce us puny humans into blindly worshiping their cruel masters once again? Only time will tell…
So, are Malls the death of human culture? Do you avoid going to the mall like the Black Plague? What is about them that inspires such hatred?
Regarding his friend Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road, William Burroughs was quoted as saying, “it sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road”. Sadly, what begins as a cool, alternative subculture, often get appropriated by the capitalist powers that be. “Cool” at least since the middle of the 20th Century is a product that is quickly mass produced for public consumption. I mean, everyone wants to be “cool” right? Nobody wants to be “square”. You’re not invited to the party, Loser. The problem is that coolness and hipness are sold to us as being attainable through the acquisition of accoutrements: the right clothes, the right alcohol, the right music, accessories, car, neighborhood, books, tattoos etc etc. Simply purchase the correct brands and Presto- you’re an instant creative non-conformist! Revolution in a can.
Where being an outlier, artistic outcast was once looked down upon (basically you were just a bum), by the latter-half of the 20th Century, it started to become all the rage. No wonder nowadays many underground subcultures try to keep their events a secret. I remember when Rave culture first started to become big in the Bay Area. Imported from the UK, raves became gatherings where you had to receive an email, that then led you to a random spot (like a gas station), where you then finally found the address of the out the way industrial warehouse where the music was going down. Unlike their Hippie forebears, who were more than happy to create massive open music festivals to advertise to the world their own brand of social revolution, it always seemed like Ravers didn’t want their events to even be found out at all. Once that happened, there was always the risk that the drunken frat boy crowd catching wind of it and ruining the party for everyone. For some, the less people clued into the subculture, the better.
Just like On The Road was used to sell a lifestyle, albeit one that America in the 1950’s needed a good reefer-laced dose of, alternative societies still to this day get commodified by corporate America all too quickly. Just head down to your local shopping mall (if you dare). There’s sure to be a chain “alternative” store in there somewhere, selling 80’s Metal T-Shirts, suspenders and combat boots. Even Starbucks can be considered to be some sort of riff on the neighborhood “artsy” coffeeshop, where intellectual writers might meet to discuss their latest novel (sans the tobacco-stained walls and graffiti covered bathrooms). Music genres that were once original and rebellious, from Jazz to Rock, now find their way into into obnoxious car commercials. Nothing like hearing the anti-authoritarian anthem of your youth blaring back at from in a Cadillac advert. Grrrrr…. Seems like Punk and Hip-Hop still maintain an edge on all of this though. Maybe they’re still too misunderstood or threatening to get watered down by marketing executives- for now anyway. I just couldn’t see a muzak version of NWA rapping “Fuck Tha Police” being quaintly piped-in through the speaker system of my local Cheesecake Factory…
Just remember, no matter how many pairs of Levi’s you buy, no matter your brand of espresso machine- you’ll never be a Beatnik (or anything else for that matter). It’s mindset, it’s a way of life- not a carefully crafted amalgam of perfect looking fashions that you found on the internet. You gotta live it, or don’t even bother. You know what being “hip” is? Having the confidence to be, to do, and to think, for yourself. Create something new, inspire people, do something different with yourself. Don’t believe in everything you’ve been told by the authority figures in your life, nor buy the junk they try to sell you. Image means nothing. It’s not easy to be somebody who stands out from the crowd, but search out the truth for yourself. Find it within yourself, find it outside yourself, find it on the road…
A worthwhile book to check out is Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Mealby journalist Eric Schlosser- it always had a big impact on me. I’ll admit it, before reading that book I still had a nostalgic craving once in a while for those mini-cheeseburgers at McDonalds (I think this had some connection to childhood). A happy clown, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese- they were all created to seduce children into eating this slop- and make them customers for life. But Oh Lordy, after reading Fast Food Nation, I NEVER ate fast food again. No need to get into the specifics about industrialized meat production- I’m sure you can use your imagination here. Also, a pretty interesting read regarding the mass production and homogenization of pretty much everything in our modern world today: from suburban housing to chain stores. The more efficient our economy gets, the more mass-produced and devoid of identity our landscape becomes. The car-driven modern areas of Atlanta look the same as the modern suburbs of Los Angeles, of Silicon Valley, of Houston, and well, just about everywhere is becoming the same as everywhere else. Frappuccino anyone?
More than giving me a Clockwork Orange style bodily revulsion to junk food, the passage that always stuck in my mind more than any other was the chapter that detailed a marketing conference in Colorado where Christopher Reeves was the guest speaker. This was after his tragic riding accident that had left him paralyzed from the neck down. Prior to his speech, the audience heard from numerous marketing gurus, motivational speakers and house-flipping experts, but it was Reeves’ powerful speech (and Schlosser’s description of its effect on the audience) that still stays with me to this day:
“As the loudspeakers play the theme song from Chariots of Fire, Lowe wheels Christopher Reeve onstage. The crowd applauds wildly. Reeve’s handsome face is framed by longish gray hair. A respirator tube extends from the neck of his blue sweat shirt to a square box on the back of his wheelchair. Reeve describes how it once felt to lie in a hospital bed at two o’clock in the morning, alone and unable to move and thinking that daylight would never come. He thanks the crowd for its support and confesses that the applause is one reason he appears at these events; it helps to keep his spirits up. He donates the speaking fees to groups that conduct spinal-cord research. He has a strong voice but needs to pause for breath after every few words. “I’ve had to leave the physical world,” he says. A stillness falls upon the huge arena. “By the time I was twenty-four, I was making millions,” he continues. “I was pretty pleased with myself. . . . I was selfish and neglected my family. . . . Since my accident, I’ve been realizing . . . success means something quite different.” Members of the audience start to weep. “I see people achieve these conventional goals,” he says in a mild, even tone. “None of it matters.”
His words cut through all the snake oil of the last few hours, calmly and with great precision. All of those in the arena, no matter how greedy or eager for promotion, all 18,000 of them, know deep in their hearts that what Reeve has just said is true – too true. Their latest schemes, their plans to market and subdivide and franchise their way up, the whole spirit now gripping Colorado, seem to vanish in an instant. Men and women up and down the aisles wipe away tears, touched not only by what this famous man has been through but also by a sudden awareness of something hollow in their own lives, something gnawing and unfulfilled.”
Ouch, I don’t think you can be human and not feel something reading that passage. I think our culture often pressures us into pursuing these conventions goals as the be all end all of our puny existences: a degree, a flashy car, the model girlfriend, a prefabricated house in the suburbs. All of these things can be nice- but it’s kinda like drinking a spoonful of Draino: sure it cleans you out- but it leaves you feeling hollow inside…
What conventional goals are you grinding it out for day-to-day? I’ll be the first to admit I get caught up in bullshit that in the end is completely meaningless. Were I paralyzed or blinded tomorrow: losing my temper in traffic, feeling crummy about work, comparing myself to other people- it would all really just amount to a hill of beans wouldn’t it? Appreciate your life, your health, your friends and family, the lover you wake up next to in the morning, a roof over your head- it may not be there forever. In fact, I guarantee you it will not all be there forever- not even Superman.
“A president is a high-level official who is elected to carry out a function. He is not a king, not a god. He is not the witch doctor of a tribe who knows everything. He is a civil servant. I think the ideal way of living is to live like the vast majority of people whom we attempt to serve and represent.”
-Jose Mujica, President of Uruguay (2010-2015)
Wow, what a f’n refreshing breath of unpolluted air this guy is. Often given the nickname “The World’s Humblest President” or “The World’s Poorest President”, Mujica broke the mold on how a head of state should behave. Although no longer the president of his country, his example, values, philosophy and governing style should be adopted by all political leaders- from all sides of the spectrum. Too bad Mr. Mujica was only in office for 1 term (I believe the Uruguayan constitution has strict term limits for their Presidents), for I believe he could have done a lot more for his country and the world. At the very least, Uruguayans have had a political leader that they can hold their heads up and feel proud of.
Jose Mujica has certainly had a life worthy of a Hollywood film. And like Nelson Mandela, he spent many years in appalling prison conditions before gaining release and becoming an elected politician. In his youth, Mujica joined the revolutionary Marxist “Tupamaros” guerrilla group. The Tupamaros were named after the Inca King, Tupac Amaru, who resisted the Spanish. Hmm, Tupac Amaru: sounds like a rapper I heard of once… Now I’m not saying everything they did was great or justified, but he and his cohorts did dedicate their movement to helping the poorest in their society. A string of bank robberies, shootouts and kidnappings brought them funds to continue their insurgent war and distribute food and money to the slum dwellers. But their violent tactics soon turned popular support against them, and an army crackdown and subsequent right wing coup d’etat saw the Tupamaros either all killed or imprisoned.
Mujica was put into the worst of the worst conditions during his incarceration, and even staged 4 daring, yet unsuccessful escape attempts- most notably when he and 100 fellow prisoners tunneled out of Punta Carrenas prison. Despite all this bravery, Mujica was soon recaptured. He was even shot 6 times in a confrontation with the police, yet somehow survived. His years in prison were often in unsanitary solitary confinement, and his bed was an empty metal horse trough. According to Mujica himself, he ended up suffering from hallucinations and other related forms of paranoia during these times. All in all, he was to spend a total of 13 years in prison before finally being released with the restoration of democracy in Uruguay in 1985. “I’ve no doubt that had I not lived through that I would not be who I am today. Prison, solitary confinement had a huge influence on me. I had to find an inner strength. I couldn’t even read a book for seven, eight years – imagine that!”
Upon his release, he renounced violence and peacefully entered democratic politics getting elected as congressional representative in 1994, and then a senator in the 2000’s. He handily won the office of the President in 2010. As his country’s head of state, Mujica was notably more calm than his guerrilla days (he was in his late 70s by this point). He worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of the most desperate in society and to break the violence of the drug cartels by legalizing marijuana. In perhaps his most prominent moment on the global stage, he addressed the UN General Assembly in 2013 and urged his fellow humans to eschew an existence shackled to material consumption by trying to return to lives based on simplicity, human relationships, love, friendship, family and adventure. Why the heck aren’t more politicians around like this guy?!? Jose Mujica: I formally nominate you to be the official President of freethinking slackers the world over!
What’s Jose Mujica doing now? I’m trying to find some info on him post-retirement, but not much has come up. He occasionally does some interviews, and as far as I can tell, he just enjoys his simple life on his farm with his beloved wife and three-legged dog. Good for him: A Life Well Lived.
I think I’ve always been a penny-pincher. No shame in admitting it, I don’t see what the problem is. Sometimes, it’s just really hard to justify dumping out precious life-sustaining greenbacks on trivial material things I don’t really need. I remember how my Scottish Grandma, who came from a family of coal miners and lived through the Great Depression, would always chide me for tearing the Christmas wrapping paper on my presents as a kid. She’d actually try to save it and use it for next year! Waste Not, Want Not. Her attitude always left an impression on me, even though as a 6 year-old I simply for the life of me couldn’t fathom where she was coming from. Could be because myself and my family are all immigrants from different countries, but I’m constantly trying to find new ways to cut corners on food, bills and entertainment.
Our society is a without a doubt an extremely image oriented, money driven, mass consumption culture. Every moment and every hour we are constantly bombarded with images, advertisements, radio jingles, billboards and internet pop-ups trying to get us to part with our hard-earned dollars. Clothes? Clothes are so expensive! Heck, so much stuff that you can get on Ebay or thrift stores. And you can’t take that Mercedes Benz with you to heaven when you die, can you? And what is it about a Mercedes Benz that is so much more special than a used Honda (besides social status among other snobby people)? Both transport you from point A to point B in exactly the same manner. Your luxury, 3-Ton Tuna Boat SUV? You’re sitting in traffic just the same as the poor bastard sitting next to you, though I bet the TV commercial depicting it (and you) triumphantly scaling Mt. Everest looked pretty exciting at the time. I HAVE TO HAVE IT- RIGHT NOW. Yeah, it might make you feel high and satisfied for a little while, but then, just like a hit of that cheap crack cocaine, the happiness soon fades…
OK, I’ll concede that some of you guys out there buy flashy cars because that’s what some flashy women are drawn to. You probably even got some sex out of it. Could you still have gotten some nookie with one of those Kim Kardashian clones without the shiny rims? In my experience, the best women out there in the world (and there’s plenty of them) aren’t gold diggers. They’re the ones that actually are attracted to guys with a sense of humor, intelligence, personal self-worth and creative talents. Be at ease with who you are, learn how to make sushi, be a freestyle MC on stage: what member of fairer sex could resist you?
But you know what living within my means has really given me? Freedom. The freedom to do what I want and pursue the projects in life that stimulate me intellectually and artistically. Wasting money on expensive clothes, fancy dinners, the latest smartphone, going clubbing and paying $15 for cocktails- get tha fuck outta here! My crappy old model cell phone transmits calls and texts just fine thanks, and I don’t have a monthly $100 bill to go along with it. Owning a car, ouch. According to a AAA study, that’s on average $8,698 a year. Paying gas, taxes, repairs, new tires, insurance etc etc. Now times that by 10: almost 90K! What could you do with an extra $90,000 in your life? I know in many parts of American you simply have no choice but to drive (I think I’ll another blog post about that later), but at least try and live close to your work, school, a supermarket etc. You’d be surprised how it really ain’t that bad to walk, ride a bike, or take a bus a short distance. Fresh air, a little exercise, smell the flowers, ya feel me? Driving too much is linked to all sorts of health problems, not to mention poor sleep, psychological stress and lower quality of life. Plus the fact that we’re all slowly killing the environment one safari trip to the post office at a time.
The best things in life are free my friends (or pretty free): Some bourbon sipped in the warm summer evening, watching the world go by in cafe, playing guitar with your friends, camping and grilling in the great outdoors, playing frisbee on the beach with you dog, some wacko, alternative theater cooperative’s latest offering down at the weirdo artists’ squat, binge watching Netflix while necking with your honey. Hell, grow some weed in your yard, then you don’t even have to pay for it. Save your pennies for a backpacking trip through Central America: you’ll have life-changing adventures and memories that will last you till your deathbed.
If you have to choose between breaking your back for a tuna boat SUV- or memories, which would you prefer?
Hey, I’ll admit it: I don’t know shit about Punk Rock (I’ve always been partial to Metal myself). In fact, I can’t even understand why people listen to it. I’ve been to some shows, but it just ain’t my cup of tea. Maybe I’m just not pissed off enough? One of my earliest memories was as a little kid, being given a ride on the shoulders of my babysitter’s punk boyfriend at a street market in Camden, London. This was in the early Eighties, so I guess the subculture was in full swing at this time. He had a big, brightly colored mohawk, a black leather jacket and was really tall. So, I got to hold on to the back of his neck and sit on his shoulders while looking down at the bobbing heads of the crowd below me. That’s about as close to being a badass as I could ever hope to be.
However, lucky for me, I have a super-cool little sister that I invariably have to live through, as my adventures and lifestyle just don’t ever seem to measure up to everything she’s done so far in life: living in squats, criss crossing the country on freight trains, fronting a gutter punk band from New Orleans and touring Europe. She also has A LOT of tattoos. I thought it best that I interview her as the best way to educate me properly on the philosophy of Punks today and how they’ve carved out their own distinct Counterculture, fashion, music and lifestyle. My sister, Corrina, currently works at a needle-exchange/HIV testing drop-in center for homeless youth in San Francisco and sings with her new band, Goop. One thing I can say about her: she lives life on her own terms, to the MAX, and shows no sign of slowing down… Here she is singing with her old band a few years back:
You can listen to the full MP3 recording at the bottom of the post:
So tell me about being a Punk- what’s it mean to you? “I think it kinda stems from being a young person who feels like they don’t fit in. But instead of saying that you’re ashamed of that, you kinda take it and embrace it- whatever that means to you. Oh yeah? You guys think I’m a freak. Well I’m awesome! That’s what punk rock means to me, and maybe also rejecting a lot of what mainstream society tells you to do. Kinda just making your own rules. That’s kind of the root of it, but I think like anything that’s a subculture, it can kind of turn into a “culty” religion. People can get real confused with it and people start making their own rules and give people shit if they don’t follow them. But I think the root of it for people who get into it for more than a couple weeks (laughs), is that they’re dissatisfied with society in general, are upset by it, and kind of want to make their own society- its a sub-culture for misfits.”
How did you get drawn into this subculture? “My first punk show I went to when I was 14. I think I got drawn into it first through Grunge, but before that it was kind of like the Hippie subculture, like you and your friends- teenagers who were into that. And it was a subculture where it was OK to smoke pot, its OK to drink alcohol- you don’t have to “Just Say No”- which was a revelation to me, those DARE people came to my Middle School and whatnot. I also think the 90s were kinda cool for RiotGrrl, which was a type of subculture from Punk. It’s “Third-Wave” Feminism- I might totally have that wrong- but there were a lot of girls picking up guitars and drums n’ shit. That was kinda like a big thing, even in the mainstream for a hot minute, bands like L7 and Hole. So that really inspired me. I really liked Rock N’ Roll and I think my love for Rock N’ Roll kept getting me introduced to better and better bands and a lot more underground bands… I think a lot of the underground punk scene is all about community, and I think a lot of people are looking for that- especially when they’re kids. That’s why a lot of people are drawn into subcultures. I feel that I was drawn into the Punk subculture instead of some weird cult or some weird, racist skinheads… At least Punk was like, “Nah- just be a freak, it’s OK”
Tell me about your band, your music and what you’re trying to express? “My band right now is called Goop, I started playing music at age 12 and my first cover was “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, not so punk, but the heart was there. I played in a lot of bands since, and played in a band called Crackbox, and we were a band for about 5 years and put some records out. I then filled in for a touring band called Star Fucking Hipsters, toured Europe- which was a side-project of a band called Leftover Crack. But my current band is called Goop, I play guitar and sing. We’re all pretty much from the Bay Area and we write a lot about gentrification, alienation, hating people, hating the government. We’re definitely not Libertarians, we hate the government, but not in the Republican kind of way- more in the anarchist, do-it-yourself subculture. We can make a culture and we can make a community by reaching out to our neighbors. If nobody’s gonna put your record out, you just do it yourself. And you help out your poor friends- if someone you know doesn’t have a place to stay, or someone’s little brother is homeless, you take him in and try to take care of everybody that needs a hand and try not to be judgmental. So, I think we write a lot of songs about that. We also have a song where Johnny (my songwriting partner) writes about jacking-off in school. Some of it’s tongue-in-cheek, some of its funny, some of its for fun, and some of its political.”
What’s the core philosophy of punk? “I think its different for a lot of people, its so varied and there’s so many different kinds of punk, so many different subcultures of punk, so for everyone its kind their own thing. I think its just not believing what other people tell you to do just cause its expected. Following your own path, doing what feels right to you. Maybe it’s very Anton LeVey: do your own thing, don’t hurt other people- “Do As Thou Wilt”… I mean every society has their own normal and social standards, but maybe someone doesn’t want to follow the family business, in some cultures you don’t want to get married young. There’s actually punks from all over the world… I’m on a compilation with another band from Indonesia. Some of the most punk rock people I’ve ever met are from Mexico.”
If an Alien landed here in a UFO and wanted to learn about Earth’s culture, how would you explain Punk to them? “Its about being creative, it’s about even if you don’t know how to play Rock N’ Roll or do art, or sing, you don’t know how to start a non-profit or start a homeless shelter- you just make it happen. You do it- even if you suck at it. Hey, you did it: Good Job! Let’s celebrate it, even if you don’t get to go to art school. It’s like, “Hey man, do you wanna play drums in our band?”… I don’t think it speaks to everyone. I think most most people are generally happy-go-lucky. I’m gonna generalize, but I don’t think Punk normally…people aren’t drawn to it that much if they’re like: “Yeah man, everything’s SO cool!” All Punk’s different: there’s weird Hari Krishna punks, there’s Christian punks (in my mind they’re not really Punk), but I can’t stop people from playing the guitar.”
You were riding the rails for a long time, hopping freight trains- can you tell me a bit about that? “That was cool, that goes way beyond Punk, but there was some older punks that got the younger one’s into doing that, but train hopping has been going on since the Great Depression- if not longer before that. But for a lot of the people who have embraced DIY culture (“Do It Yourself” culture which is big in the Punk scene) getting around for free was one of the things you could do. And along with squatting, which is finding an empty house and making it your own, cause well, rent costs a lot, takes up a lot of your time if you’re working at a job you hate. It gives you a lot of time to work on creative projects or activist projects, or picking your butt or shooting drugs or whatever you want to do.”
I choose picking my butt. “Yeah, I do to, but it gets a little old. Yeah, so you can get from one end of the country to another, and people wrote about it in books like Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation. Its a very romanticized American culture type of thing. People do it in Latin America as well to work or to get from one place to another in a much more dire situation. Also, a lot of young kids who are squatters or punks come from really fucked up households, and get kicked out when they’re really young and they don’t want to go into the system, they don’t want to go into foster care, so one really good way to get from point A to Point B is riding a freight train- if you’re an good at it. Most of us were pretty bad at it and got caught a lot! [laughs] Its one way for adventure, a way to see the country, for next to no money. I could stop somewhere and wash dishes for a while, fly a sign or panhandle or play guitar- I didn’t really like panhandling, but if I ran out of money from my crappy pizza parlor job and I was in the middle of nowhere… I don’t know, lots of adventures, lots of freedom.”
And living in squats: is that a big part of the Punk ethos, or some people just don’t want to spend a lot of money or can’t afford their own place? “I think it’s all of the above, and there’s probably a lot of punks who don’t even know what squatting is. I mean Punk has gone into the mainstream culture, maybe it always has been, look at the Sex Pistols. Like I said, there’s a lot of different types: there’s kids, I feel bad for them, they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, shitty suburbs, or maybe they’re queer, they don’t feel like they fit in, they get picked on in school and they hear a Green Day song and they think, “Holy Shit! These guys are talking about not being liked and jacking off, I like this!” Take some underground magazine, for example Maximum Rock and Roll, it’s a free Punk magazine that’s been around forever- that’s kinda a lifeline for a lot of kids. Now there’s the internet and you can download tons of free punk music and hear voices of people from around the world who feel the same way you do… I don’t think [living in squats] is for everyone and there’s people who squat who don’t know anything about Punk, but it is something that if you’re in the weird underground, crusty punk scene or you’re homeless youth, or a lot of activist type punks, and there’s a crossover, they might squat for lots of different reasons, A) they can’t afford it or B) they want to work on projects or they just don’t believe ethically that they should have to spend their life slaving away to give money to somebody else. Especially places like the Bay Area that used to be a Mecca for underground culture but now rents are $3000 a month. I mean most school teachers don’t make that much, nurses and construction workers don’t make that much- most working-class people are getting pushed out of the Bay. So, if you think about the artists who want to spend most of their time making art, and they used to be able to pay next to nothing for sharing an apartment with a bunch of people or an art co-op, all of those places have all been shut down, so squatting was something a lot of artists, creative people and musicians did. And a lot of punks, like if you read old books about Punk, you can read about bands like The Slits and The Clash in the very beginning, they were all squatters. It just gives you a lot of time to work on things that you’re passionate about but that the world doesn’t think is important until somehow you make a name for yourself and then all of a sudden everyone’s like, “Oh wow- this person’s so creative and important!” But until then, you just have to do your shitty day job and squat.”
I could have typed out more of this interview, but I was getting tired of transcribing it all! My sister’s mic is a little quieter than mine in the beginning, but equalizes around 1:45:
Instead of my usual roster of drunken, hedonistic, broke-ass losers, I thought I’d write a more uplifting post about an artist who has actually had some great success from their work- even when they were mired in the depths of despair. Yes, JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series of books. OK, so she’s not exactly Marcel Proust. And although I don’t consider her really a wild “Bohemian” like some of the other misfits I tend to profile in this blog, she is still, first and foremost, a writer- and a very successful one at that. Not that money is the be all end all of everything, but I do give her massive credit for hooking a new generation of kids back into the pleasure of books and reading. And her true life story is certainly one of quite prolific creativity, resilience and personal inspiration. Sometimes, we all hit rock bottom. As in, falling-on-your-ass-in-the-gutter-rock-fucking-bottom. So the only place you can possibly go from there is up, right?
Born in England in 1965, JK Rowling seemed like she was on her way to a somewhat interesting, educated Middle Class life. She graduated from college, and was working in London as a researcher for Amnesty International. It was on a trip to Manchester via Kings Cross station that she became delayed on the train and the inspiration for the Harry Potter books were born. Harry, his sidekicks and the plots of the other 6 novels pretty much “just came to her”. She started simply by scribbling her ideas out by hand onto scraps of paper whenever she could. But, this was only a small seed, and it took many years and a series of traumatic struggles before her novels would finally come to any fruition at all.
About six months into writing the first book, Rowling’s life started to go wrong- really wrong. Her mother died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 45. Her mother’s death deeply effected her, and probably led to wanting a fresh start in life somewhere different. So, Rowling moved to Porto, Portugal to teach ESL English for a while and soon met her future husband, a Portuguese journalist. They were soon married, and after an earlier miscarriage, Rowling gave birth to her first child. But her marriage, by all reputes an abusive one, didn’t last longer than a year and she soon divorced her husband, and fled with her daughter back to England along with the first three chapters of Harry Potter in her suitcase.
Back in the UK, Rowling made the journey up to Scotland where her sister lived so she could get back on her feet and restart life with her new daughter. But, luck was hard to find for her in these times and things only went from bad to worse. She found herself a broke, single mom, unemployed and on the dole. This situation remained unchanged for a good number of years during her time in Edinburgh. In her words: “I never expected to mess up so badly that I would find myself in an unheated, mouse-infested flat, looking after my daughter. And I was angry because I felt I was letting her down.”
Rowling also admits to feeling near suicidal depression during this time, as well as her ex seeking her out and having to file a restraining order against him. “I was definitely clinically depressed. And that’s just characterized for me by, a numbness, just a sort of coldness and an inability to believe that you will feel happy again or that you could feel light-hearted again,” she said. “It’s just all the color drained out of life really.”
Whiling away her days in a nearby cafe, Rowling would continue writing her first novel with her sleeping child in a pram by her side. It was only this artistic outlet, and her young daughter that kept her impassioned to simply try to improve her life in any way that she could. At this point, it was all she had. She had to make make it happen. There was simply nothing left for her to do. Failing at writing: what difference did it make? Her whole life was up to that point was one big succession of failures and disappointments, one after another. So what if she tried and failed again: there was absolutely nothing to lose, was there?
Well, we all know the story from here: the first Harry Potter novel was eventually published and became the runaway international success story most of us are familiar with. JK Rowling went from being a battered, stalked, welfare mom, living in a freezing cold apartment to being, as rumor would now have it, “richer than the Queen herself”. The Harry Potter books have become the best selling book series in history, somewhere in excess of 400 million copies. Rowling now no doubt lives a life of comfort, ease and well-deserved financial security. She has also been a prolific philanthropist, using her newfound fame and fortune to aid single parents, anti-poverty charities, and fight multiple sclerosis.
I think the point of all of this, in terms of the creative process, is that you gotta produce. Even when life has shit in your scrambled eggs, and then kicked you down in the dirt some more. Hell, even if life is pretty good: if you’re a painter, a sculptor, a street busker, an aspiring actor- create something. Anything. Make it happen, you never know where it might lead. Even if it’s crap to begin with, you can always fix and edit it later on. I’m a firm believer in simply getting started no matter how tough it is, and then worry about how it looks later on down the line. Get over that hump in you life: whether its poverty, depression, breakups or clogged drains. Probably success will not reward you the same way JK Rowling found it, but if your life sucks right now, you have nothing to lose do you? So go make it happen, any which way you can.
What’s your opinion: Does hitting rock bottom light the fire under our asses to make better art? Do we have to suffer to become great?
Yet what does success really mean? I suppose this can be subjective from individual to individual, but I think it goes without saying that the United States in particular is a very success driven society. And success in the US only means two things: Money and Fame. You could probably throw Power in there too, and then make it some combination of all three. People often judge each other on how much of each they have accumulated, and many break their back daily to achieve more. Even our presidents are often voted into office simply by virtue of the fact that they have achieved financial success or media fame. If they have been successful in these avenues, then surely they’re fit to run the country. They are the apotheosis of all that is most important in society. Everything else is secondary, and those who have not achieved Money, Fame and Power are worthless losers fit only for the glue factory. The poor, the sick, the elderly, even the average, had best get out of the way lest they block the heaven-like ascent of their Darwinian superiors…
All this driven desire for success can create a lot of pressure on us as a whole. I know for myself, sometimes I start listening to the voices in my head judging me for all that I haven’t accomplished. Should I have more money? Own property? Be more ambitious? How does my career compare with my high school classmates? There’s nothing worse than comparing yourself to others. Something in our society continually nags at us to always have these highfalutin’ goals that we’re always supposed to be pursuing, even at the expense of family lives, romantic lives, sleep and even our own sanity. Even when we achieve them, we’re supposed to remain dissatisfied and go on to achieve even more. You have a BA- go and get an MA. Oh, done with that,? Now go get a PhD!
What’s wrong with sometimes simply just being satisfied with what we have? There’s plenty of people out there in the world who are more than happy to just do a non-stressful job, come home and have their money for beer, video games and maybe little weed. An apartment, burritos for dinner, bbq’s on the weekend in the sun. Why is that considered abnormal somehow? Are we all supposed to be perpetually so ambitious all the time? And at what price?
In the town of Palo Alto, home of Stanford University and not far from Silicon Valley (apparently the pinnacle of success these day), high school age suicides rates are the highest in the country. According to many articles written about these kids, who are by and large very affluent and attending the best schools with the best life chances laid out before them like a red carpet, the pressure on them to be “the best” is insane. Even if the parents don’t singularly pressure their children to get into Harvard, the culture that surrounds them is implicit- whether they realize it or not. Does it make you a big disappointment if you don’t go on to become the Billionaire CEO of a technology startup? What if you just ended up opening a cafe instead, greeting the regular customers who came in and provided a chill, welcoming place for your neighborhood to socialize. Is one more “of merit” than the other?
It’s just never seemed that way to me. I cannot ever understand how spending the majority of my waking life clicking the enter key all day in a cubicle, stressed out as fuck, can ever be measured as some sort of benchmark of “success”. Sure, we can’t avoid work, but dying unfulfilled after a squandered life is nothing to boast about either. Our time on this Earth is merely transitory, and I hope that I can make the most out of it to the best of my ability.
Success to me is pursuing my dreams as they are individually true to me. And before I’m gone, more than anything else, I hope to have seen the strange foreign lands that come to me in my dreams. I hope to have done all the things that I wanted to do. As a Bohemian, money, prestige, fame and boasting rights have never really interested me. In fact, I don’t think I could ever be motivated enough to try and sacrifice my life simply to gain these things that don’t matter to me. I choose to fill my life with pleasure, adventure, music and passion. Life is to be cherished.
So what is success anyway when it comes down to it? Does he who dies with the most toys wins?
Little is known about the strange and fascinating world of the Bouzingos, a group of poets, misfits and malcontents who inhabited Paris in the 1830’s. Indeed, much of it is now only a myth that has become somewhat distorted through the mists of time. Their members did however exist as real people, the French poet Gerard de Nerval being the most famous. He was rumored to have owned pet lobster named Thibault that he took out on daily walk through the royal Tuileries gardens. Why did he do such a thing you might ask? Because as Nerval explains:
“Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? Or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gobble up your monadic privacy like dogs do.”
OK, that clears things up, though I can definitely say with certainty that no dog in my lifetime will ever know the secrets of the deep.
Nerval and his band of merrymakers set about offending pretty much everyone they could (this was probably pretty easy to do in the 1830’s). They believed that the middle and upper classes should be provoked and made to feel uncomfortable by the idea of artists behaving badly. They reveled in their poverty, influencing the later Bohemians to do the same. These brazen scoundrels dressed in flamboyant costumes involving velvet capes, Arab garb and Cossack leather boots. Rumors abound that the Bouzingos (I have no idea where they got this name) hosted wild parties in their Parisian apartments where clothes were banned and wine was drunk from human skulls. They also had a disturbing penchant for busking on street corners using instruments that they had absolutley no idea how to play. I doubt they earned very much money, though I’m sure the upstairs neighbors threw the odd egg or rotten tomato their way after listening to these concerts for the umpteenth time.
Many of the Bouzingos also spent their time traveling, especially to “exotic” destinations like Italy, Turkey and Egypt. Nerval, perhaps inspired by his wanderings, created the “Club des Hashischins” along with his friends Theophile Gautier and Baudelaire. There, with other literary notables of the day, they held seances and experimented with opium and hashish from the Far East (and God know what else)- again probably terrifying the neighbors.
The Bouzingos can definitely be credited with being some of the first people to do the sorts of wacky things we come to expect from alternative-minded folks in the our own modern age: slumming it in a run-down area of town, offending conservative society with confrontational art, doing drugs and practicing open sexuality. Their mindset and lifestyle can be seen in the works of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists (Dali walked about town with his pet anteater), as well as even Punk Rock: anybody can play an instrument, right?
These folks seemed pretty freaking cool, and if I had access to a time machine, I’d definitely want to go back to the 1830’s and make their acquaintance. If I knew any French, I’d even try to have a conversation with them over a bottle of rotgut wine. I think any party where clothes are banned and cocktails are served in human skulls is my kind of Saturday night. Far more fun than dressing up in an itchy tuxedo and seeing the opera. Perhaps I should rename this blog “Romantic Bouzingo” instead of “Romantic Bohemian”, though I admit, it doesn’t have quite the same ring…
Would you consider yourself a Bouzingo? Is everything we do today as artists and malcontents just ripping off these guys? Did the Bouzingos lay the blueprint for the rest of us to come?