Culture To Go
Published two or three times a year since 1994 by the nasty-tempered Jeff "Spreading my opinions like a Singapore whore spreads AIDS" Koyen, Crank mixes the PC-baiting iconoclasm of a vile hatezine like ANSWER ME! (minus its racism and sexism) with the sophisticated savoir-faire of a mid-1960s men's magazine. A schizophrenic combination, to be sure; but it's an organic one, since Koyen is nothing if not sincere in his likes and dislikes.
Crank is an attractive, professionally designed publication that nevertheless reaches into the low-budget zinester's bag of tricks for a chuckle. There's the old reprinting-letters-out-of-context trick (hate notes from former roommates, poems solicited and then mercilessly mocked, threatening missives from Rush Limbaugh's attorneys), and detailed features on trepanation or turning road-kill raccoons into bombs. Such items may be sophomoric, but Koyen is careful to distance Crank from the types of zines in which you'd usually find such things. He rails with a mixture of penetrating social observation and pure bile against "trendy misanthropes" whose hatred of mankind is not as all-consuming as his own "teenage misfit revisionism" ("I was never strange, angry, queer, or misunderstood in high school," he confesses); and threatens to bash in the skulls of trust-fund anarchists, suburban Philadelphia scenesters (he eventually moved to New York, where he now writes a column for the New York Press), or yuppies who don't tip bartenders.
Perhaps Crank's internal logic is best summed up by the self-promoting Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap spoof in issue #4, which reads, in part, "If every one issue of Crank unites all mankind, it will be by omitting and eliminating all irrelevancies & redundancies & ridiculously bad record reviews & adolescent rants, added unto the Faith in One-Crank-Almighty, all-embracing, ever-evolving, ever-recreating Eternal Crank, & BY ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ELSE!" To which I can only add, Amen. ($3 from Jeff Koyen, P.O. Box 757, Stuyvesant Station, New York, NY 10009; firstname.lastname@example.org) (Joshua Glenn)
He Is Just A Rat
Exclaim! Brand Comics
Tired of pansy-ass heroes, elaborate panels of chronologically challenged images parading toward an inevitable Armageddon, and angst-ridden "adult" comics in which post-adolescent screwballs obsess on their inability to talk to women? He Is Just A Rat is the perfect cure for comic doldrums. But the thing is, he's not just a rat. He's a virulent, ax-wielding, foul-mouthed reincarnation of every bad-attitude rodent that ever had its neck snapped in a trap. The Rat lives in a generic city populated by roundish, grinning people with hamster ears. He works (occasionally) at the Nine-One-One convenience store, drinks a lot of beer and beats up the henchmen of a hapless international playboy sap, Kaspar D. Whitey.
But that's just the big picture. What really matters is the snarl of the Rat's snout as he slams the door on someone's face, his eyes squeezing shut as he takes a shit on the shoe of a menacing punk, the curl of his whiskers as he sits down to a bowl of Fruit Bugs and cyanide. Yeah, it's the little things make a great comic, and Tony Walsh pays attention to the details that take The Rat skittering past the boundaries of bad taste straight into the freak show of urban culture. Moreover, in true comic tradition, Walsh's occasionally intersecting side-plot is just as hilarious and requires even fewer brain cells to understand: Circus side-show leader Scrunky La Bong is after the Rat's pal, the good-natured Rotten Chicken Lips, who hides on the Island of Fearfulness amidst a family of walking gila monsters.
Hilarious, desperate, and totally without guile, The Rat is just rat enough to know he is just a rat and still not care. He's an antihero every bit as foul as you, but without your looks. I got the gift package for my brother the lawyer. Now he spends his days at the firm poring over the first three issues, fingering the Rat T-shirt he wears under his suit. Go get 'em Rat, he's thinking as he listens politely to the details of another craven lawsuit. ($2.75 from 7B Pleasant Blvd, #966, Toronto, Ontario, M4T 1K2 Canada; ian@ shmooze.net) (Hal Niedzviecki)
The Lost Manifestoes Of Camden Joy/
The Greatest Record Album Ever Told/
The Greatest Record Album Singer That Ever Was
Rag & Bone Shop/Tract Home Publications
For me, the best arts writing is always a desperate and failed attempt to channel deeply personal experience. It fails not just because that experience is so subjective (you present to your lover the Greatest Band in the World, the lover is unmoved, you realize we are all very alone), but also because the writing is not the art itself, and can never move an audience in exactly that way (writing about music is like dancing about architecture, etc.).
Desperate, failed, and beautiful comes the work of Camden Joy. Like the best arts writing, it isn't much concerned with whether you go out and buy the commodity (though you may be moved to), or in describing its component parts. Rather it seeks to create its own experience, informed by that moment of psychic blossoming that happens when great art hits its mark. In praising Frank O'Hara, Frank Black, Ronnie Spector, Son Volt, Al Green, Pavement, pornography, and the Mekons, or decrying Hollywood and other artistic betrayers (who will remain nameless here), Joy sings across his pages, articulate and occasionally incomprehensible. Pop culture obsessives will hear echoes of all sorts in Joy's voice--ecstatic art seraphs Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg, Greil Marcus and Lester Bangs--not to mention the wild cadences of crank religious missives. It's quite an earful.
Joy's rants/reviews initially took the form of single-page screeds posted on lampposts and dumpsters around NYC, which to me sounds as much like art school romanticism as proletariat soapboxing. But the typed and scrawled pages reproduced in Manifestoes have an oddball authority about them, calculated or not. The two "lost pamphlets'" titles--Greatest Album and Greatest Album Singer, about Frank Black's Teenager of the Year and Al Green, respectively--are odd little pieces of letterpress art that, at roughly 7,000 words a pop, try one's patience (especially the latter's unhinged race theories). But they never feel less than true to the author's experience, be it real or hallucinated; and like the best arts writing (which this, shamefacedly, is not, though I hope it serves its purpose), it makes you lust for a world of heightened feelings and values beyond the one we live in--just like art is supposed to do. ($4 each postpaid from Tract Home Publications, P.O. Box 14806, Portland, OR 97214.) (Will Hermes)
In the dancehall, as in life, it's still a man's world. The Jamaican reggae music industry has historically been dominated by male performers with few women having access to studio time, fewer still to distribution, the result being a group of female reggae "stars" you could count on one hand. But as these two collections make clear, it's the issue of access, rather than a lack of talent, that has kept reggae woman down.
Covering reggae past and present, respectively, Reggae Songbirds and Dancehall Queens offer a fairly comprehensive overview of the contributions of women in reggae. Songbirds showcases the female artists who recorded for Sonya Pottinger's High Note label, the only woman-run label in reggae history. Judging from the tracks on this compilation, Ms. Pottinger had an uncanny feel for seeking out strong songwriters and pairing them with solid vocalists whose sensitive interpretations lead the label to multiple hits in the 1970s. The disc contains rare, early singles from some of reggae's more popular chanteuses, including the smoky lover's rock gem "Sweet Brown Sugar" by Marcia Griffiths, and Judy Mowatt's early R&B ballad "I'm Alone" (both women would go on to back Bob Marley as two-thirds of the I-Threes). Perhaps more importantly, Songbirds contains tracks by artists such as Patsy (who offers a rock-steady take on Miriam Makeba's classic "Pata Pata," with help from Count Ossie), Sharon Black, and Lilian Williams, whose considerable talents never got them the exposure they deserved.
Where the artists of Sonya Pottinger's era relied on their singing skills to compete with their male counterparts, the modern dancehall scene has female artists copping the slack (and sexually explicit) lyrical styles of male stars such as Shabba Ranks. Most of the artists on Dancehall Queens are no exception, opting to "rule" their domain--as the inner sleeve photo suggests--on all fours. That said, some do it better than others. Lady Saw's rapid-fire delivery and vocal gymnastics make her pick-up advice to young men compelling ("no pretty car, no mansion, all you have to be is a damn bed stallion"), where China's "Cherry Garden" is just a lame attempt to shock. And not all of the artists rely on raw sexuality to get over: Worl-A-Girl ride the "Bam Bam" rhythm with authority on "Murder He Wrote," and Shelly Thunder's '80's hit "Kuff" is a catchy warning to "all men who cheat pon de woman." Although it would be easy to dismiss most of these queens for self-degradation, in the face of the current state of the reggae industry, the words of James Brown seem to apply: A woman has to use what she's got to get just what she want. (Rachel Joyce)
In between his '60s pop soul with the Box Tops and his current career as a contemptuous (and often contemptible) troubadour of the damned, Alex Chilton and Big Star recorded some of the most gorgeous albums of the 1970s. Tuneful, bright and plaintive, Big Star's music also told the story of the band's dissolution after commercial neglect, their third album a harrowing testament to Chilton's decaying morale and craft. 1970, recorded after the Box Tops and before Big Star, sees Chilton playing the chameleon, sampling a half-dozen styles on his way to developing the influential, Back-to-Britain power pop that would characterize the Big Star sound. (Chilton cultists might be familiar with some of these unfinished tracks from the import collection Lost Decade.) The steel guitar-tinged "Free Again" (in which Chilton shamelessly rhymes again with again--again and again) sounds more like the Byrds than the Byrds. "The Happy Song" starts like Donovan and ends like the Monkees; who could predict from this insipid ditty that five years later Chilton would be titling songs "Holocaust"?
While amiable enough to the ear, 1970 mostly appeals as a discarded chapter in a strange career. The melodic chorus to 1970's "Every Day As We Grow Closer" would be recycled a few years later as the bridge to #1 Record's superior "Give Me Another Chance." The strangely syncopated, half-boogie rock-star parody "All I Really Want is Money," in which Chilton aspires to fancy cars and swell cigars, also anticipates a future Chilton release: A live recording from Long Island's WLIR where the embittered musician would respond to a DJ's critical fawning with a mumbled reply: I hope it sells. What would Alex Chilton have become if it had? (Michael Tortorello)
E-Therapy With Dr. Katz
Dr. Katz has become something of a cult figure among cable cognoscenti, but now you can get his wit and wisdom online without the squiggle animation that drives some viewers batty. Located at Comedy Central's home page, Dr. Katz's "Auto-Diagnosis Form" comes complete with a disclaimer and poses a slew of psychoanalytical questions such as "How Do You Feel?" or "Have You Ever Had a Problem Bed-Wetting?" A gamut of replies are available, ranging from deliriously happy to psychotic to, well, confused. Dr. Katz's expert diagnosis is often immediately available (if not, you'll receive a reply via e-mail); one diagnosis I received advised that "If you continue to dwell on these problems, they will become bigger and bigger until they grow completely out of proportion and overwhelm you. Get yourself a tissue and calm down... that's it... go to your special quiet place. There now, all that's really wrong is your caps lock key is on." So what if it's not real advice? Dr. Katz is a heck of a lot cheaper, not to mention funnier, than any therapist I've come across. Katz junkies can also download video clips from upcoming episodes of the show, as well as some of Katz's most memorable moments. (Vickie Gilmer)
My major complaint with Neil Jordan's Interview With the Vampire was its visual tedium: The man is given millions of dollars to suggest the lysergic opulence of the vampire gaze, and all he can come up with is colored contacts? It's no wonder the thing came off like a Melrose Place Night at the Gay Nineties. Twice as nice at a microscopic percentage of the price, 1995's unjustly overlooked vampire flick Nadja finds its disorienting, time-out-of-time vibe through a mischievous juxtaposition of sharp black-and-white cinematography with smudgy, inebriated Pixelvision. In these zigzags between empty clarity and melodramatic swoon, director Michael Almereyda does what Jordan could not: He creates a language that deepens his fanged metaphor, rather than merely riding on its easy sensuality. For Almereyda, the mystery is less sex than the absence sex tries to fill, the hole where spirituality used to live.
The slight plot reruns Bram Stoker's Dracula in disaffected, young Manhattan; between the multiple Bela Lugosi references, Elina Lowensohn's flamboyant accent as the vampiress Nadja, and the flat cadences of Martin Donovan and Galaxy Craze's paradigmatic New Yorkers, Nadja feels at times like a Hal Hartley/Ed Wood collaboration. In other words, it can be very funny (especially a bug-eyed Peter Fonda as vampire-hunter Dr. Van Helsing). That the movie finally conveys more than that has to do with its startling images and the script, which, like the visuals, runs the alienated into the romantic and comes out somewhere honestly desperate. In the end, Almereyda rewrites Stoker's story, hammering a stake into the mysterious otherworldly only to pin it down and thus bring it back into human hands. "We are all animals," concludes this tale's Cassandra, "but there is a better way to live." (Terri Sutton)
Spirits of the Dead
Water Bearer Films
This 1968 anthology is a curious little window into a weird period of moviemaking. Freely adapting short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, three European directors show their strengths, quirks, and weaknesses while dealing with international casts that are more interesting in the abstract than the actual. Roger Vadim, at the time obsessed with Jane Fonda, directs her and brother Peter in a would-be melodrama of forbidden romance (scions of feuding families, not incest); Jane's wooden acting meshes neatly with a script requiring her to shout frequently a French name: "Hugues!" (or more accurately, "Oooooog!"). Louis Malle then guides cine-hunk Alain Delon through a doppelgänger tale about a cruel officer who has no war to fight, and so plays sadist. This one is supposed to be enlivened by Brigitte Bardot's appearance as a seasoned gambler, but her cat-eye makeup proves too distracting. Finally, however, there's Federico Fellini's somewhat infamous and mostly unseen "Toby Dammit," an excessively loose version of Poe's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head." Coming from the era of 8-1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, and Satyricon, this is a particularly juicy example of Fellini's decorative misanthropy: nuns with sunglasses, dwarves in suits, socialist priests who spout Roland Barthes, fawning TV interview shows, and an outrageous grilling of the Italian Oscars ceremony. As the main character, Terence Stamp is cadaverous and practically invisible playing a drunken actor imported to play Christ in a symbolic western. But he rouses himself for the bang-up ending, which is basically a wild ride to oblivion in a Ferrari. More so than the grotesque-character stuff, this segment presents Fellini as a moving-camera addict. (Phil Anderson)
H.L. Mencken overstated his case: There are a few rare occasions when somebody does indeed go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. Cutthroat Island is now officially the champion box office fiasco of all time; and if you think it might be fun to rent on video, good for a few laughs--well, get your dunce cap ready.
But the fact that this film stinks to high heaven doesn't explain why nobody went to see it. Nobody went to see it because nobody could buy the idea of Geena Davis as a pirate queen. Like most of our movie stars, Geena (I hope I can presume to call her that, she's so big-sisterly) is primarily a physical specimen: limbs long and slender, bold yet delicate jawline, softly protuberant lips, row upon row of flashing teeth--the very model of a pirate queen, I would have thought. I remember, however, sitting in the cinema last summer, when the trailer for Cutthroat Island came on. The minute Geena appeared, swinging her cutlass, the audience began to snicker. Oh, she looked just fine, on the outside. But there's a particular sort of human soul at the controls of her anatomical equipment, and that unconcealable soul--though it's amiable and charming, and I'm actually very fond of it--lacks gravitas. Why else would she divorce Jeff Goldblum, the most interestingly eccentric actor in Hollywood, only to marry Renny Harlin, producer/director of Cutthroat Island and possibly the biggest idiot in the whole world? (Steve Schroer)
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