Jethro Tull, 50 Years On. Should We Care?

It all started when I was thirteen years old. I got a job washing dishes at a restaurant in a bedraggled suburb just west of Baltimore. It was the sort of benighted Seventies joint where an uprooted pot plant was once stashed in the dishwasher in a paranoid panic that narcs were going to raid the kitchen. Clueless teetotaler, I turned the machine on to better hide the evidence. I spent four hours after closing time with my stoner best friend rinsing the limp mess in a huge colander and then drying out what was salvageable in the pizza oven.

Despite that fiasco, it was a great job for a kid who loved music. I was a late-night dial-turner, discovering the Stones through a radio show determined to expose the roots of rock by playing 78s of such blues legends as Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, and Bessie Smith. One particular midnight I was thunderstruck by the already broken-up Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” courtesy of the same college station’s wide-ranging programming. Problem was, though the Baltimore–D.C. area had a hopping concert scene, I wasn’t old enough to drive. This is where my job provided a huge benefit: The older cooks and waitresses took a shine to me, and whisked me along to all manner of rock concerts like I was some sort of team mascot. How lucky was I to see David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” tour? And to witness a maniacal Elton John hurling his piano bench around the stage? Not quite as mind-blowing as clips I’d seen of the dearly departed Jimi torching his axe, but heady stuff for a kid in junior high.

One cook at the restaurant was heavily into an FM station that served up a steady diet of prog rock. Plowing through the bins at the local Korvettes department store, I discovered I liked the genre’s album covers — Roger Dean’s trippy landscapes for Yes, H.R. Giger’s biomechanical temptress on the cover of Brain Salad Surgery — more than the music. Still, there was one supposedly prog (and undoubtedly oddball) outfit that blindsided me with rollicking licks and esoteric sonics: Jethro Tull. (The group is named after the eighteenth-century English agriculturalist who invented the seed drill, among other accomplishments.)

According to the Ministry of Information website, which provides historical tour info, Tull was at the Baltimore Civic Center on March 9, 1975. That’s when the author took these pictures.

I first saw Tull, fronted by multi-instrumentalist — most notably, the flute — and vocalist Ian Anderson, in 1975. I would see them many more times, because they seemed to swing through the area at least once a year during my teens. By then I’d earned enough money washing dishes to score a used 35mm Pentax, and so I became the gang’s documentarian. We could never afford the best seats, so my initial forays into concert photography came through a borrowed telephoto lens.

I have pictures of a zebra onstage with Tull (or, more accurately, someone in a zebra suit), and I’m pretty sure I remember some bouncy dung balls as well. The band’s costumes might be categorized as baroque psychedelic. At one concert, Anderson (born 1947) sported ribbed shoulder pads and a codpiece, like an athlete who’d forgotten to put on the final layer of his uniform. Which was fitting, because the lead singer–flutist-harmonicist practically never stopped gyrating — leaping, hopping, and strutting throughout the shows, using his flute alternately as baton and phallus when he wasn’t actually blowing into it.

Jethro Tull at the Baltimore Civic Center on March 9, 1975.

By this time Tull had already done the album that would assure them a niche in rock’s pantheon, 1971’s Aqualung. But tracks from that monster seller, including the title song and “Locomotive Breath,” were setlist mainstays in every show I saw. Art school and other pursuits put paid to my arena-rock days, but over the decades I have still turned to Tull when riff-riddled energy was required. Just a few years ago I had to rip out a ceiling to make room for recessed lighting in a basement art studio; Aqualung figured heavily in my playlist. The album’s bring-down lyrics about humanity’s sorry destiny as filthy vagabonds wandering the park benches of creation are strikingly countered by roller-coaster guitar breaks, exuberant flute passages, and all manner of melodic ascension. Oh — and Anderson has noted in interviews that the six-note earthquake that opens the title track owes a debt to Beethoven’s Fifth.

Still, I was thoroughly surprised when a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades Facebooked me about a spare ticket to see the Philadelphia stop of Jethro Tull’s golden anniversary tour. (Ken and I had been on the same baseball team that lost a close Maryland state playoff game to then-pitcher Cal Ripken Jr.) “Hell yeah,” I thought, “why not?” But first I wanted to look in the Voice’s archives. Any band that’s been in existence for half a century and sold tens of millions of albums — and hadn’t it won a Grammy at some point long after I stopped paying attention…? — must have gotten a lot of ink in a paper renowned for its rock ’n’ roll erudition.

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First I did an online search for “Jethro Tull, 1968,” the year their inaugural album, This Was, was released. This led me to January ’69, when Tull, already popular in England, were embarking on a U.S. tour. I was impressed to discover that the band’s first American appearance had been at the Fillmore East, on Second Avenue. Sure enough, I found them in the Voice’s January 23rd issue, listed in one of the Fillmore’s distinctively bordered ads, billed below Blood, Sweat & Tears but above the Savoy Brown Blues Band.

Sharing a gig with Savoy Brown wasn’t surprising, because This Was has a heavy blues edge, inspired in part by the band’s original guitarist and sometime vocalist Mick Abrahams. The tunes had a rumbling vibrancy allied with some cocky lyrics, such as these lines from “My Sunday Feeling”: “Won’t somebody tell me where I laid my head last night?/I really don’t remember/But with one more cigarette I think I might.”

L: from the January 23, 1969 issue. R: from February 13, 1969 – a second tour date in the NYC area.

But Anderson and Abrahams were having “creative differences,” and this would be the first and last Tull album on which anyone other than Anderson would sing lead or write any of the songs. In fact, the liner notes for the album state, “This was how we were playing then — but things change — don’t they?” And indeed, when Tull played their first stateside gig, they had a new guitarist, Martin Barre. They also garnered what might be their first U.S. review, which appeared in the Voice’s Riffs section. Written by Jennifer Gale, it follows a paragraph about headliner Blood, Sweat & Tears, and reads in full:

JETHRO TULL, also at the Fillmore, does nice things for your head. I found myself sitting crosslegged in a dark little corner, really digging them — but I was told that you had to watch them, which I couldn’t because they did some very weird things on stage. Ian Anderson does that flute thing beautifully (also vocals), and drummer Clive Bunker is dynamite. When an audience listens to a drum solo for more than 3½ minutes and applauds wildly when it’s over, you know it’s got to be something else.

Tull’s first review in America?

Did the band see this review? Hopefully, because after this lonely paragraph it was pretty rough sledding for them in the pages of the Voice. It’s worth noting that Gale singled out “some very weird things on stage.” I only wish she had elaborated, as anyone who’s seen Tull will remember how those elaborate costumes and vaudeville-level stage antics add compelling (and often funny) visual layers to their eclectic tunes.

I also checked to see if the record company was doing its job. Sure enough, I found an ad running a month later, to coincide with the U.S. release of This Was, filled with fulsome — if purposefully ironic — praise.

Voice music editor Robert Christgau was having none of it, though. In one of his always sublimely terse Consumer Guide columns, he summed up Tull’s first effort: “Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your nearest G.O. blues band. I find his success very depressing. C-”

The next two albums, Stand Up and Benefit, both garner grudging B-minuses.

Next I turned to the April 22, 1971, issue, and Tull are on tour again, this time to promote Aqualung, their musings on Man’s creation of God selling well enough to hit No. 7 on the Billboard charts. As is obvious from the sold out banner, the lads from Blackpool were beginning to conquer America.

Touring as “Aqualung” climbed the charts.

And Aqualung was a hit with the voters (if not the editor) of the first Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. Competition was tough — the Who, the Stones, Van Morrison, John Lennon, Sly and the Family Stone, Joplin, Bowie — but the bizarre longhairs with a lead flutist landed in the No. 22 spot, ahead of Alice Cooper and Led Zeppelin.

Christgau may not agree, but that other Goliath of rock criticism, the Rolling Stone hive mind, eventually placed Aqualung at No. 337 on its list of the 500 best rock albums.

Early on during this spiral down the memory hole, I checked the Voice’s old-school, in-house card catalog, which, though spotty, was most thoroughly maintained from the late 1960s through the early ’90s. Hmmm…absolutely nothing for “Jethro Tull”? Really?

And no way it’d be under “Tull, Jethro,” right?

Well, I didn’t exactly hit pay dirt, but there was a single entry.

In the October 6, 1987, issue, critic Peter Watrous used Tull as an example of corporate rock at its most smarmy, in contrast to the stripped-down garage rockers Pussy Galore. He quotes a press release: “Chrysalis Records is pleased to be releasing on September 16th the new album from Jethro Tull, Crest of a Knave.” After Watrous rails against such outrages as “the Marshall Crenshaw/Wynton Marsalis axis of mood thieves,” he continues with the Tull promo copy: “Earlier this year, Chrysalis Records and Ian Anderson worked on a number of listening sessions to help determine what it is the Tull fan wants and expects in a Jethro Tull album.”

A bit further on, Watrous claims, “Pussy Galore is rock without the romantic idea of emotions, and it uncovers how sentimentality manipulates, even with the best intentions: emote here, eat now, everything in orderly fashion, control.” He then continues hanging Tull upon their own promotional petard: “Targeting 12 markets around the country where Jethro Tull has been most popular throughout the years, we enlisted the help of the local AOR station to recruit 50 or so listeners in each city to participate in these sessions.” The Chrysalis flacks go on to tell us that people of various ages and professions rated the songs so as to “help in choosing what tracks would be included on the final version.… Crest of a Knave is the result of this very successful project.”

Watrous obviously didn’t like focus groups, which in this case were edging into crowdsourcing. But it’s really not surprising that Ian Anderson, a world-girdling crowd-pleaser, proved a presciently savvy networker back when the internet wasn’t much more than a fantasy in such sci-fi novels as Neuromancer.

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But the saga of Crest of a Knave doesn’t stop there. A little more than a year after it was released, Tull’s audience-tested album unexpectedly won the inaugural Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental, from judges who were obviously grappling with the parameters of the expanding genre. Since other nominees included AC/DC, Jane’s Addiction, and the heavily favored Metallica, no member of Jethro Tull was on hand to accept the prize. Perhaps, for a band that has always displayed an almost Monty Python–ish level of absurdity in its members’ stage personas, this out-of-left-field award is appropriate for its one and only gilded gramophone.

So how do Jethro Tull come across in 2018?

Well, at the Mann Center in Philadelphia on Saturday night they cranked out a kicking version of the flute-fest “Bourée,” Anderson’s update of a Bach composition, which appeared on the second Tull album, Stand Up. The single song that made up 1972’s conceptual send-up Thick as a Brick was played somewhat in reverse, eschewing the acoustic buildup and going straight to the time-changing marching song that threads through the album. Brisk and bouncy (and shortened to maybe one-tenth of its original 43-minute-plus length), it ended with sweet guitar strumming, the crowd singing along with the closing lines.

Jethro Tull performing in Philadelphia, September 8, 2018.

At one point Anderson commiserated with the audience about drum solos that go on “for hours [pause] days [pause] weeks,” and then the band dove into “Dharma for One,” which was on the first album and was co-written by then-drummer Clive Bunker — and so of course always includes a showcase for the man with the sticks. Just like at the Fillmore in 1969, the crowd half a century on went wild.

“Farm on the Freeway,” from that groupthink claptrap collection (and Grammy winner) Crest of a Knave, was a revelation, sizzling with melodic reverb. Like all the songs played that night, it was accompanied by quick-cutting graphics on a large screen behind the band — in this case, of tractors and freeways. Certainly the graphics are illustrational, but they’ve also been edited to match the rhythmic steeplechases of the music. And the “Farm” lyrics — “What do I want with a million dollars and a pickup truck?/When I left my farm under the freeway” — proved surprisingly emotional.

Jethro Tull performing in Philadelphia, September 8, 2018.

Anderson has been gamely playing “Too Old to Rock ’n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!” since 1976. In Philly, four decades on, balding and potbellied, he sang before his younger, swaggering self, Hollywood-size behind him. There are those who complain that rockers growing old and still playing is a bad thing. Perhaps they are some of the same people who said, “Never trust anyone over thirty,” before they passed thirty themselves. Rockers, like athletes, lose many of their skills before they give up the ghost. Still, anyone who’s been to an old-timers’ day for their favorite baseball team knows that those living, breathing bodies add immeasurably to the moment.

Jethro Tull performing in Philadelphia, September 8, 2018.

If the knucklebones of saints in a reliquary mean something to one kind of believer, does seeing these performing embodiments of one’s youth — and also of one’s (hopefully) ongoing ideals — offer similar solace before the inevitable?

During the show, various rock luminaries, enlarged on the screen, introduced songs from the Tull catalog. Toward the evening’s conclusion, Slash loomed up to describe “Aqualung” as “one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest songs.” Indeed, in concert it remains an indomitable force, working on the viscera as much as the ears.

Jethro Tull performing in Philadelphia, September 8, 2018.

Tull will be playing the Beacon tomorrow night. You’ve probably heard tell that, over the years, Ian Anderson has lost the robust range of his youthful singing voice. Maybe those cigarettes he was singing about all the way back on “My Sunday Feeling” took their toll. But if you ask me what I ultimately thought of his performance on Saturday night, wailing away on his flute and harmonica and croaking those familiar songs, I might have to quote Hunter Thompson. Writing about his bias in favor of George McGovern, who was running against Nixon in 1972, the same year Thick as a Brick was released, Thompson said, “So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine.” So, what can I say — it was a great show.



When Ralph Nader Put His Thumb in Our Eye

Back in 2000, the Voice editorial staff (or at least part of it) didn’t think a whole lot of Al Gore for president. On a cover referencing Don McLean’s massive 1971 hit, “American Pie,” Ralph Nader gave himself a thumbs-up for the presidency.

The Voice wrote in an endorsement that the consumer-protection crusader Nader would “battle poverty and inequality, rein in globalization and an imperial foreign policy, abandon the war on drugs, and work to ban the death penalty. The Clinton-Gore administration has done little in these vital areas, choosing to abet big money and placate conservatives instead. The Democrats and Republicans, in fact, share common ground on most of these issues. A vote for Nader is a protest against lesser-evilism and the rightward drift of the Democrats.”

The article goes on to note that “some of us have reservations about Nader, and support him on narrower terms. These staffers encourage voting for him only in states, like New York, where Gore has a comfortable margin over Bush.” The hope was that this kind of safe protest vote would strengthen the Green Party’s base and access to federal matching funds in the future.

Other staffers were less sanguine and, in the great Voice tradition of disagreeing openly in print, countered with a dissent that was headlined “Nader: Unsafe on Any Issue.” This cadre was concerned, as were many, that Nader would siphon votes from Gore and hand the election to Republican George W. Bush, a nightmare that came to fruition when Florida’s electoral votes in the contested 2000 election were given to Bush by Supreme Court fiat. The Voice dissenters further argued that “the second son of a president to become president will end the estate tax and move the country toward an aristocracy of inherited privilege.”

Well, W. didn’t quite pull that off, but President Trump is working on it through a lopsided tax cut that largely favors those such as himself who are already well-off.

On that same page back in 2000, Hilary Clinton got the nod from the Voice for her campaign for New York senator. Again, the signals were mixed: “While we abhor her support for welfare reform, we believe she understands the importance of government to those who desperately need its services. We think she will act on her evident feeling for teachers and other professionals bucking a grotesquely underfunded and overcrowded system.”

With that in mind we include this link to a 2016 article that surveyed the postwar history of casting protest and/or third-party votes (which we’ll just note had a better headline in print: “It’s the History, Stupid”):

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So, when you see that ex-Starbucks boss Howard Schultz is contemplating a third-party bid for the Oval Office in 2020, just remember these immortal words from a former would-be presidential spoiler, Ross Perot: “As you and I know, we are in deep voodoo.”

CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop show-old-images

Pazz & Jop: What’s in a Number?

Did you ever try to figure out how old some famous person was when he or she died? Take, for example, the virtuosic writer Lester Bangs, who was born on December 14, 1948, and died on April 30, 1982. Before some programmer at Wikipedia designed an algorithm thingy that calculates age at time of death, the math could be vexing: What month was it? Are the years inclusive? Anyway, 82 – 48 = 34, but Bangs died before his late-in-the-year birthday and so was only 33 — the same age as Jesus Christ — when he arrived in heaven. (At least that was his final destination according to a posthumous letter that fellow music critic Dave Marsh received from “The Cloud of Lester Bangs”: “You know that jive about ‘If there’s a rock & roll heaven, they must have a hell of a band’? Don’t believe it, pal. All the talent went straight to Hell. All of it. The big acts up here are Jim Croce, Karen Carpenter, Cass Elliot, and — especially — Bobby Bloom! It’s a nightmare!… Gotta run. Literally. Another herd of hoary Harp hacks heading here. Playing Zep’s ‘Stairway’ of course. Fucking national anthem in this burg.”)

No doubt Bangs, with his perpetually scraggly mustache, paunch, and wrinkled T-shirts, appreciated the fact that during most of the time he contributed to the Voice’s Pazz & Jop Poll, no one knew what number, exactly, anyone was working on. As the years passed, there would always be a question: Was this the 9th or 10th Pazz & Jop? The 20th or 21st? The 32nd or 33rd? With off-kilter pride, the discrepancy was often trumpeted on the front page.

Even the first Pazz & Jop was imbued with ambiguity, because it seemed as if its days were already numbered. In the February 10, 1972, Village Voice, Robert Christgau, the harried Grand Poohbah of the new critical survey, opened with this emphatic declaration: “I received a total of 84 entries for the first and last annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll. [Emphasis added.] Fortunately or unfortunately, only 39 of these came from what by some stretch of the term might be called legitimate critics — that is, human beings with more access to print media than a lonely attack on “Led Zeppelin III” in a high school newspaper in Minnesota, which was one credential proffered. The thing is, I don’t believe credentials make much difference either. I figure that a critic ought to have three qualities: interest, and arrogance, and writing ability.” Bangs nailed that trifecta early and often, beginning with his first published review (of the MC5’s Kick Out the Jams in the April 5, 1969, issue of Rolling Stone) right up to his final review, in the Village Voice, titled “If Oi Were a Carpenter,” which hit the streets the week of his death.

There was never enough space to publish all the P&J ballots — though Christgau always included his own, and Bangs was generally one of his go-to critics for conveying a sense of a given year’s sonic landscape, as in this ballot from that first poll, in 1972 (when Bangs was an editor and writer at Creem magazine):

Surely a sampler to plug into Spotify one snowy weekend for someone hoping to glean the flavor of those halcyon days of music, when, for instance, David Bowie was starting to register on critical radars. (Hunky Dory was ranked number eighteen on that year’s poll, although the album didn’t make Bangs’s ballot — it was 1976’s Station to Station that finally sold him on the Man Who Sold the World, as reflected in a positive review Bangs wrote for Creem that year.) The Rolling Stones may have been Bangs’s personal top pick, but Sticky Fingers was beat out by the Who’s Who’s Next for the number one spot in that inaugural P&J. Neither of those British behemoths were touring the States when that first poll came out, but it is interesting to note in an ad facing Christgau’s essay “What does it all mean?” that a fan could see number nine finisher Joni Mitchell at Carnegie Hall for the top price of $6.50, or number fourteen Kinks at the same venue for the same amount.

As long as we’re talking numbers, we should take a look at what Bangs’s number one pick, the Stones, were charging for their presence roughly two years earlier.

That was the winter of 1969, and the Stones were commanding top dollar (eight bucks) for what Christgau would later describe as “history’s first mythic rock and roll tour,” partly due to the fact that the wildly successful shows were well-praised by the critics and ended with all good intentions — a free show for the masses — on that well-traveled road to Hell: “The result was Altamont — one murdered; total dead: four; 300,000 bummed out.”

Perhaps, with the Stones rolling out another U.S. juggernaut tour this coming summer as Altamont’s golden anniversary looms on December 6, some intrepid reporter should ask if the Stones might want to try and get it right this time. After all, no other performers from that first P&J poll can command these numbers:

How much one ticket to see the Rolling Stones at MetLife Stadium, this coming summer, will cost you as of February 1, 2019

Ahhh, but we were discussing how those Pazz & Jop edition numbers went awry, not commerce and death. Well, Christgau seemed, for a while, as good as his word, and the world saw nothing of Pazz & Jop for three years. Then, in the January 20, 1975, Voice, the poll was back, the Grand Poohbah apparently having had time to contemplate queries about the survey’s name: “The confusion of forms originally implied by the title (a play on the very defunct Jazz & Pop magazine, which came up with the rating system) does not show up in the [results]. The critics I polled like rock and roll, and all of the records they selected collectively (a few did name specific jazz records) fall unequivocally into the pop category.”

Pazz & Jop No. 3 arrived in a rush — barely eleven months later and, important for the Mysterious Case of the Missing Edition Number, the only Pazz & Jop Poll to appear in the same year it was surveying. It came out in the December 29, 1975, Voice, and the headline proclaimed, “1975 Pazz & Jop Poll: It’s been a Soft Year for Hard Rock.”

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That gives us two polls in the year 1975; the poll covering the music of 1976 (No. 4) wouldn’t appear until the January 31, 1977, issue. This is where that “what month/inclusive years” math gets confusing. And mid-Seventies rock and roll, in all its manifestations, was inextricably linked with mind-altering drugs, so who knows — maybe some files got misfiled, or something.

Come January 23, 1978, we’re into poll No. 5 and Christgau is reflecting once more on the wild ’n’ wooly aspects of the survey’s name and the futility of its logistics: “A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set [editor] Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?”

And how appropriate that those ironic disrupters of the pop scene, the Sex Pistols, topped a poll that by definition could never be official.

It was the next year that gave ambiguity free rein: “Triumph of the New Wave: Results of the Fifth (or Sixth) Annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll” was the headline on page one, above a picture of Elvis Costello’s nostrils. And, with harsh serendipity, bedlam on a much larger scale was foreshadowed by a headline lower on the page: “Donald Trump Cuts the Cards.”

“The New Elvis” topped the sixth P&J Poll (and, yes, the higher number was correct), but the Voice’s Wayne Barrett was doing his own digging into some decidedly shady numbers, and giving New Yorkers a warning the rest of the world would wake up to four decades too late: “At center stage is Donald Trump, the young man who managed the land deals, profiting by his relationship with a mayor and a governor. He has left a trail of tradeoffs behind him that is — in a city where political brokers learn to cover their tracks — exceptionally clear.”

Back then, in the hinterlands of Baltimore, I didn’t know from The Donald — but I was picking up the Voice at a well-stocked newsstand near the Maryland Institute College of Art. And I knew right away that Christgau was onto something with this ongoing extravaganza that took the pulse of an art form that touches us all so deeply — those heavy beats and soaring melodies that grab you by the viscera that first time they come blaring through the car radio or wafting through an open window. I still remember being on the lighted dance floor in Baltimore’s Club Roxy and being thunderstruck by “Rapper’s Delight.” As Christgau pointed out in later essays, too many P&J critics were late to realize how powerful new-kid-on-the-block hip-hop was — and would continue to be. The Sugarhill Gang’s masterpiece was the last single to make the cut in the 1979 poll, which appeared in the January 28, 1980, issue. (It should be noted that Bangs put his criticism where his art was. Check out the double asterisks below, warning readers that Bangs voted for his own single — yes, that’s the esteemed critic moonlighting as fervent vocalist — and that enough of his journalistic colleagues concurred to boost “Let It Blurt” into a six-way tie with, among others, some disco divas with serious pipes. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is….)

In 1984 I was an art school graduate and truck loader for UPS. One day, cruising into downtown Baltimore with a low sun in my rearview mirror, “Born in the U.S.A.” burst out of the 100-watt speakers connected to the Bose radio–cassette deck I’d recently installed in my 1965 Buick Special (thereby doubling its Blue Book value in one stroke). Presumably the 136 critics (out of 240) who put the Boss’s album over the top in the poll published in the February 19, 1985, issue of the Voice were hip that the title anthem’s upbeat melody was undercut by downbeat lyrics, even though Ronald Reagan happily name-checked the song on the campaign trail in 1984, much to Springsteen’s chagrin.

And so it goes. P&J got bigger every year, the various Voice publishers realizing they could wrap a lot of record-store, indie-label, and concert ads around the essays and ballots assaying the previous year in pop music. The first Pazz & Jop I worked on was in 1988, when Prince ruled the airwaves and the poll. I was a painter and the greenhorn in the production department, and hadn’t yet started writing for the paper. But I cut my teeth on those late-Eighties P&J supplements, which ran up to 28 pages’ worth of extravagantly long essays, ballot lists, critics’ comments, photos, and graphics interwoven with a cornucopia of ads covering all musical tastes, desires, and dreams.

In those heady years, even some of music’s megastars worried about just what, exactly, the Voice critics thought of them. When U2 won the Grammy for Album of the Year for The Joshua Tree, in 1988, Bono, in a wide-ranging acceptance speech, noted, “We set out to make music, soul music. That’s what U2 wanted to make. It was soul music. It’s not about being black or white, or the instruments you play, or whether you use a drum machine or not. It’s a decision to reveal or conceal. And, without it, people like Prince would be nothing more than a brilliant song-and-dance man. That he is, but he’s much more than that. People like Bruce Springsteen would be nothing more than a, he would be nothing more than a great storyteller. But he’s much more than that. Without it, U2 would probably be getting better reviews in the Village Voice, but…um…that, that’s a joke. Sometimes they don’t understand.”

But all things come to an end.

Except sometimes, they don’t.

Sometime before the February 13, 2007, P&J (covering the music of 2006), some editor in the Voice’s new corporate hierarchy had decreed that this number madness (sophistry?) must stop! Surely not coincidently, Christgau had been let go by the new owners, and although his essay contribution, which had appeared 33 times previously, was no longer wanted, he gamely turned in a ballot. And with that, the 34th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll had at least gotten its number right.

Yet here we are, with this 45th or 46th (we’re not telling) Pazz & Jop Poll, and Bob Christgau is all over it. And, to gussie up a cliché, to understand the present (and, we hope, the future), one should be cognizant of the past. Which brings us back to the late, and greatly lamented among his colleagues and fans, Lester Bangs.

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Bangs was always a rollicking, cantankerous, exuberant presence in the poll, and so, amid a miasma of melancholy, we thumbed through the green-bound volumes of the Voice archives in search of his last P&J contribution. There it was, in the January 27, 1982, Voice. When that issue hit the streets Bangs was still alive and kicking out the jams, and no one had an inkling that he would be dead three months later from an accidental overdose of various medications. In the 1981 ballot section, Christgau let Bangs have his head — two columns’ worth:

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block).

Bangs goes on, with an earnestness that was one of his hallmarks: “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud.”

Lester’s last ballot. Almost.

But no one should construe such sentiments as giving up. That Bangs wouldn’t do, and he does go on to list a few picks from that benighted year of 1981, including Richard Hell and the Voidoids. And that reminded us of a 1978 interview Bangs did with Hell, in which interviewer emphatically disagreed with subject:

Just for the record, I would like it known by anybody who cares that I don’t think life is a perpetual dive. And even though it’s genuinely frightening, I don’t think Richard Hell’s fascination with death is anything else but stupid. I suspect almost every day that I’m living for nothing, I get depressed and I feel self-destructive and a lot of the time I don’t like myself. What’s more, the proximity of other humans often fills me with overwhelming anxiety, but I also feel that this precarious sentience is all we’ve got and, simplistic as it may seem, it’s a person’s duty to the potentials of his own soul to make the best of it. We’re all stuck on this often miserable earth where life is essentially tragic, but there are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I am not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes. And all the Richard Hells are chickenshits who trash the precious gift too blithely, and they deserve to be given no credence, but shocked awake in some violent manner.

Bangs, it should be noted, signed his piece, which had appeared in Gig magazine, in homage to Hell: “Your fan, Lester.”

And in that final ballot, with a poignant bit of fatal prescience, he tossed this off: “Just to save time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10,” and listed ten parody albums, one of which was Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook.

Then he died. And in the 1982 poll, published in the February 22, 1983, Voice, Christgau ran, with no comment, Bangs’s “next year’s” ballot.

The End

Bangs was nothing if not a fan. Like he said, “Music is the only thing in the world I really care about.”

While we don’t all feel that way all the time, it’s a pretty safe bet that there has been a moment (or more than one) in all of our lives when that perfect song wonderfully sums up our existence — right here, right now!

Perhaps Bangs’s curse was that he wanted to feel that “bedrock joy” of music all the time.

That kind of passion, as Christgau understood from the jump, was what Pazz & Jop is still all about.


Keith Richards Refuses to Die for Our Sins

If you were born any time after, say, 1965, when “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” hit the airwaves, you’ve been listening to Keith Richards all your life. In our age of fractured media and micro–attention spans, it’s hard to remember those days when one song was blaring from every car radio, jukebox, or plastic portable on the beach — so pervasive that even if you were in your mother’s womb you were getting hit with those top-of-the-charts vibrations. “The Summer Man,” an episode of Mad Men, captured the ubiquity of “Satisfaction” during the dog days of ’65 when slick adman Don Draper, questing after a healthier lifestyle, hears it on a transistor radio as he sits in a locker room. The song hits full volume as he lights a cigarette outside the New York Athletic Club, his gestures and attire in sync with the tune’s rollicking ennui:

When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no
oh no no no hey hey hey
that’s what I say

To celebrate Richards’s 75th birthday today, we’ll relate his oft-told tale of how that monster hit came about. Richards was 22 years old when he fell asleep one night with a tape recorder by his bed and awoke the next morning to see that the tape had been run to the end. Then, as he related to an interviewer many years later, “I put it back on, and there’s this, maybe, 30 seconds of ‘Satisfaction,’ in a very drowsy sort of rendition. And then it suddenly — the guitar goes ‘CLANG,’ and then there’s, like, 45 minutes of snoring.”

In the studio Richards employed a newfangled fuzz box as a stand-in for the horn section he planned to add later, but the band ultimately decided to leave the distorted guitar licks in the grooves, and a fuck-all anthem for the ages was born. In fact, according to the performing rights organization BMI, “Satisfaction” is the 91st most performed song of the twentieth century. That gaudy stat can be added to the Stones seven other No. 1 hits, and 66.5 million (and counting) concert tickets sold.

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Writing one of the most popular songs of all time — in his sleep — seems S.O.P. for Richards, whose lifetime of consuming copious quantities of hard liquor and even harder drugs has left observers long wondering when Keef’s wiry little body would give up the ghost to join his Rolling Stone bandmate Brian Jones, and such other exemplars of the form as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse, in Hell’s hottest rock band. But despite preacher Billy Graham’s warning that rock ’n’ roll was “ever working in the world for evil,” the devil’s music has been good to Richards. As he relates in the opening of the audio version of his 2010 autobiography, Life, he’s outlasted the doomsayers. “For many years, I slept, on average, twice a week, and this means that I’ve been conscious for at least three lifetimes.” He then adds, “I used up my nine lives long ago, but here I am, I’m still playing, and I’m still rockin’ and still rollin’.” Indeed, the Stones will be rolling into America next spring for their No Filter Tour.

To celebrate, we are resurfacing an up-close-and-personal feature story from Voice staffer Karen Durbin, from 1975, when the Stones were barnstorming America with a giant inflatable penis.

As in many articles about the Stones, you’ll get a healthy dose of Mick’s musings, but Durbin’s descriptions of Richards leave no doubt as to who is the brains and who is the soul of the band.

As for Keith blasting into rooms, well, he does. Offstage, Keith has the same intensity of presence as he does on, and so, of course, it stands out more. He’s amazing looking — all tatterdemalion satin jackets and flapping silk scarves, tight jeans, hollow cheeks, black artichoke hair, and huge iridescent eyes. He doesn’t look decadent; he looks vigorous and infernal, as if he just strode forth from the jaws of hell.

Happy birthday, Keith.

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And yes, it’s Keith’s birthday, but Jagger celebrated his 75th this past July — and when you’ve got a great Milton Glaser portrait on your front page, you gotta blow it up big. Happy Birthday to the Glimmer Twins.


Terrorists Heading for the Border? Where’s the Wall?

Dream or nightmare?

While we were at New York Comic Con a couple weeks ago, we saw some great original art by the Love and Rockets artists, Los Bros Hernandez. With that in mind let’s all take a return trip to the border with Gilbert Hernandez.

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From The Archives

The Climes They Are A-Changin’

From the August 6, 2002, issue of the Village Voice

It is hard not to suspect that a dirty little word lies at the center of the controversy spawned by the most recent Bush administration document on climate change. In the June EPA policy paper “Climate Action Report 2002,” the government admitted that climate change is not only real but getting worse, that human activities are the most likely cause, and that the negative consequences are real and dangerous, a clear and present threat. This dirty little word may have been the reason conservative leaders have privately pressed to have EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman fired from her position — for producing a document that provides the most realistic, scientifically accurate picture of the problem available from current research. This dirty little word may be the main reason President Bush is eternally trying to distance himself from this itchy environmental problem, this foreign cause touted by Russians, Europeans, and Japanese. The word: liability.

In terms of scale, the climate change issue will make any sort of environmental liability lawsuit filed in national or international courts to date seem like tarts and gingerbread. Human pressures on the global climate — what scientists call anthropogenic forcings — represent a problem orders of magnitude larger than the impacts of even the most notorious environmental catastrophes of modern times — the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, or even the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which suffocated 10,000 people in their beds. The Netherlands faces undeniable threats from rising seas, and Bangladesh will not survive. Symptoms are already apparent in the daily headlines — islands in the South Pacific abandoned by their residents as their ground water turns salty; Connecticut-size bergs calving off the antarctic ice mass; record floods in Europe followed by more record floods. Across northern India this year, record-breaking heat storms arrived before the monsoon, raising the temperature to 123 degrees in the shade — so hot that the birds were dropping dead from the trees. Exactly as the scientists have been warning. And much earlier than most had expected, save those branded doomsayers only a few years ago. Considered in this context, the EPA document may represent the most important mea culpa of all time. The line between an “act of God” and an “action of Man” has just become significantly more blurry, with all the associated legal implications.

And then there’s that sticky bit. Things are only going to get worse. Expert opinion varies widely on the time frame for the most dramatic impacts. It could be next week — certain important factors may hang on a hair trigger. Record-breaking fires, droughts, and floods have already become annual events around the nation. It could be in a decade. Agreement is nearly universal that current trends will continue to worsen. It probably will occur within the century. This fact is largely accepted as a given even under many of the more benign scenarios for a changing climate. What is abundantly clear in the science of the matter is that we as a society are at the beginning of a long journey.

The science of climate change begins with the geological record of the paleoclimate — records of past sea-level changes, telltale signs of the cycle of glaciation and retreat, firestorm signatures carved into the skin of the earth over tens of thousands of years. Data from Greenland ice cores and sediment samples collected from bogs around the globe. Pollen records maintained over the millennia. Tree rings counting back thousand-year records of rain and drought. Geology, biology, ecology, and chemistry all working together to create a picture of the climatological history of the planet — a turbulent history marked by mass extinctions, sudden and dramatic changes in sea level, large-scale migrations of forests, storms to dwarf any of the minor maelstroms recorded in the human histories.

Today, networks of sampling buoys monitor sea surface temperatures, floating along gridworks mapping the oceans of the world. Satellite eyes peep down on cloud cover, identifying and enumerating the gases in the atmospheric column that runs from outer space to surface Earth. Global maps made to shift with time mark the changes in water resources, rivers running dry before they reach the ocean, the disappearance of the Aral Sea. In nightside snapshots, with each passing year, the ring of Amazon fires eats closer to the heart of darkness — the unconquered lands. Pollutant plumes emitted by each city on Earth stretch for tens of miles, forming confluent rivers of contaminants that flow in the winds, crossing ocean-scale distances to poison the remotest sites on anyone’s map.

Over the course of the past decade, many interests have entered the melee of debate on the issue of ongoing anthropogenic climate change. Energy companies arguing that nuclear power is the only acceptable answer. Advocates of wind power, sun power, wave power, volcano power. Oil producers. Automobile manufacturers. Coal men. The stakes involved in the debate over climate change do not come any higher. The largest industries of humankind, energy and transportation, are directly implicated. Virtually every activity in the life of the global, modern-day consumer is involved. Many natural responses to the changes we cause act only to exacerbate the problem — for example, the recent thaw of northern permafrost exposed a new source of greenhouse emissions. In the media, conventional scientific thinking is denounced as extremist, while members of the smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em school of scientific inquiry are awarded the chairmanships of well-heeled think tanks and lobbying empires to quibble, to hem and haw, to delay and filibuster.

However, as the Bush administration discovered, scientific theories have a way of proving themselves, regardless of whether policy makers and corporate heads believe them or not. And the daily news is beginning to heap ample evidence that the unequaled hubris at the core of this ever expanding, all-consuming 21st-century technotopia has stirred forces that are well beyond any sort of normal climatic fluctuation or temporary readjustment of weather patterns. One cannot wish away elementary thermodynamics, basic geophysics, fundamental biology, or essential fluid dynamics.

Already we have seen the unfolding of many of the events described by some of the climate change “extremists” — massive wind storms that pummel Europe, leading to hundreds of deaths, and the destruction of millions of acres of established forest. Unusual winter tornados ripping through the U.S. Latin America struck by storms that killed tens of thousands and destroyed decades of infrastructure over the course of a few days. Entire nations sinking into famine as unprecedented droughts choke crops in the fields. Record-breaking floods becoming annual events in mainland China. The permafrost under northern Europe beginning to melt from under vast regions that have not known a real thaw for tens of thousands of years. These are the milestones many experts consider symptoms of problems that can only grow worse as the Leviathan Climate gains more thermal momentum, growing more turbulent, more unpredictable as established climatic patterns change and shift.

Even some of the largest energy corporations on Earth have begun to accept the science of climate change, quietly withdrawing their support for rabidly anti-climate-change PR campaigns and beginning to trumpet their investment in renewable fuels. The response from the international insurance industry has been as mercenary as would be expected. Many large insurers have begun advising industrial clients with facilities in low-lying coastal regions to begin armoring their plants with systems of protective dikes and coastal constructions. The need for action is no longer questioned by the wise investor.

The uncertainties and confusion over climate change bear comparison to a series of scientific discoveries and theories that culminated in one of the highlights of the end of the 19th century: the discovery of radiation. The scientists who first worked with radioactive materials knew they were onto something, but they were working in the dark — manipulating and adjusting their notions to suit anecdotal evidence. When a researcher suffered burns to his leg from a vial of radium carried in his trouser pocket, scientists discovered that there was some danger involved in handling these new types of materials. Rapid commercialization of the technology led to the development of fluoroscopes, which allowed customers in shoe stores to examine the bones of their feet with live-action viewing devices — subjecting even passersby to massive doses of radiation. Health drinks were concocted that contained uranium, the new wonder of wonders and miracle cure-all. In beauty shops, women with excess facial hair could have their faces bathed in X rays until the hair fell out. Only years later, as the cancers began twisting the jaws of women around the country, did the public become aware of how dangerous radiation could be — and that was years too late for anyone to wish away their troubles.

And despite the occasional media attention to climate change, real responses and actions remain fairly hard to come by even among countries that support the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, aimed at limiting human emissions of greenhouse gases. Most national governments face significant economic obstacles to the implementation of the guidelines, with no nation currently on track to achieve compliance. Continuous growth of national economies is absolutely mandatory for survival in the highly competitive markets evolving under current trends toward globalization. Economic growth is linked directly to energy consumption and higher emissions of greenhouse gases. Emission limits for individual nations under Kyoto are set at 5 percent below those of 1990, but in virtually every country on Earth, economic growth has raised emissions to well above those ancient figures. Compliance with Kyoto would entail substantial shifts in the largest national economies, with the U.S. taking the biggest hit of all as the biggest polluter of all.

As a result, most national governments have failed to establish the aggressive regulations needed to achieve the greenhouse emissions reductions required for real progress. Even in nations that have attempted to take the lead on climate change, enforcement of lofty policy initiatives has proved a nearly impossible task. In the single remaining superpower on Earth and the confirmed largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the sitting administration blindly refuses to have anything to do with climate change. Its recommendation? Pretend the problem does not exist. Act as though the science is not valid. We’ll all adapt. You know…somehow.

In the long term, the symptoms of the disease will become pronounced enough to convince even the most reluctant Americans that climate change is not some sort of flim-flam invented by a bunch of grant-greedy eco-kooks. Perhaps some sort of limit should be established for the level of destruction we will allow before action is taken on climate change. The destruction of agriculture in California, say, or the permanent loss of New Orleans, Miami, and a few other coastal cities by the year 2050. Of course, by the time these limits have been reached, the time to do anything about the climate problem will have long passed. The Leviathan Climate will have awakened then, and there will be no apologizing to the grandchildren or turning back. No amount of money will prove sufficient. No amount of spin doctoring will be able to stem the mounting losses. Issues of liability will become moot as the planetwide catastrophe gathers steam.

Recent data obtained from the tens of thousands of monitoring buoys networked across the world’s oceans have underscored the critical role played by a phenomenon known as the Thermohaline Circulation — a massive conveyor belt of heated water carried from the tropics to the northern latitudes via the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. Some researchers believe that this current system may be the trigger that initiates the cycles of glaciation, the ice age trigger. Certain evidence suggests that this circulation may be extremely sensitive to changes, shutting down in response to minor pressures. Other evidence suggests that the thermohaline may be disrupted by the formation of a large lens of freshwater sitting atop the saline waters of the oceans around Greenland and Iceland. Such a lens is currently forming in the North Atlantic as a result of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in the north. There is no way of currently knowing or predicting what may come next.

However, given the consensus for action on climate change expressed by the majority of the other industrialized nations, the U.S. will find itself in an increasingly difficult position as the lone holdout against responsible and progressive action on the climate problem. Already, international accord on the Kyoto Protocol in the absence of U.S. support signals a shift in the post–Cold War paradigm that has dominated the international political arena for a decade. The Kyoto agreement was formulated based on a fundamental tenet of democratic public law, the concept of the commons — property belonging in equal measure to all citizens for all time. Leadership on this issue must value the hard commitments required of democratic thinking, and not simply trot out the term to justify the current mania for saber rattling. Perhaps “superpower” status is no longer a given for any individual nation. Radical backlash against U.S. policy, or rather lack of policy, on the climate change problem can only be expected to grow as the symptomatic evidence grows, as the record-breaking storms unleash their fury, as the droughts consume the harvests of dozens of nations, as the rivers either flood beyond all parallel or run dry as a bone, as coastal regions lose their war against the encroaching sea. Not the stuff of science fiction. The stuff of Science.

And as all the proponents of action on these issues agree, the Kyoto Protocol is really nothing more than a symbolic gesture, a nod to the fact that future agreements will be required, that more extensive regulations will be established, and that the problem has only begun to be addressed. Responsible and mature leadership will be required to guide nations around the globe through the admittedly difficult adjustments that will be expected of each and every citizen, every local government office, and all levels of the federal government of each nation on Earth. Unfortunately, for an alarming number of Americans, the “environment” has been reduced to the strip of lawn and the manicured shrubs they pass on the way from the parking lot to their climate-controlled office buildings, or between their climate-controlled automobiles and their climate-controlled homes.

A serious tremor in the accepted order of things would arise from the multinational imposition of economic sanctions against the U.S. for failure to comply with the regulatory regime to be established under Kyoto. The most obvious medicines for the problem, such as aggressive energy conservation and protection of forested regions, are direct threats to the de facto capitalist economic principle of infinite economic growth to meet ever increasing demand in a world of infinite space and resources. Humanity, as a species, has reached a time in its evolution when it must begin to consider its own limits — beyond race, beyond economic politics, beyond any form of enlightened thinking of the past. The Bush administration is right on one thing: Adaptation is the only answer to these new realities. Rigid ways of thinking, old ways of thinking, no longer apply. A new paradigm is needed, at the very root of the culture. Those who fail to bend will be broken. The science of the matter will see to that.


Five Years Ago This Month, Banksy Did a ‘Residency’ in NYC, Including on the Cover of the Village Voice

Was Sotheby’s in on the prank when that aesthetic bomb-thrower Banksy shredded his own work on the auction block this past Friday night? That story will be sorted out in the future — or not, considering that Banksy is a past master at covering his conceptual tracks — but in the meantime we turn the clock back to October of 2013. That month, Banksy gave a series of email interviews to the Voice about his “residency” in New York: Thirty-one street art works in thirty-one days. His publicist had contacted the editors the previous month and said that Banksy wanted to work with the Voice because he felt “an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners.”

“The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights — and paint on them,” Banksy wrote to Voice contributor Keegan Hamilton. “Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall.” Banksy also agreed to do the cover for the October 9, 2013, issue of the Voice. Or more exactly, two alternating covers, in collaboration with the Brazilian street art duo OSGESMOS (formerly Os Gêmeos). In that edition of the paper, Hamilton recounts the email exchanges with Banksy as well as the artist’s initial graffiti forays into the five boroughs. In a follow-up for the October 23 issue of that year, Hamilton pounded the pavement to get the lowdown on how local street artists were taking to Banksy’s British invasion. Hamilton had asked Banksy about his vision for “Better Out Than In,” the artist’s name for the monthlong guerrilla project: “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all.… It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.” Mayor Bloomberg was not impressed, saying that the graffitist’s stencils are “not my definition of art” and “should not be permitted.” Other locals were more ambivalent. “He’s funny and clever, but what is that speaking to?” asked Marshall Weber, curator and director of collection development at the Brooklyn Artists Alliance. “It’s almost like he’s doing work about himself and his place in the art world, which is super-boring right now.”

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One graffiti historian said, “[Banksy’s] using social media and the media in general to promote his agenda, and he’s using graffiti to make it more salacious. He has the posture of this supervillain who engulfs a city and no one knows where he’ll strike next.”

Well, five years on, it seems that the Joker has struck Sotheby’s.

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Bloke and Dagger

Renowned street artist Banksy grants an interview — on his own incomparable terms

A Village Voice Exclusive
October 9, 2013

By Keegan Hamilton



That was the beguiling subject of an e-mail seemingly randomly addressed to the Village Voice in mid-September.

“I represent the artist Banksy,” the message began, “and I would like to talk to you at your earliest convenience.” The name and phone number of a British publicist followed. There were no further details or explanation. It was mysterious and intriguing. The secretive graffiti artist had been silent since last year, when his distinctive stencils appeared in London during the Olympics. Because Banksy rarely grants interviews, the cryptic message also felt like the prelude to an elaborate practical joke.

A few minutes of sleuthing confirmed the identity of the publicist, Jo Brooks, who represents several British artists (not to mention Fatboy Slim), and turned up evidence of her professional relationship with the elusive stencil master. A subsequent message from Brooks revealed more: a draft of a press release announcing that Banksy was on the verge of unveiling an audacious new project: The artist intended to create one new piece on the streets of New York each day in October, a “unique kind of art show” titled “Better Out Than In.” Billed with the tagline “an artists [sic] residency on the streets of New York,” the show was to include “elaborate graffiti, large scale street sculpture, video installations, and substandard performance art.”

Brooks promised the Voice an exclusive interview with Banksy, who “feels an affinity with people who provide quality content for free on street corners.”

But, as others have found over the nearly two decades since Banksy’s aerosol first decorated urban landscapes from Britain to the West Bank, New York, and Los Angeles, communicating with the undercover art icon is no simple feat. Through Brooks, he declined requests to speak on the phone or via Skype, presumably on the grounds that anything approaching direct contact risks blowing his meticulously maintained cover. (For the unacquainted, Banksy’s real name has never been confirmed, despite his pop culture stardom; he has said previously that the illegal nature of graffiti demands secrecy and likened unmasking himself to leaving “a signed confession” for his art crimes.) The publicist requested a list of questions to ask Banksy via e-mail — with the caveat that her client would likely ignore several topics entirely.

Several days later, Banksy’s website was scrubbed and replaced with a teaser for “Better Out Than In”: a stenciled image depicting a graffiti tagger placed to look like he’s vomiting a torrent of pink flowers and green foliage sprouting from between two concrete walls. (The title itself is a British colloquialism, a “Gesundheit”-like response to an audible eructation.) When the image began making the rounds on street art forums, commenters pointed out that the silhouette looked similar to an image in the music video for the song “Yonkers” by Tyler, The Creator, leader of the Los Angeles–based hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.

Ignoring the New York reference, Banksyphiles assumed the piece was somewhere in Los Angeles (its actual location has yet to be disclosed) and speculated that Banksy was plotting a sequel to his 2006 exhibit at an L.A. warehouse, in which he famously displayed a live elephant painted to look like pink wallpaper.

Then, on October 1, just as the publicist foretold, Banksy debuted his first work on the streets of New York: a stencil on a building in Chinatown, titled prophetically The Street Is in Play. The work shows two old-fashioned paperboys in overalls and flat caps reaching for a can of spray paint contained in a “Graffiti Is a Crime ” warning sign that had previously been affixed to the wall.

The sign was promptly stolen and the piece painted over — defaced, then erased in less than 24 hours.

How does Banksy feel about his work disappearing almost instantly? Who owns the pieces from “Better Out Than In” once they’re on the street? Does the artist stand to profit from his New York “residency”? The Voice asked those questions and many more in a series of e-mails relayed through Brooks. After more than a week of silence, he wrote back, ignoring (as Brooks predicted) many of the questions we’d posed, including the one that asked, “How do we know this is really Banksy responding to these questions and not some Nigerian prince or a teenage hacker in the Syrian Electronic Army?”

All I Ever Wanted Was a Shoulder to Crayon (midtown Manhattan, October 3, 2013)

On other topics, he was more forthcoming. In answer to our inquiry about his vision for “Better Out Than In,” and how and why the project was conceived, he writes, “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There’s no gallery show or book or film. It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”

Asked what he has been doing since his Oscar-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, was released in 2010, Banksy says he has “been learning to make big sculptures out of clay — partly because it’s a challenge and partly because after a year in an editing studio I wanted to do something standing up.”

Banksy says he visited New York “a couple of months ago” to scout locations for the October show, but he “returned to find most of the empty lots I planned to use have got condos built on them already.” He is now living in the city — not surprisingly, he won’t reveal where he’s holed up or how long he plans to stay — and he hints at a lack of a formal plan for when and where new pieces will be installed this month.

“The plan is to live here, react to things, see the sights — and paint on them,” he writes. “Some of it will be pretty elaborate, and some will just be a scrawl on a toilet wall.”

Early pieces were scattered across Lower Manhattan. Following The Street Is in Play, he scrawled a squiggly white tag on a steel shutter door in Chelsea that read, “This is my New York accent,” with the words “. . . Normally I write like this” underneath in plainer text. On October 3 in midtown, he stenciled a dog pissing on a fire hydrant, the latter emitting a thought balloon reading, “You complete me . . .” The following day saw a triptych of sorts: existing tags in Brooklyn that read “Playground Mob,” “Occupy,” and “Dirty Underwear,” to which Banksy added the identical script-stenciled tagline “The Musical.”

The Chelsea piece was defaced within hours, and the hydrant stencil painted over with a small silver tag. “Occupy” didn’t eclipse the 90-minute mark before it was eclipsed.

Untitled (Brooklyn, October 7, 2013)

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Banksy himself is intentionally spoiling the pieces after the fact. The artist flatly dismisses the rumor. “I’m not defacing my own pictures, no,” he says. “I used to think other graffiti writers hated me because I used stencils, but they just hate me.”

The fleeting nature of Banksy’s art is part of its appeal. Brooks says a new piece each day in New York “turns the city into a giant game of treasure hunt.” Each work is a precious commodity that can disappear overnight. He wants them to be discovered in alleys next to dumpsters, not displayed in a sterile museum.

The more permanent element of the works — and the part that helps to confirm their authenticity — is an accompanying toll-free phone number that dials an “audio guide” created by Banksy. The first recording features cheesy elevator music and a stoned-sounding narrator welcoming listeners to Lower Manhattan. The male voice casually warns that the work has “probably been painted over,” and informs listeners, “You’re looking at a type of picture called ‘graffiti,’ from the Latin ‘graffito,’ which means ‘graffiti’ with an O.”

“What exactly is the artist trying to say here?” Banksy’s narrator asks. “Is this a response to the primal urge to take the tools of our oppression and turn them into mere playthings? Or perhaps it is a postmodern comment on how the signifiers of objects have become as real as the objects themselves. Are you kidding me? Who writes this stuff? Anyway . . . you decide. Please do. I have no idea.”

The audio clip continues Banksy’s tradition of wagging a playful middle finger at the mainstream art world, in this case even slyly mocking fans who care to track down his work. Listeners are presumably hearing the spiel while standing in the middle of a busy sidewalk, rather than a wing of MOMA or the Met.

“The audio guide started as a cheap joke, and to be honest that’s how it’s continued, but I’m starting to see more potential in it now,” Banksy explains. “I like how it controls the time you spend looking at an image. I read that researchers at a big museum in London found the average person looked at a painting for eight seconds. So if you put your art at a stoplight you’re already getting better numbers than Rembrandt.”

Asked to elaborate on the two paintings reproduced on this week’s Voice cover — specifically, about how he intends to display the works, both collaborations with the Brazilian graffiti twosome Os Gêmeos (aka identical twins Otávio and Gustavo Pandolfo) — Banksy responds, “To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m figuring a lot of this out as I go along. Which is one way to keep it fresh, I suppose. The idea to make a stencil saying ‘The Musical’ only came up when I saw the ‘Occupy’ graffiti.”

Banksy’s repertoire is not limited to graffiti in the traditional sense of the term. On October 5 in the East Village, he rolled out a grimy, tagged-up 1992 GMC delivery truck with a sculpture installed inside. A virtual paradise, the piece included (as the audio guide describes over the tinkling sound of Hawaiian steel guitar) “a digitally remastered sunset that never sets, a waterfall pumping over 22 gallons of water a minute, and some plastic butterflies duct-taped over a fan that move around a bit.”

The following day, Sunday, Banksy posted a video to his website that shows a pair of insurgents wearing turbans firing a surface-to-air missile from a bazooka-like tube. Their rocket launches into the sky with a streak of gray smoke. The fighters shout, “Allahu Akbar!” as their target plummets toward the ground: Dumbo the flying elephant. The animated Disney character crumples into a smoking heap. A child appears, approaches the dying cartoon, contemplates the scene, then turns and kicks the man with the rocket launcher in the shin.

Random graffiti given a Broadway makeover (Brooklyn, October 4, 2013)

Banksy typically shuns galleries and traditional venues, displaying his work instead in skid row alleys and various off-the-map locales. He has, however, profited handsomely from his art in the past. Celebrities — most notably Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — have paid millions for it, a fact that’s at odds with the creator’s guerrilla ethos. (Before launching “Better Out Than In,” Banksy’s website featured an FAQ with the question “Why are you such a sell out?” followed by the answer “I wish I had a pound for every time someone asked me that.”) His works are generally intended for public display, but they have occasionally been carved out of entire concrete walls and sold at auction.

The disconnect isn’t lost on the artist. He says he “made a mistake” during his last show in New York, a 2008 installation at a storefront in the West Village that featured a variety of satirical animal creations, including hot dogs lounging under heat lamps in glass cages near a phony cash register. He hired a billboard company to paint four murals to promote the fake store.

“I totally overlooked how important it was to do it myself,” the artist says. “Graffiti is an art form where the gesture is at least as important as the result, if not more so. I read how a critic described Jackson Pollock as a performance artist who happened to use paint, and the same could be said for graffiti writers — performance artists who happen to use paint. And trespass.”

Banksy also reveals concerns about his ongoing struggle to strike a balance between commercial success and artistic integrity. He hints at the possibility of abandoning galleries entirely and permanently returning to his roots as a street artist.

“I started painting on the street because it was the only venue that would give me a show,” he writes. “Now I have to keep painting on the street to prove to myself it wasn’t a cynical plan. Plus it saves money on having to buy canvases.

“But there’s no way round it — commercial success is a mark of failure for a graffiti artist. We’re not supposed to be embraced in that way. When you look at how society rewards so many of the wrong people, it’s hard not to view financial reimbursement as a badge of self-serving mediocrity.”

He realizes, though, that his early triumphs and the resulting bounty put him in a unique position to dictate how his work is displayed. Starving artists aren’t afforded the same luxury.

“Obviously people need to get paid — otherwise you’d only get vandalism made by part-timers and trust-fund kids,” Banksy says. “But it’s complicated, it feels like as soon as you profit from an image you’ve put on the street, it magically transforms that piece into advertising. When graffiti isn’t criminal, it loses most of its innocence.”

“It seems to me the best way to make money out of art is not to even try,” he adds in a subsequent exchange. “It doesn’t take much to be a successful artist — all you need to do is dedicate your entire life to it. The thing people most admired about Picasso wasn’t his work/life balance.”

Of course, for Banksy, the concept of devoting one’s entire life to his art takes on an added layer of meaning.

Does the burden of all the cloak-and-dagger shit ever seem like too much to carry?

Did you ever envision it going on this long without cracking somewhere?

Has it gotten easier to operate this way, or harder?

How many people can you trust?

How do you decide?

At press time, the Voice was still waiting for answers to those questions (to name just a few).

A secretive persona and self-perpetuated anonymity are now part of the package — an element that has become increasingly improbable with the passage of time, especially in light of recent National Security Administration spying revelations and the ongoing debate over online privacy. Trumpeting his presence in New York and producing new works daily on the streets poses a daunting challenge to Banksy’s incognito act, but, he says, the prospect of cementing his legacy in the city proved too tempting to resist.

“New York calls to graffiti writers like a dirty old lighthouse. We all want to prove ourselves here,” Banksy writes. “I chose it for the high foot traffic and the amount of hiding places. Maybe I should be somewhere more relevant, like Beijing or Moscow, but the pizza isn’t as good.”


Banksy of New York: Local Street Artists Assess the Iconic Brit’s Empire State of Mind

October 23, 2013

By Keegan Hamilton

Many among the crowd that gathered around a patch of graffiti on the corner of a vacant, crumbling building in Tribeca earlier this month had no clue why they stopped to stare. They simply reckoned whatever was beyond the wall of people had to be worth seeing. A tourist toting a bulky digital camera nudged through to snap a photo. A young blonde in a stylish fall outfit stopped in her tracks. After a few minutes, she turned and asked an older woman lingering on the edge of the group: “What’s everyone looking at?”

“An artist called Banksy put a spray painting here,” the onlooker replied with a shrug. “I’ve never heard of him, but my kids have. Apparently people come from all over the world to see his things.”

The piece attracting all the attention was a black silhouette of the old Manhattan skyline with an orange chrysanthemum in full bloom protruding from one of the Twin Towers like an explosion of color. In a museum, it would likely be a somber scene treated with humble reverence. Here, a mother had no qualms plopping her toddler beside it for a photo.

Similar scenes have unfolded across the city on a daily basis since October 1, when Banksy announced a monthlong “residency” on the streets of New York, titled “Better Out Than In.” As the elusive street-art icon posts tongue-in-cheek “audio guides” and reveals the general location of new creations via his website, crowds rush to catch a glimpse before the works are defaced, erased, or relocated (the latter being the case for a pair of installations contained in trucks that roam the city, as well as a fiberglass Ronald McDonald sculpture making the rounds of New York’s golden arches). The media churn out dozens of stories each day, speculating about the anonymous artist’s true identity and chronicling every exploit. Not since Warhol teamed up with Basquiat has street-influenced art received this much attention.

Asked about his vision for “Better Out Than In” in an exclusive interview with the Village Voice earlier this month, Banksy replied, “There is absolutely no reason for doing this show at all. . . . It’s pointless. Which hopefully means something.”

What, then, is the meaning of “Better Out Than In”? What influence will it have, and how does it affect Banksy’s legacy? The Voice reached out to several members of New York’s street-art community to share their thoughts on the topic and received a broad range of responses. Some say Banksy is brilliant, one of the most important artists of our time. Others call his new work overrated and shallow.

“He’s funny and clever, but what is that speaking to?” asks Marshall Weber, curator and director of collection development at the Brooklyn Artists Alliance. “It’s almost like he’s doing work about himself and his place in the art world, which is super-boring right now.”

Weber is referring specifically to Banksy’s October 12 stunt in Central Park. The artist rented a sidewalk booth and sold “authentic original signed Banksy canvases” — each worth thousands — for $60 apiece. New Yorkers had the opportunity to score the bargain of a lifetime, but because the sale was entirely unannounced, it was largely ignored. A video posted on his website puts the day’s total take at $420.

“I thought it was the most amazing commentary on people buying art based on the brand name rather than what it looks like,” says Molly Crabapple, whose May Day poster for Occupy Wall Street was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. “I thought it was astounding and completely clever. And, as somebody who has sold art on the street and had friends do it, I thought he did it in a very respectful way.”

Dan Witz, a street art pioneer from Brooklyn whose work appears in Banksy’s 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, appreciated the subversive art sale, too. “I think it’s awesome, I think it’s amazing, I think it’s hilarious,” Witz says. “I think it’s definitely making a comment on the way street art isn’t seditious anymore. I think it’s fairly brilliant.”

Brooklyn-based artists Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller, known collectively as FAILE, have collaborated on murals and street art projects around the globe and recently had an installation commissioned by the New York City Ballet. They’ve been impressed by the overall scope of “Better Out Than In.”

“The premise for the show is brilliant,” McNeil and Miller explain via e-mail. “The ability to use social media to broadcast a show on a global scale is remarkable. It’s great to see the range from painted pieces to installation, video, and sculptural works. We also appreciate the art of spectacle and its use in creating the show.”

“Better Out Than In” has veered between lighthearted (a stencil of a beaver in East New York strategically placed to make it look as though the critter had toppled a street sign) and dead serious. An elaborate piece painted on two dingy vehicles behind a chain-link fence on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side shows thrashing horses wearing night-vision goggles above a figure gazing upward and targeted by green crosshairs. The audio guide is an excerpt from the WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder,” which revealed a 2010 Baghdad air strike that killed journalists and civilians.

Some critics dislike the casual blend of whimsy and gravitas. Andrew Castrucci, co-founder of the Bullet Space urban arts collective, says other longtime New York street artists such as John Fekner, whose early work dealt with urban decay in the Bronx, are more deserving of praise.

“It’s too literal, it’s too easy — there’s no mystery behind his work,” Castrucci says of Banksy. “He’s like the new hot stock. It’s like the market: [The media] has created a bubble. I don’t think his work is strong enough to fetch that type of press. It’s hype to me.”

Weber agrees, expressing admiration and respect for Banksy while saying the artist is at risk of “becoming appropriated by the very pop culture he critiques.”

“I’m kind of issuing a challenge to Banksy,” Weber says. “When do you step into the real world? When does a piece of art change policy or catalyze social awareness or social action at this point? Again, I’d like to see him work on a topic that will raise some ruckus. The only reason I want more is because I know Banksy can deliver. He’s a great artist.”

TrustoCorp, an anonymous street artist (or perhaps a group) who creates satirical street signs, posted two pieces recently that skewer Banksy. One looks like a Citibank sign and reads, “Bad artists imitate, great artists get really rich.” The other tweaks the Bank of America logo to read “Banksy of America,” and imparts, “Laugh now but someday I’ll be so rich I can do graffiti wherever I want.”

Mayor Bloomberg isn’t a fan. He said at an October 16 press conference that Banksy’s stencils are “not my definition of art” and “should not be permitted.” Quoting an anonymous source, the New York Post reported that the New York Police Department’s Citywide Vandals Task Force is hunting the elusive artist, to which Banksy responded on his website, “I don’t read what i [sic] believe in the papers.” (The Daily News, predictably, refuted the story.)

Others bristle at classifying Banksy’s work as graffiti. New York graffiti historian Sacha Jenkins says Banksy “has found a way to leverage the quote-unquote ‘danger’ associated with graffiti” for his own purposes.

“He’s using social media and the media in general to promote his agenda, and he’s using graffiti to make it more salacious,” Jenkins says. “He has the posture of this supervillain who engulfs a city and no one knows where he’ll strike next.”

Banksy admirers dismiss the art semantics and emphasize the fact that his work is engaging audiences and sparking a dialogue about art and the nature of public spaces.

“We don’t even really know what defines a ‘graffiti artist’ anymore, let alone a ‘street artist,'” write McNeil and Miller. “Is it someone who spray-paints their name on a wall? Or is it someone that provokes people through the content they create in the public sphere?”

As for Banksy’s legacy, several artists speculate that the magnitude of and public interest in “Better Out Than In” will force a generation of street artists to adapt and react, a phenomenon Witz calls “the Picasso syndrome.”

“People try to take him down, but it’s really hard to do after this,” Witz says. “I respect him. I’m in a weird place, because I’ve been doing this for so long and I should resent him for being rich and famous. But I’m enjoying the hell out of it.”


Six Decades of Labor Day Leisure in NYC

In the late 1950s the Voice was often only twelve or sixteen or twenty pages, not yet the cultural juggernaut it would become in the next decade. But Jonas Mekas was already covering movies that were not coming from Hollywood, and over Labor Day weekend in 1959 he was alerting readers to films from the “new French wave,” such as The 400 Blows, The Cousins, and Back to the Wall, a “coldly, clinically executed thriller, impersonal, grim, humorless, too humorless.”

If that didn’t sound fun enough, you could at least go to the “Cool Brooklyn Paramount” (it was air-conditioned) on Flatbush and see Kim Novak in Middle of the Night. There were also plenty of Bergman flicks in town, but if that was also just too grim, you could head to the Greenwich theater (also “Air-Conditioned”) for Billy Wilder’s uproarious Some Like It Hot.

Come 1968, with the counterculture in full bloom, you could spend the weekend shopping for groovy threads in the East Village: velvet shirts at the What-Not Shop on St. Marks Place, Cossack shirts and dresses at Eko on Second Avenue, and hand-embroidered and beaded dresses at the Secret Garden on East 5th Street. And if you were looking for a gross of black lights, all you needed to do was head over to the Gelb Fixture Co. Inc., on Avenue A.

Well…the Seventies. September of 1978, to be exact. Still hadn’t seen John Belushi’s rollicking turn in Animal House? Better that than the unintentionally laughable Jaws 2. And Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band featured everyone except any of the Beatles. The result was predictable.

Ten years later jazz is representing all over town, although the Blue Note and other clubs were dark on Labor Day Monday. But you know what you could do back then, after a late night in the East Village? You could still go to Yaffa Cafe. Man, do we miss Yaffa.

Come 1994 and movie theaters are for losers. All you need is a VCR and the Tower Outlet on 4th Street and Lafayette. What better way to spend a three-day weekend than plowing through Ambulance, The Big Sweat, Batman II, Caddyshack II, The Cemetery Club, Crocodile Dundee II, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, Joey Breaker, Uncommon Valor, Whore, “and tons, tons more!!!!”

C’mon — what do you expect? This wasn’t Kim’s…

And for the new millennium? Wigstock. Sure, the move to the West Side piers had sapped the event of its original Tompkins Square Park/Eighties exhilaration, but a girl could still dream, no?



When the Lights Went Out in New York City

It was a Thursday afternoon and most of the Village Voice staff was going about its business at 36 Cooper Square. Then the lights — and everything else electrical, including the desk phones — went dead. Flip phones flipped open, but dialing out was a crapshoot — the lines were jammed, if you could get a signal at all. Editors sent writers out across the city to research stories for the following week’s edition, which would come out just a few days later, on Tuesday evening. There was still plenty of time for reporters such as Wayne Barrett, James Ridgeway, and Cynthia Cotts to dig into the history of infrastructure neglect that led to the August 14, 2003, blackout.

Barrett zeroed in on New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki: “There he was on Larry King Live, the governor of a state that couldn’t even watch him, promising to get to the bottom of the first 21st-century blackout, looking for any culprit but himself. After eight and a half years of the most disastrous energy policies in New York history, George Pataki spent the last few days frantically turning himself into a human floodlight, scanning an eight-state collapsed grid for a blameworthy glitch, when he needed only to shine the klieg on himself.” Barrett also noted that other parts of the Northeast region dodged the outage because they had avoided aligning their systems with New York’s: “Pataki policies have turned New York into a ‘regional pariah,’ with manic deregulation, skyrocketing prices, and both transmission and capacity disinvestment driving other, sounder systems away.” Additionally, Barrett ferreted out the campaign contributions from energy suppliers and the political favoritism that led to the catastrophe. Read Barrett’s full article.

New York Gov. George Pataki listens to a question at a press conference outside the New York State Emergency Office in Albany, N.Y., on Thursday, Aug. 14. 2003, where he said that 60 percent of New York State was still without power.

James Ridgeway’s mordantly headlined “Power to the People? Hardly.” had a local and federal perspective: “Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don’t turn off the light when leaving the room and don’t want power lines running through their backyards.”

And then he pointed out the ways in which Bush the Second’s administration had set the stage for the blackout: “Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what’s worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn’t have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers. If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration’s amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies.”

And then Ridgeway delivered a conclusion that could have been written last year when Republicans rammed through yet another tax cut for the richest Americans: “Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal’s social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.”

Cynthia Cotts’s “It’s Deregulation, Stupid” highlighted a Daily News headline, “Experts know zip over zap,” and then went on to remind readers that New Yorkers were not the only ones without power that summer of 2003: “The Republicans’ embarrassed silence allowed Democrats to seize control of the narrative. Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an energy secretary under Clinton, landed on the front page of The New York Times on August 15 with the now famous quote, ‘We are a major superpower with a third-world electrical grid.’ He not only got the Iraqis laughing (they have been without electricity for months), but also provided a spark for ensuing news coverage.”

Cotts referenced a Times story that said one of the blackout’s causes was “an unregulated energy market in which private companies have no incentives to build transmitters, and industry monitors have no power to enforce reliability rules.”

Which sounds very much like the deregulatory dream of Trump and the current Republican Congress.


Can I Interest You in a Masterpiece?

I have a fantasy piece of conceptual art: Become an art adviser to some hedge-fund bro whose surfeit of cash and arrogance is inversely proportional to taste and sensitivity. Start by purchasing, on his dime, bloated canvases by overrated blue-chippers; next, add in a heaping pile of kitsch under some banner of hipster irony, pay shill-inflated auction prices, hire a congenitally over-budget architect to build a vanity museum, collect exorbitant art-advisory fees, and all the while keep a running tab of the boondoggle — a printout of which is displayed as the final artwork.

Damn it, though, I think the German conceptualist/trickster/ salesman/provocateur/celeb Christian Jankowski may have beaten me to the punch. Or at least, the homely paintings and drawings and off-kilter sculpture and videos that make up his current show at Petzel Gallery have punched a hole in my logic.

So, let’s run this Jankowski thing down: Conceptualist? Keep reading.

Trickster? How else to explain the way in which Jankowski cajoles everyone from museum directors to yacht manufacturers, television producers, arts writers, and the general public to embark on collaborations that are as much about human relationships as any resulting objets d’art. For instance, in 1992 Jankowski could be found in a supermarket “hunting” foods and sundries with a bow and arrow. Documentary materials reveal that while he was careful to avoid the security cameras during his performance, he brought the pierced toilet paper roll, bread loaf, and other staples to the checkout counter in his cart like any other shopper. Jankowski’s website relates that the woman at the cash register “remained wholly unimpressed by the trophies of his ‘bargain hunt,’ which she scanned with the arrows still sticking out of them. He has to pay like everyone else.”

Drumbeat of the heart. Jankowski installation view.

In the current show at Petzel, we are first confronted by a tower of drum cases tall enough, as it happens, for a man to stand inside (Contemporary Farewell, 2017.) A handout informs us that hundreds of spectators had gathered at a Leipzig museum to wish the departing director bon voyage but were told that the guest of honor had fallen into the gray plaster column while inspecting it and would deliver his speech from the interior. A microphone was set up to amplify his words and his heartbeat (the human drumbeat, as it were) as the speeches were delivered. This ungainly pillar (literally of plaster and metaphorically of culture) became an artifact of proper patrons and distinguished guests maintaining decorum amidst a ludicrous situation. Such work feels influenced by the installations of the brilliant Ilya Kabakov, which often focused on the darkness-at-noon absurdities of the Soviet Union. In one piece, Kabakov transformed a Spartan public toilet commonly found at bus stops in the Soviet provinces into a typically cramped communal Moscow apartment.

‘What Could Possibly Go Wrong’

Kabakov was born in 1933, and has youthful memories of Nazi tanks invading his homeland, which may explain why his fatalistic wit never quite erupts into full-blown humor. Jankowski (born in 1968, in Göttingen, West Germany) is from a more congenial background, and his work can be truly funny. But sometimes, as in a video in the exhibition that revisits the theme of art professionals consumed by their obsessions, the humor can be a tad broad. In 2017’s What Could Possibly Go Wrong, the setup is that Jankowski has brought an alligator and an animal trainer to welcome a new director to Michigan State University’s Broad Museum. In short order, the director is menaced and then swallowed by the reptile, but survives and gamely gives an interview, in situ, to a local TV news anchorman. Jokes about belly laughs and fake news aside, what does it say about the art world to morph a museum director into a lumbering, scaly predator?

Salesman is a subset of Trickster: Jankowski once partnered with a boat manufacturer to offer a yacht and a stylish speedboat to the collector class, both of which would have a substantial premium added to their sticker prices if they bore his name, a case of the Artist’s signature enhancing the value of whatever it graces. Jankowski’s gambits have come a long way from Marcel Duchamp’s early-20th-century readymades, which were “chosen” — the key to understanding the artist’s role as cultural arbiter — for their rote utility. Duchamp’s workaday objects were so base that they kept getting thrown out, which is why we have only replicas of pieces such as his bottle rack (1914, also known as Hedgehog). One wonders what an institution such as the Philadelphia Museum paid for its copy, but if the original with its painted inscription were to ever miraculously turn up, its next-to-zero material value — transmuted through auction alchemy into nine figures — would prove both artists’ points.

Like Duchamp, Jankowski understands that there is no price tag on the heart’s desires, and over and over again he asks, “Is this art?” I know firsthand how persuasive Jankowski can be, as I participated (along with maybe a hundred other arts writers) in the collaborative piece Review (2012). Long story short, each writer agreed to provide Jankowski with a review of his exhibition Review before it existed, agreeing to place his or her speculations inside a bottle chosen by the writer — unread by anyone but its author. Jankowski then sealed said bottles with red wax, a motley collection of glass that constituted the artwork. Only a born huckster could get writers to swallow their egos and write a piece designed to be a mute object. (Jankowski let it be known that any writer who revealed the contents of the hidden essay — or maybe mash note, shopping list, or screenplay, who knows? — would have that bottle removed from the piece. I personally may have found a way around that stricture; it is for the reader — and ultimately, Jankowski — to decide):

[related_posts post_id_1=”407832″ /]

Which brings us to Provocateur, though perhaps interpreting the caricatures and paintings in the back gallery as “ugly” might trigger the retort, “Ugly is as ugly does.” In the series “Me in the Eyes of Another Actor,” the definition of “me” becomes a communal project. Last year, Jankowski asked pairs of artists who work in a Paris park, similar to the caricaturists in New York’s Times Square, to make drawings of themselves as Isabelle Huppert and one other actor, selected by Jankowski, on the same page. Huppert and her agent chose the photos from which her likenesses were rendered; portraits of such stars as Scarlett Johansson, Adrien Brody, and George Clooney were selected by Jankowski from celebrity portraits the artists keep on hand as samples of their drawing abilities.

Isabelle Huppert - Nastassja Kinski from the series: Me in the Eyes of another Actor 2017 drawing, coal and coloured pencil on paper Framed Dimensions: 22.24 x 28.11 inches 56.5 x 71.4 cm
Artists drawing artists: Isabelle Huppert – Nastassja Kinski from the series: “Me in the Eyes of Another Actor.”

For the project, the artists were instructed to portray each other’s postures and clothes and then add the heads on each other’s bodies, a process Jankowski likens to “the iconic drawing from M.C. Escher, where one hand with a pencil draws the other hand with a pencil.” To take a single example from the dozen or so on display, a comically proportioned and smiling Huppert — her head pinched in at the eyes, her legs and a cartoonish easel sketched in quick outlines, has been contrasted with a grim, carefully shaded Gérard Depardieu. The skill levels vary from clumsy to serviceable to art-class standout, but anyone who has bought a caricature for a relative visiting from the hinterlands knows it’s the thrill of sitting for a portrait done by a “real” artist that makes the work important in a personal sense: It’s one of a kind and it’s me! Though in this case, who exactly is “me”? Huppert, who wasn’t even present? Jankowski, who directed the project? Or the artists themselves, their own bodies portrayed under someone else’s head?

“Me in the Eyes of another Actor / Isabelle Huppert – George Clooney,” 2017.

A similar transmutation of “me” occurs in the “Neue Malerei” (“New Painting”) series. Jankowski searched the Internet for images in which a person or group of people reenacted scenes from famous paintings, such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. He then sent the image files to artists in China who make their living copying famous paintings. In a number of cases, large sections of the canvas have been left blank because the folks who set up the tableaux vivants often did not take care to get the proportions correct. Hence, roughly the bottom quarter of the Rembrandt that Jankowski commissioned is bare, because whoever composed the ersatz Night Watch — despite taking the time to approximate the 17th-century costumes — neglected to include the receding arch positioned above the militiamen in the original. Rembrandt’s dark void adds unexpected formal dynamism and emotional depth to his theatrical but compellingly realistic masterpiece. The virtuoso transformed the information his eyes received from live models through the motions of his own legs, spine, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers as he worked upon the huge (roughly 12-by-14-foot) canvas, physical actions that distilled three dimensions into two. In the painted copy created from a digital image, much has been lost in translation. And yet, in this ouroboros of depiction — Old Master canvas to posed digital image to painted knockoff — Jankowski has captured the passion that art engenders. Because you have to really care a lot to dress up in period garb and plot out where the woman with the chicken stands, and someone has to wrangle the dog so that your photo is at least a ballpark imitation of the Rembrandt — or Richter or Van Gogh or Matisse — which has been put through the Jankowski blender.

Neue Malerei - Rembrandt II 2018 Oil on canvas 142.91 x 172.05 inches 363 x 437 cm
Rembrandt from China: “Neue Malerei – Rembrandt II.”

By using other people’s imagery, no matter how amateurish, Jankowski exposes the spark of life that animates great art, and the craving people of all persuasions have to experience its jolt. Creation requires desperately hard work, in which the artist must be prepared to corral a lightning inspiration one moment and play a protracted chess match of thrusts, retreats, and waltzes at another. There are no formulas. On an aesthetic scale, Jankowski’s commissioned copies range from banal to bizarre (the scalded-pink color of the bathers’ flesh in a “Cézanne” is pretty off-putting). Yet in their desire to literally inhabit the spaces of great art, the various folk that Jankowski collaborates with — at however many removes — recall the “Social Sculpture” of one of his forebears and countrymen, Joseph Beuys (1921–86). In 1977, the German city of Münster staged an open-air sculpture exhibition and invited the former Luftwaffe pilot turned sculptor/performance artist/conceptual shaman to participate. Always on the lookout for poorly considered social environments, Beuys discovered a concrete dead zone inside a pedestrian underpass, which one curator described as “a deep wedge-shaped acute angle in which nothing but dirt could collect.” Collaborating with the unknowing and obviously expedient architect, Beuys built an exact mold of the void and then filled it with twenty tons of melted animal fat, which took three months to solidify. The result was an angular, sixteen-foot-high totem that, unlike stone or bronze, contained an inherent warmth, an abstraction that radiated corporeal presence.

Broadcast in Germany since 1970, Tatort’s credit sequence is a retro delight.

Which leads us to Celebrity. Jankowski was invited to participate in “Sculpture Project Münster” exactly forty years after Beuys pulled off his humanist intervention in that northwestern German city. But, similar to Andy Warhol’s turn as himself on TV’s The Love Boat, in 1985, Jankowski dispensed with objects and opted to make art from artifice. Jankowski is that rare artist with enough cultural wattage (in Germany, at any rate) to guest-star on the extremely popular police-procedural TV show Tatort (“Crime Scene”), which has run continuously since 1970 (and the title sequence looks it). Tatort sprawls across Germany, with episodes taking place in various cities. The Münster incarnation features two of the most popular characters, unkempt Detective Chief Inspector Frank Thiel and his insufferably high-falutin’ buddy (and landlord), forensics professor Karl-Friedrich Boerne.

In the witty episode in which Jankowski appears, murder victims preserved by DIY embalming mysteriously appear as sculptures throughout the city. As Boerne says, after exposing a human finger under mummy bandages covering a rogue sculpture: “We have an art-loving serial killer in Münster.” Jankowski has a small but important role as the artist “Jan Christowski,” who keeps his art concealed in a suitcase. During the investigation he agrees to open the case for one of the detectives, who in turn agrees not to reveal the contents. “OK, let’s make a deal,” the artist says, offering his hand. Later, when Christowski snitches on a colleague, the scene rings false, until, after an arrest is made, he retracts his testimony: “To create a good work, one must add something to reality, such as it is. The artist and audience agree to play a game with a different reality.”

The detective wears a Beuys vest for Münster’s sculpture project.

Words that might perfectly describe Jankowski’s ongoing sleight-of-hand career. But that has not stopped the producers of the show from protesting that he cannot present the episode in a gallery as an artwork by Christian Jankowski, which is exactly what the artist has done in the Petzel exhibition. Jankowski responded to the controversy in a recent interview with Artnet News: “From my perspective, it is my artwork because I came to [the German TV network] with the idea,” adding, “I pitched that I would play as myself in the fictional story of Tatort taking place during the Sculpture Projects.”

Hmmm. In a court of law I might ask, Who wrote the Jankowski-like lines for the Christowski character? Also, Who dressed Detective Thiel in a utilitarian, pocketed vest that very much resembled Joseph Beuys’s standard garb? (A Google image search for the characters does not show Theil wearing such a get-up in other episodes.) Münster is a cultural capital, so perhaps the show’s costumer was simply giving a visual shout-out to the sculpture project’s history.

And — SPOILER ALERT — we’ll note that the Christowski character is given the last word, dialogue that should perhaps be etched on Jankowski’s tombstone (which, come to think of it, should be offered for sale at auction one day): “Well? Was that art? You decide.”

‘Christian Jankowski: 2017’
456 West 18th Street

Through August 3