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Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols

Vicious and His Circle: Taking Aim at the Sex Pistols
From the Voice Literary Supplement

On the level of gossip, where most rock hagiographies tend to begin and end, the Sex Pistols’ bio contains no more death and decadence than a hundred other tales of fame and misfortune. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, even Geraldo Rivera all have more skeletons in their closets. “What you can never get in your book,” prophesies John Lydon to Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, “is the utter, total boredom of being in a band.” But by placing their story in the context of the time — and even more significantly, by filtering its unprecedented theoretical drainage — Savage transforms the Pistols’ tale into an intellectual epic (and at 600 pages in length, including dis­cography, it had better be). Especially when stacked up against other recent takes on the same scene, one by a journalist and another by a band member, England’s Dreaming is a no-nonsense rendering of punk’s over­determined glory.

The whole project, however, is grounded in Savage’s personal enthusiasm, as one of several diary entries makes clear: “30.10.76: I go to see my first proper punk group. I know what it’s going to be like: I’ve been waiting for years, and this year most of all: something to match the explosions in my head. The group are called the Clash … One song: a genuine cry, a child scream­ing in fear: ‘Waa waa wanna waa waa.’ Within ten seconds I’m transfixed, within thirty, changed forever.”

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***

Formed by guitarist Steve Jones, fronted by a shamanic singer with rotten teeth, and named by manager/provocateur Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols (“Why didn’t they just call themselves the Penises?” wonders an analyst of my acquaintance) produced records that were clarion calls to anarchy and transformed concerts, inter­views, and meetings with their record com­panies into incendiary, tabloid-titillating events. During a two-year carnival of chaos, from 1976 to their breakup in 1978 as toothless victims of the apparatus they at­tempted to undermine from within, they ceaselessly disrupted business as usual on tired, stodgy Planet Rock. Less rock band than art project, “the group embodied an attitude into which McLaren fed a new set of references: late-sixties radical politics, sexual fetish material, pop history and the burgeoning discipline of youth sociology,” explains Savage, high claims he actually justifies without lapsing into either mind­less boosterism or I-was-there-and-you-­weren’t smugness.

Savage constantly returns to the primal fitting room scene, however, reminding us that punk rock can never be dissociated from its mondo-bondo dress code. “Never forget,” McLaren says to Savage early on in England’s Dreaming, “that clothes are the things in England that make your heart heat!” He omits the transitional artifice an introduction or preface might provide and instead tosses the reader into the middle of swinging England, onto the stoop of 430 King’s Road. There Vivienne Westwood and McLaren, “Couturiers Situation­nistes,” launched a mordantly entertaining and highly influential fashion movement generating countless safety-pinned cheeks, strategically torn T-shirts, besloganed jack­ets, and spikey haircuts tinted various col­ors unknown to nature. Chez Savage, their conception and dissemination were no less significant than the music itself in the con­struction of punk’s willful mocking of ev­eryday perversity. The clothing mirrored the era’s recessionary and reactive tenor in all its Thatcher-motivated bleakness and paranoia. As glam rock waned and disco had yet to wax, punk style provided the perfect cultural jolt, a new kind of “No!” that brought together fashion, music, press, and politics to tell the world a story En­gland still can’t be too eager to bear.

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More self-conscious than any popular music ever, and postmodern to the max, the Pistols and punk operated at the level of iconography, spectacle, and low-to-high concepts rather than mere sonic signifiers. McLaren’s genius was to exploit boredom with rock as institution, and then to sell a brutalist version of the same back to the kids under the guise of something com­pletely different, which it wasn’t. The Ra­mones, the Dolls, and a generation of New York art-school bands preexisted as role models from which McLaren took the ball and ran in the wrong direction, disguising his Warholian commercial inclinations be­hind naive appropriations of anarchist, Si­tuationist, and Lettrist fantasies.

In this regard, England’s Dreaming also functions profitably as an extended gloss on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (wherein Savage is acknowledged as a “co-conspira­tor”), and that’s a compliment. Marcus’s wild analysis recuperates the Sex Pistols phenomenon as a hot and gnostic coda upon Dada, Situationism, Lettrism, etc. But where Marcus interprets the Sex Pis­tols as the mythic tale of John Lydon’s negation of the negation, Savage avoids apotheosizing McLaren, Lydon, or even Sid Vicious as a prime mover of this particular cultural blip. If punk is the subject, the Sex Pistols were its object. At times Savage sounds like a closet idealist, as when he quotes Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in hopes of making this confusing era rever­berate mythically; but his analysis always returns to the fresh bedrock of modem mu­sic sociology as pioneered by such writers as Simon Frith and Dick Hebdige.

For a fly-on-the-wall perspective, it’s at least worth skimming Glen Matlock’s whinging I Was a Teenage Sex Pistol for a brisk reality check. The group’s original bass boy and primary songwriter was ex­pelled from the group in favor of Ur-punk Sid Vicious, so his bitterness, if not his syntax, are to be expected: “We created a lot of talk and a lot of pie-in-the-sky theor­ising, but what was the end result of it all? When you cut right to the chase, The Pis­tols — and the whole punk phenomenon — ­were an inoculation for the music business which has enabled it to survive in its cur­rent depressingly flat state … The Pistols have become one of history’s big So What?’s” And of course Matlock’s absolute­ly right and absolutely wrong at the same time. Punk rock’s recuperation by big busi­ness surprised only the most credulous believers in pop art as a revolutionary activity.

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Charles Shaar Murray offers a different report from the front in his embarrassingly titled Shots From the Hip, an uneven col­lection containing what seems like every syllable scribbled by the veteran hack be­tween 1971 and 1990, gaffes and all. For example, amid a somewhat prescient over­view of the New York punk scene circa 1975, Murray notes that “Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough.” And then, a couple of months pri­or to the show that would change Savage’s life forever, Murray appraises the Clash as being “the kind of garage band who should be speedily returned to their garage, prefer­ably with the motor running.”

Beyond proving that John Simon has at least one British fan, Murray’s observations on the punk scene back then illustrate how much what we think of as punk rock is a journalistic construction after the fact. Punk was not particularly subtle as music, yet it threw open the doors to endless theo­rizing. These days, amid an almost inslilu­tional “punk revival,” it seems nothing less than the most immediately nostalgic pop style to come down the pike. Abject nihilism is still in fashion and, as Murray wrote in 1986, “The punchline is this: most people don’t want things changed to any funda­mental degree, but they do like a little bit of excitement now and again.”

You can’t get much more reductionist than that, but in that whimper of defeat there’s an element of the conclusion Savage draws in England’s Dreaming. Everything changed after the Pistols’ infamous appearance on Britain’s Today show in December 1976, during which allegedly intoxicated host Bill Grundy provoked Steve Jones into a volley of live-on-the-air curses. “From that day on,” Jones tells Savage, “it was different. Before then, it was just music: the next day, it was the media.” According to Savage, the subsequent backlash forced the Pistols into a reactionary trajectory leading to stasis, and worse: it reduced them to being an ordinary rock band and transformed punk from move­ment into cult. “They left the creation that was to follow destruction unstated and unresolved: as very few people had the courage to see nihilism through, this negation curdled into the nullities of dogma, cynicism or self-destruction.”

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***

Punk’s death was inscribed in its birth, of course. Born under a bad sign and swathed in basic black, London punkdom fought to overturn an overexposed city in which speed, both chemical and cybernetic, had subsumed space. The movement even had the audacity to present the swastika as its über-icon, which may have been its most unforgivable transgression. Punk’s dark lib­eration suggested what writer Nick Kent early on termed “Rock’n’Roll Fascism,” but Savage tends to take swastika usage at face value, as mere shock therapy. More than a merry détournement, punk’s fascination with fascist symbolism betrayed a somewhat less than healthy interest in au­thoritarianism and a decidedly masculinist sexography, while suggesting that punk rock, despite Rock Against Racism’s utopian rhetoric, was always more interested in exclusion than inclusion. And while Savage lauds the Crass as an example of a group that transcended punk’s political limita­tions, he neglects the battles of punk ideology still being waged in the pages of such fanzines as Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll.

But that is now and this was then. Cul­turally, nothing has happened with quite so much velocity and spunk since (William Burroughs’s recipe for riot — “Record, instant playback, fast forward” — becomes a nervous mantra for these events). Punk was a fabulous meaning generator, and Savage’s book is the movement’s most finely tuned reading so far. By the time you hit the 45-page discography that concludes England’s Dreaming, however, you might be less eager to reimmerse yourself in the music than in such responsive texts as Lipstick Traces and Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin’s 1989 collection On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Punk lives in these traces, these theories — and in a million bands— even more than in boxfuls of decaying singles and CD reissues. In its own way, punk is as dead as Elvis. Histories such as Savage’s, however, ensure that the zombie movement will stumble on for the diversion and edification of its believers — by their rainbow Mohicans and steel-tipped boots ye shall know them — at least until some­thing badder this way shambles. ■

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ENGLAND’S DREAMING: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond
By Jon Savage
St. Martin’s Press, $27.50

I WAS A TEENAGE SEX PISTOL
By Glen Matlock with Pete Silverton
Faber and Faber, $12.95 paper

SHOTS FROM THE HIP
By Charles Shaar Murray
Penguin, $10.95 paper

1992 Reviews of books about the Sex Pistols in the Village Voice by Richard Gehr

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1980-1989: How ’80s Music Bent the Color Line

Pop Plural

In the ’80s, the racial divisions which made necessary a “pop chart” and a “black chart” in Billboard were chal­lenged in increasingly aggressive ways; to the point that the decade’s most provocative innovations — rap, two-tone ska, World Beat, house, and Latin “free­style” — defied placement in either cate­gory. Independent of industry marketing strategy, we are moving towards an era when such categories will be dysfunction­al, if not obsolete.

During 10 years of writing for this and other publications I’ve had the privilege of hearing a hell of a lot of music. The bands who forever changed the way I appreciated vinyl — not CDs — were a di­verse and brilliant bunch. I can testify to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Egypt ’80 at Pizza­-a-Go-Go, Madness at Tier 3, and Bob Marley and the Wailers at the World Famous Apollo Theater. DJ Afrika Bam­baataa at the Mudd Club, Justin Strauss at the Ritz, Gail King at the Red Parrot, and Larry Levan at Paradise Garage were men and women who helped found and support entire musical movements from a humble hillock of turntables.

If a single band could embody the de­cade, it would be Kid Creole and the Coconuts — the first live ensemble to blend rap, reggae, swing, salsa, and funk into a truly original and danceable for­mat. UK critic Simon Frith credited Kid Creole with inspiring a whole school of British pop, from Wham! to Sade, which boomeranged to America and reshaped styles here once again.

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In 1980, Tom Silverman, Mark Joseph­son, and Joel Webber held the first of their rap- and no wave-centered New Music Seminars. This annual event, ini­tially fueled by profits from “Planet Rock” and other early hip-hop hits, quickly grew beyond its rap origins in industry impact. Although it served to bring races together in celebration of var­ious musical subcultures, as the money poured in, the NMS was accused of turn­ing “richer” and “whiter” into synonyms.

In ’81 multiethnic pop suffered a major setback: the death of Bob Marley. Later that year, England’s Clash challenged the color line by bringing rap, punk, and funk acts together on the disco stage of Bonds International in Times Square. Their white American fans didn’t quite get it. Cursing the opening acts, these kids weren’t ready for the mixed society the Clash were suggesting. This residual bigotry found its clearest expression in the emerging music video industry.

MTV demonstrated in 1981 that music could be seen as well as heard. It launched lucrative careers for dozens of unknown British and Australian acts, but refused to put black or “r&b” acts in rotation for years. Pressure from CBS in ’84 forced the inclusion of Michael Jack­son’s Thriller clips — with 36 million sold, Thriller became the first r&b project to benefit from the selling power of MTV.

But MTV never really warmed to tra­ditional r&b. When the channel finally began to program videos featuring black performers, it was because white listeners requested rap. Meanwhile, alternative outlets like Video Music Box and Black Entertainment Television had arisen to support black product. By 1989 MTV, feeling the competition, was program­ming a half-hour of prime-time black videos per day via Yo! MTV Raps.

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THROUGHOUT THE ’80s music reinvented itself because — and in spite — of techno­logical change. The conversion of many club sound systems from support of live bands to cheaper backing-tape performances (often with the lead vocals also on tape!), reduced audience expectations of live music. Radio stagnated when fol­low-the-leader formats made flipping the dial as common (and dull) an exercise as aerobics.

On the up side, portable cassette sys­tems allowed more progressive consumers to program their own daily soundtracks (“C30-C60-C90 Go!” urged a belligerent Bow Wow Wow). Taping from live, radio, and vinyl sources proved not enough: As the rap and underground disco scenes flourished far from the commercial main­stream, drum machines, reel to reels, and primitive four-track home studios proliferated to serve the imagination of a teen underclass suddenly gifted with the means of production.

No change was more radical than the elevation of disc jockeys to the ranks of songwriters and producers. High-tech jocks behind recording consoles made be­ing able to remember (and dismember) music more important than reading it. “Mastermixes,” used by urban radio to extend the life of hit singles, created a demand for DJ-created versions of these same songs with altered rhythm tracks and arrangements. Soon no producer un­familiar with club audio trends could compete with his DJ-peers.

This new breed of producer had a choice: to give his best ideas to second­-stage remix projects, or produce and re­lease records of his own. Chicago jocks were among the first to make their own dance tracks from reworked Philly Inter­national basslines and Eurodisco synth pads. House music was born. Raw 8-track recordings from Chicago, like Steve “Silk” Hurley’s “Jack Your Body,” cut in ’86, were topping the British pop charts as early as ’87, while being all but ignored back home.

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REGGAE WAS THE first large-scale cross­over experiment of the ’80s. Since many first-generation rap and turntable artists were of West Indian descent, it’s no won­der that Jamaican inventions, such as instrumental “dubs” and impromptu rhyming over rhythm tracks, became sta­ples of early hip-hop. Whites who ac­quired a taste for rap from hybrids like the Clash’s “Magnificent Seven,” and for reggae from the Police’s Regatta de Blanc, flocked to places where they could dance to the stuff. Downtown venues like Negril and One’s catered to the hunger for original Jamaican imports; while spots like the Roxy and the Mudd Club allowed spike- and skinheads to mingle with Kangol-capped B-boys.

At the same time, Cachaça on the Up­per East Side catered to more obscure tastes in what would later be called World Beat. Brazilian expatriates gigging at Cachaça offered samba, maculelê, choro, and bossa nova, long before New Artists and Joseph Papp sponsored Brazilian pop stars. Larry Gold’s Sounds of Brazil was exclusively Brazilian when it set up shop on Varick Street in ’82. But by ’86, a spectrum of Third World ethnopoppers had graced its stage. Another early sup­porter of world music was promoter Ver­na Gillis, whose midtown Soundscape se­ries did much in the mid-’80s to expose the uninitiated to Caribbean and African musics.

Even Ron Delsener couldn’t resist the cross-cultural bug. His booking policy at the late Savoy theater was wildly eclectic: You might have seen reggae crooner Gregory Issacs there one week with a roomful of Brooklyn dreads, followed by Zaire’s M’bilia Bel the next.

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In shepherding Bob Marley’s global travels, Island/Mango realized that an entire world of pop music based on Pan­African rhythms awaited dissemination. While Chris Blackwell groomed the apoc­alyptic trio Black Uhuru for the Marley slot, and the Rolling Stones toured with Peter Tosh, there was no reason some of the African music already catching on in Europe couldn’t be promoted stateside.

There were felicitous “crossover” prec­edents. Ginger Baker of Cream had re­corded an entire album with Fela Kuti in the ’70s; Peter Gabriel, inspired by Afri­can politics as well as pop, composed the elegiac “Biko,” and in ’82 sponsored a seminal Third World pop music festival in England; The Talking Heads flaunted the African sources which informed their 1980 effort Remain in Light; and Mal­colm McLaren filled half his solo LP, Duck Rock, with Soweto township music in ’83.

By the time Mango released their two-­volume Sounds D’Afrique compilation of central African tunes, they had every rea­son to expect a certain level of avant­-garde acceptance. These discs were fol­lowed in ’83 by Mango’s first African pop star: King Sunny Adé and his African Beats. The stage show — sung entirely in Yoruba — was ambitiously presented in many American cities. Adé’s orchestra and male dancers could command a stage for two hours and never repeat a move.

The massive breakthrough Blackwell sought through two albums never happened. But Adé’s partial success in the college and alternative markets laid the groundwork for the World Beat circuit that now serves everyone from Islamic Africa’s Cheb Khaled to Israel’s Ofra Haza.

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Language and image were still the big­gest obstacles between foreign artists and Madonnaland. One by one the idols of other nations visited us, but those with­out a Yankee sponsor barely registered as blips on the scale of mass appeal. When Paul Simon won his Grammies for Grace­land it was very much his victory, in spite of the solicitous inclusion of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba on the Graceland tours.

The pure Brazilian pop and samba compilations David Byrne has assembled on Fly/Sire, and his current Rei Moma album (which deploys New York salsa circuit veterans), are wonderful projects, but of questionable benefit to the non-­Anglo musician. Salsa innovator Willie Colén wrote in a Billboard editorial earli­er this year that the Best Latin Record­ing category could soon be filled with the experiments of well-meaning Yankee dabblers elbowing out the genuine article. This is not an unfounded fear.

The same decisions that kept MTV safe so long — for the benefit of Brit pop, dinosaur rock, and heavy metal — are now those that prevent most salsa, reggae, rai (Algerian teen pop), zouk, and yes, even rap, from being played on black radio. In a remarkable turnabout, one local black station is fighting against the tide. Back on WBLS after a long absence, DJ Fran­kie Crocker is attempting a multigenre format for the ’90s-gospel, blues, folk, jazz, salsa, rap, reggae, and classic r&b. He hopes to keep root musics alive, and in the process prevent a glut of trendy, perfunctory fluff. He’s got his work cut out for him.

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ECONOMIC PROTECTIONISM operates in music just as it does with other consumer goods. It is cultural imperialism that dictates that other countries know who Ma­donna is before any American hears a tune by Cheb Khaled. The conspiracy to SELL THIS, NOT THAT! is eroding because record buyers are not as passive and pa­rochial as they used to be. If anything destroyed the myth that white features matter more than great music, the major label breakthrough of Tracy Chapman did.

So the pivotal question for the pluralis­tic ’90s is: How long? How long before the conglomerates are forced to share their wealth? Every stronghold of the record business now has its own little Trojan horse of independents chomping away at market infrastructure. Major la­bels began to buy into entire rap compa­nies because they didn’t have a clue as to how to package and exploit hip-hop. They may have to fund existing blues, reggae, and foreign import labels for the same reason. The more the industry tries to homogenize and reduce artistic stan­dards, the more music itself rises up to defy it. ■

NEXT…

The Path of Most Resistance: Poland Leads Eastern Europe Into the Abyss
By Lawrence Weschler

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1980-1989: The Eighties According to Malcolm McLaren

Fax Home

Never has there been so much at­tention on girls. The ’80s were very female, and about females’ desire to do everything a man could do. In the end they realized that it wasn’t such a brilliant idea, be­cause what men do is mostly stupid. To wear trousers, carry briefcases, and be in jobs — most of it’s rubbish, really. It’s all replacement for men’s inability to go fishing. So women look to change men in the only way they possibly can — and that’s to make them more feminine. It’s a more feminine world that will ultimately preserve the planet.

“Pretty” is a word that men always had to fear to use and now desperately are finding ways to bring back. “Pretty” is about a nuance that men have always dismissed. It’s either black or it’s white; you don’t go into a room and say, “Oh, this is pretty.” Only girls do that. Girls know the nuance. Men are trying to find a way to understand that nuance. I think the ’90s are going to be a period when men are going to realize that they are not as interesting as women.

The art of conversation will come back in the ’90s. The art of letter writing with the invention of the fax will come back. Now you no longer have to burble and blather and inarticulate yourself over the phone. You can dutifully spend time rein­venting the language. If your girlfriend is across the ocean, you write her a fax. When you write, every word on the fax has to have intention, and it is read. When you read a letter, you really believe it. And so, words count. Now, every word has to have intention. You can make love by fax. You can basically court again. The world of Emily Post might have a major comeback. Lessons in deportment, manners.

Manners are something that will im­mediately determine what a good politi­cian is. We already know that Gorbachev has far better manners than George Bush, so therefore we’ve got to believe he’s more worthy, more intelligent, more sexy, a better friend, someone to take notice of. Manners become important, because the cardinal principle of etiquette is to address yourself to thinking about the effect of your actions on others. That will go a long way to changing the world.

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It’s definitely going to come back, the art of monogamous living. Men are going to become conscious of what they repre­sent in society, the bull charging at the gate, and be a little guilty. Some will act vigilantly. Perhaps we’ll have green patrols. And women will become more like animals and be quite proud of it — to be associated with a dying breed.

And men have to become more femi­nine. That means sitting back a bit more, that means taking care, learning to live with less rather than more, being more economical, and ultimately, I think it just means common sense. I’ve noticed that style and music are definitely trying.

In fashion there’s movement toward things that are very soft and overtly feminine.

Architecture is going out of business. Who wants to build anything? Isn’t there enough? Who wants to tear things down? We’re desperately trying hard to pre­serve — and that’s a very feminine thing.

Music’s a Little harder, because musi­cians are generally very coarse people. They can’t help but be. You can’t live in a room and look at the frets on a guitar or the keys on a piano and know what’s going on. Only the visual artists know what’s going on. Musicians always have to be catching up. The pack is led by the visual artists.

That’s the reason the art market has soared here. It’s the last holy watering place because the artist never lies. People say it’s because art can somehow turn gold into more gold — I’d rather not even think about that, because to think about that is misery. You’re really better off to say the reason they’re paying these for­tunes is because art’s the only truth, in this world, as we know it, that still re­mains intact.

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THE GREEKS had it right when they cre­ated all these different gods — men and women who could walk among us and we could knock them down. And they could commit terrible crimes and then go back upstairs. That’s why opera has become so popular in the ’80s — because it’s so much about things pagan. And ultimately that’s very much about what rock and roll was supposed to be about too, but we lost it. Rock and roll in the ’60s and early ’70s was all about those irresponsible urges we adored in the gods of Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley. And when the gods became baroque and mannered — and ultimately corporate — we got bored with it. They didn’t live seven lives; we couldn’t be as awestruck.

From the time we were very young, we believed that pop culture would free us from everything, liberate us from the old world that we decided was repressive. Rock and roll made us jump out of all that and it gave us a culture we could understand and use — very easily. It was a tremendous call to arms. If Elvis Presley was like Henry V, shouting “into the breach,” we’d sign up instantly, because it sounded so great. “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Jailhouse Rock” or “Summertime Blues” or “Anarchy in the UK” or Jim Morrison shouting “I want the world and I want it now” — they’re all brilliant an­thems. We were all ready to sign up. The culture was undisturbed and the move­ment was very clear.

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But as we got older, we started to look at the inside of it. We realized that rock and roll really wasn’t about what we dreamt it was about when we initially heard it. It had turned from something very entrepreneurial and cowboyish into a modern corporate machine that sold us not freedom, but Coca-Cola and Donald Duck.

We were caught between two worlds in the ’70s. All the freedom that was pur­ported for us to grab, all the culture that was thrown like footballs at our feet, was taken away. It didn’t really exist. And the ’60s, that whole dream, had gone. We suddenly saw the cracks in Andy Warhol: the notion of good art is good business and bad art is bad business suddenly left a bad taste in our mouths. We didn’t like the hardness in him. This whole god­damned pop culture that America sold — ­and that we adored to buy — was demysti­fied as a huge vacuous lie. We were left with the only worthwhile thing, which was finding a way to break it all down.

Now, we’re trying to bring it back if we can. We’ve decided to believe, just for the sake of it. It’s the reason for the nostalgia for the Rolling Stones. It’s a fundamental thing — this wanting to believe in things again. Today people are trying desperate­ly to be naïve. Desperately. The long dresses, the softer curves, the pasty faces, the whole nocturnal ideal of a ghostly image, or looking like something from the 19th century. People are trying to taste again a little of the ’60s. Perhaps they could reinvent the pose, the homespun, the do-it-yourself, the flagrant dismissing of the word career. Today take away the notion of career and people walk around empty, scared stiff, because it’s vested in the ’80s if you don’t have a career you’re an irresponsible bum.

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I THINK AS WE entered the ’80s we gave in, totally, and started to believe in this business of selling a perfect way of life, this capitalist dream. Most people decid­ed, having thrown all their ideas that they were originally born with into the dustbin, they might as well get on and make money. And they did. And we came to the end of this decade realizing we’d got the money, but there’s nothing to fucking buy. Nothing there. We didn’t make anything, really.

So we must go in search — for the mem­ories, for the parts of the culture that we’d completely destroyed. Do we have to go to the valleys of El Salvador where they cleared out peasants’ houses, having machine-gunned all the inhabitants down? Will we find it in some old chair that has some history, and that’s got half its paint rubbed off? How can we appear romantically old and decrepit and still beautiful because somehow we’ve man­aged to retain something of our past that we now care about? Because pop cul­ture — we don’t care about that any more — it’s part of the world of the artificial.

It’s extraordinary that the fashion of the ’80s is all these broken-down chairs and half-painted tables and stuff that looks like peasant furniture from the Third World, that this is a great chair because it actually stood in Guatemala City. There’s this capitalistic determina­tion that we will inevitably put on the wall someone else’s grief.

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And so I think this mad hoorah hoorah for the demolishing of the Berlin Wall is a fabulous metaphor, because what the Berlin Wall represents is probably the best art monument that the West ever had, and the fact that they’re tearing it down suggests that everything that came after it wasn’t worth very much at all. So to have a chip of the Berlin Wall is to actually have a bit of this culture — it will be as good as having a print of Andy Warhol or anything else.

The interesting thing now is that Eu­rope is decidedly selling its whole culture, and the biggest part of it is yet to come. Which I think is what the tearing down of the Berlin Wall is going to be all about. Because the other side, luckily in some respects, has preserved the old. We’ll be seeing Vogue on the streets of Prague. Those East European faces, buildings, at­titudes, are something that people are going to want to be part of. The idea of the broken-down, the imperfect, the crumbling — fashionable people decided that’s attractive. It’s what they searched for on every holiday they ever embarked on — something real. And the most real place today is Eastern Europe.

And the funny and most ironic thing is that the Communist bureaucracies in the Soviet states were able to retain the old culture much better than the capitalists. They may not realize what jewels they possess. It’s a little like the U.S. selling whiskey to the Indians — because you’re going to be trying to sell Coca-Cola and MTV to the Poles. And in return try in some way to enslave them to your system and make them consume the dream that no longer is selling anywhere else. ■

NEXT…

The Crack-Up: The Decade of the Quick and the Dead
by Barry Michael Cooper

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Rei Kawakubo: Like the Boys

This is the story of a new boutique on Wooster Street that looks like a cement bunker, is called Comme des Garçons, and is making a fortune. It opened at the tail end of August, the designer is Japan’s Rei Kawakubo, and the owner is Dianne Benson, former Bendel’s buyer and owner of the Dianne B. shops on Madison Avenue and Soho’s West Broadway.

It’s not just another boutique. The negotiations between Rei Kawakubo, 41, an extraordinary Japanese businesswoman/designer and Dianne, 38, produced an instant, screaming success. Which is not really a surprise because Rei Kawakubo is not just another designer, but a woman with a total aesthetic, a world view; perhaps the Chanel of the ’80s. Last summer, her “black bag” clothes looked extremely weird scruffling along Wooster Street on a lanky, blonde fashion freak. Today, strong professional women around New York are wearing them, like Amy Levin, editor-in-chief of Mademoiselle.

Rei Kawakubo does things in what I’m sure Diana Vreeland would call a Big Time Way. She’s a tough independent lady with a genius for design, a brilliant sense of marketing and business, a lust for control, and her very specific idea of what women need in 1984. She has 168 stores and boutiques within other stores; she owns about 25 of them.

Last spring Paris’s Passion magazine described Rei’s clothes as “stark, violent elegance in sculptural form.” The Comme des Garçons boutique she opened there in 1982 was the talk of Paris. Her torn cotton knit T-shirt was selling for 600 francs.

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Rei Kawakubo, it is said, started Comme des Garçons so she could have total control over her life and answer to no one. In all, this is a very feminist story. “Basically,” said Dianne last August, “Rei’s is the biggest idea around, the most modern, because it’s so total.” Rei does everything, from designing the stores (stark gray cement), the environment — the music, pens, stationery, bags — to the employees, directing everything from their posture to their paper clips to their cars. There’s no postmodernist flip in her minimalist aesthetic. Rei acted as architect on the Soho store. Its bleak lines are almost Joe D’Urso/black leather/hospital gown antiseptic. While New York blossoms with a postmodernist pallette and the AT&T building sprouts Chippendale curves, Japanese architects hunker down in oriental high tech. Sol Le Witt’s 1968 white Modular Cube/Base illustrates Kenneth Frampton’s A New Wave of Japanese Architecture; Le Witt, along with fellow minimalists Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, inspires the Japanese new wave. Whether Rei’s “Machines for Living” aspect will throw people, as did Le Corbusier’s (or Paley’s despised office decor rules for Black Rock, CBS headquarters) remains to be seen. She even so far, Future Shock seems to have thrown a lot of True Believer customers Rei’s way, into a calm, orderly world with few decisions to be made about one of the less important things in life: one’s clothes.

Mr. Kateyama, the business director of Comme des Garçons, has an interesting office in Rei’s Tokyo headquarters. Cement, like the stores. Minimal furniture. Filing cabinets. And one entire wall covered with a map of the world. Below, a low built-in ledge holds only a tray of monotone thumbtacks. At the pace they go, they envision everyone in the world being in their clothing. It’s a big wall. The island of Japan has hundreds of tacks. New York, several. Philadelphia. Houston. Paris. Milan.

Is Rei a feminist? It’s hard to determine. She seldom speaks to the press. In photographs he has a strong handsome serious face that needs no makeup. Johanne Siff, who spent two years in Japan on a Watson Fellowship studying the emergence of women in the contemporary arts, explains that there is no organized feminist movement to parallel what American women experienced in the ’70s. “But Rei’s right on the edge,” she [says]. “Her politics are definitely integrated with her art.” Johanne, who started as a part-time weekend worker, now manages the Comme des Garçons boutique. (She couldn’t afford CDG clothes when she lived in Tokyo.)

Rei, according to her bio, was born in Tokyo in 1943. She was either three or four when the atom bombs exploded at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. She started Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys) in 1973, showing her first collection two years later. The following year she opened her Paris office and first overseas boutique and splashed ice water in the faces of the French.

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Karen Rubin, the general manager for all three of Dianne Benson’s stores, seemed less than enthusiastic about Dianne’s wild idea of opening and owning a CDG boutique in Soho. Of course Dianne was the boss. “But,” she adds, “when I sat down in their offices in Tokyo last year, I knew it would work. It’s the most serious idea around. It’s a whole way of life.” Rei’s offices look just like the stores, and rumor has it that her apartment does too. Rei’s office has one telephone, black; four concrete walls; one low black table; one black leather sofa; one intense light. Nothing else.

Everyone who works for Rei believes in her idea. What exactly is it? Something about everything for the simplest and purest life. How women should look and how they should feel. Her designs have a lot to do with freedom of movement, wearing flat shoes. Rei doesn’t wear makeup and tells her people point-blank not to wear it.

Susan Brownmiller notes in her new book Femininity, “Serious women have a difficult time with clothes, not necessarily because they lack a developed sense of style, but because feminine clothes are not designed to project a serious demeanor.” A statement of Rei Kawakubo’s: “I have always felt it important not to be confined by tradition or custom or geography, I hope to remain free of these influences in expressing in shapes and colors and textures an idea of mobility… I wish to design garments which the owner can feel confident in, and which do not discriminate ideas of mobility — and yet remain anonymously distinctive.” (I think by those two references to mobility she means no indications of social class.) Rei’s clothes, worn as a uniform, allow the woman to forget about her closet and get on with life. Or that’s the theory. Karen Rubin says Rei’s idea may be as simple as the title of a current hip-hop record hit: “It’s Like That, and That’s the Way It Is.” CDG is so far away from a Seventh Avenue operation it’s amazing — Rei ships supplies at her cost, because she wants that specific hanger design. “It’s just a whole other idea.” The Americans figure Rei works about 20 hours a day, running every facet of the business. Shy, intensely private, she’s “so absorbed in what she’s doing her personal contact is minimal,” says Karen. Rei’s press person, Stella Ishi, married to an American painter, speaks perfect English; she’s the interface. Rei is the Sherman tank.

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As Dianne Benson told me in mid-1982, “I’m into working, making money, and not being confused. Getting my priorities straight. I’m into nobody yelling at me.”

Dianne B. is one of those people who give an impression of total chaos then pull diamond-studded rabbits out of elegant top hats. A Mike Todd type. Her CDG store is a triumph of cutting through the traditional molasses of Japanese-American business negotiations. With Rei, the two women personally put together what Dianne described in August as “a very intriguing, sensible financial agreement which should reach break even in a year.” (Her West Broadway store took 15 months, rather than the projected 12, to turn a profit.)

Working with her souped-up Radio Shack TR S-80 home computer, Dianne started negotiations less than a year ago. They would Telex in the morning and talk over the phone at night. “Between the two of us we came up with a give and take. I wrote up the deal with a letter of intent, four schedules, a projection of volume, expenses, etc., and then the lawyers came in. All the main points boiled down to the biggest legal issue: under which country’s law is this? The lawyers cost a little over $12,000. We split it.” The deal was done in under three months, the lease signed for a prime 6,500 foot location at 116 Wooster Street June 1. Construction started 20 days later; they opened in late August.

Dianne and her partners capitalized the store with $200,000 up front to secure the lease and start construction. (They later got an additional construction loan from the Bank of New York.) There was no capital left to buy merchandise, so Rei fronted the money, with a letter of credit from Tokyo’s Fuji bank. There was $250,000 worth in the first month. Dianne loved doing business with CDG. “Stella Ishi and Kateyama are Rei’s two henchmen. They’re so cool and so groovy and funky and smart. They’re unlike an other Japanese businesspeople. There’s nobody that comes this close. It’s a very strange and different group, and real smart. And all these people are about 34.”

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The day of the opening CDG took in $10,000. And now the story is coming in. Many New Yorkers find the CDG things to be wearable, comfortable, addictive clothing. A way of life. And, the projected break-even? Not a year. Only four months to turn a profit. Dianne did $600,000 in retail sales by year-end. The CDG Homme menswear sold out completely and they had to close the downstairs Homme area until they could restock.

The revolutionary speed of these negotiations are mirrored by some revolutionary management developments in the CDG store. Originally Dianne slated six salespeople, three assistants, a cashier, etc. The staff of 10 to 15 that evolved is described as “socialistic,” though CDG is definitely all about making money. The entire group, including manager Johanne Siff, rotates jobs. “It’s kind of like overnight camp,” explains Karen, “when you had your job wheel in the bunkroom.” And the entire staff, except for Johanne, makes exactly the same salary. There’s a great CDG team spirit; after six weeks, each employee gets enough of Rei’s clothes to fashion a week’s wardrobe. “But believe me,” explains Johanne, “it’s taken some time to instigate Dianne’s idea of management. Some people weren’t into it. The fashion freak types sort of freaked out. Three people were fired for internal stealing.” Two more left.

“Now, we work as a unit. We’re more versatile, flexible; not as rigid and limiting as what might be Rei’s hierarchy in Japan. Dianne takes Rei’s structure and softens it. And she’s much more accessible.”

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Dianne says “Rei’s totally radical.” But in what sense? Dianne’s a fashion person; a fabulous purveyor of words, stance, attitude. Rei seems to be getting at something more political; feminist; free; revolutionary. A lot of New Yorkers were saying last year that the Japanese were stealing their ideas from the English designers. If the talk sounds similar; the clothes are totally different. In the August issue of London’s The Face, Katherine Hamnett explained why she thought a designer had power: “I suppose it means you dress the elite… you’re creating their persona.” Hamnett’s fascination is with the dialectic between the clothes you wear and the attitudes you express. In late August, Vivienne Westwood, about Rei’s age, described her own clothes to The Guardian as “strong,” “grand,” and “free.” They then had a lot of Roxy “hip­-hop” references like Smurf hats, Keith Haring graffiti prints, and triple-tongued sneakers. The business impulse behind Westwood is Malcolm McLaren, purveyor of the Sex Pistols and Adam Ant, who noted these clothes did well in Japan. “Japan was for so long an isolated island that it has never got over its hunger for the status of ideas.”

So is Rei making an English-inspired statement? Betsey Johnson says, “London is laughing about the old way with clothes… It’s a street peoples’ musical statement, I see Bow Wow Wow, Boy George, Dexie’s Midnight Runners, MTV.” The Japanese clothes? “A very sophisticated, typically Japanese approach to cloth and texture and drape. The Japanese finally once and for all had to make a big time statement for themselves in clothing. But it’s completely different — the English is from the street, the Japanese is from an expensive, sophisticated fashion point of view.

***

Dianne Benson is now in Tokyo negotiating with Rei to open a Comme des Garçons on Geary Street in San Francisco. She’s probably wearing her CDG clothes. She says they make her feel sexy. And powerful.

And another tack will probably go on Mr. Kateyama’s world map. ■

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BAZINGA!

In what may be the musical equivalent to the nerd pride of a show like The Big Bang Theory, New York–area electro experimentalists Anamanaguchi make music not just with guitars, bass, and drums, but with old-school Nintendo stations and Game Boys. In the past, they’ve scored the soundtrack for the video game version of the graphic novel Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and their latest album, Endless Fantasy, finds them playing 22 short, video gamey numbers full of the sort of sweet, laser-like synths that usually unfold in the dreamlike worlds of Mario and Luigi. But perhaps the most curious thing about Anamanaguchi is that the inspiration for the band came when the group’s songwriter-guitarist, Peter Berkman, read an interview in Wired with Sex Pistols mastermind Malcolm McLaren in which he mentioned a group of Swedish Game Boy–music pioneers. Maybe this is the new punk rock. Fittingly, they’re performing tonight as the headliners of Webster Hall’s regular electronic-music–focused Girls & Boys party with Alex English and rekLES.

Fri., Aug. 16, 10 p.m., 2013

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WHAT A DAME

“I didn’t want to be a fashion designer at all,” Dame Vivienne Westwood told the New York Times. “I did it to help my boyfriend.” Her boyfriend was, of course, Malcolm McLaren, manager of the Sex Pistols. Together, they invented the radical punk style of the ’70s: safety pins, ripped T-shirts, spiked dog collars around the neck. How Westwood went from the streets to the high-fashion runways is the focus of the new exhibit at FIT titled Vivienne Westwood 1980–89. The collection tracks her transition from her 1981 unisex pirate-themed collection to creating styles that were more feminine and structured, gaining her a wider audience and more attention from the mainstream press. The exhibition features highlights from her collections (including her iconic “Rocking Horse” boots), footage from the runway shows, photographs from magazines, and video interviews with Westwood.

March 8-April 2, 2011

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Oh, Yes, It’s Devo

The central tenet of Devo is probably the most durable dictum in punk-rock history. At its simplest, the band’s iconic neon monotony constitutes a sort of anti-image; at its most complicated, consider it a 32-year-old license to commit murder. There’s no use trying to explain the band’s myriad gears and contradictions (conformity as ironic virtue, art pranks hidden in pop songs, etc.), but by positioning themselves as puckish flies in the industry buttermilk, Devo can pretty much do whatever they want and justify it as subversion. Re-recording their biggest hit for a Swiffer ad? Cutting a kiddie album for Disney? Premiering a new song in a Dell commercial? Why not? Malcolm McLaren wasn’t savvy enough to dream up something that versatile. Hell, Fugazi fans still cry if a show is more than $5—and that’s after 20 years of inflation. Band of Horses devotees practically revolted after a song turned up in a Wal-Mart ad; same with Grizzly Bear touting the Washington State lottery. Maybe they all should’ve just said, “Fuck it. We’re being Devo.”

Once again turning business into winky art, the band initially announced that their first new album since 1990, Something for Everybody, would be as crowd-sourced as a Reddit page (a sign of de-evolution if ever there was one). They’d stream 16 songs on their website, and after fans picked their favorite 12, a joke-y press conference would be held to announce the “winners.” Except three of those voted-in songs (including excellent single “Watch Us Work It”) are missing from the official track listing. Label fuckery? Band vetoing? A prank on their own fans? Somehow, this is all very Devo.

But you can’t just cynically peg the final product itself as some wry cash-in: It’s too damn good. Something for Everybody is pure Devo, triumphantly Devo, sincerely Devo, Devo without scare-quotes. It fits into the nu-electronic landscape without a hiccup, way better than the Information Society electro-boogie of their last album, 1990’s Smooth Noodle Maps. It helps, of course, that said landscape looks so earnestly toward our heroes’ early-’80s retro-future—those buzzing, wrinkling, soaring synths and stiff grooves.

Now, the genuine article comes barreling back like a beefy, macho version of all those robo-political Christinas and Kelises and Gagas and Ke$has, constructing their own distinctive, punky Dork Android. A dozen pachinko-core blip-punk bangers with only one or two stinkers, Everybody mixes the cartoon-synth churn of 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo with the added heft of drummer Josh Freese’s beefy industrial slam. “Don’t tase me, bro,” is now a hilarious coda . . . vintage Pac-Man bloops explode like ordinance from the Loudness Wars . . . there’s even a bittersweet “Beautiful World”–style moment, the melancholy jam “No Place Like Home.” The two best songs get a production assist from Santigold, and don’t sound like her in the slightest.

If anything, Everybody sounds like a ballsier, poppier version of electronic pop circa 2007, with shades of Teddybears, the Klaxons, and Does It Offend You, Yeah? done with better hooks and funnier lyrics. “Tastefully updated” are probably the magic words, as Devo still mine the same territory they did in 1979 (love among the meatbags, the miracle of monotony, the way they comb their hair), but now with the occasional reference to hybrid cars. When they chant, “What we do is what we do/It’s all the same, there’s nothing new,” its a bonehead-simple tautology that works when you apply it to anything, from America on down to the music on their own record, macro and micro, society and self, one and the same, all achingly Devo.

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Olafur Eliasson’s Waterfalls and Statues of Limitations

I am leaving Saks Fifth Avenue in a huff on a recent blazing Saturday—because even though everything is 70 percent off, the Sgt. Pepper–esque Junya Watanabe jacket I’ve been contemplating since February is still over $1,000—when I notice, at the entrance to Rockefeller Center across the street, some sort of model of a skyscraper that looks like a giant erector set. It’s by Chris Burden—a nutty performance artist who once famously had an assistant shoot him the arm—and it’s called What My Dad Gave Me, but the desultory crowd of picture takers around it is for the most part unmoved. “Waterfalls is better,” I overhear someone mutter.

They are? Does that mean I should hustle downtown and see the most ballyhooed outdoor-art project of summer ’08: four cascades that the Danish artist Olafur Eliasson somehow conned the City of New York into letting him erect on the East River? You can view all of them from the shore, but I decide it’s better to take the boat to examine these gushers properly. I e-mail the publicist for boat tickets (she admonishes me sternly that I must refer to this conveyance in all future communications as Circle Line Downtown), even though most of the seats are free anyway.

In the meantime, I plan to go up to the roof of the Met and see the Jeff Koons sculptures, a group of huge, cartoonish works that the museum, in an accompanying pamphlet, describes as “offering a certain jouissance and jubilant spirit and demonstrating extraordinary technical virtuosity in the rendering of large perfected forms on a huge scale.”

Desperate for a dose of jouissance, I hop on the subway at 14th Street, but not before practically walking into a replica of the Statue of Liberty outside Walgreen’s, painted an ugly black, white, and gray and with the legend “Statues of Liberty on Parade All-Star Games” at its base. Careful examination—the word “Chicago” scrawled on Liberty’s torso, a drawing of socks on her robe—reveals that this piece of public art is one of a series of baseball-themed Liberties similar to those fiberglass cows that overtook the city a few years back, which everyone hated except me. (Sue me—I thought they were cute.)

Could anything be hotter than the roof of the Met in the middle of July? Sure, there’s a nice view over Central Park, but the soldiers on the Bataan Death March might have had a nice view, too. The Koons works—among them a giant candy-box heart and a chartreuse balloon dog—are made of stainless-steel, one unintended consequence of which is that you can see yourself reflected in the sculpture. And guess what? You don’t look so great with your hair tied up in rag and sweat streaking your dress. Still, I love the heart and the dog—they’re stupid and campy, the way I like my art—and I’m disappointed that the museum shop hasn’t seized the opportunity to have little green balloon dogs made up as snow globes or earrings.

Since I’m working so hard, I treat myself to a Mr. Softee from a truck outside the Met and am enjoying the first few satisfying sprinkle-laden licks when I notice a flag on the Park Avenue median that says: “Eat Fewer Sugary Snacks. Mt. Sinai Hospital.” Excuse me? Do I need a lecture from a lamppost? Why don’t you mind your own fucking business?

This post-punk righteous indignation puts me in the perfect mood for Shallow, a series of “musical paintings” by Malcolm McLaren, legendary bad-boy impresario and father of the Sex Pistols. These so-called musical paintings (what they really are are utterly silent films—no more “musical paintings” than “breakfast dishes” or “lunar landings”) are being shown in rotation on a screen in Times Square. But when I get to 44th and Broadway, though I see videos encouraging me to join the armed forces and a jaunty curved ticker that reads “Turkey suspects al Qaeda in attack,” I can’t locate any paintings, musical or otherwise. I’m about to give up when I finally turn around and see McLaren’s work, directly behind me, looming on a giant screen. (Truly, I am a moron.)

The film in question turns out to be a black-and-white short featuring the subway roaring into the Roosevelt Avenue station. A woman on the train is reading a magazine; a guy gets on and kisses her violently. And that’s it. It’s very film noir–ish, very British cinema circa 1960, when McLaren was 14 years old—he’s 62 now—and further proof that the aesthetic images that entrance you during your formative years continue to haunt you for decades to come.

Finally, a new day dawns, and it’s time for my CIRCLE LINE DOWNTOWN boat ride. Whenever I visit South Street Seaport, which is mercifully not very often, I am astonished by its grim landscape: the lovingly restored 18th-century buildings saddled with branches of Brookstone, Body Shop, and Benetton; the deeply predictable eateries like Uno and Mrs. Fields’s Pretzel Time. At Fulton Market, a humongous mall-like structure, a vast Gap shares space with Bodies: The Exhibition, the grisly traveling show from China that features the carcasses of alleged prisoners preserved through some hideous process and contorted into macabre tableaux vivants. Call me crazy, but I’d rather spend the afternoon at Rikers than watch a couple of dead bodies playing tennis.

At this point, I’m so exhausted that I just want to collapse in the air-conditioned belly of the boat, but no! I’m a reporter! So I go and stand at the prow—until the boat turns around and I realize this can’t be the prow—and am almost overcome by the nauseating aroma of diesel fuel.

Then the voice of the artist, Olafur Eliasson himself, comes over the speaker system. He thanks us all for coming, and adds, “We should talk about how it is to experience this in a group . . . how do we see things as a collective?” Hey, buddy, I want to scream, the only reason I’m experiencing this in a group is because I don’t have a private yacht, forcing me to share the experience with the usual fun slice of New Yorkers: pierced teenagers speaking an unidentifiable foreign language, babies spitting up their own waterfalls, and one very prosperous- looking family, the wife with a rock on her finger that will sink her for sure if we capsize.

The falls are OK, but water is water, and I’m not exactly dropping dead with excitement. They’re actually better seen from the shore—say, outside the Express store or a few feet from the temporary tattoo stall on Pier 16. Plus, one of the four falls isn’t even working, which would make me demand my money back if I had paid to begin with. Actually, the most electrifying part of the ride is that green person rising out of the sea: Lady Liberty herself, far more majestic and thrilling than any waterfall. And minus the white socks.

lyaeger@villagevoice.com

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A New Religion

They were on like Simon LeBon—mewling and ambrosial, with a gnashing guitar and buttery highlights that confided a discreet hair shift from traumarama to surfarama. Duran Duran, architecturally the Rem Kool-haas of ’80s Britpop, could have bid us, their squeaky, fawning canaries, to plummet off the Millennium Bridge for the love of them. And we would, chronically tossing our asymmetrical bowlies whilst proselytizing the reedy bewitchery of John Nigel Taylor in parachute pants to the depths of the river Thames. Even the hipsters who mashed together last Wednesday night at Webster Hall’s “The Ritz,” gaunt in their post-trucker-hat sepsis—irony can be so taxing—Morse-coded their adulation via lyrical mutations on Duranese: “I want you to save a prayer till the morning after,” one fey rake commanded his cabana boy. “This is no ordinary world, but I will learn to survive.”

My own reverence for the band, partially observed through the nostalgic prism of plodding around to “Careless Memories” with my seventh-grade Knox Overstreet, Matt King, as a puffy, owlish 12-year-old, was amped to rapture after Taylor-Taylor-Taylor (guitarist Andy, drummer Roger, and John on bass, respectively), duenna di mascara-keyboards Nick Rhodes (who is so cerebral and droll; his brain melts things), and pouty-mouth candy Monsignor LeBon opened with the tart, synth-tastic “Friends of Mine.” Their deadpan, growly edict to “close the door” slayed. Relatively obscure, “Friends of Mine,” from Duran Duran, was a canny choice for a first song, considering that this, the original Duran Duran lineup, now a quarter-century old, had adjourned for a time from playing together, gathering back up only in 2001. Onstage, though, they smirked and cooed like five homecoming princesses who got their nails painted cherries-in-the-snow together before prom.

“Welcome to the helm of the second British Invasion,” thundered Simon Le B. before warming up “Rio,” and to my right, Roger Taylor’s girlfriend’s parents beamed. Andy Taylor, simpatico and bashful, slouched behind his space-ageish wraparound specs until “New Religion” compelled him to loop a blistering riff off the rap-ready preamble. By the encore—a superb cover of Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines”—the Duranicals had swooned us to altitudes ecclesiastic. —Nita Rao


Game Boy Nostalgists Find Harmony of Form and Function

Block Rocking Bits: A Diverse Exploration of the Nintendo Game Boy as Musical Instrument” was the fare de la nuit at the Tank one recent Thursday evening. The small performance-art center’s Pompidou-inspired decor resembled the chassis of a work-for-hire jalopy, crayoned paper adding a splash of color to air ducts that lined the ceiling like circuits around a motherboard. “Free” beers ($3 donation requested) were hawked across a thick slab of Formica, as, downstairs, a computer installation barked out Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech. Upstairs, Game Boy DJ Glomag was generating a steady stream of blips and bloops from an iBook hooked into an old-school Game Boy console. As he tapped a key, a dubbed-out Gregorian chant suffused the room, before dissolving into a vaguely familiar tune set to cut-up “My Cherie Amour.” Trainspotters nodded smugly. “It’s his big hit,” one whispered, “a remix of the theme song from Zelda.”

The New York-based Nullsleep took the stage next, three Game Boys spliced to a keyboard that was slung over one shoulder like an electric guitar. He played it low, catching tinny riffs and twisting them together like an intergalactic Jimmy Page. As he segued into a Depeche Mode mini-mix, suddenly a voice rang out from the crowd: “Hey!” Former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren came to check out “folktronic” Game Boy artist Mark Denardo. “These kids are humanizing electronic music,” McLaren said after the set. “It’s just like rock and hip-hop were—totally DIY. It’s the beginning of the look and sound of 21st-century pop culture.”

Brooklyn’s Bitshifter closed the night, working with two Game Boys and a laptop, manipulating hiccup-y glitches to create a steady bed of danceable synth-pop loops. “Wonderful,” breathed McLaren. People clapped and stomped their feet. And, when two fans finally got up to get down, it almost felt like a revolution. —Adrienne Day

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I Started a Joke

O Lord, be merciful to Al, a fool. The slow, somber walk from jester to gallows—from guilty pleasure to Onion punchline—has spanned the 10 long years since Al Yankovic last dropped a funny record. But his impossibly coiffed head need not hang in penitence, for, improbably enough, Poodle Hat is an entertaining return to form, a multilayered effort as secretly intellectual as its demi-Dadaist title and Duchamp-cum-Photoshop cover merely imply.

In 1983 (a couple of years after Al first gambled with copyright law by replacing “Sharona” with “Bologna”), cultural pirate Malcolm McLaren double-Dutched all over the Boyoyo Boys’ South African steez sans compensation. Twenty years later, Eminem interpolates McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals” into “Without Me”—a song about appropriating African culture. On Poodle Hat‘s “Couch Potato,” Al snarkily raps a frenetic laundry list of TV jokes to Em’s “Lose Yourself” (“King of Queens jumped the shark the first minute/I can’t believe Richard Simmons ain’t in it!”) inserting two gay jokes, stealthily eviscerating Em’s nebulous homophobia (no wonder he wouldn’t let him make a video) and simultaneously meta-parodying himself—i.e., why attack Em’s intolerance since I built my own career on fat jokes and Jew jokes?

Whether his Em rhetoric is penance or synchronicity (he always liked Ghost in the Machine better anyway), Al’s canine haberdashery is stupid in all the right ways. Running with scissors, Al can’t decide how to tackle Avril’s “Complicated,” so he spouts everything that pops into that curly noggin—getting constipated, incestuously dated, and decapitated. Then he reduces 40 years of Bob Dylan’s lyrical labyrinths into two-and-a-half minutes of palindromes on . . . wait for it . . . “Bob.” Closer “Genius in France” tackles Apostrophe-era Frank Zappa simply for jollies—nailing Frank’s love of doo-wop, Varèse, Stravinsky, and poop jokes in a nine-minute freakout. Yankovic’s got a bachelor’s in architecture, so it’s good to see him dancing again.