No Future!

This is the story of Frank’s Depression, a state of mind that outlived the unlucky punk poet who used it as a tag. Frank Hobbs (a/k/a Frank’s Depression) died on St. Marks Place in the early morning hours of August 21, 1996, under circumstances his friends still think were criminal. After a fight with a bouncer, he apparently walked down the block and collapsed in a doorway. He was DOA at Cabrini, where doctors diagnosed a cardiac arrest.

Frank’s Depression was 30, a classic punked-out social reject with studded leather jacket and dog collar, green hair rubber-banded into spikes, and two front teeth lost to slam dancing. He was not a New Yorker, just a frequent visitor, and apparently an inspiration to many on the local scene because of his dedication to his zines and his ‘tude—a morbid sense of humor, an uncompromising fatalism. If he’d had a chance to describe his own hapless death, he might have used his fave phrase: “It figures.”

Fly, one of his East Village friends, decided she would keep Frank’s memory alive by hosting a Day of Depression on the anniversary of his death. “I thought he deserved more out of life,” she said. Last year, she only had time to enlarge and hang some of his poems at ABC No Rio. This year, she lined up vocalists from various punk bands to perform their songs as spoken word. No music. Lyrics would be audible for the first time because no one would have to scream. And Frank was a word guy. Frank with his sixth-grade education.

Frank and Fly met on the street in San Francisco, through a mutual friend in a band called the Spider Cunts. Fly was on a do-it-yourself spoken-word tour, showing up at punk gigs and asking the bands if she could read stuff between sets. Mostly, they let her. That night Frank came to see Fly read, then he read himself, right through his self-consciousness about the missing front teeth. (He could no longer pronounce certain words.) Punk is the culture of the-wretched-can-do-it. Maybe it’s also about mutual empowerment in the guise of egging each other on.

Fly was never Frank’s best friend, but they were major letter writers. What she knew of his life was: Tough childhood in Maine. A mother who killed herself. Frank running away after that, at age 11, to God-knows-where. Later he lived in Oakland, California. His three most important possessions were his jacket, his zines, and a three-ring binder holding letters from fans. Frank was truly depressed, sometimes on medication. He’d inscribed the words “Frank’s Depression Poetry” everywhere he could—even into cracks in a wall. Apparently it’s been tattooed all over No Rio.

He was the legend no one ever heard of.

A fangless vampire/clutching an icepick, straw,/is chasing me through a shopping mall.

—Frank’s Depression

If depression is what you’re after, No Rio can make for the perfect Slough of Despond, what with its cruddy lawn furniture, battered folding chairs, and a jagged hole in the ceiling where part of a plastic garbage bag is visible. The current exhibit commemorates the 10th anniversary of the Tompkins Square riot: flyers and other effluvia about the People and the Pigs.

One of Fly’s bandmates from God Is My Co-Pilot did a preshow pre-depression warm-down, reading Frank’s poem about the heart attack he had at age 21 from injecting cocaine:

I was clinically dead for 10 minutes

All I recall is opening my eyes in a brick alley

somewhere in Heaven,

where a group of angels wearing baseball caps

kicked the shit out of me,

’cause they didn’t like my green hair.

Ten minutes in Heaven

equals a year on Earth.

Dressed in black shorts, combat boots, and sequined vest, Fly then read from her postcard zine “The Death of Depression,” the story of her last encounter with Frank on the night he died and then having to identify his body at the morgue five days later. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to recognize him… I’ve been looking in the mirror trying to practice… because I feel like I could be dead myself… looking in the mirror… saying yes… that’s him… I recognize that sadness and fury.”

Later Fly told me that on the night he died, she’d come looking for him outside Munchies on St. Marks, the spot where he liked to sell his zines. This was maybe an hour before the bouncer incident, and Frank was drunk. She didn’t want to hang with him when he was drunk, so they made a plan. Tomorrow. She noticed that he’d added some facial tattoos. “He was, like, a little crustier-looking, a little more worn and torn. He still had no front teeth.”

Before Fly left him, he’d said something about wanting to harass yuppies. Kaya Chaos from the band Deviant Behavior got up to testify that he hadn’t been doing that: “I’m the most coherent of the few that were there.” The bouncer (“this big cue ball”) asked Frank and his friend Stitches to move away from the front of his bar. They did, but as they got three four feet away, Frank said, “Fuck you.” That was it. In the words of Kaya Chaos, “this big cue ball just monsters towards him and grabs him in some Vulcan Death Grip. The fight ensued.”

Fly had organized everyone to go to the precinct and file reports. They did, but nothing happened.

Punk is the first youth culture to last more than 20 years. Frank’s look comes right out of the late ’70s. Maybe this is the real rebellion and true anticapitalism: the refusal to invent a whole new style.

Fly speculates that punk is still here because “it’s action-packed and spectacular,” perfect for the TV generation. It was family for dysfunctional kids. And it was fun.

At the tribute to Frank’s Depression, the songs without music became rants, little capsules of the culture of opposition as it’s lived now, Loisaida style. Vocalists from bands like The Dreggs and White Collar Crime offered current variations on the eternal verities of youth: oppose the fascist pigs and hate the rich.

But it didn’t sound all that “fun.” Fly did some songs from her other band, her punk band, Zero Content, in the standard machine-gun delivery: “1-2-3-4 Piss! Piss! Piss! Pissbucket! Shit! [pause] I spilled it but it doesn’t matter because it’s frozen solid anyway.” This, she explained, was “a true story about squatting.” Then, among others, “1-2-3-4! Heat the rich! Burn them! Burn them! Heat the rich!”

Fly lives in a squat because she likes the do-it-yourself lifestyle, which in her case meant building an apartment almost from scratch—not just new floorboards but new support beams, windows, and walls. For two years previously, she’d lived at Gargoyle Mechanique, a now defunct performance space on Avenue B, where she had a place to sleep with a shelf for her belongings.

Fly says that she and Frank disagreed about squatting, that he was “more transient, more flippant.” Where he might catch a night’s sleep on a hunk of cardboard in some abandoned building, she had spent money and sweat to homestead a place. That makes for a hard, stressful life, but it’s forward-looking. For Frank, there was no future.

This is a story about life on the permanent margin. Some thrive there, while others self-destruct. Of course, to the rest of the world, the tattooed, the leathered, and the spiked are all the same—and all despised.


Boing Boom Tschak

Two members of the classic lineup are gone. The new tracks were the evening’s least distinctive. Much of the sounds were pre-programmed. One of the best moments came when the equipment faltered. And still it was one of those you-had-to-be-there shows because it was Kraftwerk.

The first American performance since 1981, San Francisco’s June 7 stop on the current nine-city world tour was an event merely because it existed. Kraftwerk shows are the stuff of legend. When the electronic ensemble played the Ritz in New York 17 years ago, every hip-hop icon of the time was said to be there. “Numbers,” from Computer World–a track consisting of little more than synth beats and counting–was played on New York black radio with the regularity of a Shalamar hit and soon inspired Arthur Baker’s production on Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force’s “Planet Rock,” which in turn generated a flood of B-boy jams, Latin freestyle anthems, Miami bass tracks, and electro trance tracks from every corner of the globe, all of which still rock a party today. There’d never been that much electronic equipment on a stage before or such care put into the visual presentation, which was the first to include video projections and computer screens. And the band’s stage persona was so disarming because they were so deadpan about creating such revolutionary funk. Much of everything good and bad about ’80s music–the emphasis on presentation, technological advancement, sound fetishism, beat ‘n’ hook worship, conceptual savvy over virtuosity–could be traced to that concert.

Nowadays, Kraftwerk’s innovations are the electronica norm. We’ve grown accustomed to drones getting a few things right but doing the rest without the madness that drove Kraftwerk to spend year upon year in the studio searching for the perfect beat and tossing out entire albums in the process. Like their countryman Richard Wagner before them, Florian Schneider, Ralf Hutter, and pals aim for the construction of a Gesamtkunstwerk an all-encompassing artwork that seeks to engage all senses. That’s a mighty lofty goal, and our responses to electronic-music concerts have understandably changed since 1981. Our expectations raised by the techno theatrics of Madonna and the Pet Shop Boys, we expect disco opera, but try to content ourselves with a couple of guys tweaking a mixing board.

Kraftwerk’s San Francisco show fell somewhere in between, largely because it mostly aimed for refinement and re-creation, not innovation. A grand curtain parted as the familiar multilingual count-off of “Numbers” began to reveal a set designed much like the Computer World–era scenery. There were four identical banks of equipment linked together to create an arc that stretched from one end of the stage to the other, sandwiched by matching video screens in the back and corresponding keyboard modules in the front. Fluorescent tubes aimed at the back of the performers’ knees lit the crowd as numbers danced across the screens in sync to the beats. This is one of the advantages of computerized concerts: whether vintage newsreel footage or digital animation, the visuals matched the audio with the exactitude of cinema.

The first few songs were instantly familiar, not just as Kraftwerk classics, but as a greatest-hits collection of dance, hip-hop, techno, and industrial samples. Part of the fun of experiencing “Computer World,” “It’s More Fun To Compute,” “Home Computer,” “The Man-Machine,” “Trans-Europe Express,” “Metal on Metal,” and “The Model” one after the other was hearing entire genres they’d inspired burst into your head as the automatic rhythms played. The sound was as clear as you can get in a rock venue, and the arrangements further revised and greatly improved upon the re-recordings of 1991’s retrospective The Mix. Aside from that, their most recent album, Kraftwerk’s trademark sonics were created almost exclusively with analog equipment, and the transition to digital has been more of an obstacle than tool. Although the two unreleased instrumentals–both melodic
trance tracks in the Germanic style of Jam & Spoon and Sven Vath–felt like afterthoughts and a little dated, the old tracks still sounded contemporary, partly because Schneider, Hutter, and recent members Ott Pagenberg and Fritz Hilpert have mastered the updated technology, partly because their apocryphal beats and concepts have never gone away.

Elegant celluloid images of bygone trains, models, cyclists, and motorways emphasized that as much as Kraftwerk has created the future, it’s romanticized the past. Now the group glamorizes its own back pages, occasionally rewriting them to make a point (the ’90s version of “Radioactivity” adds the verb “stop” and was preceded by grim nuclear statistics), but otherwise allowing the collision of European melody and African American rhythm to speak for itself. Although he’s spent little of his three-decade career on the stage, Schneider still entertained when his mini-keyboard refused to work during “Pocket Calculator.” First, the man old enough to be much of the crowd’s father froze with shock, then spanked the toylike machine several times, flung it around on its patch cord, and shook it in time to the zips and zaps it should have created as reverent ravers, stoners, geeks, and grown-up disco bunnies roared in appreciation. Even when the musique wasn’t exactly non-stop, the Kraftwerk cabaret continued.

Kraftwerk play the Hammerstein Ballroom June 13.


Kathy Acker 1944-1997

Kathy Acker made her reputation as a novelist by combining sexually transgressive content and postmodern technique, long before it was fashionable. As Acker herself might have described it, her work was a quest to discover what it means to be a cunt. Along the way, she acquired a certain image–tough, punky, wild–that she didn’t exactly discourage, though it sometimes seemed to weary her. In the last months of her life, she talked about leaving the literary world completely.

Acker approached having cancer the way she did everything else–by ignoring the bourgeois rules of caution. At the time of her death last weekend at an alternative treatment center in Tijuana, she had completed a life of doing exactly what she wanted to do. But I know she wouldn’t have seen it that way. I don’t think she ever overcame her deeply ingrained pessimism, though that was the task she set for herself as she battled her illness.

Acker was a bundle of contradictions: so frank in her writing about sex and the unloveliest of emotions, but so armored and enigmatic in life. (I thought she had turned 50 this year, but apparently she was 53. It’s not the sort of information she would have been clear about.) And if the scenarios that recur in many of her 10 books–the mother dead by suicide, the girl abandoned by her father (or lover or friend), the relationships born as much in hatred as in love–were rooted in her own childhood, she never really wrote autobiography.

Acker has yet to be taken as seriously as she deserves to be. No doubt that has much to do with the sexual content of her work, and with those female narrators who seem interchangeable from book to book, different names tagged to the sound of one voice raging–obscene, cynical, bewildered, and demanding to fuck. This elusive figure, roaming through a world of lies and fakes, knows that identity itself is an internalized fiction. In all her books, Acker was obsessed by her relationships to men and to (male) language. She’s part of that century-long tradition of writers, from dadaists to deconstructionists, who rail at the limitations of the word.

Yet the piece Acker wrote about her cancer experience for an English newspaper–“The Gift of Disease,” she called it–may have been the most shocking thing she ever did. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 1996. She had decided on a mastectomy over radiation or chemo because it was cheaper. (She had no health insurance.) Then she got a double mastectomy because she didn’t want to have one breast. Then she abandoned Western medicine–after learning that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Then she began working with healers in San Francisco, but left them to follow a lover to London. Almost immediately, she broke up with the lover. But she soon found other healers and then insisted that she was cured.

In August, still living in London, Acker began to feel very ill but decided it was parasites. She never considered canceling her tour with the Mekons, with whom she’d collaborated on a CD based on her last novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. By the end of October, when she arrived in San Francisco intending to make her home there once again, she could barely stand up. Persuaded at last to check into an emergency room, she was told that the cancer had spread to every part of her body and she probably had a week to live. She had a friend drive her to Mexico, where she fought like hell for her life for another month.

Unsentimental to the end, she refused to feel sorry for herself, complaining to me only once that life no longer had any joy. There’s a sadness and longing for connection in her work that she never liked to admit to in life. “Wants go so deep,” she once wrote, “there is no way of getting them out of the body, no surgery other than death.”

Friends of Kathy Acker are now trying to pay for her medical expenses. Checks should be made out to Giorno Poetry Systems, 222 Bowery, New York, N.Y. 10012. (Write “Kathy Acker Fund” on the check.) Contributions are tax-deductible.


School Daze

One might expect that a class of sixtysomethings, after a lifetime of appointments, would arrive on time. Not so. It’s past the 10 a.m. starting time for the Friday computer class at the New York Public Library’s East 58th Street branch, and senior citizens are still drifting in, looking unconcerned. Instructor Robert Himmel, 69, looks impatiently at his watch. What can he do? When you’re dealing with retirees, demerits are not an option.

“They come because they want to socialize and play games,” says Himmel, a retired software developer who’s now a volunteer for SeniorNet, a San Francisco nonprofit that specializes in computer education for people 55 and older. Himmel’s New York classes are packed with rowdy retirees. “There’s not much fear or dread,” he says. Students come because they own or plan to own a computer “or because they want to have something in common with their grandkids.”

So much for senior citizens as technophobes. Many plan to write their memoirs, so they’re interested in word processing. They’re receptive to e-mail–not only for the conversation, but because of the easy links to information about Social Security, Medicaid, and rent regulation. They love computer solitaire, but don’t care for chat rooms. “They don’t relate to them,” says Himmel–and, in many cases, they don’t type fast enough to keep up with the furious pace of Internet babble.

At 10 after 10, Himmel decides he’ll wait no longer. He greets his class of 14–men and women, mostly white–with a quick review of Netscape, then launches into today’s topic–e-mail. Most of the students already have an account. “The beauty of e-mail is that it’s instant gratification!” Himmel exclaims. When it’s time to surf, he orders his students to double click on the Netscape icon and explore the NYPL home page. Some beginners have the usual snafus: unsteady double clicking or forgetting what an icon is. The impatient ones–they don’t know the Web is nicknamed the World Wide Wait–complain that their computers are frozen or malfunctioning.

Failing vision is a troublemaker. One man accidentally clicks the close box, shutting down Netscape. Even reading the addresses written on a giant posterboard at the front of the classroom is a challenge. Those with shaky hands have trouble typing error-free addresses into the find-location box. Himmel is patient throughout, explaining and reexplaining.

When the class gains momentum, giddiness seizes the room. There are no paper airplanes, but Himmel is occasionally forced to shush people. “Come on, Leon, get with it,” Himmel chides, jokingly slapping one inattentive student on the shoulder. “We’ll make you cutting-edge yet.” He winks.

Despite the frequent pleas for Himmel’s attention, the class proceeds to more advanced topics like bookmarking and saving to disk. For several first-timers, even inserting floppy disks poses problems. One woman tries shoving her floppy into an expensive machine’s CD-ROM drive, evoking a wince from a library employee who’s observing.

Slowly, the students gain confidence in their surfing. Flora Steinman cruises the Bahamas tourist board. A few others check out the Times crossword. Barbara Harris, a retired systems analyst, searches for Che Guevara’s diaries. The ambient chatter grows louder, punctuated with shouts. “Microsoft is down three quarters!” yells Himmel as he helps someone find stock quotes, adding that he doesn’t like Microsoft because “they’re trying to take over everything.”

In high school an outfit may have mattered, but among the seniors it’s all about investment portfolios. “You know why you don’t like Microsoft? Because you don’t have any shares! I do, and I love it!” boasts Al Federman. “They stifle competition,” counters Himmel. “I don’t think so. They make technology available to people,” adds Stan Federman, taking his brother’s side.

It’s been two-and-a-half hours since the class started, and the decibel level has reached a crescendo. “I’ve never had it any other way. They’re having so much fun,” Himmel explains later. As the class is ending, the uninitiated open e-mail accounts, jot down passwords, and exchange addresses with promises to write. Only then does one possible dissenter muster the courage to challenge all this newfangled technology. “Can you live without e-mail?” he asks. “Sure!” says Himmel. “If you didn’t need it before, you don’t need it now.”

The next free NYPL Internet-basics classes for seniors are on October 15 and 22 at the Webster Branch Library. Registration is required: 288-5049. SeniorNet also offers low-cost computer courses to its members. For online membership information:, or call 924-6710.