Now available: The complete “I Was a Teenage Proghead” comic book!

 

Comic Book

Postage included (even outside the USA), please provide mailing address in PayPal

$5.00

Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974

It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…

It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.

This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included. It’s the perfect (and perfectly affordable) stocking stuffer or Merry-Christmas-to-Me item. Tell your Mom about it, too!

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

RIP the voice of HAL

It was interesting to read the obit today for Douglas Rain, the Shakespearean actor from Ontario who is best known for voicing the HAL 9000 supercomputer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Rain was a bit underwhelmed by his two-day voice work assignment during which he had little other connection to the production. (In fact, it was said he never even watched the finished film).

But maybe the ever-clever Stanley Kubrick was up to something. Rain’s unnerving and coolly disembodied voice perfectly captured the detached but deadly disaster that could easily ensue when humankind forfeits its sovereignty to technology. This cautionary and influential sub-plot has remained a least a little bit of a check against this human tendency to see any technological advance as an automatic life improvement. (I don’t use Siri and choose not to own a “smart” phone).
HAL’s two most famous scenes—-the “pod bay door” standoff and the empathy-provoking disconnection—sandwich what I think was Rain’s best bit. Here is HAL’s two-minute attempt to try to convince a grimly determined Dave Bowman to re-consider. After killing the other astronaut and three hibernating scientists, HAL admits that “I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently.” Ahh, ya think?? It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so horrifying.

Despite Rain’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for his “2001” role, he reprised it in Peter Hyam’s “2010” sequel from 1984. He also did a very similar (and effectively spooky) narration in the 1975 Oscar-winning documentary “The Man Who Skied Down Everest.” RIP Douglas Rain.

Make Mine a Double #11: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995)

Throughout their peak years, the Smashing Pumpkins were often as belittled as they were beloved. The Chicago quartet, led by the ambitious and troubled Billy Corgan, made their first album in 1991, the same year that saw the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. But while the Pumpkins were contemporaneous with the grunge-rock movement, they always had a bit of a street-cred problem with alt-rock purists. The ready-for-prime-time debut Gish had arena-rock production values and betrayed an affinity for pyschedelia and Sabbath, an approach that used just as much luster as grit. The formula was refined on the blockbuster Siamese Dream and, with the help of some memorable videos, cemented their popularity and fixed their darkish image for the general rock public. Never afraid to aim high, Corgan and Co. had rocketed to fame with grandiose personal statements where the vivid peaks and valleys of their music were as emotionally charged as their leader’s lyrics. “Despite all my rage/I’m still just a rat in a cage” was a (sometimes mocked) catchphrase for the decade and the refrain of “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, as blistering a chunk of speed grunge as you’d ever want to hear. It was the lead single when Corgan went widescreen in 1995, spearheading the band in this two-hour collection of songs that found him at his restlessly creative peak.

The exceedingly earnest catharsis of many of these tracks struck a chord with millions of young people in Generations X, Y and Z. In a skeptical age, it also left Corgan open to detractors, who could point first at the album’s overwrought title, with its limp play on words. The curtain does open with the titular prelude (thankfully “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” turns out to be an instrumental) and this piano-and-mellotron introduction gives way to a sudden surging crescendo and the dramatic plea for personal connection that is “Tonight, Tonight,” one of the Pumpkins’ most elegant showpieces. (The group seemed to have this thing with silent movies: the first album was named after Lillian Gish and the video for this song was heavily inspired by early French filmmaker/fantasist George Melies, as was the handsome cover art).

But much of the first disc (titled “Dawn to Dusk”) is a lot harsher, with metallic riffing predominant and Corgan plumbing the depths of his inner torment. This domineering a frontman usually overshadows his colleagues and the band was long known for its internal vexations. In the obsessive pursuit of sonic perfection, Corgan had often played the parts of second guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky in the studio. The group was also known for its constant infighting and drug problems, especially those of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Mellon Collie benefited by a shift in strategy suggested by co-producer Mark “Flood” Ellis (Alan Moulder and Corgan were also at the controls) that had the group hashing out material in rehearsals beforehand, making for a looser sound than on some of their earlier airtight productions. They also employed two studio rooms concurrently—while Corgan honed his vision in one space, the others could be working out the foundation of the next number. Iha and Corgan team up for some soaring guitar passages here and Wretzky’ bass along with Chamberlin’s thunderous drumming stoke the fires underneath a long line of emotionally fraught songs. This is generational angst music and, especially for those outside the realm, the effect can seem oppressive. But there’s plenty of room for the Pumpkins to show their spaced-out side as well. The first CD ends with the nine-minute dream voyage “Porcelina of the Vast Ocean” and Iha’s acoustic “Take Me Down”, both reminiscent of the underappreciated Meddle-era Pink Floyd of the early Seventies.

But we’re never far from the notion that these 28 songs serve as a platform for Billy Corgan to properly exorcise all his demons. As a child, he was abandoned by his mother and ill-served by his substance-abusing father (he bailed out his incorrigible dad on a drug bust as late as New Year’s Day 2008). Corgan also asserts he was physically abused by his stepmother. His battle with depression was fated to be long lasting. For every reflective gem like “Thirty-Three” there are a few others where Corgan’s adenoidal wail cuts through the wall-of-noise with lines like “I never let on that I was down”, “Peace will not come to this lonely heart”, “I’m in love with my sadness” and even “Love is suicide.” The band’s image, crafted by their leader, also became more complex: the promo shoot for the scorching single “Zero” was one of the first showing Corgan’s famously shaved head and newly feral visage, before long he was appearing in videos as Nosferatu. But it was a diverse look rounded off by the Japanese-American Iha, Wretsky’s goth-chick allure and the quarterback good looks of Chamberlin (intact despite the heavy heroin use). The four come together to take turns singing on the concluding “Farewell and Good Night”—comparable to the Beatles’ soft landing for the “White Album”—a quiet coda for this stormy testament to an era of self-regarding uneasiness.


The Pumpkins’ young and innocent days? From left: Darcy, James Iha, Billy Corgan, Jimmy Chamberlin

Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness debuted as a Billboard #1 and would go nine times platinum. The Smashing Pumpkins did not see this high a mountaintop again, either in terms of artistic scope or popular success. Touring behind this album, their supplementary keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died of an overdose after an all-night drug binge with Jimmy Chamberlin. The drummer survived but was fired (he later returned) and the band’s next couple of records never struck the same chord with fans. Since disbanding in 2000, Billy Corgan has had little to do with Iha and Wretsky, becoming estranged, as it were, from his second dysfunctional family. When he revived the S.P. name in 2006 in a fitful comeback attempt, only Chamberlin was back from the original lineup. While still trying to discover a new winning formula in early 2010, Corgan, in a Rolling Stone article called “Rock Star, Interrupted”, said “Do I belong in the conversation about the best artists in the world? Yes, I do.” There are many who would beg to differ—one could imagine the reaction of former Big Black leader (and fellow Chicagoan) Steve Albini, who once said the Pumpkins were about as alternative as REO Speedwagon.

In an age of a million ironic hipsters, where musical integrity is seen to be in direct proportion to its obscurity, Corgan was bound to be the whipping boy of certain factions. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reaches heights that most modern bands wouldn’t even bother looking up at (“an Icarus with wings that worked” said Time magazine, naming it top album of 1995) but its best quality may end up being Corgan’s knack for seeing life’s smaller defining moments and merging it with the panorama. The shimmering “1979”, modestly tucked away in the middle of the second disc (“Twilight to Starlight” for those keeping score at home), turned out to be the record’s biggest hit song and one of the great singles of the Nineties. In thirty lines of nearly uninterrupted verse, Corgan paints an impressionistic portrait of his generation as they see life spread out before them, all the way to its inevitable passing (“With the headlights pointed at the dawn/We were sure we’d never see an end to it all”). In a Middle America of diminished expectations, these carousing young teens, living “beneath the sound of hope”, are nonetheless touched with a grace that can’t be negated even “in the land of a thousand guilts.” As fitting to its era as Kerouac’s On the Road was to baby boomers, the Samshing Pumpkins’ “1979” is one of those works where the intimate and the universal co-mingle as one—which is about as epic as it gets.

Make Mine a Double #10: The Damned’s “Black Album” (1980)

(An occasional series delving into the wild and woolly world of rock music’s notable double albums)

Give the Damned their due. They spearheaded England’s punk revolution, releasing the scene’s first single (“New Rose”) in October of 1976, and had an LP out the following February, months before London’s famously raucous Jubilee summer. While news of this upheaval was still being absorbed across the Atlantic, they were racking up another milestone by being the first such band to play in the States. And in a movement brimming with maverick characters, the Damned were no slouches—featuring a bassist who went by the name Captain Sensible but was known to perform in a tutu, a drummer dubbed Rat Scabies who wasn’t afraid to leave his seat behind the kit to scrap with audience members and Dave Vanian (as in Transylvanian), the lead singer who transitioned into the music business from his previous job as a gravedigger.

In the early days with original guitarist/songwriter Brian James, the sound was archetypal—full of buzzsaw guitars, turbo-charged drumming and declamatory vocals on songs with signifying titles like “Problem Child”, “Feel the Pain” and “Machine Gun Etiquette.” Although both intense and irreverent, the Damned never gained the socio-political cache of the Sex Pistols or the Clash. By 1980, they had slipped from the head of the pack (even referred to as “the Darned” by waggish record-rater Robert Christgau), fated to cut their own peculiar, semi-famous course. Hence The Black Album, their fourth LP, cheekily recalls the Fab Four’s sprawling 1968 classic as a reference point for their own double disc.


The Damned, circa 1980

There were two strong sides of conventional-length songs, an impressive 17-minute epic named “Curtain Call” that pointed the way towards the Damned’s imminent proto Goth-rock sound and a fourth side of early favorites performed live in-studio for a group of fan clubbers. They are quick out of the gate with rallying rocker “Wait for the Blackout” with Scabies’ dynamic drumming and some great Townshend-esque guitar flourishes by Sensible, who moved up to six-string (and keyboards) after Brian James’ departure while Paul Grey ably took over the bass duties. The opener also conveys the Damned’s increasing tendency to be champions of all things nocturnal with Vanian’s invocation of “the darkness (that) holds a power that you won’t find in the day.” Sure, there are a few of the witty, up tempo bursts of energy that were a punk-era calling card (“Drinking About My Baby”, “Lively Arts”, “Therapy” and “Sick of This and That”) and others like the Sensibly-sung “Silly Kids Games” that showed the band’s classicist side: in the spirit of mid-Sixties Who or Kinks, using a chipper tune to deliver serious lyric concerns—in this case, the core absurdity of avarice.

It’s little surprise, though—for a group that named themselves after the 1960 creep-out classic Village of the Damned and that featured a lead singer who looked like he wandered in off the set of Dark Shadows—that their more cinematic and macabre side would begin to take precedence. This more melodic bent, marked by Vanian’s newfound crooning vocal style, is heard to great effect on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (“I try to be true, he tries to be cruel/I’ll hold you gently, but he’ll smother you”) and “13th Floor Vendetta”,” with their acoustic guitar and keyboard shadings. The band itself grumbled a bit about Han Zimmer’s booming overproduction on the otherwise astute “The History of the World (Part One),” even though they are listed as co-producers, but no such complaints can befall the side-filling “Curtain Call”, where the group went balls-out to stake a new course that had more in common with the art-rock show-offs that the unschooled punks were rebelling against not long before. Its doomy minor-key ambience is perfect for Vanian to take center stage in a benchmark performance that directly or indirectly informed the subsequent legions of a darkly-clad and black-fingernailed subculture (“We’re coming up from the deep, the lizard sheds its skin/Night obliterates the day, and all the fun begins”). The long interior instrumental section also excels, especially a shivery, suspended passage that feels like getting lost in the woods before a piercing violin splits the fog and the Captain’s fright-film keyboards and nervy guitar solo summon back Vanian for the conclusion (“Tragedy, love all lie within/Each player takes his chance to play/And lives to fight another day”). “I like the fact that we push things a bit,” Sensible said later, dismissing the flak that “Curtain Call” caught from some of his contemporaries. (”They can bog off.”)

Despite something of a career setback in the years after The Black Album, this individualistic streak stood them in good stead in the decades (yes, decades) that followed. By the mid-80s, established as Goth-rock pioneers, The Damned scored hits with tunes like “Grimly Fiendish” and “Eloise,” with its strange Brian Wilson-meets-Bela-Lugosi vibe. They may not have “made it stinking rich/straight up there without a hitch” as they once ironically predicted on “Machine Gun Etiquette” (re-titled on the live side here as “Second Time Around”). But onward they skulked into the new millenium with Vanian as the constant member, always joined by either Scabies or Sensible if not both. On their 35th anniversary tour in 2011 they were even doing a 25-minute bog-off medley of “Therapy” and “Curtain Call”. Live to fight another day, indeed.


The Damned on stage today. Original members Capt. Sensible on left and Dave Vanian, middle.<

In a Dream of Strange Cities #2: “Tannery Palace” prelude

As soon as we got over the shock of first seeing Tannery Palace, Crutch suggested I move the company van a few streets away. The factory/mansion complex was only a long stone’s throw from (redacted) Square and our local guide Hannah K— said she had seen a couple of army cops on patrol that morning.

Normally, I would have been miffed at having to do this while Crutch got to know our appealing new co-conspirator a little better. But the night before I let on that I had attended 4th and 5th grade at the St. Catherine Primary School around the way. I was curious to see this old haunt again, especially now after what I had just seen. How could it be that I had never, until today, seen or known about the outlandish Victorian owner’s residence that sat in the middle of the tannery—especially since my grandfather had worked there and I spent two years at a school that was only two blocks away?

The shuttered but otherwise well-preserved Tannery Palace was no place to park a van whose back-door logo promised adventures in “Dark Tourism.” I hopped in and drove over to the school and tucked it under an oak tree in a corner of the disused parking lot, close by the giant brick wall that formed the back of the Church of St. Catherine Laboure.

I wasn’t particularly old, just a man of a certain age, but it felt like an indiscernible black space separated those years from where I stood now. I looked over at the tall windows of my 4th grade classroom and got a blank stare in return. That did not stop some memories from leaking back. At recess, we used to throw an oversized Super Ball against this back wall. A pack of boys in white shirts and clip-on ties would scramble for the crazy bouncing rebound. A smaller number of girls in plaid skirts would work the perimeter away from the scrum, occasionally catching the more errant sideway bounces.

I started walking back, wondering how far along Hannah and Crutch were with prying away the weak-link plywood of the basement window that was to be our entry point to the mystery mansion. First though, I had to turn back to have a look at the church’s pointy steeple, an architectural detail that had popped up in my dreams at least a couple of times a year for decades. Many of the kids in my 5th grade class would compare the steeple to a witch’s hat, thus revealing the true nature of Catholicism. We were clever little buggers back then. For sport, we would discuss this theory just barely out of earshot of the nuns as they stood in groups of three or four in their white origami-type headgear.

Each sunny school day at the noon recess, at the signal which was the tannery’s blaring lunchtime horn, we would look up at the steeple to see “the witch’s eye.” This would be a glint of sunshine off the church bell seen through the slats of the tower. I stared one last time for a glimpse of this, but it was no use. It was late afternoon already; the moon was even rising. The church, the factory and a lot else around it was closed for good. There would be no supernatural eye to look down on this broken world that had cursed itself.

A prose sample from a work-in-progress, a (graphic?) novel called “The Ministry of Dark Tourism”

Documentary Spotlight: “Comic Book Confidential”

For a film that was released thirty years ago, this Ron Mann documentary remains a pretty great primer on the eventual rise of comics from a folded-and-stapled version of the Sunday funnies to the “permanent art form” it has grown into. It moves briskly from the squeaky-clean heroics of early Superman and Captain America comics to the rise of underground “comix” and up to the modern insecurities of Lynda Barry’s post-feminist preteen girls and the age of esteemed graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-themed graphic novel Maus. “Comic Book Confidential” is a candid and quirky overview, clocking in at an economical 85 minutes. Mann’s sly, subversive style fits the subject matter well and he features entertaining interviews and profiles of over twenty artists. Most valuable nowadays is the presence of four comic-book pioneers that have since passed away: Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, William Gaines and Harvey Kurtzman.

“Comic Book Confidential” chronologically follows one of the most beloved (and at one time most reviled) of popular art forms. This strict timeline format helps in charting the social continuum in which comic art developed. During the Depression and WW2, superheroes made sense. After the war, their appeal lessened and stronger creative lights like Eisner sought to free themselves from the assembly-line mindset of most comic-book publishers. This led to a more literary form, but also encouraged risk-taking and a drift towards lurid subject matter. There is an especially strong segment revealing lesser-known aspects of cartoon culture like the major censorship battle waged on envelope-pushing series like Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in 1954. Mann, the long-time pop culture maven who also made the marijuana doc “Grass,” digs up a Reefer Madness-style propaganda clip where a group of boys become “a mass of tangled nerves” after glancing at a couple of violent titles and quickly get busy weaponizing knives and rocks.

Another good get is a snippet of the fearless testimony in front of the Senate panel by eventual Mad magazine founder William Gaines. In an interview for the film, “Big Bill” tells with wry detachment an anecdote about how he defied the Comics Code Authority when they told him to remove the beads of perspiration from the face of a black astronaut in one of his books, threatening to sue the CCA in return. The censorious influence of that organization started to fade and soon the film is detailing the rise of radicalized Sixties artist like R. Crumb, Dan O’Neill and Shary Fleniken.


William Gaines holding court in his office.

From the beginnings of that underground scene in San Francisco circa the late 60s, “CBC” advances about twenty years on (it was released in 1988). The indie comics scene has exploded since then (maybe time for a sequel?) so you won’t be getting anything on prominent later practitioners like Chris Ware or Alison Bechdel. But what you do get are several sequences from artists and writers who are still working today or whose work extended well into the new century (as in the case of Harvey Pekar, who died in 2010). Scenes of Jaime Hernandez (“Love and Rockets”) and Charles Burns (“Big Baby”) explaining the genesis of an episode, then reading it while we watch the finished panels, are a highlight of the film. Not everything works here—I could have done without the silly live-action music video featuring a guy dressed up (badly) as Zippy the Pinhead—and in retrospect, assertions like the one predicting the demise of the superhero make “Comic Book Confidential” look a bit dated. Yet minor quibbles like that pale next to the film’s prescient presentation of contemporary comics as an eminent (but still happily incorrigible) literary form.


This brief trailer has uses a bit of the Dr. John song “Diggin’ on Comix” which played over the film’s opening credits. Great tune but sadly has not popped up anywhere else.

The Road to Ruins: Visiting the Vestiges in Books and in Person

The road to ruins is paved with both the best and worst of intentions. Since time immemorial, people have either through either direct experience or artistic representation, sought communion with the relics of the man-made glories of the past. The picturesque ruins of the Roman Empire have been tourist sites of one sort or another since forever. These early antiquities give an example of the duality of their appeal. The lofty remains of temples and the Roman Forum stand for the idealism of spirituality, civic and social activity, enterprise and an advancing civilization. The nearby Colosseum, one of the world’s most recognizable ruins, is a wonder of ancient design and its building principles has been a model of stadium design ever since. But the more base appeal is the notion of all the gladiatorial battles and mass killings that went on there, often under the guise of a grim sporting event, as depicted in Hollywood spectacles on more than one occasion.


Classic ruins. The Roman Forum and Colosseum, photos by Ryan Ouellette.

With the advent of widespread air travel in the middle of the last century, international touring grew exponentially. Combine that with the fact that the earth’s population has more than doubled in that time and it’s not hard to understand a problem that anyone who’s been anywhere famous lately has encountered: the world is being overrun by tourists. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one should skip the capitals of Europe, the Great Wall of China, the ghostly remains of Pompeii or the top of the Empire State Building—just be prepared to have lots of company. Given the dense points-of-interest overcrowding, coupled with the speed in which modern technological “progress” makes obsolete that which was recently cutting edge, it’s probably not much of a surprise that many people have gone off the beaten path to take history into their own hands.

In the last couple of decades, a whole sub-culture has sprung up under the umbrella phrase “urban exploring.” In general, this brings to mind trespassing photographers and spelunkers of the boarded-up building variety. Favorite objectives included shuttered asylums, closed factories and bankrupted theme parks. The thrill of the illicit is a major factor here even if most of these photographers are sensitive to the backstory of such locations. Still, there was a time (and one not entirely in the past) where the websites of these urban explorers attracted groupie-like followers who littered the comments section with gushing praise over just how “creepy” it all is.


The U.S. is dotted with the remains of hundreds of closed state hospitals or, in the case of the shuttered Fernald School in Massachusetts, fearsome institutions where children with developmental issues real or greatly exaggerated, were once warehoused and even experimented on. Photo by Rick Ouellette

As the dogged pace of technological obsolescence has continued apace, a newer sensibility has taken place: one that strives to understand the complex social and economic reasons why such relatively new man-made achievements fall into disuse and abandonment so quickly, sometimes within a couple of generations. While the voyeuristic tendencies remain—the regrettable phrase “ruins porn” has gained traction—this soul-searching aspect is often a driving force behind the books, articles and websites on this subject.

Rubble tourism is now having its day. Instead of risking arrest, avocational photographers like myself can sign up to tour these once forbidden locations. Sometimes, the nominal purpose can be to inspire a call for landmark designation or renovation instead of demolition. I have taken workshops with two accomplished photographers who run them, sometimes together, and their books (“After the Final Curtain” by Matt Lambros and “Abandoned America” by Matthew Christopher) are reviewed below along with info about their tours. But first to begin at the beginning:

Although I’ve always been pre-disposed to notice the vestiges of a not-distant past (a trait that I have seemed to passed on to my son) this sensation never really had a name or focus for me until I saw (and bought) a copy of “Dead Tech: A Guide to the Archaeology of Tomorrow.” This book was first published in Germany in 1981 and an English version came out a year later, interestingly under the auspices of Sierra Club Books. With its enigmatic cover photo of a New York ocean liner terminal crumbling into itself on the Hudson River waterfront, “Dead Tech” had an immediate impact on me. Across nine themed chapters of evocative photographs by Manfred Hamm and historically insightful text by Rolf Steinberg, we are treated to a captivating catalogue of the recently defunct remains of world-war battlements, ships and airplanes, auto graveyards, abandoned space launch platforms, closed power plants and pleasure piers and quickly obsolete transportation systems.

The photo at the top of this post is from “Dead Tech” and shows the vestiges of the Gemini rocket launch pad in Cape Canaverel


Photo by Rick Ouellette. Not long after obtaining a copy of “Dead Tech” I took to photographing similar (or the same) locations when I had the chance. One of them was Manhattan’s West Side Elevated Highway. It was one of the world’s first freeways, started in 1929. It’s well-intentioned aim was moving vehicular traffic off the surface of 11th Ave., then nicknamed “Death Avenue” because of the dangerous intermingling of autos and freight trains over 106 (!!) grade crossings. Despite the proud winged-wheel symbol seen here—–the insignia of Mercury, patron of commerce and travel—the highway was all but obsolete by the time it was completed in 1951. Interstate trucking had replaced most of the freight trains anyway and when an overloaded truck caused a section to collapse in 1973, the West Side Highway was all but done. By 1989 had been completely dismantled.

“Dead Tech’s” provocative introduction is by Austrian author Robert Jungk, described on the inner flap as an “uncomfortable futurist.” Is he ever. Jungk understood the collective existential dread of a post-war society living under the nuclear shadow, one of his main subjects. Jungk, whose surname invokes both the words “Jung” and “junk,” is no romantic when he contemplates these sites. They speak to him from a deep psychic well of historical human suffering. He writes, “Time does not only heal all wounds, it also blots out the memory of pain.” He sees the detritus of the modern world as not only wasteful but terminally short-sighted and accuses mankind of not admitting past mistakes before diving headlong into his next misadventure. This point is well taken even as you get the feeling that Robert wouldn’t be the most fun person to talk with at a party—about these ruins he says: “They are not uplifting but ludicrous and horrifying at the same time.” But their ghostly attraction is undeniable and hopefully a red flag to be heeded. (The grim stack of crushed cars piled up like a pyramid at a Philadelphia scrapyard is no one’s idea of a tourist trap). It wasn’t all gloom-and-doom with Jungk. He advocated for a new “gentle technology” and ran for president of Austria on the Green Party ticket before dying in 1994.


A remaining section of the Maginot Line in France. Photo by Manfred Hamm from “Dead Tech.”

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Still, the fascination continued. In the summer of 2001, a group of daring (and incongruously well-dressed) young adults set off on a series of audacious expeditions infiltrating the core of New York City’s daunting superstructure. They were led by two guys calling themselves L.B. Deyo and David “Lefty” Leibowitz, who also documented these exploits in a fascinating paperback called “Invisible Frontier.” In the admirably zany opening chapter, they attempt to traverse the Old Croton Aqueduct tunnel from an entry point in the Bronx’s Van Cortlandt Park to the Central Park area, where it used to pour its water into a giant reservoir that supplied the growing city in the second half o fthe 1800s. This would have meant crossing into Manhattan via the vertiginous High Bridge over the Harlem River. Deep collection pools, not to mention the suffocating dankness and the bats, have them eventually turning back: but not before we are treated to our first taste of the book’s curious mix of historical background and snarky banter. The “Jinx” team members dress in dark business suits—and evening dresses for the ladies—and tend to plan their missions using semi-satirical commando jargon.

Over the course of that summer the group plumbed further depths (the long-closed 1904 City Hall subway station) and then clamber up to the rooftops of Grand Central and the Tweed Courthouse, all done with cheeky aplomb (“Today we will discover a pinnacle of New York’s architectural past hidden from the prying eyes of the slovenly modern citizen”). “Invisible Frontier” culminates in a mad-dog ascent to the top of one of the George Washington Bridge towers and a six hundred feet-in-the-air epiphany. But the authors also quietly note that this off-limits triumph came a mere three days before the events of 9/11, after which a brave new world of heightened security and heightened suspicions would come into play. The Jinx group ceased their trespassing ways but its point had already been made. That despite all the building and development and now extra surveillance, “all around us lay the ruins of a golden age of style,” a half-hidden world that will live on.

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A bombed-out German bunker in Normandy. Photo by Rick Ouellette

World War Two sites, especially in Normandy, are of course enormously popular tourist destinations and have been for decades. But popular also means crowded, esp. during the summer. For the discerning war ruin devotees, the PBS series “Nazi Mega Weapons” (and by extension “WW2 Mega Weapons”) will give viewers a good look at, and the place names of, many crumbling mementoes of Adolph Hitler’s megalomania. These range from the launch pads of V-2 rockets to supposedly impregnable super-bunkers, in locations stretching from the Channel Islands to the old Eastern Front. Curiosity peaked, it’s easy in this Internet age to find even the most obscure of these sites, or to find organizations or individuals who give tours of such World War or Cold War points of interest.

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In the middle and late Eighties, American photographer Brian Rose undertook the extensive (and sometimes risky) task of documenting the vast system of walls, fences, no-man lands and guard posts that ran like a geopolitical scar separating the democratic West from the Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe. The project that would result in the book “The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain” began when the “zero-sum logic” of this rigid ideological system—and the architecture which enforced it— was still very much in play. Just as remarkable about this artificial frontier that divided countries, towns and even streets, was the speed at which this system collapsed, as one communist state after another abdicated control after the events of late 1989.

The Iron Curtain stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic, but Rose began his project in it’s most famous and heavily fortified section. The Berlin Wall was erected in the early 1960s to keep people from the eastern sector from escaping into the encircled enclave to the west. (Although the East German government insisted at the time that it was built to keep “fascist adventurers” from getting in). Rose’s photos deftly display both the physical and physic disconnect between two distinctly different societies sitting cheek-by-jowl. We see tourists in brightly-colored clothing peering into a grim East Berlin from a viewing stand and streets and transit lines cut off at the knee. Farther away from the cities, the border can get pretty diffuse: the fences get smaller and the borderline can be nothing but a small warning sign; one photo shows and easily stepped-over chain dividing a beach. Rose learned early on from the locals not to risk it. A few years after starting the project all this fearful apparatus became obsolete, making “The Lost Border” a valuable socio-political record over and above the high quality of his images.

It was at the end of World War II and for the next couple of decades after that the U.S. industrial and economic might was at its peak. Of course, a lot has changed this then and never more viscerally than in photographer Matthew Christopher’s book “Abandoned America: Age of Consequences.” Page after page feature the devastated remains, in beautifully rendered hi-def photos, of buildings magnificent in scope and/or noble of purpose. These eye-popping images of derelict power plants, factories, trade schools, churches, fraternal lodges and communal vacation resorts speak powerfully of a severely shredded social and economic fabric. (Most of these locations are in Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states). These ruins say a lot of what we don’t want to hear.


Photo by Matthew Christopher

Back from the late 19th century through to the middle of the 20th, when most of these places were constructed, there were political and social differences aplenty, often profoundly so. But there was also was a common-denominator civic pride as a baseline, not to mention a colossal industrial sector that not long ago was the envy of the world. This formed the basis for the eventual building up of a solid American middle-class and a wavering but respectable network of aid and comfort for those in legitimate need.

Not only do those “permanent achievements” look a lot less invariable by the day and it’s not just callous, cost-cutting corporations to blame. The national political dialogue (such as it is) about what to do has become the worst sort of zero-sum game. The idea that the two sides of the aisle would have a clash of ideas and each would come away with some of what they wanted is almost laughably quaint now. But there is nothing funny in the evidence of this decline seen in Christopher’s haunting images.

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Matt Lambros had photographed close to 100 closed theaters and chose twenty of the most prominent for his sumptuous coffee table book “After the Final Curtain.” His fascination with these opulent movie palaces began with personally discovering several near where he lived in New York City. Some still open, some boarded up. Soon he was travelling the country and realizing that almost any city in America with some critical mass of population, had at least one of these places, in widely varying conditions but often the worse for wear. These places were built in the first few decades of the 20th century, when people rather expected their entertainment was to be provided in lush, classically-detailed venues and developers provided for such.

But the short and often discouraging history of these theaters can be representatively seen in the case of the stupendous Loew’s Poli Theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut (a sweeping view of which graces the book’s cover). In opened in 1922, after a two-decade period which saw the city’s population double from 70,000 to more than 140,000. Still, not a megalopolis but enough that the growing port city could support a second auditorium next door and connect it all with a hotel and shops. Over 3000 people could watch vaudeville and silent films in the main hall and it made a successful switch to the talkies. But y’all know what happens next: TV, surburbanization, the income inequality that afflicted many older downtowns. The 50-year timeline of the Loew’s Poli is not uncommon: it soldiered on into the mid-century, underwent name changes and new usages and, like many others, ended as an adult-film house before closing in the 1970s. Some of these places have been re-furbished but it’s always an extremely costly proposition and many still languish.

If you’re interested in visiting these type of places (and esp. interested in photographing them) your’re in luck. Both Matthew Christopher and Matt Lambros run workshops where you can click your cameras at places like this (sometimes the “Two Matts” run these events together). See below for their websites and more info. And wherever you go, may all your travels be “ruined.”

https://afterthefinalcurtain.net/
https://www.abandonedamerica.us/


Photo by Rick Ouellette. The old Paramount Theater in Springfield, Mass. (later the Hippodrome nightclub). From a photo workshop I did with Matt lambros and Matthew Christopher.

Make Mine a Double #9: Marvin Gaye’s “Here, My Dear” (1978)

“I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you/though perhaps I may not be happy/This is what you want, so I’ve conceded.” Musical dedications and poison pen songs are well-established pop conventions but it’s doubtful anyone else combined the two with such chutzpah as Marvin Gaye did in 1978 with the divorce-themed concept album that began with those lines. While in the legal process of ending his marital union with Anna Gordy Gaye, the sister of Motown boss Berry Gordy for whom he recorded, the financially and psychologically troubled Gaye was ordered to funnel much of the proceeds of his next album to his wife and son as part of the settlement. Gaye resisted his initial temptation to toss off a “lazy” record. Instead he dug in his heels and crafted a highly personal and idiosyncratic exploration of his failed marriage—some of the lyrics could have been lifted from the pages of a court deposition—and “wedded” it to some of the strongest instrumental tracks of his later career. Here, My Dear is not the easiest record to warm up to. It initially sold well enough to his loyal fan base (peaking at #4 on the soul charts and at #26 on the pop) but likely left a lot of bemused listeners in its wake. Originally derided by many critics as self-indulgent, its reputation has improved over time as a fascinating (if troubling) late chapter in the rocky life and times of one of R&B’s most beloved singers.


Marvin and Anna Gordy in happier times (I’m assuming).

Gaye met Anna Gordy, seventeen years his senior, soon after he signed on with her brother in the early days of Motown. By the singer’s own account, she lit a fire under a promising but underachieving young talent. They were together through Gaye’s remarkable string of over twenty major hit songs in the Sixties, either on solo records or with duet partners like Tami Terrell or Mary Wells. But as the decade turned and Gaye reached new artistic heights with What’s Going On, a landmark album of black social protest, the marriage had hit the skids. After the table-setting title track of Here, My Dear, Gaye proceeds with his highly-personalized dissection on the second song with “I Met a Little Girl”, a bittersweet recalling of love’s early bloom that abruptly jumps ahead to 1976’s very public falling out. This is directly followed by “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Gaye is so locked into his lyrical quest to get at what went wrong that he doesn’t get around to the titular refrain until the song has nearly exhausted its six-minute running time) and “Anger” (an candid internal conversation where he strives to overcome his inner demons and “reach that wiser age”).

For Gaye, that last task always would prove a tough one. Raised in Washington, D.C. by a strict and domineering minister father, the higher aspirations of a Christian faith were pitted against an abusive home environment. The effects of this would appear to carry over into his tumultuous adult relationships, both personal and professional. Typically, Gaye doesn’t shy away from the fact that his life often resembled a lurid soap opera (“What I can’t understand is if you love me/How could you turn me into the police?”) and while he may vent about his wife’s expensive tastes inflating the alimony (“You’ve got a flair for style and you’re styling all the while”) he does not ignore his own exorbitant drug habit. With this much blame to go around, the atmosphere can become a bit oppressive but Gaye takes a recess from the musical divorce court of his own making for three consecutive tunes halfway through. Here’s a return of the more altruistic Marvin of the early 70s with the thoughtful yearning of “Sparrow” and the dogged self-encouragement of “Time to Get It Together”. And “Everybody Needs Love,” with its quiet-storm instrumental vibe and buttery vocal overdubs, could have been the hit song that Here, My Dear needed. But the only single released from it, the entertaining “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” did not fare well. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic-sounding soul jams that filled most of these four sides. With its slinky bass line, trebly rhythm guitar and Gaye’s own fulsome synthesizer fills, it suggests that the man was familiar with the jaunty sci-fi funk of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic collective. In this escapist fantasy, Gaye may be liberated by time travel, getting down with a new lover on his “space bed,” but the cold reality of his tangled affairs on the home planet soon come creeping back.

A review of Here, My Dear would not be complete without mentioning the exceptional (if suitably downbeat) cover art. Painter Michael Bryan had done album sleeves for the likes John Lennon, Rod Stewart and Bootsy Collins and his idea of incorporating Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss was met with approval by Gaye (“Put me in a toga”). The singer solemnly stands aside the iconic couple whose image is repeated on the back—this time they’ve caught fire inside the ruins of a columned courtyard while another statue, a grinning beast, sits on a pedestal bearing the legend “Pain and Divorce.” That’s only half of it. The inner gatefold shows a man’s hand giving over a token-sized LP to a woman’s hand above a Monopoly-like game board. Below her hand are gobs of cash, a house and a Cadillac. The male hand presides over a piano, a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a single dollar bill. Ouch!


A 1978 TV commercial for the album gets you up close and personal with Michael Bryan’s distinctive artwork.

In this tangled web of personal grievances and court orders, Here, My Dear was fated to be a flop. First off, if Berry Gordy was unenthusiastic about What’s Going On (and still professed to not understand it even after it became a worldwide smash) what was he going to do with a double album that all but declared open season on his own sister? Secondly, Gaye seemed to lose interest in the record once he got it off his chest, while Anna Gordy (perhaps paradoxically) pondered an invasion-of-piracy lawsuit to stop the LP that was mandated to make her hundreds of thousands of dollars. After the initial sales spike, Here, My Dear died on the vine and was quickly out of print. A couple of years later, his brief second marriage to Janis Hunter (the inspiration for “Let’s Get it On” as well as this record’s “Falling in Love Again”) also hit the rocks. Dogged by the scourge of a hard drug habit and pursued by the IRS (he owed a fortune in back taxes) he relocated to Belgium and recorded his final big hit, the sublime “Sexual Healing.” But the old demons quickly caught up with him on his return to the States and, a day before what would have been his 45th birthday, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his father after a domestic dispute, the last terrible chapter in a life filled with destructive personal relationships.

Make Mine a Double is an ongoing series that explores the wild and woolly world of rock’s most notable double album’s. Up next: “Layla.”

“I Was a Teenage Proghead” Part 3

This is final installment, see below the final page to find out how you can obtain a FREE copy of the full 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out in print next month.

Text by Rick Ouellette, Illustrations by Brian Bicknell








This is my first foray into the world of indie comics and the first time in 25 years that I’ve written any fiction! So feedback is important. The first five people who comment with something specific that they either like or dislike about the comic will get a FREE copy of the complete 32-page “Proghead” comic book when it comes out next month. Entries outside the USA are welcome! I will contact you when the time comes for details. This is a print item only. Although I did not post Part Two of this to protect my intellectual property, you can look at Part One by looking for the link below. Thanks, Rick