Each time we move to a new city, we make memories as the city slowly takes shape in our minds. Every new place we locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new point on the map. Wayfinding a new city is an experience you can never get back. Once you are familiar with the space or place, it’s gone. Since moving out on my own, I’ve gravitated toward cities: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. Externalized memories built in brick and concrete. As David Byrne writes, cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are” (p. 2).
You can map out a whole city according to the weight of memory, like pins on the homicide board tracking the killer’s movements. But the connections get thicker and denser and more complicated all the time — from Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
Darran Anderson‘s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) brings many of these unconscious thoughts out of our heads and into the light, mapping cities according to memories. Anderson humbly calls the book “a diminished non-fiction mirror” to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), but it is a masterwork unto itself. As Calvino (1974) writes in that book, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p. 11). Anderson’s book illuminates these interstitial crags and corners, yet it goes as wide as it does deep, digging through the details as much as minding the monolithic. It’s a book I will have to spend much more time with, as it deserves to be explored in depth, like any good city.
What is the importance of placing a memory? he said. Why spend that much time trying to find the exact geographic and temporal latitudes and longitudes of the things we remember, when what’s urgent about a memory is its essence?
— from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson
In the sagas it was said that humans dream with their hands, only their hands, and so have cities rather than sagas, monuments rather than memories. — from Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney
Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, chronicling the streets of London in various states of duress. I’ve never seen a zine or a zine collection that seemed this important. I’ve never even seen one with the potential to be this important. Ford’s writings and drawings map not only the city’s streets but also the lives underneath. In his Introduction, Mark Fisher calls the zine “out of time” but not “out of date”: “Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch — and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on a screen” (p. x). Indeed, Savage Messiah‘s return to the anarcho-punk aesthetic of the late-1970s is essential to Ford’s revival of that attitude. This is poetry. This is protest. This is London undone. Holding it in your hands is imperative.
Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. — Kathy Acker
Early on in In Divisible Cities, Dominic Pettman repurposes the idea of mattering maps, those maps we make to and from the things that matter: “A map that generates territory, rather than the other way around… A map that does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map that brings cities into being…” (p. 3). These three books can be read as giant, sprawling mattering maps. Within them, there are vast and multiple new cities to be explored.
Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 135.
When I started doing zines as a teenager, interviews were an easy way to get something no one else had. I could get in touch with a band, ask them questions, and write up an original piece of content. It was fun and it lead me to magazine writing. When I moved the operation online, my first site (frontwheeldrive.com) was almost all interviews.
Andy Jenkins and I have had a similar relationship with interviews. We both started off doing them for journalistic purposes, then moved away from them for various reasons. “Interviewing folks meant that I was drawing a line between myself and the interviewee,” he writes in the introduction. “So, instead of being a peer, I was sort of an outsider” (p. 3). For Bend #24: Questions (Bend Press, 2015), Andy returned to the interview format to check in with a bunch of people who’ve inspired him over the years: He asked 27 people the same 24 questions. Interview subjects include Johnny Knoxville, Megan Baltimore, and O; skateboarders Jerry Hsu, Ed Templeton, Tod Swank, and Marc Johnson; artists Lori Damiano, Ferris Plock, Kevin Wilkins, Thomas Campbell, and Evan Hecox; and one of my favorite character actors, Bob Stephenson; as well as many other creative folks. Questions is inspiring, entertaining, and funny. Andy’s introduction says he did these interviews “not feeling the line” because he knows all of these people in one way or another. His art and designs have always been inspiring to me, but this time it’s the minds he’s assembled that make me want to go do stuff.
Life from a window
I’m just taking in the view
Life from a window
Observing everything around you
— The Jam, “Life From a Window”
I met Tobin Yelland twice: once while I worked at SLAP Skateboard Magazine in San Francisco and once while I worked at Skateboard.com in San Diego. He’s a super-nice guy with a keen eye through the camera lens. Life From a Window (Deadbeat Club, 2014) is Clint Woodside and Tobin’s travel log from Asia, including pictures from Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Candid expressions, odd artifacts, and haunting cityscapes adorn its 40, full-color pages. It also comes with two 4×6″ prints, one from each photographer.
I picked up a copy of Bogus Rendition#9 from the merch table at a the Watain/Mayhem Black Metal Warfare tour stop at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago earlier this year. Split between hopping trains and black metal, Justin Curtsinger tells great stories and does solid interviews. He’s traversed the US by train several times and toured with Watain and many other black metal acts, so his stories and interviews (with members of Watain, The Devil’s Blood, Soulgrinder, et al.) come from a far more personal place. The lengthy transcribed talks in BR #9 are as meandering as they are interesting. These are not promo-copy fodder. They’re just regular chats with the guys behind the set and sound. It’s a welcome change from magazine interviews. Reflecting on Watain’s 2013 tour for The Wild Hunt, Curtsinger writes, “I’ve found it harder and harder as time has gone on to write about other people who happen to be friends as if they are ‘characters’ in a story.” Though he admits that he’s not the biggest Watain fan, he acknowledges their importance, writing, “The reminder that life is whatever the fuck we want to make it and that following one’s heart on whatever obscure path one wants to take is not a pipe dream.” The 108 pages of Bogus Rendition #9 document parts of Curtsinger’s obscure path(s), and the world is better off for the glimpses it provides.
A member of both the black metal band, Light Bearer, and the hardcore band, Momentum (two of my recent favorites), Gerfried Ambrosch is also a prolific writer. Not surprisingly, his writing is ideologically in-line with his music. Among his zines are Atheist Morality: Why We Don’t Need Religion to Be Moral (Active Distribution, 2013) and Vindication of a Vegan Diet (Active Distribution, 2013). We Want Something More: The Poetry of Punk Rock (Active Distribution, n.d.) is a 100-page pamphlet-style zine that could easily double as a master’s thesis. It’s also informed by interviews — with some of the most important people in punk rock. Its back copy reads,
We Want Something More is an extended essay about punk lyrics. It features exclusive interviews with well-known punk rock and hardcore artists such as Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Ray Cappo (Youth of Today, Shelter), Greg Bennick (Trial), Brian D. (Catharsis), Dan Yemin (Kid Dynamite, Paint It Black), Chris Hannah (Propagandhi), and others. The essay investigates the connections between song lyrics, poetry, visual and acoustic aesthetics, musical conventions, the D.I.Y. ethos, and radical politics in the context of punk and hardcore. Its goals are to demonstrate that punk rock and hardcore song lyrics are a fascinating literary art form and to give punks and hardcore ‘kids’ an understanding of lyric analysis and close reading by reference to some of the songs that have changed their lives. Moreover, the essay discusses the particularities of punk culture and the things that set it apart from other subcultures. Given its focus on radical politics, is punk a serious counterculture, or at least part of a wider countercultural movement? This essay attempts to answer such questions by looking at song lyrics and how they have both reflected and affected the political discourse of punk and hardcore. If you have a passion for punk culture and/or the written word, there is a good chance that you will find We Want Something More to be a very interesting read.
I don’t do as many interviews as I used to, but I’m still biased toward them and read them regularly. I mean, I do teach a class on interviews now, and my first book is a collection of them. Interviews can be weird and indulgent, but they can provide keys to someone’s work you admire. They also let that someone know that you admire them. In Bend #24, Andy Jenkins asks, “Do you like answering questions?” Ed Templeton sums it up, saying, “Yeah. It means someone is asking.”
I started all of this writing stuff making zines in junior high school. It would be difficult to overstate how much that experienced shaped who I have become. While the means of production and the channels of distribution have changed since my days at the copy shop, there are still some zines circulating. Here are a few of the standouts I’ve gotten recently.
The first issue of Andy Jenkins’ Bend zine I got was #7, which came in the mail over 25 years ago. That issue changed my own preset limits of what a zine could be, of what a page could represent, of what could be done with pens, scissors, glue-sticks, and a copy machine. His layouts burst onto the page in ways not even the magazines he made at the time did. There’s something about the constraints inherent in this medium that makes some people shine.
Andy hasn’t stopped innovating though. His last few zines buck the traditional two-page spread layout of magazines for a more stacked-and-jumbled approach. It’s a schema that works well for issue #22’s theme: rejected work. Bend: Rejected (Bend Press, 2014) consists of Andy’s rejected design and written pieces between 2010 and 2014 for such clients as Beats by Dre, Lakai Footwear, Jackass, Girl Skateboards, Hundreds, Fourstar, and Moneyball, among others. It’s a collection of case studies of how great work can still not fit a client’s needs or just fall short of expectations. No two copies of Bend #22 are the same. Each one has a different set of rejected work and includes an original drawing by Andy (mine is pictured above).
Gareth’s Tips on Sucks-Less Writing (Sparks of Fire Press, 2013), an excerpt from Gareth Branwyn‘s forthcoming book, Cyborg Like Me, and Other Tales of Art, Eros, and Embedded Systems (Sparks of Fire Press, 2014), is a handy guide for writers of all kinds. First compiled one the eve of blogging craze 15 years ago, Gareth has continued to update his tips in the meantime. Because of its ever-updating status, he calls it “a work in perpetual beta.”
The subtitle to Gareth’s Tips is “Or, Everything I Know About Writing, I Boosted from Other Writers and Editors.” Having compiled a couple of my own sets of writing guidelines, I can totally relate. Gareth taps wordsmiths and editor-types like Mark Frauenfelder (bOING bOING, WIRED, MAKE, etc.), Mike Gunderoy (Factsheet Five), Rudy Rucker (duh), Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird), Connie Hale (Sin and Syntax), and Warren Ellis’s gonzo Transmetropolitan protagonist, Spider Jerusalem (pictured on the cover). Gareth’s also been doing this word-thing hisdamnself for over 30 years (at Mondo 2000, WIRED, MAKE, and bOING bOING—when it was still a print zine!), so he knows there are no rigid rules for writing, but that there is a lot of advice floating around—some of which can help guide you to better prose. Gareth’s Tips brings together some of the best.
V. Vale’s McKenzie Wark zine (RE: Search, 2014) is the 48-page transcript of an interview between the two conducted in late 2012. Wark was visiting Berkeley and Vale invited him over for tea. The zine comes with two hand-screened prints – one yellow, one pink. Wark is on one side and Abby the cat, who also inserted herself in the interview, is on the back. Perhaps a bit a head of me, Vale and Wark got into punk early on, Wark at age 12 in Australia. From there he got into the rave scene and the hacking underground. Vale follows the thread through these interests to the future, theming the interview with the question, “Where is all this going, and how do we keep our bearings and our punk outlook and philosophy?” If anyone can follow that line of questioning to fruitful answers with experience and erudition, it’s McKenzie Wark.
So this site and all the things attached follow from my own thread of punk and D.I.Y. print work. I do still love a good zine though. There’s something to the physicality of the pages in your hand and the focus on those pages that pixels on screens don’t afford. I hope the committed few continue to make them and new minds and hands pick up the practice.
From an early age it was instilled in me that people judge you by how you look, how you dress, how you wear your hair, how you carry yourself. My dad won’t leave the house to do business or see someone without styling and dressing appropriately. We communicate something through every stylistic choice we make. As Umberto Eco (1973) writes, “I speak through my clothes.” To wit, I have seen firsthand many books misjudged by their covers. Still, coming up with this stress on conformity alongside the drive for expression inherent in art, skateboarding, and punk rock, I can’t help but toy with the conflict. In the Summer 1988 issue of Homeboy Magazine, pro BMXer R. L. Osborn wrote,
My girlfriend doesn’t dig my Megadeth t-shirt. ‘You’re going to shave one side of your head? Holey Levi’s? Throw ’em away. Your hair’s too long. Your hair’s too short. Why does your hair look like a rainbow?’ Everyone feels the heat from friends, family, and whoever else about independent style, yet I can’t help feeling that sometimes envy is covered up with uncool remarks. Hey. let’s be straight about this, it’s your life, your feelings, and your own personal way of expressing yourself and showing the true you (p. 81).
The piece was accompanied by photos of street kids with wacky hair with odd angles and colors, leather jackets with lots of zippers, spikes, chains, and other scary accessories. I was 17 when that issue came out, and though Osborn’s proselytizing wasn’t the first time I’d been exposed to punk aesthetics, it stuck with me. So, when I saw my DIG BMX Magazine colleague Ricky Adam‘s new zine, I immediately thought of R. L.’s words.
Ricky Adam’s zine, Glad to See the Back of You (Trajectories, 2013), is full of tattooed attitude. It’s a compendium of punk self-expression mostly in the form of custom jackets with back patches. Back patches are largely the domain of bikers or crust punks, the latter of whom fill this zine’s pages. Punk back patches are often cut from old screen-printed t-shirts and hand sewn onto denim or leather jackets or vests along with other patches. The hand-done aspect of them is rarely disguised and gives the look a D.I.Y., provisional feel, and their literal patchwork lends them to subversive bricolage (see Hebdige, 1979). By mixing patches as signs together, punks engage in what Eco (1972) calls “semiotic guerilla warfare.” They express their lack of desire to reunite with the parent culture and celebrate, even parody, the alienation that causes it so much concern (Hebdige, 1979). The crust-punk style takes this alienation to the extreme. Its a war is waged against the established look via its sardonic and scathing rejection thereof (Brummett, 2008; Hebdige, 1979).
Greil Marcus (1989) outlines the complexities of punk’s signification this way:
[A] load of old ideas sensationalized into new feelings almost instantly turned into new clichés, but set forth with such momentum that the whole blew up its equations day by day. For every fake novelty, there was a real one. For every third-hand pose, there was a fourth-hand pose that turned into a real motive (p. 77).
None of this is new, and it might still seem juvenile, but the underlying sentiments haven’t changed. Who cares what’s been co-opted? And who knows what authenticity means anymore? My friend Mark Wieman recently observed how thick and long The Long Tail™ has become. There’s simply no real mainstream anymore, and when it comes to punk and authority, I still feel like my 17-year-old self. I don’t own a pair of dress shoes.
The punk aesthetic of doing it yourself isn’t about doing it like everyone else. It’s about liberating what’s unique about yourself, exposing what makes you you. As Osborn concludes, “Show us who you really are.”
Ricky Adam’s Glad to See the Back of You is out in a limited run of 300 (mine’s #154), so get yours now.
Adam, Ricky. (2013). Glad to See the Back of You. Leeds, UK: Trajectories.
Brummett, Barry. (2008). A Rhetoric of Style. Carbondale, IL: The University of Southern Illinois Press.
Eco, Umberto (1972). Towards a Semiotic Enquiry into the Television Message. WPCS, 3, University of Birmingham.
Eco, Umberto. (1973). Social Life as a Sign System. In D. Robey (Ed.), Structuralism: The Wolfson College Lectures, 1972. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 57-72.
Hebdige, Dick. (1979). Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge.
Marcus, Greil. (1989). Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Osborn, R. L. (1988, Summer). Page 65. Homeboy Magazine, 80-81.
The last few years have been hectic, and 2012 kept it moving in a big way. I’ll get to my personal stuff in a bit, but first, here are the people, events, music, and media that shaped my year.
Encounters of the Year: I had the honor of breakfast with longtime mentor and friend Howard Rheingold at SXSW this year. Howard has offered me endless advice and encouragement over the years online, and it was a true treat to chat with him face-to-face over a meal.
Also at SXSW, I was invited by my good friend Dave Allen to sit on a panel about music technology with Rick Moody, Jesse von Doom, David Ewald, and Anthony Batt, all of whom I am proud to now call friends. I’ll never forget the look on Rick’s face when I asked him to say grace at lunch that day.
We also ran into Hank Shocklee who was doing a panel discussion adjacent to ours. As the architect of the Bomb Squad, who produced such frenetic noisefests as Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Fear of a Black Planet, as well as Ice Cube’s Amerikkka’s Most Wanted, Hank has been a hero of mine since high school. He hung out and conferred with us like we were all old friends.
Comebacks have really made a comeback this year.
— Seth Cockfield via Twitter, December 3rd, 2012.
Speaking of Public Enemy, I caught “The Hip-hop Gods Classic Tourfest Revue” at The House of Blues in Chicago on December 5th. I hadn’t seen P.E. since 1991, and I’ve only seen them on package tours like this (once in 1990 with Digital Underground, Kid N’ Play, Queen Latifah, and The Afros, and twice in 1991, once with Sisters of Mercy, Gang of Four, Warrior Soul, and Young Black Teenagers, and again with Anthrax, Primus, and Young Black Teenagers). This time around it was them, X-Clan, Monie Love, Leaders of the New School, Wise Intelligent, Schoolly D, Son of Berzerk, and Awesome Dre. Chuck did a lot of talking and Flav did a lot of goofing, but the few songs that they did–both old and new–were absolutely on point.
Earlier in the year, I barged into Helmet’s dressing room at The House of Blues in Chicago to meet Page Hamilton. In my defense, I was looking for Ume‘s room, and once inside, I asked Page where it was. Before I left, I got Lily to take a picture of us together because people always say we look alike, to which Page quipped, “Yeah, but I’m 105 and you’re, like, 29.”
Coup of the Year: Death Grips: As Christopher R. Weingarten explores in his “Artist of the Year” story on Spin.com, Death Grips showed how to use technology to get what you want, and then disappear before anyone knows what happened. They duped the internet, a major label, and their fans and became one of the most talked-about artists of the year. It goes, it goes, it goes…
Music of the Year:
I’ve clearly had a Gunplay problem this year:
Other than Gunplay mixtapes and my usual prog/post-rock fare (e.g., Radiohead, Mogwai, The Mars Volta, Eno, Baroness, Followed by Ghosts, God is an Astronaut, etc.), these are some releases I relished:
Erik Blood Touch Screens (Erik Blood): How much reference to previous work is the right amount? Thomas Kuhn called the dialectic between tradition and innovation the “essential tension,” and Erik Blood has found the perfect middle. To call Touch Screens unoriginal would be to admit you didn’t listen to it. Yes, this is stuttery, gooey, taffy-like pop in the vein of Brad Laner and Kevin Shields, but Blood puts these things together with that third thing, the thing that comes from more than just nailing the essential tension.
“Most of [the shoegazers] couldn’t rock their way out of a paper bag,” once quoth Simon Reynolds. Not so with Erik Blood. There’s as much Loop here as there is Main, as much Anton Newcombe as there is Courtney Taylor-Taylor. I also hear some Can and Neu!, which Blood claims he likes but doesn’t consider an influence. “Though I guess everything one hears is an influence,” he concedes. I could listen to the last half of “Amputee” all damn day. “That’s the idea,” he told me. Blood broadcasts these soundtracks from some unplaceable future, some unknown space out of time.
With a pornography-related concept and a cover reminiscent of H. R. Giger’s painting for Dead Kennedys’Frankenchrist poster, Touch Screens is guaranteed to offend some. Don’t be scared, especially if you like your valentines bloody and your Warhols dandy.
JK Flesh Posthuman (3by3): To explicate the pedigree of Justin K. Broadrick would require a book-length exploration, but let’s try to nick the surface. He was a founding member of Napalm Death, invented and inverted genres in Godflesh, and happily drones in headphones in Jesu—not to mention stints in final, Head of David, Fall of Because, Ice, God, Techno Animal, Greymachine, and Pale Sketcher, among others. Now Broadrick revives his JK Flesh moniker to make some noise that doesn’t fit under any of his other active names. The sounds on Posthuman land between the lines and demonstrate that the disc deserves its own designation. Sure, there are echoes of past projects, especially Greymachine and Pale Sketcher, but this record has a soul of its own. A soul that deserves to be played very loud. These songs need to stretch out, to reach out, and to touch someone. “Idle Hands” sounds like some bastardized, end-of-the-world Hip-hop (apocalypse-hop?), the title track is the theme song to a spy movie with an all-android cast, and the other ones will satisfy your need for a soundtrack to entropy and the heat-death of the universe. No one knows what that would sound like better than Justin Broadrick.
Neurosis Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings): Among the many burgeoning subgenres of post-metal, there is one band that is consistently named as a starting point: Neurosis has been bending and rending metal, punk, crust, sludge, drone, doom, ambient, folk, and other odd musical categories since 1985. Their latest, Honor Found in Decay (Neurot Recordings, 2012) more than illustrates both why they’re the godfathers of this sound and what exactly it is that all of their progeny are still trying to achieve.
On their tenth studio outing, the Oakland sextet gathers together pieces from their storied past to pull off a defining document of their sound. Honor Found in Decay is that rare record that serves the seasoned fan as well as the newbie. It continues their long and fruitful recording relationship with Steve Albini. The ten-plus-minute dirges are here (e.g., “At the Well,” “My Heart for Deliverance,” “Casting of the Ages”). The growling and wailing are in tact (e.g, “Bleeding the Pigs,” “Raise the Dawn”). The bulldozer grooves are as deep and wide as ever (e.g., “We All Rage in Gold,” “All is Found… In Time”). Like all of their releases since 1992’s Souls at Zero, this is nothing less than a monolithic affair.
Not that it doesn’t move them forward, but Honor Found in Decay feels like a summary of sorts—much like The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief were. And like those two bands, Neurosis has plenty to summarize: They’ve always pushed themselves in new directions and they’ve kept fans and critics guessing at every turn. Honor Found in Decay is just as complex and dynamic as the collective history that created it. It’s as lush as it is loud, as heavy as it is heady, and as mysterious as it is majestic. Your expectations will be immediately reached and quickly wrecked.
Other releases that stayed in the speakers and headphones include Deftones Koi No Yokan (Reprise), Baroness Yellow & Green (Relapse), The Mars Volta Noctourniquet (Warner Bros.), Sean PriceMic Tyson (Duck Down), and mixtapes by Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane, Chief Keef, Alleyboy, and A$AP Rocky. Along with Gunplay (see above), Skweeky Watahfawls, Johnny Ciggs, Fan Ran and the whole Gritty City Fam are the finds of the year. Here they are with The Jam of the Year, “Hunnid Dolla Bills” [runtime: 5:23]:
Video of the Year: Killer Mike “Big Beast” featuring Bun B, T.I., Trouble, & El-P: If this video doesn’t move you in some way, you’re probably dead. First of all, the pairing of Killer Mike on the mic and El-Producto on production is a match made somewhere south of Heaven: It’s dark, it’s evil, it’s raw, and it’s hard as fuck and the record they just did, R.A.P. Music, proves it many times over. Next, we have this straight bananas lead track “Big Beast,” including sick verses by Bun B. and T. I. that will remind you why they’re both Hip-hop legends, and a catchy chorus by Trouble. Then, we have this face-eating, car-chasing, enthusiastically violent video that has them all doing some ill shit (that’s El-P in the mask) directed by Thomas C. Bingham and produced by CFILM1 in partnership with Adult Swim. Like I said, check your pulse [runtime: 9:23].
Movie of the Year: Looper.Rian Johnson is one of my favorite people on Twitter (his day-long stories about his beef with Jason Reitman are hysterical), and he’s finally made his Philip K. Dick movie. Time-travel is a trope I never tire of, and it’s used masterfully here, as in it stays out of the way of the story. Looper features stellar performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, and Jeff Daniels, but the real surprise was the young-but-amazing Pierce Gagnon. Watch out for that one.
Book of the Year: Nick Harkaway Angelmaker: A Novel (Knopf): Nick Harkaway’s second novel is a surrealist noir novel like no other. Angelmaker is heady and heavy, but Harkaway’s prose is giddy in its grasp. It’s a little bit steampunk, a little bit spy novel, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot of fun. As an added treat, I also got to interview him earlier this year, during which he told me of his writing, “…I suppose I have a tendency to use movie shapes — like the Classic Myth Structure George Lucas used for Star Wars — because they’re dramatic and recognisable and they keep you on track. Writing the kind of books I write, with lots going on, you need not to get lost. Structure helps. A story spine is vital. And so is knowing what the voice is, the tone. With those, you can go all over the map and come home safe, and you know it, and your reader gets that confidence in you and settles, so you can take liberties and amaze them. The less secure they are, the less likely they are to go with you when you do something unusual — and that unusual thing is often why you’re there, so that’s bad. They close the book. And once they do that, you have a hell of a time getting them to open it again.” Unlike several other books I read this year, that’s not a problem I had with Angelmaker.
Skateboard Video of the Year: Girl and Chocolate’s Pretty Sweet: You know nothing else came close.
Documentary of the Year: The Unbookables (Fascinator Films): The Unbookables are a loose band of comedians (emphasis on “loose”) handpicked by Doug Stanhope.This movie documents their 2008 tour of the middle of the country, from my own Austin, Texas through Kansas City, Missouri to Peoria, Illinois. The cast of characters (emphasis on “characters”) includes Brendon Walsh, Sean Rouse, Andy Andrist, Norman Wilkerson, Brett Erickson, Travis Lipski, James Inman, and Kristine Levine. The unfortunate star of the show is James Inman. If nothing else, this film documents how reckless behavior can bring people together as well as single one of them out.
The first gig is at Nasty’s in Austin, and one of my own University of Texas colleagues gets the narrative rolling by leaving drugs around for Inman to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with negative repercussions. I was at Nasty’s that night, and everyone killed. It was proof of both why these guys are The Unbookables and why they’re such revered comedians. Night two was a “chicken wire” show at Beerland during which chicken wire is draped in front of the stage and the crowd throws fruit at the comics while they attempt to tell jokes. True to its heritage, the show was a complete trainwreck with mostly just the comedians pelting each other with fruit. Few jokes were told as everyone just made fun of Inman.
Inman’s shady behavior continued through the gigs in his then-home Kansas City. He almost ditches the others as they get fired from the first show of the weekend there thanks to one of Travis Lipski’s tamest jokes. Tensions mount, Kristine Levine joins the crew, and the plot spirals out of control as our heroes reach Peoria. Luckily Brett Erickson is there to save the day.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than I’ve detailed above, but it’s not all worth mentioning. With that said, The Unbookables is a gruesome glimpse into the world of touring stand-up comedy, and it’s damn worth checking out. Props due to all involved — except Inman, of course.
Move of the Year: Austin to Chicago: Continuing the family trade, my girl Lily got into grad school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, so we packed up and moved from the Tattooine of Austin to the Hoth of Chicago. Thanks to Zizi Papacharissi, I joined the adjunct faculty at The University of Illinois at Chicago. This will be the biggest, coldest city I’ve ever lived in, but we’re certainly enjoying it so far.
Many thanks to Chris Noble at Level Magazine, for which many of the reviews above were originally written throughout the year. Thanks to Tim Baker over at SYFFAL for turning me on to Gunplay and the Gritty City Fam. Mad thanks to Michael Schandorf, Adriane Stoner, and Zizi Papacharissi for making the transition to Chicago a smooth one. Onward.