Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Balloon Dogs and Astronauts

Show a lot of art with mirrored surfaces, and you're just asking for people to photograph their own reflections. I was scolded for taking this one of me and my friend Linda becoming one with Jeff Koon's "Easyfun...Sheep." The show, "Everything's Here: Jeff Koons and his experience of Chicago" runs through October. It's smallish, but augmented on the fourth floor by an exhibit of Chicago artists who have influenced Koons. I left feeling a little giddy, which is exactly how a 10 foot-high stainless steel balloon dog should make you feel. Huge photos of Koons and his ex-wife, porn star Ilona Staller (or, perhaps more accurately, their body parts), are installed in a concealed area in one of the main rooms. If you have any qualms about viewing a billboard-sized pornographic image, avoid this section.

A recent New Yorker had a good article about the show, and Koon's controversial life and career:
Funhouse: A Jeff Koon's Retrospective. [Link]

The MCA gift store is my personal crackhouse; I rarely get out of there without dropping at least $50 on a book and/or some arty thingamabob. This time, it was a tiny stuffed kitten toy by Marie Maison de Mieux [Link], and a book of Japanese pictograms/icons. I haven't done graphic design in years, but I still appreciate a good icon or symbol. I loved the disco ball and the astronaut, combined below.

Some of the icons depict typical Japanese situations or anxieties. The tiny, perspiring man was in a section titled "Trouble." He hangs his head in abject shame as he's being berated, probably by his boss, something you'll not see in western clip art. And then there's the subway groper. In Chicago, we would need an additional pictogram of him getting a beatdown.

Then, there's the "huh?" pictograms. This one was in a section called "Bussiness"(sic). To me, it looks like someone tossing a baby out of a building. At least I think that's an arm, although other interpretations are understandable. I'll post more in the future.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Music: The Leaves

I'm listening to a lot of new music this week, thanks to some generous pals and my very BFF, The Internet. Like other forms of pop culture, current music seems to be all over the place; there's a genre and group for every lifestyle segment. He likes Wolf Parade, Pepsi and drives a Jetta. She likes The Mouldy Peaches, Izze's and rides a fixed-gear. It's just another consumer choice.

What's lacking--and I'm a middle-aged fart, so I may very well not know what I'm talking about--is the sense that there's a scene, a place and time where people who make music all know each other, play together, and feed off each other's genius. Maybe that's why I'm continually enthralled by the garage, folk and psychedelic rock that seemed to pour out of Los Angeles and San Francisco in the mid-1960's.

The Los Angeles-based band The Leaves started out as surf-rockers. As noted in Wikipedia, their first gig was in a high-school gym, sharing the bill with Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band.* The Leaves' 1966 single "Hey Joe" was later covered by Jimi Hendrix. It's difficult to un-think the iconic Hendrix version, but I like this one quite a bit.

As a published work,"Hey Joe" has a murky history, and is often cited as having traditional folk origins. It certainly is consistent with a long history of American folk and blues ballads devoted to homicide; e.g. "Tom Dooley," "Frankie and Johnny," and "Stagger Lee." Whatever it's origin, singer/songwriter Billy Roberts registered it for copyright in 1962. Since then, "Hey Joe" has been covered by dozens of artists. You must take a minute and listen to the version by a Japanese psychedelic-era band, The Golden Cups. [Link]

Murder Ballad (Wikipedia) [Link]

*An older acquaintance of mine remembers seeing Screamin' Jay Hawkins at a school assembly in Oak Park, Illinois in the late 50s. My high school managed to get the regional touring group of Up With People.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Sunday Music: Pitchfork Festival

A dinosaur wearing a "Dinosaur Jr." t-shirt

I intended writing a post when I returned home last night, but the urge to lie down was too overwhelming. I spent much of the last two days at the Pitchfork Music Festival, in Chicago's Union Park. Against all odds, I did not get heat stroke or food poisoning. However, the dogs are killing me.

The woman distributing wristbands in the beer ticket line chuckled when she saw my ID. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm older than you." We were definitely not in the main demographic, but I saw a few fellow gray-hairs in the crowd. Even more seemed to be up on stage, especially during the performances of now-vintage bands like Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. Sheesh. Where did the 90s go, again?

Earlier this year, the New York Times printed a series of charts created by artist Andrew Kuo, tracking his waxing and waning enjoyment of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival.[Link] Kuo remembered that at one point during his first music festival, the 1992 Lollapalooza, that he "didn't want to be there any more." That sentiment swept over me fully only once, on Sunday, while M. Ward performed on the main stage. The sun came out in full force over the rain-soaked grounds, making it feel like a steam bath. When I couldn't take it any more, I fled to the leafy shade near stage C, and lay flat on my back on a makeshift tarp. Half a dozen people rested around me. I nearly drifted off, despite the simulated gunfire from Ghostface Killah. Later, as the sun dropped behind buildings to the west, I met up with a friend. We listened to Spiritualized, and ate handfuls of cherries.

Pitchfork Music Festival Playlist (streaming audio & downloads) [Link].

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sunday Music: The Seeds

The 1968 hippiesploitation movie Psych-Out has, judging from the trailer, much to recommend it. It stars a young Jack Nicholson as uber-cool rock guitarist "Stoney,"with a supporting cast that includes Dean Stockwell, Bruce Dern, and indie film maker Henry Jaglom. The plot appears to be a little Easy Rider with a dash of Reefer Madness. Beautiful deaf-mute runaway girl? Check. Rapacious hippie-hating thugs? Check. Bad acid trip where guy tries to cut off his own hand? Check. In contrast, The Trip, made in 1967, has Peter Fonda running wildly through the woods wearing a peasant blouse while the Death character from "The Seventh Seal" chases him. That's a very bad trip.

Psych-Out was supposed to take place in San Francisco, but it featured two well-known Los Angeles bands: The Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds. The Strawberry Alarm Clock are best known for "Incense and Peppermints," which reached number one on the Billboard charts in 1967. The Seeds, with only one national hit, "Pushin' Too Hard," held close to their garage rock roots. Widely admired by other musicians, their blues-inflected sound was not embraced by the general public, at least outside of Southern California.

In 1970, lead singer Sky Saxon joined the Yahowha cult, and released several records as The Yahowha 13. The community disbanded after their leader, Father Yod, died in a hang-gliding mishap. Saxon, who is now called "Sunlight" Sky Saxon, always seems to have several projects going, judging from his Google search results. The most recent seems to be the group King Arthur's Court.

If you were suffering from a far-out deficiency, the preceding paragraph should have set you right. Here's a couple of lesser-known selections:

Trailer for Psych-Out [Link]

Psych-Out at BadMovies.org [Link]

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Technical difficulties

Apologies for the late music posting. I've been away from high-speed internet for the long weekend, and am too tired to dig up some tunes, tonight.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Lame museum post

I'm officially tired of editing photos, and museum posts are lame, anyway. I'll make this short. After Japanese noodles, Mike and I headed to downtown LA, to the Museum of Neon Art. Michael used to be on the museum board, and had a hand in refurbishing several of the older examples of neon in the collection. There were some extraordinary contemporary pieces; unfortunately the best, pieces using plasma, completely eluded my level of photographic skill. I did find an image of one of them on the artist's website.

Mitch LaPlante "Plasma Cherry" [Link]

As we drove to our next destination, Michael pointed out the Crapi Apartments, mentioning that he helped make the sign. He has an eccentric (and wealthy) patron who commissions signs based on puns and double entendres. This man actually owns the Crapi Apartments, as well as the neighboring Cheezee Apartments. I hope the tenants get a break with the rent.

Before dinner, we stopped at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Culver City. A cabinet of curiosities, an art installation, a museum about museums, an elaborate joke...it could be said that MJT is all of these things. In an interview, museum founder David Wilson said "confusion can be a very creative state of mind." A visit to the MJT is much like a dream: enthralling and haunting, yet difficult to describe to others without becoming tedious. So I won't try; just go and see it.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology (in Wikipedia) [Link]

Monday, July 7, 2008

Strawberry Underpants Skater

This is a few blocks from my house. Is it a Rebus? An underground religion? A heraldic crest? Suggestions welcome.

Photo by: eschlabach

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Pete Shelley

Belated Happy Gay Pride Day!

"Homosapien," which was released as a single by the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley, was banned by the BBC in 1981 for "explicit reference to gay sex." Huh? I need to look at those lyrics, because I missed the explicit sex parts.

And I just hope and pray that the
day of our love is at hand.
You and I, me and you, we will be
one from two, understand?

And the world is so wrong that I
hope that we'll be strong enough,
For we are on our own and the only
thing known is our love.

I don't wanna classify you like
an animal in the zoo,
But it seems good to me to know
that you're Homosapien too

Aside from that controversy, the video includes a wonderful little Commodore PET home computer; state-of-the-art in 1981.

Buzzcocks Official Site [Link]

Commodore PET [Link]

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Neon Dreams

On Thursday morning, I cruised around Los Angeles, sightseeing as much as I dared in the heavy traffic. One of the problems with this city is that when you see something interesting, like this Thai restaurant with a giant hot dog on its roof, it's usually too late to stop and take a proper photo.

Thanks to the internet, I found better pictures, as well as a little background. The hot dog, which first decorated an ordinary fast-food shack, is a beloved landmark at the corner of Western and Hollywood. The Thai restaurant (which continued to offer hot dogs on the menu, along with Gai Pad Prik) moved out, and developers are moved in. Sadly, bland condos are taking over central LA, much as they are in Chicago, erasing local eccentricity and charm.

Curbed LA: Thai Hot Dog/Insurance Stand Shuttered [Link]

After noon, I headed toward the Valley to visit Michael, my former classmate from art school. We were meeting at his studio, where he was going to give a demo of how to make neon forms. Aside from a cute electric plug sculpture (plugs being a theme for this trip), the first thing I noticed was the scooter.

Michael still had the old scooter I remember him riding back in Columbus. The hard hat with a rocket embedded in it? I forgot all about the thing until I laid eyes on it. I asked Mike about his circa 1979 Walkman, the first I had ever seen. Of course he still had it. He even bought a couple on Ebay and refurbished them. Mike told me that back in the 70s, the Walkman (which was all metal and beautifully engineered) retailed for about $400.

"Neon" is a generic name for bent glass tubing which is filled with one of the so-called "nobel gases," such as neon or argon. The gas is sealed in at low pressure, and a high charge of electricity causes it to glow. Neon glows bright red, and most early neon signs (c. 1920-1930) were that color, by default. The introduction of different gases, glass colors, and metals such as mercury, permitted glass benders to expand the color range to nearly the full spectrum.

The small swirled pieces above were created by an artist training with Michael. She bent each component as part of a larger work commissioned by another artist. The big red circle is Michael's. I asked him how he made circles: did he use a mold or form? No, it's all eyeballed, much as it has been done for decades.

Michael started his demo by taking a glass tube and heating it in a special double-headed welding torch. Using a plug with a thin tube attached, he blew through it to prevent the glass from collapsing. While trying to photograph this close-up, I backed into his other torch (on the left, above). Fortunately, I felt the heat and jumped away before I also became a torch. "Did you set yourself on fire?" he asked, nonchalantly. Apparently he had gone up in flames himself more than once, and it was no longer a big deal. He also mentioned that the laws of physics dictated that you would tend to put your hand on the hottest part of the glass when trying to turn it. Kind of like toast always falling buttered side down, I guess.

Once the glass tube was a little floppy, Michael put it on an asbestos pad on his work table, and started to bend it. He cut another piece of tubing, this time cobalt-blue, imported from Italy. He then demonstrated fusing two pieces together, and twirled the two cut ends together in the flame, still blowing into the tube to prevent collapse. How anyone ever figured out how to do this to begin with...

After the glass had cooled, it was time to insert electrodes and remove oxygen from the tube, so that gas (in this case, neon) could be pumped in at low pressure. I'll admit to being a bit unclear when describing what happened next. It involved a lot of electricity, that's for sure. Mike has a transformer under his workbench, and built his own regulator box, which looks like something out of a horror movie. He said "Don't get near this or point at it." Reason: the charge (1800 volts) might jump and use me as a conduit. You don't have to tell me twice.

Using a hypodermic needle, Michael inserted a tiny drop of mercury into the tube as he completed the seal. "You've probably seen too many of these in the last year." Yes, but it was nice to see one without my own blood in it, for a change.

As the mercury fumes gradually filled the tube, the natural bright red of electrified neon changed to an icy blue. Totally cool.

Then, we went out for Japanese noodles. What a perfect day!

Next: The Museum of Neon Art

The history of neon signs [Link]

Friday, July 4, 2008

Griffith Observatory

I like to spend the first morning of a vacation getting oriented. Where's the nearest grocery? Drugstore? Free wireless? Coffee is of the highest priority. Fortunately, I only needed to drive a short distance down Fairfax to find all three. O gloria mundi...a Whole Foods!

After assuaging my caffeine withdrawal headache, I drove to the Getty Center Museum. The Center is located high on a hill in Brentwood, with stunning views of Bel-Air and the hills beyond. Although admission is free, visitors pay a parking fee and then take a tram up the hill to the actual museum. I have a number of photos of the complex, but won't include them here. It is a beautiful facility, but for some reason, I found it to be a little sterile. Perhaps there is such a thing as too much beauty or perfection. Still, I recommend the exhibits. Getty was a late-comer as a collector, and concentrated his efforts on eras and genres which weren't as well-represented in museums, such as medieval manuscripts and photography.

After the Getty, I met my friend and former classmate Michael for dinner at a Cuban place on Venice Boulevard. I missed it the first time, and was surprised when GPS lady ordered me to make a U-turn. She seemed to know much more than just geospatial vectors, such as California vehicular law, and whether traffic was slow up ahead. As I found out later, a U-turn was legal at that particular intersection. After a leisurely dinner where we planned our outing for the next day, Mike and I parted ways. It was only 8:30, so I decided to end the evening at the Griffith Observatory.

The observatory is located in Griffith Park, which is, according to my tourist guide, the largest "wild" city park in the country. The park is heavily forested near the crest of Mount Hollywood, where the observatory sits. As I leaned over a roadside fence to shoot the first photo that appears in this post, I heard rustling near my feet. It was a little skunk.

I enjoyed the views of Los Angeles at night, and the educational exhibits. Alas, I didn't move fast enough to catch the last show in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. The Nimoy Theater isn't the only campy reminder that this is a company town. A number of movies have been filmed on or near the grounds. Perhaps the best-known was Rebel Without A Cause. A memorial to James Dean is located just outside the observatory building.

Line outside the big telescope was very long. I don't do long lines, with the exception of Saturday at Hot Doug's. As I was leaving the observatory, I passed a smaller group of people waiting to look through a shoulder-high telescope. The docent caught my eye. "Wanna to see Saturn?" I waited my turn, and looked into the eye piece. "You're shitting me" I said to him, forgetting that there were kids there. I was genuinely amazed: it looked like a tiny photograph of Saturn, almost too crisp and colorful to be believable. "No, that's really it, I promise." I looked at Saturn one last time, and then walked toward my car. It was time to begin my descent down into the city.

James Dean Memorial at Griffith Observatory [Link]

Thursday, July 3, 2008

LaLa 2

One of the best decisions made on this trip: getting a GPS device. During my last visit to LA, my boyfriend did all the driving, while I read the map. Turns out, I'm not such a great navigator. Many exits were missed.

The car rental guy handed me the GPS without offering any instruction, but when I turned it on, it looked pretty intuitive. I entered the address of the hotel. "She" commanded me to fasten my seat belt, and then fell silent. Where the hell was I supposed to drive? I took the main road out of the airport, feeling a little panicky. She announced "turn right in .2 miles." It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

So there I was, cruising down the I-405 like a local. GPS lady sat next to me, offering periodic reassurances about the route. She seemed almost human...did that mean we could use the carpool lane? A couple of times I didn't respond to her instructions quickly enough, or the traffic was too heavy for me to change lanes in time. When this happened, she would say "recalibrating," with just a touch of exasperation. But for the most part, we got along great.

One of the worst decisions made on this trip: lodging. My hotel was actually a hostel, although it had a few private rooms with baths. When I arrived, a couple of residents loitered outside, smoking. I checked in and carried my luggage up to the room. There were some problems...like no air conditioning, for example. LA was in the middle of a heat wave, and I just didn't feel like lying in a pool of sweat while breathing in fumes from Melrose Avenue all night. Also, the sliding patio door lock was broken. I stalked downstairs, prepared for battle. The cool, blond reception clerk with a Slavic accent was unimpressed. "Just because you assumed there was air-conditioning, does not mean that we provide it, madam." I pointed out that there was a little security issue, as well. "We can probably get maintainance to lock the door," she said, clearly not giving a damn. I started raising my voice, but my high dudgeon was interrupted by a woman with a thick Irish brogue. "'Scuse me, d'ya have some towels we can use? The mirror in Number 8 brake in half an' she's bleedin' everywhere! We just need some towels tah stop it!" The blond asked if perhaps calling 911 would be more appropriate. No, the Irish woman insisted, extra towels would do the trick. Another hostel staffer, a considerably more helpful Indonesian woman, took over my case. They had another private room, air-conditioned, but it was on the ground floor right off the public area. I took it. As I carried my luggage downstairs, a security guard ran past me, shouting toward reception. "I just saw her; I think she cut an artery!" The emergency squad arrived a few minutes later.

The new room, Number 1, was right next to the ATM in the lobby. A large wall-mounted air-conditioner at least partially blocked the noise from Melrose Avenue. I turned it on, and after 60 seconds of cool air, it stopped. I noticed that it was plugged into a single outlet along with the television and DVD player, which were also not working. It probably overloaded the circuit. Not wanting to deal with the reception staff again, I searched for another socket. There was one nearby, but one receptacle was occupied by the bed lamp, the other by a mysterious orange plug running to...nothing in the room. I removed the orange plug and replaced it with the plug for the air conditioner. Ahh! The room started to cool again. I headed out to park the car in the hostel garage. When I returned, it was clear that someone else had been in there. The air conditioner was plugged back into the original socket, but now it worked. The orange plug was back in place, with a sign attached:

Yes, the ATM machine was getting juice from my wall socket. A utility extension cord ran under the carpeting and across the entire room. I'm sure that's code...in Moldavia.

The hostel was located near Fairfax Avenue, and the part of Los Angeles that bears the same name. I left the car where it was and set out for dinner on foot. A crowd gathered outside this little gem:

If I hadn't been starving, I would have gone to the show. Who knew that Bergman even made silent films?* Further down Fairfax, I spied a big deli/bakery that looked lively. It was Canter's Deli, a spot featured in travel guides. They make a great black and white cookie! I was disappointed to later discover that I somehow overlooked the adjoining bar, The Kibitz Room.

Canter's Deli [Link]

*Turns out that the SMT shows all kinds of classic films.
The Guardian UK: The Resurrection of the Silent Movie Theatre [Link]

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


I'm just back from southern California. I had a conference in Anaheim, and decided to front-load a vacation to Los Angeles before being subjected to mascot-sized Disney characters.

I've been to LA once before, around 1990. It lived down to every expectation I ever had about the place: it was disorienting, weird, seamy...in short, I loved it. From the smug, muscular identical twins in yarmulkes, strolling down Santa Monica, to the ghostly white man in Silver Lake who stepped out on his balcony and said "Hellooo...are you the people from Chicago?" (how did he know?), it was a delight straight out of The Day of the Locust. In Echo Park, someone in an earthquake-cracked house peered at us through dusty venetian blinds, which snapped shut when they realized I saw them. As we stalled in traffic on Sunset one night, we noticed a pretty girl stripping down to her panties and bra in a fast-food parking lot, and then into a new outfit, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

Our host was my boyfriend's brother, a film editor. His roommate was almost an LA archetype: a production assistant on a game show; lots of blond, feathery hair; favorite hobbies included surfing and skateboarding; wanted to be a music star like his idol Michael Bolton (!!!); painted, in acrylic, photo-realistic pictures of animals, such as the memorable "Cougar Playing with Bubbles."

Los Angeles saved it's best for last. On our final day there, a city crew was trimming trees in Silver Lake. The noise was a little grating, but we were busy packing and hardly took notice. My boyfriend went outside to tap sand out of his shoes and socks. All at once, a big man appeared out of nowhere. "Stop making so much noise!" he said in a dark tone. My bf laughed, thinking he was kidding. "It's NOT FUNNY! It's giving me a HEADACHE!!" the man snarled, and then he noticed an icepick scar in the man's forehead, you know, like a botched lobotomy. He ran inside the house. "Bolt the door!...Where's the key??!!" After colliding into each other and fumbling with the keys, we finally managed to lock the door. When the production assistant/cougar painter arrived home from work an hour later, the angry man had disappeared.

Well, that's enough reminiscing for tonight. Here's an answer to the most Frequently Asked Question about my trip. Taken 6/27, somewhere in West Hollywood: