Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Full Disclosure: Lollipop Factory and Those Poor Bastards are friends of mine

Those Poor Bastards at Turner Hall (photo by Angela Morgan for the Pabst Theater Group)

One of the necessary "evils" of being a musician who also likes to write is inevitably writing about your friends. Internet commenters pounce on any opportunity to discredit music journalists (because, you know, internet one-upmanship is second only to "urine hoarder" on the list of Noble Life Pursuits), and perceived "favoritism" is right up at the top of their arsenal--at least, it is in small cities like Milwaukee where the music scene is so closely-knit that it's nearly impossible to not know at least two-thirds of the musicians, promoters, writers, sound techs, and music store owners by name. (Another classic hurled at the musician/writer is "you're criticizing this because you're jealous that your band will never be this popular." Yes, that's why Bon Iver's falsetto gives me worse shrinkage than the Polar Bear Plunge--i secretly wish my dad had a cabin in the North Woods where i could retreat, order pizza subsist off the land, and whimper into Garageband for a few weeks.)

The plain truth about being a musician who writes (both of which i'll continue to do, sorry) is that musicians meet other musicians on a different level than regular journalists do. We meet by playing shows together, not by hiring PR agencies we can't afford to send each other CDs. We form bonds from being In The Shit together and swapping war stories. And yes, when we happen to like each other's bands, we LOVE each other's bands, because we have had to deal with seeing so many god-awful (or even worse, kinda ok) bands (many of which contain other friends of ours, which is just frustrating) that finding a killer group of musicians that also happen to be rad dudes or ladies is like walking into a club and finding a $10,000, so i'd imagine. Pile on the fact that in a town like Milwaukee, the musical infrastructure is so thin that if some of us didn't refuse to recuse ourselves from bands we know personally while multi-tasking as musicians and writers, many deserving folks simply wouldn't get covered (or are Matt Wild and Evan Rytlewski expected to attend every show in town while somehow avoiding becoming acquainted with everyone?), and what it all boils down to is: yes, sometimes i like my friends' bands, and thus i will write about them. Deal with it, and be glad i'm not writing about all my friends' bands that i dislike.

Anyone who has friends gets understandably excited when those pals' creative endeavors don't suck; if they're actually amazing, one can get positively orgasmic about it. On the flip, anyone who falls in love with a band would be tickled to discover that the band members are rad folks and instantly friendable. As a dude in a band, it happens to me quite a bit, and it's always a thrill.

I met Beckah and Tweed, collectively known as the Columbus, OH RV-dwelling indie-prog duo Lollipop Factory, while they were in the midst of a week-long stay at the HiFi practice house, the Church of Murray, waiting to get their RV repaired. They were charming, nondescript kids, which hardly prepared me for their colorful, unrestrained showmanship and hilariously over-the-top glam-prog shredding. Two Thursdays ago they made their most recent stop in Milwaukee at the Cactus Club, and those who stuck around after Everybody at Midnight's set and didn't just bail after their friends played were subjected to Lollipop Factory's most uninhibited Brewtown blast yet. Wearing matching black ensembles (she in black leather pants w/matching top, he with black top hat, high-heeled boots, and sleeveless collared shirt with ascot-length tie), Tweed's wall of four full stacks blasted both guitar and bass frequencies while he busted out Queen/Bowie/Hoople-soaked riffage over Beckah's stand-up drumming, both operatically crooning their best Ian Hunter vocals.

Tweed recently rebounded from some serious health problems that left the Factory stranded at home in Columbus longer than they'd like (they literally live out of that RV), and it was apparent that he was thrilled to be back on stage, working his wah pedal while bracing his other foot atop Beckah's kick drum, and occasionally leaping onto one of his speaker cabinets and shredding from five feet above the stage. That wall of amps produces more sound than a duo would be normally expected to generate; hell, Tweed and Beckah produce more on-stage energy than normally expected. It's a show that's loud, over-the-top, theatrical, damn sexy, and punk fucking rock. If seeing a Lollipop Factory show doesn't make you want to instantly be pals with these two crazy-ass weirdos, i hope your anti-anxiety meds start to kick in soon.

A week later i found myself at Turner hall to see my bandmates in Zebras, Vincent and Lacey, back their pal Wyatt as Madison, WI Gothic country trio Those Poor Bastards. I initially became friends with Vince and Lacey out of mutual musical admiration--i was a Zebras fan as soon as i saw them in the Corral Room in Madison three years ago (before my joining the band, obviously). After a couple years of hearing hilarious road stories about Vince's other band touring with Hank Williams III, it was finally time to check them out as they opened the .357 String Band's last-ever Milwaukee show.

I think that even if i were well-versed in Gothic country, i would still rate the Those Poor Bastards live show as "something i've never seen before." Lonesome Wyatt glares out at the crowd from beneath his long black hair and top hat, alternating between spooooky Goth crooning and eeeevil demonic growling, hurling hilariously bleak lyrics about death, God, Satan, and death. Take this darkly comic stanza from "The Bright Side":

You gotta look on the bright side
Take a walk in the sunshine
The lord is on your side
And people are good

Bullshit! Fuckin' bullshit!
Nothin' aint never gonna get no better, no how

Meanwhile, Vince pounds out basic but perfectly musical drum beats while using one hand to add a little moog bass, while recent addition Lacey adds brooding keyboard flourishes of her own. It's a rockabilly Peter Steele backed by analog synths, and it's quite simply one of the best things i saw all year. TPB's recordings are a little more fleshed out, with Wyatt's songs backed by banjo, piano, and other traditional country elements, but for my money, the combination of dark Southern balladeering with fuzzed-up moog is where it's at.

Both Lollipop Factory and Those Poor Bastards have that unspoken "this is how it's done" bravado that declares to the audience, "sure, there's a lot of different music out there, but THIS IS HOW IT'S DONE." One of the most impressive things a band with both talent and charisma can do is convince other musicians in the audience that they want to start a band just like the one on stage. Lollipop Factory makes me want to dress better and turn clubs into arenas with ridiculous taco riffs and fiery licks. Those Poor Bastards make me want to write lyrics as brilliantly populist and singalong as Wyatt's. That these inspiring, bar-raising bands happen to include friends of mine, well, it boggles my head and reminds me that i'm one of the luckiest dudes around, to know people this phenomenally talented and to not have them laugh my pedestrian ass out of the room.

So yeah, i'll write about my friends' bands when they're amazing (they're not always), and i'll present them to you for review, because they deserve the attention (especially since, in the case of TPB, they are largely ignored in their hometown, as so many great bands are). If you like them even half as much as i, i'll consider my job done.

Listen to Lollipop Factory:
Listen to Those Poor Bastards:
And then yell at them to get Bandcamp accounts so i can embed their shit

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Martian Dance Band of the Week: Minutes

Last Memorial Day Weekend the band embarked on a weekend road trip that took us to Kalamazoo, MI for the first time. The show was set up by an internet pal, Isaac "Ike" Turner, a dude who posts on the EA Forum (the PRF: the #1 music scene and tour hookup spot on Ea We were hoping at the time to play the show with his band, Minutes, whom i had not yet heard but being a PRF band i was sure we'd dig and whose fans/friends would dig us. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, Minutes were playing that same night in Chicago at our normal FIB stomping grounds, Quenchers, and thus we passed like ships in the night, only without the casual hookup that phrase implies in tawdry romance novels. A shame, really, because they sound like attractive, attentive lovers based on their stellar debut LP, which just activated on Bandcamp this week (you can order physical albums from the page; they'll ship in January).

The word from their Quenchers show was that Minutes was positively unfuckwithable, and i can see why as i listen to the new self-titled record. Members of the band have apparently done time in DC and played with Beauty Pill and the Most Secret Method, and it's apparent in the rustic, organic feel of both the songwriting and recording quality, which let's call perfectly mid-fi (not super-slickly produced, but not purposely recorded on a four-track for that hip lo-fi "shitgaze" sound, either). It sounds like a top-notch home recording that, were it coming out on CD, you could envision being wrapped in home-made cardboard sleeves individually screened with a band member's art. These are all positives, by the way.

The songs are quality post-punk that call to mind the classics of 90s indie-rock geography; there's a little Polvo-ish North Carolina in the guitars and vocals and definitely DC in the arrangements, a combination that reminds me of a few of the bands from late-90s Oshkosh that were drawing from the same wells (if i drop the names Chinaski and Hong!, that'll mean jack shit to about 95% of you, but the 5% "fuck yeahs!" will be worth it). They share a lot of influences with Milwaukee's Absolutely, although Minutes' riffs are more tightly focused into sub-three-minute nuggets instead of Absolutely's more adventurous explorations of the same material. The vocals throw around melodies and counter-melodies willy-nilly like they have extras stored away in a secret toybox somewhere in the closet. Sure, let's saturate "Float and Breathe" and "Sunday Not so Bloody" with hooks layered over each other. Fuck it; we've got hundreds. And let's blast through ten songs in twenty-five minutes so each song delivers a mere taste and peeps are forced to listen repeatedly to scratch out that earworm. Good plan, guys.

A download of ten mp3s will run you a cool Lincoln--for two of 'em you'll get the vinyl too. That is what we call in the blogging biz a god damn bargain. Now if you'll excuse me, i need to call a band meeting to see when we can swap shows and get these fools to Milwaukee and get us back to K-Zoo.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Great Record Excavation: A is for Arcwelder

In what was probably the most-read post on this blog to date (thanks to a lot of you re-posting it and passing it around...hey, keep doing that), i made reference in the opening paragraph to my CD collection and how it started me thinking about how some of those discs are the only relic i have left to jog my memory about bands long relegated to obscurity. As i said then, it's not an indictment of their quality as bands, per se; rather, it's a symptom of being a music fan and consuming as many different bands as possible.

So here's what we're going to do once a week (or more if i get rambunctious some week): I'm going to go through my recorded music collection, one disc per letter of the alphabet per entry. I will endeavor to grab a CD, vinyl LP, or commercial cassette that is at the bare minimum five years old, but will generally be older (it also has to exist physically in my collection; this isn't the Great mp3 Excavation). I'll re-listen to the record, recall how i came across it, and decide if it has held up over time. I'll also post a SendSpace link to a download of the record, as i'm sure many of these will be out of print or at least difficult to find (however if you like the record and can find it for sale, i of course strongly advise you to purchase it on the off chance that the cash will still make it back to the band members; likewise, if any of the bands i write about in this feature don't want their records downloaded, they can let me know and i'll remove the [temporary] link).

Hopefully, each entry will sort of look like this:

The Album: Arcwelder, Pull (Touch & Go, 1993)

Who they were: Arcwelder were a Minneapolis entrant into the Touch & Go Records 1990s-era noise rock family (sort of amusing, as they would have fit on their hometown Amphetamine Reptile label just as easily). While their rhythmically driving, largely midtempo gallops invited easy comparisons to Jawbox, their growly guitar tones were more in line with several of their Chicago peers and labelmates in The Jesus Lizard, Pegboy, or Pegboy predecessor Naked Raygun.

Where i got the record: Ah, therein lies a tale. I first heard Pull, Arcwelder's third full-length and first of four for Touch & Go, in my pal (and current HiFi guitarist) Chris' Jeep on the way to some Fox Valley show or another back yonder 'round '93 or '94. I remember digging how the drone-like, box fan riffs of songs like "Will When You Won't" were counterbalanced by vocals that were far more melodic than many of the noisy T&G bands i was discovering at the time (Girls Against Boys, Shellac, etc.), and i especially was taken by the tom-heavy drumming on driving rockers like "What Did You Call It That For." Living in the orbit of Green Bay's legendary Concert Cafe all-ages venue, we were treated to a couple live visits from the band as Green Bay was one of the few viable punk towns within decent driving distance of Minneapolis. Still, while we saw our share of Arcwelder shows and enjoyed the hell out of Pull, i feel like our crew still relegated them to "serviceable younger cousin" status in relation to bands like the aforementioned Girls Against Boys, Jesus Lizard or Brainiac. Arcwelder were good, but when reaching for something abrasive on the CD shelf, Cruise Yourself or Liar were more likely go-tos. Thus, as Arcwelder slowed down with age, they began to fade a bit from memory.

Similarly, Arcwelder were seen by me as a fun bonus on the last day of 2006's Touch & Go 25th Anniversary weekend outside the Hideout in Chicago. After two nights of GVSB, Ted Leo, Man...or Astroman?, Killdozer, The Ex, Big Black, etc. holy shit etc., the idea of seeing one of the "minor" T&G bands that i had vaguely fond memories of kick off the Sunday festivities sounded like mere icing on the cake. So when they hopped on stage and proceeded to blow several of us away with one of the more spirited performances of the entire weekend, you could say i was a bit floored. The Graber brothers, Bill and Rob, rolled their way through one rollicking face-scraper after another while drummer Scott MacDonald dialed it in with killer tom fills and SINGING! Holy shit, how did i forget that he was a singing drummer? Awesome! (We singing drummers need to stick together as we get shat on more than regular drummers despite obviously being more talented.)

As they finished their set to a rousing ovation from an obviously gobsmacked crowd, HiFi bassist Josh turned to me and said, "let's go over to the merch stand and buy all their records right now." We made a beeline to where the CDs and vinyl were being sold, and having limited funds, i was forced to choose between four different Arcwelder records, none of which i had ever owned. But of course, familiarity caused Pull to jump out at me; thus, it was Pull that i bought.

Does it hold up? Yup--still awesome. The guitars still pack plenty of sugary hooks inside their distorted bite, while veering nowhere near pop. Songs like "Lahabim" take their time to establish a moody, deliberate midtempo groove, adding what sounds like occasional double-tracked drums for emphasis, while haunted vocal melodies and countermelodies add plenty of tension. Meanwhile, songs like "Remember to Forget" and "Just Not Moving" simply rock out with a bit of grunge-formula loud/louder/loud verse/chorus contrast.

Arcwelder, incidentally, never broke up; they still play infrequent shows around the upper Midwest and even toured the West Coast with Shellac in 2009. Which naturally begs the question: how much to get you guys down to Milwaukee for a show, dudes? For some reason i never grabbed any of your other records, and i'd prefer to buy them straight out of your hands.

Download Pull by Arcwelder right here

Friday, November 11, 2011

Filling the "Best Records of 2011" Gaps

Jesus Christ, 201--maybe it's because i was secretly more active in seeking out new music this year and don't realize it, but you seem to have effectively laid waste to the last two or three years when it comes to having put out a slew of records that i would actually like. So many of my year-end top 10 records lists of the past 10 years have included records that weren't released in that year, thus making my lists more "the best 10 records i finally discovered this year" than anything. This year, there were so many awesome records released that i actually find myself having to either expand past 10 or fail to include some pretty excellent stuff.

Vincent from Zebras recently shot The Wizard, Dixie and me a Facebook message asking for our recommendations for 2011 so he could fill in his gaps, and now i'd like to do the same. Here are the records we came up with in that message thread, with the ones i've heard listed in bold:

Police Teeth - Awesomer Than the Devil (If you still haven't heard this, you're a failure as a music fan)
the Go! Team - Rolling Blackouts
Northless - Clandestine Abuse
Low - C'mon
Obits - Moody Standard & Poor
Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Belong

//orangenoise - //veracious
Boris - New Album/Attention Please/Heavy Rocks
Jesu - Ascension
Beastie Boys - Hot Sauce Committee pt. 2
Memory Map - Holiday Band (You know that thing i said about Police Teeth? Yeah, that)
Helms Alee - Weatherhead
True Widow - As High as the Highest Heavens and from the Center to the Circumference of the Earth
St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Tammar - Visits
Crooked Fingers - Breaks in the Armor
Low - C'mon

David Lynch - Crazy Clown Time
PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
REM - Collapse into Now
Deerhoof - Deerhoof vs. Evil
Radiohead - The King of Limbs
The Blind Shake - Seriousness
Absolutely - Learns to Love Mistakes
Parts & Labor - Constant Future
The Ex - Catch My Shoe
TV on the Radio - Nine Types of Light
Victory & Associates - These Things are Facts
Trophy Wives - Old Scratch
Fucked Up - David Comes to Life
Wild Flag - S/T
The Poison Control Center - Stranger Ballet
Future of the Left - Polymers are Forever
(I count EPs when they are too awesome to ignore)

A few of the records in this list that i haven't heard i still plan to seek out (except maybe that Radiohead, as i've never really cared for or disliked them enough to pay attention...same goes for the REM, actually. Sorry Dixie!), but i'm sure we've all missed a few good'uns in this list. Help us out!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Future of the Left's Polymers are Forever and the Necessity of Evolution

"I'm sick to death of people saying we've made 11 albums that sound exactly the same; In fact, we've made 12 albums that sound exactly the same."
--Angus Young

There are two kinds of music fans:

-Beatles or Stones (or Beatles or Elvis, if you're a Tarantino fan)

-Zeppelin or Sabbath

-Analog loyalists or digital technophiles

-For a while there in 1994, people were supposedly Green Day fans or Offspring fans, which in retrospect is hilariously sad

...You get the point. We love to divide our alliances into two camps and hash it out. The one i'm interested in today is

-People who never want their favorite bands to change, and people who demand evolution and progression

Very few people fall firmly on the hard black or white ends of this spectrum; i like to think that most people want their favorite bands to adhere to the sounds and principles that made the fan fall in love with them in the first place, while not pumping out cookie-cutter copies of their first album ad AC/DCium (although it should be noted that AC/DC is awesome). Still, there are hardliners that fear and distrust change of any sort. Ben Weasel used to insist with relentless frequency in Maximumrocknroll (hey, two MRR mentions this week; sweet) that bands should break up or change their names after three albums because it's unacceptable to tweak a band's sound to avoid running out of ideas (note: Screeching Weasel released its 12th album, First World Manifesto, in March). To the best of my knowledge, The Spits have written one song approximately 630 times; when i saw !!! live, i was really into it until about 20 minutes in when i thought to myself "oh...this is pretty much the tempo they're gonna use all show, huh?" and checked out.

My favorite bands excel by and large at finding ways to let their sound evolve while, well, still sounding like themselves: Fugazi's evolution from their raw debut EP to the nuanced The Argument; Poster Children's journey from the post-punk Flower Plower to the new-wave-tinged No More Songs About Sleep and Fire; Brainiac's Nirvana-esque Smack Bunny Baby to the just plain weird-ass chrome-icide of Electro-Shock for President. When Brainiac ended and John Schmersal continued with Enon, they recorded the phenomenally strange synth-damaged art-pop record Believo! before a wholesale lineup change resulted in the more conventionally post-punk High Society (Schmersal was the only band member carried over from Believo!, and while both records were great, the shift in sound was noticeably jarring).

It was this last example that i kept in mind while clicking on's stream of the new Future of the Left EP, Polymers are Forever. Since we last heard from FotL, their sophomore LP, Travels with Myself and Another, had just finished kicking their also-impressive debut, Curses, into the dirt. However, bassist Kelson Mathias then left and was not only replaced by ex-Million Dead bassist Julia Ruzicka, but a second guitarist, Jimmy Watkins, was also brought on board, ostensibly so Andy Falkous could spend more time on keyboards. So a shift in sound should have been expected.

Sure enough, the opening title track is awash with the buzz and fuzz of analog synths while retaining FotL's trademark minimalist arrangements and sneering, acerbic vocals (not to mention an absolutely killer earworm throughout the second half of the song that rates up there with any of their previous hook-laden winners). From there, Polymers are Forever runs a gamut of union-standard abrasive post-punk ("With Apologies to Emily Pankhurst" and "Dry Hate"), cartoonishly dandy stomps ("New Adventures") and a disconcerting, creepily blistering gallop (the closing ""), all crammed full of Falco's instantly-classic couplets flavored with ridiculous left-field imagery, random pop-culture references and, well, snide Welshness (a winning line from "Apologies:" "I fear most women like I fear tomorrow: absolutely/I can't let something as French as fear determine this insecurity").

Upon repeated listens, the EP has grown from "different, but pretty good" to "hella great" to "goddamn brilliant." It's a grower to be sure--not one song sounds alike, so the record may sound a bit disjointed at first listen. And to be sure, the lineup change is obvious and apparent, but that's not a bad thing. It's not as jarring a shift as between those two Enon albums, but it's definitely not Mclusky Do Dallas.

While the reviews that have popped up today seem mostly positive (hell, aptly glowing for some tracks), the initial response to the title track largely indicated that some folks are legit pissed that Falco isn't putting out Do Dallas Vol. 4. Falkous himself apparently went on some Twitter tirade (since deleted, so i missed it) about lackluster response to "Polymers" when the track was posted at Pitchfork, and anecdotal evidence from my own Facebook feed and some Electrical Audio Forum threads have uncovered similar attitudes (my pal Nick Woods: "Why can't Future of the Left just be a direct rip off of Mclusky?").

It's an attitude that confuses me, because as a musician, if my band were writing carbon copies of the song that made people freak out about us eleven years ago, i'd be eager to hasten death's sweet release by taking advantage of Wisconsin's new concealed-carry law and finding a club where i could shoot myself in the face at the end of (what would be) our last show. If you want Mclusky, pull out your old records. If you want old school FotL, bust out Curses. Meanwhile, i'll stay here on the Andy Falkous bandwagon, because he drives it around some thrilling curves at top speed, it's a hell of a fun ride, and the airbags haven't fired off yet.

I Can't Get My Head Around Mike Tyson as Herman Cain

Mike Tyson portrays Herman Cain a series of Funny or Die clips, including the (pretty funny) one above. It's obvious why the juxtaposition of Tyson in Cain's shoes works for comedic effect: both are considered in many circles to be batshit lunatics, with Tyson's crazy obviously on a much steeper level than Cain's. But it also works because Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, while it is documented that Herman Cain has had settlements paid on his behalf as a result of sexual harassment grievances filed against him.

I'm no expert on the recent "rebirth" of Mike Tyson as a public figure, but i do understand that he's talked many times about the remorse he feels about his past deplorable hell-raising behavior. That being said, to this day he still denies that he raped Desiree Washington, despite his conviction, and even in 2006 said in an interview that "now I really do want to rape her."

Thus, this sketch is hard for me to wrap my mind around. It can't have escaped the Funny or Die folks that there's a sexual violence correlation between Tyson and Cain, no matter how much Tyson denies it, which also makes it very odd that Tyson agreed to do this. Then again, he is clown shoes mental. The sketch is damningly effective and brilliantly funny when you just focus on the whole mental imbalance thing. But there's a rape joke subtext in here somewhere that's messing with me, even if it's not an explicit source of broad humor.

I dunno. What do you think? Is this appropriate? Is any use of Mike Tyson making light of his past appropriate? Am i out of line for writing this post having not seen the Tyson documentary?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"That's the key to the whole thing--Don't touch money!" Bill Cunningham is Punk Rock

Pictured: Punk Rock


Posts have been a bit nonexistent for the last week or so; i apologize to the three of you who were awaiting more. I have no real excuse other than a mild bit of lethargic depression resulting from the usual jobless ennui.

I've been struggling a bit lately with my inability to find writing- or social media-based work; i actually had an interview here in Milwaukee for a social media marketing position but lost out to someone that the interviewer apparently knew from a previous job (it's all about who you know, y'all). As anyone who's been in the position of extended job-hunting can attest, it's nearly as soul-crushing as working an awful job that you hate; both have their own patented debilitating moveset specializing in the erosion of self-confidence and willingness to venture outdoors into the sunlight and its rejuvenating Vitamin D.

Compounding the issue lately is the sneaky, invasive thoughtworm telling me that my ultimate dream job--writing/blogging about the music i love--is about as likely as getting paid to perform the music i love, because what i love simply isn't marketable. Sure, i can yell into the abyss all i want about the genius of Police Teeth, Memory Map, Helms Alee, and countless other bands that what can be best described as the "mainstream indie" tastemakers have no interest in (is it just that they can't afford/aren't interested in hiring hot-shit PR firms to push them into the conversation? I'm not sure, but knowing that Memory Map's Holiday Band isn't going to be on many people's top albums of 2011 lists is teeth-gnashingly frustrating, especially when Memory Map's hard-hitting brand of alt-country psych-pop is totally in the wheelhouse of so many Big Blog Writers and Pabst Theater patrons), but it's not gonna pay the accumulating bills any time soon. So, i've been fighting a little bit of "what's the point?" lately. So it goes.

Fortunately, i have awesome friends. My pals Keith and Janet invited Liz and me, along with some other friends, to watch an almost annoyingly inspiring documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. Bill Cunningham is a New York Times style photographer and one of the most punk rock non-musicians i've ever heard of. He spends nearly every waking hour biking and stalking Manhattan, looking for the most exotic, peacockish wrappings on the street, regardless of who's wearing them (he photographs lots of celebrities but doesn't care who they are, just what they're wearing). He's a legend in New York's fashion scene; Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour proclaims "It's one snap, two snaps, or he ignores you, which is death." But if he sees something in a runway show that an everyman or everywoman on the street couldn't wear, he disregards it with a look of disinterest--death by "meh."

His "On the Street" photo column for the Times is a living art collage, spotting trends and styles among the unfiltered populace before the so-called tastemakers even notice. In the film, we see Bill agonize over the column layout as his graphic design assistant dutifully and patiently tweaks and adjusts per Bill's instructions. Is this person's foot splashing a slush puddle across the curb, and does it echo another's leap over a puddle on the same day? These two people are wearing polka dots! Place them each opposite the text column and don't crop their elbows!

Clothes are all Bill thinks about and all he has time for; his spartan, rent-controlled apartment above Carnegie Hall (which provides a plotline for the film, as Bill and the other aging artists who live in the Hall are being evicted and moved to other apartments) contains little more than file cabinets for his negatives and a cot. When he moves into his new abode overlooking Central Park (for fuck's sake), he asks that the kitchen appliances be removed to make room for his cabinets. He is singularly obsessed to the exclusion of all else, even romantic relationships (which the director, Richard Press, asks him about in one of the film's most vulnerable, poignant moments). It's an obsession that's gifted him with a prize that so many creative people strive for and so few attain--the ability to earn a living doing the artistic thing they love.

At least, one assumes that he's getting paid by the Times for his column, even if it's not much. In one of my favorite moments of the film, it's explained that Cunningham refused to be paid by Details when he photographed for them in the early 80s. When the magazine was sold, he refused to cash his check. He gleefully explains in the scene: "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do, kid! That's the key to the whole thing--Don't touch money!" I'm not sure how this jibes with his Times gig, but it's a code that he's adhered to as strictly as possible over the years; when photographing fancy-schmancy evening parties and runway shows, he declines free food and refuses even complimentary water. To Bill Cunningham, accepting gratuities or compensation leads to obligation, a philosophy not without merit. After all, how often have we punk rock musicians heard stories about magazines writing glowing reviews for the albums whose labels spend the most coin on ads?

Tim Yohannan, the dearly departed founder of seminal Bay Area punk fanzine Maximumrocknroll, often declared his inherent distrust of the idea of songwriter as a paid career. If you try to make a living from your art, Yohannan reasoned, your mindset was instantly corrupted by factoring saleability into said art. Put money into the equation and you're no longer being true to yourself. You're compromising to make someone else happy enough to throw you the scratch to live. As a musician and writer, the knowledge that your art isn't in any way marketable is sort of freeing in this way; by not even worrying about whether the tunes or words will sell, your only remaining worry is whether or not they live up to your own standards of excellence. It's pure and it's liberating, but it doesn't necessarily sell...which, let's be honest, would be nice.

Bill Cunningham has somehow managed to carve out a living while adhering to a purely artistic lack of compromise. If the documentary has one flaw, it's that the film doesn't spend any time resolving the inherent contradiction in his "don't take money!" credo and the fact that, well, he has to be getting paid somewhere. I'd love to have seen his brain picked on this one, because while his story is completely inspiring, it's not hard to also be incredibly jealous of his single-mindedness, clarity of purpose, good fortune, and totally punk rock, DIY ethics.

Still, seeing an 80-year-old man continue to throw himself into his work with the vigor and vitality he showed as a 50-year-old has helped snap this 37-year-old out of his funk. I've got a few projects for the local AV Club in the pipe, and my first "Chocolate Grinder" piece for Tiny Mix Tapes was posted last Sunday, a blurb about a live performance video by my favorite band of instrument-building art-nerd alchemists, Neptune. And hopefully i'll get back in the swing of things here, too. Now, if only i could work out that whole "get paid to do something" thing...

(Endnote: If you want to read more about the spectacular documentary Bill Cunningham New York, check out this excellent review by Nathan Heller in Slate. I also thank this review for acting as a reference point for details about the film i may have missed since watching it last Wednesday!)