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!)


  1. excellent post, DJ. this movie is in my queue, it sounds more inspiring than i thought, and i need to watch it, stat!

  2. it's not hard to also be incredibly jealous of his single-mindedness, clarity of purpose, good fortune, and totally punk rock, DIY ethics.

    I'm going to be honest, I can't imagine being jealous of someone who lives like that. Has no personal life or family? Has no kitchen? I wouldn't want to live that way. But I'm ok with living a small life, not a grand one.