Thursday, December 27, 2007

30,000 Feet in December of 2007

All photos © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen
It’s an very early morning, and I’m more than 30,000 feet in the air, I’m guessing somewhere over Manitoba, flying home after the past two weeks visiting my partner . I’m on my way to Minneapolis before heading off to NYC. The sun is just beginning to rise in the distance, and the snow-covered patchwork plains begin to lay open before the light. My customs card is all filled in, and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful morning.

Here are some of the highlights of my trip:

The first week, the weather was, let’s just say brisk. It was, on average, between –5F and –9F, and that doesn’t count the wind chill. I was clearing the walk just about every day from an inch or two of snow that would fall from squalls. Fortunately, there was no real snowstorm that had any kind of weight. Snow is dry and fluffy, and most of the time and all that is needed is a broom rather than a shovel, and some quick back and forth swishes. I got the hang of it pretty fast (hey, even for a city boy, it’s not rocket science).

Last week, we took a long drive to Regina, Saskatchewan. While my partner was in a meeting, I wandered down Albert Street, heading south from 11th Avenue. It was butt-numbing cold, and a steady snow was falling, without much accumulation (probably totaled 1-2 inches). I was in an industrial part of town, with run down transient hotels (rent by month, week, day or hour), tattoo parlors (or parlours, in the vernacular), car repair shops, and lots of Viet-Chinese restaurants. I was on my way to the MacKenzie Art Gallery, which I heard was supposed to be spectacular. Little did I know it would be about 2 miles down the road. But as usual I jump ahead.

One of the first things I saw was a huge mural for cultural diversity; it was a painting of a globe with different colored hands holding it up and children of various hues. Right next to it was billboard for the local casino.

As I walked down Albert, with the Downtown area to my left (it seems Albert is the border of downtown), the neighborhood started to decrease in seediness. Family houses started popping up. As I reach the lower end of the downtown area, it was the start of a huge park, and I came across the Royal Saskatchewan Museum (the Museum of Natural History). It didn’t take too long to go through it, and I have to confess I was grateful for the opportunity to use the bathroom and find something with which to blow my nose…. did I mention it was friggin’ cold and I was walking into the wind?

The museum is two floors, with the upper one being dioramas of animals, birds, reptiles, etc., that are native to the province. It was well laid out, and for the relatively small space, it was quite thorough. I was very impressed. There were sound effects of birds and animals, and places to sit and hear recorded descriptions. The lower floor was broken up into two sections. The first was a geological history of the province, with cutaways, models, and dinosaur bones that were found locally. I learned that 1.5 million years ago, that part of Canada was an equatorial zone. This section led into a First Nations (Canadian for Native Americans) history, which was also interesting. Finally on this floor, there was a very short exhibit of Inuit art. On the other side of the lobby, there was a small room with a robotic Tyrannosaurus Rex peeking through a forest that was both cool and cheesy.

Going out the back entrance, I continued on my way down Albert, until I came to what I believe was Queen Victoria Bridge, near the Wascana Centre. There were lots of images of her (Regina was named for her) and buffalos, but the main theme seemed to be Egyptian-style painted columns that lined the road. It was quite well done. The river, of course, was frozen solid, and more snow accumulated even as I walked and the downfall became heavier. Then, as I was taking pictures of the bridge structure, a car full of teen boys (it’s always teen boys) passed, and one actually opened his door, leaned out, and screamed something at me. I couldn’t make out what he said, and quite honestly, I didn’t care. I just looked at him and thought, “What fools these mortals be”.

It was colder on the bridge, obviously, so I continued on my walk. I was hoping that the gallery would be coming up soon, because I was getting tired and my sinuses were burning fierce. First though, I had to pass the Saskatchewan Legislature Building (which looks like any other colonial-period Canadian legislature building). It was still quite a walk down a park lane, and finally I got there.

The world-famous MacKenzie Art Gallery is basically one floor and looks - and is laid out - like a museum. The main focus is a local revered artist named Joe Fafard. The first part was life-sized buffalo and horses, either 3D or cut outs of metal and other materials. After that, it was mainly 2” high detailed sculptures of people, from some known to the artist (friends, family, etc.), to those of more renown (such as national politicians). There was also a small exhibition of other artists, mostly of modern art that was, well, beyond my ken and appreciation.

Then came the walk back. Along the way, I came across a restaurant called La Bodega, which had an outdoor bar made entirely of chiseled ice. This was some pretty amazing work, and as impressive and artistic as what I saw in the gallery. I also stopped by another gallery that was recommended to me at a library that was across the street from Regina City Hall. It was a bit disappointing, being a video installation that basically consisted of a half dozen video monitors. So I headed over to my meeting place.

* * *

Back in the air now, watching the smoke-stacks somewhere between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The sky is mostly clear with little patches of clouds.

On Dec 6, we attended a ceremony for the National Day of Remem-brance and Action on Violence Against Women, commem-orating the anniversary of the day when 14 women were shot for being “feminists” by a man in a classroom in Montreal in 1989. It was a short ceremony where all the names were read and a rose laid out and a candle lit. There was also a PowerPoint slide show with photos of the women that looked really familiar. My partner reminded me that I was the one who created it last year. There were also speakers talking about violence against women (by a survivor), and a male representative of an organization of men promoting non-violence and other women’s issues. There were also booths for information about resources, including child sexual abuse and women’s shelters and counseling.

On another night, a group of us headed over to a barn about 20 miles out of town that has been converted a dinner community theatre (and craft store) to see a show called “Christmas Belles”. We rode over with a family friend, and one of the actors, also a friend of my partner. We three (sans actor) handed out the playbills for our admission (no dinner), and they gave us front row slightly off-center seats. I was expecting some hackneyed Christmas story with questionable acting (this is community theater, remember), but the fun of the experience of the actors definitely was alive in the play, which was also well written, and we definitely had our favorite moments (“Listen up people!”). It turned out to be worth the drive in that sub-zero weather.

Two nights later, after lighting a candle to mark the first anniversary of my dad’s death and dinner with the lovely artist/musician landlady, we headed out again, this time not for dinner theater but rather dessert theater (I kid you not; they gave out cupcakes and coffee during intermission). The daughter of our friend was in her Grade 8 class show, and it was a hoot. Yeah, there were some flubbed lines, some off-kilter line readings and the like, but the show was pretty well written and the kids seem to be having a blast. And, I might add, our friend’s daughter was among the best that night. No, seriously, she’s a natural. I see Drama School in her future.

Then, all too soon, it’s time to go. A brief night's sleep and at the airport by 5:30 AM. Just another short time in a life filled with interesting events during a smile-inducing deep and dark December.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A co-interview with writer-musician JD Glass, Pt I

(JD Glass)
I’ve known JD Glass nearly a decade. We met and bonded over discussions of music and comics. She told me of her own comic book story, and how she was starting to write a novel. That novel turned into “Punk Like Me”, the flashback story of a punk musician and how she came to empowerment. Powerful stuff, while still an amazing and sometimes shocking read (I recently finished it and couldn’t put it down). Since then, she has sequels out (that I’m also determined to read) called “Punk and Zen” and “Red Light”. Soon to be published is “American Goth.” And through all this, she is also a musician. Her sound is sort of a mix of Joan Jett and Melissa Etheridge, but a big dose of humor thrown in.

JD recently told me that she wanted to interview me for her blog, and I told her I wanted to do the same for MY blog. So with a smile and MySpace in hand, we starting shooting questions and answers toward each other though the Internet. Here is the result. It is long, so will be in more than one part. To see JD’s blog, go here:

And now, Part I of the JD Glass/Robert Barry Francos co-interview:

RBF: I know you were knee-deep in writing a comic book series about the time I first met you in the late '90s. What happened with that, and how did that lead into "Punk Like Me"?

JDG: After being told by a major house that they loved the concept, but wanted a "straight" character and to outright buy the story (keeping all the rights) I shelved it for a little while.

"Punk Like Me" started as an exercise: what would happen if I made the same character more "real world," replaced fantastical situations with real ones on the one hand, and the other was could I write a series of short stories that would form chapters of a book - each chapter could stand on its own, but together, tell an overarching story.

Ironically, the book now coming out in January is based on that comic/character, and a comic publisher (small house) is interested in doing a story in an anthology for that character.

At the same time we met, you were working on your manuscript of the years and the bands you've seen over the years. How did you first get into this aspect of the music scene? And what about it speaks to you the most?

RBF: The first question sounds like two-parts: How did I get into the music, and how did I come about writing about it. I believe the question about what speaks to me can be addressed by answering the previous ones.

I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which at the time was not exactly known for its diversity, either ethnically, socially, or its habits. In 1985, Yusef Hawkins was shot not far from where I lived, and Al Sharpton would march up and down in front of our abode. This neighborhood conformity was kind of boring to me even in the '70s.

My good pal, Bernie Kugel (who became a ground-breaking musician in Buffalo in the late '70s), was heavily into music, and he dragged -- and I do mean dragged -- me to CBGBs for the first time on June 20, 1975. There were about 20 people in the audience. Talking Heads opening for the Ramones. I was instantly hooked (especially by the Ramones). Before the Pistols, there was more of an angst than anger in the music, which touched me for both it's '60s-based popness, it's harder edge (without being boring metal) and outrageousness (for example, Suicide was very confrontational with the audience, and then there was Wayne County who was amazing, even to a straight boy like me).

I had been more of a folkie before this, into musicians like Simon & Garfunkel, Phil Ochs, and the like, rather than many of my punk contemporaries who had liked KISS and Alice Cooper. To me, this was a new form of protest music, and as time wore on, I found that a lot of the anger (post-Pistols) was really just sped up folk in spirit (much as rock'n'roll was sped up/electrified R&B). And today, many early punkers, such as Joey Shithead of D.O.A., are putting out singer-songwriter style releases.

In 1977, I started a fanzine, named FFanzeen, which ran until 1988. I covered many of the larger and smaller bands, and also had a lot of firsts and lasts (such as being the last person to interview the Cramps with Miriam Linna, and then the first to interview the Nervus Rex with Mirian Linna). While it never became a super hit, it was well known in the community, and I was always getting recordings by bands.

One day in the 1990s, I was at a friend's birthday party, and one of the guests was Mariah Aguier, whom I had known in the day (I drove her and her sister Allison home more than once, and we'd go out for Chinese; also I was there the night Dave Vanian of the Damned ripped off her dress on CBGB's stage). She said to me, "I always took pictures, and one day I realized what I had was a body of work". I'd been taking pictures at shows, mostly to remember the bands -- there were so many -- since 1977, and I realized that was true for me, as well. I took a year to organize my photos, and recently had some published in a book called "The Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture" by Brian Cogan.

I also had a bit of a revelation after reading "Please Kill Me." An excellent effort, but I realized that most books about punk or the New York Scene, tend to deal with the same bands, like the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Heartbreakers, Patti Smith, Dictators (DFFD), Sex Pistol and the Clash); and yet, there are so many other bands from that time, like the Marbles, Mong, Willie Alexander, and the Cramps, who were deserving more discussion than they were getting. That got me started on writing some of my own memories and collecting interviews I did with some of those bands. Next thing I knew, I had 400 pages in Word.

What drew YOU to the whole downtown scene all the way from your place of choice and birth, Staten Island, and how did the Greenwich Village scene influence your writing and especially your music? And how did the Ferry schedule affect your choices of who to see (i.e., there were many times I came home in the '70s and '80s as the sun was rising, at a time I'm sure the Ferry schedule was not at it's peak)?

JDG: It's sort of a long story (oh, and I was born in Brooklyn and dragged to Staten Island as a young'n ). Towards the end of Jr. High, my mother worked downtown Manhattan and had to work on weekends. Occasionally, I'd go with her, or she'd have my brother and I travel together to visit her, and we'd all go together to the Village, walking around, just enjoying the atmosphere.

When I graduated to start high school, I got into comics, my friend, Mike Cuttita, invited me to a party where I met his older brother and their friends and...they were all into the whole underground scene - this was a great relief and safe haven for me, because the suburbia that surrounded me I found deadening, soul killing, and horribly narrow in every aspect - horrible bigotries about everything, and not only a fear, but an absolute refusal to even attempt to learn about anything. My brother and I sarcastically (but accurately at the time) referred to the Mall as Staten Island's cultural mecca.

I wasn't allowed to stay out late, but I was allowed my day and early evening trips to the Village, so I went almost every Saturday and Sunday with my brother and then eventually, our friends. So that's how I got started. Yes, the ferry schedule was of utmost importance - if I was in the least bit late getting home, I wouldn't be allowed to go again!

Once I moved out, though, it was a different story - and there were plenty of mornings I watched the sunrise of the bow and walked back to my place from the train station with the sun fully up.

As to who to the early days, I saw whatever I could catch. When I had more independence, I saw whatever caught my eye and ear, and I was lucky enough to work at a night club that featured acts such as Johnny Thunders, Cheetah Chrome (we shared nail polish ) and many more, and I got into DJing what at the time was "alternative" music - which embraced punk and punk sensibility.

All of it influenced me in ways I don't think I can really pull apart to describe, or ascribe in a "this came from here" sort of way. But having said that, I know that the entire experience, the philosphy I absorbed, left me with the conviction that the individual matters to the whole, and that whatever I do, I had to be honest, and real, about it - not the "best" - but unflinchinly honest with myself, with everyone - and I think that comes out in everything I do.

It's still amazing to me that there's so much talent out there that's so under recognized - and even more amazing to me that you undertook and maintained FFanzeen for so long. I know you have a saying about it - would you share the origin of that? What 'zines are you working with now? And (since I've been lucky enough to read as well as view some of your work) do you think you'll one day once more publish a 'zine of your own again? How would you say the art, both then and now, influenced your own work and outlook?

RBF: Don't know why I find this funny, but: JD the DJ. Yeah, I'm a punk nerd.

JDG: I get that a lot - and I love that you're a punk nerd :-) 'cos it's what makes you completely cool.

RBF: The expression and subtitle I had for my fanzine and its philosophy (and I'm hoping to be the name of my book, though many of my friends don't like "Rock'n'Roll With Integrity".

JDG: Your philosophy has also influenced me - truly.

RBF: I found some of the bigger fanzines, like "The New York Crapper"...I mean "Rocker" was that all they did was complain about the scene; how the scene was dead (please note I mean this as post-Alan Betrock, who remained a defender of the scene until his untimely death). And the "Village Voice," once a baston of punk, turned it's back on it: Robert Christigau, its most influencial critic, turned his back on it and would only review anglofile and R&B music positively (I had a friend who wore a button that said "Christigau: D-"). I swore that if I started to feel that way about the things I was publishing, I would stop rather than whine. Sometime in 1988, after my 15th issue in 11 years, I started to find myself a bit bored...and was also broke (it was expensive publishing a print fanzine, with no or minimal advertising). I knew it was time, and I stopped. Also, quite amusingly, I paid attention to all the people who were such good friends when I published and suddenly disappeared when they didn't have an outlet any more.

JDG: It's funny who you find out is on your side for you and on your side for them when things change. Happens to bands, too - when people think you're on the rise, whoa, the attention and favor. When you do something different...

RBF: Still, I kept many good friends from that period to this day, including Joe Viglione ("The Count"), Nancy Foster (aka Nancy New Age, Suzy Q, and Nancy Neon, depending on the decade), and Gary Pig Gold, to name just a few.

Art wise, I must may I was not very well influenced by fanzines. It was more the content than the production. I was a college newspaper editor and I liked the tabloid style of lots of text and pictures in a recognizable format. I used to get mad at fanzines that tried to be too artistic for their own good, like having a page with 10 words on it, or a wide blank border. I believed in (and this is another of my philosophical statements for the time) "More rock'n'roll per square inch". Yeah, I got reviews that were sometimes nasty, like my favorite (and I quote it often, because I love it so much) was from one of the bigger California hardcore 'zines (honestly, can't remember which one) whose entire review of my mag was "Boring newsprint tabloid". Well, I must add that I got more response and requests for issues from those three words than any other review. I didn't expect everyone to like me or my work, and still don't. It's not punk to base yourself on what others think, e.g., Fonzie wasn't cool because he was always afraid of not been seen as cool...if you are worried about it, you're not.

JDG: I'm with you on that - I don't expect everyone to like what I do - and that's cool, free will and all that. And I have to laugh with you about the Fonzie comparison - I think I did a rant on poseurs in Punk Like Me .

RBF: Meanwhile, when FFanzeen ended, I sort of went into life mode, and just did what I had to do to get some money and live my life. By the early 1990s, I was starting to get the squeemies (yes, I am aware that's not a word, but it says it best) about the music that was around me and needed to listen to something new that wasn't Top 10 crap or die. I wrote to about a dozen fanzines about wanting to review CDs, etc., and a couple wrote back interested. I started writing for excellent mags, but they kept falling away and closing, like "Shredding Paper" and "Oculus".

JDG: I remember both of those - you know, I never really did get to catch them when I wanted to, and they always sold out of the issues I wanted .

RBF: One day around 2001, I was at a show and took a picture of a band called Miracle of 86 (lead singer Kevin Devine), and saw someone taking pictures of the band who I thought was Kevin's dad, and sent it off to Kevin. He wrote back and said, "Why did you send me a picture of Jim Testa?" I had read "Jerey Beat", and other writings of his, but didn't know what Jim looked like. I sent the photo to him and described myself, and he said he had seen me too, but thought that I was a band dad, as well. Since then, I have been writing for "Jersey Beat", and even have my own column, which is called "The Quiet Corner", which deals with all music technically non-punk, but of course I also review punk CDs for themain review section, and have done a few interviews. "Jersey Beat" went away for about 2 years, but it's coming back strong as a Web-zine, and my column and reviews will continue.
JDG: So the beat goes on, so to speak.

RBF: As for my own 'zine, well, I honestly don't have the time or funds to get that up and running again, and I also don't have the computer acumen to keep it up consistently as a Web-zine. So, what I have done instead is start my own blog (this one), otherwise known as the 21 Century fanzine. I cover CD reviews of all types, photos, live reviews, and the like. And now, it will include interviews.

JDG: This is awesome, because you always bring high standards and amazing new material to the board with what you do - you really get the art "out there."

To be continued....JD's blog can be found at her MySpace space:

Rockwood Music Hall: November 18, 2007

All performance photos in this blog by Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen

A while back, I was at the diminutive yet intimate Rockwood Music Hall on Allen Street (on the “Side of the Lower East”) to hear a singer I’m fond of (but is not the focus here). My pal Gittar and I decided to stay and see what the next singer would be like, and then head out; a couple of songs, we figured. When Tamara Hey came on, we silently stayed the whole set. Obtaining her CD, it became one of my favorites over the past year or so.

Sunday, November 18, 2007, found me back at the Rockwood, waiting for Tamara to play again, where she plays semi-regularly. She was third on the bill, so with camera in hand, I ordered my drink (which, as usual, I nursed through the night), and waited.

First up was JOCELYN MEDINA, who was backed by piano, stand-up bass, and drum. The stage at Rockwood is so small that the majority of it is taken up by the grand piano, so the drum is set up off the stage, against the wall between the stage and door. Jocelyn is solid jazz, with some Brazilian influence thrown in. Some songs she wrote herself, and others she wrote the lyrics which are put to other instrumentals by jazz greats. The band was obviously new to the material, and Jocelyn helped them along with directions between songs, and they quite competently kept up. Jocelyn herself took a couple of songs to get into the groove, but once she did, her voice layered over the backing group in a fine soup of sounds. When she sang a couple of numbers in Portuguese that she seemed especially to let herself go with the music. I was glad for the opportunity to see her.

Next up was LEAHA BOSCHEN, in this occasion a solo artist playing either guitar or piano. Originating from the West Coast, she still filled the place with fans, many of whom she apparently knew personally. This made for a very personal, and informal performance that was relaxed and totally enjoyable. She dedicated songs to people who were sitting there, making it feel as much a living room as a performance space. Leaha has a strong voice that carries it through her songs. It cradles, it beckons, and it storms the castle with sheer force, as she touches on relationships and the human condition. What’s more, she looked like she was having such fun with all this. When she found out she could be on for nearly an hour, she was quite happy. The audience didn’t want to let her go when she was done.

TAMARA HEY was third up. Again the place filled with her fans. She plays acoustic guitar, and she was backed by electric guitar and piano. Tamara is another performer who looks like she is having a blast up there. One of the aspects I admire about her is that her topics are not typical. For example this night, songs included missing someone (“Right This Minute”, one of my favorites of her work), realizing a relationship is ending during a boring flight (“Up in the Air”), or working a really crappy temp job (“Part Time Help Me”, which she announced was a true story). There were many other songs off her CD I was hoping she would do, like the incredibly sad “More Like Melanie” or the toe-tapping “Pebble in My Shoe”, but I certainly would not say I was disappointed by the selection. I enjoyed hearing material that’s new to me. Tamara’s voice is on a higher register, but has a bite to it. Her music has just the slight hint of Nashville, but not so much one would want to shout “yee-haw”, if you get my drift. I recommend getting her CD and seeing her perform. She plays around often, and I may even see you there.

Official Tamara Hey Song List For the Night:
1. You Wear Me Out
2. Up in the Air
3. Round Peg
4. Right This Minute
5. October Sun
6. Somebody’s Girl
7. Drive
8. Part Time Help Me
9; Long Dog Day

There were more bands to play, as is the custom at the Rockwood, but I knew it was time for me to go. And have a sandwich at Katz's.

Here is a link to more photos from the show: