Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A random memory along a strasse in Berlin

In 1998, I was walking down a busy street in Berlin. It was my second day there, and the first opportunity I had to walk around and take photos, as I love to do.

As I approached a corner, four guys on bicycles approached. They all wore multi-colored spandex so familiar with heavy-duty bike riders. One comes up to me, and in a thick West Coast US accent says to me:

"Dude! You know where [Whatever]-Strasse is, dude?"

"I'm from the States, too. I have no idea."

He turned to his pals and yelled, "Dudes! This dude dosen't know where the Strasse is either, dudes!"

With that he turned to me and said, "Hey, thanks, Dude!" And then he took off with his pals.

Which reminded me of this:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A co-interview with writer-musician JD Glass, Pt 2

[JD Glass in Life Underwater]
FFoto by Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen]

JD Glass is having a good year in 2008. Her fourth book is out now, "American Goth". I've read the first two, "Punk Like Me" and "Punk and Zen"; I'm almost done with the third, "Red Lights". Meanwhile, she's continuing to work on her music. And through the new year, we've continued our correspondence. This was published first on her blog, and now I am publishing it on mine.

I don't get to see JD as much as I would like, but I somehow feel better knowing she's in the world. And the characters in her book, as I told her recently in an email, are starting to feel like old and familiar friends, and that's due in large part to JD's character development.

Anyway, here is the second part of the back and forth, MySpace interview:

RBF: As for you, I've seen Life Underwater in various incarnations. Have you played in any other bands, and how would you describe your musical contribution? And I promise you, I will ask more questions about your own novels soon...

JDG: I have played in a few other bands. I started composing songs at 7. When I was 8, my mom left us a tape recorder so we could "tell" her events that happened from the time she left for work until she got home (to save her from us calling her incessantly) and...whoa. I started singing my compositions into the recorder, then stole her guitar (a Yamaha classical that I still have ..) and taught myself how to play, so I could make her buy more tapes every week, since I filled them. That same year, my mother played one of those tapes for a co-worker of hers who played guitar for his local theater group and gave lessons.He didn't believe a kid wrote those - and when he came over so he could evaluate me and give me lessons or something, I did my thing, and instead of giving me lessons, the next thing I knew, my parents were helping me fill out Copyright forms and we actually went to DC to drop them and some tapes off. That was his recommendation.

The next summer saw my "first" band - my brother playing something resembling guitar with me, while my sister and a neighbor sang back up. My very first "real" band was Person-L - I used that name because I, in my mature high school way, thought the corporate world was dehumanizing, reduced us all to numbers, and I wanted to reflect that. What this really meant, was that I wrote songs, a friend of mine and I practiced harmonies on them, and somehow we had a clap machine for a drummer - it was awful, but the melodies and harmonies were actually pretty decent and I mastered my instruments.

A few years later, I was a founding member of the original Adam's Rib (lead guitarist, song writer - I wrote everything but the bass and drum lines, back up and occasional lead singer) formed as a direct response to then lead-singer's boyfriend's band, the very popular Two Minutes Hate. We thought we were political, socially relevant, and egalitarian. It was heaven and hell. Our first drummer quit about two weeks before our first real gig at CBs because her mom didn't want her to play there (which we were all like, WTF? because, heck, we were 19-20 something year olds) so we ended up with the drummer from Two Minutes Hate. We had a great show - a great set. I still have the tape from it somewhere :-)

After our first gig out we were offered an opening slot with the Toasters and Bim Skala Bim (or something like that ..) but instead of rehearsing and finding a new drummer (we couldn't use the one from TMH - weird boyfriend/girlfriend competition politics with the lead singer's boyfriend - again, the lead singer for TMH) they wanted to hang out and get stoned. Me, I don't do that (never did) and next thing I knew? No band. I never really did understand what happened there - and while I recently wondered what would have happened had I "given in," I'm really glad I didn't.

Not too long after that, I joined XXY for a bit and played bass, but the scene was wearying (the lead singer occasionally performed naked and did weird things with microphones. He also like to throw food into the audience - hot dogs, chicken parts, bologna) and while performance art can be very cool, it had nothing to do with the music or the message in it and frankly, I started to feel bad for the chickens ;-) and the waste of food in a world where people are starving to death seemed really anti-punk to me. I got out of that, and did solo projects with some side-man work either singing, or playing guitar or bass, until I became a part of Life Underwater. I've been there ever since, and very happy about that. I get to float between lead and occasional rhythm guitar or bass, and I write the melodies and lyrics, which is what I started out doing in the first place .

..So...you and music. Did you ever pick up an instrument, then do that "required" thing, join a band? Or if you haven't, have you thought about it? Not necessarily the "band" part, but playing an instrument?

RBF: Yeah, I played acoustic guitar for a little while and then tried bass. Found out very quickly that I have zero talent: no sense of chord formation, no sense of rhythm. Worthless. Even for punk rock. I bought a cheap electric bass to jam with Bernie Kugel, who was much more adapt at guitar. We jammed in his bedroom, and called ourselves Les Bien. His mother freaked out: "It sounds too much like lesbians!" Ah, Bensonhurst. So he changed it to The Good, and when he moved to Buffalo to go to college, it became his first popular band (now-actor Vincent Gallo was in the band, and they still keep in touch). Oh, and that bass...in about a year, the neck began to warp, and after the third or fourth fret, you'd need a C-clamp to hold it down. I paid like $40 for it. Probably still have it somewhere.

JDG: If you ever find it, I'd love to take a look at it - you never know, maybe I could fix it ...

RBF: That is why when I started wanting to give back to the scene I was enjoying so much, I started writing about it to promote the bands I enjoyed. No one wanted to print what I was writing, so I figured, screw it, I'll print myself. I had some interviews I had done when I was Arts Editor at Kingsborough College (at The Scepter), and needed a couple more. I walked over to Miriam Linna one night at CBGBs and asked if I could interview her band, The Cramps. She said sure, and I ended up being the last person to interview them before Miriam left. I had them all sign a flyer and used that as my back cover. Some book on the Cramps has the page (uncredited) inside.

JDG: That's amazing - you'll have to post that sometime on your blog so we can all see it.

RBF: So, in any real terms, I never was in a band. Would I want to be? Part of me says yeah, because it's cool, but it's not the kind of work I'm interested in. I'm more happy knowing that people are reading what I write and enjoying my photos. I've had a number of people tell me they like my stuff. In fact, a writer friend of mine, Mary Anne Cassata, once interviewed the lead singer of Iron Maiden, and he voluntarily admitted that he was a big fan of FFanzeen, without Mary Anne even bringing me up. I've never been a Maiden-head, but I have all this mail from them when they toured then-communist Poland. But I've hung out with Joey Ramone more than once, interviewed many musicians I've enjoyed, and know a whole bunch of up and comers. I've interviewed Lynyrd Skynyrd and been calm, and yet was totally stone-mouthed the first time I met Willie Alexander. I may not be in a band, but I have my place among musicians, which is equally fine with me.

JDG: The spot you occupy is an important one - and I'm betting quite a few people agree with that.

RBF: So, I was wondering, just how much is Nina, the main character of most of your books, based on yourself? I can imagine you hanging out at (Jim Hanley's) Universe comic store over on New Dorp. Bernie and I used to go there, too. Also when they had that branch at the Staten Island Mall, but I digress.

JDG: A lot of people ask me that. Nina and I certainly share a lot of background, but then again, I tend to share quite a bit with my main characters. Thing is, they're not me, they're themselves, we've just felt or experienced same or similar things, if that makes sense. And yes, I spent a LOT of time hanging out at Jim Hanley's Universe - in Eltingville, in New Dorp, and I even worked for a little while at the ones in Eltingville and in the Mall. You know, it's funny - you have to wonder how many times you and I probably unknowingly crossed paths before "officially" meeting!

I don't get to hang out there (or anywhere, really) nearly as much as I'd like to, but it's always home to me, and I honor that whenever I can by doing things there, because everything starts in the Universe ...

What's really funny (in a good, irony kind of way) is that the first book I ever wrote (which was a comic book) has finally come out as a novel - American Goth - and in a strange full circle, that main character is going to be in a comic anthology later this year or early next, and more than likely also appear in her own series of sorts afterwards. When that comes out, you can bet Universe will be the first place I go to!

So...do you still read and/or collect comics? What are titles that have appealed to you and still do over the years? And...graphic novels...any faves?

RBF: My first memories of comics dates back to the early '60s, when my grandfather was hospitalized with what would have been easily resolved now with a pacemaker. We weren't allowed in, being kids, so our parents bought my brother and me comics to keep us occupied. I remember having Spidy 1, Hulk 1, Fantastic Four 1, and many others, which were ripped up by my dad when he caught be reading them after I was supposed to be asleep (is that the sound of cringing I hear out there?). Hell, I even loved Charlton and Classic's Illustrated.

JDG: I think I might be having a small seizure, actually! Oh the pain, the pain!

RBF: When I went to high school, I sat across from this kid who we both shared an instant dislike for each other. After about a week, waiting for the class to start, we both took out comics. That was Bernie Kugel, and we've been truly great friends since.

JDG: Isn't if funny how some of the best friendships start out that way?

RBF: Truly. He was more into Marvel, with it's arc stories and envelope-pushing art. I was more into DC, with it's straightforward issue-by-issue stories. Batman was, and still is, a fave.

JDG: Marvel has always been a bit more...psychological...in some aspects. DC has expanded their story telling with their graphic novels and with the Vertigo line...and Batman always rocks ...

RBF: The next semester of high school, we took a class about comics, led by the late Phil Seuling. For those who don't know, Phil had the first comic book-only retail store (20 Ave & 85 St, Brooklyn). He brought us to his home which was covered in original art from the '40 onward, took the class on a field trip to the DC Comics office where we met Jim Steranko (still have my oversided "History of Comics" signed by him...1st edition), and even had guest lecturers like Grey Morrow. A couple years after we graduated, Phil was fired for giving (selling?) a student an underground Robert Crumb comix, after the student's parents complained. I remember him as having a very sharp and occasionally bitter sense of humor.

JDG: Poor Phil!

RBF: I like a lot of indie stuff, but find a lot of it not only badly drawn but sort of esoteric to the point of pointlessness. I'm still a fan of straight lines, as with Concrete, Cadillacs & Dinosaurs, and I also have an appreciation for the beauty of Love & Rockets. Some of my favorite artists are Archie Goodwin and Richard Corben. But the comic art that blew me away was David Quinn and Tim Vigil's Faust: Love of the Damned. Phenomenal work (wish the movie was as well done).

JDG: We're on the same page - and of course, I'm a huge Love & Rockets fan ... I love the way the do homage to the classics like Hank Ketchum.

RBF: Bernie and I used to go to many of the comic stores around the city, even heading over to New Dorp. However, I remember going to the closing sale of JH's Universe at the Staten Island Mall. They were selling their stuff at 60% off one weekend, 70% off the next, and so on. We got there and bought a ton of them when they were at 90%. Even graphic novels. I spent HOURS enjoying them.

I haven't really collected any comics in the past 10 years or so, but recently a co-woker, Ken, gave me a graphic novel of Batman: Dark Victory, which I devoured.

JDG: Any of the Dark Knight works are simply fantastic. And I tend to think DC does graphic novels (like the Watchmen, which will also be a movie) with a grittier intensity than it's "serial" runs.

RBF: Watchmen was an instant classic, totally canon-worthy.

By sheer coincidence, now I work in an office directly across from DC Comics, and I look at all this cool stuff in the windows, like a life-size blow-up Batgirl doll, Superman posters, and a great yellow neon Batman insignia sign that I covet.

JDG: LOL - I wouldn't mind passing those windows!

RBF: Phew, that went on a bit! Now, what I'm reading is a book you may have heard of called Punk & Zen by this wonder author named JD Glass. Though it's fiction, I enjoy that you actually use lyrics that you've written for your group, Life Underwater. That was an interesting choice. What were your thoughts about doing that, mixing fiction and fact? You talked earlier about how some of the events in Nina's life are similar to yours, but this is a lot more direct.

JDG: Now you're making me blush. As to mixing fiction and fact, it seems (and this is a generalization) that most authors, whether they're creating something out of a whole cloth or basing on whatever, do in fact end up mixing fiction and fact.

What I thought when I did that was that it was appropriate - Nina's a musician, and so am I, and there were songs that simply fit perfectly. That, and I'd already started a tradition of naming chapters after songs in Punk Like Me. This seemed like an opportunity for me to really play with that a bit more, give a little more depth to the each chapter.

JD's blog and info can be found here: