Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review: PUNK LOVE by Susie J. Horgan

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos
Photos from Internet

"I cannot understate this: for many of us, those times, over twenty-five years ago, define who we are now."
- Henry Rollins, from the forward of Punk Love Punk Love, by Susie J. Horgan, with text by Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye and Alec MacKaye (Universe Publishing/, 2007)

It is stating the obvious that the DC scene was an important impetus to the national hardcore movement in the early 1980s, so we don't need to go there; let's move on.

Two of the prominent movers to arise (among others) out of the area were Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins. And yet, this book actually has its birth not in the clubs, but in a Haagen Dasz (screw the umlauts) ice cream shop. It was managed by Rollins and employed MacKaye, who was joined in 1980 by Georgetown student Horgan. They all became fast friends, and with the addition of Horgan's brand new 35mm, they bonded over black and white film.

As she was the only one with a camera that he knew, MacKaye asked her to take the cover shot for the picture sleeve of what would become both an iconic image and sound. It was for MacKaye's Teen Idles "Minor Disturbances" release that turned many tides (yes, I still have my copy).

Most of the shots in the book are of the mere six months that Horgan resided in the DC area, before moving on, but it was enough to capture some amazing shots of motion. Here are some thoughts of the book, and of my own personal refection...

The first part of the (mostly) photo-centric book is of Rollins & MacKaye fooling around in the ice cream store. Yeah, they are important to show the human side of the two of them, but honestly, well, I didn't care. Sure, on some historical level it is important to record this, but...well, whatever.

Horgan learned photography essentially the same way I did about three years earlier, by taking pictures of bands; for me the Ramones. Some shots of hers are amazing, and others are blurry messes, but in a good way - they show motion and passion, rather than being merely out of focus. Rollins states it correctly in the forward for both them and myself, when he says, "I see now that I was nothing but lucky. Right place, right time." I am always grateful for that.

I started taking photos as a memory trigger to remember bands I saw, as I was seeing so many; I almost always took pictures of all of the bands, not just the ones I liked. Over the years, I have noticed people taking pictures of their friends and their friends' bands, and ignoring anyone else. On some level this is true of Horgan, or it is at least in this book. Most shots are of either SOA (Rollins' group) or Minor Threat (MacKaye's). She slips in some of the other bands here an there, such as members of Government Issue, Red C, and Youth Brigade, but most are back- or frontstage, rather than performing, which I think is a loss. Happily there are some great shots of Harley Flanagan, of the Stimulators, pounding some drums. One thing that Horgan did that I certainly did not and that I regret, is take pictures of the audience. In the mid-'70s, the New York scenesters (including myself), basically either sat at tables or bounced our heads to the music, but almost never danced (we were too cool, which annoyed many a visiting group), so there wasn't much to shoot. It wasn't until the advent of hardcore that the audience really began to become more of a focal point, which Horgan does an excellent job of capturing. What is amusing is that in some shots, it just so captures that moment in time, especially the shot of the kids sitting on the steps of the Wilson Center (check the hair on the guys in front); but in other shots, especially the of the pit, it could be taken from any point in time since...though it is noteworthy that there is not one trademark or branded piece of clothing among the bunch, something that has sadly been lost.

The reason Horgan took that famous photo of the Minor Disturbances cover is because she was the only one he knew that had a camera. He automatically assumed she was a pro. Back then, if one had a camera, it was only film, and it was mostly either a professional thing or, in my case, a devoted amateur. Now, everyone has a camera and takes thousands of shots and culls the "good ones." Back then, one needed to get some skill and get it fast, because film was expensive, and developing even more so. Now, there are 50,000 photos of any band at any time; back then, it was hard to find the photos of beginning bands. Shit, I've got thousands of them. Again, right place-right time. Grateful.

In summary, though the focus of the book - pun intended - is pretty narrow on a select group of musicians in a very short period of time, but it is an important series that deserves the light of day (hey, there aren't too many pix of Rollins sans ink), and for that, I recommended this book, both for the images, and Rollins's and MacKaye's input. The most important element is that Horgan has heart because she has devotion to her subjects. And it shows in her work.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Two Dreams About Musicians

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos

Both of these dreams happened in the same night, between July 21 and 22. Also, both memories of them are fragments recalled 12 hours later...

In the first, I am the older brother of Jaqueline Blownaparte, the lead singer of the New York proto-horror-punk band Chesty Morgan and the Slice 'Em Ups. In real life, I've seen her perform thrice, the first two times in her previous band, Lady Unluck, and one in the SEUs, as reported on this blog in early November 2008 (look it up! It's about a Halloween show at Hank's.). The latter was the only time I actually spoke to her. In the dream, however, for whatever reason, we are siblings. It seems, unbeknown to me, she is angry with me, and I'm not sure why. Her partner in both real life and in the dream, Anthony Allen Van Hoek, pulls me aside to fill me in with what is happening: I had a couple of tickets to go see a show at a the convention center that is sort of like the car or boat show, but the subject of this one is wood, and she wanted to go as she likes wood for some reason. Yes, wood. And yes, I understand the inevitable connection it brings up, but she's my sister in the dream, remember?! Anyway, my conversation with him continues and I'm feeling contrite, when I awoke.

The second dream was much longer, but I remember less details. Essentially, I start traveling around with Paul Simon. For a large part of the '60s and '70s, I was a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan (even during my early punk years), including Simon's early solo efforts like Paul Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. He started to peter out for me around "Late in the Evening," and even though I liked some material from Graceland; his work started to feel derivative and, well, "borrowed." In my dream, Paul and I were about to same age, I'm guessing around 40, and he had a jovial personality similar to Bernie Kugel (of course, that doesn't help if you don't know Bernie...). But in the dream, as we traveled about around the countryside, it was not a luxurious-limo-rock-star meandering, but rather hobo-bumming style; as I'm thinking about it, like Hank Morgan and King Arthur in Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. At one point, we snuck into a closed elementary school cafeteria and ate some dry breakfast cereal. In another part of our adventure, we slept on a golf cart at some course we found our way into. Paul lay on the bench in the front, and I was on the one in the back. Just before I awoke, as we were ironically falling asleep in the dream, Paul mentioned that I was a good friend. We had done a lot of things in the dream that I would not have dreamt - pun intended - of doing in real life.

I don't have a clue what these dreams mean, but they were fun to have, and I just accept them on that level.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Adventure of Rescuing the Treed Cat

Text © Robert Barry Francos

Until our house is ready, we are staying with a lovely woman named Lorna, and her beautiful and big dog, Tiva.

The day after having driven from Brooklyn to central Canada, Lorna gave us a call; it seems there was a cat way up in one of the majestic trees in her amazingly lush backyard garden. We guessed that Tiva may have treed her. Whatever the reason, we could not leave her up the tree, either literally or figuratively.

The tree is way back in the garden, near a work shed which separates the space from the alleyway filled with garages and huge city garbage bins. We walked into the garden and stood beneath the tall tree, one of many in the back. Sure enough, way high up, was the frightened puss. She was perched on a limb, facing the trunk, and her front right paw balanced on another, smaller branch. Even way down on the ground it was pretty obvious that she was scared.

Lorna has a huge aluminum ladder that is either 15 or 20 feet high (I’ll measure it one of these days), so I went to get it. Between the garden, the shed, the tree’s branches and the other trees, it was difficult maneuvering it, and then, with some help, planting it in position against the correct tree. Then I started the climb.

Precariously, I was able to get on the penultimate rung, holding on to the trunk with a tightly clenched arm hold, and with the other hand I could reach up and pet the Sylvester-type black-and-white adult kitty. There was definitely a collar so she was someone’s pet, and she meowed loudly to me, as if to say, “Do something, dammit!” I could see her shivering, and she’d occasionally pant in hyperventilation.

Still hugging the trunk for dear life myself, feeling the bark biting into my arm (proving sometimes the bark = the bite), I could not budge her. There were different methods I tried, such as picking her up by the scruff, but she was latched onto the branch with her claws, and it was also clumsy for me to grab her, as she was still a couple of feet over my head. I tapped my shoulder to tell her it was safe to jump, but she wasn’t having any of that, which was probably wise, since my balance was pretty weak at the moment.

Around this point, she actually turned around, with the support of my palm under her paws, facing away from the trunk and down the branch toward the top of the shed roof, which would have been reachable. Instead, she kept turning until she was exactly in the original position, yelling at me like it was my fault. If I wasn’t scared myself, I would have found it as amusing then as I do now.

My partner, who stayed around to steady the ladder, shouted up, “She wants to come down the branch to the roof! I have an idea!” She had me climb all the way down, and then she ran off to the porch, returning with a lounge chair cushion. It was one of those long ones with the bend in the middle, with the long part for the legs and the short one for the back.

I somehow took it and climbed back up all the way, again using my right arm as my trunk anchor. At first, I held up the cushion for her to jump on, and again, she didn’t take the invite. Considering I was using one had to hold the cushion, it probably would have flipped if she jumped on it, so again her kitty wits were wise. When this did not work, my partner suggested that I flatten out the long cushion on the branch below. She posited that it may give her a false sense of ground. I was not sure it would work, but I have long-time learned if she suggests it, there’s a chance it will.

About a minute after I laid the cushion out, the cat got up, turned around, and started cautiously walking down the branch. As she moved, I stretched the cushion as far as I could without either dropping it or myself. By the time she reached the end of the cushion below her, she was just a few feet above the shed roof. I figured she’d jump onto it, and then to the ground, as it was still about 10 feet up.

But el gato had other plans. When she reached the point past the cushion, she launched herself into the air over the roof and to the point beyond in the alley, where I could not see. Scared the crap out of me for her, as it seems such a height and distance.

Next thing I saw was the cat scurrying across a neighbor’s yard, assumingly towards home, none the worse for her experience. I slowly climbed back down the ladder, had a good adrenaline body shake, and then put back the ladder.

There were two large scratches on my left arm from a branch while I was balancing the cushion, and pockmarks and minor scratches on my right arm from my body-to-trunk hugging. The worst of it though were the spots of tree sap that stuck to my arm hair. Insects and bugs were buzzing from all over, attracted to the sweet stickiness, all the way back to the house. It took a hard scrub to finally get it all off.

The cat was safe though, and that was reward enough for me. Plus, I got this great adventure and story out of it.

For Shelley and Craig

Monday, July 6, 2009

The True, Tragic Tale of David Bershad

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Image from the Internet

As I remember it…

[PS 128, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn]
In the Brooklyn elementary school system while I attended PS 128 in the early ‘60s, kindergarten was one big class led by two teachers. At the beginning of first grade, the class was split into two groups, presumably the “academics” and the “trade” focused, until 7th Grade (aka, Junior High School). It was rare for a member of one group to be moved from one to the other, but thanks to an insane and inane first grade teacher, I was moved to the “trade” group at the start of second grade, where I was stuck, despite some outside forces trying to get me back to the academic side. For that one year of first grade, I was in the same class as David Bershad.

David lived in my building, on the ground floor. As an only child born late in life, his parents doted on him, especially his mom.

Mr. Bershad was quite a jovial man, who had an amusing cadence to his voice. Upon seeing me, he’d smile and say, “Wwwhaddya say there, Rrrrrrrobert?!” Bernie Kugel once heard him say this, and has been using it occasionally since. Mrs. Bershad was a chubby woman with only David on her mind at all times, and was, perhaps, a bit obsessed, if not mad.

Naturally, as we were in the same building, we started hanging out together in the first grade. The only problem was that Mrs. B. did not want to let David out of her sight; she was always afraid something might happen to him if she loosened her guard. Her love kept him physically very close. When all the kids were outside playing tag or skelly, he was inside, being protected and coddled.

Around this time, I went to his home to play at least a couple of times (unescorted); I remember twice, though it may have been more. What I recall most however, is just how creepy it all was. We would play, with his mom often poking her head in the room to check in on David, as if to make sure I hadn’t hurt him.

Both times, when it was nearing the hour for me to leave (again, unescorted), she would make me clean up whatever mess we had made, while she took David to the kitchen for some milk and cookies. Seems she felt her David couldn’t possibly have made any of the mess, so it must have been me; thereby, clean-up was my responsibility. Needless to say, I didn’t think it was fair, but I was a kid, and we were taught to obey our parents and our friend’s parents as well.

The next time I went down there to play, I was a bit more careful to be neater. David, however, did not have this need to be so watchful, and he made much more of a mess. It wasn’t intentional, just a kid playing. And yet, the same thing happened. When Mrs. B. told me to clean up and started to take David to the kitchen for the milk and cookies, I very nicely asked if I could please have some, too. Her response took me by surprise: she said, in a very sharp voice, “It’s not polite to ask for cookies, you should wait until it’s offered!”

Even as a young child in first or second grade, I was aware enough to know she was never, ever going to offer. After I left that time, I never went back. She would never let him up to my apartment, so that was the last time we played together.

Because of this obsession with her son, he had little or no friends that I knew of, and he became a loner caught in the web of his mom’s love.

In first grade, it was mandatory that someone drop us off and then meet the students and walk them home. By second grade, we walked to school and then home by ourselves (can you imagine that today?). However, Mrs. B. would meet her son every day after school all through elementary school. Then through Cavallaro Junior High (JHS 281), riding on the city bus with him. Finally she even did it while he attended High School (I believe he went to a special one for advanced students). I heard tales of him asking, telling, demanding, begging her to stop, but she would not do so, even if it meant riding in a different part of the bus. Every day, she was there at the end of classes.

Finally, after High School, David went to college, far, far away, at the University of Texas at Brownsville. He was free of his mother. Or, so he thought.

She rented an apartment close to the college and would stay there for weeks at a time, leaving her husband at home, alone (though at this point, I’m not sure if he was happier with her there or not). David lived in the dorms, but his mother often knocked on his door, bringing him food, while interrupting his studies and generally annoying his roommates. He was once again becoming a loner.

One rare day, when Mrs. B. was back in Brooklyn, David went for a one-way swim out in the Gulf of Mexico. Mrs. and Mr. B. had his body flown back to New York for burial so she could be close.

On the first anniversary of David’s death, Mrs. B. went to his gravesite, as she did many times a week, and she took a bottle of pills, lying on his grave. I am assuming they are buried next to each other.

Mr. B. did his best to be cheerful, but his “Wwwwhaddya say there, Rrrrrobert?” did not have the same snap to it. After a couple of years or so, he moved out of the building, and I never saw him again.

I’ve had at least three friends with wacked-out moms, two of whom were also single children to late-aged parents, but they were never to the same dance as David and Mrs. Bershad.