It’s amazing how every challenge to capitalism ultimately becomes just another commodity to be bought and sold in the marketplace. Even the most nefarious of threats—the dreaded Red Menace of Communism—has become a quaintly nostalgic meme to be either ridiculed, fashionably fancied, or dragged out of its tomb to scare those old enough to remember the Cold War. It seems the one thing we aren’t able to do with Communism is take it seriously.
But even stripped of its radical ideology (in fact, especially when stripped of its ideology) the raw visual power of Communist propaganda art is impossible to deny. The Soviets were such masters of the printed image, it seems now that the only thing holding the USSR together was its propaganda, usually in the form of the mass-produced poster, plastered on the bullet-pocked walls of its decaying cities.
The offset press was the perfect mechanism to transmit the ideals of the revolution to a mostly illiterate peasantry, hungry for hope and progress as much as for food. The artists of Soviet Russia created images that mobilized millions to the Communist cause, but what’s more, they created art that has outlasted the cause it sought to promote, art that has undeniably seeped into the cultural consciousness of western popular culture.
At first glance, one could easily dismiss David King’s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin as a work of commie propaganda porn, a celebration and sensualization of images that were created specifically to mask the repression of a failing ideology. Yet even with its artsy, fetishistic trappings, Red Star constantly reminds its readers to see the posters as propaganda as well as art, so that the longview comes into focus...
READ THE REST AT POPMATTERS.COM
Monday, April 30, 2012
I got interviewed recently about the weekly writing workshop for homeless youth I host every Wednesday at 6th St. Drop-In Center. This was just before I got the news that my grant from the city was approved to compile a book of writing and art by homeless youth. This project will be a lot of work, but I'm really excited about showcasing these kids' talents, as well as helping them find their voices and examine their lives.
Posted by Josh Indar at 8:10 AM
Monday, February 6, 2012
Someone mentioned this story to me the other day, and I was so happy because I'd completely forgotten how much fun it was to write. "The Goofy Sport of Pigeon Racing"...
“How about 1021, Chameron?” Dave asks. “That one come in for you?”
Chameron looks down at the page and comes up with the bird’s showing, airspeed and distance traveled for the last race, while Dave plucks a bird out one of the cages and holds it up for inspection. He flips it upside down and checks the bird’s belly, unfolds a wing and runs his thumb over its plumage, then holds the bird up in order to peer into its eyes.
“I’m trying to see inside him,” he explains. “I know all these birds—I know what they are going to do, when they’re going to come in. These birds, they’re athletes. That’s what they are, so they get the best of everything.”
With that, Dave trots off to get some more peanuts or something (the pigeons are fed copious amounts of raw Spanish peanuts before each race to give them energy for the flight), and Chameron makes his final choices on which birds to enter in this week’s race.
Chameron’s been racing pigeons with his grandpa for something going on five years now. A couple years back, he raised a champion bird, which is the one that averages the fastest speed over a whole season’s worth of racing. Since he’s talking about the bird in past tense, I ask him where it is now.
“Died,” says Chameron matter-of-factly. “Probably got hit by a power pole or something. They die all the time.”
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
Monday, August 22, 2011
|Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller|
The year 1960 started off an era where pop musicians began to speak out on social issues. Before the decade’s end, even the most ambivalent pop musicians felt compelled to include at least one “protest song” per album, at least if they wanted to be thought of as “serious” artists. But the first pop music salvo that specifically attacked the white power structure in the U.S. was not a protest song at all. It was a novelty tune about a gambling monkey, penned by a team of Jewish songwriters and performed by a black doo-wop group more known for songs about comic book characters than racial politics.
The 1959 song, “Run Red Run,” by The Coasters—a group that was already famous for a string of pile-in-the-jalopy novelty hits—is a fierce indictment of racism, a brilliant detournement of a nasty stereotype and a provocative taunting of fearful whites, nervous over the reckoning to come. The genius of the song, written by consummate hitmakers Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, was that it used a ridiculous comic parable to convey an insurrectionist message. It works as a joke, it works as a call to arms, and most importantly, it works as a pop song.
“Red went and bought himself a monkey. Got it from a pawnshop broker. Taught that monkey how to guzzle beer, and he taught him how to play stud poker.”
This first line is classic Lieber/Stoller, whose songs for The Coasters often featured wonderfully bizarre settings and characters. Sharing the 1950s fascination with all things “exotic”, Lieber and Stoller served up scandalous and weird story-songs like “Idol with a Golden Head” alongside summertime fun like “Charlie Brown” and “Yakety Yak”. While much of what they wrote about was just silly, their early work included songs like “Framed” and “Riot in Cell Block No. 9” which, in their own jokey way, spoke to the unfairness of the American justice system.
|Run Red Run peaked at #36 on the Billboard Top 40|
Take Chuck Berry, one of the few pop stars of the 1950s who actually wrote his own songs. While he sometimes dropped hints about racism (“Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is either a fist pump for Black Pride or a celebration of sexual prowess, it’s hard to tell which), he mostly told white teens what they wanted to hear. Berry’s classic “School Days” first blared from jukeboxes in 1957, lodging its grievances of too much “history and practical math” and how “the guy behind you won’t leave you alone.” Serious complaints to be sure, but they start to look downright petty when you consider that 1957 was the same year President Eisenhower had to send 1,000 troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine black high school students from being torn to pieces by segregationist lynch mobs.
After Red corrupts the monkey with drinking and card games, the song sets up the conflict:
“Last night they were gambling in the kitchen. Monkey, he was taking a beating. Monkey said, ‘Red, I’m gonna shoot you dead because I know darn well you been cheating…’”
Lest anyone think I’m reading too much into a jokey Coasters song, here’s what Jerry Leiber says about his lyrical intent, as quoted in Peter Buckley’s Rough Guide to Rock: “Once the monkey knows how to play [poker], he knows how to understand other things. And once he understands that he’s being cheated and exploited, he becomes revolutionary.”
Was it Leiber/Stoller’s place to try and speak for blacks in this way? I don’t know. But if there’s any doubt as to whether their black colleagues approved, The Coasters’ recorded performance of the song settles the matter. Riding on a propulsive train beat, lead singer Carl Gardner* shimmies through the song with a giddy smirk on his lips, hitting a wicked stride for the first chorus of “Run, Red, Run ‘cuz he’s got your gun and he’s aiming it at your head!” and sending it home with a jeering “Boogity boogity boogity!”
Not only does Gardner seem keenly aware of the irony of the song, he appears to revel in it, delivering lines like “Monkey said, ‘Red, you made a man out of me, now I’m gonna make a monkey out of you!’” with a sublime and vengeful satisfaction.
The song’s climax is set in a downtown parking lot, where the monkey holds Red at gunpoint. “Give me your car keys and give me your watch, give them to me or I’ll shoot,” croons Gardner. “I’m gonna put on your brand new Stetson hat and go to town in your new brown suit.”
Taken seriously, “Run Red Run” is about overcoming injustice by any means necessary. The fact that it was meant to be taken seriously is evidenced by the bittersweet flipside of the single, “What About Us?”, a soulful appeal to the conscience of white America: “He eats steaks at the Ritz… Big steaks, that’s the breaks. We eat hominy grits from a bag. What a drag.”
“Run Red Run” b/w “What About Us?” was released on the ATCO label in 1959, three years before Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and eight years before James Brown’s “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud”. That puts the most unlikely group in the world, The Coasters, at the absolute forefront of the modern Civil Rights movement within American popular music.
*Carl Gardner, founding member and lead singer of the Coasters, died on June 12, 2011. He was 83. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/coasters-frontman-carl-gardner-dead-at-83-20110613
Monday, August 1, 2011
I’m so stoked to be driving to a haunted hotel in the mountains this weekend to meet with Intera Cirklo, my writer’s group and best pals from Antioch ULA. I’m lucky to have found such a talented group of writers and such a goofy bunch of weirdos to get lit with. That’s “lit” short for literary, of course…
Left to right: Andrew Panebianco--his fancy last name means “white bread.” Scott Miller, math genius and algorithmic poet. Seth Fischer, Rumpus maker and splinter technician. R. Neal Bonser, fiction phenom (and my roomie). Jane O’Keefe, long form master and rodeo queen. Hazel Kight Witham, stunt driver and prose wizard. Lisa M-G, Class President and future U.S. Poet Laureate.
I’ll be posting lots about these folks here. Reading their work this time around has inspired me to step up my game, because I don’t want to be left behind when they all get published and famous!
Last year at our annual Haunted Worskhop I submitted an early action sequence from "Rough & Ready Island." This time around I'm sending the revised first chapter, just because first chapters are so important and I want to make sure I'm grabbing readers. I'm also throwing in some very rough character sketches from my next novel, which I hope to have at least halfway drafted by this time next year.
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
I just read these two great interviews on PopMattters with a couple of cutting edge Print-On-Demand publishers . One of the companies, Publication Studio, is run by is a group of ex-punks in Portland who put out hundreds of cool titles for a diverse group of authors. Instead of marketing books, they say they “tend to their social life,” which is wonderful because it shows they think of books as living things, not just numbers on a spreadsheet. The other interview is with a small reprint press—and I didn’t even know they did this with POD—putting out cool, old, pulp novels from the ‘50s and before.
I think POD really is the future of publishing, just like small record labels that help bands cultivate niche audiences are the future of the music biz. Anyway, it sure looks like where I’m headed.