Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Incredibly Strange

When I was a teenager in the late 80s, I remember seeing my first copy of Re/Search Magazine. It was the classic W.S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Throbbing Gristle issue. In one small biannual, I was exposed for the first time to cut-up poetics, the dreamachine and extreme industrial music. This was like a sampler pack of the most vibrant, confrontational alternative art forms around.

In the 80s, for many people in smaller communities Rocky Horror Picture Show was their first glimpse into a freak world. A reassurance that they were not alone. An invitation to a larger, more colorful party. For me, living in a small midwestern Canadian city, Re/Search was a grittier version of this correspondence - more like a clipped-letter ransom note from a Lower East Side postal code.

(While I was pretty clueless when it came to culture, I was fortunate to have an expert guide in my friend Chris Olson. He introduced me to Re/Search, among many other cool things like local punk bands, xeroxed fanzine writers, and playing hooky at the art gallery.)

Several years later, Re/Search put out a couple of volumes entitled Incredibly Strange Music. These were somewhat more accessible, mainstream catalogues that came out during the height of the exotica & lounge revival. They highlighted the careers of once-popular, now-obscure entertainers such as Rusty Warren and Esquivel, and interviewed contemporary artists like Jell-o Biafara whose extensive, eclectic, record collections influence their own eccentric output. In some cases, like Esquivel, exposure in these volumes led to a critical and popular revival.

At the time these books came out, I was in an up-and-coming pop band. We had a lot of momentum and an eye on mainstream commercial success, but I was feeling a bit stifled by the parameters of the form. What struck me most about the artists featured in Incredibly Strange Music was the freedom of their absolute originality. Sometimes it was self-aware and defiant, and sometimes it was naive - perhaps even slightly autistic. I envied that. And while I don't recall specifically trying to emulate these artists, it's clear that Rusty Warren and Esquivel were both early influences on The Wet Spots.

Today, the Incredibly Strange Music torch is being carried by a website called The Weirdest Band in the World. Recently, the author proposed The Wet Spots as candidates for that title. I am truly honored, and I recommend you follow the link to that page. Because, you know, his final decision is based on page traffic :).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cat and Mouse With the Hackers

Hey folks,

No doubt you will have noticed the ads for Rolexes and Lo-Cost Pharmaceuticals that have been proliferating here lately. Somehow, somewhere, someone's hacking us. We have been taking progressively more heroic measures to keep these jerks out of our Blogger and Twitter feeds, but they're damn crafty. So far virus scans, changing passwords, security questions and browsers have all proven ineffective. The good news is, their spam comes frequently so we know quickly if we've failed to block them. Sorry that this means you have to see it in your inbox, and thanks for sticking with our blog. We will have some entertaining and scandalous content up here again soon enough!


Thursday, October 07, 2010

How To Create Community In Three Not-So-Easy Steps

I read this today and had to re-post. Wise and concise words from my friend Marcia Baczynski - so very relevant to cultural creators. (As a sidebar, Marcia is an amazing relationship coach who has a lot of experience working with people in nonmonogamous configurations.)

How To Create Community In Three Not-So-Easy Steps

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Hackers locked out - no more spam for now.

Hey folks,

Sorry for the last couple of spam messages. I got hacked. I've changed a few things up in my account so it shouldn't happen again.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Artist as Healthy Taxpayer

Recently there was some Facebook commentary on a Wikipedia article which trotted out the conventional notion that there is a correlation between creativity and mental illness. Here's the article:

My (unsolicited) contribution to that discussion forms the original basis of this blog post - with a few subsequent additions:

People with mental illness are often drawn to recreational drugs not just for self-medication, but also for a particular social piece. If you have strange associations and behaviours because of your mental illness, you may find it easier to fit in amongst people who are tripping balls. They won't spot your eccentricity as quickly if they, too are seeing dayglo pink gerbils hula-dancing on the bedside dresser.

So I've often wondered if the art scene has a lot of folks with addictive personalities and mental illness in & around it because these people are artistically creative, OR because the art scene has less strict norms of appropriate behaviour, belief, dress, substance use and abuse etc. than 'straight' society. Perhaps each is a factor. Perhaps the factors inform each other.

But I think that genius in various fields (math, too) is associated with mental illness and addictive personality because you have to be a full-blown genius if you're gonna succeed despite your mental illness or your addiction. You can succeed as a sane, pretty-good guitarist but it's unlikely people are gonna put up with unpredictable, unreliable bullshit in any discipline unless there is remarkable talent that goes along with it. That sort of talent is available to only a few.

We all know lots of people who are unremarkable talent-wise. It's less likely that we know lots of people who are seriously mentally ill or in the midst of active, chronic addiction and who are unremarkable talent-wise. As a society we tend to segregate such folks into day centers and care facilities and slums. I've had occasion to work with a lot of these people in my day jobs. They are as varied in their strengths and weaknesses as those who don't suffer from their particular diseases. But as a rule it's harder for them to succeed. So we only see the geniuses from these populations succeeding in their various disciplines. And we draw the false conclusion that the disease is the cause of their genius.

There's also the "Behind the Music" effect. Stories about fucked-up creative people are sexy. Stories about responsible, deadline-meeting, tax-paying creative people are sort of boring. But
creating art requires a whole raft of boring, unsexy talents like promptness, budgeting skills, tact etc. Look at Duke Ellington versus Thelonius Monk. Each one is undoubtedly a creative genius. But Ellington had the opportunity to write and arrange for larger, more varied groups in part because he had the organizational and interpersonal skills to keep a big band together. There were eccentrics and addicts in his band but he wasn't one of them.

Monk, on the other hand, was pretty out there. Many speculate that today he would be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. He was only able to hold small combos together. So he only got to write & arrange for small combos. The parameters of his creativity were limited, rather than enhanced by his eccentricity.

My own experience is like this: I have been both depressed and extremely anxious. This ran the gamut from general sarcastic-dick-to-be-around resentfulness to unable-to-get-out-of-bed-for several-days paralysis. I never sought treatment and never received a clinical diagnosis. In retrospect it looks like for-real mental illness. I have used substances - usually alcohol - addictively. When I stopped using alcohol and drugs, my depression and anxiety eventually abated.

I was working as a creative person throughout that period. I'm OK at being a creative person. I have some skills. I certainly don't have any sort of parameter-shifting, game-changing native ability. And I experienced a bit of success in those days. And I hit a big, scary wall. I had ideas of what I wanted to do but not the motivation, courage, or general shit-togetherness to realize these plans. What I had was an acute and rapidly growing pool of fear and resentment at an unfair world.

I got past that period by committing to abstaining from booze and drugs, and by committing to a personal spiritual practice. It was only when I was stopped suffering from mental illness and addiction that things started to roll for me artistically. I felt better in myself. More willing to try and fail. I managed to pull bigger, more complex projects together because I wasn't sleeping it off until 3pm on Sundays. But a much more profound shift occurred in the work I was doing:

The message I was putting out into the world became less self-referential and more generous. I stopped believing that happy endings were a pandering sop for suckers. I stopped believing that archness, hipness and urbanity were the ultimate aesthetic qualities. I started to want to celebrate things like hope and dreams in an unironic fashion. A new goal became to tell stories that could uplift without sacrificing grit. This was quite different from my previous goal - which was to show you how edgy and clever I was. Not that I have abandoned satire or darker themes. I've just added new ones. My parameters widened when I stopped being mentally unhealthy.

I'm moved to blog about this because when I started out in the music & art scenes I was most attracted to the craziness of bohemian life. The late nights shouting at the bar. The fights. The extreme personalities. The excitement. The sense that we were different and special. I thought all this was feeding my creative output.

The bohemian party lifestyle may well have been my main incentive to start down a difficult, worthwhile path in music and theater. But living this lifestyle was in fact hampering my creativity. And I think I tolerated my less-than-optimal mental condition for much longer than I would have were I living in the 'straight' world. I told myself it was an essential part of my artistic voice - the price of admission. But it wasn't. It was the bar on the door. The artist as crazy, hard-partying, opium-revelator genius is a rare, troubled model. Realizing your skill set, dedicating yourself to expanding it, trying and failing repeatedly with prosaic, valiant attempts until something magic happens... Most successful people in any field are following this model. And you don't have to be an addict or mentally ill to make it work. In fact, being healthy helps.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Fox Network Schizophrenia - Strictly Business?

It's probably not a big surprise to anyone that The Wet Spots are huge Glee fans. A program about dorky kids at school who wanna sing show tunes? Yeah. It fits.

Whether you dig the show from an aesthetic point of view, you have to admit that it puts an inclusive message of self-acceptance out there. Small-town bigotry and misguided fundamentalist sexual morality are regularly held up for ridicule. Jocks, flamers, cheerleaders, overacheivers and special-ed students all taste triumph and mockery. They all act heroically and selfishly. They get to be real characters rather than mascots.

Glee is a Fox show. And part of a legacy of vaguely subversive entertainment programming from the network. Fox brought the Simpsons to life nearly 20 years ago, along with In Living Colour and X Files. None of these shows were calls to man the barricades, but all pushed the envelope of what was considered too out-there for TV content, and they often addressed American society from a satirical & unsentimental perspective.

Fox News, of course, is all about a perverted, bullying sentimentality: a somewhat hysterical blend of factual reportage, bigoted opinion, and pure paranoid fantasy presented as the 'real' truth. This branch of the network has been expert in branding itself as an earnest crusader for the 'real' patriotic America. (Read white, Christian conservative America.)

Now while I deplore the hate-mongering on Fox News, I believe that white, Christian, conservative America deserves to have a network as much as any other group. I just happen to think that Fox News' editorial line is strictly about business. It is the stance that generates the most profits for them. They saw a way to distinguish themselves from the newsrooms of the other networks, and they took it. It is not an earnest crusade. It is as calculated as the guy who notices that there isn't a coconut flavoured soda on the market yet and creates one and makes a million bucks.

I have a smart friend who runs a chain of comedy clubs. He regularly hires performers whose material is so stupid that I know in my heart there's no way he could possibly like it. Why does he hire them? Because they put asses on seats. I know that Rupert Murdoch is a conservative, but I don't think he believes a fraction of the insanity that spills from the mouths of his talking heads. He's simply too smart. The difference is Murdoch is selling stupid paranoid hate, not stupid laughs. It's reprehensible. And it's just business.

In one episode of Glee, we are introduced to a character's Mum and Dad. They are intolerant, pious small-town douchebags. This is established by making them big fans of Glen Beck. It's cross-promotional synergy for a schizophrenic network that cynically sells 1001 flavours to every appetite.

But damn, Glee is a good show.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cool-Headed And Under-Reported Obama Speech Discusses Hot-Headed And Over-Reported Partisan Rhetoric

Some excerpts from Obama's Commencement Address at the University of Michigan. Typical Obama rhetoric to be sure, but it's a very canny, cool-headed assessment of how them media prefers to report shrill, divisive soundbites. Of course since it wasn't a shrill, divisive soundbite it didn't get widely reported. Anyway, full marks to Obama for faith in reason.


The media tends to play up every hint of conflict, because it makes for a sexier story, which means anyone interested in getting coverage feels compelled to make their arguments as outrageous and as incendiary as possible....

We can't expect to solve our problems if all we do is tear each other down. You can disagree with a certain policy without demonizing the person who espouses it. You can question somebody's views and their judgment without questioning their motives or their patriotism. Throwing around phrases like 'socialists' and 'Soviet-style takeover' and 'fascist' and 'right-wing nut' -- that may grab headlines, but it also has the effect of comparing our government, our political opponents, to authoritarian, even murderous regimes.

Now, we've seen this kind of politics in the past. It's been practiced by both fringes of the ideological spectrum, by the left and the right, since our nation's birth. But it's starting to creep into the center of our discourse. ... The problem is that this kind of vilification and over-the-top rhetoric closes the door to the possibility of compromise. It undermines democratic deliberation. It makes it nearly impossible for people who have legitimate but bridgeable differences to sit down at the same table and hash things out. It robs us of a rational and serious debate, the one we need to have about the very real and very big challenges facing this nation. It coarsens our culture, and at its worst, it can send signals to the most extreme elements of our society that perhaps violence is a justifiable response.