Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fairey Haunting

I’m starting to feel like I’m being haunted by graffiti-artist-cum-darling-of-the-art-world Shepard Fairey. A few years back, I would see his mock propaganda “Obey” iconography randomly emblazoned on sidewalks, mailboxes, telephone polls, etc., all around the city, even right outside the door to my office building. Beyond noticing it, I didn’t think much of it at the time and was unaware of its growing notoriety. Fast-forward a few years and Mr. Fairey has miraculously transformed from ubiquitous street artist to iconic political propagandist with his “Hope” poster for the Obama campaign. The next thing you know, one of his stylized, Warholian images of Obama is featured on a Time magazine cover.

Then, in February – in further evidence of the young artist’s ascension from pretentious skate punk to feted member of the wine and cheese crowd – Fairey became the focus of a six-month-long exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. With that, of course, came much fawning coverage in the local press. It didn’t hurt that right around the launch of the exhibit, the local district attorney’s office decided to exercise a several-year-old warrant for Fairey’s arrest on charges stemming from past “public exhibitions” of his work (i.e., prolific tagging of public and private property).

Beyond vaguely noting this increasing ubiquity of all things Fairey, I didn’t think much of – or much about – his art. Then, in April, with a friend in town and a few hours to kill, we decided to visit the new ICA building. It didn’t matter that we weren’t particularly interested in Fairey’s work, the much vaunted, relatively new facility itself was reason enough to wander down to the harborfront. And surely there’d be other stuff on exhibit, too.

There wasn’t. But, as I discovered, there was plenty to check out and even think about in Fairey’s works.

Now I’m no art critic, but after scrutinizing this extensive exhibit of Fairey’s art, including some of the biggest pieces I’ve seen in an exhibition (massive, wall-size canvases) I began to see some merit to his work. As derivative as it is – of Warhol, old Soviet- and Maoist-style propaganda and various mixed collage techniques – there’s also some originality in the stylizing and collaging, and most significantly in the wit and subversive juxtapositions.

I enjoyed watching a video interview in which Fairey talked about the art of graffiti and his efforts to keep his street cred as he navigates his way through the more high-falutin’ echelons of the art world. He explained his ongoing motivations for public “culture jamming” (the appropriation of public and commercial spaces for anti-commercial graffiti) to counter the fact that so many of our public spaces (or seemingly public spaces; i.e., in our sightlines even if on private property) are now used to inundate us with commercial messages. I liked the independence and subversiveness of his thought, though I’ll admit to likely feeling different about it if he was tagging my house!

Working my way through the extensive exhibition, I turned a corner and, amid a section of music-related images (rebel icons such as Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer,  Henry Rollins, Tupac, et al,), I discovered a piece that was used as the cover  of the most recent Led Zeppelin greatest hits collection, Mothership. As a big Zeppelin fan, this immediately drew my attention. At first I thought, “Is this some kind of a takeoff on the cover?” The band doesn’t quite fit in with most of the other pop icons he paid tribute to, and I had never heard elsewhere that Fairey had created this album cover – with his new celebrity status, you’d think this would have been mentioned somewhere. I inspected the piece closely. No, this was no hack, he had created the actual album cover. (It’s not really one of my favorite covers, but nonetheless …)

Another heretofore unknown association … and there was more to come. About a month ago, my eighth-grader was doing a book report that involved a posterboard component (doesn’t everything?) with  a large hand-drawn rendering of the selected book’s cover. My daughter chose George Orwell’s 1984. She put a lot of effort into her report and especially her poster, spending hours hovering over it on the kitchen table. We were all very impressed with her final work – as was the teacher.

Then, a few days ago, what should I stumble across on the Web but the image of the 1984 cover that my daughter had so meticulously hand-copied. Only, unlike the black-and-white photocopy she had worked from and rendered in bright blues and greens, this one was in a familiar black, beige and muted red. Suddenly, I realized it looked very much like something by … you guessed it! It too was a Shepard Fairey creation. He had designed the cover she had replicated.

Wow, I thought, this is starting to get a little … I don’t know, eerie? What’s next? Will I find out that, unbeknownst to me, he designed the art for some magazine piece I oversaw  years ago? Who knows? After all, Shepard Fairey is everywhere.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Keeping Publishing Viable ...

Execs from the nation’s leading newspapers companies have been meeting to try to figure out how to salvage their industry. One of the main issues they’ve reportedly been discussing is how to charge for online content. While that might seem fair from a business standpoint, the odds are against it working. The horse is already out of the barn on this one. As some suggest, there may be other models of getting revenue for content delivered digitally that would be more palatable to consumers. Here are a couple of recent suggestions:

Getting Money from Readers Who Won't Pay for Online News – by Steve Outing, Editor & Publisher, 5/20/09 ... Comments on the potentially suicidal efforts by some publishers to begin charging for content on their websites. The alternative proposed here sounds a bit like a different spin on the public television membership model. Short of a formidable, accompanying grant/endowment structure, I'm not sure that would work by itself, but it's an intriguing suggestion.

A Potential ‘Solution’ for the Newspaper Industry: Follow the Cable TV Model of Subscription Access. Here’s Why and How – by Paul Bermel, Editor & Publisher, 5/15/09 ... This seems like a sound idea that I’m surprised more people aren’t embracing. Maybe I’m missing something.

Top Magazines Explore iPhone Apps Online Clubs, Other Revenue Streams –, 5/26/09 ... This one highlights the need to focus on monetizing mobile access and enhancements (i.e., applications), rather than trying to get people to pay for web access to content they’re used to getting for free.

Digital Reading

This quote puts the whole “death of print/rise of digital” conundrum (for books, as well as newspapers and magazines) in some perspective that makes sense to me (i.e., it’s about the content, not the medium).

“I’m not in the business of selling books. I sell writing,” says Welsh. “It doesn’t bother me how they want to read it as long as it’s true to the ideas I had. People criticise e-books for being nothing like the real thing. But they’re not trying to be. E-books are just a different way of getting writing and storytelling. Personally, I like a nice book. I need that private intellectual space that a real book gives me. But I don’t expect everyone to feel the same way.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

And What’s Up with That Header?

Admittedly amatuerish Photoshop skills put to use to create the blog header. Beyond that, as the saying goes, it’s always 5 o’clock somewhere.

Which Live at Leeds?

After a good amount of discussion about the 10 Best Live Albums of All Time list, it seems the most universal sentiment is – not surprisingly – the admiration for The Who Live at Leeds. I can’t argue with that, since it was on my list and many critics over the years have deemed it one of the best live records in rock history. Sad to say, yet somehow predictably, I own all three versions of the release on CD – the original release with six songs (1970), the first Expanded Edition with 14 songs (1995) and the ultimate Deluxe Edition with 33 songs (2001) – I think I owned the original on cassette at one time, too.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I actually like the original six song (almost an E.P.) version of Live at Leeds best. There’s something about the impact of the band’s concise, full-throttle assault on the six varied tunes: Three great covers (Young Man Blues, Summertime Blues and Shakin’ All Over), along with an edgier take on one of the group’s best pop tunes (Substitute) and extended, bluesy jams on hits My Generation and Magic Bus. It’s a potent snapshot.

It might be somewhat sacrilegious, but as a great as Tommy was as a concept and a studio composition, I never thought it represented The Who at their best live. Sure there were brilliant spots (We’re Not Gonna Take It), but there was far too much storyline filler to make for a consistently compelling live performance. As far as a concept piece goes, 1973’s Quadrophenia worked much better as a live vehicle, having more musical muscle and less “operatic” filler. Thus, despite the additional music (and value for the investment), in my opinion, the padding on the subsequent versions of Live at Leeds defuses the concise punch of the original. To paraphrase Pink Floyd: the “short, sharp shock” is more effective.

Nevertheless, details aside Live at Leeds showed what a powerful band The Who could be in a way that their studio L.P.’s rarely did.

The 10 Best Live Albums

OK, here’s the last (I think) pilfering of the Facebook posts (at least this one is very recent). The stimulus for this post was my friend Keith Bax’s post about “Whatever Happened to the Live Album” from

That prompted a consideration of the 10 Best Live Albums of All Time. Here are my 10 favorites in alphabetical order (official releases only), what are yours?

• Bob Marley and The Wailers – Live
• Graham Parker – Live Alone in America
• Jerry Lee Lewis – Live at the Star-Club Hamburg
• Led Zeppelin – How the West Was Won
• Little Feat – Waiting for Columbus
• Neil Young – Live Rust
• Roy Harper – Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion
• The Allman Brothers Band – Live at the Fillmore East
• The Rolling Stones – Get Your Ya Ya’s Out
• The Who – Live at Leeds

Also rans ... The Band – The Last Waltz / James Brown – Live in Paris 1971: Love Power Peace (I actually like this one better than Live at the Apollo; I think the musicianship is better) / Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble – Live Alive / Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense / Johnny Winter And – Live

PS: I would acknowledge that Frampton Comes Alive, KISS Alive and maybe Cheap Trick Live at Budokan were essential to those artists' careers and might merit inclusion on this kind of list ... they’re just not among my personal favorites.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fear Is Fear

Watching the DVDs of old Twilight Zone episodes with my teenager, I'm struck by how one out of every three or four shows seems to deal with nuclear armageddon or alien invasion. I keep finding myself explaining to my daughter how real worry about those things (at least the former) were prevalent parts of reality back in the 1950s and '60s. Now we just have swine flu and terrorism to worry about. (Great show, nonetheless.)

10 Best Debut Albums

Last Christmas, I made a “Father Knows Best” Box Set of the 10 Best Debut Albums of All Time for my 13-year-old daughter. Later, I posted the list on Facebook and got some interesting input from friends. I figured it was a good, timeless post with which to seed this new blog.

So here it is, in no particular order:

• Led Zeppelin

• The Doors

• Jimi Hendrix – Are You Experienced

• Big Country – The Crossing

• Crosby, Stills & Nash

• Echo & The Bunnymen – Crocodiles

• U2 – Boy

• The La’s

• Jeff Buckley – Grace

• The Clash

And because I can’t resist, my close runners up: Thrashing Doves’ Bedrock Vice / Santana, Talking Heads’ 77, The Band’s Music From Big Pink, Norah Jones’ Come Away with Me, David Lindley & El Rayo X, Garbage, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, and The Proclaimers’ This Is The Story.

Why This Title?

I can’t claim to have thought “long and hard” about the title for this blog, but I did give it some thought. I wanted something that would represent the occasionally studious nature and eclectic range of topics (not to mention the appreciation for history), while also indicating some degree of whimsy – which, as previously noted, I hope will be evident here as well. (The “Mad” is used in the sense of crazy or zany, not angry.)

The “Archivist” part was easy. Those who know me know that I’ve long been a collector, cataloger and something of a completist when it comes to … well, many things. I'm not sure precisely what drives this tendency, but it must be a fundamental personality trait because I’ve been that way for as long as I can remember. Some might call it obsessive-compulsive behavior (without the hand-washing and door-locking).

The rest of the title came from my fond memories of a book from many years ago when I was an elementary student. When I wasn’t reading sports books, I devoured The Mad Scientists’ Club, by Bertrand R. Brinley, as well as The Three Investigators series (kind of a Hardy Boys for my generation). I wasn’t particularly a science buff, by any means, but looking back on those stories I think their appeal was the combination of adventure and the protagonists’ use of their wits, ingenuity and intellect to solve the problems at hand.

The combination of this nostalgic “inspiration” and this personal characteristic seemed to strike the right balance and make an apt title for this blog. (God knows, it wasn’t created with SEO in mind!) So there you have it: “The Mad Archivists’ Club.” As for the plural possessive in the title (i.e., more than one mad archivist), I hope others (i.e., you!) will join me in the adventures.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Here We Go ...

After using Facebook in an apparently somewhat unprecedented, issue-oriented, blog-like manner for the last several months – to the chagrin of some, it seems – I've finally made the effort to launch a real blog. The intent and scope of this endeavor, to the degree that any exists, is to foist that which I find interesting and worthy of illumination or comment on all who chose to subject themselves to whatever I offer up. Those that know me well will expect both a few recurring themes (music, media, cultural and political topics, and sports), as well as the occasional random tidbit or esoteric oddity.

I am fortunate in that I have many smart and thoughtful friends and colleagues. I envision writing for them, and I hope they will be motivated to comment now and then. I also hope that through one means or another, others whom I don't know will also discover this content and find it interesting, informative, thought-provoking and sometimes worthy of comment.

One last thought: I hope the humor, whether blatant or subtle, will always be near the surface. I'm always amazed that just because I do like to get into "heavy" topics now and then, people seem to think I'm way more serious than I really am. I hope you'll see both the serious and the silly.