row houses

Yesterday I took a train ride to Philadelphia, alone. This was something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, to see the Mutter Museum, a famous collection of freaks and medical oddities located at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Since the kids were at my husband’s house for the weekend, the time was at hand. So next thing I knew, I was on a perfect train ride, gloomy day, large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee in hand, The Cure on the mp3 player, staring wistfully out the window and taking videos of nondescript trees flicking poetically by, and random photos of the most abandoned, decayed industrial tri-state landscapes I could see. I swear that “17 Seconds” was made for looking out the window of a train on gloomy days.

I have a larger than usual appetite for strange and unknown landscapes. I love weird dramatic places, gloomy oceans or deserts. I loved the Navajo reservation in Arizona, Utah, with it’s thunderstorms, dark purple skies and jagged cliffs. Times Square is nice, but it’s been in too many postcards. Please don’t drag me to a tropical island with the requisite palm tree and azure sea. Yawn.

IMG_1392Lately, I have been obsessed with abandoned and dilapidated buildings and industrial surroundings. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the scenery of Northern Philadelphia. Wow. It is made of miles and miles of strange narrow little row houses. Each “house” is just an individually colored slice of a large building covering many blocks. Each unit is very narrow, giving the entire building an organic formless look where a variety of designs and colors extend out over a common facade. I wonder if these houses were all built at the same time or over longer periods?

A native Californian, the first time I saw row houses was in San Francisco, the stereotypical rows that you see in every postcard. I thought they were cute and fell in love with the city that seemed so different from the sprawl I was used to. Row houses always reminded me of the early 20th century, something out of Steinbeck or Edward Hopper, the early urbanization of America, street cars and produce stands and porches, etc. Everybody is living close together and everything is just right out there on the street. You aren’t hidden in a row house, as you are in an anonymous high-rise apartment or a spread out suburb.

I guess it’s not so surprising that my life has ended up in a row house. I travelled the upwardlyhouses_adjusted mobile path from cheap college apartment (but oh, what a college place – a beautiful brick courtyard walk-up in Hyde Park, Chicago), to a concrete 1970’s “ejerlejlighed ” (condo) in Denmark, to large suburban house with my husband and family in New Jersey – 4 floors, 2.5 baths, a huge backyard, patio, swing set, but alas no porch and never a neighbor to be seen. All was calm and stillness in the suburbs. When I separated from my husband and that big place I moved into a row house.

So here I am, in my first floor apartment in my little row house. It’s a luxury row – detached. Each little pitched roof house has a three foot sidewalk going to the backyard. I’ve got a porch where I sometimes sit drinking tea or drawing pictures of the row houses across the street. There are neighbors all around and they all sit on their porches too. The kids say hi when they ride by on their scooters. You can hear music. Tonight I saw a young couple kissing on the porch across the street. The families are mostly from Oaxaca. There are also college students. Nobody is rich, but I guess people in row houses rarely are. But this row house in perfect for me right now. It’s going to be hard to leave.

Sequins of Time

Maybe it’s the result of being brought up in the hothouse of 1980’s California subcultures, where white kids reinvented themselves as exotic and weird, perhaps either from looking longingly at the gloomy dark landscapes of England with the conspicuous and refreshing absence of tanned surfers, or as a result of co-existing among blacks Chicanos, and the many Asian nationalities who live here, but I’ve always been attracted to the strange and exotic and grotesque in music film, fashion and any other expressive area that I can find. Now that I’m just another layered haired, swim lesson chauffeuring New Jersey stepford mom, my punk roots are kind of hard to recognize, but they exist and it all started back in L.A……

Everything was in place for me to turn out kinda weird. My dad was a collector of strange 1950’s music and culture. Everywhere around our house were old records by Big Joe Turner, Richard Berry, the Moonlighters, the Orioles, Chuck Berrry. Mom and Dad took my sister and I to record swap meets at the Capital Records building in Hollywood. We would sleep overnight in our Chinook camper. In the morning my dad would sell records and sis and I would get to eat donuts with the other kids of record sellers. I was still just a nerdy kid and sometimes I hated my parents for their weirdness. My sister and I had to share a room because my dad needed the other bedroom to house 30,000 45 rpm records. My parents dragged me through an endless array of thrift stores in his quest for old records. I wanted to have clothes from the mall – bright, fresh clean smelling pastel Ralph Lauren and Izod shirts, jeans from Calvin or Jordache. But alas, it was so much easier to pick up a few promising, unfaded thrift store garments and try to convince me they were just as good. I hated those smelly, cramped places! How I longed to shop in the bright, musical, polished and mirrored shops! But this was all to change.

I think it was Soft Cell. I heard “Tainted Love” on the radio and forgot everything else. Marc Almond’s blank, androgynous English voice was strange and beautiful. I loved that “doot doot” beat in the background, the muffled electronic rythm distantly reminiscent of the cheerful american girl group sound of the 1960’s. I would take my little transistor everywhere, hoping that the local L.A. pop station would play “Tainted Love”. One day I requested it for my mom. She was embarrassed. MTV was the next step in my music and fashion evolution. I learned about Duran Duran, Heaven 17, and Culture Club and became nu-ro. I wore several skirts and Chinese cloth shoes and ripped t-shirts, long bangs. I tried to apply eyeliner with strange results. Around this time I was usually to be found sitting in front of the television, comparing “Hungry Like the Wolf” to “Life During Wartime” or “Penthouse and Pavement”. Some other life-changing moments were not long to follow….

Moment #1: I saw “Let’s Go to Bed” by the Cure on MTV. This video caused me to fall in love. Here was the man of my eternal dreams, in flesh, or at least bright video flesh. He was dark haired, pale, with bewitching dark eyes. He wore black clothes. He was as weird as I was. He sang lyrics erotic to a 13 year old girl, dancing around a bed making strange hand gestures. He was so much more extreme and pale than healthy tanned Simon LeBon, dancing in the Brazilian rain forest…though Simon had a sexy mouth and Nick Rhodes was still my future husband. Smith was sinister, he could have come from a dark alley behind a nightclub in a bad part of a sleazy city….let’s get acquainted…getting to know you. At this moment, I fell in love not only with Robert Smith, but with the remote corners of the oldest parts of my city, and every man who looked strange and dark and weird and intense and unlike the happy healthy tanned surfers that grew around me in this hothouse of malls and multiplex cinemas and bitchen Cameros.

Moment #2: I discovered that thrift stores could be good. This moment occurred on a family trip to Pismo Beach. Pismo was a slightly run down, slightly dirty beach straight out of Steinbeck or Tennessee Williams or Lynch. It was shadowy with drunken sailors and drug addicts and drifters, old faded storefronts with cheap rooms upstairs. I hated that my family dragged me here. I wanted to go to Disneyland, still. But they loved the atmosphere, the cheap seafood and the great thrift stores. One day, my dad insisted on stopping to go into yet another thrift. I was almost in tears, following reluctantly and dutifully into that endless plane of junk. Bored, I began idly browsing the racks of women’s clothes, into which I was just beginning to fit. Within minutes I had discovered a 1950’s sequined cashmere sweater, just like Annette or Jane Wiedlin from the Go-Go’s might wear! Then I found a 1950’s satin prom dress – just like the cool Hollywood girls had worn at the at Big Jay McNeeley concerts. Then, within a few more minutes, I found tight black wool skirt with a matching beaded sleeveless top, very English Beat, very Detroit girl group, very mod. It fit me. Mom and dad bought the lots and I think it only cost them $4. I walked out of that store happy.

I had discovered my first rich ore of 1950’s style, so plentiful and cheap back in early 80’s Southern California, where kids still obsessed with the safe nondevience of pastel Esprit conformity. With that brilliant swoop of economy I would no longer be that nerdy girl going to school in old clothes she hated. I had an identity. I would show off my inner flame by proudly wearing old cheap thrift store cast offs not because I had to, but because I wanted to. The feeling of power in these clothes was as potent as atomic waste. That beaded black sweater set was cheap and slightly trashy and back-alley. It was from a cooler, earlier time of hepcats and garage bands and surf movies and Phil Spector. All the things my father had imprinted into my brain, which I had heretofore considered useless, could now be expressed through the fabulous revolutionary new wonder invention of retro fashion. Each thrift store item was unique, a perfect forgotten cast off unlike everything else on the rack. Unique and poetic and slightly rejected and out of place, just like I felt at 13 with my eyeliner, long bangs and fantasies of Buddy Holly and Robert Smith.

A little time went by and I was introduced to the girl who would be my best friend and partner in crime for many years. Her dad was a record collector too. She was slightly dangerous and wild and older – 15 to be exact. She had listened to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Now she was listening to the Sex Pistols. She knew about thrift stores. Her look was tight leggings with chartreuse men’s shirts and Chinese mary janes shoes. She knew how to apply eyeliner and I wanted to be just like her.

Before too long we were both sitting in her room listening to “The Great Rock and Roll Swindle”, drinking cokes and talking about how enviable Nancy Spungeon’s life had been. Outside her room her dad was smoking and drinking and listening to Albert King or Blind Joe something or other. All his favorite artists seemed to be blind or little or Joe. She knew boys from the local punk bands and they came over. She had the odd fortune of living right down the street from Zed Records, the legendary punk record store in Long Beach where the aspiring Billy Idol had been sent by his record label to learn how to dress punk. Every day we’d walk to Zed and look at the singles and stickers – Crass, D.I., Jodie Foster’s Army, PiL, Nina Hagen, Unit 3 With Venus. Sometimes, rarely, we’d have money enough to buy one. I remember buying “Nagasaki Nightmare” by Crass. Mostly we’d sit in front of the store and smoke cloves. We died our hair black. We went around to thrift stores and shopped for 50’s clothes together. We found huge crosses made out of nails (!) and wore them to be goth. She loaned me her black leggings.

Later, we discovered Melrose Ave. I remember my first trip there. My sister’s punk friend had an older friend with a car. She was willing to take us all there after 7th grade to shop at the hip stores – Flip of Hollywood, Cowboys and Poodles and Aardvark’s Odd Ark. I had $20 and was determined to get something cool. The stores were overwhelming. So many beaded sweaters and circle skirts! But I had enough of these and knew what I wanted – my first black leggings. This was about 1983. Until this point all my clothes had been baggy Duran pants and pastel esprit colors…or thrift store clothes. It had been very hard to be cool wearing aqua and white. Now I had something black…and tight…Time went by. We started going to see more concerts – My first concert was Big Joe McNeeley at the Wiltern. I was in heaven, 13 year old me surrounded by 1980’s Hollywood rockabilly punk types wearing 1950’s clothes, ratted died hair, stiletto heels and bolos. My second concert was X. We tried to stand apart from my parents so we could smoke cloves. Then it was the Cure, Love and Rockets, Lords of the New Church, David Bowie, Johnny Thunders, Redd Kross, TSOL, the Knitters, Tex and the Horseheads, the Gun Club and others, (though not especially in that order).

Los Angeles in the 1980’s – it had been an exciting time of punk bands, Chicano culture, smoggy bright streets, palm trees, mysterious canyons, old cars, record stores on Melrose, and strange thrift-store clothed people everywhere. I will be returning to streets next week for a couple of nights. I will wander around on Melrose again after about 15 years. I know all has changed. The record stores are gone now – Rhino, Aron’s, Rene’s, even Vinyl Fetish. The bands – The Dream Syndicate, The Gun Club, X, Thelonious Monster, are broken up. Jeffrey Lee Pierce is dead. I moved away. Yet, it is still Los Angeles. Pleasant Gehman remains as does Rodney Bingenheimer. The bulidings on Melrose are still the same – sick transplants from wholesome midwestern main streets, left to rot in the blazing California sun and smog. And the Hollywood and Silverlake Hills are still dotted with secret staircases that can provide a quick means of a escape for drunken girl in a 1950’s formal trying to dodge a cab fare…..

mythologies

Last night at a T-ball practice I saw another mom disciplining one of my son’s team-mates, a first grader. Bending to his level and scolding her son in a pointed finger gesture, she looked like something from a sunday-morning comic, or Lucille Ball or any number of TV housewives. This morning during the chaotic hour that is called breakfast – hurridly making Ovaltine, pouring Cheerios, drinking coffee, trying to keep my 2 year old from dropping too much on the floor while fielding my 7 year old’s questions about dinosaurs, I heard myself saying “Eat your breakfast! We’re not taping up the box for your science project until you finish your oatmeal!” That too could have been a line from “Family Circus” or maybe written for Alice on an episode of the Brady Bunch. I too, have become a cliche.

Far from something I laugh conspiratorially about with the supermarket cashier, exchanging epithets like “When did I become my mother?” or lamenting about the travails of taking care of children, I do not like the fact that I have become a myth and a cliche of frustrated 1950’s domestic motherhood. I wonder when it happened and if it will ever end. Will I ever go back to being myself?

In the 60’s, that era that everyone seems to have forgotten about, Roland Barthes wrote a lot about contemporary mythology. He describes myths as a second-leve semoitic system. I don’t really know that that means, but I’m glad that he has opened this area for discussion. Like metaphor, our society depends on myths. They are images that we can communicate and digest easily, the knowing father who gives advice, the friendly black service worker, the Mexican gardener, the TV mom. We tolerate and propogate myths, and that is the problem.

I’m sick of living with myths. I seek new ways of representation and new ways of expression. I’m a mom but that doesn’t mean my life has to be an absurd endless repetition of the life of Carol Brady, or Alice, or a comic strip. That is why I like blogging. I can’t escape from these roles in daily life, but at least I can talk about them on the Internet, and then I can concern myself with that science project without going crazy.

video editing

For some reason, I’ve become addicted to Linux video editing. I’m using an analog video camera to get the footage. Then I burn the video to a DVD using a Liteon DVD recorder. Then I import the DVD on to my computer and edit it using Cinelerra (wonderful program). It’s really fun but way too many late nights. Here is my first little Quicktime movie, which shows off my prodigious video editing skills. Take a look!

Memories

Whenever I read about a postmodern book or some postmodern art, it is always described as being “about” memory. Memory is big in the arena of postmodernism. I can understand why. If Frederic Jameson described postmodernism as a state of being surrounded by free-floating symbols and images, with no connection to the past, then we become increasingly dependent on our memories to create the context and narratives of our lives. This allows us more creative freedom, but less of a common experience. I have been reading a “postmodern fiction” book, entitled “The Emigrants”, by W.G. Sebald. The book is wonderful. Sebald creates a story entirely from his memories and the memories of his characters. It is not an “official” story or account of anything or any official history though the story is roughly interconnected by the experience of emigrating from Germany and Switzerland at the time of the Nazi movement, and roughly about the experience of German Jews. At times it’s vague and foggy, like memories are. It’s also very personal and chronicles little details of life, instead of big important events like battles or political movements. I really enjoy it.

The book also makes me think of the importance of my memories in my own time and place. It seems like some memories are acceptable, while others are discouraged, if not downright insurgent. For example, I am welcome to laugh and share in the good-natured criticism of tacky late-70’s styles while looking at “retro” advertising or a “retro” film like Napolean Dynamite. If a corporate creative department encourages me to remember, that’s ok. But what about my real memories of a period? For example, I have memories of airline travel during the late 70’s, having been lucky enough to be able to fly to Greece as a little kid. I remember being treated like royalty on the airline, given free food and top-notch service, etc. Of course, if I bring these memories up to an airline rep today as evidence of a decline in service, they treat me like I’m wasting their time. I know because I tried it once.

So go ahead, share your real memories with people, even if they’re critical. The real memories of individuals are far more interesting than the official memories with which corporations and entertainment industry would like to program us.

favorite songs

Here are some of my favorite songs. I’ll explain why later:

Scott Walker – “Sleepwalkers Woman” from “Climate of Hunter” LP. This song is like the wind. That is how I would characterize it. Strong and elusive and it makes you feel as if you’re transcending the world. Prog rock? I don’t know. But I like it a lot better than “Larks Tongues in Aspic” by King Crimson, which to me just sounded like them experimenting with different instruments. Scott Walker was an American who got lost in Europe and subsequently lost all of his American-ness. I think that makes him more European than most Europeans, but probably more American too in an ironic way.

Japan – Nightporter – geez I love this song. It just suits my whole Euro-melancholy, Marxist pseudo-intellectual zeitgeist (notice I use the work zeitgeist instead of “vibe” here). This song just evokes sad cafes along rivers in Paris, candles, angst, cabarets and walks down broad boulevards on rainy days in long coats. And David Sylvian’s voice is just so rich and sad….but not gothic, definitely not skulls and vampires and Tim Burton. The song has an adult sound too. It’s poetic and rich with imagery, but not harsh or relentless or gimmicky. Ugh. Descriptions of songs never sound as good as the music itself.

Bowie – Station to Station – this song, along with “Wild is the Wind” from his wonderful Station to Station LP, is for being whisked around in the ultra modern, progressive subways of East Berlin or Moscow during the 70’s when these places thought they would technologically progress beyond America because they believed in the idealogies under which they were created. Maybe they didn’t progress technologically, but their technological and cultural achievements are certainly more evocative than those of the Western world.

Roxy Music – Song for Europe, Mother of Pearl – “Here as I sit in this lonely cafe”….a nother melancholy cabaret song. This one just pulls chords in my heart, as does everything by Roxy Music.

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights – Leave it to Kate, the eternal romantic, to write a song based on Heathcliff and Katherine in Bronte’s great gothic romance, Wuthering Heights. And while many female pop singers sing only about their own loves, Kate tells the story of a great literary love affair. That’s what sets her apart.

places and moods

Here is a list of places I’ve been thinking about recently. These are places I’ve been and remember, or places I really want to go someday:

1) East Berlin or Moscow or anywhere in Russia. I’d love to visit one of these places. I’ve been on a campaign to go to Berlin recently, and Russia is my long-term goal. I am curious about a formerly communist place. Something about communism fascinates me, and not in a negative way. I don’t care if it didn’t work.
Something about people taking the theories of a group of intellectuals (Marx, etc) and trying to set up a society around them really impresses me. All that organizing and planning, all those manifestos and architectural projects and parades and stuff.

2) The Acropolis and the Hermes Hotel in Athens. I was in Greece when I was 9 and our family stayed in the Hotel Hermes in Athens. It felt very elegant to me at the time. It was a modern style facade with lots of glass. In particular I remember the lobby, with a very high ceiling and walls (possibly brick) going up the entire height of the building. They had a big painting or metal decorative map installed on one of the walls, and I thought it was so beautiful. I will always remember the feeling of that hotel lobby – modern and elegant in a European way. I loved the Acropolis too. It was grand and awe-inspiring that it had been the seat of western culture.

3) The UCLA art library – I did my BA in art history at UCLA. For a while I worked at the UCLA art library. I’ll always remember this beautiful light filled modern space with countless rare art books.

4) The library from “Wings of Desire”. One scene from “Wings of Desire” (my favorite film) takes place in a modern library in Berlin. I would love to visit that library as it looks very still and modern and elegant.

5) Unite d’Habitation – Can you tell I’m a modern architecture freak? I am. Well, I really just love good architecture of any style. Unite d’Habitation, designed by Bauhaus genius LeCorbusier, is what I consider good architecture. It’s a huge modern concrete high-rise in the south of France. Yet, the concrete is well formed and looks almost like sculpture. I’ve seen many pictures of the beautiful exterior. I’m curious about the interior. Having lived in a modern concrete building in Denmark, I believe that concrete walls do best with sculpture, pottery and weavings. Paintings don’t look so good on concrete as it is too rough.

6) Chicago. Chicago is a gothic city with it’s many stone buildings and gargoyles. Some of the earliest skyscrapers are in Chicago, the ones designed by Louis Sullivan. Then there are the stone and brick walk ups. Then there are the Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Oak Park and the Robie House. So much beautiful architecture in Chicago. Its all very solid because of the extreme weather. I love Chicago in a snowstorm. The buildings look so solemn and quiet and stoic against the driving wind and snow. They just stand there – year after year.

Those are some of my favorite places. I’ll think of more later, maybe.