If the macabre, the weird, and the bizarre had a champion, his name was Gahan [GAY-un] Wilson, who loved all things dark and dreary. He’s been one of my visual delights since childhood, for as long as I can remember, and he gave us so much to enjoy and be disturbed by.
I wasn’t old enough to discover his Playboy cartoons, but one early Christmas I was given one of my favorite and inspiring books: Bob Fulton’s Amazing Soda-Pop Stretcher, one of numerous boy genius volumes I devoured with excitement and ambition when I was a pre-teen. The illustrations were goofy, but had a dark edge, something that thrilled me.
I kept an eye out for his unusual name, and soon found his darker cartooning, which was both disturbing and funny, like Charles Addams was, but Wilson’s work filled the page with ballooning strangeness, in contrast to Addams’s more modest form and line.
There’s a wonderful interview with him below, discussing his origins and work.
I’m not sure what it is about the weight of the day bearing down on the lowest part of us says about how we make art. But it is a near universal phenomenon that conveys how exhausted we feel after many hours of any task.
Construction? Sore feet. Gallerist? Same. Desk job? Trip to Disneyland? Blogger? Check. Check. Check.
We feel gravity most through our lower appendages. But we don’t often look down at or beside them, as a general rule. And checking out the places we walk can be extraordinarily revealing about the world nearby. The seasonal patterns of leaves and dust and water shift over the course of a year, with the refuse and discarded bits of consumption. There are lost pieces of apparel, and plants forcing their way up through the smallest of cracks in what we thought were impenetrable surfaces.
Maybe keep a closer eye on those feet as they carry the weight of all your efforts. There’s fodder for more work down there.
This is one of those posts where I almost want the title to stand alone.
We’re pressured to pick and stick to paths in life and career. But if change is good, and inevitable, where’s the line between getting somewhere and always starting anew? Is it focus, or stubbornness? Is it being adaptable or scattered?
It isn’t bad to change direction and break a longstanding pattern. If you always circle back, okay, maybe that’s a phenomenon to try altering. But I want to keep in mind that we only get to the end of a metaphorical path in life when life is over. And if we’re always journeying, how much does it matter where we’re going?
I was a fan of the band The Police in high school—to be fair, I still am—and hungry for everything they’d made, including their solo work individually. I got Andy Summers’s experimental albums with Robert Fripp, I listened along with half the world to Sting’s solo debut, but Stewart Copeland was always my most compelling draw.
The Rhythmatist, released in 1985, was a kind of encapsulation of Stewart’s trek across Africa, visiting musicians and tribes from East to West, recording their music and composing songs as he went. I got the album on cassette (it was my preferred format just before I started collecting CDs exclusively) as soon as I knew about it. I loved just about all of it, and consumed it obsessively as I do everything I love. I hoped desperately to see the film that was attached to this weird, wonderful soundtrack, but it never came to Tucson theaters or video outlets, and I let go of the idea of ever seeing it. Until today.
The film was a strange avant garde film project, something he said he wanted to resemble a music album, with no clear plot or story that people would want to watch repeatedly in the way they listened to music. I chanced on an upload of the film to YouTube, and threw it on the living room TV immediately.
It’s a bit like Stewart himself: strange, goofy, intense, energetic. It’s full of infectious and odd low-bit percussive synth melodies layered over recorded African drums and voices as well as Ray Lema’s vocals and Stewart’s own drumming. He spends time with African residents, drumming with them, dancing with them, taking in ceremonies and rituals. It feels a little exploitative for me now, with Stewart feeding us interpretations of his experiences, and no Africans get to talk about their music or their lives. That could be my own sensitivity coming into play. But it’s a product of its time, and not a documentary proper.
There’s another video of Stewart being interviewed about the film and music, which is also worth a look if you’re at all into either or both.
I’ve been in love with Allan Holdsworth’s guitar playing and composition since I discovered him obliquely through a few more famous guitarists in the mid-80s, who praised him as one of the best of the best. If ever I start watching a video with him playing or call up a track I suddenly recall, I’ll often keep following links to more of it.
The above video is a window into Allan’s musical origins. He taught himself to understand the guitar by math and visual patterns, figuring out how to make his understanding work within the framework of mainstream—more or less—music. It’s complicated and unusual, but it’s all his.
His music is strange, even now, not easy to decipher, endless melodic lines coming at you with great speed and transition. But it’s worth digging into, rewarding in a way the most deeply connected artists can convey. Like the best literature, it can be a bit of work and persistence to absorb and penetrate, but his music rewards close attention.
His speed and wild runs is what gets the most attention, but there’s equal, aching power and beauty in his quiet, airy chord voicing that so often precede and follow those blistering passages.
I’m still moving everything I own down the street(s), and all is scattered and turvy. But I’ve got some links I’ve enjoyed recently, and here they are:
The sound of dial-up:
I was talking about early internet days with my brother, and how this very specific set of noises prepared me for the infinite possibilities that awaited.
David Tennant does a very different Hamlet:
The desperate quiet pain of a young man turning in on himself is beautifully, devastatingly interpreted, here. I need to see the whole thing, even if it’s got missing bits as the soliloquy here has.
The ultimate evil eye ending:
I quote Simpsons lines and scenes often, and in this segment, Homer and Mr. Burns carry off a beautifully timed, unhinged, and hilarious denouement. It’s the kind of trope-tweaking the show used to be very good at.
More art soon. The view from the new place is the image at the top.
Somebody linked Holly Herndon’s Godmother on Twitter months ago, and I was an instant convert, sorry that I hadn’t found her before. Herndon recently finished her music PhD, and her sound is a kind of amalgam of vaguely recognizable traditional cultural forms of uncertain origin. It sounds weirdly familiar, but I can’t place specific influences.
There’s an emphasis on rhythm and voice. Herndon and her collaborators pile vocal tracks atop one another in a dizzying stack, though production remains remarkably unmuddied.
There’s also something disturbing, unnerving about both songs and video. Herndon uses programmed manipulation to chop up lines, in some cases letting a trained AI feed impressions back into songs. It’s all heady and fresh, and I’m very on board.
For a while, now, it’s become clear that what used to be obvious documentation of events is approaching a cliff. The edge is believability, and we’re all clustered at the precipice, some have fallen off, some are looking at the chasm. “It’s Photoshopped” was the death knell of images as proof of things. Soon, it’ll be video as well.
For smug tech nerds like me who believed we could spot fakes at least relatively quickly, it’s about time to wipe the smirks off. As the above video demonstrates, we are very close to being able—and by “we” I mean random people with easily downloaded apps and some time on their hands—to present any number of people in just about any real world situation. Fakes are becoming indistinguishable from reals.
The philosophical implications are big. It’s going to be a struggle to vet sources and establish trust. For art, this is a massive gate to new worlds opening up, but I think the sociological implications need to be acknowledged. In fact, this is something art can expose and illuminate very well.