Thursday, January 13, 2011

turntable talk

They were my band in the 80s. They were the first band I got into on my own. Not on the suggestion of a friend, or by listening to my parents' music, or by hearing them on the radio. The Clash. My dad had a weekly newspaper in South Jersey and he suggested I write a music column for it. He even suggested the title, Turntable Talk. So I guess I've been reviewing pop culture since I was a tween ...

Anyway, once I had written a bunch of columns I felt like I had run out of subject matter. I had already written about all my favorite singers and bands. "Why don't you write the record companies and see if you can review some of their new albums?" said the old man "But I'm just a kid!" I argued. "They don't know that." So I drafted a letter, got the record company addresses from the backs of my albums, Dad proofed it and we sent it out to CBS, A&M, Epic, etc.

A few weeks later, the free albums started pouring in. So many of the albums were by obscure bands and one-hit wonders—Huang Chung, who changed their name to Wang Chung, The Dickies, Gino Vannelli (which came with a full-size poster of Gino which my mom brought to the newspaper and put up on the wall behind the typesetter), the Ethel Merman Disco Album (I kid you not.) And I listened to all of them, all the way through, no matter how difficult, or how far it drove the family out of the house. We only had one stereo in the house. I took my "job" of reviewing very seriously, even the questionable loot.

Clash photo collage
Multiple-photo collage, by Elizabeth Periale

But I also got some really great stuff. The Police, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello and The Clash. I'll never forget the first time I put on The Clash one weekend morning. I was the only one home at the time. Maybe instinctively I knew to wait until I was alone, that I was about to have an experience. The sound coming out of the stereo was loud and raw and scary and exciting. My neighbor, Mrs. Dembski, who was walking her dog, or watering her lawn, or doing something that caused her to come out onto her front lawn across the street stopped whatever it was she was doing and stood still, staring at our house. Inside, I bounced around, afraid yet thrilled, and knew that suddenly this column and album-reviewing wasn't just something I was doing for my Dad to be part of the family business. I was really into this.

word paintings/performance
Greeting folks at the door to my installation.

Years later, when I went away to art school at Parsons I took my Clash and Police records (I left Gino Vanelli at home with Mom) and eventually stopped in at CBS to introduce myself to the contact who had been sending me all their records. She was probably only about five years older than me, but seemed a little surprised at my youth—but only for a moment before she loaded me down with an armful of new records. I didn't end up going to any of the other labels I had been corresponding with while I was still in high school, as I just didn't have time with all my classes and assignments. But I continued to write and send dad the occasional column until the paper folded in my junior year.

During that year I really came into my own at Parsons and was experimenting with photography and film and performance, as well as taking the drawing and painting classes in the curriculum. I had talked my way out of taking any more sculpture classes (usually required) when my sculpture teacher and I both agreed that I just didn't have a 3D-eye (hey, that story was convincing at the time), and I added printmaking instead. I started using a lot of the publicity materials that the record companies had sent me as the subject matter and even raw material for my artwork.

word paintings/performance

My ten red panels in a darkened room.

I was listening to a lot of different music, but I listened mostly to the Clash while I created a large-scale installation for my drawing class. I had draped a room with plastic sheeting, painted black, the paint chipping off of it until it became a tunnel which led viewers to a set of ten painted wooden panels with words pres-typed onto them. I wanted people to feel as if they were walking into my painting. I knew I would need music, the music I was listening to while I made the panels, to fill the room. I asked my friend Steven Parrino, if he would make a tape for me, using the Clash's music. He didn't necessarily think the band was cool—he was always onto whatever he thought was the nextest, bestest thing—but he agreed.

I did a little research and found out the Clash had an "office"in New York called Clash, Inc., and called and made an appointment. When I visited, it was a big empty loft somewhere in midtown with a young woman with a British accent who seemed to be the lone staff person. I told her my story and asked if I could include some of the band's music as background for my art installation. She said yes and asked me to send her an invite. "Maybe we'll come and see it." I was beyond thrilled and handed over my albums to Steven and told him to go nuts.


Steven Parrino, artist and mixtape-maker extraordinaire, expounding on the meaning of art,
or something. 
I miss you, Steven.

Of course Steven distorted the songs and did so much scratching, etc. that my familiar favorites were hardly recognizable. But it did sound cool and was perfect for the enveloping, claustrophobic nature of the piece. The girl from Clash, Inc. showed up and was probably as befuddled at first as I had been when she heard Steven's wall-of-Clash-sound, but she congratulated me on the installation and told me that "The Boys" would have loved it.

I gave all my old albums many years ago to my cousin, the only person I know who still has a working turntable. I've got quite a few of my favorite Clash songs loaded onto my iPhone—the kid sings along happily with me to Should I Stay or Should I Go. But recently I've been feeling the lack of Sandinista. There's something about putting on such a massive album as that one and letting it envelop you ... sort of like my installation. I haven't done that in a long time.

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