Saturday, May 28, 2011

Elvis Costello's 15 Greatest Cover Songs

Elvis Costello has covered songs since the beginning of his career, and has held forth on stage, to interviewers, on numerous tribute albums, and in liner notes on his favorite artists and their work with respect and enthusiasm (but for an unfortunate drunken night in Columbus, Ohio in 1979).  From early interviews to his numerous collaborations in the 1990s' and 2000's to Spectacle, his recent, short-lived quasi talk show on Sundance, Costello has championed other musicians' careers, and has worked with many songwriters, in many arrangements both live and in the studio, over the decades.  As a great songwriter, Costello naturally filters others' work through his style and gifts when he composes originals; I thought I'd take a look at his many cover songs, and try and judge his greatest fifteen.

As in my choices for his 15 greatest original songs, certain principles governed the process:

1) I ignored decades' worth of bootleg studio and live tracks, instead focusing on Costello's official cannon (including, happily, his many CD reissues which have generously gathered stray tracks.  A quick search online reveals tons of covers recorded over the decades yet to see Costello's "canonical blessing"; I hope that he eventually releases, among others, his version of "Penny Lane," performed last year at the White House in front of Paul McCartney);

2)  for the sake of my own sanity, and because of the size of my admittedly thin collection, I ignored cover songs that appear only on live videos and DVDs; I also ignored unauthorized live clips on YouTube;

3) I ignored Costello's unfortunate tendency toward "medley covers";

4) I was especially interested in how in others' songs Costello balances his sometimes-fatal love for wordplay with someone else's lyrics, and how he navigates another's melody, especially if the melody stretches Costello's conventional style and range.

I wonder, how does someone else's song become Costello's.


The list, in order of recording date:

1) I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself (Live Stiffs, 1978)

2) (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? (Armed Forces, 1979)

3) My Funny Valentine (b-side, 1979)

4) So Young (unreleased/Out Of Our Idiot, 1987)

5) Psycho (b-side, 1981)

6) Withered And Died (b-side, 1984 [The Imposter])

7) Walking On Thin Ice (Every Man Has A Woman, 1984)

8) What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (unreleased/Goodbye Cruel World, reissue 2004)

9) Get Yourself Another Fool (12" b-side, 1986)

10) God Only Knows (The Juliet Letters, reissue 2006)

11) Step Inside Love (CD single, 1994)

12) Pouring Water on a Drowning Man (Kojak Variety, 1995)

13) Brilliant Disguise (CD single, 1996)

14) Changing Partners (Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, 2009)

15) Femme Fatale (Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, 2009)


I trusted my gut in selecting, and strove to discern quality over uniqueness or novelty of song selection.  I learned that Costello's greatest cover songs are not necessarily his greatest songs; from this list, only the storming "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and psycho "Psycho" (for which commentary is superfluous) would have competed for my selection of his greatest songs.

But these are all great performances nonetheless, Costello getting inside songs not his own and discovering that he lives among them, too.  He's having fun, also, with the ska groove on "So Young," nudging and winking his way through Jerry Dammers' funny "What I Love Most About You Is Your Girlfriend," and carefully navigating McCartney's "Step Inside Love," a challenging melody for him to sing.  It's revealing to hear a very young Attractions assist Costello in his early love for Burt Bacharach and Hal David on Live Stiffs, just as it is to hear Costello alone in the studio a year later tackle, and own, Rodgers' and Hart's "My Funny Valentine."  It's nice to hear Costello approach Bing Crosby's arrangement of "Changing Partners" and Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale" on the same album with the same bluegrass musicians, from the ridiculous to the sublime; his singing on the former benefits from the lower timbre accompanying his aging, as he sings with a weariness and melancholy that I don't think he could've pulled off twenty years ago.  The other great melody that Costello sings here is Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows" with the Brodsky Quartet; I might get some blowback for this choice and, truth be told, I hesitated, as overall it's a bit mannered, but Costello's soaring vocal clinched it for me, further proof not only of his maturing vocal strengths but of his fearlessness in attempting a difficult — and in this case, iconic — melody.  Yoko One's "Walking On Thin Ice" is very cool, the Attractions nailing a funky New Orleans vibe while Costello offers an odd but effective vocal alternating between the top and bottom of his register.  Drew Baker's and Danny McCormick's "Pouring Water On A Drowning Man," Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died," and Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" are fantastic: sparse and powerful, simple arrangements that discourage vocal fussiness; "Brilliant Disguise" is one of my favorite Costello performances of recent years, a bone-simple acoustic reading with Costello singing in a plain style.

Speaking of favorites, "Get Yourself Another Fool" is, I disclose, close to me for personal reasons: it was the song playing over and over on my Walkman in the summer of 1988 as I staggered through London's bookstore district after a girl who may or may not have existed.  Foolish, indeed.  Costello's performance voices something private and personal, but I'm convinced that it's pretty great on its own without my melodrama.


Of course, I reserve the right to change the list next week, or tomorrow.  Close calls: Pomus and Shuman's "The World Of Broken Hearts" (b-side, 1982), John Hiatt's "The Room Nobody Lives In" (b-side, 1989), Allen Toussaint's "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further?" from The River In Reverse (2006), and "Ring Of Fire" from 2007's Anchored In Love: A Tribute To June Carter Cash.  Others...?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

An Origin Story

On M*A*S*H episode Burns was talking to Hot Lips on the phone and said, “A weekend can be a lifetime if you use it right" and she rolled her eyes or winced and clearly the line was played for laughs — the laugh track insisted  — but a part of me deep down thought, No I get it, of course, a weekend can be a lifetime if you use it right and maybe I was holding out hope against a fading Sunday evening dreadfully leaning into the politics of Monday morning, or maybe it was another part of me that already got time, that understood, that intuited somehow the subjective nature of it all, the clock on the wall ticking backwards, the eternal moments in the basement, the crab apple tree, the bike whipping into the infinite dark of the woods, knew that time is how you define it, stretch it, ignore it, run from it, that a weekend can be a lifetime if only I could use it right, how to do that, how to do that, any nascent philosophizing on the nature of reality popped into oblivion yet again at the site of Hot Lips' thighs.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Elvis Costello's 15 Greatest Songs

I watched on television recently as Elvis Costello and the Imposters, with Emmylou Harris, performed Costello's "Heart Shaped Bruise" in a small, sweaty club in Memphis, and it confirmed what I believe, that "Heart Shaped Bruise" — from 2004's The Delivery Man — is one of the best songs Costello's written in years.  It got me to thinking: what are Elvis Costello's greatest songs?

He's written many songs, re-recorded many of them, in many styles with many different musicians utilizing many different producers across three decades.  His catalogue is overwhelming, and uneven, and its size can distract from his greatest material.  Because he writes so many songs, he writes many average songs.  He is undeniably one of the great contemporary songwriters, and I wanted to see if I can narrow down to his purest moments.  At first, I tried to come up with his ten greatest songs, but that proved impossible; too many legitimate contenders stood on the outside looking in.  I expanded the list to fifteen; twenty seemed too generous, even given Costello's prolific nature, what with the possibility that near-misses, sensing that my sentimentality and nostalgia were up, my critical guard down, might bum-rush the list.  I'll get this out of the way: all objective thinking originates in subjective response; this list, like any best-of list, is subjective.  But I like to think that I brought my critical thinking to bear here as stringently as I could. Costello's greatest songs bear out his
greatest strengths: his wit; his incisive essaying of the follies in which grown men and women find themselves helplessly entwined; his gift for melody (often under appreciated); his skepticism of sentimentality; his seriousness.  If there's any subjective bent to this list, it issues from my belief that Costello's at his best when he's writing about the politics behind closed bedroom doors, especially if such domestic politics (read, "emotional fascism") might be extrapolated to the world at large.  There's a Great Commentator at the heart of Costello's best songs, unflinchingly celebrating, lamenting, and parodying the human condition and the pride, silliness, ego, self-interest, and malice that inform it.


I established some ground rules in terms of criteria for inclusion.  I chose from among:

1) originals (regrettably eliminating a lot of great covers like "[What's So Funny 'Bout] Peace, Love, and Understanding?," "Psycho," "Get Yourself Another Fool," "Brilliant Disguise," "Changing Partners," et al); I made a co-writing exception with number 14;

2) songs that are career-spanning though not necessarily style-spanning, while keeping my selection process as rigorous as I could;

3) songs that strike the balance too often precarious in Costello's songs, between lyrical intelligence and excess cleverness, between clarity and vagueness; between incisiveness and laziness; between evocation and cloudy abstraction;

4) music that purposefully and naturally reinforces, complements, or subverts the lyrics, and vice versa.


The list, in order of release:

1) No Dancing (My Aim Is True, 1977)

2) Alison (My Aim Is True, 1977)

3) Watching The Detectives (single, 1977)

4) This Year's Girl (This Year's Model, 1978)

5) Lipstick Vogue (This Year's Model, 1978)

6) Radio, Radio (single, 1978)

7) Accidents Will Happen (Armed Forces, 1979)

8) Riot Act (Get Happy!!!, 1980)

9) You Little Fool (Imperial Bedroom, 1982)

10) Indoor Fireworks (King Of America, 1986)

11) I Want You (Blood And Chocolate, 1986)

12) Kinder Murder (Brutal Youth, 1994)

13) Poor Fractured Atlas (All This Useless Beauty, 1996)

14) God Give Me Strength (Painted From Memory, with Burt Bacharach, 1998)

15) Heart Shaped Bruise (The Delivery Man, 2004)


The easy part?  The no-brainers at the top of the list, although choosing from Costello's first several albums was tough, as his run from 1977 to 1980 was remarkable, the number of strong, memorable, novel songs staggering.  More interesting (and unsettling) to me is the eight-year gap between 1986 and 1994 and the the six-year gap between 1998 and 2004.  In part created by my tyrannically capped list, those gaps also reveal Costello's inconsistency, given my objective-challenged criteria, anyway.  Between Blood And Chocolate (in my estimation his last consistently gripping album, although All This Useless Beauty comes close) and Brutal Youth Costello grew his beard, dropped out of the industry briefly, ditched the Attractions for semi-good, and experimented widely with genres and production approaches; as a result, his music in that era is sometimes difficult to listen to and enjoy.  A similar wandering period occurred between his Bacharach collaboration and The Delivery Man: big-band experiments, film scores, divorce, new love, remarriage, torch songs, some good music scattered among it all, but a sense of trying on musical coats until finding the one that felt that he'd been wearing it for years.  As any gifted artist's career grows — especially an artist as restlessly curious as Costello, a native aspect to his character and personality that is often, puzzlingly, cited as a weakness — there will be ever-widening valleys among creative peaks.  How many great songs does Costello have in him?

I made certain that I trusted my critical instinct while choosing; if more than half of the songs on the list ended up being ballads, or rock & roll songs, then so be it (it turns out that the list is top-heavy with rock & roll, and that Costello's maturing strengths as a songwriter might lie in ballads and slower-tempo songs, which is not that surprising).  This is not necessarily a list of my favorite Costello songs.  If that were the case, I'd have to find room for, among other lesser but really good tracks, "Big Tears," "Busy Bodies," "Hoover Factory," "Heathen Town," "The Big Light," "Blue Chair," "I Had A Weakness," etc. (and, yes, "Party Party").  I tried, instead, to gather songs that individually and collectively reflect Costello's passionate interest in the foibles, seductions, and heartbreaks of the human condition — songs where his nastiness, churlish compassion, skepticism, intelligence, wit, and gift for telling narrative and characterizing details find native home in his obvious love of popular music and skill in writing well-crafted, organic songs.

Of course, I reserve the right to change the list next week, or tomorrow.  "Red Shoes"?  "No Action"?  "Clubland"?  "Man Out Of Time"?  "Brilliant Mistake"?  "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head"?  "I Want You"?  "God's Comic"?...

UPDATE: after consideration, I replaced "Poor Napoleon" with "I Want You."  


Here's a wonderful interview Costello did with PBS a couple of years ago.  A great songwriter talks about the lives of song:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

21st Century Memorytelling

Chris Milk
I first saw Chris Milk's video for Arcade Fire's "We Used To Wait" when the video went live last fall.  Like many viewers, I was taken with its boldness, uniqueness, playfulness, and mystery.  I held off writing about it for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I didn't want to be in the middle of what I was certain would be an avalanche of online commentary.  But The Wilderness Downtown didn't receive quite the viral reaction I thought it would, and that surprised me.  Everyone should see — participate in — The Wilderness Downtown.  In dramatizing the past it's opening up the future, as well.  What enamors me of Wilson's interactive multimedia video is the way it both personalizes and universalizes memory, the act of re-presenting one's past.  Though I'm somewhat wary of the video's technological showiness, I'm also fascinated, and as a writer, humbled; I'm skeptical, and I'm converted.  For the time being I'm giving myself over to Wilson's HTML5 reinvention of memory's parade.  And I'm marveling.

As the site makes clear, The Wilderness Downtown works optimally with the newest version of Google Chrome and a strong computer processor; the experience of watching is definitely enhanced if all of its moving parts are moving smoothly.  Milk's premise is simple, ingenious, and of the era: using data collected and stored by Google Maps and Google Street View, he incorporates any address into the song's video narrative, not simply by referencing it in some clumsy Web 1.0 way, but by utilizing its multiple images as an embedded part of the shifting, many-windowed content.  It's a kind of narrative mashup using the personal and the public, the private and the derivative, and it feels very 21st century.  The pictures and images of the past that one holds dearly in one's memory and imagination, even if — maybe, especially if — they differ heartbreakingly from Google Map's tyrannical insistence on documenting change, appear and disappear, becoming recombined, modified setting for a boy's roaming restlessness.  The effect is a fascinating blend of grief (my past is history, and someone else is appropriating it), false nostalgia (that's my childhood block, not his, and it looks so different), and wonder (that's my childhood block!).  You're both at a remove while watching your past become someone's setting and intimately involved while watching your past become someone's setting.


Type in an address (the site urges you to use your childhood home, which is what I did) and watch as a lonely kid — hooded, anxious, driven — runs through a nameless suburban landscape, as "We Used To Wait" plays:

Soon, an aerial view of your neighborhood appears, and is slowly zoomed on, and subsequently offered from different angles and perspectives; at one point, the boy, though winded, spins in place to take in his setting, and your own neighborhood spins with him, becomes, impossibly, his perspective.  The feeling is strange, a kind of doppelganger effect.  This can't be Amherst Avenue, yet it is:

Midway though the video, you're encouraged to write a note of "advice to the younger you that lived there then."  (Later you have the opportunity to share this "postcard" online):

On many smaller simultaneous screens a new video of the running boy appears, as random images from your neighborhood (again, courtesy of Google Maps) flash on the screen:

As the boy continues running, birds fly overhead and dive bomb the boy's terrain, as trees begin exploding from the ground, and multiply:

Eventually the aerial view of your neighborhood reappears as trees take over the landscape in abandon:


At the video's release, Milk was asked by Flux what attracts him to interactive technology:
My real motivation comes from my quest to make videos approach music’s soul-touching, emotional depth and resonance.  Honestly, I’m not sure they really ever can.  Music scores your life.  You interact with it.  You sing along to it in the car.  It becomes the soundtrack to that one summer with that one girl.  Music videos are very concrete and rigid, they don’t allow for that emotional interaction.  It’s more of a forced perspective of what a song should look like.  That makes me sad because I love music videos as an art form, but I’m uncomfortable pushing my own perspective of a song as some sort of definitive visual.  So these are experiments.  I’m not saying “this is the way.”  I’m just trying to figure out if there even is another way.
Ten years ago, Lauren Slater wrote Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir which, though belonging to a tradition, pressed a kind Reset Button for memoirs.  Milk might have done something similar.  I don't know if The Wilderness Downtown is the future of narrative writing or of memoir, but it feels like an urgent new strand that autobiographers should pick up and follow — to dismiss, if they wish, but to reckon with.  I might be embarrassed by my enthusiasm for this video in the near future; as online technology and aesthetics continue to advance, The Wilderness Downtown will look a lot less sophisticated and mind-blowing than it does now.  Future tech creakiness is a given; what's less certain is whether what Milk has created will continue to feel urgent as a 21st century memory machine.  I hope that when The Wilderness Downtown's curtain is inevitably pulled aside what's revealed is "another way" that still feels fresh, an engine that still surprises.

Photo of Chris Milk via Flux.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

"It is not the literal past that rules us..."

"It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures. It tests its sense of identity, of regress or new achievement against that past."
—George Steiner

“Mirror Abstraction”, 2005 by Carol Bove. Antique crystal ball, gold chain, bronze screws via VVORK.

Friday, May 13, 2011

An Origin Story

In the summer of 1976 I may have been cooled in the basement by the central a/c but my imagination was feverish as "Crazy On You" spilled in all of its wildness from the radios at the public pool and from the stereo in our rec room, though I was young and didn't get the sex of the refrain or feel the tensions tightening in the majestic move from the verses to that sex in the refrain, but the song got in me and stayed, was working to amp up my fever without my knowing, and it's been there at a kind of low boil ever since and I see my sister getting ready to go out with friends, she's young that summer too, only fifteen, but her fever's ahead of mine, leading her from our house to other houses and to unfamiliar cars and to groups of girls and I imagined it all that summer, her curves, her distance, her smile, her glances not at me but at others, her talent at the pool table in the basement training for something strangely adult, and I wonder whether any of this is true, that is, whether any of this is true of her or whether I've imagined for her this wildness that the song so achingly scores — outside of her closed bedroom door, the magnetic pull toward boys, the memory of what happened as I happened — whether too feverish, too romantic, too nostalgic for reality to corroborate, but beautiful feverish Crazy On You sings its own story of bodies unable to stop colliding, and there she was and I'm here, and well, there it is.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On Fifty Fotos Found

A found photograph contracts and at the same time expands, confined to the moment of its composition while possible narratives endlessly play out in our imagination. That's the fun: to end up accidentally in someone's home and be allowed to speculate as an outsider, to create fictions, to fill in the blanks. Finding a photo of strangers, who are sometimes in strange positions doing strange things, reminds us that history is never simply the background against which things occur; history provides the tableaux within which people live and act as products, as well as producers, of history. We look at a found photograph from an older era and, if there's no date-stamp, make plot-line guesses based on hairstyle, clothes, color of the shag carpet, shagginess of the shag carpet, the make of the car out the window in the driveway. Who's President?, we wonder. What's on Top 40? How have the people been shaped by history? Do they fit in to their times, or do they rebel? One can speculate wildly, but all speculation is tethered to the very real — and, in its own modest way, historic — stuff in the photo. The figures in found photos are redolent of an era because they're living it, right there in front of us, their anonymity endlessly curious.

Fifty Fotos Found By Fang With Text By The Hound is a new book produced via Blurb, a print-on-demand publishing site. "Fang" and "The Hound" are the sobriquets, respectively, of Gillian McCain and James Marshall, married writers and New York City chroniclers of pop culture. McCain is probably best known as the co-author with Legs McNeil of Please Kill Me, a standard-bearer of punk rock oral history; she's also published books of poems. Marshall, a music writer and historian, was for many years a DJ at WFMU and is co-owner of the Lakeside Lounge in Alphabet City in Manhattan. Since 2008 Marshall has been producing TheHoundBlog, a terrific resource of forgotten histories, obscure artists, and all things R&R, Blues, and R&B (and sometimes film), the seamier and less-celebrated the better.

The photos in Fifty Fotos Found originally appeared on Marshall's blog, with commentary by Marshall and enthusiastic readers. McCain and Marshall selected the photos and comments wisely, and they've produced a great book that's funny, haunting, and weird. The snaps "tend towards the vintage Afro-centric, fucked up kids, and cultural aberrations," Marshall told me, adding "these tend to go well with the blog in general." If a single found photo can be a time capsule, a book of them becomes a time mansion with well-lit and dim rooms, both crowded and sparse, wherein denizens of a century prowl, few known beyond friends and family, nearly all forgotten, nearly all fascinating. Marshall's text amounts to humorous stabs at narrative and cultural context, and many commenters pick up the thread and run with it, sometimes providing helpful clues, sometimes out-and-out answers. (Disclosure: one of my comments appears in the book.) McCain's taste runs along the line of anonymity from the margins of African-American urban life to the bedrooms of white suburban teenage girls; many photos evoke music, from unknown wannabe rockers in duck tails or feathered-hair (depending on the decade) to one snap of the Rolling Stones themselves, taken during an early American tour, a pic no-doubt heartbreakingly pined for by the photographer. Many of the photos involve man-boys posing in faux toughness. Just as many feature young girls practicing their own cultural positioning.

One of my favorite photos is of a young girl posing before a big night out. From February 1962, she's an iconic pre-Beatles dame all dolled up, beehive and heavy mascara, "a cross," Marshall writes, "between a sixties Italian film starlet and Vampira." She's beautiful, but mannered, "sophisticated" but innocent, pretending toward glamor. And she's a nobody—I mean, she was somebody's somebody, but to look at her nearly half a century later is to see an anonymous member of a long line of pretenders, a young girl playing Hollywood or Broadway starlet, or maybe fooled Mafia wife. Of course, she could've been the real thing, a member of the elite class, so then why does my imagination paint a bleak background for her? Maybe that's the fate of found photo figures who aren't obviously in dire straits: their homelessness now suggests melancholy then, accurate or not. Anyway, she's in the center photo in the top row on the book's cover as well as inside, so guileless they named her twice.

"Usually, Gillian shows me a bunch of pictures and I pick the one that makes me laugh," said Marshall, who credits the book's coming together to McCain and her assistant, Megan Cump. McCain bought her first photo at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California, around 1998. "First and only time I've only been there," she told me, "and I haven't stopped collecting since." She hasn't counted her collection in a couple of years, but estimates that the photos number close to three thousand now. What it is about found photos that appeals to her? "Their humor, mystery, beauty, hues, sizes, scars, cultural references, human dynamics, history, melancholy," she says, adding, "And someone's family considered them garbage!" She hopes one day to stumble upon that mythic Great Found Photo, "the one with a secret history—the Manson family at Spahn ranch, or a meeting of the Symbionese Liberation Army!"

Until that epic day, in Fifty Fotos Found there's young love, old love, doubtful love, drinking, hamming, military life, beach bums and barflies, nudie posters on the walls, maybe-pimps, parties, teenagers, bedrooms, and basements, a generous slice of living enacted by mysterious strangers caught in perpetuity doing strange things, or things so ordinary that they become strange. Blink and you'd miss it.


("Taking pictures is like tiptoeing into the kitchen late at night and stealing Oreo cookies," Diane Arbus)


A few pages from the book:

Gillian's Found Photo #43

Gillian's Found Photo #35

Gillian's Found Photo #24

facebook doings

Groups pages for my books are being crowded out by the folks at facebook, so I've created new pages for Sweat: The Story of the Fleshtones, America's Garage Band, Installations, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, and AC/DC's Highway to Hell.

Please swing by, "like" the pages if you want, and spread the word!  Oh, and don't be shy about posting.  I'll be adding to the sites soon.


Friday, May 6, 2011

The Vintage Now

Among the apps that I've been provisionally fooling around with on my iPhone is Hipstamatic, which allows you to take square photographs and then to apply software filters to vintage-up the image.  Hipstamatic's everywhere now (on Facebook, etc.), and I haven't experimented much beyond the "lenses," "film stock" and flashes that come bundled with the app (there are, of course, plenty to buy from Apple).  The instant-vintage retro trend's a bit annoying: one of the film/lens packages you can purchase is the Williamsburg HipstaPak, and I'm not sure that Hipstamatic is being funny-knowing there.  But it's pretty fascinating too, especially in terms of nostalgia and the New Memory.

Every generation fetishizes, simplifies, and sentimentalizes previous generations, decades, and eras; such willful and wistful retelling and reclaiming of the past is fundamental to the human condition.  But Hipstamatic and other like software, behind the sneer and shrug of irony, allow you to simplify and sentimentalize the present moment.  The instant-vintage illusion is evidence of creative software writers, but the term "instant-vintage" (mine) speaks to the charms and dangers of manufactured nostalgia.  Pose your friends, flip on Hipstamatic and the Dream Pop Flash, and there you are, washed-out buddies in the early 1970s waiting for the arrival of the Volkswagen van with its smiley face flower decor.  All in good fun?  Sure.  It's cool to photograph something and retro-fy it all at once, especially if the subject of the photograph is something or someone of-the-moment, such as a 4G iPhone or a Tumblr page or your current girlfriend.  Kind of like imagining Laurie Petrie rocking out with an iPod, or dressing up Munch's The Scream in a Sarah Palin t-shirt.  (Where's Winston Smith when you need him?)

But there's something a little troubling about this, too.  In an age where we grow up unable to distinguish memories of an event from the photographs and video of the event, a dilemma exponentially more present with the current explosion of video phones and image-sharing, photo software that allows to instantly render an image vintage might further confuse things.  Does Hipstamatic devalue memory, downgrade it to a smartphone application, or does it, and the generation of thought and conception behind it, elevate the past, worship the past as something that we should want to spend money on to allow us to give it to ourselves even as we speak, click, send.


William M. Ivins, Jr. wrote, "Photography, from being merely another way of procuring or making images of things already seen by our eyes, has become a means of ocular awareness of things that our eyes can never see directly."  Yeah, and I wanted to see what happened when I sent some genuine vintage photographs through Hipstamatic's arch retro filters.  Here are three family snaps from the Spring of 1974, the first of my childhood dog, the lovely mutt Molly; the second of my family (me and my four brothers and sister [I'm the one looking disconsolate — or is it afraid? — at the top of the ladder]); the third an image that I hold immoderate and boundless affection for, one of the few images from adolescence that's on permanent rotation in the mental slide library: a shot of the crab apple tree in our front yard with my sister posing beneath in her Easter Sunday dress.  This single shot has become for me a kind of master image for the Spring, the enormous tree exploding reds and pinks to all corners, the April sun nearly washing out everything in its benevolent appetite, my pre-teen sister posing demurely beneath the day's green machinations, overwhelmed pictorially by fecundity and warmth of a suburban Sunday.

Using Hipstamatic, I took a photo of each of these photos against a white background.  The effect was interesting.  The blur of light at the top right corner of the image of Molly resulted from a bend in the photograph; beyond that, Hipstamatic didn't do much to my dog.  However, in the second and third photographs the lenses and film that I selected (Kaimal Mark II lens and Kodot XGrizzled film in the second; Kaimal Mark II lens and Ina's 1969 film in the third) cast the original photos into another dimension: faux vintage steeped in the past.  Odd, and interesting, but strange.  What occurred was a kind of advertisement for my own past, how the mid-1970s looks as reimagined by contemporary software engineers.  My family is now iconographic, anyone's, and my sister a type of girl from the decade.  Much of the personality and character in the photographs is curiously drained, for me anyway, when the filters are applied, perhaps as a result of the software's bleaching effect.  When a photo from the past is run through Hipstamatic, the photo is rendered generic.  What does that say.

Lou Reed: "I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine."  Now I wonder: in the future, when I call upon one of these three memories, which image will I see in my imagination, mine or Apple's?  The actual past or the story that technology tells (told)?  We recreate our memories continuously, so maybe Hipstamatic is simply giving us another, inevitable, tool with which to do it.


Can think of my current HP Laser Jet P2055dn printer nostalgically in the present?  I likely will one day; who knows how we'll be printing documents in the future, maybe the very idea of paper will be ludicrously dated.  I'll miss my printer, then, in a kind of sentimentally indulgent nostalgia for a simpler time: god I miss that machine, cords, paper, ink, such innocence lost!....  Courtesy of the Kaimal Mark II and Ina's 1969, I'll let Hipstamatic do the instant nostalgia for me:

I remember this!

Monday, May 2, 2011

After Cocteau

A boy's walking home — from school, from the mall, from his friend's house, it doesn't matter.  Let's follow him via Google Maps.  Use Street View.  There he is, his head bent down a bit, his fists lightly tapping a beat against his thighs.  In his head he's dreaming of girls, bike rides, heroics, a new past, a different future, another house, cousins he undresses, friends he swears at, bullies he pushes over, nuns he warms to, priests he fears, parties he attends, parks he kisses girls in, being taller, being different, dirty books, being true....  Watch him on Google Maps, though you'll have to strain to see him because he's not there.  But he was, and he will be.  Right now the sun in sweeping rays renders him invisible.  In his head he's dreaming.  When he arrives home, he walks through the front door and into the kitchen outwardly unchanged.  The lives that became truths, the wishes dramatized, the reality only in his head — how is that not also his truth.  And what of the man who remembers him now?

That night after homework, and maybe a little Monday Night Football, he's in bed and the buses rush past outside and the cold of late fall sneaks in through the window and in his head, wrapping his daydreams in a kind of protective gauze, is a feeling, a sensibility, an intuition, a foreign language — murmuring, really, in something that feels like language but may be fever or another dream or a fantasy, an outlined grown-up talking at him with a familiar face but a silent mouth moving, a kind of knowledge just past his fingers some of which he doesn't understand at all man seeks to escape himself in myth and does so by any means at his disposal drugs alcohol or lies unable to withdraw into himself he disguises himself lies and inaccuracy give him a few moments of comfort as soon as the glimmer arrives it goes, and he's back to the petty sorrows of an alternate life.