Mark Ashwill, 1954-2000

Mark Ashwill, subculture dynamo and singer for the Spitters, died of cancer on Tuesday, April 11.

I first met Mark in the early ’90s. He’d been a founding member of Missing Foundation, a cacophonous bunch who instigated the Tompkins Square riots of 1989. He had a new band, the Spitters, that he invited me to come see at Continental. The place was packed. The band was cathartically loud. Mark had scratches all over his torso. He tore shirts off female audience members. He put his fist through a wall. He leaped into the mosh pit where he was carried, fondled, spat on, kicked, and kissed.

But Mark wasn’t a conventional anarchist. He’d been a state champion swimmer in his native Wisconsin. He had a son he loved. He practiced yoga and listened to opera. He had been in Larry Clark’s movie Kids but ended up on the cutting-room floor. When the Spitters wrecked a club, Mark would come in the next day and fix whatever he’d broken. “He was a good carpenter,” says Bill Bronson, onetime Spitter, longtime friend. “It worked out.”

When I saw Mark right after he’d gotten the initial diagnosis of advanced terminal cancer, I numbly asked, “So what are you gonna do?”

“Go to the track,” he said.

A few days later we went to Belmont together. Mark put all his money on a 30-to-1 nag.

“That horse is a total long shot,” I said.

“Yeah, so am I,” he said.

The horse won the race.

Over the last few months, Mark was confined to his apartment, where he received droves of visitors and was busy documenting the decay of his body by manipulating photographs of himself on his computer.

In keeping with his wishes, Mark died at home, surrounded by friends, including seven ex-girlfriends draped across his bed. He was 45. He is survived by his sister, Maxine, and his son, Jesse, both of Madison, Wisconsin. —Maggie Estep

Blood, Fire, Thunder, Lightning

One dred/two dred/sit ‘pon a C.B. 200/I said to one dred/you better show me your dred/and him flash him locks/and thunder and lightning. . . . —Dillinger, “C.B. 200”

It took Blood & Fire, a sound system out of Manchester, England, to finally deliver to a New York stage the reggae toaster who rocked those defining lyrics. Last Wednesday, Joe’s Pub was thick with cigarette, not ganja, smoke and packed with young white fans eager to see myths come alive in the persons of Dillinger, Ranking Joe, and Trinity. But the veteran dreds were holding up the walls, Killa Priest was checking his Jamaican godfathers who chat ‘pon the mic in the first place, and Blood & Fire was pumping out some dangerous old-time vinyl rockers. Everyone entered the realm. Imagine a long-ago Jamaican yard sheltered by a tropical nightscape and encircled by quivering towers of speakers. You just hooked a finger round a Guinness and let your hips easy rock to the sweet booming bass line.

Blood & Fire led off this first date of its national tour by reaching back three decades (with the odd tune by young bloods of ancient vibes, like Anthony B and Sizzla, mixed in) and playing each track all the way through, original stylee. By carrying live deejays, Blood & Fire also departs from the contemporary dancehall substitute known as “specials”—praises to a sound system prerecorded onto dub plates by top vocalists. Round ’bout 1:30, selector Steve Barrow cued up a riddim and Trinity—like Dillinger, a Jamaica to Englund émigré—wriggled onstage in red pants and matching vest to set off a string of his old-time boomshots, including the style popper’s anthem, “3 Piece Suit an’ Ting.” Next up, Ranking Joe, a longtime NYC survivor, flashed the razor-sharp flow and imagery that helped make a legend out of U-Roy’s Stur-grav sound system. Dillinger, filling out this mature, big-belly-man triad, mashed it up with his own reprisal of greatness. But the night wasn’t fully enshrined until the closing segment, as all three worked off the top, nimbly snaking in and out of each other’s way. —Elena Oumano

How Much Can You Stand?

The weeklong production of Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle that repeats next week to conclude the Met’s season is one of New York’s hottest, priciest tickets: Orchestra seating runs $275 a night. But get to Lincoln Center by 8 or 9 this Saturday morning, and for a relatively cheap $35 a pop, or $25 in the bleachers, you can secure standing-room orchestra tickets for the whole cycle, or just feast on that day’s cycle-concluding Götterdämmerung. Yes, all 175 SRO armrests come with subtitles. But as with everything else in opera, there are hierarchies.

Orchestra SRO attendees stand three rows deep, and the front row is ridiculously coveted (I felt fine in my socks in row two). For special events, hardcore operati arrive Friday night as early as 10 p.m. for a Midnight List, return at 6 a.m. Saturday (the usual gathering time) to receive numbers, then muster into line two or three hours later. It’s a scene: Veterans have formed a Breakfast Club to fill the gap. “A friend of ours only got invited after 10 years of coming,” said numbers 29 and 31 on line, afraid to divulge their identity. “But she did refuse to go. Because they’re a little scary. People argue about their favorite dead unrecorded opera stars. And they go solely by the descriptions of equally dead journalists.”

For 33 seasons, the ruler of the line has been Helen Quinn. A truculent but benign ex-keypunch operator for Columbia Pictures, she supports her retirement with the dollar bills most offer when returning their numbers. “It’s a public service,” she says. “The Pavarotti crowd is usually the worst. Your Wagnerites are the most polite.” But 10-year vet Josephine Rowe does most of the heavy lifting, including the midnight gatherings and 6 a.m. summits. “Helen paid her dues,” Rowe says diplomatically. “She did a great thing for the opera lovers of New York who are short of funds and who have to work. Because before that it was day by day.” Rowe wouldn’t mind a piece of the tips, though. “She doesn’t share them. I could use some, because I’m unemployed. But that would be like trying to take cubs from a tiger.” —Eric Weisbard

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 25, 2000

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