Culture Clash


What’s Stranger Than Paradise?

Or, How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the ‘Burbs

By J. Hoberman

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For years we have been taught not to like things. Finally somebody said it was OK to like things. This was a great relief. It was getting hard to go around not liking everything. —David Byrne, True Stories (the book)

June 30, 1987

Who taught us not to like things? And who finally told us it was okay? Was it David Byrne? Andy Warhol? Ronald Reagan? (Was it . . . Satan?) Capping a trend that’s been percolating for most of the decade, a new obsession with the strangeness—even the Otherness—of the American heartland characterizes a remarkable number of recent movies.

Call it Kitschy Kool or Americana rama, Jetsonism or the Hayseed Renaissance, the New Patriotism or Neo-Regional Backlash, Middle American Grotesque or Shopping Mall Chic, such disparate films as Blue Velvet and Raising Arizona, Something Wild and True Stories, Making Mr. Right and Crimes of the Heart,
Peggy Sue Got Married and Down by Law, Heaven, The Stepfather, and Sherman’s March are all transfixed—if not stupefied—by the American Way of Life. Coming in the wake of cult items as diverse as Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple, Repo Man, UFOria, Static, The Atomic Cafe, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and even E.T., this trend has the force of a cultural upheaval.

The themes of these movies are as obsessive as their souvenir-stand iconography: the pathos of received ideas, the triumph of the ersatz, the wonder of bad taste, the dreamlike superimposition of the ’50s over the ’80s, the sense of Middle America as a kitsch theme park. That national “new morning” proclaimed by Ronald Reagan three years ago must be getting on toward high noon: True Stories celebrates small town American life with an exaggerated, shadowless clarity. Or maybe it’s really later than we think. Blue Velvet defamiliarizes a similar landscape with the most sinister of twilights.

Are these films condescending or accepting? Do they reek of alienation or burble with self-love? Is there a new confidence in being American? Or a panicky realization that “America” is all we’ve got? Just what is it that makes the norms of American life seem so wonderfully exotic, if not downright bizarre? In retrospect, the key scene in recent American films occurs 20 minutes into Stranger Than Paradise when, interrogated by his greenhorn cousin, John Lurie launches into an impassioned defense of the TV dinner—a gag leaving the viewer to wonder if the Swanson’s in question was not simply defrosted from the freezer but exhumed intact from a pharaoh’s tomb. . . .

AmeriKitsch has analogues in almost every field—the quizzical irony of performance artist Mike Smith’s “everyman,” the hermetic solemnity of William Eggleston’s Graceland photos, the prurient, candy-colored surfaces of Frederick Barthelme’s New Yorker stories, the adolescent hostility of California hard-core or neo-underground comix like Neat Stuff and Road Kill—not to mention a raft of book-length paeans:Amazing America, Roadside America, Thomas Hine’s Populuxe, a lavish celebration of American vernacular design between the wars (Korea and Vietnam). But the most resonant manifestations have appeared in the art world: Eric Fischl’s suburban grotesques, Laurie Simmons’s staged photographs, the naked commodities of Group Material’s “Americana” installation at the ’85 Whitney Biennial, Jeff Koons’s vacuum-sealed vacuum cleaners.

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Sanctifying the Evangelical Vote

By James Ridgeway

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June 17, 1986

The major political event of 1986 has been the emergence of the Christian right as a disciplined voting bloc within the Republican Party. While television evangelist Pat Robertson may be its initial beneficiary, the ride of these white fundamentalist Christians could help push the Republicans further along the road toward majority party status. And in the process it broadens the ideological base for the right, some of whose leaders have been identified with fundamentalism and who have been the stalwarts of the Reagan Revolution.

Inspired by Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (recently renamed the Liberty Federation), and unscathed by derisory press, the Christian right has shown itself to be a disciplined political machine this spring. Recently, Christian candidates in Michigan loyal to Pat Robertson outnumbered those pledged to George Bush. The caucuses are the first step in picking delegates to the Republican national convention in 1988. After the Michigan vote, Robertson and Bush were roughly even in delegate strength—about 30 to 40 per cent. Robertson campaigned as if he were in the final stage of a presidential election, making half a dozen personal appearances and spending $100,000 to stage a political rally that was televised across the state. Overall, Robertson’s supporters spent far more than his rivals. . . .

The term evangelical encompasses Protestant individuals and groups with different political views who share a belief in the authority of the Scriptures. Some are Republicans, some are Democrats. There are significant groups of evangelicals in the South and Midwest. And within these communities, right-wing, white Christian fundamentalists of the Robertson stripe account for a small but active bloc.

If it could ever be organized, the so far amorphous and conflicted evangelical vote could be an important factor in politics. Twenty years ago the Gallup poll, which probes evangelism, found that 20 per cent of the public claimed to have had a born-again experience (the gauge of evangelism used by Gallup). In 1984, the figure rose to 34 per cent. If accurate, this means there are more than 65 million adult evangelicals and potential voters. And while these figures often are dismissed as too high, they may actually underplay the strength of the evangelical movement. Two-thirds or more Americans side with Christian fundamentalists in favor of tougher teaching in public schools, and in the belief that prayer is important, according to Gallup. Over 50 per cent were opposed to abortion. All of these have been hotly debated issues on the campaign trail this spring.

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Victimizer or Victim?

Was Kelly Michaels Unjustly Convicted?

By Debbie Nathan

August 2, 1988

On April 30, 1985, the mother of four-year-old Kyle Lott, a preschooler at a parent-owned day-care cooperative in New Jersey, took him to his pediatrician to check a chicken pox-like rash. A nurse told Kyle she was going to take his temperature and put a thermometer in his rectum. Kyle lay quietly for about 30 seconds before saying, “That’s what my teacher does to me at nap time at school.” When the nurse asked him what he meant, Kyle answered, “Her takes my temperature.” His teacher was 23-year-old Margaret Kelly Michaels.

Three months ago, Michaels, now 26, was convicted on 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 three- to five-year-old children at the Wee Care preschool—the largest number of such charges any individual has been convicted of in the United States. According to the children, Michaels raped and assaulted them on a daily basis for seven months with forks, knives, spoons, twigs, and Lego blocks. They also described her licking peanut butter off their genitals, forcing them to eat and drink her feces and urine, playing the piano in the nude, making them undress and play sexual games, and terrorizing them into silence. All of this was said to have occurred at an exclusive preschool in Maplewood, New Jersey, a small suburban community less than 20 miles from New York City.

Michaels insists she is innocent, a victim of a flawed investigation that aped California’s McMartin preschool case, where investigators reported that hundreds of children were sadistically abused by seven defendants in satanic rituals. The McMartin case, which surfaced in 1983, is still in court, but charges against five defendants were dropped after the Los Angeles D.A. called the evidence “incredibly weak.” An assistant D.A. went further, saying that the leading, coercive questioning of the children made the case “a hoax.” Dozens of similar cases have since developed nationwide against teachers, camp counselors, and “neighborhood sex rings.” Typically, these ritual abuse cases rely on children’s stories that often turn bizarre, with details about satanic ceremonies and barbecued babies. After studying 36 such cases, Tom Charlier and Shirley Downing of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, concluded there was no material evidence to support any of them.

Many researchers now believe these cases are based on “urban myths” about devil-worshipping conspiracies.

Failure in the Desert: Blood and Neon

Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing

By Joyce Carol Oates

March 24, 1987

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA—In a ring still stained with blood from the heavyweight fight that preceded it, Mike Tyson, at 20 the youngest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James “Bonecrusher” Smith, an aging athlete at 33, and the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college. Smith will have none of it. Minute follows minute, round follows grinding round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith clinches, backs away, walks away, clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something—anything—that floats. For the most part Smith’s expression is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. The referee, Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. (“I could’ve deducted a point from him after each round,” Lane said afterward, “but you don’t like to do that in a title fight.”) “Fight!” the crowd shouts vainly. “Do something!”

John Cage: No Shortcuts

By Kyle Gann

May 10, 1988

A critic devoted to the work of John Cage faces an inherent conflict. No composer has a soft spot in his heart for critics, but the premises of Cage’s music seem, at times, to render analysis impossible. In an early interview, Cage said, “I find myself more and more questioning the professional function of the critic.” His stated aim in all his activities is to free himself, the listener, and the reader from likes and dislikes; he refuses to harbor preferences. An incredulous critic once pressed him to admit he’d choose a fresh banana over a rotten one. At 16, I was so enwrapped in Cage’s ideas that I began to feel guilty listening to records when I could be outside listening to traffic.

The conflict is not only the critic’s but Cage’s. Cage himself began as a critic—in 1941 and ’42 he covered the Chicago new music scene for the journal Modern Music—and in many respects he’s never quit being one. Not always capable of Cage’s bodhisattva- like detachment, I’ve taken a perverse pleasure in keeping track of the things he doesn’t like: vibraphones, dominant seventh chords, and radios, for example, which he’s incorporated into his music in an effort to accept them. Other judgments are more permanent. New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have “bad orchestras,” the first “a group of gangsters.” Always conscious of the social metaphor in music, Cage objects to jazz for enslaving one player to the beat while freeing another from it. Haydn cadences too often. Improvisers (this is also Boulez’s and the general avant-garde criticism) invariably fall back on taste, habit, and “favorite licks.” . . .

Over the decades, I’ve reluctantly come to disagree with Cage on many points, but if I thought the act of criticism was precluded by his philosophy, I’d have a crisis of conscience about continuing. As it is, I’ll go on, wincing when I like things he objects to and vice versa, trying continually to discipline myself, to keep my ego out of my work, to encourage variety, to learn to like things I don’t, and—in his words—to get myself out of whatever cage I find myself in.

Teenage Wasteland

Bergenfield’s Dead End Kids

By Donna Gaines

July 14, 1987

Nicole Shea smokes cigarettes. At Bergenfield High, that’s enough to qualify her as a “burnout.” But she doesn’t care—she hates school. All the teachers do is yell. What she loves is clothes. Her mother is divorced; she’s seen her father twice. Her mom is her size, borrows her clothes. But she hates the way her mother washes them, so she does them herself, just so. She irons her jeans and her shirts are starched, immaculate white. Black hair with full bangs, sides brushed forward on her face. Her secret? A curling iron. Soft makeup except around the eyes, which she loads with electric blue mascara. She wants to be a nurse. Nicole was a close friend of the Burress sisters, Lisa and Cheryl, who, along with Tommy Rizzo and Tommy Olton, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a suicide pact last March. She was horrified that people actually made jokes, stood laughing outside the garage where the bodies were found.

Nicole remembers the next day outside the high school.

“Are you a burnout?”

“Are you going to commit suicide?”

The reporters and TV crews just wouldn’t let up. Huddled together, crying, smoking, and trying to make sense of things, Nicole and her friends finally got eggs and threw them at the reporters. Tried to muzzle the camera with their hands. The school, they later told me, had refused to lower the American flag to half-mast—after all, their friends weren’t heroes. School officials were unavailable for contact.

Troubled? Need a Direction—Advice or Just Someone to Listen? Call Bergenfield HELP-LINE 387-4083 Talk to Someone Who Cares 24 Hours a Day

Following the suicides, this sign appeared in nearly every store window in town. All sorts of mental health support systems were installed, energized, or trotted out. Since Bergenfield claims the largest Irish-American population in Bergen County, county officials had scheduled a St. Patrick’s Day Parade there on Monday, March 15, four days after the suicides. On the advice of mental health professionals, the town decided to go ahead with the celebration. To boost morale and circumvent copycat suicides, to help the town get back to normal. Then there were the jokes about the suicides—”Did you hear about the car for sale in Bergenfield? A ’77 brown Camaro with four on the floor. Garage kept.” A street sheet circulated in nearby towns. Lyrics to the Beastie Boys song were retitled “You Got to Fight for Your Right to Park It”:

If you live in Bergenfield and your name is Tom

Then breathing in fumes is really on

And if you have a sister that looks like you

Then killing yourself is just what to do.

The kid who wrote it got the shit beaten out of him.

On March 17, two days after the parade, two more teenagers attempted suicide. Also in a Chevrolet Camaro, also by carbon monoxide poisoning. Another suicide pact, exactly one week after the first. Two more burnouts huffing octane in 74, the same unused garage in a row of them, down the driveway near the laundry room of the garden apartment complex behind the Foster Village Shopping Center. The couple was rescued and the garage door was finally removed. Today the garage is a storage shed.

For a week or two after the suicides, there were rumors of rituals—séances, dead animals being burned, candles lit outside the garage. Someone painted “Teenage Wasteland” on the garage door. All these stories, along with the higher visibility of rock and roll kids, gave adults the impression that there were heavy metal-instigated cults in the town. A cassette of a heavy metal band was found next to the dead bodies in Tommy Olton’s rust-colored 1977 Chevy Camaro. At an Iron Maiden show soon after the suicides, the band dedicated a song to Lisa and Cheryl, “Wasted Years.” A lot of kids listen to Ozzy and M Cr For some solid citizens, this was enough to inspire visions of Satanism and black magic.

Hair-hopping: Lady Bunny, 1988
photo: Thomas McGovern/Redux

Hair Peace: Wigstock ’88

By Barry Walters

September 20, 1988

Lypsinka, the Russian defectress and lip-sync artist, had finished her act. She entered the audience, a cross between a nightclub soiree and an ACT UP rally, to distribute announcements of her next performance. Just as this drag queen handed me her flyer, a sneaky old man in a wheelchair pulled up beside us, grabbed my crotch, and then wheeled away as unceremoniously as he arrived. This year’s Wigstock held many surprises.

Then again, it always does. Held Labor Day in Tompkins Square Park, Wigstock is an annual marathon tribute to feminine artifice. Every year, drag queens and biological females alike take the bandshell to celebrate the virtues of teasing, curling, tweezing, dying, shaving, Nairing, eyelining, false eyelashing, and fine couturing in a natural outdoor setting. For the fourth Wigstock, more than 40 acts appeared over the course of seven hours. Excess, you see, is what drag is all about.

Organized by the Lady Bunny, also mistress of ceremonies, Wigstock ’88 mixed poetry, cabaret, folk/pop/acid/disco/polka/punk/funk/rap-rock, protest, recitative, Greek tragedy, and the fine art of kazoos. Many of these acts appear regularly at the Pyramid Cocktail Lounge, home to both hardcore bands and “Whispers,” a weekly Sunday night gay cabaret. Pyramid helped fund Wigstock, and its fusion of gay and punk sensibilities pervaded the festivities.

The Tompkins Square Riots

Message in a Bottle: Homesteaders Rock the Lower East Side

By RJ Smith

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August 23, 1988

A little dirty, Harris Pankin wears a T-shirt with three faces looking at you: Jesus, Manson, and Pankin. “Choose your God,” it says beneath. His hair—Pankin’s, I mean—is curly and long enough to fall, in ringlets twirling around his purple-tinted glasses. The singer for Letch Patrol, Pankin wants to be your Jesus. Sometimes he sleeps in Tompkins Square Park.

The joke around the park last week was that for a few dollars you could buy the same shirt, spattered with Pankin’s blood. He was beaten, he says, three different times by the police during the riot, and was dumped bleeding in front of Stromboli Pizza. “Personally, I will admit I threw three bottles. I’m quite proud of how I threw them.” In his case, Pankin tossed bottles—a 40 ounce XXX Ballantine Ale and two smaller missiles, aimed at the street—to distract mounted police who were bashing people . . .

The violence August 6 (and July 30) came from the police. They arrived at the park with their badges covered, not expecting a fight. They expected to beautify the park, to sweep the square of illegitimate members of the community: homeless, the potential homeless, rockers. What’s amazing is how some of the aggression was returned, by neighbors who came prepared. “They were totally fearless, and they were getting the shit beat out of them,” one witness said. Some threw bottles, M-80s, burned garbage in the street. No one expected this much rebellion. Maybe that’s why it happened.

For at least a week, this is a movement. There’s no real order, no card file of names to mobilize, just a group suddenly poised.

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Beat the devil: The faithful rally to receive marching orders.
photo: James Hamilton

With God on Their Side: Operation Rescue Hits L.A.

By Kathy Dobie

April 11, 1989

“You will find many other women in the movement who have suffered abortions,” the reverend says when I call him at his church and tell him I want to join the antiabortion movement. He asks what I’ve done before. “Nothing,” I say, and then tell him I had an abortion 10 years ago that still haunts me. The abortion part is true. “Praise Jesus. He opened your eyes before it was too late,” the reverend says. He recommends that I join Operation Rescue, promising that a rescue will give me “God’s overall view of the opposition from His heart.” He invites me to Bible study that night, giving me step-by-step directions to his church and making me repeat them back to him. Firmly in hand.

Something healthy and animal in me resists going to the Wednesday night Bible study. But I attempt to attend one of the morning prayer services, which are held every weekday at 6 a.m., the Spirit prying open even the bedroom doors and sticking its head into the dark fluttering business of sleep. On the walk over I try to screw myself into my character. I feel guilty only about lying; I’m afraid of being found out, and depressed about being among prayerful people again. I recede deep inside myself—the closest approximation I can muster of religious piety. It will do. At the storefront, I see three men sitting outside. Two sit on plastic chairs, heads bowed into their laps. Another kneels on the floor, face down in a chair. They look like men who live alone in small rooms. Words come back to me—”an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I cannot go in.

I speak with two OR men in Orange County, the nucleus of OR’s organizing activity. Orange is wealthy, Republican, and just southwest of L.A., the killing capital of the West. Enemies camped side by side. The women are sweetly cheerful and revved up. “I’m learning so much! There’s one woman coming here that’s been doing this for 16 years!” one says. The women tell me that I will be picked up by an OR activist to attend the rally. In the days before leaving I buy pastel-colored clothes and delicate jewelry and am filled with anxiety.

photo: James Hamilton

End the War on Drugs

Hell No, I Won’t Go

By Ellen Willis

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September 19, 1989

At last the government has achieved something it hasn’t managed since the height of ’50s anti-Communist hysteria— enlisted public sentiment in a popular war. The president’s invocation of an America united in a holy war against drugs is no piece of empty rhetoric; the bounds of mainstream debate on this issue are implicit in the response of the Democratic so-called opposition, which attacked Bush’s program as not tough or expensive enough. (As Senator Biden—fresh from his defense of the flag; the guy is really on a roll—put it, “What we need is another D-Day, not another Vietnam.”) To be sure, there is controversy over the drug warriors’ methods. Civil libertarians object to drug testing and dubious police practices; many commentators express doubts about the wisdom of going after millions of casual drug users; and some hardy souls still argue that drugs should be decriminalized and redefined as a medical and social problem. But where are the voices questioning the basic assumptions of the drug war: that drugs are our most urgent national problem; that a drug-free society is a valid social goal; that drug use is by definition abuse? If there’s a war on, are drugs the real enemy? Or is mobilizing the nation’s energies on behalf of a war against drugs far more dangerous than the drugs themselves?

By now some of you are wondering if I’ve been away—perhaps on an extended LSD trip—and missed the havoc crack has wrought in inner-city neighborhoods. One of the drug warriors’ more effective weapons is the argument that any crank who won’t sign on to the antidrug crusade must be indifferent to, if not actively in favor of, the decimation of black and Latino communities by rampant addiction, AIDS, crack babies, the recruitment of kids into the drug trade, and control of the streets by violent gangsters. To many people, especially people of color, making war on drugs means not taking it anymore, defending their lives and their children against social rot. It’s a seductive idea: focusing one’s rage on a vivid, immediate symptom of a complex social crisis makes an awful situation seem more manageable. Yet in reality the drug war has nothing to do with making communities livable or creating a decent future for black kids. On the contrary, prohibition is directly responsible for the power of crack dealers to terrorize whole neighborhoods. And every cent spent on the cops, investigators, bureaucrats, courts, jails, weapons, and tests required to feed the drug-war machine is a cent not spent on reversing the social policies that have destroyed the cities, nourished racism, and laid the groundwork for crack culture.
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This Land is Your Land

Borders That Stretch From Beijing to Bensonhurst

By Joe Wood

September 5, 1989

A response to the murder of African-American teenager Yusef Hawkins by a gang of white teens in Bensonhurst

I could have been killed on that street corner in Bensonhurst. And that corner is precisely where we part company—”I” am not you, unless you share my heritage and look like me. My “I” is fatally specific: I am a brown-skinned descendent of enslaved Africans, holocausted Cherokees, and invisible Europeans, and I am despised and feared and envied the world over. Define me black.

Democrats in Bensonhurst and China agree: “Black men better stay out of our gardens.” Most people have forgotten the antiblack Chinese riots before Tiananmen Square; like their Brooklyn counterparts, the Chinese students, who would be canonized in a few months by an eager U.S. press, shouted the message: “Our women are our turf. You trespass on either and we will kill you. (Try us.)”

When I look at those grainy black-and-white photographs in the Daily News and the Post of that young boy’s dead body lying on a stretcher, my mind wants to cry but my eyes won’t let me. My eyes are too tired—they’ve seen this shot before and they’re too used to it.

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of row houses in the Bronx called Eastchester. When my parents moved in, our block was almost all white, but that was in 1968. Most of the children I played with were brown . . . .

Do parents whisper warnings in their children’s ears? I don’t know, but I knew early on to stay away from the neighborhood next door: they don’t like black people. I’m not sure when I began to reflect on the warnings’ meaning, and I don’t know when racist words like guinea or wop entered my consciousness, but I do know that I was practically born with a wariness about the middle-class Italian neighborhood next to my own.

On the Eve of the First Gulf War

What We Gave Saddam for Christmas: The Secret History of How the United States and Its Allies Armed Iraq

By Murray Waas

December 18, 1990

The Reagan administration, in apparent violation of federal law, engaged in a massive effort to supply arms and military supplies to the regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Today, U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf are facing an enemy equipped with some of the West’s most devastating military technologies, ranging from American-made HAWK anti-aircraft missiles to the most advanced French-built howitzers available. That American troops could be killed or maimed because of a covert decision to arm Iraq is the most serious consequence of a U.S. foreign policy formulated and executed in secret, without the advice and consent of the American people.

A three-month investigation by the Voice has found that some of these efforts to supply arms to Iraq appear not only to have violated federal law but, in addition, a U.S. arms embargo then in effect against Iraq. The arms shipment was also clearly at odds with the Reagan administration’s stated policy of maintaining strict U.S. neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war. And, in the light of the current conflict, they were certainly wrongheaded. If a war ever begins in the Gulf, the entire secret history of the United States’ aid to Saddam would merit a Congressional investigation . . .

There is no evidence that President George Bush—then serving as vice-president—knew of the covert efforts to arm Saddam Hussein. But several sources, including senior White House officials, say Bush was a key behind-the-scenes proponent in the Reagan administration of a broader policy that urged tilting toward Iraq during the war. Bush and other White House insiders feared a military victory by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and they came to see Saddam as a bulwark against the fundamentalist Islamic fervor Khomeini was spreading throughout the Mideast. After he was elected President, Bush pursued this policy even further, attempting to develop closer business, diplomatic, and intelligence ties between Iraq and the United States.

The secret history of U.S. government approval of potentially illegal arms sales to Saddam Hussein is only one small part of a larger story that it is now imperative to tell as the U.S. and Iraq prepare for war.

The Bohemian Diaspora

By C.Carr

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February 4, 1992

I’ve found it harder to track the art margins lately. The climate for things experimental, for things adversarial, has not only worsened; the damage to those “autonomous zones” seems irreparable. That historic institution once called “bohemia” has been so intensively exploited that it’s had to become invisible. For the first time in 150 years, bohemia can’t be pinpointed on a map. The dematerialization of the artist’s milieu has had a devastating impact on the entire culture—more intangible, and therefore more insidious, than the problems posed by shrinking corporate and government funding, the march of the real estate developers, and the debilitating war over free expression.

Dissent cannot happen in a vacuum. Nor can social or aesthetic movements grow in one. Community is the fabric that sustains experiment, stimulating that leap into the void and maybe even cushioning a fall.

Back when subterraneans still had a terrain, the bourgie types might go slumming through a Left Bank or Greenwich Village, but the colonizing process took much longer. No instant condos. No developer-spawned neighborhood acronyms. Now—relentless in its hunt for the Next Big Thing—the media cut such a swath through the demimonde that colonizers follow instantly, destabilizing and destroying. So, the energy that moved from Paris to New York, from West Village to East Village, from Old Bohemia (1830–1930) to New Bohemia (the ’60s) to Faux Bohemia (the ’80s) has atomized now into trails that can’t be followed: the ‘zine/cassette network, the living-room performance spaces, the modem-accessed cybersalons, the flight into neighborhoods that will never be Soho.

They’re all part of the bohemian diaspora.

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Building the Monolith

Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches

By Michael Feingold

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May 18, 1993

Vast, sprawling, inclusive, and wordy, Angels in America instantly announces itself as American. Its eccentric, catchall bigness, its lofty appeals to end-of-the-world millennial panic, and the cold water it throws on them with flip jokes and blunt biological talk, couldn’t have been assembled anywhere but here, in the “melting pot, where nothing melted,” as the prologue puts it. Trying to shape a work that includes everything, [Tony] Kushner doesn’t hesitate to turn it all upside down as well: The speaker of this prologue is an elderly Orthodox rabbi, played by a younger and distinctly Gentile actress. The blasphemy and gender subversion, like the flip jokes, stave off pomposity, guaranteeing that every notion advanced will also include its opposite.

Though a discomfiting character to Kushner’s audience, the rabbi is what elderly Jews usually are in works with epic claims, a fount of wit and wisdom; the absurd casting (asked for in the script) implies, not that he is absurd, but that he and the actress are in some respect identical, that as Americans they share some indefinable essence. And this essence fills Kushner’s approach, privileging all the characters with his mellifluous turns of speech and brightness of perception, from the Valium-dazed Mormon wife to the compulsively knowing political fixer Roy Cohn.

In that respect, Angels in America is the best kind of political play. Rather than take an orderly stance on a specific set of issues, it treats politics as a connected and conflicting set of impulses, a moral soup in which we find ourselves swimming. Every move we make, or fail to, defines our position more clearly, but any choice might be unexpectedly disastrous. We’re all in the soup together, and it would take a miracle to get us out. Appropriately, Part One of Angels ends with a miracle, the appearance of a heavenly messenger to a gay man dying of AIDS. What comes next to fulfill Kushner’s vision, I can’t say: It’s a confirmation of his gifts that he’s made people stand up and scream bravos at the end of what is essentially a three-hour-long first act.

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Northern Exposures

Admit Nothing; Blame Everybody; Be Bitter

By Gary Indiana

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February 18, 1992

Up close, Bill Clinton looks like he’s covered in fresh fetal tissue. His skin is virtually poreless. The high, ample hair (a premium commodity in this race of semi-skinheads), the trim, pneumatic body, the tasteful but not unduly elegant suit, everything has been processed into movie star perfection. He could be a retired sports figure like Bruce Jenner, endorsing a home treadmill. Something in the grooming suggests one of those miniature species bred to win show ribbons, a Shetland pony or a toy terrier.

Here amid the authentic wood-grain paneling of the Henry J. Sweeney American Legion Post #2 on Maple Street, in Manchester, a large and not unduly elegant crowd of Clinton people has wedged itself between the floor-level microphone and the cash bar. Someone, I’m not sure who, introduces Legion Post Commander Tom Murphy, “who is gonna do the pleasure of introducing Governor Clinton.” . . .

Clinton doesn’t wait on too much fanfare. This is an earnest, flesh-pressing, I’m-not-there-yet-and-I-need-each-and-every-one-of-you speech. The point of the exercise is to find a credible way of projecting “concern” that these people are “hurting,” Bush’s euphemism for broke. What’s Clinton’s campaign all about? Three words: “fairness, responsibility, and unity.” Where do Republicans make their mistake? Well, for one thing, “most poor people get up in the morning and work” and therefore deserve government help. But let’s not slip into socialism. This guy wants “to make more millionaires than Reagan and Bush, but the old-fashioned way.” Empower those local governments. Crack down on corporations moving jobs out of the country. And let’s have boot camps, military style, for some of our less hardened, first-time-felony criminals. While we’re at it, let’s enforce child support.

The platitudinous verbal droppings, more like noises one makes to stimulate horses than actual thoughts, also resemble bromides from a soothing commercial for Preparation H: the proctologist, on close examination, has ruled against radical surgery in favor of something smooth and greasy and easy to dissolve in the collective rectum. In case anybody thought he was some woolly-haired tax-and-spend liberal, Funny Mister Bill throws in enough hard talk about welfare recipients and crime to make you forget he’s a Democrat. For this particular crowd, he’s already demonstrated his Americanism by letting a lobotomized Death Row inmate go to his end by lethal injection—one of three hideously bungled, “painless” executions the same week in America. And if a fair number of conservatives, even New Hampshire conservatives, wince at the stark realities of capital punishment, quite a few think it ought to be as painful as possible.

If Clinton cares jackshit about anything besides getting elected, it doesn’t show on that eerily symmetrical face, a visage of pure incipience: soon-to-be-jowly and ex-ophthalmic, a fraction past really sexy, but warmingly cocky, clear-eyed, with an honorary, twinkly pinch of humility.
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Picture This

On the Set, the Street, and at Dinner, With X Director Spike Lee

by Hilton Als

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November 10, 1992

In the last several years, as Lee has evolved, more and more, away from the loud ineptitude of his early Jerry Lewis-like screen persona—I’m skinny! I’m funny! I’m a geek!—and into the goatee-sporting, public image unlimited voice of black male rage, he has become something of a father figure.

We have watched Lee grow up with a certain misty nostalgia. His rise from street urchin to adult has been the story of boys we used to know who’ve left the neighborhood but haven’t left us. Perhaps reversing the “truth” in many black homes: that Dad doesn’t exist at all, that he’s a long way from home. Not anymore. There he is as Spike Lee, filling the void on TV, in the news, with unequivocal authority. The subject? That the black male is a great, untapped American subject. And regardless of what Lee says about it—sometimes trenchant, sometimes stupid—he says it like Dad would, sound mixed with fury. Whatever one may think of Lee, he owns his authority.

“Next year, after X, the belt is mine,” he’s said, throwing the gauntlet down at the feet of our Dionysian Mom, Madonna. It is Lee’s complaining the public minds; it is as disjunctive as anyone’s Dad crying over the milk he hasn’t spilled—yet.
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Death of an idol: Kurt Cobain in 1994

photo: Charles Peterson

No Future

By Ann Powers

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April 19, 1994

People couldn’t believe the photograph. The day after Kurt Cobain shot himself faceless in his million-dollar home, his friends and the hundreds of rosy, downcast kids who mourned him found a nasty slice of evidence on the front page of the Seattle Times: a shot taken from above the glass doors of the garage where Cobain died, revealing the suicide scene. Two detectives hover like shadows. But what’s cruelly fascinating is the body. The image is only a fragment: one dirty-jean-clad leg with a white sock and a badly tied Converse, one arm from the elbow down in a light blue thrift-store shirt, one clenched fist. Near a detective’s foot, another photograph can almost be seen, an official snapshot on a driver’s license. The body and the license, both so small they don’t seem real, feel unknowable, the definition of not enough.

“That picture was so tacky, I was really shocked,” says Kim Warnick on Sunday afternoon, as she bides her time until five, when the candlelight vigil would begin. Warnick fronts the longtime Seattle band the Fastbacks, and she works as a sales rep at Nirvana’s former label, Sub Pop; we’re discussing the media frenzy, the possible motives, the usual stuff. “But you know what really got me about it? His ID. You can see his wallet opened up to his driver’s license, right by his body. Kurt didn’t want any mistakes about what he was doing. He wanted to be perfectly clear.”

It’s a strange bit of the typical that Kurt Cobain would worry that killing himself with a shotgun was an act that might be misinterpreted. Suicide, especially one as violent as Cobain’s, is the loudest possible invocation of silence; it’s a perfectly clear way of turning your life into a mystery. His commitment to contradiction got him in the end, but even as he cut himself off forever he was trying to make himself speak.
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Love Hurts

Brandon Teena Was a Woman Who Lived and Loved As a Man

By Donna Minkowitz

April 19, 1994

The Lincoln Journal reported that the deceased was “buried in men’s clothing, wearing her favorite cowboy shirt and black cowboy hat.” But a day later, a Brandon relative will prod the paper to print a correction stating that the corpse had, in fact, sported “a black-and-white striped shirt purchased in the women’s section of a local store.” The woman christened Teena Brandon caused even greater consternation when she reversed her own first and last names three years ago. “Keep the faith,” [Father Paul] Witt encourages her survivors, “even though you have encountered something that doesn’t seem to make any sense.” It is unclear whether he’s referring to Brandon’s murder or her penchant for adopting a male persona and dating women.

Last November, Brandon Teena blitzed into Falls City, a dusty farming community in the southern tip of the state, asking to be introduced to the most attractive women in town—even leafing through a new friend’s phone book and requesting that she point out the best-looking girls so Brandon could invite them to “his” birthday party.

Two days after Brandon arrived in Falls City, every teenage and young adult woman in town was after this pool player with the jawline of a Kennedy, who could often be seen in a White Sox jacket and slicked-back hair. To the girls he fancied, Brandon brought perfume, roses, and teddy bears, as well as the cards and love poems other boyfriends were too crude—or too repressed—to send. Sometimes he’d call a limousine to take a girl to work, or, with Elvis-esque extravagance, give a woman his entire paycheck. When it came to making out, Brandon was rated heavenly, and unlike most boys, he never pressured women for sex. (One of his favorite songs was “Shoop,” in which women rappers Salt-n-Pepa instruct men to “get your lips wet.”)

Every former girlfriend the Voice talked to says Brandon was the best boyfriend they had ever dated: the most alluring suitor and certainly the best lover. No wonder that, both in Falls City and back home in Lincoln, where Brandon had also passed as male, girls were always hanging on his arm. “But when she saw Lana Tisdel,” swooned the Chicago Tribune, “Brandon focused exclusively on her.”

After they spotted each other at the Kwik Shop, Brandon asked Lana, the most glamorous 19-year-old in this economically depressed town of 5000, out on dates to Hardee’s and the movies (where they saw Addams Family Values), and they fell in love in about two weeks. “Brandon was nicer and looked better than any boy I’d ever been with,” says Lana, a cool, shy, and soigné blond who met him one evening when she was singing karaoke country-western songs at the Oasis, Falls City’s only nightclub. “With a lot of guys around here, it don’t matter what the woman wants, but Brandon wouldn’t tell a woman to do anything—he asked. He knew how a girl liked to be treated.”

Even after Brandon’s true gender became known—when she’d been jailed on check-forging charges in late December—Lana stood by her, not an easy thing to do in a town where gossip is the major form of recreation.

A Rape in Cyberspace

by Julian Dibbell

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December 21, 1993

They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And though I wasn’t there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true, because it all happened right in the living room—right there amid the well-stocked bookcases and the sofas and the fireplace—of a house I’ve come to think of as my second home.

Call me Dr. Bombay. Some months ago—let’s say about halfway between the first time you heard the words information superhighway and the first time you wished you never had—I found myself tripping with compulsive regularity down the well-traveled information lane that leads to LambdaMOO, a very large and very busy rustic chateau built entirely of words. Nightly, I typed the commands that called those words onto my computer screen, dropping me with what seemed a warm electric thud inside the mansion’s darkened coat closet, where I checked my quotidian identity, stepped into the persona and appearance of a minor character from a long-gone television sitcom…

I won’t say why I chose to masquerade as Samantha Stevens’s outlandish cousin…or what exactly led to my mild but so-far incurable addiction to the semifictional digital otherworlds known around the Internet as multi-user dimensions, or MUDs. This isn’t my story, after all. It’s the story of a man named Mr. Bungle, and of the ghostly sexual violence he committed in the halls of LambdaMOO, and most importantly of the ways his violence and his victims challenged the 1500 and more residents of that surreal, magic-infested mansion to become, finally, the community so many of them already believed they were.
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Tupac Shakur Gives the Performance of His Life

By Touré

This [trial] is all about my image, this has nothing to do with me. . . . I’m selling records. This is what I do for a living: I’m selling records. Don’t get it twisted. This is not my real life. —Tupac Shakur

December 13, 1994

Riding across the Brooklyn Bridge on Thursday morning, heading toward the courthouse the day the verdict in Tupac Amaru Shakur’s trial for sexual abuse, sodomy, and criminal possession of a weapon is delivered, one day after he was shot five times by unknown assailants, feels like riding into the front lines of a war zone. Waiting just across the approaching shore are the generals and soldiers—lawyers and reporters who battle to shape what Tupac’s attorney Michael Warren calls a “propaganda war” that could stretch on interminably or end at a moment’s notice. At least one man has been injured and is, at the moment, MIA—Tupac—and I feel the gnawing probability, call it tension, that soon, maybe before the day is over, there will be a casualty. Tupac. . . .

See Tupac as part of the Whitney Museum’s “Black Male” show, and the events of last week as scenes in an open-ended performance art piece. This piece questions the place of rebellion for its own selfish and/or self-destructive sake, debates the value of outlaw subculture, and gauges the universe of distance between the militantly politicized generation that gave birth to the militantly commercial one that has taken its place. It stars a master performance artist whose canvas is his body and whose stage is the world.

There is a massive distance between Tupac’s fame and the quality of his work so far. Despite being an actor with tremendous presence, with the exception of a co-starring role in Juice he has never acted in a good movie. Despite being, along with Snoop, one of the two most famous rappers in the world, he is merely an average vocalist and lyricist, and has yet to record one aesthetically important song. But the performance has been dangerously compelling and ecstatically brilliant: the way he plays his Black Panther bloodline; the flurry of arrests in L.A., Atlanta, East Lansing, and Manhattan; the escape from five of those six arrests with a minuscule 14 days in jail; the fact that while everyone else talks about it, Tupac is the only known rapper who has actually put a bullet in a police officer.