My Life Story in Mixtape Cover Art

14 03 2014

Yes, mixtapes. I’ll try to skip all the nostalgia and just tell you the story.

In the early 80s, I owned a half dozen cassettes, all Men at Work and The Fixx and Depeche Mode if you really want to know. I also had a couple mixtapes of odds and ends; bits of movie soundtracks I captured by holding a tape recorder up to the TV, a handful of Queen songs, Flight of the Valkyries, etc. Around the summer of 1985 I put some favorites on a 60 minute cassette, which I christened Neal’s Pirated Tape. I brought this to a kind of summer camp where we lived in a college dorm and took all sorts of crazy classes, and the tape went over well with my small circle of friends. Pretty soon I was assembling a second tape, and in the process decided to revamp the first one, to give it more variety and a more satisfying narrative. Thus, 1986 (my first year of high school) brought about Neal’s Pirated Tape in it’s only surviving version, and Neal’s Other Pirated Tape. And now I was hooked.

I would buy albums, but only by my favorite bands (and I would slowly amass all their albums). Other songs I liked had to go on a Pirated Tape. I always had one in progress, and always named them some variety of Pirated Tape. Throughout high school and college I completed one every 3-9 months. There was always a wealth of songs to be discovered from my friends and family. The tapes began to function as an abstract journal, chronicling my changing connection to pop culture.

After leaving college, the process slowed down drastically. Maybe my own tastes had gotten too specialized, maybe I just wasn’t close enough to enough people, but the fountain of discoverable music just dried up. Even working in a company with lots of cool young (and less young) adults, the fertile sound network just wasn’t there. It took me over a year to complete my first tape out of college, and the one after that languished half-finished for two or three years. It became clear that like staying up all night, spontaneous road trips, and boffer sword battles, the Pirated Tape series belonged to a magical time of high independence and low responsibility that must come to an end. In 1999, I made an effort to fill up the remaining minutes and close the book with Neal’s Last Pirated Tape.

Obviously everything is different now, with every song and album instantly accessible online. I still prefer to hoard music, even if it is pure data, rather than stream Pandora or other such services. I’m still making mixes as a home for stray favorite songs, but now they are playlists, ever fluid and changable, not so much a magnetic engraving of my history with music. However, I’ve finally gotten around to digitizing all 24 of my old Pirated Tapes and adding them to my iTunes library. Naturally, part of the process was to create album artwork for each one. I did what I always do when I need album artwork in iTunes: image search some evocative words from the title and see what comes up.

And now we come to the point of this post: below is all the cover art I came up with for all the Pirated Tapes. Most of it is pure found imagery, but a few I messed around with in Photoshop. Some of the image searches got a little more specific. Like the tapes themselves, the art won’t mean much to anyone but me, but I wanted to share anyway.


Music is a Weapon

7 02 2014

weaponI’ve been listening to Skinny Puppy for about 26 years– since just before the release of their fourth full album, VIVIsectVI. In that time, they’ve released 8 more albums, explored a wide range of industrial nightmare stylings, had one member go through rehab, another die of a drug overdose, broken up, and reunited. I saw them in concert once, saw two shows that included individual members (Pigface and Download), and I’m seeing them again this month. As a young teen, discovering Pink Floyd, Marillion, and Bauhaus after they had splintered, I wished I could have been there to follow any of those bands’ growth. As it turns out, I got to have that experience with Skinny Puppy. It’s been a privilege. I hope it goes on for many more years.

You may have seen a news story going around about the music of Skinny Puppy being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo. I find this disturbing for many reasons. Foremost, of course, is that torture is going on at all. As I’ve said in this space before, torture is utterly unconscionable. There is no justification for it. Even if it yielded useful information (which it doesn’t), deliberately dehumanizing another human being is just about the most evil, despicable thing I can imagine. The fact that our government continues to practice it makes me want to find an overpass and just scream “STOP THE TORTURE” like a lunatic until my throat gives out. Or, failing that, listen to a  track like Hardset Head or Hexonxonx or Pro-Test at full volume, and let the pounding, roaring noise absorb enough outrage that I can function like a person.

Aside from the cathartic effect, Skinny Puppy made me feel powerful when I was a runty teenage weirdo. I knew that the hulking stoners endlessly reproducing Metallica logos in drawing class would not stand up to 30 seconds of Skinny Puppy. The same went for the cool kids at the top of the pecking order with their Huey Lewis and the News. Not merely loud, not simply aggressive, Skinny Puppy is challenging. In the 80s they challenged the whole notion of popular music. Today’s breakbeat and ubiquitous sampling owe debts to Skinny Puppy that will forever go unacknowledged. Which is fine. To cross over into the mainstream was never their intention. Us fans get to live forever in that “before they sold out” world.

Using Skinny Puppy’s artfully sculpted sensory assault as a blunt instrument against prisoners is just about the most banal expression of mainstream cluelessness there is. The worst part, though, is that I’m sure I’ve said at some point in the past (like when US forces were trying to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy with Guns ‘n’ Roses) “If those idiots knew what caustic music really was they’d be using Skinny Puppy!” Now, at last, someone in Guantanamo has discovered my favorite audio sculptors. Maybe it was a fan who decided their music would be an effective torture device, or maybe it was some Hootie and the Blowfish frat boy. I don’t know which would be worse.

The band’s response is true to form. Consummate artists, acidic commentators, they’ve embraced the role thrust upon them by American torturers and invoiced the US government for $666,000. Then they titled their newest release Weapon, and made it a critique of our current state of lawlessness in pursuit of security. It’s probably the most publicity Skinny Puppy has ever gotten, and it’s drawing attention to the most glaring neglected atrocity in America. If the statements issued by cEvin Key about this event seem muted, there is always the music for channeling the outrage.

There’s a nice review of Weapon here.

Note: I’m sorry for hurling the term “mainstream” around like a club. As a grown-up I no longer bear the mainstream (whatever that means) indiscriminate ill will. Many are lovely people whose company I enjoy.

Disassembling on Breaking Bad

7 01 2014

breakingbadscoreWarning: fat stacks of spoilers ahead

Sometime in the last few years, I heard a segment of Fresh Air which brought up the soundtrack to Breaking Bad, composed by Dave Porter. Terry Gross or her guest (I don’t remember who it was) described the soundtrack as being not tuneful or musical, but noisy, droning, and very powerful, and perfect for the show. I had been watching the show, hadn’t particularly noticed the music, but the comments on Fresh Air intrigued me. And after that I did start to notice the music, and it sounded a lot like some of my favorite industrial/ambient stuff. I thought, I should get that soundtrack, and that thought sat in the back of my mind with all the other albums and books and comics I would own by now if I had unlimited money.

Then the final season hit Netflix. And then I got to the point where Jesse is pushed past the breaking point of all breaking points, pretty much loses his mind, and tries to burn down Walter’s house. Gas Can Rage is the name of the music track, and it is a series of downward spiraling drones that perfectly capture the fall off the deep end that goes on and on, the feeling of watching oneself dig one’s own hole deeper and deeper, untethered from any hope or desire to do better.

Then I bought the soundtrack. Both volumes. What follows are the most lasting impressions I got from the show, as evoked by some of the music tracks.

Matches in the Pool: The affable chemistry teacher, living in quiet desperation, diagnosed with cancer, sits at his backyard pool making chemical reactions. Matches light, matches go out. In the pilot episode, Walter White says of chemistry, “I prefer to think of it as the study of change.” When the show’s creators were filming the pilot, did they have any idea how thoroughly every character would change throughout the series? Hank going from pot-bellied buffoon to flawed hero cop? Marie rising above her habitual pettiness as her family rips apart? Walter Junior, the self-styled Flynn, coming into his own and turning on the father he once idolized? Skyler, shifting from controlling shrew to stymied mother, to desperate victim, to tormented collaborator, before finally emerging a poorer, sadder, wiser, ethically sound human being? Jesse, a character who wasn’t supposed to survive the first season, living through an arc more akin to a POW than a drug pusher? And of course, Walter White himself. Did anyone picture the stunning scope of his atrocities when they filmed the pilot? I like to think they did not.

Gray Matter: Every time Eliot or Gretchen show up, I feel like we are glimpsing the life Walter should have had. Throughout the series I was haunted by the question, what went wrong? Why isn’t Walter a high-profile, highly paid researcher with his old friend’s company? All we know is there was something between him and Gretchen, and it ended, and Walter’s attachment to Gray Matter ended with it. Did they shut him out? Did he walk away out of pride? Was he always his own worst enemy? There’s no way to know. I believe Walter when he tells Skyler she is the love of his life in his aborted video farewell, and his devotion to his children is beyond question… unless his wife and children are just the objects of devotion he needs to play the role of provider he imagines for himself.

The Bike Lock: By the time Crazy 8 is imprisoned in Jesse’s basement, Walt has committed several criminal acts, but nothing he couldn’t conceivably walk away from and return to his old life. However, he knows there is no coming back from deliberate, premeditated murder, and he’s desperate not to cross that line. Walter’s cancer diagnosis liberates him somewhat. As a man with no future, he’s free to assault the bullies picking on his son and blow up the douchebag day-trader’s car (two of the most gratifying moments in the entire series). But he’s not a man with nothing left to lose. Not until after he kills Crazy 8. Soon after that, he dons the black porkpie hat of Heisenberg. After bombing his way into business with Tuco, Walter is overcome, surpassed by his own actions, and we witness his alter ego growling to life with bestial birth pangs.

Dead Freight: There is something wrong with Todd. He is missing some basic component of humanity. It’s not surprising, given the family he comes from. But he is a stark contrast to just about every other character in the show. No matter what awful things they do, they all are complex people, generating sympathy on some level. Not Todd. His crush on Lydia is kind of endearing, but he treats her the way he treats everyone he is eager to please, which ultimately comes off as a pure sociopath looking for a place to fit in. It’s hard to believe he could do worse than shooting the kid on the minibike, but of course he does.

Hank’s Last Stand: The death of Hank is the last big turning point for Walt. Up to that point he has done awful things, made terrible decisions, made even worse sacrifices, but essentially always come out on top. But when a member of his family finally dies, he has to see that he has scraped by on equal parts ingenious cunning and dumb luck. It’s hard to tell what pains him more, the death of his brother-in-law or the shattering of his illusions. In the same encounter he loses the bulk of the money he’s amassed for his children. The folly of Heisenberg is undeniable. A bit of the old Walt re-emerges then, leading to a synthesis of  his two sides; a less reckless man, less dangerous to innocent bystanders, but perhaps more dangerous to the objects of his singular purpose.

Chained Dog. Walter White drives the show, and his long transformation is fascinating, but I was much more emotionally invested in Jesse Pinkman. And holy cow, what a brutal investment that is. He’s a decent kid, basically smart but with terrible judgement, trying to play the hardened criminal, unaware of the depth of his own caring. And in 62 episodes he endures enough suffering, tragedy, and guilt to spawn literary traditions for whole nations. By the last few episodes, the question that ate at me was will Jesse survive? By the final episode, I wondered if he’d want to. While enslaved by Welker’s gang, he flashes back to crafting a wooden box, with all the patience and devotion that Walter always wanted him to apply to cooking meth. Is this also a vision of his future? Burdened by his past, but finding a way to live, bringing some beauty into the world? I have to believe it is. Jesse killing Todd gave me a bloody, nihilistic urge to cheer that I’m not at all comfortable with. When he smashes through the compound gate and hurtles away in the car, boiling over with grief, rage, joy, relief, free for the first time since he partnered up with Walter, I could barely take it. Aaron Paul better win every award there is for Season 5, or there is no justice at all.

Heisneberg’s Theme: a spare series of notes, sounding like the devil’s own footsteps. Did Heisenberg emerge from some netherworld to occupy Walter White’s last two years on Earth? It often seems that way. But I think it’s pretty clear that Heisenberg was always present in Walter, that it’s a mistake to think of Walter and Heisenberg as separate entities, despite the yawning gulf between the chemistry teacher in episode 1 and the man who has torn apart the lives of everyone he’s ever touched in the finale. As he says to Skyler (finally giving her the honesty she has always needed), “I did it for me. I liked it.”

Dave Porter talks to Wired about scoring the show here.

Prejudgey Critic vs Saving Mr. Banks

5 12 2013

So, it’s a movie from the world’s largest entertainment behemoth, about said behemoth’s founder at his cuddliest, trying to get a flakey artist to surrender her intellectual property in exchange for boatloads of cash?

Erm, no.

24 Hour Comics: Bunnirah 2

29 10 2013

ImageCurses! 24 Hour Comics Day is regularly observed at the Center for Book Arts here in Minneapolis….until the year I move here! Apparently the prime organizer of years past had too much other stuff going on, and no one else filled in. So, no group drawing session for me this time. I have met some Twin Cities cartoonists, and they are fine fellows, but I don’t know any of them well enough to invite them to my house to draw for 24 hours. I think they would find that as awkward as I would.

But! Going solo hasn’t stopped me before. So I planned to draw the sequel to my last one on October 19th. I do have some good friends I could invite over, but they don’t draw. So I invited them over for a Lord of the Rings marathon. Not quite 24 hours, but a goodly chunk of time (all the extended versions, naturally). I figured if I could get the first 12 pages penciled by the 1 pm movie start time, I could ink while the movies are playing and stay pretty much on schedule. Nick brought some miniatures to paint. Jeff had to leave to keep a dinner date but came back for Return of the King.

It didn’t quite go according to plan. I only had 8 pages penciled when we started the movies. After 20 hours of drawing, I had 16 or so pages penciled and 13 inked, and it was obvious I wouldn’t finish by hour 24. So I went to bed, slept for a few hours, and spent Sunday finishing up. In the end I finished after almost 40 hours. I was generally happy with the resulting comic, but that’s way too long to work on one of these things. Next time, I will strictly limit myself to 24 hours and let the story fall where it may.

I get the impression that Bunnirah is not a favorite among readers of my 24 hour comics, but I still find him and his cohorts tons of fun. Clearly I’m adhering to the advice for writers/artists I read somewhere, “follow your obsessions.” Maybe the writer’s obsessions should be tempered with something else…an editor perhaps. I might still create some posters or t-shirts or other merchandise with the gang of nuclear dickweeds, as Ted calls them.

A Shomen for Drawing

18 10 2013

shomen3Awhile back my friend Anna wrote a post about building a physical, external aid to creativity. Hers was an automat– a replica of one of those old-timey walk-in vending machine/diners, which she would stock with things to help her get writing when she’s feeling blocked. I thought this was a really cool idea. She invited her readers to suggest their own constructions, but I couldn’t think of anything. But then, writer’s block isn’t really my problem. I have miles of story mapped out for my webcomic. My problem is sitting down and getting started on drawing pages, and then continuing to draw pages rather than re-watching old seasons of Breaking Bad.

One morning I was doing what I always do. I’d had breakfast, read the paper, and I was reading all my online newsfeeds, comic subscriptions, and Facebook updates, trying to rev up for some drawing before it was time to walk the dog. I go through the same routine every day. It’s a ritual with no clear conclusion. There’s always more to peruse on the internet– I just stop when I feel guilty enough. Or I don’t stop until Teagan starts bugging me for a walk, and the morning is a wash. And then I have other obligations that eat up the day and the comic falls behind.

I decided that rather than a construction like Anna’s, I need a better ritual. One that sends a clear signal to my brain: now is drawing time. Kinda like how we bow in for Aikido. In fact, almost exactly like that.

We bow a lot in Aikido. At the beginning of class, at the end of class, when we practice with someone, when we pick up a weapon. We bow to other students, to the sensei, and to the shomen, which is a kind of altar at the front of the dojo. It may look like a lot of pointless rigamarole, but it actually serves a purpose. Aside from being good etiquette, treating the time and space of practice in a certain way we separates it from the outside world. Starting class with a bow is a way to clear the mind, set aside whatever else went on that day, and focus on training.

shomen2So I started doing this for drawing. I made a very rudimentary shomen by hanging up a collage of artists’ work I would like to emulate. I found a nice box to hold my favorite drawing tools when I’m not working. I do a formal bow at the beginning and end of the work day, and a casual bow when I step away for a break.

I did this for several weeks and managed to crank out pages consistently. Then some other obligations came along, and I stopped bowing, and page production slowed way down. Causality? Or spurious correlation? Rather than a pure cause-and-effect relationship, I think the ritual and the work feed each other. I’m going to get back in the habit of bowing in and see what happens.

The Internet: Solver of Mysteries, Eater of Souls

16 08 2013

TOSM3As kids, my brother and I had this Colorforms game called Space Warriors. It had little vinyl cutout figures you could stick on a cardboard background to enact scenes and whatnot. Hours of fun, to be sure. However, the box clearly shows the vinyl cutout characters as action figures. We had plenty of toys — Micronauts, Star Wars figures, Shogun Warriors and more, but we’d never seen any sign of the guys on this box. How could they exist in this photograph and nowhere else? It was one of the many unsolvable mysteries of childhood. Eventually we stopped playing Colorforms and I forgot all about it.

Fast forward 30+ years to deep in the information age, and someone on Facebook links to a toy review on Michael Crawford’s site. I still buy toys once or twice a year, but I had never read a toy review. So I’m messing around on the site, in the “Miscellaneous” category, looking for weird stuff, and there’s something called The Outer Space Men. And… cue rush of childhood memories… it’s the guys from the Colorforms box. But updated, reissued by this company Four Horsemen.

I get way more excited about this than can ever be justified. I do some deliberate searching, and learn that The Outer Space Men were a line of action figures roughly a decade before we were sticking their vinyl likenesses on a cardboard xenoscape. There are several web sites dedicated to the original toys. And I cannot stop obsessing over them. I’m constantly going back to the Four Horsemen page to gaze at the new figures.

Then I do something I don’t normally do. I cross the line from window shopping to actual shopping. I order the first set from Four Horsemen (the set that includes my sudden favorite for no reason, Metamorpho). With shipping it’s over $60 for four stupid action figures, but I don’t care. I am possessed. I am that guy, gaga over the most pointless of material things.

It takes a long time for the order to be processed. During that time I notice, on one of my many visits to the Four Horsemen store, the set I’ve ordered becomes SOLD OUT! So now, assuming the package arrives, I’m the proud owner of a scarce collectible. And this also gives me a charge, I’m ashamed to admit. The order ships, and I get a FedEx tracking number by email. Which I then use to follow the progress of the package! Who am I? What is going on???

zosm1Today the package arrived. The Outer Space Men are every bit as cool as I’d hoped. The next obvious question raised by this story is, do I now obsessively collect all the rest? I don’t know. Thankfully, I’m more intrigued by the question of what adventures are in store for Xodiac, Inferno, Astro-Nautilus and Metamorpho.


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