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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Jerome Phillips


THIS IS NOT A TEST, with your pal and confidant Michael Jerome Phillips

Seeking the analog in a digital world – THIS IS NOT A TEST #23 (transcript)

Published May 30, 2015

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Well, Mary Ellen Mark died this week. I promise I’m not going to open here every week with news of a death, but B. B. King last week – how could I not say something, and Mary Ellen Mark is someone I feel the same way about. She was something else man, so I have to say something about her. I became aware of her work in 1984 when she and her husband made a documentary called Streetwise about homeless kids in Seattle. It’s not easy to find, but if you get a chance to see it anywhere, do it. It’s really worth a look. Before that she was primarily known for a book of photos shot in a women’s mental ward called Ward 81. She photographed women in brothels in Bombay, twins, every conceivable form of oddball Americans – or you might say typical Americans – Indian circus performers, it goes on and on, her subject matter. Always interesting and always shot with a perfect, compassionate eye. You may have seen her recently in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, where she’s filmed looking through some of Maier’s photos and saying she could have been a famous photographer.

When I first saw Mary Ellen Mark’s work it reminded me of the work of Diane Arbus. I don’t know if the two women were much alike as people – something tells me they weren’t – but they were drawn to similar things and themes and people creatively. Arbus killed herself a few years before Mark’s first book was published, but the influence of Arbus seems to be pretty clear in Mark’s work. They had the same eye for the different or the other in everyday life, which seems sort of common in photography now, but it wasn’t so common even back in the 60s and 70s. And the insight and instinct and talent of the two photographers is very uncommon in any era. Mark once said, “It’s not when you press the shutter, but why you press the shutter,” and I suppose that’s true, as far as what you choose to photograph and why it’s important or interesting. But the “when” is pretty important too. The “when” is why 100 people can photograph the same scene and every one of the pictures is different. To me, that instinct of knowing when to twitch that finger down onto the shutter – or feeling when to do it – is what separates the great from the just okay. And Mary Ellen Mark knew when to press the shutter. For sure. I’m going to miss being surprised by her new work every few years.

Over on the Bukowski forum John Martin – not that John Martin – a different, sane one – asked a question about an old Bukowski book which inspired me to pull it off the shelf and look at it again. It’s called Crucifix in a Deathhand, and it was published by LouJon press in 1965. LouJon was Jon and Louise Webb, and their story interesting, if you find itinerant, perpetually poverty-stricken ex-convict book publishers interesting. There’s a book about them called “Bohemian New Orleans – The Story of the Outsider and Loujon Press,” and you should check it out. There’s a DVD documentary that goes along with it if you’re not into reading, or you’re the visual type. Both recommended. Actually I’m not sure that the documentary was meant to be a companion to the book – they’re by different people – but they both came out around the same time, so if it’s a coincidence it’s a pretty big one. Crucifix was the second Bukowski book the Webbs published, the first was in 1963, It Catches My Heart in its Hands, and they were both what you might call lavish productions: oversized, thick, colored papers of different widths, deckled edges – those are the page edges that look like they were torn, not cut straight – weird, foldy covers, every page hand set and letterpressed – everything but the kitchen sink, these books. They were what we would call “book art” today. Fifty years ago I think they were just called “books.”

Bukowski was lavish in his praise of the beauty of the book when he wrote to the Webbs about it. The LouJon books were his first non-chapbook books, and he was clearly excited about having so much over the top book making attention paid to his work. But in letters to other people later he said the production of the book competed with the contents of the book, and he was right about that. They’re difficult to read – partly because they’re old and expensive so you’re naturally overly careful with the damn things, but they’re also difficult to read just because of the format and production. It’s as if they were made to be looked at, not read. Books pages with deckled edges are a pain to read because it’s hard to turn the pages. You might have run in to that if you ever bought a regular book that wasn’t trimmed properly when it was bound, so the edges of the pages aren’t all straight and flat and uniform. After about 20 pages you want to give up and just throw it across the room and go for a bike ride or to the circus instead. All of the gimmicks make Bukowski’s LouJon books very distracting to try to read, so I never really warmed up to them. I have a copy of It Catches My Heart in its Hands that’s been trimmed up and bound in a library binding. So it doesn’t have any “collector value” and you can read it without putting on white gloves first, but it’s still distracting, even with half of the book artiness taken away.

But that’s a problem with book art in general. They are books in name only, the contents are secondary. Book artists seem to compete with each other over who can make the most complicated book. They’re like expensive little – or not so little – origami puzzles. But if the contents are secondary, maybe they shouldn’t even be called books. I suppose that applies more to contents that are text. If the contents are art, then I guess the unfolding and careful handling could work along with the art. But if a writer spends months – or years – writing something, I think it’s safe to assume they want people to read it. Not marvel over the ingenuity of the packaging. But Bukowski collectors all seem to love the Webb books, so what do I know. And I understand book art as a thing, I mean, I understand why someone would want to do it. It’s a very physical, hands-on kind of thing that uses a lot of old school, manual processes. You can get your hands dirty doing it, and in a world with fewer and fewer ways to get your hands dirty, it makes sense that people would be drawn to it.

Just like letterpress, which kind of goes hand in hand with book art. Letterpress is a tedious, awful way to print, and if you’re going to go to all that trouble, you aren’t going to print your letterpress project on copier paper that you picked up at Staples or Office Depot. But they also have another thing in common, letterpress and book art – they’re both things that used to be utilitarian, that have recently been elevated to “art forms.” They were trades, printing and bookbinding, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world did them every day, as a punch in, punch out lunch bucket job. They didn’t call themselves artists on their tax returns. But like a lot of people who do things that used to be utilitarian, book binders and letterpressers now are a little more elaborate or exaggerated in their methods. Letterpress printing today is not the same thing it was back when it was the only way to print things.

You know letterpress now as a deep impression in the paper – debossed letters carved in to the paper that happen to have some ink at the bottom of the indention. Every piece of letterpress produced now is like that, lead type jammed deep into thick, soft paper. You can read it with your fingers like braille. But you might be surprised to know that it wasn’t always that way. If you were an apprentice printer 150 years ago and you handed your boss a calling card that was carved deeply into the paper like that, he would have beaten you across the knuckles with a pica ruler. A deep impression into the paper was the sure sign of an amateur. A good printer just kissed the paper with the type – made a clean, dark impression without deforming the paper. That was their skill, and it took a long time to master it. Think about it, if you’re printing a book with text on both sides of the page, you don’t want an impression in the paper. It would make printing the second pass difficult and sloppy, and the pages would look like crap if you were constantly seeing the other side of the page in reverse as you were trying to read.

But like book binding or book art, I can see why people do letterpress now. When I was learning to print back in the 70s they mainly taught us offset printing methods, because that’s how trade printing is done, but they also taught us letterpress. Because it was school, I guess, and they wanted to educate us. What they were really doing was trying to teach us a trade so we wouldn’t starve to death, and any education that came along with that was kind of a special bonus. And I will say that there’s something almost meditative about picking type out of a case, letter by letter, and building a paragraph. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meditative when it was a production method, when you had to get the news set by 2 o’clock so it could go to press in time for the evening edition. But when a young, long haired 70s dilettante like me was doing it, yeah, it was a different experience. And I dipped my toe back into the ink 10 or so years ago and set up a letterpress shop in my garage down in San Pedro, for reasons I don’t really understand, except that I suppose the printing ink is in my blood. I sold off all of the stuff a few years later, because letterpress printing on a small hand press is insane, and also because I tore up the ligaments in one of my elbows doing it. Which is also kind of a meditative thing, not using one of your arms for a year while it heals.

But it’s the physical things that appeal to people lately, which is why some people use ridiculous things like typewriters. The physical aspect and nostalgia. I say nostalgia because typewriters certainly are not efficient tools in the age of computers. For a long time they were efficient tools, but they haven’t been since computers became affordable. I’m not sure why anyone would use one now. If you sent your friend a letter in the mail, with an envelope and a stamp and everything, they’d probably post on your Facebook page to ask you if you were okay. But a move back to the physical, the analog, seems inevitable as the world becomes more electronic and ephemeral and fleeting. We still like to do things with our hands other than swipe and tap. There’s still some satisfaction in making something physical, even if it’s only a sheet of paper with some typing on it.

It is funny though what we choose to do in the “old fashioned way.” You don’t see home tanneries popping up around Brooklyn, even though, hey, who wouldn’t want to make their own leather? And I’m sure some people have considered making their own leather until they found out that the old school tanneries used huge vats of human piss, shit and lye to remove hair from animal hides and process them. Can you imagine? Your opera gloves started in a vat of filth. But that’s how leather was made until not so long ago. It’s still made that way in some parts of the world. To make it even more disgusting the tanneries in every big city were clustered around each other, so entire city blocks would be fouled by the waste, the byproducts and the stench. All that animal hair you scrape off of the lye-soaked hide and the used up piss bath has to go somewhere. And that somewhere was usually the street right outside the tannery.

So we say no to tanning hides as a hobby, understandably. And we say no to a thousand other dirty and dangerous old trades. We only go old school when there’s some fun or craftsmanship involved. Or when there’s beer or something else delicious at the end of the process. Or in music, where going analog is part nostalgia, but also part sound. Computers and software can approximate something like an old analog synthesizer, but it’s only an approximation. The real thing is always going to sound different. It’s going to feel different. And of course that feeling comes at a price, since it’s also going to be a lot more difficult to use and maintain and master than a modern digital box. But the end result is something unique and something that the band coming on after your set isn’t going to be able to replicate. You know, unless they’re into the very same old synthesizers.

People pine over the glory days of electric guitar making the same way. “Oh my god, they were so much better! The craftsmanship! The craftsmanship!” If you want to buy certain Les Pauls from the late 50s or 1960 they’re going to set you back about as much as a new house would. Why is that? Well, as someone who’s owned a few late 50s Gibsons, I can say that there’s something about the old wood and an aged instrument that’s just different than a newly produced guitar – or violin or oboe or whatever you’ve got. When they picked up that slab of mahogany in 1958 to shape it into a guitar, it was already aged and dry. It was also in larger pieces from older trees – and you see, the wood is the thing in an old guitar. But people talk about “the craftsmanship” as if it played a huge part, and it did play a part to a certain extent, but those guys in Kalamazoo in the 50s weren’t exactly carving out guitars with hand tools. They still used machines and jigs and patterns, so really, what’s the difference between Fred cutting your guitar body or a computer controlled mega cutting monster robot thing? I think not much. And if you want Fred to have his hands all over your new guitar you can still get that if you go with one of the custom shop guitars. All of the big companies have custom shops. You’ll pay twice as much, but you know, you get Fred’s hands. Sort of.

So yeah, I don’t think it’s as much the craftsmanship of the old guitars, but the ingredients. The raw materials. The wood they use now is younger and dried quickly in a kiln. And the new electronics aren’t manufactured the same way and they haven’t had time to age and fade and change. But like I said, I’ve owned a few late 50s Les Paul juniors, and while most of them sounded quite unlike their modern equivalents, and by that I mean much better, I also had one with dead spots, and that thing couldn’t sustain any high notes. So they weren’t all masterpieces. Sometimes Fred may have had a hangover or been fighting with his wife, and he didn’t give a shit about your guitar that day. But robots, they always give a shit! And robots only do part of the work on guitars anyway. Humans still have to put them together and adjust them and make them guitar-y.

I don’t know, man. I do know my eight year old Honda car was built by Japanese robots and I’ve never had to do anything but put gas and oil into it. I’m not kidding. It’s like a miracle of perpetual motion. Okay, it’s also needed brakes and tires, but those are consumables, you expect them to wear out. And if you’ve ever read Ben Hamper’s book Rivethead, you know that when humans built your car, at least here in America, in Detroit, they really didn’t give a shit about anything. They were always high or drunk or high and drunk, and they’d purposely do things that they knew would cause the car owner problems later on. So you tell me which is better? I choose the Japanese robot or the Mexican robot or the American robot when it comes to a complicated machine like a modern car. I know that means a lot of people don’t have jobs now putting those cars together. And I think that’s shitty. The trade I spent nearly half my life learning became extinct too, so I know what that’s like. I had to adapt. Which is fine, because those inks and solvents were murder on my manicures. But as a consumer, if you’re asking me to choose between either eight years of trouble free car operation or someone having a job but I have to bring my car in to the shop every year so they can have a job? I’m sorry man, I choose the former.

I’m not happy that the manufacturing culture we used to have is gone. I liked it. I was part of it. But we traded those jobs for making rich people more rich, and now it’s too late to get the jobs back. I didn’t make that deal, and I can’t do anything about that deal. I certainly didn’t benefit from that deal. The generation right before mine gave those jobs away. And here we are. In a different world. Hey, what happened? I promised that this week was going to be fun. I thought I could talk about the analog world without any evil creeping in. Somehow, there it is. I guess it creeps in to everything.

We could go back to Bukowski. He’s fun. If you ever read Ham on Rye you know about “the house of horrors,” the house where Bukowski’s father beat him and tortured him every week over the cutting of the lawn. And stories like that are a lot of fun, right? Well if you’re looking for a new place, that Ham on Rye house is for sale. It can be yours for a mere $569,900. Which is a steal for a three bedroom house in Los Angeles right now. As fucked up as that is. The court apartment on DeLongpre where he lived for eight years and where he met John Martin and set out on his career as a professional writer after quitting a long time post office job was sold a few years back and the seller advertised it as a “tear down” that could be developed into a real piece of property that could generate some income, make some money. Someone who got wind of the sale and probable teardown raised a ruckus and convinced the city to designate the place as a historical landmark. So it’s been tidied up, but it’s still an old fashioned court apartment, and it will be for the foreseeable future. There’s a sign on the street proclaiming it “Bukowski court.” Will the same thing happen to the house on Longwood, the one that’s for sale? The listing doesn’t mention Bukowski, but I’m not sure if that’s because they don’t know Bukowski lived there, or they don’t want to draw attention to the fact, after what happened on DeLongpre.

Does it matter either way? Does it matter that the DeLongpre place is still there? I don’t think it does. The new owner should have been allowed to tear it down. I appreciate walking through some European city and seeing where Beethoven learned to tie his shoes or Mozart got a blow job. Or walking in to a cathedral in Paris and touching the stone wall and thinking, “Jesus, some maniacs placed these stones 800 years ago…” But those places are only interesting because they’re still there. And one of the reasons they’re still there is because they exist in cities with a tie to history. And, or course, because they were built to still be standing. It took something like 80 or 90 years to build Notre Dame. Bukowski’s apartment was a shit hole that was probably built in three weeks, and even now, after renovation, it’s probably still a shit hole. Court apartments built in Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century weren’t exactly built to stand forever alongside the pyramids or the Champs de Lyse. They were thrown up quickly and cheaply to be housing people would use for a while and then knock down, grind up and start over. But what do you really gain from stranding in front of a building where someone famous or notorious lived? The DeLongpre avenue that Bukowski lived on is long gone, whether or not the building is still standing. As is the Hollywood he lived in. When you’re there you aren’t getting a taste of what Bukowski tasted because everything around the place has changed. Everything changes.

Which is why, to me, preserving things like the DeLongpre apartment court is pointless. I love old buildings, and if I’d bought DeLongpre I probably would have renovated it myself, and kept it as close to its original form as possible. But the government shouldn’t come in and force someone to do that. Force them to maintain the thing and never build anything else on the property. If the city wants to preserve it, the city should buy it. Purposely preserving something in that way strikes me as completely false anyway. Bukowski didn’t live in a museum, in a time capsule, and I doubt he’d think much of the idea of making someplace he once lived in to one. He lived in a place that was always changing, so his old apartment should have been allowed to change like everything around it has. That’s the face of this city: change. We aren’t savers here in Los Angeles. I really like the old buildings here in town, and the old neighborhoods. I like driving through South Pasadena and seeing all of the old craftsman houses still standing. But they’re still standing because the owners want to keep them. That’s natural preservation, and that’s a good thing.

But I understand change too, because I sure wouldn’t want the entire city to be exactly the way it was when I landed here 30 years ago. It’s good that some parts have changed. And the gentrification changes in places like Venice or Topanga or Eagle Rock, Echo Park, Highland Park – well, things like that are going to happen anyway, so there’s no point in getting all weepy over it. People with money are always going to push out people with no money. That’s something that cities do, and no one is going to stop it because it’s always seen as “progress.” By local governments anyway. And sometimes it really is progress. But it changes the face and the feel of a city, and that’s why people don’t like it. It’s ridiculously expensive to live anywhere in Los Angeles, and that’s something people in the government and activists are always talking about, but it’s not something that will ever change. Big cities are usually expensive cities. It’s capitalism, baby. You’d have better luck fighting against the wind or the sunrise. And by the way, if you look in to who was fighting for the DeLongpre apartment court to be preserved, it was someone with ties to a tour bus company that features DeLongpre on its Bukowski tour. Make of that what you will. Are we bravely fighting to preserve Los Angeles for history’s sake, or to turn it in to one big Universal back lot that we can shuttle tourists through at $60 a head?

But speaking of the Notre Dame cathedral, imagine taking 90 years to complete a building now. That’s four generations. Even more in the 12th century, considering life expectancy back then. What with the tanneries and all. “Yeah man, check it out, my great great great grandfather laid the corner stone for that cathedral.” “The cathedral over there? Notre Dame? Cool. When are they going to finish that thing anyway?” And we can only speculate how long it took the Egyptians to build those Giza pyramids. Greek historians said 20 years, but you know that’s some bullshit. Then again, who knows. The Egyptians had access to a lot more slaves than the French did, so construction could have gone a lot more quickly. The point being, if something lasts, if it stand the test of time, it’s cool to look at and imagine olden days. But – and maybe I’m crazy – but I don’t get the same vibe looking at some box that was slapped together 60 or 70 years ago.

You know, I talked about trades, and if you look at someone in the building trades now, they don’t really stand a chance of comparing to someone in the 12th or 13th century. Back then a stone cutter might spend their entire adult professional life building a set of stairs on a single building. Or monument. Granted, they didn’t have cordless drills and lunch trucks back then, so things proceeded a little more slowly. But seriously, there were people who would spend most of their lives on one construction job. I suppose we still have that now in places like New Jersey. You know, if you have the right connections. But otherwise, we’re not building anything for the ages. All of our shit – all of it – will be dust and those god damn pyramids will still be there. Tourists a thousand years from now will be levitating around Giza and saying, “Shit bro, it’s amazing we had civilizations that long ago that could carve squares out of rock,” and meanwhile all of our computers and space stations and Pokemon cards will be buried under four hundred feet of dead trees and mud.

So yeah, historical monument number 68,332: the last bus stop on Sunset Boulevard. Wait, the last pay phone in America. The last record store. The last IKEA. Bukowski’s fucking typewriter. You know, famed desert poet Hosho McCreesh gave me a good idea for an episode here: dispelling Bukowski myths. I think we might do that very soon. We’ll keep milking the Bukowski cow. Bu-cow-ski – get it? Eh. But there are a lot of myths around the great Bukowski, and we may as well talk about them so future generations aren’t tripped up by them. Future generations, right? Speaking of 900 year old buildings, how long will our podcasts last? About as long as any computer files, which is to say, not very long. Which is why I burn all of these to $35,000 ozone plasma drives and send them in protective metal boxes to the Library of Congress. So my genius will be preserved for eternity. Or until the ozone plasma drives self destruct. Anyway, I’m surprised someone hasn’t done a Bukowski podcast. Not an episode or a series, but a whole fucking podcast about Bukowski, every week, week in, week out. There’s enough there. You could spend a year just looking at a different book every week. But who would be crazy enough to do that? Not me, brother. I’m too busy building my own pyramid.

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