Art and death are so perfect together that the union at times is wholly symbiotic. Art is all about creation. Some artists even use birth-related terminology when creating new works, such as referring to their various creations as “my children.” Where you have birth, you must have death. Ah yes here they are folks, the bookends of our lives. Death fascinates and frightens us, which is why it can be such a huge thread in so many works of art.
Now there are common ways for death to co-mingle with art. People in their lives die and that naturally will have an effect on their art. The fear of death or even the embracing of it can also be a big ingredient too. But the artist as a man and woman being the literal bringer of death has been a pretty rare thing. You have the obvious examples, like Varg Vikernes from Mayhem and Burzum, Phil Spector and of course Charles Manson.
But to have an actual serial killer get legally released from prison because of the strength of his creative talent is practically unheard of. However that very thing happened in the early 1990’s in Austria with Johann “Jack” Unterweger aka the Poet of Death.
If ever there was one with a classic prone to serial killing childhood, Unterweger was it. His mother had been a prostitute and his father an American soldier that was long out of the picture before his son was officially in it. At some point early on, young Johann was abandoned and sent to live with his grandparents. His grandfather was an alleged severe alcoholic with violent tendencies, though Jack’s Aunt came out later on to say that he had a poor but loving upbringing. Whatever the case, he certainly had a troubled childhood that begat a very troubled young man, whose first crime was roughing up a sex worker at age 16. It was only a matter of time that a serious transgression was bound to happen.
And happen it did, as a young woman was found dead in the woods. According to Unterweger himself, that before his first killing he had already committed numerous rapes and burglaries. It was the murder of 18 year old Margaret Schafer, whom he strangled to death with her own bra, that got him ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Where this story starts to get really weird is that going into prison, Unterweger was reportedly illiterate. While there, he began to devour book after book, educating himself, as both a reader and a writer. The even more amazing thing is that he unearthed a talent strong enough that he started to get notice from the outside world. Poems, plays and short prose began to emerge, but much like Jack Abbot before him, it was his autobiography Purgatory (Fegefeur) that got him the biggest notice and ended up being a bestseller. How many serial killers can claim to be award winning and best selling?
By the time he was up for parole, he had a bevy of prison reformists, writers and critics championing for his release with the reasoning that this sexual sadist and murderer had been reformed by art. This man’s intellect and creativity along with some well meaning but extremely naïve people got him out of prison and back into society.
Jack Unterweger went into prison an illiterate, poor, ex-pimp psychopathic murderer and came out a media darling and was immediately welcomed into high moving social circles. Book launches and society parties all welcomed the now stylish and handsome ex-criminal. Fegefeur even became a movie, making Unterweger one of the few serial murderers to have a writing credit on the IMDB. To anyone with any real logic about crime, it will come as absolutely no shock that prostitutes started showing up dead yet again in Vienna, a city with a usually very low crime rate towards sex workers in general.
The police suspected him immediately, but despite the surveillance, they couldn’t nail him on any suspicious behavior. Of course, Unterweger, like a lot of serial murderers was far from stupid and knew better than to do anything blatantly shady. (Well, aside from the whole murdering bit.) Also, like a lot of his fellow bloodthirsty spiritual kin, he quickly got cocky. He even challenged the police about what they were going to do about the string of fresh murders, with his bravura being displayed under the guise of a probing journalist. An act such as that either signifies brass balls or brass ignorance. In Unterweger’s case, it was a little bit of both.
Nevertheless, the police had nothing solid on him until Unterweger flew to Los Angeles for research on an article about crime for a local Austrian magazine. During this five week period, the killings in Vienna stopped and suddenly three prostitutes were found strangled with their own garments in the City of Lost Angels. What followed after this was a fascinating case of hubris and fear, with the collaborative efforts of the Austrian police and the LAPD ultimately sealing Unterweger’s fate. He was convicted of murdering 9 women and was sent to prison, where he hung himself with some string he pulled out of his jumpsuit. The ultimate irony was that he utilized the very knot that he had used to murder so many women on himself.
There is something else tied to this figure that makes the story even stranger, all thanks to the very unlikely form of Austrian pop star Falco. In 1985, he released his massively successful Falco 3 album, which included his biggest known song Rock Me Amadeus. Also on that album was a creepy and completely overlooked in the US pop song called Jeanny. This song, inspired by the Unterweger murders, went all the way to number one in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands. All that despite being banned by some radio stations and being protested by various groups, including some misinformed “feminists.”
Falco is an underrated artist, especially in this country where he pretty much is regarded as a “one-hit wonder,” despite having some moderate success with both Der Kommisaar and Vienna Calling. He did some really strange things under the pop music umbrella that still makes him stand out and Jeanny is further proof of this. The chorus is in English while the spoken word parts are in German, giving the listener a weird dysphoria especially given how near desperate sounding the speaker sounds. Just one look at the lyrics should tell you that this is not your momma’s pop tune:
NOTE: Lines in italics were in English in the original German version.
[spoken] Newsflash, newsflash…
“Official government reports…”
Jeanny, come, come on
Stand up please
You’re getting all wet
It’s getting late, come
We must leave here
Out of the woods
Don’t you understand?
Where is your shoe?
You lost it
When I had to show you the way
Which of us lost?
Or… we ourselves?
Jeanny, quit livin’ on dreams
Jeanny, life is not what it seems
Such a lonely little girl in a cold, cold world
There’s someone who needs you
Jeanny quit livin’ on dreams
Jeanny, life is not what it seems
You’re lost in the night
Don’t wanna struggle and fight
There’s someone who needs you
We must leave here
Your lipstick is smeared
You bought it and
And I saw it
Too much red on your lips
And you said, “Leave me alone”
But I saw right through you
Eyes say more than words
You need me, don’t you, hmmmh?
Everyone knows, that we’re together
Now I can hear them, they are coming!
They are coming to get you.
They won’t find you.
Nobody will find you!
You’re with me.
Jeanny quit livin’ on dreams…
In the last months the number of missing persons has dramatically increased. The latest account from the local police reports another tragic case. It is a matter of a nineteen year old girl who was last seen two weeks ago. The police have not excluded the possibility that a crime has been committed.
Jeanny, quit livin’ on dreams…
Pleasant dreams, right? The best part is that the video is equally unsettling with Falco playing the part of the predator. For anyone used to seeing the man all suave and dapper will be very surprised as he lets go of the pop ego and immerses himself into character. It’s quite reminiscent of Golden Earring’s brilliant and disturbing clip for When the Lady Smiles sans the black humor. There’s no humor here to cushion just subtle queasiness, especially when thinking about the true crime connection to boot.
Sadly, Falco left this plane on February 6th, 1998 after having a fatal auto collision in the Dominican Republic. But he got to leave behind a truly special thumbprint in the pop landscape of the 80’s. It’s sad to think of some of the crap that hit it big in the US while Jeanny was darkening up the European airwaves and dancefloors.
As for Jack Unterweger, perhaps one of the best lessons that one can learn from this is the importance of separating the art from the artists. Phil Spector is a genius that forever changed the soundscape of music but he is also an egomaniacal, abusive individual who murdered Lana Clarkson. Roman Polanski has made some of the best films in the past fifty years but he also drugged and raped a 13 year old girl. And despite what the Modern Lovers claim, a lot of people called Pablo Picasso an asshole. Every human being on this planet is capable of great acts of kindness and beauty as well as total horror. There are no born monsters, just man-made ones.
A subversive and satirical re-imagining of Disney’s Song Of The South with an urban spin, Ralph Bakshi’s incendiary masterpiece Coonskin exploits and eviscerates grotesque American racial stereotypes with a politically incorrect, profane and vicious sense of humor.
A flamethrower of confrontational cartooning Ralph Bakshi intensifies the minstrelsy where Disney coats it with honey, his “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is a “Fuck you” hurled right at audiences. “Ah’m a N****r Man” (“I’ve been red, white, and blue’d on”) is the overture, sung magnificently by Scatman Crothers in profile over the credits, the choleric preacher (Charles Gordone) sets the stage with a sermon in a church empty but for a pair of kids. Gordone crams into a car with Barry White and off they go to bust their bud (Philip Michael Thomas) out of prison; the wait is long so fellow con Crothers spins a tale, and jive-talking furries, slags, junkies, and other unholy toons are drawn on William A. Fraker’s cinematography. Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox ditch the South for Harlem, where racial stereotypes can be amplified until humor boils away and submerged hate splatters the screen. Rabbit follows the Black Caesar trajectory, Bear steps into the boxing ring to evoke Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, Fox meets his snake-oil match in Black Jesus, the rotund charlatan who breathes fire out of his neon-lit cross while bilking the congregation (“Segregate! Integrate! Masturbate!”). A crooked cop is dipped in blackface and left to shoot it out with the NYPD, the “Godfather” is a swollen subway pig with a brood of sodomites; Miss America has the stars and stripes painted on her buxom body, the noose falls on a serenading black suitor when she sweetly cries “rape.” Pungent ideas and grenade-images are penciled in throughout, often Bakshi lets one become a self-enclosed film of its own—a melancholy sister recounts the tale of the straying cockroach she grew to love, a rat floats into the monologue and is blasted after flashing the evil Mickey grin. Bold racial vaudeville and jolting session of cultural exorcism, Bakshi’s picture is its own tar-baby, making itself open to ignorant punches only to entangle them with the implicating, toxic stickiness of the ugly assumptions that have been swept under our collective rug.”—- Fernando F. Croce
Released in 1975 to a firestorm of controversy, it took Coonskin several years before the film found an audience that could appreciate it as an edgy aesthetic experiment and a powerful social statement. Wu Tang Clan had plans to re-make it and Spike Lee’s Bamboozeled , released 25 years after Coonskin, echoes Bakshi’s brutal take on the pervasive, ages-old, racism in American popular culture.
Sometimes art needs to go over-the-top in order to roil up the dark side of our collective consciousness…to shove into the light the shit we’re too afraid to talk about and too ashamed to acknowledge. Sometimes the only way to make that reality check bearable is to find the ridiculous, the absurd and the insanity within the demons trapped in the briar patch of our shared mythologies.
Go Ride The Music was produced by pioneering Bay Area rock journalist Ralph Gleason in 1970 for National Educational Television - an era in which even TV was on drugs.
The Jefferson Airplane’s segment was filmed on April 2, 1970. The Quicksilver Messenger Service footage is from a performance at Sonoma State University circa August of 1969.
1) We Can Be Together - Jefferson Airplane
2) Volunteers - Jefferson Airplane
3) Mexico - Jefferson Airplane
4) Warm Red Wine - Quicksilver Messenger Service
5) Baby Baby - Quicksilver Messenger Service
6) Subway - Quicksilver Messenger Service
7) Plastic Fantastic Lover - Jefferson Airplane
8) Somebody To Love - Jefferson Airplane
9) Mona - Quicksilver Messenger Service
10) Emergency - Jefferson Airplane
11) Wooden Ships - Jefferson Airplane
“Free happy crazy people naked in the universe
We speak Earth talk
Go ride the music”
DM pal Mark MacLachlan passed on this oddment, Distant Drummer: Flowers of Darkness, an anti-drug film from the 1970s, which has a rather interesting pedigree, as Mark explained:
It’s 40 year old documentary on the growth of opium into heroin and how you stop it… It’s narrated by Paul Newman and directed by Glasgow writer Bill Templeton.
Templeton’s centenary is next year and nobody appears to be aware of how important a writer he was, particularly during the golden era of US television, when he penned programmes like Robin Hood, The Untouchables, 1984, Sword of Freedom, The Desilu Hour etcetera.
In his film work he wrote additional dialogue for Graham Greene’s The Fallen Idol directed by Carol Reed. All round a pretty incredible forgotten talent, whom Walt Disney fired after discovering a bottle of whisky at his desk. Inevitably he died back in Glasgow from the booze…
This was Templeton’s last film, and was originally part of a trilogy made for NBC, with Newman, Robert Mitchum and Rod Steiger narrating the different sections. It starts off even-handedly enough (nature has generously provided humanity with the means to get high) but soon falls into an anti-drug stance. However, it does give consideration to treatment and rehabilitation, rather than imprisonment, and contrasts the change in laws from 1956 to 1966. This is one for those with an interest in media and drug culture, or with a liking for quirky public service films.
Jan Švankmajer’s beautiful, mesmerizing yet strangely unsettling film Historia Naturae, Suita (1967), presents a short, 8-part history of nature, presenting each phylum through a different piece of music. These are:
Švankmajer is currently working on his next full-length animated feature Pictures from the Insects’ Life is due for release in 2015. Based on Karel Čapek and Josef Čapek satirical play from 1922, Pictures from the Insects’ Life tells the story of a tramp who falls asleep in a forest and dreams of insects as a metaphor for human life.
Punk may be long dead, but the interest in its music, ideas and artifacts continues. Over at the Independent, writer Michael Bracewell introduces a selection of photographs by Simon Barker, a former member of the legendary Bromley Contingent, the group of original Punks that included Siouxsie Sioux, Steven Severin, Jordan, Bertie “Berlin” Marshall, Tracie O’Keefe, and Billy Idol. Barker was a participant and witness to some of the key events during the 14 months, in 1976 and 1977, when Punk changed everything - as Bracewell explains:
[Barker’s] photographs share with Nan Goldin’s early studies of the New York and Boston sub-cultures of the 1970s, a profound and joyously audacious sense of youth going out on its own into new freedoms and new possibilities.
In this, Barker’s photographs from this period capture a moment when the tipping point between innocence and experience has yet to be reached. The model and sub-cultural celebrity Jordan, for example, is photographed as a self-created work of art – her features resembling a Picasso mask, her clothes more post-war English county librarian. The provocation of her image remains untamed and unassimilated, nearly 40 years later; and within her surrealist pose there is the triumph of art made in the medium of sub-cultural lifestyle.
Barker/Six was a member of the so-called ‘Bromley Contingent’ of very early followers of The Sex Pistols and the retail and fashion work of McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Other members would include the musicians Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin, and the writer Bertie Marshall, then known as ‘Berlin’ in homage to the perceived glamour and decadence of the Weimar republic. Originating from suburbia, but all determined to leave its security as soon as possible, the Bromley Contingent became the British sub-cultural equivalent, in many ways, of Andy Warhol’s notorious ‘superstars’ – volatile, at times self-destructive or cruelly elitist, but dedicated to a creed of self-reinvention and personal creativity.
It is this creed, as opposed to the swiftly commercialised music of punk, that Barker’s photographs from the period anatomise so well. At once intimate and forensic, austere and camp, documentary and touchingly elegiac, these photographs capture a milieu experiencing a heroic sense of being outsiders – a condition that has always been the privilege of youth, and which has long claimed many victims in its enticing contract with the thrill of taking an oppositional stance.
Read the whole article and see more of Simon’s photographs here.
Simon Barker’s book Punk’s Dead is available here.
The Banshees: Steven Severin, Kenny Morris and John McKay
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band hit Philadelphia two nights ago and during a performance of “Raise Your Hand” The Boss jumped into the audience and had a tall cold one with his fans.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d swallow a frosty beverage handed to me by a total stranger. And then again, now that I think about it, there was a time in my life that I drank, licked, sucked and snorted just about everything shoved in front of my face. Yeah, rock and roll makes you immortal…or makes you think you’re immortal…same thing.
But back to the video. This Springsteen clip is Rick Santorum’s worst nightmare. The devil’s music on his front porch and a crowd of 20,000 rock fiends drinking Rolling Rock and chanting “Bahhhhhhhhs! “Bahhhhhhhhs! “Bahhhhhhhhs!
Springsteen is pushing hard on this tour to subvert the messages of the right wing and derail the Republican death train. The Jersey boy has picked up Woody Guthrie’s guitar, the one that says “this machine kills fascists,” and is running with it. And no matter what cynical bastards say about Springsteen being a member of the 1%, his new record and tour is called “Wrecking Ball” for good reason - words won’t do it alone, we need to take action…but first we need to come together and create a sense of community. And historically speaking there’s been no better galvanizing artistic force for the good of humankind than rock and roll and no bigger trigger to change society and consciousness than a big fat beat you can dance to.
Look at the faces in this video. These folks vote. And trust me, they ain’t voting for the forces of darkness. You can’t love life and be an advocate for death. The “Wrecking Ball Tour” is the spiritual counterpoint to the shit coming off Santorum and Romney. I would venture to say that Springsteen could wipe their asses on the electoral floor if he ran against them for President. But the Boss ain’t ready to be THE Boss yet. He’s too busy making people feel good. But he’d make a great Vice President. Obama/Boss-mania in 2012. Being Vice President would still give Springsteen plenty of time to tour. It can be done. I’ve heard rumors that Biden was night-owling in a Gary Puckett & The Union Gap tribute band for the past three years.
Here’s the trailer for the newly restored Yellow Submarine.
The digital clean-up of the film’s photochemical elements was lovingly done entirely by hand, frame by frame. Having seen the world premiere of the restored version at this year’s SXSW, I can attest to its eye-searing intensity and lysergic beauty. While the story obviously remains the same, rather thin with a script comprised of surreal non sequiturs and bad puns, the overall experience of watching the film in a pristine digital format overwhelms the narrative with colors and artwork so you rich you can practically taste it. And the stereo soundtrack sounded wonderful.
Coming out on Blu-Ray and DVD on May 29 with 5.1 surround sound. Expect to be astonished.
Mod Odyssey is a groovy short documentary on the creation of Yellow Submarine. Enjoy.