Along with mashups, shreds, goofy gifs, LEGO and crazy things Christians do, the isolated vocal meme has pretty much worn out its welcome at the unabashedly hip Dangerous Minds. Even the word “meme” is dead. So we’re busy moving on to the next big thing…whatever that is. Don’t worry, we’ll find it. But in the meantime, humor me.
This isolated vocal track by Roky Erickson singing “You’re Gonna Miss Me” with the 13th Floor Elevators on TV’s Where The Action Is in 1966 is such a concentration of pure unadulterated rock and roll that I simply could not help myself. I had to share it. If for no other reason than the video edit took hours to make using rusty razor blades and duct tape.
Erickson’s vocals are as primal, soulful and manic as it gets. From the first “yeah” to a series of blood-curdling “ahhhhhs” and yowls of “not coming home,” Erickson sounds like a snake handler who has fallen into the psychedelic briar patch. If LSD moonshine made a noise, this would be it.
For decades upon centuries, revolution of various stripes has often had roots firmly wrapped around and within the print medium. From Martin Luther to Karl Marx, manifestos, underground papers, comics, fliers—the pen not the sword, in other words—have caused change. These are the occasions where the medium itself was indeed the message. When it comes to cultural revolution, this is all truth times nine and with the birth of the counterculture and especially its prodigal bastard child, punk, print media in the form of zines were an absolutely vital part of this.
But all of this pseudo-flowery historical talk is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rob St. Mary’s incredible tome-tribute to Detroit’s alternative culture magazine, The Orbit Magazine Anthology: Re-Entry. Influenced by its forefathers White Noise (1978-1980) and Fun:The Magazine for Swinging Intellectuals (1986-1990), The Orbit managed to take the punk ethos of the former, the polished yet primed fuck-it-ness of the latter and out of both emerged a local publication whose shakes, quakes and reverberations could be felt not only outside of the Detroit area, but for years later after its demise in 1999.
White Noise featured interviews with punk stalwarts like DEVO, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers and Pauline Murray from the UK group Penetration. Fun had such biting political activity book whimsy like “Ronald’s Mind Maze,” where you get to navigate around such topics as world destruction and Jodie Foster in the former actor/president’s appropriately ghoulish head. Fun was put to bed permanently in the spring of 1990 and out of its ashes sprung Orbit.
Losing the politics and adding emphasis on local art, culture, humor and entertainment, this bi-monthly free alternative paper quickly established itself as the right mix of edge with just enough professionalism to make it truly subversive. At the center of this paper was its creator, Jerry Peterson, better known to some as “Jerry Vile,” the same man behind the two previous publications and self-described “sloppy perfectionist,” Peterson is revealed as an artist, musician, editor, writer and publisher as a controversially catalytic personality. If you want real creative impact, complete with cultural shrapnel, then you need guys like Peterson, whom might burn down the whole hen house to make the omelet but it will be an omelet you will never forget. The man pissed off everyone ranging from their only real competition, the Metro Times, assorted ex-advertisers and former staff members, including Film Threat editor Chris Gore (all of which is beautifully detailed in the Fun chapter), but his mark was and is undeniable, and the proof of that is all lined out in this anthology.
Created with the goal of being “friendly as possible for all readers while retaining a hip vibe” is a lofty one that can leave a veritable football-field sized room to fail, Orbit escaped this folly by enlisting a strong crew of artists and writers over its nine year lifespan. Influenced by magazines as seemingly divergent as Spy and Oui, Orbit stood out on a visual level alone, complete with its own mascot, “Orby,” a grinning, slightly smug looking globe-man loosely based on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Designed by illustrator Terry Colon, who would go on to create work for Time and Entertainment Weekly, Orby would gain further fame when featured on a T-Shirt worn by Quentin Tarantino in his 1995 film, Pulp Fiction. (Orbit was one of the earliest mags to write about the then indie-darling now Hollywood titan, when his debut, Reservoir Dogs first hit the screen back in 1992. It was a kind act the young director did not forget.)
Along with its own personal Alfred E. Neumann-ish mascot, Orbit would feature the work of established artists, like the inimitable and Bathory-like-in-her-ability-to-not-age Niagara, whose artwork was used for the most recent Kid Rock album, First Kiss. Niagara was also a member of both the terminally underrated psychedelic-punk-rock band Destroy All Monsters and the super group Dark Carnival, which also featured both Asheton brothers. But Orbit became known for breaking more artists into the world, including Glenn Barr (DC Comics,The Betty Pages Digest, etc), Tom Thewes (Hi-Fructose), Mark Dancey (Motorbooty Magazine, assorted rock posters) and more. Humans are visual creatures, so if you’re going to have hip content then you’d better have an outside that not only draws the readers in, but also visually reflects the trip you are about to take them on.
Another facet of the arts was the weird array of local Detroit bands that got their first taste of fame via the pages of Orbit, ranging from Kid Rock (back in his flat top days) and Insane Clown Posse to The White Stripes and His Name is Alive. Detroit’s rich and diverse musical history continued well into the 1990’s and all of that is reflected here. One of the biggest surprises is that Rock himself, who not only contributed $20,000 of his own money to the Kickstarter for this book but who also comes across impressively self-effacing within the pages. “Talk about someone trying to get attention—-running around with a flattop hair cut with too much Aqua Net screaming, ‘I’m the pimp of the nation!’” It’s enough to almost overlook the fact that this is the same man that wrote a song called “Jesus and Bocephus.” Almost.
Orbit also delves into the assortment of ways the staff writers would keep themselves and their readers entertained. A personal favorite was their concert listings section, called “Critical Dates.” There can be a certain type of beauty when a writer is bored and the “fuck it! Let’s have some fun!” instinct kicks in. My personal favorite was the write-up for an upcoming Eagles gig. “You would think with all the senseless violence in the world that somebody would get sensible and inflict some bodily hurt on these money-grubbing-has-beens. Hell Freezes Over?” And this was BEFORE the classic butt-rockers released an album only through Wal-Mart.
That’s not even touching the borderline-Subgenius levels of prankdom, including throwing the world’s worst garage sale, where one could purchase such “treasures” as “two really ugly mens wigs,” “single rusty metal coaster,” “broken Sweet Valley High cassette” and “a latex sex device that was left in a garage for 20 years and is now covered in mold spores.” There were more serious moments, including Detroit historian and geographer Bill McGraw’s (using the pen name of Silas Farmer) column entitled “Detroit’s Shameful History” that delved into the city’s less covered and more unseemly past.
Orbit folded in 1999 but thanks to Rob St. Mary’s tireless research and academic-meets-pop-culture-sage approach with this Re-Entry, it will live on for both those who experienced it firsthand and those who never had a chance to hold an issue in their hands. The formatting on this book alone is a graphic designer’s sweet-laced dream but the content meets it riches for riches. To quote Orbit father, Jerry Peterson, “I really, really enjoy making people upset. I think that is my art.”
Ork Records captured a moment in time when rock and roll tossed off its restraints and went impossibly mad. A gloriously weird era when a generation of fearless young fuckers wandered into New York City, trading suburban Formica and the “hissing of the summer lawns” for rat-infested drywall, clanging water pipes and the low-pitched drone of junkies muttering dead prayers in dark alleys . Walking south of 14th Street toward the Bowery instantaneously transformed the sunniest complexion into a mugshot pallor followed by a sudden explosion of electroshocked hair twitching on your scalp like an epileptic porcupine. Time lapsed as your body grew a pair of black jeans with 13-inch pegs and dirty Converse sneakers erupted on your feet like canvas blisters.
Boys from Baltimore took on French names and smoked like Belmondo. Girls from Pittsburgh wore black and white striped t-shirts and were Sebergian in their breathlessness. We started bands and slouched around in our own imaginary Godard films. The rest of the world may have been in color but for us everything was grainy black and white. We were role players. And we had the names for it: Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Jane Fire, Link Cromwell. “The Blank Generation” wasn’t just a song, it was a pose, an attitude. It was 1975 and the lofts of downtown Manhattan contained the syllabic languor that echoed scenes from Jean Eustache’s The Mother And The Whore. The talk was angst-ridden. Bodies slumped against decrepit refrigerators while the perpetually nervous vomited in sinks stained with cockroach shit and Listerine.The sun outside wasn’t yellow. It was jaundiced and it came in listless spurts julienned by sagging venetian blinds.
“Something’s not in orbit in the capital of this Galaxy.”—Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville.
Paris had the Left Bank, New York had the leftovers. The French had the Eiffel Tower, New Yorkers had something stuck on the bottom of their shoes. Same thing. It was all romantic. Even a knife wound looked vaginal in the shadows of the night. In July of 1977 the entire city blacked out, something many of us had been doing since coming to New York. Waking up in strange beds with people whose names you didn’t know and writing songs about it.
The Bowery and Lower East Side were movie sets, perfect for stories about rebellion, crime, sex, drugs and rock and roll’s dark night of the soul. So it was fitting that a guy who worked in a store that was a mecca for film fanatics, Cinemabilia, should start a record company. Terry Ork’s label was the soundtrack to the movie that Ork had playing in his head. I remember the day he handed me his label’s first release, “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television. I took it home and listened to it several times that night and I could imagine Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s guitars playing under scenes from Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Notes spiraled in glassy fugues as precise and cold as Alain Delon’s eyes.
Terry Ork was the Phil Spector of spectres. A lot of the tunes on Ork’s label seemed haunted by the edgy paranoid vibe of a city on the verge of “who knows what?” Even the poppiest Ork releases were spastic and twitchy—the musical equivalent of restless leg syndrome. Bands like The Marbles had clearly lost theirs. The Erasers were designed to disappear. Teenage band The Student Teachers had their innocence murdered in the bathroom of CBGB. The Feelies played with the nervous energy of altar boys in a rectory. The older dudes, like Mick Farren and Lester Bangs, the ones who had been ridden hard and put up wet, found humor in the Manhattan mess. Farren brought some whiskey drenched pub rock irreverence to the mix and Bangs filled in for the absent Iggy Pop by blurting offensively hilarious shit to anyone who’d listen.
Terry tapped into the poetry of what Tom Verlaine called “life in the hive,” put it on vinyl and sent it out to an unsuspecting world. Most rock fans reacted like a nun seeing an erect penis for the first time. The number one bestselling song of 1975 was Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” It would be another four years before Joy Division tore love apart. Ork was rock and roll’s turd in the punch bowl and he loved it. Punk was being born, rock and roll had lost its mind and music would never be the same again.
Sign Of Aquarius (aka Love Commune) is a hippie exploitation movie shot in Cleveland in 1970. Arriving on the heels of Altamont and the Manson Family murders, Sign Of Aquarius is a hot mess of cliches that sees the counter culture through a brown acid fog instead of rose-tinted Summer Of Love granny glasses. It’s an Easy Rider bummer filled with hard drugs, bathtub LSD and softcore flower child group gropes. Later, padded with some blaxploitation jive (power to the peepholes) it was re-titled Ghetto Freaks to bring in the Times Square crowd. The movie stinks as bad as a crash pad mattress but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Milos Forman’s hippie dippy crapfest Hair. And it has a weirdly compelling, occasionally amazing, soundtrack composed by Tom Baker and Al Zbacnik.
The soundtrack was released as Sign Of Aquarius on the Adell label in 1970. It’s rare as shit and I couldn’t find the soundtrack anywhere on the ‘net for downloading. But I managed to source three of these tunes from a VHS copy of the movie I own and one from the album itself. Four songs that make up the best tracks on the record: “Om, Pax, Om”, “Mousey,” “Soorangi,” and the strangely titled “We Are The Aquarius” (shouldn’t it be “Aquarians”?) are here for your listening pleasure. It’s some really dynamite stuff with the particularly awesome “Om, Pax, Om” being, to my ears, a psychedelic classic. The other tunes are funky breakdowns with one Moogy drone bit with some jazzy sax that takes place during a bad acid trip that pre-dates some of John Carpenter’s minimalist synth work.
I had to add some light show trickery to obscure a bunch of nudity during “Om, Pax, Om” but otherwise here’s my favorite moments from Sign Of Aquarius in all of its unadulterated badassness.
As far as reading for research is concerned, I’ve always been very fortunate in my friends. For years, Dr. Christopher Evans, a psychologist in the computer branch of the National Physical Laboratory (whom I visited regularly until his death—his lab was just a ten-minute drive away), literally sent me the contents of his wastebasket. Once a fortnight, a huge envelope arrived filled with scientific reprints and handouts, specialist magazines and reports, all of which I read carefully.
In his last book, the autobiography Miracles of Life, Ballard sketched his late friend, who died of cancer in 1979, during the filming of his last TV series, The Mighty Micro:
Chris Evans drove into my life at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy, a huge American convertible that he soon swapped for a Mini-Cooper, a high-performance car not much bigger than a bullet that travelled at about the same speed. Chris was the first ‘hoodlum scientist’ I had met, and he became the closest friend I have made in my life. In appearance he resembled Vaughan, the auto-destructive hero of my novel Crash, though he himself was nothing like that deranged figure. Most scientists in the 1960s, especially at a government laboratory, wore white lab coats over a collar and tie, squinted at the world over the rims of their glasses and were rather stooped and conventional. Glamour played no part in their job description.
Chris, by contrast, raced around his laboratory in American sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt open to reveal an Iron Cross on a gold chain, his long black hair and craggy profile giving him a handsomely Byronic air. I never met a woman who wasn’t immediately under his spell. A natural actor, he was at his best on the lecture platform, and played to his audience’s emotions like a matinee idol, a young Olivier with a degree in computer science. He was hugely popular on television, and presented a number of successful series, including The Mighty Micro.
I’m afraid Evans’ producers at ITC made him cover up his Iron Cross, but The Mighty Micro is up on YouTube (except episode two, which you can find at archive.org), and it’s fascinating to watch. Based on Evans’ book of the same name, the series looks at the history of counting machines, calculators and computers in order to understand the radical changes the microprocessor will bring about over the coming decades.
Of course, some of the show’s predictions are wide of the mark. Citizens of the UK were not able to vote through their television sets by the mid-80s, computers have not eliminated war, and as you are no doubt painfully aware, robots have not yet replaced our teachers or bosses, or delivered the five-day weekend. The series’ emphasis on the psychological dimension of technological change, however, is properly Ballardian, and many of its claims are eerily prescient. The third episode hints at the ways our notions of privacy will be reshaped by computers; the fourth, which includes a look at a 1979 prototype of a Kindle-type device, ends with this message-in-a-bottle to the present moment:
The one note of warning is sounded by the compelling nature of the computer itself. Increasingly, it will draw you into an obsessive embrace, where the world comes to you in your home. The current limitless fascination with microprocessor-based toys is but a tiny indicator of the trend towards an introverted society.
With the computer as an increasingly interesting and useful companion, could the factories and office blocks empty, commuter lines fall silent, as we retreat into our own private universe?