Russian painter Konstantin Somov isn’t very well known for the dreamy, homoerotic portraits you see here. He was a successful commercial artist from an artistic family, but his most acclaimed work might better be described as “retro,” or even “camp.” Somov was essentially a Rococo revivalist, forgoing the somewhat harsh realism that was popular in Russia at the time for a whimsical gouache and watercolor style that was nearly 200 years old—think big wigs and giant skirts, a lot of fussy-looking depictions of 18th century aristocracy. In some ways, his commercial work was even gayer than his gay boudoir scenes.
In Russia, Somov was an integral part of a thriving and lush arts community centered around a publication he co-founded—World of Art, which also included lavish costume and set design for the Ballets Russes. There were a lot of gay men involved in World of Art, and its predilection with fantasy and luxury were very much out of step with the 19th Century Russian Realism. After the Russian Revolution, Somov likely anticipated his work being denounced as decadent so he immigrated to the U.S. and then Paris. His commercial work is auctioned off for millions at Christie’s, but it’s his underground gay portraiture that’s got the cult following.
At its best the VHS cassette cover was a mini work of art telling you everything that’s good about the movie inside the box. At worst, well it’s just video clickbait offering up spurious imagery of sex and violence created by (it would seem) drug-addled monkeys left in a room way too long with typewriters and a whole set of day-glo paints to play with.
I could be wrong but it would seem that the VHS cover art genre has consistently offered up the very worst promotional art imaginable. I know there are plenty of self-published e-books out there with ghastly homemade photoshop covers that a five-year-old could do better with their eyes shut—but VHS tape covers were created by the paid talents of an artist—who painted the picture, a graphic designer—who produced the typographer and a sales guy—who obviously had no talent whatsoever, certainly no taste, but apparently the largest say on what went on the label. Rummage through any VHS bin in your local thrift store and you’ll find plenty of these crimes against culture
It should also be noted for the edification of future generations that these lurid retina-burning creations were not just the preserve of the USA—every country in the world had their own taste bypass when it came to the packaging for movies on VHS. This little gallery offers a stocktake of VHS covers from Germany during the 1980s.
No, not a tale of dark and depraved demonic sex but ‘The Howling.’
I was recently blessed with the greatest piece of pop music gossip I had ever heard, who heard it from a friend of a friend (isn’t that always the source)? My friend heard from his friend’s friend that the folk singer turned pop singer Jewel (remember Jewel?) once played a show at a large college venue wherein staff were informed never to look her in the eye. This is—to my mind—the perfect piece of gossip because it 1.) centers around an obscure celebrity, 2.) is totally unverifiable, and 3.) highlights an unexpected eccentricity that is probably not true, but is nonetheless hilarious to imagine.
Picture it—Jewel—one of the original Lilith Fair performers—with her wholesome sweetness, her acoustic guitar and her trademark yodeling, leaves her hometown in rural Alaska, surviving for a while in extreme poverty—at one point even living in a van—only to become the sort of mega-diva that demands people not look her in the eye. It’s hilarious. And probably not true. The exact same story has been said about so many celebrities, it’s just funnier because Jewel, okay? (If you read this was something demanded by, say, Elton John or Julia Roberts, then it’s not funny at all is it?)
Bound by my love of dumb celebrity gossip, I felt obligated to share what is most certainly a completely fabricated story—I even offered the caveat, of course, that it’s probably not true because I’m a nice person—and this in turn encouraged others to come forward with their favorite celebrity rumors and stories. The best one though, via a friend of a friend (natch) on Facebook was a very thorough, very believable first person account by a former record store employee—and this one… well, I think that I am I’m inclined to believe. Remember The J.Geils Band? “Freeze Frame”? “Love Stinks”? “Musta Got Lost”? “Whammer-Jammer”? Or my personal favorite, “Centerfold”? The lead singer of The J. Geils Band was not J. Geils, it was Peter Wolf—who had a bit of a diva reputation in his day. What follows is an account I can neither confirm nor deny, but it’s a fantastically detailed story—make of it what you will.
Alright, here’s my Peter Wolf story.
So. Peter is a bit of a townie in Massachusetts and is pretty buddy-buddy with a lot of the local institutions. He‘s the kind of guy that walks into his regular haunts and expects to be noticed and applauded regardless of where he goes (as an aside, there’s a story that he went into Bukowski’s Tavern one time. Ordered six drinks, and on his tab he wrote “Peter Wolf” and signed it without leaving money).
So this being said, when he does something, he expect as much attention as possible on a local level. When he released one of his solo albums, I was working at a big record store in downtown Boston. and we were told that it was going to be huge. The reason being is because he was signed to a label at the time that had a partnership deal with our chain as opposed to Newbury Comics (a better independent store at the time, still better but less music-y and more merch driven). This means we got the deluxe edition of the album, posters, and the “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to do an in-store signing and performance with him.
Everyone that worked there was beyond excited (lie). So the main manager contacted his PR person and asked about an in-store. No big deal. right? Well…
Peter asked us to meet the following demands for the in-store:
1-We were to open an hour earlier than normal
2-We needed to play his new record throughout the day because he wanted to come in and “hear his work.”
3-We could only allow people to attend it they purchased the new CD and we gave them a wristband (something that at the time was last demanded by Billy Corgan who wouldn‘t even let the fucking staff members talk to him).
4-He wanted the back room to be catered
I saw the email and told my boss that it was absolutely ludicrous and that “we weren‘t even going to sell a dozen of these things.” He ignored me, and we decided to follow suit.
I was scheduled from open to close that day because I was good at handling in-stores and such, so I opened the location an hour early (6:00 AM in the middle of summer, mind you), strung posters all through the store, wrote up the wrist-bands and put on the record. Please note that he NEVER SAID WHEN HE WAS GOING TO SHOW UP.
Flash-forward to 3:45PM. One of the floor people says that Peter is in the store. And, by “Peter is in the store” he meant “Peter darted into the store and is now circumnavigating the entire store while going on his tip-toes to hear the album.” I rush downstairs to meet him and I am stopped by one of the floor people who was responsible for selling wristbands. I asked him how many we’ve sold (note: the album went on sale at the beginning of the week and we took little note-cards with receipt transaction number information so the people could come back for wristbands) and he said “Well today we sold three copies, and we’ve given away five wristbands total.” I am starting to panic at this point because his record label expected it to be the turnout of the century. So, right now I’m mustering up the courage to tell Peter WolI the truth (that he probably knew already) that his solo career wasn‘t cutting it.
As I am walking over to him one of the weird regulars we have saw him and sprinted in front of me. I froze. I didn’t know what he was going to say to him, but I was terrified regardless. The conversation went as follows:
Dude: HEY MAN! WHAT‘S GOING ON. I LOVE YOUR MUSIC. MAN!
Peter: Hey, thanks! That’s wicked nice of you. Do you like this one? (he says as he points to the ceiling).
Dude: Nah, man. That sounds like that asshole from J. Geils I hope this ain‘t the new Cars record!
The dude thought that Peter Wolf was Ric Ocasek from The Cars (for those that don’t know, The Cars are a Boston band too and Ric and Peter have a bit of a feud [further aside: Peter has gotten into fights with every mainstream Boston lead singer this side of Aerosmith] and the face Peter made was that of a man who just saw an atrocity. Without hesitation. l burst out laughing in the aisle and I tell the guy “Nah, dude, that‘s Mr. Peter Wolf!” To which the guy said “Jeez, I gave him too much credit, huh?” and walked away. Meanwhile. Peter is standing there in pure silence and as I walk up to him to introduce myself, he goes “Why the fuck do I bother, man?” I obviously have no idea what to say, so I throw my hands to my side and tell him there’s food in the back, and he says “Unless it’s my mother’s cookin‘. I think I’m going to the other fuckin’ store.”
It took an hour and a half to convince him to continue with the signing, and after all that was said and done (he signed like 100 posters for the other stores, and 12 people showed up for the actual in-store) he said “Well, I’d like to see the fuckin’ CARS do that shit” and walked out of the store without saying bye to anyone. As soon as he left. the manager looked at the staff and said “Okay, new rule. If any of you play anything Peter Wolf-related in this god-forsaken store, you’re fired.“
Oof. Brutal. But if you’re worried about Peter Wolf, don’t be. The guy managed to get his career together, and he’s still a working musician. His latest solo album even got some acclaim in Rolling Stone a few months ago! Congrats Peter, and thanks for the tunes!
Despite exaggerations to the contrary, very few video gamesactually portray sexual assault. Sure, there’s a ton of murder, and definitely lots of gendered violence, but games that write in actual sexual violence are quite rare, which is actually sort of surprising when you learn about Custer’s Revenge.
The game, which came in in 1982 for the Atari 2600 and cost a whopping $49.95 (making it the priciest of Atari games then on the market), had a very simple premise: you are a naked, erection-wielding General Custer and you must avoid a volley of arrows in order to to rape a Native American who is—as indicated by the cover art—tied to a pole. Yeah, that’s it.
Custer’s Revenge was an early attempt to create and market “adult” video games, but promotion was difficult, especially since Mystique, the publishers and developers of the game, made it very clear that the game was “NOT FOR SALE TO MINORS.” In order to drum up publicity, Mystique actually showed the game to women’s and Native American groups, who were quick to give them free press with outraged protests. Feminist Andrea Dworkin even argued that Custer’s Revenge “generated many gang rapes of Native American women,” a claim that is difficult to prove, to say the least. Compared to say Pac-Man, the best-selling Atari 2600 game of all time, which sold 7 million, Custer’s Revenge was small potatoes, only selling 80,000 total. Regardless, the backlash most certainly helped move copies that might have otherwise simply collected dust on the shelf.
So how does Custer’s Revenge hold up nowadays? Despite the stomach-turning “plot,” the game actually manages to be so very comically low-rent that it falls very short of anything that is actually visually lurid. I mean you really have to use your imagination to connect those abrupt little pixels to the historic atrocities of the sexual violence and genocide exacted against Native Americans. They just didn’t quite have the technology to really depict any detail at the time, a fact which allowed game designer Joel Miller to maintain plausible deniability, claiming that the woman was a “willing participant” (this despite the game’s title and cover art). Nonetheless, Mystique later released a companion game, General Retreat, featuring the Native American woman attempting to rape Custer under cannonball fire, which, I guess, was an attempt at equality?
Ah, such innocent times! When the libidinal horrors of entertainment were technologically limited to blocky little boners and booties!
It’s possible that protests eventually staved off sales of the game, but what’s more likely is that no one really wanted to play it. PC World magazine named it the third worst game of all time, adding to the obvious objections that it was extremely difficult to play and it just looked terrible. The underground infamy of of Custer’s Revenge outlasted the game itself, inspiring a much more graphic remake in 2008, which was notably protested by a indigenous activists, including a female game designer and a video game journalist. Eventually pressure from activists got the game removed from the internet in 2014 (though I doubt too many people felt its loss).
The Associates were a band that should have conquered the world. In fact they almost did. They had had the music in them and a sound that was uniquely their own. Formed in 1976 by the dovetailed talents of musician Alan Rankine and singer Billy MacKenzie, The Associates produced three first class albums between 1980 and 1982: The Affectionate Punch, Fourth Drawer Down and the magisterial Sulk. They had a clutch of hit singles and a fanbase that believed The Associates were the future of music.
Then, at the height of their fame in 1982, it all fell spectacularly apart on the verge of a million dollar record deal and their first world tour. Rankine quit. MacKenzie carried on as The Associates. Neither quite ever reached the creative highs and popular success they had so easily achieved together. This is Alan Rankine’s story of The Associates—egg-slicers, chocolate guitars and the legendary Billy MacKenzie.
It could have been all so very different.
If Alan Rankine had been a few inches taller he could have been a tennis player. A world class tennis player. A champion. Hitting grand slams for breakfast.
“When I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, I was heavily into tennis. I was really, really into tennis. Big time. I was beating people when I was twelve and they were sixteen. I was really pissing them off—especially when I was beating them in front of their girlfriends.”
Winning was easy for Alan—but he became aware he had one fatal drawback to ever making tennis a lifelong career.
“I was a midget. I was a bit of a shortarse. I could see the writing on the wall—as tennis got more powerful because of the rackets and the strength of the rackets—no one was going to win anything unless they were six foot two. I was never going to be more than five foot eight, and I was proved right.”
Rankine dropped tennis and started looking for something else, something better to master. He liked the guitar. Beat bands were in—The Beatles, The Stones, The Who—so playing guitar seemed the obvious thing to do.
“I remember I annoyed the hell out of my father. You know these little egg slicers you get that’s got a scooped out bit for the egg and it’s got ten strings? Well, I’d go around the house behind him plucking on this thing—Buy me a fucking guitar, buy me a fucking guitar—annoying the hell out of him for weeks. ‘Okay, okay, anything to make this stop.’ On my eleventh birthday he got me a guitar.
“It just seemed right. I started playing the guitar the whole time—I just never stopped. I was either playing along to records or playing along to the radio—just switching between channels and listening to everything. Then I got an electric guitar, then a better electric guitar and just kept on going and going and going. It just seemed easy.”
As he had found with tennis, Alan had a natural talent for the guitar. He practiced in his room for six hours at a time getting the songs he liked down pat—until he could play them note perfect.
“Pretty soon I moved on to my granny’s piano—Christ, this was easy too. I thought this was the way it was for everyone. It was just so easy.”
His father could play the violin. Badly. His uncle played French horn with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. There was no other notable musical talent in the family—that is until Alan picked up the guitar. It was the first move towards his legendary career as one half of The Associates.
Alan Rankine was born in Bridge of Allan, Stirlingshire, Scotland in 1958.
“I stayed in Dundee from the ages of five to twelve. I stayed in Broughty Ferry—the posh part. Then I came to Glasgow, Newton Mearns—the posh part. Then Linlithgow—fairly posh.
“My dad always used to ask me—‘Who are you playing with? Where do they stay? Are they from council houses?’ I got this the whole time—he was always very, very protective. But I always seemed to gravitate to the people from the council houses.”
“I was in Linlithgow. I was fifteen years old. As you do when you’re fifteen turning sixteen you try and get into certain pubs because you want to be a man and have a pint and all that stuff. And there were certain pubs out of the twelve or thirteen that went along the one main street in Linlithgow where you could go and you know a nod’s as good as wink and get served.”
“I went into one and there was a band playing. I said, ‘Christ that guitar is shit.’
“I went up to the lead singer after their set—they’d been playing all this Steely Dan stuff—and I said, ‘Your guitar is shit.’ He must have thought, ‘What’s this little cunt coming up to me and saying this for?’
“I said, ‘Look, come up to my house tomorrow.’ He came up to my house and I just ripped off “Kid Charlemagne” and all these Steely Dan numbers. Note perfect. Sound perfect. Everything. I got the job with that band.”
Alan’s first taste as a gigging musician was playing cabaret clubs and miners welfare clubs. He moved to Edinburgh. Every week on a Sunday the band learned to play six new songs—chart songs, hit singles, stuff from the catalogs of Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb. When not playing the cabaret circuit, the band was booked for “real gigs as a band” playing some clubs across the city.
“These other people in the band—no detriment to them—they were into Yes and Genesis and it was all too much wanking your plank to no avail.”
“If you’re going to do something have a point. I’m reminded of that line when Steve Martin said when he was berating John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles: ‘And by the way, you know, when, when you’re telling these little stories, here’s a good idea. Have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!’”
Not long after he joined, the band’s lead singer went “a bit loopy.” The search for a replacement brought Alan to a club in Edinburgh where he heard this voice—this utterly amazing voice. The club was jumping. Alan was at the bar and couldn’t see beyond the dozens of people crowded around the stage—faces upturned, happy, joyous, glistening with sweat watching the singer on the stage: a young man called Billy MacKenzie.
“I got the person who was booking our gigs to contact the person who got that gig for that venue. Within four days of that call, Bill was getting out a taxi in Edinburgh. Two days after that he staying on the sofa bed in my girlfriend’s and I’s flat in Edinburgh.
“We just hit it off like that.”
Billy MacKenzie was born in Dundee in 1957. He was one of those wild boys Rankine’s father warned him about. At just nineteen, MacKenzie had already experienced a far more exotic and adventurous life. He quit school at sixteen. Moved to New Zealand then Australia. Worked as a driver of forklift trucks (“Can you imagine Billy doing that?”). At seventeen, he traveled to America where he outstayed his travel visa. In order to stay longer in the States, Billy married a young woman called Chloe Dummar—the sister-in-law of one of his aunts. He described his wife as “a Dolly Parton-type.” Billy later claimed that during their wedding ceremony the minister spent most of his time flirting with him. The marriage didn’t last. Billy returned to Scotland and rekindled a childhood passion for singing. He joined a band and started gigging across the country.
Billy was a star. He was camp. Fey. Beautiful. With the voice of an angel.