Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Funeral Friday

Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.

One could argue that a “scene” didn’t truly exist without the photos to prove it, and in that sense, Nat Finkelstein was one of the most crucial elements of Andy Warhol’s Factory. Sure, there were the screen tests, Velvet Underground And Nico, the alternately scolding and titillated biographies—plus some paintings of soup cans or something—but, as Warhol himself probably would have admitted, the image was the most important thing. And for most of the Factory's run, it was Finkelstein’s all-consuming mission to capture it, giving both the scene and his own career immortality while adding a photojournalistic counterpoint to officially ordained “Factory Fotographer” Billy Name (presumably whenever the latter was too busy spray-painting things silver or huddling on a couch with Lou Reed).


And much as the Factory began as an experiment in aesthetic and creative pursuits before descending into just another New York drug pit, Finkelstein’s involvement foretold his own corruption: He started out as a Coney Island Baby—prone to rebellion, sure, as when he was expelled from Brooklyn College after protesting censorship in the staid campus newspaper by tossing a filing cabinet through a window (symbolic!)—who fast-talked his way into a gig at Harper’s Bazaar, where he took polite assignments covering dog shows and bridge tournaments. But soon enough he was indulging his fascination with radicals, chronicling antiwar and civil rights protests during a golden era when you could find an iconic image on seemingly every street corner. It was a chance meeting with Warhol at a Factory party that would give him his most important assignment, as well as transform him into a full-blown member of the counterculture—with all the attendant paranoia, self-indulgence, addiction, and other assorted awesomeness that implied.

Finkelstein was there to capture those nascent Velvet Underground performances (images from which can be seen in the upcoming “Who Shot Rock” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, opening in two weeks). When Bob Dylan, Salvador Dali, and Marcel Duchamp dropped by to shake hands with Warhol, Finkelstein got it on camera. And of course, he was always shooting Edie Sedgwick, transforming her into a kohl-eyed object of art-school worship for decades to come. He published four indispensable collections of these photos (The Andy Warhol Index; Andy Warhol: The Factory Years; Andy Warhol: A Portfolio; Edie Factory Girl) that will guarantee the Factory’s importance for as long as there are kids who believe the road to the palace of wisdom is paved with both excess and cool, perfectly fitted leather jackets.


And then, he went a little crazy: Finkelstein became a Black Panther in the late ’60s, then scurried off to Eurasia when he believed the government was out to assassinate him (all stemming from an old drug charge they’d dug up). He spent the next 15 years, approximately—and the entirety of the ’70s—peddling hashish in Katmandu and more or less living the hippie dream. And just like the rest of the hippies, Finkelstein fell into a deep love affair with cocaine in the ’80s after returning to the U.S., even making frequent trips to Bolivia to score that shit himself. Perhaps not coincidentally, his coke habit dovetailed with his decision to get into music management, and he soon became the business rep for New York post-punk group Khmer Rouge, after Suicide/New York Dolls manager Marty Thau refused to take them on unless they changed their name. (Khmer Rouge was a decent band, but it’s probably most famous for giving The Fall its keyboardist, Marcia Schofield.) After it petered out, Finkelstein went back to photography full-time. By the early ’90s he’d cleaned up, even as he hopped right back in the middle of another drug-fueled hot mess, documenting the “club kid” culture in his book Merry Monsters. Finkelstein continued working for magazines, prepping gallery shows, and working on an unfinished memoir, The Fourteen-Ounce Pound until his death this week at the age of 76.


Sort of like the Factory was to the New York art scene, the Masque was to L.A. punk—a short-lived venue whose importance has been, at times, wildly overstated, but whose influence on a still-thriving culture is undeniable. In the wake of the closing of Rodney’s English Disco, L.A.’s glam-rock freaks had no place left to congregate. A Scotsman named Brendan Mullen—a former journalist turned drummer who was just looking for some place to bang around in peace—fixed all that in 1977, when he rented a 10,000-square-foot basement behind a Hollywood Boulevard porno theater. Shortly thereafter, Mullen was subletting it to local bands looking to rehearse; within two months it had become a full-blown concert venue. Groups that had found themselves shut down by local law enforcement flocked there, bringing an entire angry, disaffected cultural movement with them—seminal bands like the Germs, X, The Go-Gos, The Weirdos, The Screamers, The Dils, etc. But while many veterans of the scene are all too happy to point to Mullen as its godfather figure thanks to the Masque's open-door policy, Mullen always politely refused the honor, saying he never laid claim to “starting punk in L.A.,” but simply provided a place for everyone to come together. He was weirdly humble like that.


Of course, like the Factory, the Masque didn’t really last all that long—less than a year, actually, when it was shut down by city officials, tired of all the noise complaints and kids pissing in the alleys, who refused it a legal permit; shortly thereafter, the building owner sued Mullen to end the lease. Mullen threw some benefit shows to help fund his case, and the punks who ostensibly came to save him ended up throwing a couple of riots instead and fucking everything up. Oh well. Mullen continued promoting punk shows around town, and even briefly opened The Other Masque from 1979-1980, but not surprisingly he got weary of all the destruction. He went on to work for more than a decade as a booker for the comparatively more sedate Club Lingerie—where he broadened his palette to include everything from Sun Ra to Red Hot Chili Peppers to the debut West Coast appearances of New York hip-hop stars—then helped open other cultural hotspots like the Viper Room.

Perhaps most importantly, however, Mullen became the L.A. scene’s foremost chronicler, beginning with the highly recommended We Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story Of L.A. Punk, co-written with Marc Spitz. Check it out if you haven’t. It’s a sort of L.A. counterpart to Please Kill Me, told in the same alternately reverent and “who really gives a fuck?” oral history style: You get all the Darby Crash dirt you've ever wanted, lots of digs at Penelope Spheeris and especially Belinda Carlisle—who was apparently fat and ugly and determined to sleep with everyone even half-famous—and lots of hilarious quotes by and about eminent scumbag Kim Fowley. Pick it up, seriously. Mullen followed those with more books on his heyday (Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times And Short Life Of Darby Crash And The Germs; Live At The Masque: Nightmare In Punk Alley) and Whores: An Oral Biography Of Perry Farrell And Jane's Addiction in 2006. In recent years, the longtime pillar of the L.A. music community had finally begun pursuing official U.S. citizenship. Sadly, it was never completed: He was out celebrating his 60th birthday last Friday when he suffered a massive stroke. (Doctors reportedly can’t figure out why, as he seemed to be in perfect health.) Mullen died over the weekend.

The current psych-rock/stoner-doom-sludge-metal/whatever-you-want-to-call-the-fuzzed-out-primal-screams-emanating-from-every-long-haired-denim-rocking-band-in-your-respective-music-scene-right-now renaissance has plenty of progenitors, but odds are that if you were to ask those musicians what band they’re most influenced by, someone would pipe up with “Blue Cheer.” And they’re not the first: The San Francisco group’s pummeling, blues-based, hippie-destroying sound has been cited as an influence on everything from punk to heavy metal to grunge, which is really just a shorthand way of saying that it was fucking loud. Beginning with its 1968 album Vincebus Eruptum—and its hit, landmark cover of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues”—Blue Cheer specialized in wailing, thrashing, squalling, and all-around ass-kicking at a time when everybody was all about peace, love, and flowers in their hair, but that didn’t stop them from becoming an indelible part of the Bay Area scene. Over the years, their legend only grew among people who saw Blue Cheer, The Stooges, and MC5 as representing a holy trinity of acts who would save music from disappearing up its own incense-and-peppermints-coated ass.


At the forefront of this quietly blaring revolution: Self-described lead “screamer” Dickie Peterson, a dyed-in-the-wool blues fan who adopted his yowl as the only recourse to being heard over Leigh Stephens’ fuzzbox guitar, Paul Whaley’s chug-a-lug drums, and his own thundering bass. Over the years, Peterson would remain Blue Cheer's lifeblood, overseeing innumerable lineup changes and setbacks. Not long after its second album, Outsideinside, Stephens left the band—supposedly because he was going deaf—and was replaced by Randy Holden; the resultant New! Improved! Blue Cheer was actually anything but, a schizophrenic album with three powerful cuts featuring Holden unbalanced by the “more refined” (read: watered-down) tracks with Bruce Stephens, who replaced Holden when he unceremoniously quit early. Peterson gamely held the group together over the course of three more albums, but disbanded it for the first time in 1972. He attempted several aborted reunions, but none of these really panned out until 1984: By then the group was getting name-checked frequently in the burgeoning heavy metal scene, and the time was right to reunite with Whaley and record The Beast Is Back for Megaforce (who was on top of the world at the time after signing Metallica). And while Beast Is Back is mostly inconsequential, containing only a handful of new recordings and a few superfluous re-recordings of its most popular songs, it presaged Blue Cheer’s official rebirth: New albums followed (including the Jack Endino-produced Highlights And Lowlives) and from 1999 until the present, Blue Cheer was an on-and-off functioning band, touring, recording (most recently 2007’s What Doesn’t Kill You…), and generally basking in its growing reputation as one of the most influential groups in rock ’n’ roll. But if you didn’t catch one of those reunion shows, you’re out of luck now. Peterson died this week of liver cancer at the age of 63.

Not enough time has passed for hagiographies to be written, so we can’t yet comment on how influential the “boy band scene” will be on future cultures. Still, to pretend like boy bands had zero impact just because they were sort-of lame, interchangeable, and wholly prefabricated would be disingenuous—especially considering we’re still feeling the lingering effects in every instantly disposable single and “total package” musician on the radio right now. And while Irish band Boyzone is more or less a footnote to the Backstreet Boys/'N Sync heyday, it still boasted six No. 1 singles in the UK during the ’90s and sold millions of records—so, you know, you can take your “cultural significance” and shove it.


But what Boyzone may be best remembered for isn’t its music at all: When singer Stephen Gately came out as gay more than a decade ago, it was at a time when Lance Bass was still quietly deflecting questions about girls; in short, it was a huge deal, and an incredibly bold move on Gately’s part. He later wed his boyfriend, Andrew Cowles, in a public ceremony in Las Vegas before entering a more official civil partnership in London, and last year, after Boyzone reunited behind a new single, Gately romantically embraced a man in a music video, suffering condemnation for it from many members of the religious right—which only reinforced his standing as a gay rights icon. In recent years he’d also developed a successful theatrical career, starring in numerous touring and West End musicals while privately working on a children’s book. Last week, the story goes, Gately and Crowles returned to their apartment in Spain with a Bulgarian gentleman they’d met at a club; the next morning, their new Bulgarian friend discovered Gately had died slumped on the couch, having apparently choked on his own vomit. After several controversial speculations (including The Daily Mail's Jan Moir acting like a total ass and particularly incensing awesome comedian Stephen Fry, whom one should never, ever ruffle), autopsies this week determined that Gately had died due to an inherited and previously undiagnosed condition of pulmonary edema, an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Gately was 33 years old.

For more than 50 years, Al Martino was one of the most popular Italian-American singers to swim in the wake of Frank Sinatra, specializing in a golden-throated baritone that dripped amore all over classically romantic ballads like his signature hits “Spanish Eyes” and “Here In My Heart.” But odds are most people recognize Al Martino by another name: “Johnny Fontane,” the loosely Sinatra-based crooner who sings at Connie’s wedding in The Godfather, then later calls upon Don Corleone to help him intimidate a movie producer who refused to hire him. After crying that he didn’t know what he could do, followed by one of the best singular pieces of advice ever dispensed, Corleone agrees to help him; next thing you know, said producer is waking up next to a severed horse head. It wasn’t the only time Martino was mixed up with criminal activity: He received some rather embarrassing press in 1979 after shoplifting less than $100 worth of shirts and socks from a men’s department store. Before that, his lowest point was likely his 1975 disco version of “Volare”—which you definitely shouldn’t seek out. But while Martino endured his own Fontane-like peaks and valleys over his long career, he was hardly a quitter, producing dozens of albums over the years presumably without Mafia intervention. Most recently he’d developed an affinity for country music, and had just completed a version of Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes” for an upcoming new album; it proved to be the last song Martino would ever sing, as he left the studio to have dinner, then died suddenly that night, a mere six days after his 82nd birthday.

Have a super weekend!


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