It's been over a decade since Ryan Harlin and I made our feature directorial debut with "Do You Remember?: 15 Years of The Bouncing Souls" and we're humbled to see that it is still being enjoyed by so many people.
The Asbury Park Music In Film Festival has just announced a special screening of the film on April 10th, 2015 in Asbury Park, NJ, which will be followed by a Q&A with Bouncing Souls bassist Bryan Kienlen and guitarist Pete Steinkopf.
Have fun, True Believers!
Years ago my friend Landon was instrumental in getting me the job of singing for Dead Kennedys. Now he can be credited with recruiting me to sing for another legendary punk band: Reagan Youth!
Looking forward to whatever this new adventure has in store...
THE SODA POPULIST
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Swindle #6, re-published in The Utne Reader)
Have you ever bitched about the fact that your cable TV company decided to jack up its rates simply because they could? Has your blood ever boiled thinking about the way major labels are keeping good musicians down? Have you ever thrown your hands up in despair at the piss-poor choices on the ballot for any given American political office?
Take heart, comrades…John Nese is here to lead the revolution!
John runs the Soda Pop Stop in Eagle Rock, CA, a store that specializes in hard-to-find (if not impossible-to-find) soda pop, carrying over 500 varieties. I walked into his store assuming I’d be writing a fluff piece about fizzy sugar water, but I walked out with a startlingly vivid illustration of corporate oppression and the disturbing effect it has on every aspect of our lives.
I started by asking John, “Why soda?” He answered with a smile: “I got mad.”
John’s story is an American fable. He inherited the family grocery business from his father, but, like all independent grocery stores, he found himself struggling to compete with the price clubs and major supermarket chains. He started carrying a few rare varieties of soda as a means of keeping the business afloat.
And then one day a representative from Pepsi came into his store to convince him to stock the brand. At the price the rep was offering (remember: no bulk wholesale discount for a small shop like John’s), John would’ve had to charge more for Pepsi than the chain store down the street, and he would’ve felt like he was ripping off his customers. So he told the Pepsi rep he’d rather refer his customers to the chain.
The Pepsi rep said, “You can’t do that.” John said, “Watch me.”
I listen intently as John explains the politics of soda pop. The thing about Pepsi and Coke is that they have the money and clout to purchase shelf space in all of the major grocery chains and price clubs, so there ends up being no space—and little incentive—for stores to stock drinks produced by independent bottlers, even though dozens, if not hundreds, of such bottlers exist. So as consumers, we’re left with merely the illusion of true choice, choosing between two colas that taste basically the same, and which aren’t really all that great to begin with. As John points this out, I am suddenly stirred with both anger and sadness, staring at aisle after aisle of proof that corporate rule has officially infected every single aspect of our lives, robbing us of our freedom of choice and holding us hostage to the whims of the C.E.O.s.
My head already reeling, John begins my tour of his shop by telling me about Red Ribbon Root Beer. Until the ‘60s, root beer was made from sassafras root oil, which was taken off the market because it causes cancer. Red Ribbon uses sassafras bark (which, thankfully, doesn’t cause cancer), and it is the only root beer on the market to do so, giving it the most authentic taste possible. It even changes flavor as it ages!
Next, John let me sample a mint julep, because unlike most of you southern plantation owners from the 1800s out there, I’ve never had one. And it was so refreshing that I have since found myself walking around and actually saying, “I could really go for a mint julep right about now.”
I was also curious about Moxie, a company out of Maine that I thought had ceased to exist around the same time Hollywood started making “talkies.” Yet there on the shelves were several varieties of Moxie: Original Elixir, Cream Soda, Orange Cream Soda, and Cherry Soda. John swears by Moxie Cream Soda, declaring it the best cream soda on the market. He sent me home with a bottle that I later shared with a friend, and neither of us found any reason to argue with John’s assessment. He also sent me home with a bottle of the Original Elixir, which he cautioned I might not take to right away. “It’s a sipping soda,” he said, claiming that it would actually change flavors while I drank it. And it did: each sip started as a cola, morphed into a root beer, and left the aftertaste of some sort of evil black licorice potion from Satan’s private reserve. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
“Have you ever had a pomelo?” John asks, uncapping a bottle of Quench and handing me this soda flavored with the first cousin of the grapefruit. Down another aisle, he holds up a bottle of Manhattan Special Orange Soda to show me the pulp at the bottom, proving that it’s flavored with actual oranges. Later, he tells me about an angry phone call he placed to the makers of Tommyknockers Root Beer to complain about their switch from Madagascar vanilla to vanillin in their recipe. He tells me about the elderflower soda he’s anticipating from a Romanian bottler and the rose flavored soda he has coming in for Valentine’s Day. The possibilities and permutations seem endless. And, in fact, they are.
Upon a return trip to the Soda Pop Stop one afternoon to share the joys of a mint julep with a friend, I tried to get John’s attention, but customers were coming at him from all sides, asking for his recommendations the way they would a seasoned sommelier at a Napa Valley winery. One customer told John, “You’ve got me hooked on the Boylan’s Cola!” And I realized that we were all there because we’d had a door opened for us: a door to a whole world of fun, adventure, and taste. It’s a door that should have been open to us from the start but which was barred by capitalism gone sour.
I ask John, “Do you still get mad at Pepsi and Coke?” He says, “No. I thank ‘em every morning!”
People from all over the world are thanking him as well, both in person at the store or by ordering their favorite sodas by the case via his website. So dedicated is John to the cause of good soda, that he’s even trying to locate molds to make the metal parts for those now-out-of-production seltzer bottles popularized by the Three Stooges. With a bottle of seltzer and some raspberry or chocolate syrup that John sells at the end of one aisle, you can even make your own sodas!
“If it was about nostalgia,” John says, “it’d have been over in five years. It’s freedom of choice.”
Upon a third trip to the store to enlist yet another friend in the soda revolution, I find John outside, hammering something out of the sidewalk. When he’s done, he lets us sample a bottle of that much-anticipated rose soda (delicious, by the way!) and explains that earlier in the day some workers came by to install a newspaper box in front of his store. He asked them for the proper paperwork from the city, but they didn’t have it, so he told them to come back when they did. They started to install the thing anyway until he told them to bug off again. And then, rather than roll over and take it, he went outside to remove—by hand—the hunk of metal they’d just put in his sidewalk.
It’s a subtle gesture that somehow seems to sum up John’s attitude perfectly. His pride in his business and his individualist spirit practically amount to a Rockwell portrait of what it is—or rather, what it should be—to be an American. It makes me think back to the way he concluded our very first conversation with an assertion that practically made me want to salute him:
“Am I Don Quixote? No. The important thing is that people have choices. Not just with drinks, but with everything you do.”
As I shook his hand to say goodbye, he added with a smile:
A PUNK ROCK FAIRY TALE
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally appeared in Swindle issue #2)
“Get a calendar.”
“Just get a calendar.”
“Do you have a calendar?”
“Yes! What is it?”
“What’s today’s date?”
“Today’s the day you became the lead singer for Dead Kennedys.”
The American Dream boils down to two scenarios. 1.) Winning the Lottery. 2.) Joining your favorite rock band. I had just received a phone call to say that I, like Sid Vicious, Henry Rollins, and Tim “Ripper” Owens before me, had just achieved the less likely of the two.
I didn’t believe Landon at first. Not a lot of people would have. It took a good half hour or so of convincing, and even then I still suspected that the whole thing was a really cruel practical joke. If it was, I very much prepared to cut Landon out of my life as a friend, just as swiftly as I would cut open his throat and remove his trachea.
Landon, incidentally, was the voice on the other end of the phone. He fronts a band called Sidekick. I met him at Al’s Bar when I first moved to L.A. and our mutual love for the Chicago punk band Screeching Weasel immediately cemented our friendship. Sidekick often ripped through Screeching Weasel covers and when they did Landon would graciously allow me to get on stage and sing with them. Always a good time. The years went by and, despite numerous people encouraging me to pursue singing more seriously, rocking occasionally with Sidekick at dive bars around L.A. was pretty much the most musical glory I ever expected to achieve.
Then Dead Kennedys reunited and Landon became their tour manager. I was happy for my friend, but I, like most fans, was skeptical about the reunion with Brandon Cruz filling in on vocals for Jello Biafra (who had grown estranged from the band due to a far-too-much-discussed legal battle). Landon agreed to get me into their first L.A. show for free so I could satisfy my curiosity. All week I knew I was going to see Dead Kennedys. The ticket said “Dead Kennedys.” The marquee said “Dead Kennedys.” But it wasn’t until I was standing at the edge of the dance floor when the band launched into their first song that I realized, “Holy shit! That’s Dead Kennedys!” A smile parted my lips and I quickly squeezed my way into the crowd to sing along with all of my favorites.
Brandon had done a superb job and after the show I told Landon it was a job I wanted. I was half-joking, but it was a half-joke I’d make repeatedly over the course of the next year. I thought I was wasting my breath, but, sure enough, one day Brandon stepped down and Landon endorsed me for the job based on my love of Dead Kennedys and the fun he’d had sharing a stage with me. And for some reason three of my biggest musical heroes trusted his judgment.
A little perspective here: Dead Kennedys formed in 1978 and became one of the most influential bands in the punk genre. Even my parents know who these guys are. “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” was one of the first punk albums I ever owned. I remember jumping on my bed as a teenager, singing along to it and thinking to myself how cool it would be to one day sing with the band. At the time, I immediately dismissed the notion, thinking to myself, “first of all, they broke up years ago and they’ll never get back together. Second of all, even if they do get back together, it’ll be with Jello. And third of all, even if they do get back together without Jello, how would they EVER find me and why would they EVER let me up on stage with them?” I vividly remember all of those thoughts going through my head, and thinking to myself that I should keep a lid on my idiotic fantasies.
Simply getting to practice with Dead Kennedys in Landon’s small, dingy practice space in Hollywood was enough to squash the cynical voice in my head that told me to stop fantasizing all those years ago and to give me a story to bore my grandkids with. But then I got to play a secret show with the band at the Viper Room with all my friends in the audience cheering me on. Then we got to play shows in Norway. And Istanbul. And Mexico City. And all over the U.K. Every trip was an incredible adventure, each worthy of its own separate article. There’s story after story to tell, based on surreal moment after surreal moment. For instance: in Scotland, we played a club where I had seen a punk show back in ’98. I never imagined I’d be back at that club. Let alone on its stage. Singing to a sold out crowd. With Dead Kennedys.
Further, I could write articles about the way the music of Dead Kennedys shaped my drastically left-leaning political ideals and how grateful I am for the opportunity to speak to crowd after crowd about the importance of open-mindedness and political participation. I could write about the bonds I’ve formed with three very quirky musicians who formerly existed in my life only as sounds coming through a stereo speaker and names on an album cover. I could write pages and pages about the importance and timeliness of the Dead Kennedys reunion in relation to both the current punk rock scene and the world at large. Believe me, a person in my position has a lot of things to think hard about and gets a lot of frequently asked questions. But today I’m only allowed to share 1500 words with you, so the rest will have to wait for some other time.
For now I’m just enjoying the ride, because the one thing I can’t really speak about with any certainty is where this is all going to go. Maybe we’ll keep touring, maybe we’ll record new music, or maybe it’ll all end tomorrow. At first, the unpredictability of the situation really messed with my head, but I’ve made peace with it because I’ve learned to appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to live out an insanely fantastic dream, the scope of which I can still barely comprehend. It’s all cherries on top of the icing on top of the multi-tiered cake at this point. Maybe there should be some sort of punk rock twist to this story to make it all edgy or dark or something, but there’s really not. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a dream-come-true scenario, and it’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience. If I wrote a song about it, it would sound more appropriate coming out of Jewel’s mouth than mine. It’s done nothing less than change my entire outlook on life. It sounds excruciatingly cheesy, I know, but it’s the truth. After all, I used to really relate to the Dead Kennedys song “Forward to Death”, which contains the lyrics “I don’t need this fucking world / This world brings me down / Gag with every breath / This world brings me down / I’m looking forward to death.” But now it’s the one song I feel weird about singing because for once in my life I’m NOT looking forward to death! I’m having too much fucking fun! Even when things are at their shittiest and I’m forced to look into the darker side of my soul, I’m able to turn myself around because I’ve learned that life can take radical turns for the better just as easily as it can take drastic turns for the worse.
Roughly ten years after my first exposure to the music of Dead Kennedys, I was on an airplane bound for a tour of Norway, seated between Landon and drummer D.H. Peligro. As we taxied onto the runway I looked back and forth between the two of them and said to Landon, “if this is a joke, you’re really taking it too far.” Landon laughed and assured me that it was for real.
I still don’t know if I believe him.
I still don’t know if I believe him.
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Swindle's "Icons" issue)
“Ronald Reagan made me do it.”
(Originally published in Swindle's "Icons" issue)
“Ronald Reagan made me do it.”
It’s unlikely that such a defense would hold up in a modern American court of law, but it’s how Robbie Conal explains his incitement to hit the streets with his trademark poster art.
Robbie is best known for gluing disturbing and hyper-real images of political and historical figures to fixtures of the urban landscape. His posters usually include a portrait, a slogan or a one-liner (the man loves his puns), and some form of overt socio-political commentary. The posters are placed by Conal and his “volunteer guerrilla postering army”: a formidable force that has the ability to cover a significant amount of public space in Robbie’s home city of Los Angeles and beyond. Both his art and his methods are untraditional and controversial. And that, children, is exactly how one becomes an icon.
Robbie, though, doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable with that label. “[The word ‘icon’] makes me think of a giant wooden cross painted by Cimabue in the late 13th century: Christ writhing stiffly on a 400 pound hunk of black carved wood, looming over my head in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Nope. I don’t identify.”
But when others think of the word “icon” they may think of someone who has blazed a trail and inspired others to do the same, and under that definition Robbie most certainly fits. Numerous artists have sidestepped the gallery system and taken to the streets with buckets and brushes in Robbie’s wake, inspired undeniably by his consistency and his coverage. When asked at what point he realized that his illegal art would or could eventually gain legitimization, Robbie claims, “I never did. But I knew people would see it. Especially in L.A. Everyone (around the world) thinks Angelenos are superficial. But what they don’t know is that we’re DEEPLY superficial.”
Robbie is essentially the art world equivalent of a street corner Bible thumper. Not content to sit quietly inside a church and wait for people to come in and find salvation, he goes out into the world to broadcast his message loudly, abrasively, and (mostly) unwelcome-ly to anyone in range. The key difference being that most religious figures would encourage you to obey while Robbie begs people to think for themselves.
He offers the following to those who may want to continue in his tradition: “If you want to communicate your social/political ideas to regular people and have no money, make an interesting little black and white picture, turn a few words of the most subversive language on the planet—colloquial American English—inside out, shake ‘em for loose change…[and go] to Kinko’s. Mix up the medicine and text message your homies after you call your local National Lawyers Guild office.”
With others clearly willing to pick up wherever Robbie leaves off, does he ever see his own postering missions coming to an end? “I always see them coming to an end,” he claims. “Every time I stand up on a red naugahyde banquette at Canter’s [the deli from which his L.A.-based missions stem] and yell at the, uh, ‘troops’ about ‘Guerilla Etiquette’ […] the first thing I say is, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this again.’ I’m old.”
Sure, he’s got his own book, “Artburn”, on the shelves, a regular column in L.A. Weekly, and a teaching gig at U.S.C., but if Robbie’s posters do someday cease to appear on your friendly neighborhood electrical box, what will he do for a creative outlet?
BANG SUGAR BANG
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Maximum Rocknroll #268)
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Maximum Rocknroll #268)
To an extent, people are right to pick on L.A. After all, I defy anyone to sit at the Rainbow Room for more than ten minutes without making a sarcastic comment about the Methods of Mayhem-era Tommy Lee wannabe at the next table. But buried underneath the thick layers of smog and cynicism, the true spirit of rock n’ roll is still pogo-ing away in the City of Angels.
If you put a copy of Bang Sugar Bang’s latest full-length, THWACK THWACK GO CRAZY, into your CD player, you will most likely be driven to play air guitar, laugh your ass off, and say to yourself (or even out loud), “holy crap! THAT’S what rock n’ roll is supposed to sound like!” Also, you will probably have a craving for beer.
And when they’re not spending their time writing new music (which they do at an enviable pace), playing shows (which they do several times a week on average), touring, or holding down day jobs, Bang Sugar Bang also maintains Kiss or Kill, a Tuesday night rock club Where Everybody Knows Your Name. (And if they don’t know it yet, just show up two or three weeks in a row and they’ll be sober enough remember it eventually.)
So I present to you a band that doesn’t just walk the walk, but also rocks the rock. I talked the talk with bassist/vocalist Cooper and guitarist/vocalist Matt Southwell over email so that I might help provide you, gentle reader, with a window into their souls.
JEFF: Give me one word that uniquely sums up your band's history, current status, sound, and attitude.
JEFF: If you were to hand someone who'd never heard your band a copy of your latest album, what would you say to prepare them for the listening experience?
COOPER: I'd say "Grab a cold one and hang on!"
MATT: "Hope you like it, if you hate it give it to someone you think might like it. And, if they hate it, it makes a great drink coaster. Unfortunately, it does not repel mosquitoes."
JEFF: If you had a helper monkey, which band-related task would you want it to do in order to help you the most?
COOPER: A helper monkey! Wow. Actually Pawley [drums] is my helper monkey. But he's a sucky monkey! He's supposed to flyer the city before every show. But he seems to have a hard time getting the job done. So if I could have another helper monkey in addition to Pawley I'd hope he'd flyer and do internet promotion for all our shows. That would be awesome.
MATT: I'd want my helper monkey to haul the gear and find some beer. I think I speak for every musician when I say that hauling your gear down icy steps or in the rain SUCKS! How come all the best gear is the heaviest?
JEFF: What's more important: looks or a sense of humor?
COOPER: Sense of humor hands down!
MATT: Seeing that this question made me laugh, I guess it would be sense of humor.
JEFF: What's more tasty: Jack In The Box or Del Taco?
COOPER: Do I even have to answer that? Del Taco of course! Jack in the Box has fingernails in their burgers!
JEFF: If you had the money, would you buy one of those special mattresses they sell on TV; the ones made with NASA material that doesn't let wine spill or something?
COOPER: I don't have TV so I haven't seen the ad for the mattress you're talking about. But it sounds pretty cool. If I had the money I'd probably buy it. Especially if it hides wine stains! That could come in handy.
MATT: Yes, I'll buy anything made by NASA. I support the space program. Save the Hubble telescope! I'm a total space nerd. I know the exact location of the Mars rovers at all times.
JEFF: What's your take on the Los Angeles music scene?
COOPER: It's an exciting time to be a musician here. It feels like something is really happening. There's an electricity in the air. When we began, these promoters were charging $15 and lumping us on bills with bands that weren't like us at all. We'd play sandwiched between a Christian death metal band and the next Arlo Guthrie! […] After paying the cover, paying to park, and buying a beer our fans had already spent $30. That's part of the reason we started booking our own night. It's called Kiss or Kill and it happens every Tuesday at the Echo in L.A. We keep the cover low, $3, have drink specials all night long and make sure all the bands are right stylistically. The only way to get booked is to show up and support the scene. It's become a collective of sorts. All the bands have taken over duties to make the club run. No one makes any money off the club. It all goes back into a pot to pay for club costs, a compilation CD, etc. Music should be about music, not money! Now there are lots of free or cheap shows all over the city. And you see bands piggybacking on one another, building their fan base together.
MATT: It's in a transitional place, which is always healthy. There's a lot of new sounds coming out of here. It's almost like anything goes. I like the diversity. There's still plenty of bands trying to give record labels what they think the labels want, but there's just as many bands doing their own thing and I like that.
JEFF: Your sound is often described as "X meets the Jam." If X actually met the Jam in a dark alley, who would end up with whose wallets?
COOPER: Oooh. That's a tough one...God, I don't know. Okay, I have to say X and here's why: I'm convinced Billy Zoom may very well be an alien. His guitar playing is almost unhumanly good. And have you ever seen him play? The look on his face while he's playing makes him look like someone from another planet. So, I'm convinced if X and the Jam had a brawl, Billy would summon his buddies from the planet that he comes from and his otherworldly friends would come down and pull some crazy alien attack shit on the Jam and the Jam would lose their wallets.
MATT: Gonna have to go against Cooper on this one. Although John Doe would be a good fighter, the Jam are three London street toughs and I think they'd come out on top because I don't think DJ and Billy would want to fight. So it'd be three on one. Although if Exene's been drinking she could be trouble. Yeah, in the end I'm gonna have to go with the Jam.
JEFF: Who is your biggest fan?
MATT: My mom. Or maybe my sisters. I'm very fortunate to come from a family that always supported my playing.
COOPER: Matt's mom. Hands down. She travels all over the country to come see us play on tour. She's the coolest 65-year-old lady you'll ever meet. I remember when the last White Stripes album came out. She called us up insisting we go buy it right away because "it's a really good record." She's unreal!
JEFF: Who do you WISH were your biggest fan?
COOPER: I'm happy with Matt's mom. But, it would be cool if David Bowie were our biggest fan. That would be really cool.
MATT: That's tough. Chris Farley. He'd be fun to have down in the pit. But, he's dead so I guess it doesn't matter.
JEFF: If your band were actually The Three Stooges, which stooge would each member be?
COOPER: I'd be Larry for sure. Matt would be Moe and Pawley would definitely be Curly.
JEFF: Who would enjoy your latest album more: Jesus or Satan?
COOPER: This question reminds me of this card that Pawley picked up in a bathroom in Tennessee somewhere. It's a church's business card with a pair of praying hands on it and it says "Give Jesus a try. If you don't like him, it's all right. Satan will always take you back!" We've got the card taped to the dash of our tour van. Every time I see it I have to laugh. So I guess Satan would like our album more, since he's super down with embracing Jesus' leftovers. And all of us are definitely Jesus' leftovers. Although I think Jesus would probably dig our record, too.
MATT: Depends on if there's beer in heaven.
JEFF: What's your favorite porn movie?
COOPER: “Dinner Party.”
MATT: “The Chameleon.”
JEFF: If there is a heaven, what would you like to hear God say when you get there?
COOPER: "Let there be rock!"
MATT: "Joe Strummer and your dad are waiting in the pub. They already bought you a drink. Oh, and we don't call last call here."
Okay, now I know that last answer was really poignant and touching and I hate to take away from it…but does anyone else find it interesting that they had such readily available and confident answers for the porn movie question…? Anyway, check out www.bangsugarbang.com and www.kissorkillclub.com for more info about these crazy rock n’ roll types and their crazy rock n’ roll club. And if you find yourself in the vicinity of Los Angeles, do not be alarmed: it’s not an earthquake, it’s just the heart of rock n’ roll pounding away as hard as ever.
JOHN VAN HAMERSVELD
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in Swindle #5)
When one thinks of hippies, one tends to conjure up the image of a shiftless, paranoid, drug-crazed, patchouli-wearing, granola-eating, self-righteous know-it-all who won’t stop lecturing you about how evil your car is. John Van Hamersveld is most decidedly a hippie, yet he is none of the above. Well, maybe the drugs…and I’m not sure about the granola…but everything else he is not.
It’s easy to throw around assumptions about a guy who earned his living drawing psychedelic concert posters for Cream and Jimi Hendrix. And about one who, upon hearing about this article, forwarded me a dozen or so lengthy and rambling emails about, for instance, the post-Gen-X “Echo Boomer” generation and its sociological implications. After receiving several of such emails—a few of which were simply slightly reworded versions of the others, some of which were random childhood photos, and one of which was a rant about an eBay sale of a t-shirt that featured a pirated version of one of his pieces—I thought I had John Van Hamersveld clocked. I wrote a one-line email to my editor:
“This guy is a friggin’ nut cake.”
Regardless, I was pressed to continue with the story, so one day, while waiting for my car to be serviced, I sat down and waded through all of Van Hamersveld’s seemingly irrelevant emails. As the television in the waiting room went from “Montel” to “Cops” to “Home Improvement” to “Married with Children” (What the hell are they doing to my car back there?), I managed to excise a few interesting facts about which to query John in person. He had met Andy Warhol. Steve Jobs gave him a free Next computer. He had worked with Mick Jagger. But there was one story that seemed to rise above the rest.
In an article he personally penned, John (in between his tangential analysis of pot culture) details the process he went through to create a revolutionary design for the cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album. He gets stoned with Paul Kantner and Grace Slick at his apartment when they approach him about doing the cover. He gets stoned while coming up with concepts and ideas. He gets stoned before a meeting at RCA with the Airplane’s manager. Finally, he gets stoned with the whole band and asks them each to give him a word, which then he then translates, while stoned, into a visual. He coordinates an extensive amount of photo work, which, in the days before Photoshop, was a long and costly process, and finally comes up with a cover that the band and the label go bananas over.
Then they ask him about money. He asks for $9,000. Not too outrageous considering the work he put in and the fact that his cover design (front AND back) would be translated into a branded campaign to advertise the record. But, of course, the label balks and nobody wants to put up the cash. And this is where John shows that he’s not just another damn, dirty hippie:
Same old story about money: the record company leans on the manager who leans on the band who in turn leans on the artist. Labor is value. Even in the "new culture" we're creating everyone still wants something for nothing. Maybe I should be reading Chairman Mao's little red book instead of Eye Magazine. Only after meeting with attorneys is the matter settled.
This guy is my kind of hippie. And by that I mean he lives his life with his eyes and mind open and with art and humanity as top priorities, but with his feet planted firmly, and unapologetically, on the ground. Raised by scientists (no, not in a lab…his grandfather was an inventor and his father designed jets and satellites) and nurtured by a grandmother who was a Wall Street investor and a mother who was a fashion model and a painter, and later rooming with a friend who was a business school student, John was able to equally exercise his right and left brains, allowing him to create as well as to find ways to continually fund and sustain said creation. Rather than bemoaning the sad fact that we’re all slaves to the corporate structure, he accepts that structure as a reality and finds his own way to rebel within it. Instead of idly talking about revolution, John Van Hamersveld lives the revolution—by changing the rules of their game to uncompromisingly pursue his passions. And not taking any shit from his fellow granola-heads along the way.
John’s personal revolution was born in the mid-1950s when he fell in love (as hippies will do) with surfing. In the early ‘60s he moved to Dana Point, California and the crew of surfers he mixed with at the time were focused solely on surfing and more surfing, so each of them tried to find a way to support their habit, preferably by doing something that related to the sport. Some would shape and/or sell boards. His neighbor, John Severson, founded Surfer magazine. And a guy named Bruce Brown started making a movie called “The Endless Summer.”
Van Hamersveld had started Surfing Illustrated magazine, which led to him working with Severson on Surfer, which in turn led to him doing advertising work for Hobie Surfboards. He met Brown when “Endless Summer” was in post-production and took a freelance job creating a poster to advertise the film. Van Hamersveld organized a photo shoot (Brown himself is the figure in the foreground of the poster) and turned the resultant photo into a graphic image while taking night classes at Pasadena’s now-famous Art Center College of Design. He was paid $150 for the finished poster and pretty much forgot about it after it was sent into production.
Of course, the film became a watermark (pun very much intended) in the world of surf documentaries and John’s image resonated heavily with those who identified with surf culture. Hard to imagine that something like that would continue to generate income and decorate college dorm rooms all the way into the next millennium, but the fact that the poster has endured is a testament to Van Hamersveld’s power as a visual artist.
That power was recognized at the time by Brown Meggs, who signed the Beatles to Capitol Records. Meggs soon hired John as his personal art director. Among his new duties? Designing the cover for the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour” album.
Having designed both a Beatles album cover and a world-renowned movie poster would probably be enough for the average artist to consider him or herself a success. But for John, whether he knew it or not, this was only the beginning.
Just as he had immersed himself in the surfing scene, John immersed himself in the music scene in the late ‘60s, founding Pinnacle Rock Concerts, a concert promotion agency. He designed 19 concert posters between ’67 and ‘68, each more iconic than the last. His images of Jimi Hendrix, the Pinnacle Indian, and the Space Cowboy encapsulate the vibe of the era and re-prints and re-imaginings of his concert posters continue to sell today.
And then there was that whole Jefferson Airplane business. And the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” album and accompanying ad campaign, which connected John to Mick Jagger. Which is why Jagger was wearing one of Van Hamersveld’s “Johnny Face” t-shirts in a photo that appeared in New Music Express.
I interviewed John at his home in Santa Monica and I trolled through all of his lengthy emails, but I was still a little confused about the Johnny Face, and I needed to fill in a few other gaps as well, so I sent him a brief email containing four simple questions. I got back EIGHT enormous emails, three of which contained photo attachments. Goddammit…
I started to read through the 38K (text only!) email that contained the lengthy story of the Johnny Face and realized that it was an article he’d sent before and that it didn’t contain the details I needed. Rather than risk another assault of emails, I’ll just go with what I’ve figured out. Long before Shepard Fairey started dotting the urban landscape with Andre the Giant, the Johnny Face poster was everywhere. A simple, smiling, psychedelic character that took hold of the public consciousness as the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s. Later, John added the phrase “Crazy World Ain’t It” to the face and it was distributed as a button and a t-shirt. It became so wildly popular that John was now being referred to as “Johnny” by clients and acquaintances and the KRLA radio station licensed the image to appear on 250 billboards in L.A. and Orange County.
Ever shrewd, John requested that 25 of those billboards be located near record labels and ad agencies. Hardly the kind of self-promoting genius you’d expect from a guy who was doing his fair share of mescaline at the time.
And hey, did you know that John also designed the original trademark for “Star Wars”? They ended up tweaking his design just enough so they didn’t have to pay him, but back in the day he used to hang with George Lucas and even attended a few “Star Wars” production meetings with other like-minded artists. Of course, when I find this out in the interview I can’t help but get sidetracked with nerdy questions about Lucas, but we eventually move into the ‘80s, when John moved from drawing into architecture, got into computers, and started focusing on developing trademarks and signage for companies like Contempo Casuals and the Broadway Deli, which led to him being commissioned to design a mural for the Olympics which wrapped halfway around the L.A. Colisseum for the ’84 games.
Again, one has to wonder what kind of standard of success this guy must have to not retire and pull a Bobby Fischer-style disappearing act after that kind of recognition. But a few years later John raised his own bar by designing Fatburger. If you don’t live in L.A., you probably don’t appreciate how omnipresent (or tasty) Fatburger is, but the local burger chain is considered an L.A. institution. John not only designed their logo, but the entire retro look of the restaurant and the unique architecture of their buildings.
And then, one day in 1993, while riding his bike, he went over the handlebars and shattered his elbow.
While he was supposed to be healing, he was drawing, forcing himself to recuperate while creating 200 sketches for the Octopus Army Stores in Tokyo. He ended up selling them 14 t-shirt images for $75,000 and the company made millions off of his designs. Take that, you stupid bike!
As he reacquainted himself with drawing again—after years of working mainly on computers—he also reacquainted himself with his ‘60s roots. So it seems fitting that as 2005 draws to a close John Van Hamersveld is going on the road to promote a poster he designed in his signature ‘60s style for the Cream reunion concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. All at once, art, music, culture, and John Van Hamersveld have finally made a complete circle.
Through a combination of keeping his mind open, his wits about him, and his ambitions ever-reaching, John Van Hamersveld built a career of which any artist would, and rightly should, be envious. His work has steered the way album covers, concert posters, corporate trademarks, and architecture are looked at today. And with the birth of each new generation comes a re-birth of interest in his contribution to the world of art and design.
Now I get why he sent me that “Echo Boomer” article…!
Now I get why he sent me that “Echo Boomer” article…!
By Jeff Penalty
(Originally published in the Swindle "Icons" issue)
When Raymond Pettibon says, “Joan Jett has a bigger dick than Hulk Hogan,” he means it as an insult to Hogan and a compliment to Jett, not the other way around. His proclamation comes after I tell him that Hogan and Jett may potentially share the pages of the Swindle “Icon” issue with him. He follows up by explaining that while Hogan may have won the hearts of many fans, he is not respected in the locker rooms amongst those who take wrestling seriously. And Raymond should know: he wrestled professionally in Mexico and Japan.
This is a startling revelation, especially from a guy who moves and speaks in as low-key a manner as possible. Even though I am there to discuss Raymond’s art and career, I end up spending a solid 15 to 20 minutes pestering him about the details of his Lucha Libre days. He politely accommodates me and I learn that he was inspired to jump into the ring in an effort to impress a circus acrobat. Unfortunately, she was dating the dog-faced boy, so his love for her was unable to thrive.
Perhaps it was this unrequited love that led Raymond to take on such dark subjects in his artwork. His comic book-style pen-and-ink and watercolor drawings are fraught with violence, despair, and depraved sexuality. Even when he draws Gumby, it’s still a little unsettling.
Most people assume that Pettibon’s work gained its earliest exposure when it was used on flyers for punk shows and as cover art for numerous albums by Black Flag. Being a “punk artist” in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s however, wasn’t the rose parade it is today. “Punk rockers don’t buy art,” he points out. “They never did. I could’ve asked for 50 cents for any drawing, it would’ve been too much.” And, he reminds me, in the punk world “any of the most disliked things would be prefaced with art, [or called] ‘arty.’”
Despite the fact that the work may have been difficult to sell, and despite its association with a music movement that at the time was maligned and shunned by the mainstream, it is undeniable that Pettibon’s art has since had an impact on the punk subculture. Well, undeniable by anyone other than Pettibon himself: “I don’t have any delusions of how important my work was in the context of punk rock…if my work wasn’t there not that much would be missed.”
He’s wrong, of course. Or maybe just modest. But if Pettibon hadn’t been associated with Black Flag, it’s likely that I would not have had the opportunity to be deeply disturbed by his drawing that the band used for the cover of their “Police Story” single. It features the frightened face of a cop with a gun being shoved in his mouth. A speech balloon has the faceless gun-holder saying, “MAKE ME COME, FAGGOT!” The image still rattles me, despite having been desensitized over the years by TV, abrasive music, and real life. It’s not shock value: shock eventually wears off. It’s something deeper. Darker. Deadlier. And it’s that intangible that eventually took Pettibon’s art beyond the punk scene and into exhibitions at prominent museums around the country and earned him such distinctions as the Whitney Museum’s prestigious Bucksbaum Award.
Still, Pettibon shrugs off the idea of being termed an “icon.” “It’s kind of like getting your commemorative watch when you retire. It’s kind of after the fact. But I don’t have a problem with it.” When asked whom he would list as icons, the talk turns back to wrestling, and he salutes Terry Funk, Freddie Blassie, and Roddy Piper.
And also to Sirhan Sirhan. Pettibon explains, “After all these years, he’s still a political prisoner for something, yeah, he did, but the world should be glad he did.”
I soon discover that Pettibon’s politics are as discomforting as his artwork. He adds Lee Harvey Oswald and Squeaky Fromme to the icon list. And when he suggests Sarah Jane Moore, he adds, “Some motherfucker should’ve taught her to shoot.” As our talk delves into other political matters, he offers up other controversial viewpoints as well:
“I voted once in my life, I’m against voting…I’m more for bullets than ballots in general.”
“I don’t support the troops. I support the insurgency…I feel bad about American troops for being there and for dying when they do. [But] you can always leave. Get the fuck out of Iraq, Okinawa, Guam, Hawaii…”
“My values are relativistic and I’ll give a cop the benefit of the doubt. If that’s me with my gat—my gat’s larger than the one depicted [in the ‘Police Story’ drawing]…we can have a discussion, and he can answer me just as well with my .357 barrel in his mouth, or on his cheek, or on his adenoids, or down his throat. I’ll listen to his whimpering cries.”
And, perhaps most radical of all: “I’m a complete pacifist.”
This last statement fits more than it may seem with the rest of his viewpoints, but I had read that Raymond raises pit bulls for dogfights, and this seemed incongruous with the practices of a pacifist, let alone someone who is an accomplished artist and, from what I could gather, not a total fucking asshole. He tells me that he raises the dogs as part of a charity. The pit bulls are given to at-risk youth who train them and teach them to fight. It offers the kids a sense of responsibility, discipline, and accomplishment. I ask him how any charity that involves an illegal activity could be officially recognized and Raymond says he doesn’t do it for the recognition; he does it because it’s something he believes has a positive impact.
As I wrap up the interview, I point out that I’m having trouble understanding his nature. Every word he has uttered has been in a calm, mellow tone of voice. No sudden movements. No outbursts. When he walks, he shuffles at a slow pace. I tell him that I’m having a hard time reconciling his tranquil manner with his former career as a pro-wrestler and his current hobby of training dogs to fight to the death.
It turns out he was fucking kidding.
And at that moment I realized that Raymond Pettibon is not only a brilliant artist, but also a true dyed-in-the-wool punk, and quite possibly the most underappreciated comic genius of our time. In love with the dog-faced boy?! And I fucking bought it?! I wasn’t angry in the least; I was simply stunned by the fact that he was able to think on his feet so quickly and to so deeply commit to a joke! He said that I was too nice a guy to let me keep believing the joke about the dogs, but I honestly believe that if I’d ended the interview 15 minutes earlier he would’ve let me go home and type up an article that characterized him as a pile-driving dogfighter. And, in fact, he encouraged me to do so.
He assured me, however, that he was very serious about the numerous political and artistic issues we discussed, and I expected no less. His art says it all, but Raymond says it himself just as well:
“If the pen was actually mightier than the sword, I would have a field day. It would be a fucking bloodbath.”
After that, we went out and he bought me onion rings.
SURLY AMY'S BIRTHDAY PARTY
By Jeff Penalty
(A short story originally published on Skepchick.org)
I blocked the number and locked my door.
By Jeff Penalty
(A short story originally published on Skepchick.org)
As I approached Surly Amy’s apartment her door flew open and spat out a well built, shaven-chested man wearing a leopard print thong. He ran past me down the hallway, crying and clutching a crumpled up police uniform. The word “SLUT” was scrawled on his abs and arms in red lipstick.
“Animals!” he shouted back towards the door. “You’re all animals!”
I walked into the apartment and thankfully my reflexes forced me to quickly duck. An empty bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label smashed against the wall in a space previously occupied by my head. As I stood up slowly, I was greeted by a familiar voice.
“Holy shit, it’s Jeff! Get in here you fucking asshole!”
It was Rebecca, America’s Skeptical Sweetheart, wearing her signature horn-rimmed glasses and a white dress with little cherries all over it. Rebecca runs Skepchick.org, one of my favorite science/skeptical thinking blogs. I had once contributed a guest article to the site and had met Rebecca on two previous occasions (once after a bar fight in Boston and once after a hazy night in Vegas). When she and several of the other regular Skepchick.org contributors descended on my home city of Los Angeles to celebrate the birthday of one of their own, I jumped at Rebecca’s invite to join them for what she described as a “modest little get-together.” I was giddy at the idea of finally meeting some of these other brilliant, endearingly nerdy women whom I had only known through their writing, their pen names, and their cute cartoon avatars.
Part of me would forever regret accepting that invitation.
Rebecca greeted me with a hug and squeezed my ass with both hands. I looked over her shoulder at a scene of utter chaos. The carpet was partially burned, various mathematical formulas were spray painted haphazardly on the walls, and the TV had been smashed. It was probably for the best that I had left my DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the car.
“Let me introduce you to everyone. That’s Surly Amy, it’s her birthday!” Amy was eating fistfuls of chocolate cake with one hand and giving herself her fourth teardrop tattoo with the other. She offered a verbal greeting muffled by a mouthful of pastry and then offered a hand covered in chocolate frosting. I opted for a fist bump over a full handshake for sanitary reasons.
“And this is Maria, also known as Masala Skeptic.”
“Hey there,” Maria said cheerfully as she squatted over a potted plant in the corner and gave it an asparagus-scented watering. Masala Skeptic reminded me of a human version of a cartoon squirrel. Albeit a rabid one that eschews underwear.
“And that’s Elyse and A.Real.Girl.”
Elyse said “Hi!” but couldn’t really wave with a bottle of Everclear and a red funnel in her hands. A.Real.Girl waved but couldn’t really speak with the other end of the beer bong in her mouth. Judging from their facial scars and toned muscles, these two were clearly the “enforcers” of the group. And somehow, Elyse’s all-black glass eye complemented A.Real.Girl’s diamond-inlaid platinum grills perfectly.
“We’re about to hit the town,” Rebecca said, uncapping a new bottle of Black Label. “You wanna come with?”
“Sure, where are–”
“WE’RE OUT, BITCHES!” Rebecca yelled on her way through the door.
“Um, what about…this guy?” I asked, indicating the loose rooster strutting around the kitchen. Surly Amy tore open a box of Lucky Charms, dumped its contents onto the kitchen floor, and glared at me as she walked out the door.
“Don’t forget the hanger!” Masala Skeptic called to Elyse, who ducked into the hall closet and produced a standard wire hanger.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” A.Real.Girl slurred as she grabbed a handful of my shirt and pulled me outside.
It was a busy Friday night on Hollywood boulevard, with club-hoppers in rhinestone-speckled T-shirts and identical black mini dresses littering the sidewalks. But Skepchicks apparently don’t bother with the sidewalks: Rebecca led our group through a back alley and slipped a fifty to a nervous busboy to gain us access to a brand new club co-owned by Ludacris and Justin Timberlake.
I was expecting an evening of soda, snacks, and secular humanism, but apparently the Skepchicks had a craving for synth loops, strobe lights, and celebutantes. I was rather underdressed for the occasion; the dance floor was a sea of designer labels and overpriced haircuts, I was in a hoodie and jeans.
Elyse, A.Real.Girl, and Masala Skeptic carved a path to the dance floor while Rebecca and Surly Amy elbowed their way to the bar. I cowered by the men’s room, baffled by the disconnect between these girls’ cerebral online personas and the unsettling reality. I was particularly taken aback when I watched Rebecca lean over the bar and swipe a bottle of Bacardi 151 when the bartenders weren’t looking.
I wondered why she needed a new bottle of booze when she was still clutching her bottle of Scotch from the apartment. Rebecca indirectly answered my question when she poured half a pint of the Bacardi into Surly Amy’s mouth. Amy grabbed a tea light off the bar, held it in front of her lips, and spat out the 151. The resulting fireball singed the hair of Kirsten Dunst and engulfed the shirtsleeve of Mario Lopez, who stopped, dropped, and rolled with a ballet dancer’s grace.
Security was on them in an instant.
I tried to intervene and calm the situation down, but the other Skepchicks swooped in from the dance floor and it became a shouting and shoving match that was way beyond my control. Our whole group was hustled out the front door.
“Fuck it, come on!” Rebecca said, as she led the group down the street to the next club. I was mentally composing excuses to break off from the group and head home when a police cruiser pulled up next to us. Its siren issued a short burst.
“Miss? You can’t have that bottle open on the street.”
“Excuse me?” Rebecca asked indignantly.
“You can’t have that bottle open on the street, drop it in the trash or it’s a $400 fine.”
Rebecca looked the cop dead in the eye and took a long pull of Johnnie Walker. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and quietly said, “I dare you.”
The cop opened his car door and stepped out. POW! Masala Skeptic flew in from nowhere with a hard right cross and knocked him out cold. The Skepchicks all cheered as Elyse grabbed his gun and hat. A.Real.Girl took the wheel. “Get in!” she yelled. The Skepchicks piled into the cruiser…and pulled me in with them.
A.Real.Girl buzzed down the street, weaving through opposing traffic and causing a symphony of honks and squealing brakes in our wake. When my life stopped flashing before my eyes, we were in a seedy, deserted section of Chinatown. We left the cop car parked halfway on the sidewalk and walked up to the rear entrance of an abandoned tire warehouse. Amy pounded on the door, leaving a chocolate imprint of her fist. The door opened only an inch.
“Password” said a serious voice with a heavy Mandarin accent.
“Skepchick,” said Elyse, sticking her new police-issue Glock 22 through the crack. The door opened wider and the Skepchicks filed in past the enormous bouncer.
We took a freight elevator to the basement and stepped out into a smoky room filled with shouting Asian businessmen, Triad gangsters, and the thick humidity of human sweat. At the center was a fighting cage made of plywood and chicken wire, inside of which two neckless and bloodied men were locked in bare-knuckle combat.
“All right, birthday girl,” said Masala Skeptic, “Get some!” The other Skepchicks hooted as Amy walked down the aisle and posted herself ringside.
“What’s she going to do?” I asked Rebecca naively.
“It’s a Skepchick birthday tradition. You’ll see. So what have you been up to, anyway? It’s been forever since we’ve talked!”
“Oh, you know, same old, trying to keep busy…” I trailed off, distracted by the sight of A.Real.Girl trading a wad of cash for a Ziploc full of multicolored pills with an unsavory character near the back of the room.
The fight bell rang and the competitors were carried out of the ring. Surly Amy leapt into the cage and raised her hands victoriously over her head. Her challenger would be a 6’7” Samoan man with arms the size of redwoods and a tattoo of a gargoyle covering his shaved head. The Skepchicks howled like rabid wolves. Amy didn’t need much encouragement though, as her opponent’s nose was broken one second after the bell rang. Blood flowed from his face like syrup out of a squeeze bottle as Amy worked his body. He landed a punch or two, but it just made Amy laugh more maniacally each time. Finally she went for the groin and then hocked a loogie on the back of her opponent’s head when he was doubled over in pain. He responded with a perfect uppercut that sent Amy reeling into the chicken wire.
Elyse tore down the aisle, kicked open the cage door, and unloaded a flurry of fists on the Samoan. He was out cold after the third or fourth strike, but she didn’t stop battering his eerily still body until Surly Amy pulled her off. “My birthday, MY fight!” she reminded Elyse.
“Who the fuck are you talking to?” Elyse shot back, punctuating the question with a backhanded slap. Amy laughed and then came back at Elyse with a left hook. Elyse, also laughing, launched a fist into Amy’s solar plexus. They traded punches one by one until the crowd started booing. Several other fighters entered the ring to try and pull them apart and a melee ensued. One of the Triad guys started firing a machine gun at the ceiling and the place cleared out.
I followed the Skepchicks into a parking lot near the building where A.Real.Girl was using the coat hanger to boost a souped-up Honda Civic. “So that’s what the hanger was for,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Elyse said with a devilish grin.
A.Real.Girl hotwired the Civic as the Skepchicks piled inside. I had the choice of either heading back towards the machine gun fire, driving away in the stolen cop car, or going with them, so I took what I thought would be the least dangerous option. I probably would’ve been better off with either of the other two.
The Civic blazed through the side streets of East L.A. “We’re so disappointed you never submitted for the calendar!” Rebecca said to me.
“Well, I had this idea for a photo, but…um…where are we?”
A.Real.Girl slowed the car to a crawl as we entered an intersection closed off by a huge multiethnic crowd encircling a fleet of sleek, modified import vehicles. A scrawny Guatemalan teenager wearing an oversized T-shirt featuring an airbrushed portrait of Tupac came to the window. Rebecca threw him an impressively thick wad of 100-dollar bills and he waved us through the crowd.
“Where did you get all that cash?” I asked.
“I got BLOG money, punk!” Rebecca shot back before taking another gulp of Scotch.
“What was it for?”
Rebecca pointed out the windshield at a Mexican version of Bettie Page holding a pair of black lace panties in the air. She dropped them to the ground and A.Real.Girl hit the gas.
The Civic peeled out ahead of the pack and the Skepchicks screeched louder than the tires. The speedometer shot past 50…60…80…110…we were probably going faster but the numbers on the dash only went so high. Two cars had fallen behind us, but two others stayed neck and neck. “Maria! Hanger!” A.Real.Girl barked over the growl of the engine. Masala Skeptic crawled over our laps and leaned out the rear driver’s side window. She straightened the hanger out, but left the hook on the end intact.
“Get me closer!” Masala Skeptic yelled. A.Real.Girl inched closer to the hot pink Mitsubishi Eclipse with the glowing undercarriage to her left. Masala Skeptic shouted “Bottle!” Rebecca guzzled her last drops of Black Label and handed over the empty. Masala Skeptic hurled the bottle at the front passenger-side window of the Mitsubishi and shattered both with a surgical strike. The driver looked over quickly but couldn’t afford to take his eyes off the road for more than a millisecond.
Surly Amy held Masala Skeptic’s legs as she climbed further out of the car. She extended the hook of the wire hanger through the Mitsubishi’s now-open window. The driver tried to swat it away, but soon Masala Skeptic had hooked the bottom of the Mitsubishi’s steering wheel. She yanked the hanger towards her, turning the wheel violently to the left. The Mitsubishi spun out and caught a tire. Its forward momentum caused it to flip four times in the air before landing upside down, rolling several more times, and slamming into a taco truck.
“So that’s what the hanger was for,” I said.
“Not exactly,” Surly Amy said in a sinister tone as she pulled Masala Skeptic back into the vehicle. I have no idea if the driver of the Mitsubishi or the taco truck employees survived.
The only car left was a hideous orange Acura Integra leading by half a car length. “Ready girls?” A.Real.Girl asked as her thumb hovered over a red button installed after market on the steering wheel.
“PUNCH IT!” the Skepchicks replied in unison.
She punched it. The Civic shot forth with a burst of nitrous oxide. The Skepchicks’ cheers were deafening, but thankfully we were traveling past the speed of sound at that point. The race was ours.
Until the explosion.
Either some fuel leaked into an intake valve or someone shot a Revolutionary War cannon at our engine, but the end result was the same: the hood popped off and angry flames enveloped the front of the car.
Everything seemed to go into slow motion. My heart was pounding too hard for me to hear any outside noise, but I saw Rebecca’s lips form the word “Bail!” A.Real.Girl hit the brakes and the car skidded for at least two city blocks as the Skepchicks leapt out and rolled away. A hand (maybe Surly Amy’s?) grabbed my collar and pulled me out of one of the doors before my brain had time to process it all. When my senses returned, I saw A.Real.Girl stepping out of the Civic and casually strolling back towards the rest of us scattered about the asphalt. The flames finally hit the gas tank: BOOM!!!
Of course, A.Real.Girl didn’t look back.
We dusted ourselves off and inspected the damage. A few scrapes and bruises, and my Levi’s had an embarrassing tear just below one of the rear pockets, but somehow, against all the laws of probability and physics, we were alive.
Surly Amy produced a set of homemade brass knuckles shaped like a Darwin fish from her side pocket and slid her fingers into them. “Let’s go get our money back.” She started walking back toward the starting line when the faint sound of helicopter blades became audible. Five seconds later we were caught in the spotlight of the LAPD’s patrol chopper. The Skepchicks instinctively scattered in different directions. In a panic, I followed Rebecca as she dived into a sewer drain. We heard sirens and gunshots on the streets above. Could’ve been the cops. Could’ve been Elyse finally putting that Glock to use. I was glad I wasn’t in a position to know either way.
Rebecca pulled a butane lighter with a Pantera logo on it out of her jacket pocket and did her best to light the way as we splashed through sewer water and rat corpses.
“So, where are you living now? You moved to a new place, right?” she asked casually.
“Yeah, it’s in Hollywood,” I managed to squeak out.
“Oh, right near Amy! I’ll give her your email address, you guys should hang out more often.”
“Yeah, maybe” I offered, as non-committal as humanly possible. “Do you know where we’re going?”
She smiled at me. “Skepchicks always have a rendezvous point. So are you still doing music?”
It was a journey filled with half a dozen rodent bites, a million cockroaches, and a thousand horrible stenches. I think fear of reprisal from Rebecca was the only thing that kept me from crying and/or vomiting. Finally, we popped open a manhole in a part of town I didn’t even recognize. The rest of the Skepchicks were waiting by an ornate set of wrought iron gates that guarded the entrance to a Jewish cemetery. None of the girls had any bullet wounds, but Masala Skeptic seemed to have somehow lost one of her high heels and gained a canister of LAPD pepper spray. I didn’t ask.
I feigned a yawn. “Wow, it’s really getting late…we should probably—” The whole group shot me a look that stopped my vocal cords in their tracks.
“Maria, you still have the hanger?” Elyse asked. Like an X-rated sword swallower, Masala Skeptic slowly slid the elongated wire from its hiding spot between her cleavage. She handed it to Elyse who used it to pick the massive, ancient lock of the cemetery gates.
“Let me guess: this is still ‘not exactly’ why we brought the hanger?”
A.Real.Girl pinched my cheek just a little harder than she had to. “You catch on quick.”
The gates creaked open and we crept inside. I wasn’t too fond of adding B&E to the list of the night’s inevitable charges, but at least the quiet of the cemetery was a welcome change of pace. We snaked between gravestones and mausoleums until finally Surly Amy held up her fist like a platoon leader, signaling the rest of us to stop. “Right here,” she said. “Fancy headstone. Fresh grass.” Masala Skeptic and A.Real.Girl split off from the group, the rest of us circled around a grave with a shiny, ostentatious headstone that read SCHULLER in bold block letters.
“We should probably get out of here,” I whispered to Rebecca.
“What are you afraid of, ghosts?” Her response got a solid laugh out of Elyse and Amy.
“No: Skepchicks,” I thought silently to myself.
At that point, Masala Skeptic and A.Real.Girl returned. With shovels.
“No way!” I hissed. Surly Amy took one of the shovels from A.Real.Girl and shoved it into my hands.
“Dig, motherfucker,” she insisted.
It took at least 2 hours before Elyse’s shovel finally clinked against the lid of Mrs. Schuller’s coffin. Surly Amy cracked it open and I pulled the collar of my shirt up over my nose to guard against the putrid smell. Opening a casket to discover a moldy skeleton would have been far preferable to seeing a freshman resident like Mrs. Schuller, with her skin receding from her fingernail beds and her cheeks melting away from her jaw.
The Skepchicks, however, were unfazed. Masala Skeptic let out an “Ooh!” in a voice that would have otherwise been adorable, if she hadn’t been brushing maggots off of a dead woman’s hand to steal her 4-karat diamond wedding ring. “Happy birthday, Amy!” she said as she handed Surly Amy the ring as a gift.
“Aw, thanks Maria!” Amy cooed as they embraced. Elyse, meanwhile, was pulling the rings off Mrs. Schuller’s other hand while Rebecca concerned herself with liberating a large teardrop-shaped amethyst pendant from around Mrs. Schuller’s neck.
“We really should get out of here, guys.” I pleaded. “We’ve pushed our luck pretty far for one night.”
“You’re right,” said Rebecca. I was relieved. It was finally over. “You really proved yourself, Jeff. Tonight, you became one of us.”
“Thank you,” I said, unsure of the consequences of accepting such a compliment.
“We want to induct you as an official Skepchick.”
“Okay. Great.” Anything to get us out of there faster.
Elyse and A.Real.Girl grabbed each of my arms. I tried to struggle free, but Masala Skeptic dosed me with pepper spray and my knees buckled. When my eyes opened, I was six inches away from an eager worm burrowing itself under Mrs. Schuller’s eyelid. Rebecca was behind me with the wire hanger, bending the hook end into an “S” shape. Surly Amy worked her fingers into the tear at the bottom of my back pants pocket and with one swift pull she created a flap to expose my entire right ass cheek.
“You wanted to know what the hanger was for…” Rebecca said coyly. She clicked her Pantera lighter on and slowly ran the butane flame over the wire S.
“No! NO!!!” I screamed. But that was met with another spritz of Masala Skeptic’s pepper spray.
“Shhhhh…” she whispered sadistically.
And then there was that trademark sizzle of hot metal meeting flesh. Rebecca held the brand in place for the longest eight seconds of my life. I tasted blood in my mouth from biting my lip so hard to prevent myself from screaming. I felt urine running down my leg and stinging the fresh scrapes from jumping out of that car. And then I passed out.
I woke up strewn over a toilet in a truck stop bathroom on Highway 15 around 7 a.m. the next morning. The Skepchicks had taken my shirt, shoes, wallet, and phone but had mercifully left me my tattered, piss-stained jeans. Sore and exhausted, I panhandled at the gas pumps until I had enough change to buy a pair of flip-flops and a “No Lot Lizards!” T-shirt. I did my best to ignore the stares of the other truck stop patrons during the purchase, but the clerk’s eyes were boring a hole through me the whole time. When he handed me my receipt, he said “Son…?” and pointed to his right cheek. I inspected my reflection in some mirrored sunglasses on a display rack by the register. There was a huge penis drawn on my face in bright red lipstick. Thanks for that one, Elyse.
Covered in dirt, blood, urine, sewer water, smeared lipstick, and the unmistakable mustiness of death it took me all day to hitchhike back to Hollywood via a lazy-eyed trucker who vastly misinterpreted my awkward way of sitting and a Mormon youth group that kicked me out of their van when they saw what they thought was the “mark of Satan” on my butt. (To be honest, though, listening to them sing “Come, Come, Ye Saints” over and over again was probably the most painful part of the whole ordeal anyway.)
I didn’t want to knock on Surly Amy’s apartment door ever again, but the Skepchicks either had my keys or at least had some information about where they might be.
“Hey, you made it back!” Amy said as she opened the door. “Come on in.”
“No thank you. I would just like my keys back please.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. We’re having a fondue party!”
That sounded much more like the innocent, science-loving bloggers I thought I knew. Had I misjudged them? Was the previous night all some sort of dream? It seemed pretty hard to believe when I thought about it.
Then that rooster started pecking at my shoelaces. It was no dream.
Amy opened the door wider and a chorus of “Jeff!”s greeted me. The Skepchicks were circled ceremoniously around Amy’s coffee table. Rebecca was at the center, fluffing up a pile of Colombian marching powder that would’ve made Scarface blush.
“I thought this was a fondue party,” I said.
“Cocaine!” Rebecca replied cheerily. “We’re ‘fond’ of ‘do’-ing it!”
The Skepchicks went into hysterics. I went to Home Depot to get new keys made.
A few days later I was massaging Neosporin onto my new least-favorite part of my ass when my phone buzzed with a text message from Rebecca:
Hey! Gr8 catching up w you other nite! How far u from san diego? Mxicn border guards no sense of humor. Need $$!
I blocked the number and locked my door.