Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Torture Chamber Choir make the scene (aka, "...and thanks, Dan!")

Torture Chamber Choir, pics by Kevin; not to be used without permission

I missed many gigs because of this move, needless to say. The Subhumans doing one of the last big gigs at the Cobalt, as part of the booklaunch for Chris Walter's (very funny and readable) Punch The Boss (which I helped proofread?): I missed it. The Pack AD and Pink Mountaintops at The Rickshaw on Sunday? Missed it. Jeffrey Lewis at the same spot on Monday? Missed it. Tonight, the last night for Fake Jazz Wednesdays at the Cobalt? Missing it RIGHT NOW, as a matter of fact. And LAST night, at Solder and Sons, while I was cleaning up abundant mouse poo from my kitchen - because it isn't just bedbugs in the building - I missed the Torture Chamber Choir's first live performance ever, at Solder and Sons (whose webpage appears to be down, but they're right across from the cop shop on Main Street), which, if you like a younger crowd doing experimental electronica, minimal improv, and so forth, is a fantastic place to see music (since the audience tends to actually be quiet, which is condusive to attentive listening - which is rare at many gigs in this city, unfortunately; supportive tho' I try to be, I've seldom ever really dug Fake Jazz at the 'balt, because the ambience is barlike and noisy and there's lots of talking drinkers/ drinking talkers; but Solder and Sons is primarily a bookstore. Perfect! Especially keep your eye out for anything involving Glaciers (or its members) there: Glaciers is the very exciting trio of Lief Hall, formerly of The Mutators, Solder and Sons (Myspace-pageless) proprietor Robert Pedersen on electronics, and percussionist Jeffrey Allport - probably one of the most gifted improvisers in Vancouver, who, incidentally, is part of the lineup for the December Jandek gig in town - you've heard about that, right? Josh Stevenson - another of our most gifted improvisers - is also in the band, on synths, and Rachael Wadham (on zither) and Wendy Atkinson (on bass).

As for Torture Chamber Choir, it's Dan Kibke of G42 and Ejaculation Death Rattle, on "synthesizer, electronics, abd photocell" and Emma Tomic, on Sardine-o-tron, Gristleizer, and photocell." With members of EDR dispersing for a bit to explore side-projects, this is, I believe, Dan's main area of focus at the moment. He tells me that "we're going to be adding more instrumentation. At the moment, it's a bit free-form, but the objective is to have something of a more structured 'song' format than you're usually used to hearing from me." I wasn't actually AT the gig last night, but a bunch of cool people were; attendees included Ross Birdwise - whom I gather has also been doing stuff with Yellowthief's Poib Fehr - and both Sean and Shon of EDR (one of whom I believe is now also doing stuff with Noobie Noobinson), and Harlow, aka Sistrenatus (also of Funerary Call) - one of Vancouver's least locally appreciated dark ambient/ industrial/ black metal/ noise sculptors (tho' he has had CDs released in France and the UK - go figure!). Chris Towers of The New Creation came out - I consider it one of my great coups of my meddlings on the Vancouver music scene that I've hooked Chris up with people who are making and playing music (to say nothing of that performance I talked him into doing for my last birthday). Also in attendance was the very Kevin who helped me with my move (thanks, man!) as well as Melodic Energy Commission's Theremin player, George McDonald (!). (Melodic Energy Commission are noted outside of Vancouver for their past collaborations with Del Dettmar of Hawkwind; see my old MEC interview, originally done for Discorder, here).

...all of which is part of a roundabout way of welcoming Torture Chamber Choir to Vancouver's flourishing underground music scene, and to thank Dan for organizing an Al-appreciation party for me the other week (which some of the people above attended, as well as Femke, Lee Shoal of the Creaking Planks, and... others. I'm running out of stamina to post Myspace links, sorry. Thanks to Kyla for hosting, too!). It was good to get a bit drunk and mellow and relax with some of these folks, because I'm not going to be around as much; commuting home from late gigs is going to be next to impossible, so posts like the above, where I enthuse about live local music, may be coming somewhat to an end...

But we will persist in some form or other. Thanks to all the people above whose music I've enjoyed, actually. I'll miss seeing shows a lot. And thanks again, Dan, for the party! It was a great night.


By the way, while neither EDR nor the Torture Chamber Choir have any releases planned, there's some good news, G42-wise: Dan tells me that David Abfackeln is working on one or maybe two new CDs, some of material dating back eight or nine years; so keep your ears peeled!
Torture Chamber Choir, pics by Kevin; not to be used without permission

Trial By Bug

What a fucking five day stretch. (This continues my digressive personal writing - for VIFF reviews and an update on Motorhead, see below! Also see the next Skinny for my final New Model Army article and more VIFF stuff).

I am safely in Maple Ridge. My stuff is mostly bagged awaiting spraying for bedbugs, which I hope I did not bring. I am at my parents' apartment, on their computer. I have come full circle, to the home of my childhood, minus about 35% of my possessions (my bed, office chair, desk, and more ended up abandoned, as being not worth the risk. If anyone out there wants to contribute to helping me rebuild my life, by the way, feel free to make Paypal donations to - anything would be appreciated. Bear in mind that I have no ads on this blog, receive no money for it, and receive little money for ANY of my writing, so this would be a very nice way to support my efforts).

Speaking of support, again, great shout out to my friend Kevin, who helped me move, rising above and beyond the call (and braving considerable bedbug-noia). Thanks, man! Without you, I wouldn't have done half as good a job and I would have thrown out a LOT more stuff.

The saddest thing about the move was throwing away boxes and boxes of art, writing, photographs, etc. because they were stored in a risky area without adequate protection. I saved a few special pieces that I couldn't bear to part with. Above - this might have been from as far back as kindergarten - an early piece of art by me, showing a dinosaur! Done at Glenwood Elementary, I guess - the school I went to from kindergarten through Grade 7, a short walk away from where I now sit. As the movers were packing the truck, I ran upstairs to salvage this piece from a box that I'd left to be junked (I DID clean my apartment but I left some garbage for the landlord to deal with; I've written off my damage deposit). I then rode in the back of the moving van, because I had no ride otherwise, with this one page in my lap (and boxes and boxes of my stuff wrapped in black plastic) to my new apartment.

There were some nice human moments throughout it all. I got to finally tell the building's drug dealer that my buddy who used to live in the building (who she knew was a customer) was buying off her to smoke with ME, her neighbour, whom she did NOT know was a customer, tho' we would nod at each other as neighbours will. It was nice to say hi to her and move that relationship above-board. She agrees with me that the caretaker of the building "lies through his teeth" about the bedbug situation, by the way.

Another touching moment: I had to throw away the stuffed dino toy that I put online a few posts ago (not important enough, not worth the risk of spreading infestation). It wasn't actually a childhood toy - just something I picked up with my friend Amber (as she was known then) when we were shopping at the Maple Ridge Value Village (the one that used to be in Haney Plaza and is now some Costco affiliated liquidator); but I was fond of it - Amber maintained that it kinda looked like me! ...Anyhow, on one of my many trips down to the dumpster, I saw that a homeless guy on a bicycle was picking it out of the trash. I told him it had been mine and was a great little thing; I also warned him about bugs and directed him to some other garbage I thought would be worth money. He wasn't interested, but he cycled away with the dino tucked under his arm, saying, happily, "It'll keep me company." I burst into tears in the elevator thinking on the way back up to my apartment, and it's bringing tears to my eyes now, to relive the moment.

One catastrophe I managed to avoid: on a subsequent trip to the dumpster - overflowing with the garbage and furniture of a couple of people, since it's moving week, though the lion's share was mine - I came around the corner and saw a strange giant bushy thing sticking out from behind the dumpster. It looked like an enormous black and white feather duster, at first, and I thought: what the hell is THAT? And I considered picking it up: is someone ELSE throwing away their stuffed animals?

Then it moved. It was the tail of a very large skunk, rooting in the food at the bottom of the dumpster. I'm sure fucking glad I didn't grab its tail.

Anyhow, it's done. Difficult times in ones life can teach you to be grateful for the things you have (family, friends, a very exciting and fun life - I have lived a very easy life up til now and need to realize that and not take it for granted). I won't have time to blog much, and my VIFF coverage is done for now (I will be lucky to see any movies at all).

Hmm... so now I live in Maple Ridge again. Weird stuff, man. What an odd turn in my life...


(Here's a drawing I guess of me and Cornflakes, my childhood dog, on the back of that dino piece. Doesn't actually look much like Corny, but what else could it be?).

Compare that with Cornflakes and myself on the floor at Richmond Court, 216th and Dewdney, where we lived from when I was three or four - I think - to when I was in my late teens or early 20's. Sometimes when I dream, I still dream the layout of this place.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tough Time: Bedbugs, Illness, and Stress

Sept. 27th:

Jesus, what a last couple of months.

(Pardon my insertion of another personal post).

It's currently 2:16 AM (my father's lucky number; his Air Force ID had 216 in it, and he raised his family - me - on 216th and Dewdney in Maple Ridge. He often bets 216 at the races, and sometimes wins. Whenever someone arrives at the score 216 at Scrabble, we take it as a good omen). It's actually the early morning of September 27th as I write this (it won't get posted til a bit later). I missed the Subhumans and Chris Walter's book launch last night; I just woke up from a decent eight hours sleep, making up for the near-total lack of solid sleep the night before, where I spent the night in a gut-clenching panic, a shitting-and-shaking panic, after discovering a bedbug in my apartment.

It was climbing on a box I had already packed. (Tho' I think it had fallen out of the closet and was looking for a place to go, not coming out. Still, how can you tell?).

So much for telling myself that the last couple of sprayings killed them all - or that I only had to abandon my bed and futon and "everything would be fine." Moving when you know you might be bringing bedbugs with you is no easy thing on the conscience.

Here's the plan, arrived at with the help of my friend Kevin (thanks, man!): everything I own that I'm taking - my record collection, books, CDs, DVDs, computer and TV, some clothing and kitchenware; very little furniture - is being boxed up, then the boxes are placed in sealed plastic garbage bags. There may be bedbugs inside - it's too much for me to check every single thing I pack before the move. When I get to Maple Ridge, I'm going to pile the stuff in the apartment and have it fumigated the requisite two times, while sleeping at my parents' place. (Maybe pest control can put poison INTO the plastic bags and we can re-seal them? It's a thought, anyhow.) Then I unbox everything and check it very, very carefully, throwing away the box and the bag.

This will be a time-consuming and expensive process, needless to say. Last night, it all seemed kind of overwhelming, but now that I've got half of what I own stacked in garbage bags in the bathroom - one of the few places that I think is reliably bedbug-free - I'm feeling a bit better. Stressed, still - but better.

The thing that's horrifying is knowing that the apartment where I live has almost 100% occupancy, if not 100%. My suite rented to the first people who saw it - two Japanese kids. Based on the few new tenants I've asked, the landlord tells no one that there are bedbugs in the building when they move in. (One woman's response was basically - "Oh great, we moved here because the other building we were in had bedbugs!" She hadn't mentioned them to him, either - it's a dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about, so they spread unabated). Given that many of the people currently staying here are Europeans or Japanese in town for the Olympics - and given that many of them are going to bring their belongings back home with them when they go - it's like the building is an International Bedbug Dispersal centre. Since I imagine many, many other buildings in Vancouver have much the same story, it's no wonder we're overrun with the little fuckers.

People respond to it in the strangest ways, though - it's like friends think there are bedbugs waiting to leap onto them when they set foot in my door; they treat it with all the paranoia and religious dread of an STD (and needless to say, bedbugs have definitely had an impact on my love life). A rational response would probably involve legislation, making it mandatory to inform tenants that there are bedbugs in the building, and what this means.

As for old buildings like this - a lovely old wooden character building from, I think, 1909 - or any of the wooden buildings being gentrified in East Van, to say nothing of the SRO's - I'm really not sure that there's a solution to the problem, short of condemning them and demolishing them. Even if you evacuated the whole building for a month - imagine THAT happening - and systematically sprayed it, the next time some tenant moved in from another Vancouver building, they could potentially be bringing bedbugs with them, and the whole thing could start again. Anything short of systematic spraying will prove useless, since the bugs can just crawl into the woodwork or flee to another, less toxic environment - like your neighbour's apartment. They can always move back to your place if they decide you taste better.

Funny, too, to think of it - I'll be throwing a lot of my belongings away, since they're possibly infested. But anything with resale value that I throw out is a sure bet to be "harvested" by binners digging through dumpsters, and distributed to shops. Driving stuff to a dump is no easy prospect, either, because I have no truck with which to do it. And any friend who I ask to help me get rid of this stuff will surely balk at the prospect of my putting stuff in their car, when the very reason I'm ditching it is that it's potentially infested.

Welcome to Vancouver, folks.

In other news, my father has been on holiday from chemotherapy almost since Mom had her stroke. He is full of energy and clear-headed and gaining weight - I'm encouraging him to eat as much as he can while he can eat, because he's going to lose a lot of it once he's back on chemo, since his appetite drops and he has bouts of diarrhea. He's very supportive and is helping me financially to deal with this move, which will be very, very costly indeed. (The truck and the guys who are carrying stuff not so much - what's going to cost money is the fumigation and the need to buy almost all-new furniture!).

Mom, meanwhile, can say a few words, but only at great effort. It comes out mostly as garble, as she struggles to get her mouth to make the sounds she wants (there's a bit of apraxia, in addition to aphasia: not only can't she find the word she wants, but she has a hell of a time trying to say it, and certain sound combinations - initial consonant clusters involving S, say, as in "star" or "spray" or such - are particularly difficult). Sometimes she does manage to find the words she wants, though. If I show her a picture and ask her, "what's that," nine times out of ten she can find the word, even if she mispronounces it ("star" comes out as "car" or "far" as she tries to locate the right sounds). She's even written a perfectly grammatical sentence, "What did you think of the meeting," to ask me about a conference we attended; her speech therapist tells me that it was completely uncoached. Writing is marginally easier for her, though often she will just write a string of function words - pronouns and be verbs and other things strung together that don't carry a lot of content (she wrote "would like" or "would liked" several times after her stroke when trying to begin a sentence; after those two words, she would shake her head and give up). The rehab program at Eagle Ridge Hospital is definitely helping her, though; she has two more weeks to go, roughly - after which time, I should safely be relocated a few minutes away from where my parents live.

I was able to cry a bit today about it all. I think crying is very, very good for you. It's difficult to get there, and hard not to think of it as self-pity, but my life right now is so full of painful, confusing stuff - the encroaching mortality of my parents, mostly - that it comes as quite a relief to let a bit of it out. Hearing Mom struggle to say she loves me when she can barely speak... that's tough, man. I think if I hadn't cried for a bit, I wouldn't have been able to sleep last night.

I really want to thank my parents and my friends who have stood by me. Kevin, in particular, is coming through for me in ways I had not expected; he's actually going to enter the danger zone tomorrow, despite his own deep dread of bedbugs, and help me out.

I see it's about 3:20. I might just go back to bed for a few hours. It's going to be a long day.


Sept. 28th:

I did sleep for awhile, and during that time I dreamed that I was very very drunk, and crossing the border between Canada and the United States. I fell down and was lying unconscious beside the car; I woke up feeling liquid splashing on my face and in my mouth (actually, I could "see" the liquid - I saw my own face, taking a third person, movielike perspective; though the next "shot" was seen through my own eyes). I looked up, and could see that one of the border guards was standing over me, grinning, and pissing into my face.

Somehow this ended up on video, and was then put on Youtube. The next part of the dream found me back at work, where I decided that, rather than waiting for my coworkers to find the video and laugh at it behind my back, I would "empower" myself by telling them about it myself. "Hey, guys, want to see something funny? I was really drunk, and this customs guy pissed in my face - check it out!" I was running around from desk to desk - the layout was actually more like the teacher's room in the Japanese highschool I taught at.

Sometime after that, I woke up.


Later that day:

God, I'm exhausted. What's worse, the emotions of all of it are hitting me now. My Mom's stroke. My Dad's cancer. My fear that I'll bring bedbugs with me. Somehow I respond with overwhelming guilt feelings and tears. An hour or so ago you'd have found me crying crosslegged on my living room floor, holding an orange and white "tile bag" for Scrabble that my Mom knitted when I was maybe 12. It's been around for awhile - for almost as long as Mom, Dad and I have been playing Scrabble. I think, actually, she was trying to make a touk for me, but it was too small, so she added a drawstring... My parents have moved on to a new bag (also knitted by Mom, I think) and so I inherited this one, and I was in the process of packing it (and the set of tiles - the rest I can throw away, since my parents have a fancy Scrabble set that I got them for Christmas). Then what it was, and the fact that Mom, Dad and I may never play Scrabble again hit me and I started sobbing. (By the time Mom recovers enough from her stroke for it even to come close to being an option, Dad will probably be dead of cancer).

The guilt, of course, has everything to do with every harsh word I've said to them - every unkind or selfish moment, and all this shit I've bought, taking advantage of their love. The self-indulgent life I've led is crashing in on me and now I have no idea what's going to happen on Wednesday. I've told the apartment manager in Maple Ridge the situation, and he understands - I've lined up a fumigation for the day after I get my stuff into the building - but I'm not even sure the moving guys will be okay on the situation. (Initially I wasn't even going to mention it, but now that all my stuff is encased in black plastic and I'm conspicuously missing a bed, futon, chairs, etc... I think they'll get the idea).

Fuck, I feel so cornered.

I think that's where I'll leave this. This is my life at the end of September, 2009. I hope this all proves to be character-building at some point.

Taqwacore Part Two: Michael Muhammad Knight

Photo provided by Michael Muhammad Knight: "from my wrestling match with Abdullah the Butcher at the Decatur Book Festival, photo by Kim Badawi." Not to be used without permission.

This is a follow up to the post below, on the film Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam, playing October 3rd and 5th. In additons to my questions for Omar, Shahjehan, and Sena, I had emailed the author of the book that got the whole thing rolling, Michael Muhammad Knight, but I stuck the piece on my blog before he could reply - which he has just done! here's an interview with Michael Muhammad Knight. Go read the other piece first, if you haven't!
Allan: Can you update me as to what current projects are you engaged in?

Michael: I'm still writing, I have a new book coming out--my fifth and final release for the year--called Journey to the End of Islam. It's about my travels through Pakistan with Basim and Shahj, my wanderings to Syria, Ethiopia, and Egypt, the making of another taqwacore movie--the feature adaptation of my novel--and finally, my pilgrimage to Mecca. Through all of this, I'm looking at these various definitions of Islam and finally arriving at a place beyond definition, hence the title.

I also just wrestled Abdullah the Butcher at the Decatur Book Festival and received 46 stitches in my head. My wrestling career is probably over.
Allan: Any predictions for the effect of the movie?
Michael: I think that the movie will be positive. The media attention so far has been pretty simplistic, sometimes to the point that we'd feel insulted. That's just the nature of articles with a 900-word count or news pieces that couldn't go over three minutes. This full-length documentary really gets into the complexities of what we're doing in a way that no one has been able to do.
Allan: Any word to Vancouver Muslims who might be curious about the film? Any comment on Secret Trial Five?

Michael: To Muslims in Vancouver, or really anyone anywhere, I'd just ask that you check out this film with an open mind. Muslims and non-Muslims have both passed judgment on us with little or no information.

Secret Trial Five, in my opinion, justifies taqwacore more than anything.

Allan: Do Taqwacore bands find themselves with much common ground with Straight Edgers, more than other punks? (You quote Minor Threat's "Out of Step" in the book, and their name comes up a few times in the film...)
Michael: I don't think so, because most of us aren't interested in dogmatic moral codes, whether based in religion or music or whatever. But there can be straightedge taqwacores, sure. I'm not against it.

Allan: What are your favourite non-Taqwacore punk bands?
Michael: Rancid, I love Rancid. I've heard people say that I reference Rancid too much, but I like what I like. Tim Armstrong is the punk Johnny Cash, I want to see what he's doing at 70.
Allan: If readers wanted to buy five Taqwacore albums or check out five bands... what do you recommend?
Michael: They're all my friends, I love all of it. I know that it's a cheap answer, but I can't choose among siblings like that. The only officially released CDs are by the Kominas and Al-Thawra. other than that it's a Myspace party.

Allan: Despite being a "blue eyed devil," you seem to be totally greeted with warmth and respect by Muslims in the film. Are there times when your race makes that a problem, though? Just curious...

Michael: It's not about race as much as being a convert. If you're a convert to Islam, sometimes people think that you don't know anything or that you don't have a qualified opinion, or that you lack a sufficient stake in the religion or community to speak for change. There could be a Muslim who never learned anything about his religion outside of mosque Sunday school, but he feels like he's an expert and I'm trespassing on his property.

Allan: What's your favourite part of the movie and why?
Michael: That's impossible for me to answer. Some parts are emotionally wrenching for me, in terms of watching myself, hearing myself. Watching my friends on the tour makes me miss all of them and our big green bus. There's not a single moment that overpowers all of the others, but I'm thankful for the whole thing. I'm thankful for this record of what we did, because I believe that it might actually matter.
Allan: How do I make bhang lassi? Is it potent?
Michael: You have to ask Basim about that one. I'd say that it's potent. This didn't make it into the film, but I had a genuine mystical experience after drinking the bhang. We were at the shrine and I thought that the Sufi saint Hujwiri was talking to me.

Allan: You say at one point in the movie that you intended your book as a "goodbye" to Islam, and then wonder if, now that clearly it ISN'T a goodbye, you did the right thing. Do you mean for yourself, personally? Do you still feel this way? (Because I suspect a lot of the other people in the movie would say you did the right thing in spades).

Michael: I'm feeling more comfortable in my own skin, as a Muslim and a human being, than I ever have in my life. So yeah, I think that things turned out ok. I just didn't know that I could be a Muslim and still claim the right to be confused or question things. Once that opened up for me, I knew that I could stay in the mosque.

Allan: The characters in your book - the imaginary Taqwacores - often use Arabic phrases - phrases of importance to Islam. But it seems like the people in the movie - the real Taqwacores - DON'T; they speak English or Punjabi but use very few Islamic set phrases. Does this mean anything worth talking about, or am I thinking too much?

Michael: In places like Pakistan, where people don't actually comprehend Arabic, they still pray in Arabic. All of the religious terminology is Arabic. I don't really have a connection to "Arab" Islam, as my primary influences are African-American Islam, South Asian Islam, and Persian Islam, but I can't escape the language. In the novel, I didn't use any Arabic phrases that would be unknown to your average South Asian Muslim who doesn't speak Arabic.
Allan: How did you learn to say "George Bush is a motherfucker" in Punjabi? Did you learn it especially for the occasion?

Michael: The word actually meant "sisterfucker" but Omar translated it as motherfucker to avoid confusing North Americans. Before that show, I was hearing the word about a hundred times a day.

Allan: Sorry, I imagine you get this a lot, but what's the ritual where men beat their chests? It looks like powerful stuff. Was that your first time participating - were you spontaneously joining in - or is it somehting you'd done before that trip?

Michael: That's matam, it's a Shi'a thing, an expression of love and grief for Imam Husayn, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was brutally slaughtered in the desert of Karbala. The people who killed Husayn were the proto-Sunnis, and Husayn's supporters were the proto-Shi'as. That tragedy destroyed the Muslim community forever. It has deep meaning for me. I've done matam in North America, and I knew what we were getting into when we went to the Shi'a shrine in Lahore.

Allan: Do you feel less lonely in this new community that you helped to create? Do you still feel like an outsider sometimes? Did you ever imagine or hope your book would have this effect?
Michael: I'm just happy to have these Muslims as my friends. I encounter lots of Muslims who feel like they're on the outside for whatever reason, and we can create a safe space for each other. I don't need any of these people to believe what I believe, or share the same concerns or read the same texts. Some of them might be pious and orthodox, others are atheists or heretics. Some may go back and forth between various extremes. It's just love and acceptance, either way. Whatever issues you have with whatever community you came from, I hope you can work them out. But when it's really, really hard, sometimes you just need friends who don't give a shit about any of that mess.

I never dreamed that the book would do this. I needed these people and I thank Allah that somehow we found each other.

Allan: Do you feel comfortable with the amount of attention spent on you in the film, and prepared for the amount the film might further draw in the future?
Michael: When it means being treated like an authority, then no, I'm not comfortable. I don't claim to have any magical answers. There are no magical answers. All I'm saying is to go find it for yourself. I haven't figured anything out.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam - interviews with Omar Majeed, Shahjehan Khan, and Sena Hussain

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

A brief synopsis of the film Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (official site here), playing October 3rd and 5th at the VIFF, is in order; as I have said elsewhere - in a post below and in an upcoming review in The Skinny - it is by far the most exciting, fresh, funny, and rewarding film I have been able to preview (number one on a list of about thirteen movies I've looked at). The interview-and-performance rich film charts the rise of a new, young, and vibrantly energetic punk community among Muslims in the US and Canada. All of them are dissatisfied, to varying degrees, with the conservativism of traditional Islam (by which even playing things like guitars is haram - forbidden). All of them are dissatisfied with the intolerance, prejudice, hatred and confusion with which Muslims are greeted in the United States and Canada. All of them like music, mostly punk (tho' their musical backgrounds are as varied as their takes on Islam). And all the bands shown in the doc kick ass; there is some great stuff performed (my faves were some of the Noble Drew songs and Secret Trail Five's "Hey Hey Guantanamo Bay.")

The Taqwacore "movement" was drawn together by - and took its name from - a book by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Christian-raised convert to Islam. The novel The Taqwacores imagines a highly varied Muslim community - including potheads, a straight edge conservative Muslim, an exuberant Indonesian with a fondness for Sham 69, an African reggae fan, and a feminist named Rabeya who always wears a burqa - living together in a punk house. Based on the third I've read, it's funny and smart; the tone is not far off that of Zen monk and Zero Defex member Brad Warner's books, though there is less of an attempt on Knight's part to proselytize his beliefs (since, in the book, his narrator seems mostly confused and frustrated and unsure of himself, trying to figure out where he fits. There are also a lot of words in Arabic, where Warner's books tend to feature phrases in Japanese). Another author comparison is due: as with the earliest books of Vancouver's Chris Walter - who just launched his newest memoir, the very funny and readable Punch The Boss - early editions of The Taqwacores were ring bound and self-distributed, in true punk DIY fashion. Knight says in the film that he wrote the book out of "extreme loneliness," not realizing that across the continent other punk Muslims (or Muslim punks) would actually pick it up, get in touch, and end up embracing his book as a sort of foundational text.

They have done. The film charts the coming together of various bands and artists around Knight: The Kominas, The Secret Trial Five, Al Thawra, and Omar Waqar (formerly of Diacritical, now with Sarmust), all of whom end up on tour together across America, in a big green bus with Taqwa - "God consciousness" - spraypainted in yellow on the front. "Blue Eyed Devil" Knight aside, it's kind of like a brown Hard Core Logo: these guys are punks, messy, silly, playful, at times angry and difficult, and often rebellious and inclined to stir up shit, as when they attempt to perform at an ISNA convention (a very conservative, "mainstream Islam" convention) - my favourite section of the film, in which Omar Waqar gets a group of 12 year old girls singing along to a chant of "stop the hate" before the plug is pulled. (Sena Hussain of Secret Trial Five had gotten the boot previously, simply for being a female singer - "female vocal cords are haram," she says afterwards as the band members try to process their experience in the parking lot). The film is also laugh-out loud funny - as when Basim accidentally (?) damages his family car, with his father on hand to have his reaction captured. The second section follows Knight and two Kominas, Basim and Shahjehan, to Lahore, Pakistan - where Knight had studied as a younger man, and where Shahjehan and Basim's families come from; there, Basim and Shahjehan form a ska-punk band, now disbanded, called Noble Drew. They try very hard to get people to come to see them play. Eventually they succeed.
Basim of The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

I was able to do some email Q&A with Shahjehan and filmmaker Omar Majeed (and briefly, ex-Vancouverite Sena Hussain; she'll get the last word).

Allan: What's your favourite part of the movie and why?

Omar: For me, my favorite scene is when Michael goes on his spiritual quest in Islamabad and in Multan. To me that is when the film moves from punk provocation to serious spiritual reflection. In the west, we tend to homogenize Islam into being one thing. I think Michael's real strength comes in seeking out all kinds of Islam in the world - whether it's the Five Percenters in Harlem or the Sufis in Multan. Although it is a close tie with the scene at the ISNA convention, where I think The Kominas, The Secret Trial Five and the other bands really did something brave and bold. That moment, of them crashing the stage, with hijabi girls chanting along to their songs, is the true birth of punk islam. Taqwacore just became real at that moment. I've seen people come to tears watching it.

Shahjehan: Favorite part: The very end with the mosh pit in the old city of Lahore, I will never forget the feeling we all had that day that we had actually succeeded in our goal of bringing some form of punk to Pakistan. We had all been through so much emotionally (and would continue to after the filming was over) and were on the verge of giving up. We really didn't think anyone was going to show up, there were a number of issues during the concert (power outages etc...)...The film doesn't exactly show that we ended up doing 3 separate sets that night (there was one other local band that played for about 20 min), but the first set we were literally playing to no one. I remember one guy who I specifically invited (while we were handing out flyers the night before on 'Food Street' in Lahore) that turned out to be from the same village where my father grew up. The energy was incredible that night, you could tell that people had never really experienced that bond between audience and performer that is the essence of punk rock. I also enjoyed both of Omar Majeed's montage sequences (the beginning of the US tour, and the train footage in Pakistan); he did a great job with this film.

Allan: What are the best Taqwacore CDs and how do my readers buy them?

Shahjehan: The Kominas; Diacritical; Al-Thawra.

Omar: I think The Kominas CD Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay and Al Thawra's Who Benefits from War? are exemplary, both musically and in terms of its lyrical content and themes. They are true Taqwacore relics. Omar Waqar's former group Diacritical has a great album, but I'm not certain he would describe it as Taqwacore - although I believe that it is, in its own way. His song "Ignorance" speaks a lot to issues facing young Muslims. Omar's new project Sarmust looks like its going to a great mish-mash of Punjabi, Indian, Punk and Qawalli styles and that's very Taqwacore.

Allan: Any plans for a soundtrack?

Omar: There are currently no plans, but its an interesting idea. Know any labels who may want to put it out?

Allan: Given the number of people that got together around Michael's book - what do you think the effect of the movie will be?

Omar: The Taqwacore scene is a small but burgeoning one. In the three years plus that I've been working on this film, I've seen it grow from something happening around three friends, to something that much larger - with people all over the states, and even some in Pakistan and the Mideast all part of this scene. The impact of this movie, as well as the upcoming Taqwacore fiction film leads me to believe that the Taqwacore is going to grow and evolve. And that's how it should be, I believe.

Shahjehan: I hope the movie will open up this music and story to the world and that kids will start their own bands, be it in Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, or the US. That's ultimately the goal, to really have a scene so that we can all tour together, have our own crazy festivals, record labels, media, everything.

Allan: How do I make bhang lassi? (This is a kind of cannabis milk that Noble Drew and company make in Pakistan). Is it potent?

Omar: Yes it's very potent...and actually quite delicious. I only had a sip. Unfortunately, the guys AND MY CREW had glasses of it. This made for a very interesting shoot in which we were harassed and shaken down by mosque security when we visited a shrine, but that is another story...

Unfortunately I don't know the recipe, other than milk, cardamom, cinnamon, and lots of fresh ground pot.

Shahjehan: Bhang lassi is INSANELY potent, and I will not be responsible for giving out intoxicant related information ;)

(Allan's note: when further attempts to ply Shahjehan proved futile, I resorted to Google).

Allan (to Shahjehan): What's the current state of The Kominas and Noble Drew? How do people find your music?

Shahjehan: We are about to run out of the first 1000 copies of Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay, there may still be some available (and by some, I mean less than 8!) on CDbaby. You can get digital versions on iTunes, Amazon etc...Noble Drew does not exist anymore, however we do still play that music live and plan on re-releasing it on our next album. We came back from Pakistan because we were itching to re-invigorate The Kominas. We are self-distributing at this point, but will have a new Kominas/Sarmust EP available at the Festival de Nouveau Cinema on October 8th with some new tracks...We encourage you to bootleg our music!

Allan (to Shahjehan): If I could ask about a few of your songs - what's the background of "Rumi Was A Homo (But Wahhaj Is a Fag)," "Shariah Law In the USA?" and "Thaleo vi Chimro" ("Grind It Down").

Shahjehan: "Rumi" was written when we found out that an imam was saying very homophobic things in regards to a gay-friendly mosque being built somewhere in Canada. "Sharia:" Pure shock-value fun about what it was like after the Patriot Act, that is to say that our freedoms were being/are being taken away day by day, and we might as well have sharia law! "Thaleo vi Chimro": Daily frustrations about living in Pakistan, no girls, corruption...

Allan (to Shahjehan): As musicians, what is, personally, the worst shit that you have encountered in the USA from authorities? (When you weren't actually guilty of anything, that is!).
Shahjehan of The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Shahjehan: Not really because of being musicians, but: on our most recent tour, a bunch of us were at a diner in Wyoming having some incredible food (buffalo-meat burgers, great eggs, etc...) and we started listening in on some of the conversations around us. Somebody was talking about Obama and how he couldn't be trusted, and then one lady goes "As a matter of fact, I don't really trust any colored people at all". We (being a group of brown guys) nearly choked on our food! HOWEVER, ten minutes later, the same woman was having a very friendly conversation with us and telling us about a strip club "The Mustang Ranch"...Also, somebody threw a belt clip at our graffiti-infested trailer in Austin (same tour) that said "Apple Bottoms", we couldn't really figure that one out. I guess the cancelled gig in Hamtramck michigan from the first tour (a scene in the movie) was also kind of lame. For me personally, when I came back from Pakistan earlier this year, I was held up at immigration in JFK airport for 5 hours.

Allan (to Shahjehan): What's the silliest shit you've encountered from the media?

Shahjehan: Newsweek had an article titled "Slam Dancing for Allah." Hahahaha

Allan: Who is the black guy near the beginning of the film explaining that music is haram?

Omar: I don't know exactly who that guy is - The Kominas shot that footage on a camcorder and I got it from them. They were in the mood to go to the Mosque and do prayers, when they encountered this man. I'm not sure if he's an imam exactly, but he seemed to be a person of import at the mosque, and the vibe I get from him is that he is probably a scholar or teacher. In any case, to me he represents the very mainstream mode of Islam that we are constantly faced with. A Sunni, fairly conservative Saudi exported Islam filled with Sharia (Laws) based on a mountain of theological data. A religious bureaucracy that stifles rather than encourages spiritual growth and exploration. In the world of Mosques, Islamic community centers and schools - this guy is the norm.

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Allan (to Omar): what's your entry point into the story - how did you get involved in this project? What's your background? Are you a Muslim? Are you a punk? (What was your point of entry into punk?)

Omar: Okay... So I come from a Muslim family. My parents are Pakistani. I was raised in Canada, but spent my teenage years living in Lahore Pakistan. I'm not what you would call a 'punk' per-se...I love music, though and because I had cool older siblings, found myself at the tender age of seven rocking out to The Sex Pistols and The Clash (although the Pistols did scare me a bit). I do think of myself as a non-conformist. Feeling like an outsider in both Canada and Pakistan for different reasons. Religiously, I did flirt with Islam during one of my adolescent phases, but quickly outgrew it via my raging hormones.

My parents weren't very strict or religious, so I never felt compelled towards Islam. After 9/11, of course, it didn't matter what I felt. Whether I liked it or not, I was going to be branded as Muslim by the non-Muslims around me. And although I felt a lot of rage, and dare I say some shame, towards the barbarism of Islamic fundamentalists and their ilk, I was also equally incensed by the gross stereotyping and ignorant questions that I and other Muslims had to deal with. Whenever something would appear about Islam on television, there seemed to be two portrayals - Taliban types or mainstream Muslim organizations saying Islam is all about peace and love. It was so incredibly black and white.

It was then that I decided a film needed to be made articulating the silent majority of Muslims - complex, confused Muslims who maybe ate pepperoni on their pizzas, dated, had doubts about some of the ideas coming out of the Mosque but also didn't want to renounce their faith or culture. Could you not love some things and take other things to task, which is what humans do with just about everything else?

For a year or so, I began researching possible ways to explore this in a film. Through my research, talking to all kinds of alternative-type Muslims out there, one name kept coming up - Michael Muhammad Knight, and his self-published novel The Taqwacores. The whole thing sounded crazy, but I emailed him and we soon met. Michael told me his life-story in three hours, and I basically sat there with my mouth agape. He then told me about the new bands that were forming and getting in touch with him -- that was when I realized I had found the right story to express how i felt. And now here we are.

Allan: Is it the same woman at the ISNA concert - Ingrid Mattison, I think - explaining BEFORE the bands perform about embracing diversity and then talking about no women singers and the need to be "Islamically appropriate" afterwards, or are those different women? If so, have either seen the film or commented?

Omar: No, Ingrid Mattson is the woman in the first instance. She's the president of ISNA and also a white-converts. (incidentally, the most famous Imams and religious leaders in America today are all white-converts, this itself would make an interesting documentary). The woman in the second instance is anonymous, but was one of the organizers at that specific Open Mic Night event.

Allan: There are two scenes I didn't understand, that felt like maybe you didn't get full coverage: where the bus is driving away from the Isna show and there's some cop issue, wth someone yelling "the cameras are rolling;" and, in Pakistan, when everyone (I think) is walking around stoned on bhang lassi, there's another cop issue where it looks like someone is being fined "30,000 rupees." What's the story with those scenes?

Omar: So the first part you're referring to is a montage of moments where the police pulled us over, or shut down shows. It's over MC Riz doing his rap/rant "Sour Times" While shooting, there would be various moments when cops would jostle us, but by the time cameras got rolling and sound was up to speed, we'd end up with brief fragments.

It's not like with cops, you can get too in their face with camera equipment. I could of times we were asked to shut off our equipment. So piecing these fragments together over this rap was a way of suggesting that on the tour, this was a part of our reality - and really for all Muslims in America today, there are times you are going to be a victim of some racial profiling. So this was an impressionistic scene, born of necessity, but hopefully gives on the essence of the idea. You act like a Muslim punk, you flirt with the wrath of homeland security.

The second instance is true. We were (me excepted) walking around stoned on bhang lassi. We went to Data Darbar, a legendary Sufi Shrine, around midnight. We were pulled aside by Mosque security - but to say we were 'fined' is polite; this was a shakedown. Customary in Pakistani life, everything - and I mean everything - moves with bribes. Fortunately, our fixer was with us, and had friends in 'high places' so we didn't have to pay the fine. Unfortunately, he was high on Bhang Lassi as well, so it took some time to get ourselves out of that sticky situation.

Allan (to Shahjehan): Any plans for The Kominas to play Vancouver?

Shahjehan: We have never played Vancouver, and would love to! If any bands/ promoters/ venues would like to help us out with a Canadian tour, please get in touch! ...We like to play with/have played with all sorts of musicians. A Canadian tour is a must!

Allan (to Omar): How about distribution for the film in Vancouver? Any word?

Omar: Right now our distributor is looking for theatres to play the film theatrically in Vancouver.

Allan: Thanks!

Omar: It's been a pleasure answering you -- I've been conducting this interview while in our sound mix....the finished film is going to rock. I feel like the movie has been getting a make-over or something...

The Kominas, by James Moreau-Drew. Not to be used without permission.

Secret Trial Five, provided by Sena Hussain

Post Script: a few quick questions of Sena Hussain, of Secret Trial Five:

Allan: Your Myspace says you're based in Toronto. In the film, it's said you're from Vancouver; but *I'm* from Vancouver and I haven't heard of you. Am I just not paying close enough attention?

Sena: I originally formed the band in Vancouver back in June of 2006, but moved to Toronto in August of 2008. My bandmates all stayed in Vancouver so I've had to find new members here in Toronto. They are Sidra Mahmood on guitar and Manal Elawar on drums. Right now we're in rehearsal stage, and I'm planning on putting some new music together with them, which I'm excited about since their musical tastes, styles and personalities are a bit different than what I had with my bandmates in Vancouver. I'm also hoping to update some of the songs politically to keep up with the political climate now.

Allan: Will you (or anyone else associated with Taqwacore) be in attendance at the VIFF screening, that you know of?

Sena: Right now I'm crossing my fingers that a miracle will happen and somehow I'd be able to attend with all my friends and old bandmates in Vancouver, but right now there is no solid plan to go. The film will also be screening in Montreal in early October, and it's more likely that I'll be checking that out since it's closer to Toronto.

Allan: Do you have a comment or quote on your own music (your purpose, your uniting principle) or on the film that you'd like to see in print? If I were to sum up your band in a few sentences, they would be...?

Sena: I hope my music gets through to people, that by seeing us they see that Muslim women aren't what you usually see in the media. Also, I want my music to make people think about how racism is still a very real thing in the West and is used to target communities of colour, and how ignorance can destroy other places and people in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and so on because it justifies war and imperialism.


Thanks to Sena, Shahjehan, and Omar for taking time to answer my questions! Again, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam plays October 3rd and 5th at the VIFF. Omar Majeed will be in attendance. I wholeheartedly urge my readers to be there, too, for a most enjoyable and exciting filmic experience...!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Motörhead News Flash! Mikkey is in!

Photograph by Robert John
Hey, folks! I previously told y'all in my interview with Lemmy in The Skinny, based on then-current information, that Mikkey Dee would not be playing with Motörhead during the October 1st Vogue show in Vancouver. I was more bummed about this than I let on - with all due respect to Matt Sorum, Mikkey's a stunning drummer, and since this may be my only time seeing Motörhead, I wanted to see the proper, current trio (which I think is way, way better than the Fast Eddie/ Philthy Phil lineup, frankly - and might I add that all you people who only listen to Motörhead's first few albums are doing yourselves a vast disservice and should go buy Motorizer and Kiss Of Death promptly, at the very least. Do not be afraid! These are fantastic fucking albums that will in no way sully your appreciation for Motörhead).

Anyhow, GOOD FUCKIN' NEWS: I have just been informed that Mikkey IS joining the band for the October 1st show and will be playing all Motörhead gigs on the tour thereafter! (I wasn't WRONG - it's just that things changed). Phew!
See you at The Vogue, Mikkey!

Photograph by Robert John

VIFF must-sees: Taqwacore, Leslie My Name Is Evil

The author with Reg Harkema, with Ifny to the left of us and Flick Harrison to the right. Photo by David Repa, we think.

I will be preoccupied with packing, cleaning, and moving over the next few days. I will not have much time to blog.

Followers of this blog are highly advised to check out at least two films in the first week of the VIFF: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (official site here), a remarkable film about a group of young American Muslims united around the book The Taqwacores, by Michael Muhammad Knight - a book that imagines community of Muslim punks, written by the author as an act of "extreme loneliness." In a wonderful twist of fate, the imaginary community ended up blossoming into a real one - a vital, vibrant new punk scene with a twist. I've previewed thirteen movies for the fest; this is by far my favourite, and I'll be attending at least one of the screenings - maybe both, I like it so much (I think it plays October 3rd and 5th). By the way, the picture is the cover of The Kominas' Wild Nights In Guantanamo Bay - nearly sold out at CD Baby. Beat the Taqwacore rush here!

Also on my list, though I haven't been able to preview it: Reg Harkema's Leslie, My Name Is Evil (official site here), which I gather continues Christian-raised Reg's ambivalent exploration of the counterculture of the 1960's (begun in Monkey Warfare) here using the Manson trials as a focal point. My old interview with Reg, about Monkey Warfare, is here. A current little thing I did with him to complement my big Motorhead piece in this week's Skinny is here. My next interview with Reg is going to have to wait awhile, unfortunately, but if all works out, I will make time from loading my shit into cardboard boxes and cleaning the mouse's shit from the top of my fridge to post a sizeable piece on Taqwacore, featuring interview material from the filmmaker and members of The Kominas and Secret Trial Five (and maybe others, yet to be heard from); the film is the Hard Core Logo of Muslim punk, I swear.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mice, Nardwuar, and the New Model Army

Nardwuar and Thor, by Femke Van Delft. Not to be used without persimmons.

I just saw the funniest thing in my kitchen today - almost unbelievable, really. I guess my mouse must have shimmied its way up a power cord that I'd left carelessly dangling on the floor, to get to my (normally mouse-free) kitchen counter - because as I came into the kitchen, when I turned to the area where the mouse was, it panicked and did a fucking BACKFLIP, either off the counter or the cord, into the air. I stood there stunned, watching this brown thing arcing in space before my eyes, before it fell to the floor and scurried quickly under my fridge (its chosen refuge). Quite the acrobatic feat, for a household rodent. For a second there, I'd thought someone had thrown something at me.

I move out at the end of the month. Packing looms. I tried to photograph the mouse poo on top of my fridge as an illustration for this piece, but then my digital camera broke. It's been a rough couple of months.

Anyhow... If all goes as planned, Nardwuar is going to be interviewing Justin Sullivan of the New Model Army on CiTR today (ie, Friday). His show starts at 4PM - the interview will happen sometime thereafter; you can tune in online, if you like.

My previous big interview with Justin is somewhere below. My next interview with him will appear in the next Skinny, along with some VIFF reviews (see Taqwacore! More on that later). I currently have a little blurb with him to run along the big Motorhead piece I did.

Speaking of interviews, that interview with Nardwuar that almost made it online here is in Mongrel Zine #6, available at stores like Scratch and Zulu. And I bet Red Cat.

I rather fear that Nardwuar is going to beeline straight for the fact that Justin lost his virginity in Vancouver, many years ago. Justin may well already regret having told me that - but that's nothin' like Nardwuar knowin'. Frankly, I am not sure Justin is prepared for being interviewed by Nardwuar. I am a bit nervous, since I set things up. It's kinda like introducing two friends you know who have very, very different personalities - something that always makes me nervous, y'know? But having spoken to Justin twice at some length, I am very curious to see what Nardwuar gets out of him that I haven't!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Choke" by Michael Carrothers

A local musician who doesn't play live much has posted a song I co-wrote with him on Youtube. Check it out. (He posted it awhile ago but I held off posting it for various reasons - it looked like he was going to play an open mike and I thought I could use mention of it to plug the gig).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Forcing Homeless Into Shelters For Their Own Good

Do you smell anything funny?

Remember Tracey, the 47 year old homeless woman who unintentionally immolated herself on Davie Street during the cold spell last winter, while trying to stay warm with a candle? Maybe the smell is her burning flesh - I gather it permeated the area.

But no... it doesn't smell like human flesh burning to me. It smells strangely like horseshit - that kind of sweet pungency...

The BC government is suggesting legislation to force homeless into shelters during cold spells. They are citing the case of Tracey as an example. Conservative supporters suggest that just as the police are allowed to intervene in the case of an attempted suicide, they should be allowed to intervene in the case of people who are sleeping outside in the cold, sending them to shelters where they will be kept, if need be, under lock-and-key.

I am all for helping the homeless, but I have exactly five thoughts when I read this:

1. This is the thin end of the wedge that will allow for the incarceration of homeless during the winter Olympics; they will be kept off the streets "for their own safety." Yeah, right. If this is the real issue, it is grotesque and offensive to use Tracey as a pretext for the legislation.

2. ...which also feels dangerously close to the criminalization of poverty; if we can round up and detain the homeless when it's cold, why not at other times?

3. The truth is, if it's subzero and there are people who would rather be outside than indoors, it's probably a little too late to start worrying about them. If they would choose a freezing doorway over a shelter - this means that they have huge trust issues, for one. Locking up people with trust issues that large? Can you imagine it - homeless mentally ill people shrieking and clinging to their few possessions while cops try to force them into a van? I guess they could always taser them...

4. And isn't one of the main issues keeping the homeless out of shelters that they have to ABANDON their shopping carts and shit to be let in? Why not change THAT rule (or just greatly expand our social housing efforts?).

5. And speaking of spending money, if we REALLY want to address this issue without it seeming too little, too late, the province needs to radically increase funding for drug treatment programs and re-open Riverview or create a facility like it. Oh, wait, I forgot - we're bankrupting ourselves to throw the Olympics! Nevermind.

Am I just cynical? I wonder at times. Maybe the province should just invest in some of these handy portable homeless shelters to give out?

Do you smell anything funny?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard: Rickshaw Sept. 28th

Wow... lotta concerts this weekend. Haven't decided about The Jolts/SNFU/DOA at the Commodore on the 25th, but it seems like it shouldn't be missed. The Subhumans at The Cobalt on the 26th is a definite yes, mostly to say goodbye to the 'balt and check in with Chris Walter, whose very entertaining new novel, Punch The Boss - his equivalent of Buk's Factotum - is being launched. It's technically not the last gig to happen there, but it will be the last loud one; there will also be a Fake Jazz Wednesday in the subsequent week, tho' apparently the place will be a bit of an hull by that point. Sunday it's the Pack AD and Pink Mountaintops at the Rickshaw - a cool-sounding gig, but I dunno if I'll have the cash for that... Monday the 28th, however, I will be definitely heading to the Rickshaw to see...

...yes, folks, the Vancouver return of Jeffrey Lewis!

I've been a fan of Jeffrey Lewis since Peter Stampfel, of the Holy Modal Rounders, pointed him out to me a few years ago when I interviewed him. My old interview with Jeffrey is here. There are also tons of delightful videos of Jeffrey on Youtube - his history of the evolution of punk rock on NY's downtown eastside is a delighful place to start, and his video for "The Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror" is priceless. And then there are his folked-up covers of Crass songs, my favourite of which is "Systematic Death." He tends to do "low budget videos" using his comic art to illustrate songs; when last here, it was "Creeping Brain," which Femke documented as best she could in the dark of the Media Club:

Photographs by Femke Van Delft; not to be used without persimmons.

...which you can see performed on Youtube; but you'll get a better taste of his art by looking at "The Legend Of The Fall," or this history of Rough Trade records. The newest video, "To Be Objectified," is actually cooler than the song, methinks - but there's great stuff all throughout Jeffrey's catalogue and I highly recommend attending his show on Monday. While you're there, Jeffrey will probably be packing issues of his comic book, Fuff, with him, and these are as fun and cool as his songs. Issue #1 comes with a bonus mini-CD! Opening acts at the Rickshaw will be Ora Cogan and Certain Breeds. Hope to see y'all there!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My Interview With Lemmy out in the new issue of The Skinny. Yep, I interviewed Lemmy. Check it out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Confusion makes you smarter

Interesting little study, here, on the cognitive-enhancing effects of "meaning threats."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

VIFF Previews, Continued: Playground

I do not in any way understand the desire to have sex with, or to get off on sexualized pictures of, children.

At some point, after I moved to Japan in 1999 for my three year stay there, I quite innocently bought a couple of Japanese porn mags at a 7-11, expecting run of the mill wank material, but with Asian models. I was shocked to find that - though these were apparently widely distributed commercially produced magazines, not under-the-counter taboo stuff - there were images of girls as young as 15 inside. Unlike the adult women also in these mags, the 15 year olds - their ages were given - were not naked, but were shown, for example, cavorting on the beach in a bikini, seemingly innocent of the purposes for which they were being photographed; in fact, if they were in any way sexually aware, they were encouraged not to show it in these pictures (we ain't talkin' Traci Lords in a devil costume, here). This made the pics all the creepier, since the context made it seem that the intended audience was readers who were turned on by this very innocence, people whose sexuality connected to the utter lack of same in the kids. They sell this at a 7-11? Confronted by such images, in flipping through the magazines, I had to ask myself, Jesus, what kind of guy gets off on this kind of thing? I tried to imagine the target market for these pics, and couldn't; it was particularly unsettling in that these images apparently must have seemed normal to the average Japanese consumer of such magazines - like the "please don't molest the schoolchildren" posters you'd see at train stations now and then...

Apparently quite a few men are sexually drawn to children, tho'. Playground (official site here), Libby Spears' documentary about child sexual exploitation in America, talks to a host of people - police, lawyers, government officials, NGO workers, and both sex offenders and sex trade workers - to show that the sexual exploitation of children is widespread, not just in Cambodia or the Third World, but in North America. Some time is even spent in Vancouver, detailing the 2001 case of Michelle Brown, an 11 year old runaway from Oregon who was brought up here by three Americans to work the streets, where, after four days (during which time she was apparently drugged with acid and ecstacy and "rented" to who-knows-how-many men) she was finally brought to the attention of (rather stunned) authorities and returned to Oregon. Thus began a few years of cycling through the foster-care system, until, at 14, she ran away. Michelle's story provides a running thread through the film, as Spears and co. seek to find Michelle, and find background on her story. (One of the headlines shown in the film about the case can be traced online to a Vancouver Province news article, here).

Playground, while it will likely prove to be an important film, is by no means a perfect one. The cute Japanese animations that underscore the innocence of children seemed to me, in context - particularly since I'm quite aware the Japanese have a greater tolerance for what we regard as "child porn" - to be as creepy as hell; the music is oft-cloying and saccharine (I really don't need gentle lullaby-esque tunes as counterpoint to stories of child exploitation in order to feel the appropriate horror, thanks; in particular, the use of a singularly lachrymose Radiohead song to illustrate "Missing Children" posters had me crawling in my seat). There is, in fact - as with true crime TV, which it resembles at moments - generally too much time spent appealing to the emotions, emphasizing how horrible and sad child sexual exploitation is, something I think most people would agree with without the ample coaching. I would have preferred a film that just assumed my disagreement with the sexual exploitation of kids, and tried to educate me about it, rather than constantly reiterating how awful it is and inviting me to bond with the filmmakers in their horror and sorrow...
I have quibbles with content, too: perhaps because they're more likely to be viewed as the "victims" of sexual transactions, there's a decided emphasis on the sexual exploitation of girls, when it's my impression that there are also large numbers of boys victimized by sex offenders and/or working the streets. (Male prostitutes are mentioned in passing only once; the film prefers to have women in the "victims" corner and men in the "victimizers"). I'm also not entirely sure that the problem of sexual exploitation of children is really, as the film claims, one that transcends issues of class; it seems to me that the real demon here isn't some sweaty-palmed pedophile or predatory pimp, but poverty itself - that without a large portion of the population in North America being poor, miserable, and alienated, there would be far less problematic drug use, prostitution, and concomitant child exploitation and abuse. One final issue: the film illustrates various stories of sexually exploited kids with images of perfectly normal porn shops and strip clubs, in no way connected to the stories told or with child prostitution or kiddie porn, as if the desire of men to masturbate or look at naked women is in itself morally suspect (rather than damn-near universal, quite natural, and - outside Japan, anyhow - completely seperate from the deeply abnormal sexuality under focus here). This stock-footage level of drumming up moral indignation (porn = bad) seems at the very least lazy filmmaking, and has the unfortunate side-effect of calling into question other images in the film, such as those of young prostitutes being arrested - because who knows how old they really are; if the film is willing to show us a perfectly blameless porno shop to illustrate a story about kiddie porn, maybe this-girl-or-that shown handcuffed is really in her 20's?
On the other hand, there are interesting details and interviews throughout - especially the time spent with the late Jan Hindman, an expert on child sexual abuse who talks about, among other things, the bizarre practices of treating all sex offenders as equal, and of registering even children as sex offenders, apparently for relatively innocent horseplay. Hindman - one of the few people to try to address the problem on a cultural level - also talks about the failure of Americans - too caught up in moral sanctimony, self-delusion and righteousness - to really talk to their kids about sex or to teach them sexual respect (which she illustrates with reference to the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction," pointing out how revealing it was - no pun intended - that it was Jackson who was the focus of blame, not Justin Timberlake, for the apparently culturally acceptable action of ripping Jackson's top off). When the filmmakers finally find Michelle, now living in Oakland with her own children, her story, too - when not intercut with animation or commented on with music - is compelling and worth considering: she describes in very matter-of-fact terms how her mother was a prostitute and drug user who would have sex right in front of her (Michelle tells how she was first sexually abused by one of her mother's tricks, who is shown being released from prison, serving time for an offense unrelated to his repeated ventures into child sexual abuse). Amanda Bonella (founder of SurreyGirlz), too, is singularly educational - a former sex-trade worker who is shown talking to the men attending a Vancouver "john's school," a sort of educational facility/ support group for men who have been arrested for using the services of prostitutes (tho' again, the film makes no distinction between men who are there for having done business with adult prostitutes as opposed to men who have bought underaged girls; while I don't personally approve of the purchasing of sex of any form, these seem two significantly different cans o' worms. The now-disbanded Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver has actually had fairly critical things to say about the values behind johns' schools - see here for more, and further note that though the laws concerning prostitution are very different in Canada and the USA, the film, while crossing the border repeatedly, does not mention this; it emphasizes how unfair it is that it's the woman who gets arrested in the USA, but the fact that it's done differently here is not on their radar).
One lingering question remains by the film's end: since we're talking about the sexualization of pre-pubescent and barely pubescent girls, it would have been interesting to find out whether Libby Spears is related to a certain other Spears out there. There's a streak in our culture that absolutely revels in the sexualization of teenaged girls, with figures like Britney and Madonna seeming to encourage their (mostly teenaged and female) audience to "empower" themselves by embracing a brazen and brattish sexuality, flaunting what they got. This is something briefly touched on by the film, in fact, but not made much of. If anyone knows whether the same last name is a coincidence, do please enlighten me...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

VIFF Previews, Continued: Backyard

Backyard (official site here, in Spanish) will likely prove one of the more entertaining, large-scale entries in this years' VIFF; it's a bigger budgeted film, with excellent plotting, slick visuals, and a fairly conventional, but effective story of a cop gone renegade in pursuit of justice - with the twist that here, the cop is a female. I wouldn't be surprised if - despite some disturbing content - it ended up an audience favourite this year. The director is Carlos Carrera, who made The Crime Of Father Amaro; the film is a police procedural based on real statistics of murdered women in Juarez, Mexico, and the politics that keep their deaths from being investigated properly. Enter Detective Blanca Brava (Ana de la Reguera), who trusts her gut, bends the rules, and almost immediately upon beginning her investigations, arrests a suspect on flimsy charges and keeps him in jail longer than she has any right to (police procedure in Mexico apparently allows for a certain degree of creative freedom). More bodies turn up while the suspect is under arrest - but it develops that their corpses had been frozen and preserved, as if someone has been waiting to dump them to provide his friend an alibi; and thus more powerful people are implicated, as are, eventually, police chiefs and government officials who don't want to taint their city's name by making a fuss. As you might already have realized, the film has immediate relevancy to post-Pickton Vancouver and the deaths of sex trade workers here, which alone is reason to see it. As thrillers are wont to do, the film does tend to a degree of hyperbole and simplification - there's one rather extreme scene where Detective Blanca, exploring a mysterious underground freezer, hallucinates that it's filled with the murdered corpses of women, hanging from their feet - but it is effective no less, and sometimes hyperbole and simplification are necessary to bring underlying political realities to the surface. Besides, the "renegade cop" formula has been so often used to the ends of reactionary right wing politics that it won't really hurt anyone if for once Mexican women and feminists (male or female) get to reap its benefits...

Monday, September 14, 2009

2009 VIFF previews #1: Sweetgrass, Kill Daddy Goodnight, Berlin Playground

Sweetgrass (official site here) is designed as an "elegy" for a fading way of life, since, titles at the end explain, the sheep we see throughout the film are apparently the last group to be driven the 150 miles through the Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture. Without music or narration, Sweetgrass shows us the lives of these sheep - being born, being shorn, being fed, being herded - and the cowboys who work them. There's not much drama to be found (though the cowboys encounter a bit of bear trouble in the mountains at one point); there's also no footage of animals being slaughtered, rest assured (though there is one casualty of a bear attack shown). However - and this is what I come to films like this for - some images are achingly beautiful: a shot of sunlight coming through the mist in the morning as sheep graze in a forest, for instance - with only their baaing, bells, and a bit of birdsong on the soundtrack - has a transcendent, hypnotic quality to it, as do many scenes of the Montana landscapes, such as the shadow of clouds moving over mountains and fields. There's fascination, too, to just watching the sheep, when the camera gets up close to let us observe their behaviour. If I have a quibble with the film, it's that I wished certain of these shots had lasted longer - that I might bliss out in scopophilic ecstacy, as I do when watching the films of James Benning, say, forgetting about the sheep and the cowboys and just disappearing into attentiveness to sound, colour, rhythm, and form - feasting on the opportunity for perception, using the sheep and the natural imagery as a sort of pretext for meditation. Instead, we cut away from many of the most beautiful and compelling images to something more narrative - showing a cowboy sheathing a newborn, motherless lamb into the skin of a dead lamb - sort of a lamby jumpsuit - so that the dead lamb's mother will accept it and let it suckle; or showing a cowboy sleeping under a tree with his hat over his face. I was less interested, ultimately, in these passages, less interested in the "story" than certain of the images. Still, people who like quiet cinema - or people who might be inclined to mourn the passing of old-fashioned methods of farming and shepherding - will likely find Sweetgrass a valuable experience.

Kill Daddy Goodnight, the new film by Michael Glawogger - whose documentary Workingman's Death is one of my favourite docs of all time - is a fictional feature, but one that touches on important, and very real, issues - like the relationship of young Austrians to past generations (including corrupt socialists and, further back, Nazis). The film takes its time to set up the relationships it wants to explore, and has a digressive, slightly disjointed quality, jumping from the 1959 testimony of a Lithuanian Jew against a Nazi who participated in a pogrom that killed his father, to the story of a young university student, Ratz, and his troubled relationship with his own father, amidst the decline of socialism in the 1980's, to the adult Ratz's trip to New York, where his story connects with that of said Nazi, now in hiding in the basement of a house belonging to the family of Ratz' love interest. Along the way there are various themes raised that aren't really developed (incest between Ratz and his sister, say, or his mother's alcoholism). As with Slumming, the previous fictional feature of Glawogger's I've seen, there is a sense that the filmmaker is a documentarian at heart and can't resist taking time to linger on images he finds captivating - like a car driving behind a snowplow in a snowstorm - though they in no way advance the story. There's a streak of perverse playfulness in him, too: for example, that the love interest has a rare condition that leaves her with no body hair or hair on her head seems a detail thrown in so that Glawogger can have her wear a different wig in every scene, or insert shots of her naked, bald, and hairless, looking rather like something out of The Man Who Fell To Earth. None of this is necessarily bad, since when Glawogger chooses to linger on an image or indulge a whim, it can lead to striking cinema indeed, and his willingness to take risks has plentiful payoffs and surprises (as when images from Ratz' proposed patricidal video game intrude into his consciousness; or as, when he meets a video game marketer we are meant to feel disdain for, Glawogger takes time to show us the marketer's dog shitting in a park); but they call for a film that has a loose enough theme and structure to allow him these indulgences - something open-ended and exploratory, like Slumming, which was far more successful. There are bits of the film that do work, as when Ratz confronts the old Nazi about his past, but overall you get the feeling that Glawogger was not quite in control of his material. Links to other reviews of the film can be found here, on the distributor's page; the Indiewire review of the film, more critical than the others and thus quoted more guardedly, is closest to my own perception of the film, and can be read in full here.

Less ambitious, but more successful (on its own terms) than either of these films is Berlin Playground, a documentary about former East German punk rocker Hans Narva, whose music I did not know before watching the film. I *think* I've heard of The Inchtabokatables, one of the bands Narva played bass for; I know I have not heard of the recently-reformed Herbst In Peking, Project Skull, or The Crack Up Collective (there are others, too). The film isn't really so much about Hans Narva's contributions to East German punk rock, however - or moody, arty postrock, in the vein of The Ex, perhaps, which is what he makes now - as it is an opportunity to contemplate the changes brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the arrival of capitalism - as seen through the eyes of a slightly brattish and cynical, but engaging and likable, raconteur. Narva - awaiting jail time for being caught repeatedly driving drunk without a license - walks the film crew through various places of importance to him before the wall fell and "The West" arrived with its temptations - like a prison he served time in that is now shamelessly converted to apartment complexes, or the forest adjoining his mother's backyard, where he claims the Stasi used to torture people, or the alleyway that was part of his escape route when he and his equally desperate (and equally incompetent) buddies decided to rob an armored car. These stories are often offered with a shrug and a self-deprecating smile; he seems to be bemused by his own nostalgia for the bad old days that shaped him, and none too impressed with the freedoms the fall of the Wall heralded. I'm not going to rush out and try to find a Herbst In Peking album based on what I heard in Berlin Playground, nor will I be seeking this film out for my collection once it appears on DVD... but I enjoyed the time with Narva and the glimpse his stories gave me into life in Berlin then and now, and imagine VIFF audiences will, too. Sometimes small is good.