Normal Bob Smith Knows What He Knows

The greatest challenge in life is to be realistic.” – Sigmund Freud

A recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found 71% of the 36,000 Americans interviewed are “absolutely certain” that there is a God.  Before you say that Nietzsche’s parable that “God is dead” is as exaggerated as the once premature rumors of Mark Twain’s death, please recall that for Friedrich the issue was not outward belief but whether God is the definitive ground of personal, social, and political life. Here you may rebut there are some who wish to turn our polity, founded by Deistic Freemasons, into a theocracy. This is true, but the “Moral Majority” never lived up to either half of its name. By and large, Americans relegate Godly concerns to the privacy of personal choice.

It should come as little surprise that so many of us may rely on the received wisdom of our forebears – as part of our identity – to mendaciously shelve the ultimate chicken and egg paradox by calling ourselves believers while this belief has little actual bearing on how we live. After all, more than having to give up weekends for socialism, religions would really cramp the lifestyle of those who lived them. How can we understand something so elemental and simultaneously perplexing as existence itself? Why is there something, anything, everything – rather than nothing? Why is there even an “I” who is now asking a question? Martin Heidegger, the infamous Nazi philosopher, had one thing right: the question of Being is tough and there is much reason to elide it. Is it even a proper question at all?

Thomas Henry Huxley, the father of Aldous and Julian, coined the term “agnostic” in contradistinction to those of us who believe that we can know God directly. By agnostic, Huxley meant that he believed that the question of God could not be answered. What, then, are we, the reflective-minded, to do? What happens to our moral vocabulary? Once Humpty Dumpty, the big egg from which our universe was hatched, our fons et origo, is no longer on the wall and has no longer fallen and can’t be found in our cupboards or skillets, how do we get through breakfast? Why bother? Why bother doing or caring about anything since everyone you’ve ever met and all that they have done will be forgotten and has no bearing on the cold, empty, eternal vastness that engulfs us? What does it mean to be alive, in this reality, this universe, in the situations we find ourselves in day after day until we pass away?

A short time ago I reached out to God. As a participant in ancient practices, I did not eat or drink or wash for 26 hours. I spent 11 of those hours in a prayer hall tucked away in an old tenement apartmentf, meditating, reciting, singing, and contemplating my life and what I know of the cosmos. There seemed to be an intimacy in the air itself. Some of that air had been in the family for generations. Once outside, I saw the trees sway. The temperate fall night caressed me. The streetlights shimmered. My experience wasn’t metaphysical in that I was flying or saw an angel. It was just a sense that life itself, and existence in general, contains a kind of tender magic, a subtle oneness. The profound and the obvious held hands. If this crazy world is possible, I thought, anything is.

Upon reflection, the pleasures of my mystical interlude seemed solipsistic, so I thought I’d assuage my nagging existentialist impulses by seeking answers in other ways. Some folks visit svengalis for answers, some search books and remote locations, and others simply believe what they’ve been taught. I thought I would visit someone who claims to have leaped across the chasm between doubt and knowledge.  I visited Normal Bob Smith.

If you are now asking “Who is Normal Bob Smith?” then I thank you for raising question I can answer. He’s an illustrator and creator of atheistic home furnishings, like “Jesus Dress Up” refrigerator magnets, and he runs a wild, wild website. He also prints anti-religious pamphlets and takes them to the people of New York dressed like an archetypical medieval archangel dressed for the prom. Did I mention that he’s 6’3” of skinny badass? Bob went to the opening of The Passion of the Christ as the Devil carrying a family-sized jar of Vaseline. Last, Normal Bob Smith is one of seven Bob Smiths profiled in an amusing and affecting film entitled Bob Smith U.S.A. Here’s an excerpt.

COILHOUSE: What about you is “normal”?
NBS: I still think that I’m really fucking normal. If not, I think that people should be more like me to be normal, from examining themselves inward, to examining society at large. I think that I live a normal, boring life in a lot of ways, like not doing drugs, not drinking too often, getting to bed at a reasonable hour, having a girlfriend, doing my art. Sometimes my life seems abnormally normal. Maybe what I do – my site, dressing up as Satan, handing our “God is Fake” fliers – is to crush what is normal in myself. I grew up in Colorado in a suburban home by Christian parents.

Following the Bunny Slippers down the Rabbit Hole with Peter Ivers

In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre by Josh Frank and Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz (New York: The Free Press, 2008)

Every decision you make is the chance to become a hero.
– Peter Ivers

Political correctness notwithstanding, some people are born with a creative pulse and an innate set of skills that set them apart from the rest of us. In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre is the oral history of one of those people – Peter Ivers – and the cultural milieu he helped create. It’s a celebration of the bizarre, a story of love, and a tale of the magic of creative combustion set at Harvard in the early 1970s and in Los Angeles for the duration of the decade and into the early ‘80s. It ends in murder.

Who was Peter Ivers and why should we care? He was the epicenter of some of the most influential American artists in film, theatre, music, and television of his day: David Lynch, Devo, National Lampoon, Harold Ramis, Francis Ford Coppola, Saturday Night Live, as well as perfomers in the burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene. More than just a lynch-pin, Ivers brought a dazzling array of talents and sensibilities to his work: he was a blackbelt in karate, a yoga enthusiast, and a habitual pot smoker. And it was none other than the great Muddy Waters who called that Jew boy “the greatest harp player alive.”

45 Grave performing “Evil” on New Wave Theatre.

Ivers’s accomplishments and collaborations included: writing the theme of Eraserhead (for which this book was named), dating Stockard Channing, working with John Lithgow on college theater, recording five albums of distinctly strange music for unappreciative major labels (Epic and Warner Brothers), performing in diapers and bunny slippers at Lincoln Center, and, as opener, on separate occasions, for the New York Dolls and Fleetwood Mac (whose fans booed him off the stage). Most of all, Ivers is known for championing all things genuinely queer as the puckish host of New Wave Theatre, an early cable access program showcasing the efflorescence of musical talent then found in the Los Angeles underground.

While some people are takers – they take your ideas, they take your time, they take lives – others, like Peter Ivers, the tragic hero of this tale, are BUILDERS. New Wave Theatre began on Los Angeles cable access and was soon picked up by the USA Network as part of its “Nightflight” programming, making Peter Ivers the Johnny Appleseed of American alternative culture. New Wave Theatre simultaneously created a space for people to shine and projected the generated light into the American living room, inspiring a thousand flickers of oddness across the country.

Ivers interviews the Castration Squad on New Wave Theatre. (Photo via Alice Bag, thanks!) L-R: Tiffany Kennedy, Elissa Bello, Dinah Cancer, Shannon Wilhelm, Peter Ivers and Tracy Lea.

Sonny Vincent and the Beaten Heart of Punk

[Earlier this year, our mysterious New York liaison Agent Double Oh No interviewed Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO. Now, he sits down with punk rock veteran Sonny Vincent. Click beyond the cut for the full, exclusive interview!]

Saintly Sonny Vincent on the cover of his Resistor 7″.

On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence –
through a curious transposition peculiar to our times –
it is innocence that is called to justify itself.

– Albert Camus*

In the 21st Century punk rock may seem a faint yelp from a remote and even somewhat quaint age when people could find solidarity in a hairdo.  Please consider that there really are Punks, people who have lived the fiercely wild and ill-advised life of the rock’n’roll rebel and have paid the price. As even Eddie Cochran knew, when you fight the law, you rarely win.  It doesn’t take courage to be a well-adjusted “winner” in a society bent upon its own destruction.  True courage is the courage to lose.  As Coilhouse is dedicated to exploring what it means for a culture to be truly alternative, it made perfect sense to track down an archetypal punk – someone whose life mirrors the reckless, passionate, uncompromising music he has made – and talk about a life lived on the limen between freedom and captivity.  If you dare to win, then dare to lose.

You won’t read about Sonny Vincent in the pages of Please Kill Me because he was too bitched out from kicking cigarettes to talk on the phone when Legs McNeil called him.  It’s like this: Sonny stood in the maternity ward when punk was born, was forcibly estranged from the infant, and has spent much of the next thirty years watching it grow up from the outside.  Of the more than 40 songs Sonny recorded in the 1970s, he only released a 7″ single, “Time is Mine“ bw “Together,” whose true irony lay in that its author would do time, hard time, and be forever cursed to live out of sync with the times whose ethos he personifies.

Like the relationship of one of Antonio Gramsci’s “organic intellectuals” to actual socialism, without characters like Sonny, punk would’ve been just a ripped t-shirt with some words scribbled on it. In short, Sonny has been too busy living punk to be a punk rock star, although nearly all of its actual stars have paid him the ultimate homage by playing on his records. Yes, that’s right, members of punk’s most influential bands – The Velvet Underground, Sex Pistols, The Stooges, the MC5, New York Dolls, Television, The Heartbreakers, The Voidoids, The Damned, The Dead Boys, Black Flag, The Replacements, Half Japanese, Sonic Youth, Rocket from the Crypt, Devil Dogs, and the Bellrays – have recorded with Sonny, and many have backed him on tour. Despite the respect of such rarefied peers, Sonny is literally unheard of among most fans of punk. He’s like a step-dad whose kid will never know him no matter what he does.

Sonny in a photo booth in Times Square, NYC. 1975.

Sonny’s story must be told before Hollywood ruins it by casting some pretty boy star from E.R. instead of an ex-con who knows the role from the inside. (Surely, Sonny could put you in touch with a lot of talented people who just need a break in life.) Sonny’s life and antics are more than legend – they are real. This is as true a story as you get in an age when it can be so hard to keep track of the truth. Remember: Johnny Cash never did hard time and he didn’t shoot anyone in Reno or anywhere else.

Sonny Vincent sung and slung a guitar in the Testors, who, from ‘76 to ‘79, played Max’s Kansas City and CBGB with acts like the Cramps and toured with the Dead Boys. Even before “punk” meant “rock,” Sonny was in and out of homes for bad kids, committed to mental wards, and was forcibly impressed into a tour of duty in Vietnam courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corp by his abusive Foster Parents.  Since punk entered his life, Sonny’s been arrested in at least four different countries, episodically imprisoned, deported from Canada three times, and he’s fathered eight kids from five women.  This cat has not lived nine lives – he’s lived a thousand.  And he’s not done yet.

This is the first interview I’ve seen where Sonny actually tells us what happened and how it went down. In person and on the phone, Sonny comes across as meek, even a bit shy, about his life – like a dog that’s been beaten too much. Most of all, he’s cautious. So I assured him that, having done the crime and served the time, he may as well live to tell the tale. For much of it, he’s contrite. His is a cautionary tale of an artist rebelling with and without cause, and losing on both sides of Benjamin Franklin’s bourgeois Law of Relativity – both time and money have been lost.

(Full interview with Sonny Vincent under the cut.)

A Conversation with Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo

I have this dear old chum in NYC who’s a bit of a troublemaker in the best possible way, and I’ve been pining to bring him into our Coilhouse endeavor for months now. A brilliant writer, teacher and libertine, he’s not afraid of asking difficult questions or enduring awkward silences, and has a knack of getting to the juicy, palpitating core of an ethos more swiftly than you can say “subvert the dominant paradigm.” He will make you smile, he will make you think, he will make you shift uncomfortably in your chair. Ladies and gents, he’s “Double Agent Oh No, Your Spy in NY”, and here is his premiere piece for Coilhouse, a provocative interview with Mark Mothersbaugh. Stay pruned for more upcoming features. – Mer

Mark Mothersbaugh. Photo © Randall Michelson.

De-evolution in the 21st-Century: The Avant-Garde as Derriere-Garde

Whereas the “modern” sensibility envisions a future of ever-greater human freedom and understanding brought about by political, scientific, and aesthetic avant-gardistes who lead, educate, and shock us, some “post-modernists” mock these notions as harmful delusions. The concept of “de-evolution,” introduced by the postmodern “sound and vision” cultural cabal known as DEVO, suggests that human dependence on technology renders us increasingly dependent and dumb. Just recently, Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo showed some of his recent visual art at The Third Ward Gallery in Brooklyn. His show occasioned a conversation between me and Mothersbaugh on art, the culture of consumption, and the aesthetic avant-garde in post-modern times.

The avant-garde in the arts is historically rooted in the early 19th Century financial emancipation of artists from their patrons; Beethoven had the freedom to explore dissonance in his later works whereas Mozart wrote commissioned works.* Immediately, art came to occupy a place of greater personal expression and has had an enhanced potential to join the political avant-garde in challenging the received wisdom of the day. What, then, becomes of art and the avant-gardiste in 21st Century America?

Devo-Beautiful World by adiis
“It’s a beautiful world… for you. Not me.”

Does de-evolution turn the avant-garde on its head so that it is now the derriere-garde? In other words, in a society growing dumber, do the most mass-produced and contrived artifacts of pop culture actually contain its most advanced ideas? Under de-evolution, are commercials the most revolutionary art form? Is the way to change a society based upon consumption through a “rear-garde” action – by planting subliminal messages through the subconscious, the Freudian backdoor?