It’s hard to imagine the silence of a world without art….”
“Smokebox started innocently enough many months back with a simple e-mail exchange…”
True enough, except that now, as we publish our fiftieth issue of Smokebox, it’s more accurate to say “many years back,” eight to be exact, October 2000 to be more exact still. That was the month we went live with our very first issue, and to tell you the truth, it seems like a lifetime ago-we were just over a month away from the election that would give us four years of a stolen Bush presidency (followed by four more inexplicable legitimately elected years); all of the Ramones were still alive; Google was barely two years old and years away from achieving verb status; bands of hellbent terrorists had not yet inflicted mass howling murder on September 11.
It seems the occasion of our fiftieth issue deserves at least passing mention. We’ve assembled some of our favorite regular contributors in No. 50’s lineup – Mike Morgan, Brian Doyle, Laine Perry, David Moscovich, Christine Tothill, and Ed Markowski – as well as newcomers T.R. Healy and Cedric Popa. But it was our own dyspeptic social commentary man and publisher, Mr. Grant, who started things off in issue one with his infamously jagged opening salvo, “Pollution-Fueled What?” Sometimes referenced as “The Smokebox Manifesto.” We’re giving it the lead slot in No. 50 as well. Every once in a while over these past years it has proved beneficial to revisit Mr. Grant’s initial rant, just to refocus us powers that be back onto whatever refuge from the shit-storm Smokebox first set out to offer.
Smokebox started innocently enough many months back with a simple e-mail exchange between myself and fellow smokeboxer Marc Covert. He surfs the web a lot and came upon an article in Salon Magazine that was written by Ira Robbins — a music writer we were both familiar with from our tender, formative years reading the essential ’70’s rock mags Creem, Trouser Press and Circus. To say that we revered Creem’s motley assortment of “journalists” would underestimate the influence these scribes had on the paths we followed in later years.
Ira’s article was a thesis which put forth the proposition that Grand Funk Railroad was the absolute worst American band of all time. The actual validity of this sentiment is an argument best held for another day, BUT in it he coined a phrase that was to forever change the way I articulated my own disconnection with contemporary consumer culture. Referring to Iggy Pop & The Stooges as “pollution-fueled mutants” Robbins unveiled a description so perfect, yet so profound that it stopped me cold in my tracks– a coarse and simple phrase, conceptually springloaded, hinting at menace and heroism in the same terse nod.
Now, I can’t read Mr. Robbins’ mind, (can hardly control my own) but my assumption is that the phrase is an obvious reference to Iggy’s determined, self-administered toxicity. Still, the descriptor holds so much more….
People tend to think of pollution as the great, stinky gusts that emanate from platoons of barge-like vehicles plowing our highways; as the stewing effluent that drains from giant pipes emerging from the caverns of reptilian industrial giants; of seashores covered with black gelatinous balls and birds giving new meaning to the term “tarred and feathered”.
But this is all obvious, and needs not commentary but action. I know these things to be true, and so do you. The dialogues are ongoing.
I know a more insidious form of pollution that is equally deserving of attention. What am I to make of the unbridled assault on my sensibilities, spirit and rights, artistic or otherwise on a human stage where actions are increasingly orchestrated by the mechanics of corporate domination? Everywhere I turn people are getting dumped on, infiltrated, violated and corroded by some invasive giant-tentacled, fume-belching, money-eating, multi-headed behemoth. Incestuous companies openly and legally trade my personal information like a Wall Street commodity, spying on my activities online and tracking my purchasing patterns. I have few rights which will effectively stop them. I live awash in a sea of double speaking legal spin doctors and talking heads, bastards who honor no truth or ethic that doesn’t put a dollar in the wallets; and worst of all this invasion is engaged in, and defended, with a smug philosophy of self-entitlement.
Inside my home a blaring television freely insults my intelligence on a daily, hourly basis, bombarding me with images and concepts that humans were never meant to comprehend, let alone desire or adopt. Is it a commercial? Or is it the news? Who the hell can tell anymore?
My mailbox and e-mail boxes are filled with shit I never asked for, never wanted, and never want to see again. Greedy phone-bank pimps drive their unfortunate, underpaid serfs to cold-call my house while I’m trying to irradiate plates of hormone injected meat substances and genetically altered chard in peace. And for what? To offer me: disaster insurance, vinyl siding or cellular phones.
In turn, I shower abuse and anger on others in the throes of impotent rage, having no one real or important that will consider my grievances. I bulldoze my car through smoking snarls of plastic and tin shouting cleverly constructed obscenities, all the while gyrating and grimacing like a pissed-off, hemorrhoid plagued long-haul trucker. I dream of mounting a Gatling gun on the hood of my truck and lobbing grenades from my window. When finally calmed, I turn on the radio in the car, and what do I get? A steady dose of ex-mouseketeers whose cherubic chirps and yodels serve as a painful reminder of just what it takes to be successful in the music industry these days.
Worse than giving me cancer, carbuncles or the gout — this combination of anger and pollution; this ceaseless, relentless, cathode, PVC and Dursban dusted fuel I’m fed eats away at my soul and gnaws at my perception of community. I buy into the poisonous climate of collective indifference. Can I believe anything I read, view or hear anymore? Is there anything pure or unpolluted left to hold on to? What am I to take inspiration from? Where are all the heroes?
To be pissed-off is to be polluted too. Playing cards dealt from the bottom of the deck day after day has a way of buffing the lustre off even the most centered among us. Nobody said life was going to be fair or just. Nobody said it was going to be easy. To expect individuals to take on a systemic network of manipulation and deceit is too much to ask.
Or is it?
Martin Luther King lived it, and his words are wake-up calls to us all. Listen: “A man starts to die the moment he becomes silent about the things that really matter.”
Consistently shattering that deadly silence are artists. It’s hard to imagine the silence of a world without art. As another smokeboxer JB Brown puts it, “artists have the ability see the world for it potential not its reality.” They also have the ability to cull beauty from the wreckage in ways that remind us what it means to really be alive.
Pablo Picasso’s seminal work, “Guernica” was a powerful reaction to something that mattered. Kurt Vonnegut has seldom written anything that hasn’t reacted to something that “mattered”. John Irving has penned many tales of heroism, blanketed in controversy though they may be. John Kennedy Toole, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner and thousands of others have used their creative voices to stay alive. (At least for a while…)
The anti-heroes of Martin Amis’ “Money” and “The Information” emphatically involve us in painful, cynical lessons by their pompous and pitiful embodiment of vapid populist manifestos of self-absorption.
Comic artists are real gladiators. There’s where the most scathing retorts to the dehumanizing effects on our species can be found. These fueled folks have the unique ability to combine the power of written concept with the impact of drawn image in ways so personal and effective it leaves battalions of “journalists” wallowing in their own impotence.
Sometimes it seems you’ve got to go over the edge to get anyones attention. Iggy plays that card. Chuck D and Public Enemy still watch the clock. Elder statesmen Ray Davies is still full of piss and vinegar, touring the world with his one man show, and writing pointed tomes about a music industry that has consistently defiled his life’s work. This made more impressive by the complacency of comrades Jagger, Townsend and McCartney who seem content to live life in the green pastures paved by repeatedly cashing in on relevance and vitality decades removed.
But art’s vitality doesn’t have to be appreciated on a stage of such largess. Everywhere I turn folks are putting it on the line, filling clubs, coffee houses and any space that will take them–musicians, writers, painters, film-makers, crazed poets.
Individuals make heroic stands all around us, but you have to step out of the machine and listen closely to find them. True heroes are harder to come by. I could name some, but they are mine and you need to find your own.
Robbins had it right. Iggy was a “pollution-fueled mutant.” But he opened up and bled and when his message made it through there was nothing left to give.
To be pollution-fueled is to be driven by detritus, We’re all pollution-fueled mutants to some degree. Their ain’t a one of us that’s pure anymore. It’s what we decide to do with that fuel that counts.
And that’s where it starts.
You wanna know what a smokebox really is?
It’s the box of fuel we live in.